How Vintage Patterns Reflect On the Culture of Fashion Today

Julie Ripley is a Senior Lecturer on BA (Hons) Textile Design.

I love working with vintage patterns, so when I was given this one from Vogue (figure 1) I was fascinated.  And nervous.  Because this kind of pattern presents many creative challenges that indicate big changes in the culture of fashion since they were made.

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Fig. 1 – Vogue Pattern from 1954

If you are eagle-eyed you may have spotted that the design is by Elsa Schiaparelli, the great surrealist couturier. Born in Rome in 1890, Schiaparelli, or ‘Schiap’ as she was known to friends including Salvador Dali, became one of Paris’ leading designers between the wars.  Her quirky tromp l’oeil knitwear, dresses and jewellery (figure 2) delighted celebrity clients including royalty and film stars, allowing her to open her ‘Schiap Shop’ at 21 Place Vendome in Paris in 1931. Unlike her rival Coco Chanel, Schiaparelli left Paris during the Nazi occupation and found the city and its fashion scene transformed when she returned in 1945.  By 1954 she was out of business.

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Fig. 2 – Tromp l’oeil ‘skeleton’ dress (1938).  Now in the V&A museum

The Vogue pattern dates from that year.  Although her star had faded, Schiaparelli’s was still a household name.  In the 1950s Vogue patterns commissioned designs from a number of Couture designers including Lanvin and Jacques Fath.  Retailing at around nine shillings (45p), these patterns were a serious outlay for women whose average wage was still less than ten pounds a week by the end of the decade.  Add to that the cost of the materials – alpaca, crepe and shantung are suggested – and the complexity of the cut, this was a project requiring considerable investment in money and time.  Home sewing was a serious business in the 1950s.

Fortunately for the would-be creator of these couturier designed garments, sewing was taught by female relatives at home and was part of the school curriculum for girls in the period.  Looking at the instructions (figure 3) and the pattern pieces which are marked only with perforations, it is obvious that the assumed level of dressmaking ability was considerably higher than it is in today’s paper patterns.  A larger number of needlewomen than we have today is also implied in the pattern, since it is cut to one size: fewer are sold today and multi-size patterns cost less to produce.

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Fig. 3 – Instructions from inside the pattern.

And on the subject of size, have a look at the measurements in figure 4. A University of the Arts London survey points to an increase of 16cm in the average British woman’s waist size since 1951 (www.arts.ac.uk).  The pattern in question is cut to a waist size of just 23 inches or 54cm which was at the time a size ten; currently a size ten waist is 71cm.

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Fig. 4 – Sizing information from the back of the pattern

So you can see why the pattern made me nervous: it’s valuable, old, complicated and in need of some serious scaling up.  Fabrics are expensive and hard to find today, and you can’t buy a belt kit anywhere, it seems, other than a vintage one from Ebay costing £15.  But you can also see, I hope, what makes it such a fascinating artefact: it speaks to us about a period when couture and mainstream fashion enjoyed close stylistic ties, when women bought into its glamour by making their own versions under licence, rather than buying counterfeit. It is testament to the skills required to do so, far more widespread than today.  And it is evidence of the ways in which women’s bodies themselves have changed.

I haven’t made the garment yet, in case you’re wondering. But there’s a chance I will have it finished in time for next year’s lectures.

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