An Interview with Susan Khalje, Halston Inside-out, and The Battle of Versailles!

More pics below from the Yves St. Laurent + Halston exhibit, and the 70s patterns you can find to recreate them… but first a heads up about an interview just posted with haute couture master teacher Susan Khalje.

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I’m a huge fan of Susan and her practical approach to sewing haute couture. In fact, it was Susan’s “Haute Couture Dress” course that elevated my technique from the “Michigan Basement with Mom School of Sewing” and gave me the courage to tackle the high-flyin’ projects I attempt now.

I had a ball interviewing Susan in her studio last summer, and found her warm and affable in person. She’s now launching her own video series, the first of which, “The Couture Cocktail Dress” is available on her website. Her Classic French Jacket course will be launching soon! I’m really looking forward to that.

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Part One of our interview has just been posted on Bernina USA’s website WeAllSew.com, and you can find it here. In it, we dish about haute couture sewing, how to approach the vexing issue of fitting, and why it’s important to MAKE A MUSLIN, people! (Even if it is like eating your spinach.)

The interview is part of Jet Set Sewing’s collaboration with BERNINA USA, and you can learn details by clicking the “Bernina Collaboration” tab above. Once again I have to give a shoutout to Alice, Jeanne, and all of the other nice folks at Bernina who are making this possible. I never could have pulled off the projects I’ve done this year without my B560, Karl, (who’s over there right now tapping his presser foot and saying, “less writing, more sewing, sister”).

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Now, back to the YSL + Halston exhibit that was at the Museum at FIT during the winter…

I wrote about Halston’s background in this post, but it wasn’t until I saw the dresses up close that I got a clear picture of the genius of his draping.

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Like Madeleine Vionnet and Claire McCardell, two influences mentioned in the exhibit, Halston created simple, elegant dresses, many cut on the bias, with clean lines and few visible closures. Those of us who sew know how difficult it is to wrangle a bias cut, which can easily pucker and shift. That his simple designs fell properly, and yet made a statement, was a testament to his skill.

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During the 70s, McCalls Patterns released a number of Halston patterns, which appear to be cut directly from his designs. At the exhibit, I saw several dresses that could be recreated using those patterns:

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(Yes, Yves Saint Laurent and that glamorous 70s fashion model/Halstonette are back to show off more patterns!)

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(You need a Bedazzler for that one.)

There were examples of his “working women” clothes made from UltraSuede, a washable microfiber that’s still being sold:

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The funny story about Halston and UltraSuede is that he learned about it from Japanese designer Issey Miyake, who’s known for his pioneering work with engineered fabrics. There was a language miscommunication, so when Miyake told Halston that UltraSuede was machine washable, Halston thought he meant waterproof. So Halston used it to design the highly impractical trench coat seen on the right.

When I informed my sister that I was coming to New York to crash on her sofabed, something I’ve been doing for, oh, 40 years, she casually mentioned that she had “some Halstons” from the 70s in the back of her closet. Whaaaattt?!

But it’s true…here are some closeups of an UltraSuede jacket of hers, with cut in sleeves and an underarm gusset. No seam finishes needed…easy to cut, sew and wear!

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Even after 40 years, the buttons were still sewn on nice and tight.

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They don’t make ’em like they used to.

I’ve mentioned before that Janet is the Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and back in the 70s, she was one of their big stars. She danced a number of the classic Graham roles, and Martha even choreographed a version of “The Scarlet Letter,” featuring Janet as Hester and Rudolf Nureyev as a pretty dishy Dimmesdale.

During that period, as I mentioned in this post about the Museum at FIT’s “Dance and Fashion” exhibit, Halston was very involved in creating costumes for the Graham company, and dressing elderly Martha herself. You didn’t always have to be young and lithe to pull off a Halston design.

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(That’s Martha on the left, looking good with Betty Ford, Halston, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liza Minelli.)

Since this was dance and not Hollywood, the dancers weren’t making a fortune, and on the weeks they weren’t rehearsing or performing, they would go on unemployment. So when the big galas and events would come up, Halston would give Janet and the other dancers gowns to wear.

Here are pictures of a knit cashmere maxi dress and giant cape wrap that Halston gave Janet for the premier of Scarlet Letter:

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It takes up the entire bed! The outfit is similar to the sweater-knit dress and long cardigan on the left of this photo:

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You can use this Halston pattern to approximate that big luxurious wrap; the cut is very similar:

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Here’s Martha Graham looking smashing in a similar wrap, again with Liza Minelli and Halston:

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So, digging further into my sister’s closet, out came this uniquely cut Halston made of chiffon and crepe backed satin.

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It has a silk underslip, and on the overdress, there’s a large circle of satin that starts right below the waist, goes to the bottom of the dress and creeps up the lower back, creating a bubble hem.

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In the middle of the circle is an erotic slash that you put your legs through to walk.

Here’s a little Botticelli angel who floated down from the sky to model the dress:

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(Actually, it’s my sister’s daughter, but same difference. What a gene pool!)

The waist is secured with a six foot long chiffon scarf.

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Mackie the dog, what are you doing getting into the act?

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When I looked at the design, it seemed unusual for Halston. It reminded me of Charles James, who consulted with Haston in the early 70s. (To take a look at the skirt I recreated last year from a 50s Charles James pattern, check out this post.)

Looking on the inside of the dress, I was amazed at the amount hand stitching involved:

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It’s a gorgeous dress.

The last piece of history dug out of my sister’s closet was one of Halston’s famous “Sarong” dresses, shown here in the Museum at FIT exhibit:

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Halston had given Janet one of these dresses in black velvet, which she wore after she performed at the White House during the Ford administration. First Lady Betty Ford had studied dance with Martha Graham, and became one of the champions of the Graham Company during that era.

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That Betty Ford was First Lady at all was completely accidental, as Gerald Ford became President after Nixon resigned in disgrace. Yet she used it as a platform for great social progress; telling people about her battles with breast cancer and drug addition way before anyone else was talking about those things publicly.

According to the book “Halston and Warhol, Silver and Suede,” the sarong dress was invented by Halston one afternoon on Fire Island, when he draped and tied a big bath towel on model Chris Royer.

So here’s the thing about this dress that my sister learned the hard way. You’d better tie it tight.

After Janet’s dance performance, she put on the Halston sarong dress and joined the party. President Ford himself asked her to dance.

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They were having a lovely time. Then her dress started slipping down!

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“If you’ll excuse me Mr. President, I think I need to make a little adjustment…” Luckily, it didn’t land on the floor.

As you can see, when she wore the dress at the Carter White House a few years later, she tied it good and tight!

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Once I got my hands on the dress, I turned it inside out. It looks like a long column, but actually, it’s cut on the bias, and constructed like a corkscrew.

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At the top, there were small pleats with binding at the cleavage, where the ties would meet:

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The ties themselves were part of a self-facing that was cut into the top of the dress. The wearer would fold the top facing inside, around the high bust line, and then tie those ties tight, because nothing else was holding it up!

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The dress itself has a hand-sewn blind hem:

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The silk lining was cut from all one piece as well, hand-hemmed.

And here’s the thing from the interior that really killed me:

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The Independent Ladies Garment Workers Union Label. Made in the U.S.A. Remember the 60s commercial where the women from the union sang “Look for the union label, when you are buying a coat, dress or blouse…”? Well, in hindsight, they were absolutely right.

Okay, we’ve been stranded far too long in the 70s, I know, but I did want to add how much I thoroughly enjoyed the new book The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan, fashion critic for the Washington Post. It covers a rare moment in fashion history when five American designers, Halston among them, were invited to show their collections in a “battle” with five French designers, including Yves St. Laurent, in 1973.

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(Yes, I was reading it in the car during school pick-up time…)

Givhan does a masterful job of describing the thrown-together nature of what became a watershed event in fashion. The thing went on for hours, and included Liza Minelli, Nureyev, and Josephine Baker! For those of us who get nerdy about fashion history, there’s plenty of background and dish about the players and egos in the garment industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

She also talks about how the African American models at the event, along with designer Stephen Burrows, broke new ground in the industry through the Versailles event, while saving the bacon of the other U.S. designers by pulling the whole thing off.

My thanks to Stephanie of the blog Ernie K Designs for tipping me off about this great book!

Here’s New York Times Style section photographer Bill Cunningham’s reminiscence about attending the event:

Here are a few more photos from the Yves St. Laurent + Halston exhibit, by both designers.

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(Looks a lot like Claire McCardell, Halston…)

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And here are a few more Halston patterns. They’re not too hard to find on eBay and etsy.com:

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So long, Funkytown! Hm, where should we go next?

29 thoughts on “An Interview with Susan Khalje, Halston Inside-out, and The Battle of Versailles!

  1. Hi Julie, I love this post! It’s so wonderful to see these timeless garments, and realize the handwork that went into them. Posts like yours inspire me as I return to sewing after decades away. And my sew machine? It’s just like Karl!!! Unnamed as yet, however. My sewing adventure will be accompanied by a blog (oh I must be crazy) which is partly a college assignment, and partly to keep me accountable. Just wanted to let you know how much help you’ve been through your lovely blog – this old gal is forging ahead! Jen in NY

    • Hi Jen, thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you’re finding inspiration here. Nothing like a couple of old gals with new machines! I know you’ll enjoy that Bernina.

  2. Dear Julie, I am ‘breaking’ my convention to write a comment on this post. I thoroughly enjoy your writing, informed by research and personal experiences. It is a joy to read. Whilst Australian, I have long been a fan of the American sportswear aesthetic, and was overjoyed to see your wonderful insights on Claire McCardell as I have always loved her work. And now more joy with Halston! I too have some of those patterns from the late 70s early 80s – I remember making them up and wearing them. So thanks Julie for the extraordinary amount of work you put into your posts.
    Maree, Brisbane.

    • Thanks so much, Maree. These posts are so much fun to write that they don’t feel like work to me. I have to give a shoutout to my sister for providing the photos (and the sofabed in NYC) and my niece for modeling! (And the Mackie the dog for keeping things interesting.)

  3. OMG! What a treasure trove of a post. So very interesting to read. Especially your sisters’ closet – and the photographs of her with the President in the dress. He must have been brave to dance with a professional, and such an elegant one. Thank you for showing more about how the dresses are constructed, and your niece in the balloon skirted one – so elegant and magical.

    • What’s so funny about those pictures is that President Ford had a reputation for being kind of klutzy–Chevy Chase used to lampoon him on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live by doing pratfalls. We thought he was really old, too. Now looking at those pictures, he looks pretty smooth, and younger than I remembered.

    • It’s great to get the inside scoop from her. It’s one thing to see gowns like this in an exhibit, and quite another to get to look them over inside and out, and hear about what it’s like to wear them!

  4. I loved this post, what a well thought out lesson. How amazing to get to examine the dresses. I loved the video with Bill Cunningham and will definitely order the book. All the time and research you put into your posts is appreciated. I’ll pass this along to some of my fellow sewers/fashion fans.

    • Thanks very much! It was great to be able to get elbow deep into those Halston designs. Makes me want to whip up a few more of those patterns! How lucky we are to have designer patterns from this era.

  5. Loved reading this. Thanks for posting – the video was so interesting – and soooo exciting to see all the handwork in those dresses. So much to learn yet…

  6. I’ve got ultra suede ( at least one Halston and one Vera Maxwell) hanging in a spare closet – left over from my mother-in-law’s fashionable period in the 1970s. Not sure what to do with it, though! I never found it very comfortable to wear – it was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer! A velvet Halston seems much more desirable!
    Susan Khalje is the best!

    • Hi Karen, someone’s going to want that UltraSuede Halston! 70s suede skirts are very big this year, so you can make some hipster girl happy by passing them on. I think we shouldn’t be wearing things like that at this age though… I’d be afraid people wouldn’t get that I’m being ironic.

      • Agreed! Sewing from vintage patterns is one thing, but actually wearing vintage would make me look dowdy, while it would look great on a twenty- something!

  7. Hi Julie,

    Great post – loved reading about Halston, your sister and Susan Khalje.
    I am saving the video clip for my next break from baking and blogging.
    Happy Sewing.
    Colette

  8. You have outdone yourself, girl reporter! Chock full of goodness; this is like five or six posts, rolled into one! Thank your sister for her collection, and her long and fine association with the Graham company. Mostly, thanks for all those yummy construction detail photos!

  9. Thank you for this interesting post- it was really a treat to read it! Those Halston dresses look amazing… especially the one modeled by your niece – what great treasures and interesting stories!

  10. Wonderful post and thanks for sharing some fabulous photos. I absolutely loved both black Halston dresses. Getting views of the inside construction was a treat. The styles are timeless. Your sister and her daughter are wonderful models.
    I chuckled at the memory of Ultrasuede. I made a few things from it when it was the hot fabric and always felt like I was wearing plastic.

    • Hi Mary, aren’t those dresses great? I was going to make a tiny version of the sarong dress for the “Halstonette” holding the patterns, but never got around to it. After I saw my sister’s jacket, I almost ordered some UltraSuede to recreate it. Fortunately I woke up the next morning had a “what was I thinking?” moment.

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