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Making Vintage 1920s Clothes for Women

Making Vintage 1920s Clothes for Women

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Making Vintage 1920s Clothes for Women

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Sep 14, 2017


The 'roaring twenties' were exciting years for women's fashion. The iconic image is of the young 'flapper' dancing the night away in a sparkling dress with fringes and tassels moving to the beat of the Jazz age. But, for all women in the post-war years of the 1920s, there was a new freedom in fashion as hemlines lifted and waistlines dropped. The simplified silhouette caused a boom in home dressmaking as women with basic sewing skills used tissue paper patterns to run up a new frock in the latest style. This practical book explains the background to these years and the trends in women's fashion, before introducing a range of garments that women would typically have worn. Suzanne Rowland gives a unique and detailed account of how to make vintage 1920s clothes for women based on the dress collections at the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, and Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. Fifteen detailed projects for garments and accessories include a pair of fashionably daring beach pyjamas, the wedding dress of a bride from East Sussex, and a simple striped frock suitable for wearing at a British seaside resort. Each project includes a detailed description of the original garment with an accompanying illustration alongside photographs of the original pieces. Scaled patterns are included with a list of materials and equipment required. Step-by-step instructions and close-up photographs are given for each stage of the making process with information about the original techniques used. Superbly illustrated with 314 close-up colour photographs.
Sep 14, 2017

Sobre el autor

Suzanne Rowland is a fashion historian and teacher. The techniques she shares in this book are based on her experiences of working in professional workrooms making costumes for film, television and theatre. She is the author of Making Edwardian Costumes for Women, also published by Crowood.

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Making Vintage 1920s Clothes for Women - Suzanne Rowland



This book is aimed at readers who are interested in accurately recreating original 1920s garments from museum collections; this might be for film, theatre or television, or for re-enactment or fancy dress. The fifteen projects could all originally have been made by home dressmakers in the 1920s. I have not included elaborate beaded dresses, tailoring or corsetry because these projects were outside the dressmakers’ realm of experience. Due to the simplicity of the twenties silhouette most of the projects in this book are suited both to those with costume-making experience and to amateur makers with limited experience. The scaled-down patterns included with each project are a UK size 10 and can be graded up or down to fit other sizes. Methods for enlarging patterns are explained in Chapter One: Techniques and Measurements.

Detail of a corsage of satin and pearl beaded flowers decorating the waist of the cocktail dress in Chapter Five. (Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

All patterns are reproduced without a seam allowance and so a generous seam allowance should be added once the pattern has been scaled up or when cutting. A toile, which is a sample garment made from calico or cheap fabric, should be made for every project to test the fit before cutting out in fabric. It is recommended that complete beginners take a basic dressmaking course or consult a good sewing manual before attempting any of the projects. The instructions for making have been written using my experience of teaching dressmaking classes to adult learners from beginners to improvers. I have also drawn on my experience of designing and making step-by-step projects for contemporary craft magazines. The techniques are all based on my experiences of working in professional costume workrooms for many years, making costumes for film, television, and theatre. I have been lucky to work alongside many skilled cutters and costume makers and have picked up tips along the way which are included in this book. I am also a dress historian and like to use surviving clothes in museum collections as the basis for material culture research. This is a research method that starts with the object and then spreads outwards to take in contemporary materials from the period such as photographs, journals and amateur films. Interpretation is then applied using secondary sources, and so it is hoped that this book may also be of interest to fellow historians of fashion.

The book features ten chapters containing fifteen separate projects for garments and accessories. Some projects are everyday clothes such as the two striped holiday frocks featured in Chapter Four. Other projects are reproductions of outfits worn for special occasions such as the lilac silk wedding dress with silver lace trimming in Chapter Seven. Fortunately, when researching the book I came across many fine examples of 1920s clothing in museum collections and so had to make a decision about what to include. The criteria I used was firstly that all projects had to be suitable for reproduction and secondly that all fabrics and trimmings could be sourced without too much difficulty. A further objective was that projects should be adaptable. Where appropriate, most projects have suggestions on how to adapt garments to make them suitable for both wealthy, leisured women, and for poorer women whose choices were limited due to a low income.

Image from 27th December 1919 of a pair of smartly dressed twins, a brother and sister, celebrating their twenty first birthday at a family gathering in Holborn, London. An inscription on the reverse of the card is a poignant reminder of the recently ended First World War, ‘May those we love, be kind and true, and the land we live in FREE’. (Author’s collection)

Page from a scrapbook showing fashions from 1920 including day dresses, a mackintosh, a wool coat, a tailored suit and three cocktail dresses for evening wear. (Worthing Museum and Art Gallery)

Page from a scrapbook showing fashions from 1923 including a full range of fashionable headwear, from a feather trimmed bandeau to a smart black hat made from crinoline and lace, and trimmed with osprey. (Worthing Museum and Art Gallery)

All projects are listed in chapters and each one features a description and close-up photographs showing details of the original garments. The scaled-down patterns are included alongside step-by-step photographs and instructions. A set of technical drawings showing the original garments to scale are also included and each project has been mounted on a dress stand and photographed when finished. I have also included an overview of everyday fashion in the period with a focus on home dressmaking.

The time period covered in the book is from the end of the First World War in 1918 up until the end of the infamous stock market crash of 1929. The focus of the book is garments and accessories held in the collections of two regional museums in the south of England. Worthing Museum and Art Gallery has a fashion collection which is designated as being of national importance. It has over 30,000 items of dress and textiles, many of which are everyday fashions, including clothes made by home dressmakers and department store clothes. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, also holds examples of clothing from department stores from mid-range to high end. It contains a number of sub-collections which includes the clothing of wealthy women such as Lady Desborough and the Messel family who were dressed by the top London couture houses and professional dressmakers.

A scrapbook from the collection at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, kept by a fashion enthusiast in the 1920s, gives a fascinating insight into one woman’s taste throughout the period. The maker of the scrapbook, identified only by her initials and surname, cut pictures out of magazines and newspapers and stuck them in the A4-sized book. She also included advertisements containing pictures of fashionably dressed women and wrote her own captions. The scrapbook was started in 1910; it continues until 1914 when there is a break for the First World War, and it starts up again in 1918 and continues until 1933. It provides a useful overview of key silhouettes, the change in waistlines and hemlines, and attitudes to fashion, taste, and even a sense of humour from the period.

Page from a scrapbook showing fashions from 1926 including a scalloped-hem cocktail dress named ‘Aurora’ made from black georgette, embroidered in sequins and beads. (Worthing Museum and Art Gallery)

Page from a scrapbook showing fashions from 1927 including a style named ‘Julia’, which is described as a ready-to-wear tailored suit in the newest shades of Saxony and melange. (Worthing Museum and Art Gallery)

Page from a scrapbook showing fashions from 1928 with attractive walking coats and a colour illustration of a narrow-striped sweater in shades of green with front hip patch pockets. (Worthing Museum and Art Gallery)

In the first page from 1920 the waistline of all garments is firmly situated just above the natural waist and the hemline is just below calf length. In 1923 there is a newspaper clipping discussing the anniversary of Vogue with an illustration of a matronly Edwardian woman facing a young flapper. It states, ‘Vogue was founded by Society for Society, thirty years ago, when ladies looked like the lady on the left and wouldn’t have considered the lady on our right a lady at all!’ In 1926 the scrapbook shows that the hemline was sitting just below the knee in three pictured day outfits. By 1927 the creator of the scrapbook was interested in smart tailored suits and her notes refer to the ‘high necks’ of blouses and ‘long sleeves’ of the jackets. In 1929, she features a couple of serious-looking men with some fashionably dressed women with the handwritten note, ‘observe the difference in the expressions of the unfortunates in the background – the payers, & the wearers!’ The scrapbook’s creator appears to have been a woman keeping up with fashion over a period of twenty-three years. As she matured the clothes became more formal and tailored. Her tastes were conventional but always fashionable.

Advertisement for The Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences dressmaking correspondence course. Readers could learn to make clothes for themselves or for the family, or even use the course to ‘prepare for success in the dressmaking or millinery business.’ (Worthing Museum and Art Gallery)


In 1921 the Girl’s Own Paper suggested that the twenties would be the ‘Do-it-yourself’ Age. This was an apt way of describing the necessity of adapting to life in post-war Britain faced with spiralling costs and a difficulty in procuring items due to rationing. Perhaps it is not surprising that fashion adapted to this necessity by simplifying the silhouette. In 1924 the women’s journal Harmsworth’s Popular Fashions stated, ‘this is the day of simplicity in clothes. Everything up to date is cut on simple lines, which means, of course, that clothes are wonderfully easy to make.’

Home dressmaking enjoyed a boom in the 1920s. Compared to complicated Edwardian styles of the previous generation, clothes were now so much simpler and therefore so much easier to make. Women with only basic sewing skills could run up a simple tunic dress by using a paper pattern and by following diagrams and printed instructions. This was also a benefit to women living outside of the big towns and cities who could use patterns to make quick and easy fashionable clothing at home. Most items of clothing could now be made by the home dressmaker, from unlined jackets to lightweight underwear. The editor of Harmsworth’s Popular Fashions wrote, ‘My dear readers, -Somehow one never tires of making undies, especially now, when the styles are so very pretty and so very easy to copy.’ The publication included fashions for all ages and readers could use a token to claim a free pattern. Other patterns could be sent for by mail order. Another feature of the publication was a help page for readers with dressmaking problems. Dorothy P., from Arbroath, wrote, ‘Can you tell me how I could lengthen a very pretty foulard frock I have? It is a lovely shade of primrose-yellow, and is patterned with pink roses and fawn leaves.’ The exasperated reply from dressmaking expert Mrs Mary Collins stated, ‘I do wish you had given me more particulars about your frock, Dorothy, and then I could have told you exactly how to lengthen it.’ However, Mrs Collins did go on to suggest adding a deep hem and even trimming the sleeve edges and neck to match. Readymade trimmings could be bought in haberdashery shops and department stores and were an easy way to update a garment.

In 1920 one of the biggest developments in dressmaking took place in the pattern industry. Commercial tissue-paper patterns had been in use since the mid-nineteenth century but they now appeared with instructions, lines and balance marks printed directly onto the tissue pattern. Previously patterns were cut outlines with a set of perforated dots which gave an indication of where pattern pieces were to be joined, and which could not always be relied upon for accuracy. Norah Waugh explained in The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600–1930, ‘Pre-war paper patterns, consisting as they did of innumerable pieces of thin brown tissue paper without any markings, had been a mystery and a jigsaw puzzle to be solved only by the most expert and experienced of dressmakers.’ The new patterns must have been a delight to work with for those used to the minimal directions of the previous system.

The Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences booklet titled Individualizing Tissue-Paper Patterns explained the process of creating a pattern. Creating new designs involved ‘fashion experts in the employ of the pattern companies’ being alert to new designs in shops and noting what was being worn to large social functions. This information was fed back to the pattern companies who used in-house designers to sketch, adapt and test the ideas. Once a design was agreed the pattern would be graded and produced in large quantities. Bestway was one of many producers of paper patterns in the twenties. Readers could also buy a pattern book for six pence dedicated to one style, such as washing frocks or jumper suits. Alternatively, dressmaking patterns could be purchased directly from journals such as the Girl’s Own Paper who also featured a quarterly needlework supplement called Stitchery. Dressmakers could try their hand at a quilted dressing jacket in a ‘Japanese style’ or make their own camisoles trimmed with crochet or tatting. Crochet was a popular technique for making detachable collars and cuffs. In Woman’s Journal in 1929, readers could send for a tacked-up French muslin model for five shillings, which was a finished garment made up in soft muslin-like material to try on at home in order to test the style and fit before ordering in the correct fabric.

Dressmaking tips featured in women’s journals in abundance. Harmsworth’s Popular Fashions offered a cautionary warning about the perils of not tacking: ‘many little amateurs, intent only upon getting their clothes run up in the shortest possible time, neglect this simple precaution. The result is that, when they put their frock on for the first time, they find that they have either to wear something whose bad fit simply shouts home-made at everyone, or else set to work on that most heartbreaking job – unpicking!’

The equal distribution of gathers around the top of a skirt was one of many pieces of advice given to readers in order to achieve the correct ‘balance’ of a dress. On the garments observed when researching this book there were two methods used for gathering: either a long machine stitch or parallel lines of running stitch by hand. The gathering stitches were often visible and were intended to be a feature of a dress. The day dress in Chapter Three, for example, has three rows of machine gathers evenly spaced at the top of the skirt.

The home sewing machine was a well-established feature by this time. The upmarket department store Harrods sold a selection of hand and treadle sewing machines decorated to fit in with the furniture in the home. A Jones brand machine was described as the perfect hand-sewing machine, ‘no matter how coarse your material’, and was a duplicate model of the one supplied to the Queen. It came with a walnut base and ornamental cover and was priced at just over £6.

Unused folded brown tissue paper

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