I recently posted photos of this cocktail dress, made from a vintage Vogue pattern. You can see more of the finished dress here! This is the companion post, all about the construction, resizing, and lessons learned from the process (and tons of photos). This was my first vintage pattern, and the fanciest piece of clothing I've made, so there were definitely many lessons :)
When I first found the pattern online I didn't see it in my size (and in fact, the largest size they made would have been just large enough, with a 28" waist). I went ahead and ordered, figuring I could make it work. I had four months to resize and fit a muslin, then figure out the vintage construction techniques and give it the care and attention it deserved. And then, life happened - big changes, full time classes and homework, several weekend trips thrown in the mix, and whoops, we were a few weeks away! But I was determined, and spoiler: I finished just in time.
I didn't see anything online about another modern sewist making this dress yet. If you're giving it a shot and have any questions, please comment or reach out on twitter/instagram!
The pattern is Vogue 5701, from around 1963. It has a fitted bodice with darts for shaping in the front and the back, a fairly full pleated skirt, and inverted pleats at the sides, which are made from separate skirt panels. The pattern includes ankle- and knee-length versions of the dress, plus a petticoat and a jacket. I made the shorter dress and neither of the other pieces.
By some miracle of planning ahead, I did manage to pick out the fabric with time to spare. I decided to try a nice textured dupioni silk, and I ordered a few swatches from fabric.com before settling on a medium gray color (here). A little boring, perhaps, but also classic and very wearable for my next several years of special occasions! And I loved the color for a cozy fall wedding in Portland, without it being an exclusively fall/winter dress. I ordered the yardage and then let a couple more weeks pass before I was really in a time crunch. Fortunately Britex pulled through with the lining (plum Bemberg rayon) and petticoat net as well as a ridiculous amount of notions. (There is no finished petticoat, but I do have the supplies!)
At this point the wedding was two weeks away, travel had finally subsided and I was more or less caught up on homework, so I got to fitting. I tried to unscientifically grade the pattern up by hand so it matched my normal bodice measurements, and this didn't turn out great. The darts were in very strange places and it just didn't curve over my body like it should.
By now I had my very own bodice sloper from patternmaking class. I'd just wrapped up the dart manipulation section (ie. moving darts from one place to another to retain fit but create different styles lines). I decided it'd be easier to just redraft the thing to my measurements, manipulating the darts and armholes/necklines to look like the original pattern's. I then had to slash and spread the skirt pattern pieces to match the new bodice waist, and I cut and sewed the whole thing up in muslin, including zipper, because with this little ease, it's pretty impossible to see the real fit without the zip. This was way better than muslin #1! But I overcorrected and had more ease than I wanted - it was loose and the skirt pulled everything down at the waist.
I made some adjustments - took out ease at the side and shifted darts a bit - and sewed a new bodice. Almost there! I made a couple more minor adjustments, then updated the skirt again to match the waist circumference and ensure the skirt pleats and bodice darts lined up as in the original. This muslin was just what I was hoping for. It also gave me the opportunity to settle on the length I wanted, which ended up being 2" shorter than the pattern called for.
a little too big
Time to sew! The vintage instructions were sparse in a few places ("insert a lapped zipper"), and in other spots I knew a better way to do things, so I was really glad I didn't dive into this a year ago when I was just getting started. I did still make some mistakes and learn a lot - so many things to do better in the future! Not knowing whether I would need the petticoat, I started with the dress itself, and by the time I attached the skirt and inserted the zipper, I could tell there was plenty of volume for me to skip the petticoat altogether, unless I wanted to go full retro.
I just finished taking a construction class at my sewing school, and at the start I wasn't sure how useful the class would end up being since I taught myself a lot of things over the last year and a half (thanks, internet). This dress alone was justification for the class! I used tailor's tacks to mark darts and pleats on the tricky fabric (so. many. tailor's tacks.), made my own piping, installed a lapped zipper sans instructions, and used two types of hand sewing - all things I learned in my construction elective.
basted pleats and tailors tacks
My biggest frustrations came from the fabric choice. My lining is a beautiful cupro (Bemberg) rayon, which is shifty and slippery but manageable for just lining the bodice. Then I moved on to the silk, thinking things would be smooth sailing, and boy was I wrong. The fabric has a nice texture, so it held in place pretty well, but wow that dupioni frays like nothing I've sewn with. I gave myself only 1/2" seam allowances, which was a mistake because I lost about that much at the bottom of the bodice due to fraying (practically dissolving, it felt like). By the time I hemmed the skirt (the last step), it had lost a full inch in some places. Fortunately I had 3" hem allowance to start so this wasn't a major tragedy. I'm still finding long silk threads around my house.
I also had a near disaster with my skirt at one point: as I was pinning the raw edges of the skirt and bodice to be stitched up under the lining at the waist, I discovered that one section of skirt pleats had frayed completely past the stitch line and away from the bodice - ie. there was a gaping hole forming at the waistline. I definitely screamed some curse words and had a mini freakout (this was the weekend before the wedding, no time to regroup!), and then worked some magic with a seam ripper, iron-on interfacing, an extra patch of the silk, and a few extra rows of stitches. And... I think it turned out pretty okay, to my surprise! Definitely not noticeable from the outside, and it didn't rip open during my one evening of wearing it. Success.
The fraying was mostly an issue across the width of the fabric, and most of my seams were lengthwise or on the bias, so I just used pinking shears on the edges. I usually serge or do french seams, but this seemed fitting with the vintage pattern and lighter fabric. In hindsight, I should have finished the seams with more seam allowance and with a finish that would strengthen the fraying fabric.
I finished all but half of the hem before we flew out the day before the wedding, and I wrapped up hand stitching the hem an hour before the ceremony (cutting it close for sure, but I knew it wouldn't be difficult once I made myself sit down and do it, so I wasn't too panicked). I threw it on with an old pair of heels, after unsuccessfully shoe shopping the day before, and it was everything I'd hoped it would be, despite my months-long procrastination.
The bodice is fully lined. At first I used the instructions from the pattern: sew side seams, attach lining + bodice at neck and arms, then flip right-side out and sew the shoulders together from the inside out. The shoulder sewing ended up looking messy and it was difficult to do well, so I regrouped, ripping out the side seams and using the magic "through the shoulder strap" method I learned from the Lilou dress instructions in Love at First Stitch. This worked fantastically, even though my seam allowances and understitching had seen better days, and I made a note to do it this way from the start if I make this dress again.
inside out, pinning the lining
In assembling the skirt, of course I added the #1 bonus of making your own fancy dresses: POCKETS. They're basic side seam pockets, inserted in the seam between the front skirt and the side pleat inserts. They're extra hidden because the seam is inside an inverted pleat, but they're still easy to access. These are made from the same rayon as the bodice lining - oh so soft and smooth!
I made and attached matching piping to the bodice waist, and I'm pleased with the subtle touch it adds. The skirt was sewn onto the bodice, and it was lapped zipper time. This went off surprisingly well, given that I'm still new to lapped zippers and this was my first in anything other than muslin. I wanted to use a standard zipper rather than an invisible one, since the dress is pretty tight and may take some strain, and I think the lapped zipper looks pretty profesh if I do say so myself. The zipper doesn't quite match (they had almost the perfect shade, but not long enough for my dress), but since it's hidden behind the lap I don't think it's very noticeable.
After I inserted the zipper, I turned the edges of the bodice lining under and hand stitched them to the zipper using a prick stitch. It was tedious but is almost invisible and let me avoid figuring out to how machine-sew a lining inside a lapped zipper. (I feel like this might be straightforward, but at this point I wasn't up for trial and error). The raw edges of bodice + lining + skirt are sewn up under a grosgrain ribbon at the waist. I pinned everything together and stitched in the ditch at the front waistband, and aside from the previously mentioned skirt drama, this worked really well and the stitching is hidden by the piping on the outside.
teeny tiny hand stitches down the right side!
I sewed a little hook and eye at the top of the zip, decided to skip the oh so retro shoulder bows included in the pattern, and all that was left was the hem! I kind of followed the instructions, which said to use ribbon seam binding, ie. I bought something that seemed appropriate at Britex and made up a technique that seamed to make sense. I measured up from the totally frayed edges to sew the ribbon 1" from the original edge, then pinked the excess fabric off and pinned up to take the rest of the 3" hem allowance up.
I didn't want a row of hem stitching to be visible, so I hand-stitched the entire hem. Friends, I never thought I would say those words. I hate hand stitching and will generally do anything I can to make things work on my machine. But when you've put this much time and money and care into a dress, you make sacrifices, and I have to admit it looks really great now that it's done.
finished hem inside
finished hem - invisible on the outside!
I'll break down what I spent on this dress, since I always find it interesting to compare to ready to wear prices.
4 yards of dupioni silk: $90 (but I do have a yard or so left over - I wanted to err on the safe side)
3/4 yard of bodice lining + 1 1/2 yards unused petticoat fabric: $33
lots of notions (zipper, 3 types of ribbon, hooks and eyes, unused horsehair braid for the petticoat, thread): $17
Total: $140, or somewhere closer to $100 if I make it again and don't overbuy!
This isn't factoring in the cost of my time, but given that I'm a full time student right now anyway, and this was a huge learning experience (and a lot of fun), I'd say it was worth it despite not necessarily being a financial "win". And you know, that $150 party dress you buy at the store probably doesn't fit your body perfectly, or come in exactly the color + fabric + silhouette you imagined. Basically, this sewing thing isn't the worst even when it's not cheap.
After all that time and money and effort, the dress is pulling apart at one of the side seams, and I don't particularly trust it to hold up through another party. I'm not very surprised that it's coming apart at that seam. This is where I ripped the seams out, after pinking the seam allowances down to almost nothing, and resewed again later, which is bad news on a fabric that's already very prone to fraying. I really like the silhouette, fit, and fabric choices, though, so I'm strongly considering buying enough fabric to make another. I would use some silk organza as underlining for the dupioni silk on the entire dress, which should help reduce fraying and take some of the strain off the duioni, and I would use larger seam allowances and probably finish my edges better (french seams, hong kong seams, or even just the serger?).
Thanks for reading this doozy of a post, and thank you especially to everyone who followed along on instagram/twitter and asked about/complimented this labor of love <3 I'm so happy to have friends who are excited about the things I'm working on!