Never Too Old for a Toga Party (or–Cotton Jersey, never again!)

Can a middle-aged woman pull off a toga? (Figuratively of course, though I went to my share of toga parties in college…)

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For Pattern Review’s Historical Fashion contest, I was raring to go with a pattern by a famous 50s designer–fabrics, notions, everything I needed. Then I read the rules…nothing later than 1929! Eeeeek! Darn you contest committee! (Actually, though, not knowing the rules until a few days before the contests start makes them more fun.)

I still wanted to be a part of the contest, because making garments with a history is what I do. But I wasn’t taking it too seriously, what with all of those Regency, Renaissance, Downton Abbey and reenactor sewing people out there. I knew someone would be ripping down the drapes and coming up with an antebellum outfit that would put Scarlet to shame, so my chances of winner were low. I wanted to join the fun, though.

Rooting through my stash, I saw that I had a nice length of lightweight cotton jersey that I’d bought at The Fabric Store in L.A. I’d been wanting to make my own version of the Claire McCardell dress that I’d made for my sister last fall. Here’s my niece modeling the dress:

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Though McCardell first introduced a version of the “monastic dress” (loose and belted, like a monk’s robe) in the late 30s, it morphed into a more Grecian toga-like style in the 40s. This design was so popular that I remember women wearing cheap nylon nightgown versions of it (and those pink plastic hair rollers) in the 60s, several years after McCardell’s death. The design is gathered tightly at the neckline, and then either gathered at the waist with a belt, or gathered under the bust with McCardell’s famous “spaghetti strings” that wrap three or four times around to the waist.

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But the origins of this design are earlier–the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century–when wearing a toga-style gown was an act liberation for women. In the late 1800s, the “Aesthetic Dress Movement” encouraged women to lose the corsets and dress in a more bohemian way, in loose, simple dresses with a more Renaissance look. Here’s an example from the 1880s, by Liberty and Co., in The Metropolitan Museum’s online collection:

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The style caught on in the U.S., as women began performing amateur theatricals with “tableaux vivants” that resembled the artwork on Grecian urns. In the vaudeville halls, Ruth St. Denis was performing dances evoking ancient cultures, though nothing about the dances was particularly culturally accurate. (Apparently she got the idea for one dance when she saw an Egyptian illustration on a pack of cigarettes.)

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In Europe, people performed “Eurythmy” in togas (a form of movement to music):

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And Isadora Duncan’s performances popularized this free-spirited look throughout the world.

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Soon, this style of toga-like design, worn without much in the way of undergarments, showed up in the day and evening clothes of the time, one example being the form-fitting pleated “Delphos” gowns by Fortuny:

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The toga look was part of the “Physical Culture” movement in the U.S., which encouraged women to get out of the corset, get out of the house, and exercise for health.

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“That’s going to be meee in the backyard!” I shouted. My husband and son looked up briefly, nonplussed, and then went back to their iPads. McCardell herself was a fan of Fortuny, and she owned one of the Delphos dresses, which were so highly pleated they were kept coiled up in what looked like a small hatbox. So I figured  this was the right pattern to mimic the toga style.

Having made this dress before. (here’s the scoop on that) I learned a few things:

1. Don’t put the pocket in upside down:

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It’s a big dress. You can get lost! This time I used chalk to mark the pieces so I could keep track of where I was.

2. Do the piping and other details before the dress is assembled to avoid this:

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3. Gather and assemble the neckline before doing the side seams, because the dress below it is so big that the fit can be modified during the construction. I was able to use the same size pattern that fits my size Medium sister, though I’m a retail XL, because most of the fit takes place in the underbust gathering.

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The most challenging part of remaking this dress was working with lightweight cotton jersey. Those little roll-y edges! I had worked with wool jersey plenty, but if you press those edges before sewing, they’ll stay put for awhile. All I had to do was breathe on the cotton jersey and the edges rolled back up again, making the seams very difficult to sew. (I don’t use a serger.) Grrrr! I finally ended up using Steam-a-Seam to stabilize the seams and hems, because it’s what I had around.

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It does give you nice hems on knits!

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This dress has a very similar structure to the bodice of Marilyn Monroe’s “Seven Year Itch” dress, designed by William Travilla, which starts with pleats at the neckline and is gathered again under the bust.

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The good thing about all of the volume in the gathers, though, is that jersey doesn’t cling to your lumps and bumps.

I made McCardell’s famous “spaghetti strings” using some scraps of vintage fabric to create more than 5 yards/meters of piping:

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I stitched it twice, then trimmed close to the stitching:

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So comfortable to wear! The volume of the gathers really gives it movement.

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Here’s Writer/Actress Mindy Kaling, wearing a similar look in InStyle Magazine a few months ago.

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It never goes out of style! Now out to the backyard, to thoroughly embarrass my family with some Isadora Duncan dance moves! Tra la! How’s your sewing going?

33 thoughts on “Never Too Old for a Toga Party (or–Cotton Jersey, never again!)

  1. I hope you DID do some Isadora Duncan moves in the yard! Sounds like FUN! I remember one of my favorite makes back in the late 50’s was a sheath dress with the McCardel ties a la Grecian toga dressing. Wish I still had that pattern.

  2. What a great combination of fine sewing and fine writing! I love how the historical basis for this combines with the dance history (never go wrong citing Isadora!) and McCardell, finding more current citations in Monroe and Kaling (never thought I’d mention them in the same thought). Brava!

  3. Nice dress and I really enjoyed the background story.

    By the way, the “Eurythmics” you mentioned made me think of “Eurythmy” which is still around and is a dance form which is connected to Anthroposophy (and still in use in anthroposophical education and health care. My sister is really into that stuff, that’s why I know) and I think that’s what the picture shows (because Eurythmy performers typically wear loose flowing garments). However, a quick Wikipedia search also brought up another music and movement discipline called Dalcroze Eurhythmics… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurythmy and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalcroze_Eurhythmics

    Oh, and I also have a sewing question, something I always wonder about when I see designs like this: Is the dress itself just a huge wide thing which is only gathered by the belt or straps or do you gather the fabric itself and fix those gathers (which the picture in this post seems to suggest) and only cover those gathers with the belt?

    • I think it is called “Eurythmy” now, but it springs from the same source. As for the dress, it depends. Sometimes it’s belted, sometimes it has fixed gathers, and sometimes it has knife pleats or small pleats in the fabric.

  4. I am pretty obsessed with Ruth St Denis and I have to say that she would love to wear your toga dress. All you need is a bohemian wrap head scarf. Nicely done!

    • Thanks, Mary! I remember hearing the designer Doo Ri Chung at FIT talking about how adding volume in designs with jersey keeps them from clinging, which makes it very easy to wear in this case (without Spanx!).

  5. I love this pattern, so simple and yet so effective. And I like that you made a concept for this challenge, that you researched and interpreted fashion history. To me this is much more refined than the majority of the entries. There doesn’t seem to be much in between hoop-skirt-fancy-dress and “I chose 20ies so I can wear it to the garden party next week without looking odd”-dresses. Not that these dresses aren’t beautiful or well made, but to me working with a challenge and really be challenged by it means something different to me than just buying and sewing a historical pattern.

  6. I love the way the dress came out. I hav a similar pattern like this in my “library” that I never got a chance to make yet. It also features a high low hem. The history of the dress was quite interesting too. You picked the perfect color for the dress too. Good luck with the challenge.

    • Thanks so much! It’s true that many of her dresses are cut on the bias. This particular design is not, though. It would take loads of fabric, and because it’s so gathered, it doesn’t need the “give” of the bias.

      • Thank you so much for getting back to me. I have learned so much about Claire McCardell from you. Before your post I had not even heard of her- sad , I know. Thank you for your blog and all that you do.

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