After I got back from L.A., I meant to spend some time testing methods for constructing this Claire McCardell dress, from an early 50s pattern by Spadea:
I intended to sew it up back in August for my sister, who is the Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, to wear to an event at the “Dance & Fashion” exhibit, (now running through January 3rd, 2015, at the Museum at FIT in New York). To have a flashback to that whole explanation, click this link. (Cue the Twilight Zone-y flashback music)
I thought Claire McCardell was a good choice for this event, because McCardell and Martha Graham are often mentioned together in books and articles as being similar in their pared-down artistic style. They did meet on at least one occasion, when they both received the Women’s Press Club award in 1950, a very big deal back then.
Here they are with President Truman (looking dapper in a tuxedo), along with a foreign affairs expert, an educational reformer, and a Hollywood actress (Olivia de Havilland), all in old-school tulle-centered eveningwear. Martha Graham is on the far left looking very chic and modern in her spare little black dress. And Claire McCardell, on the far right? Well, she’s got on one of her wrapped-bodice evening dresses of sari silk, slouchy leather gloves, no bra, no girdle, the ballet flats she invented, and a big American grin on her face. That outfit was so far ahead of its time!
I was doing a lot of thinking about making the dress, as August became September, but now it was October, and little voice inside me (either the spirit of Claire McCardell, or more probably, my Bernina, Karl) whispered, “you better get crackin’ on that dress.”
So, I chose a mid-weight black New Zealand merino knit that I got this spring from The Fabric Store in L.A. (here’s that post), because McCardell was one of the first American designers to popularize wool knits, and Martha Graham often used jersey in her costumes. This fabric is very soft and drape-y, and the quality is wonderful. The Fabric Store now has an online gallery, and will do mail order if you call them. (Here’s The Fabric Store’s USA website)
I washed the wool in cold water, tumble-dried it low, and laid it out.
As I was pinning, I was thinking a lot about Martha Graham, and how she often manipulated fabric in her dances to help tell the story.
This long piece of jersey reminded me of a moment in the dance “Cave of the Heart,” which is based on the Greek legend of Medea, and deals with revenge. It’s a favorite dance of mine, particularly now that I’m a “woman of a certain age.” Martha Graham herself designed the costumes, which makes her a “triple threat”: dancer, choreographer, and draper. The dance premiered in 1946.
In the dance, Medea learns that her husband is leaving her for a younger woman, a princess no less, who flits around the stage being innocent and adorable while she’s followed around by the besotted big lug.
Of course Medea, who’s been around the block a few times, is not happy that her husband is having a mid-life crisis, and she gets REALLY mad. Another dancer, representing the “chorus” from classical Greek theater, tries to stop Medea from exacting revenge, to no avail.
In this photo, you can see the Chorus’s robe and skirt, which remind me in particular of a 20s design by Madeleine Vionnet, shown here in the Betty Kirke book “Vionnet”:
In a fit of vengeful rage, Medea gives the little homewrecker a poison crown, which of course the princess puts on right away, because she’s a princess, and it’s a crown! For a couple of minutes she’s skipping around really really happy, and then she grabs her head and eeeeeek!
After that, Medea does an intense solo about vengence, where she’s twisting, twirling and even eating a long “snake” of fabric she pulls out of her bodice, so it’s like she’s “eating her heart out.”
A while later, Medea walks regally across the stage wearing a long train of fabric, and when her macho husband (see below) pulls back the train, the dead princess is inside!
In the end, even though Medea has clearly gone mad, she still looks kind of, well, let’s say satisfied. And that’s what I love about Martha Graham’s dances; they really get to the emotional core of these classic stories. Seeing them is so cathartic!
(Okay, I know I’m in trouble with my sister for being flip about this great Martha Graham work, but Cave of the Heart is prime example of how Graham was inspired by fabric and costumes, and used them to advance the story of her dances.)
Just FYI–the Martha Graham Dance Company New York season will be running February 10-22, 2015, at the Joyce Theater. Tickets can be purchased here: (Link to Martha Graham Company tickets). The Graham photos above are by Christopher Jones, and the dancers are: Medea: PeiJu Chien-Pott, Jason: Ben Schultz, Princess: Xiaochuan Xie and Chorus: Natasha Diamond-Walker.
When it came time to construct the dress, I looked inside an original McCardell that I have in my collection, to see how the seams were finished. I was surprised to see that the finishes were different in different parts of the dress, leading me to believe that several different people worked on the dress using their own methods.
The center back seam allowances were folded under and sewn:
The pockets edges were finished with pinking shears (kind of sloppy, too):
The armscye seams were double-sewn on the inside, but not top-stitched.
Several seams were reinforced with bias tape, which is typical of McCardell dresses, as they are often are cut on the bias and need the tape to stabilize the seam.
Meanwhile, the “let’s get crackin'” concept was still in my head, so my Bernina 560, AKA Karl, whispered, “how about forgetting the seam finishes and using the overlock stitch, sister?” This would have been heresy to me as a vintage purist, except I had recently read this post by The Vintage Traveler talking about how overlock stitches were used on sportswear as early as the 1910s. That was my “Get Out of Jail Free” card!
Using the 2A foot, and the #10 overlock stretch stitch, I got cranking. The foot shoves the edge under the needle, so you don’t need a serger for a finished edge.
Looks great, no? The wool jersey sewed like a dream.
The great thing about these 50s and 60s patterns released by Spadea, is that they were not taken from designs developed for the home sewing market. These patterns were drafted in reverse: a retail garment was given to the patternmaker, who took apart the garment, drafted the pattern from the pieces, graded the pattern for different sizes, then wrote up the instructions for the home-sewer.
So by sewing from a Spadea pattern now, you truly can recreate designer clothing from that era that look just like the retail garments being sold at the time.
Generally instructions in the Spadea patterns are great, but this one was little backwards in some ways.
The beginning of the instructions tell you to construct the back and side seams of the entire dress, so as you’re doing the more difficult parts, such as attaching piping to a 7″ neckline slash, you have the entire four yards of dress sitting in your lap. I began to feel like I was doing my own version of Martha Graham’s iconic work “Lamentation,” surrounded as I was by what was basically a tube of jersey.
I made the piping for the neckline using Bernina Bulky Overlock foot number 12C.
That foot absolutely saved me during this project! After I made the piping, I hand-basted it to the neckline slash (which I reinforced with knit fusible), then used the foot again to sew it on.
I used silk strips to face the armholes, to make it smoother by my sister’s arms, and to keep the armholes from stretching.
I was so proud of how I had inserted and edgestitched the two famous McCardell pockets in the dress (because McCardell wanted to free women from relying on evening bags), then discovered that I had put one in upside down! The dress was so big at this point, it was hard to keep track of what was the top and what was the bottom.
Then I cut another strip of fabric for the neckline, which was to function as both neck binding and cloth ties.
I used this little thingy to turn the ties right-side out. You put a big tube in the casing and use a smaller tube to push it through.
At this point, I tried on the dress, and in the silhouette, I saw this:
That’s Claire McCardell herself, in a dress known as the “futuristic dress.” One of these dresses is in the Metropolitan Museum’s online collection. The dress I was making had a very similar cut, so I had an “aha” moment about how the futuristic dress was constructed.
Now I really had to crank to get the dress done in time for my sister’s event. I gathered the dress in the front and reinforced the gathering with Hug Snug rayon bias tape.
Then I looked at these instructions. Eeeek!
It would probably work, but I was running out of time. Instead, I used the bulky overlock foot again, and basically made the ties by running an overlock stitch over the piping and then trimming it, so I didn’t have to turn anything right side out.
I used the same foot to attach the ties to the front of the dress, rather than hand sewing. It saved me so much time!
I threw on a blind hem, pressed and defuzzed the whole thing, and then right before I put it in my suitcase to New York, I tried it on one last time.
Why am I giving this to my sister!?!?! (Actually, I would adjust the fit for myself anyway, so let’s just say I’m giving Janet a “wearable muslin” for my dress. Shhhh!)
I put the dress in my bag and headed to New York, where I was attending a memorial service for legendary jazz singer and family friend, Jimmy Scott. While seated in the pews at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, I handed my sister a bag with the dress in it. Would she like it? I was sweating that one.
We parted ways after the service, and not long after, a picture popped up on my phone with the caption “It’s mine now!”
Score another one for stunt sewing! Looks great on her, doesn’t it?
It was such a great experience to recreate this piece of fashion history. The only other version of this dress I’ve seen is here, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute collection. I was so glad I’d found that Spadea pattern, because I learned so much about the construction of this classic McCardell design.
In my next post, I’ll be writing about the event where she wore it, and give a report about the Dance and Fashion Exhibit at the Museum at FIT, as well as (finally) details of the Hollywood Costume exhibit.
Hope your sewing’s going well. I’m cooked!