The Tale of making a 40s Swishy Skirt (yesss!) and a Golden Girls Spa Robe (noooo!)…and fabric shopping in Paris

Who else is thrilled that the holidays are over? Despite being covered with tinsel for weeks, I’ve managed to get some sewing done.

Before Christmas, I thought I’d try this vintage pattern I’d been hoarding for several years.

Duster Pattern

I think these were called “Dusters” or “Opera Coats” back in the day. I wanted to see if it would work as an evening wrap, since I’m always freezing at fancy events. Plus my upper arms are no longer ready for prime time, if you know what I mean.

And I had some nice stash that I had no idea how to use–gold viscose/wool suiting (I am not the gold suit type) and some gorgeous Carolina Herrera panel silk that has been making me feel guilty for years.


The tissue fit was huge, so off I went! (Because I could always take it in, right?)

Tailors’ tacks for some big release darts at the neckline:


The gold was supposed to be the exterior until:


Does this look like Bea Arthur waiting for a facial to you too? Jeez, another classic design that’s peaked and pitched into Art Teacher Chic territory. (Just like the Schiaparelli Mom Jeans Vest) So maybe the blue would be better as the outside?

But rather than take the time to fit it better, I just plunged into making the lining which was now the outside. Clearly I just wanted to get that stash out of there.


I was proud of myself!


My Bernina 560, Karl, whispered to me, “you took the time to understitch, but not the time to fit? Is that wise?” (He was doing such a beautiful job that I just lost my head.)

Then, it looked like this for awhile…(bagging the lining was very confusing).


So I know you’re waiting for the big reveal, but when I got most of it done, it was screaming “summer drinks with hippy friends in the Vineyard” more than “winter evening at the ballet.” So it’s in the closet waiting for two shoulder seams and for me to give a hoot.

But that fabric’s out of my stash…time to get more!


Back to Paris. Did we go to the Grand Palais to catch the Chanel couture show? Mais non, when you travel with a 14-year-old, you’re going to the amusement park they put in there during the holidays.


Of course I felt so sad after the terrible things that happened in Paris. But having been nine months pregnant in Washington DC when the Pentagon was hit on 9/11, and having lived in Boston during the marathon bombing (fortunately we were out of town when it happened), I know how important it is for visitors to come back. It’s a painful time, and it helps to have friends in your midst. Even if it’s just people who love your city.

While I was in France, I started reading Elsa Schiaparelli’s biography. Her atelier was in Paris at the start of WWII.


(I was looking for divine inspiration about what to do with those vintage Bakelite dress clips my husband found for me.)

I remembered an article Schiaparelli wrote for Vogue in the 40s, about the first days of the French occupation. She, Lucien Lelong and other couturiers decamped from Paris to Biarritz with what little they had; their staff of petites mains got there however they could, and then they attempted to keep the French fashion business alive in spite of being under the thumb of the Nazis. In a plot as riveting as Casablanca, Schiap was able to escape via the Azores to get to the U.S. for a tour to promote French fashion. But soon the boats to the U.S. stopped, and most of the couturiers were forced out of business for the rest of the war.

I really admired how those couturiers and their staff fought to keep their culture from getting trampled by the Nazis, even over something that could be considered frivolous, like fashion. So though I’m usually a big scaredy-cat, I realized that it was important not to be afraid to go back to Paris, despite what had happened.

The ladies at Janssens et Janssens were as nice as ever, and the fabrics were as beautiful (and expensive) as ever:


It was quiet in there right before Christmas, so they were very kind to give me a deal on some beautiful silks and wools on the “coupon” (remnant) table.


Then I made my annual Pointless Pilgrimage of Fashion. In the past I’ve stood outside of what was Madame Vionnet’s atelier, and done a selfie on the Chanel staircase.

This time, I went to the address in the Place des Vosges where Claire McCardell, Joset Walker, and Mildred Orrick (all friends and fellow designers) spent their year abroad in the 20s, as flapper girls, while they were studying at what is now Parsons School of Design.


We went to the Musee D’Orsay, where I stumbled on this stunning view:


Yep, everything in Paris was still there.



And when I got to the Tuileries, I spotted one of my favorite things:


(A buff naked guy.)

When I got home, I decided to make another of the Claire McCardell 40s dirndls that I wrote about here. It’s so swishy! It’s not like those 80s skirts. It flows when you walk.

I’d bought some gorgeous lightweight silk lame’ at Janssens that the saleslady said was Lanvin. So I put in some pockets, gathered yards and yards of it at the waist, and attached it to wide, ventilated corset elastic. (Sure you laugh, but you don’t need Spanx!)


I was wandering around Saks, bored, and saw a similar skirt:IMG_5524

For $700! (Note: Mine is not size zero.)


Plus I can both sit and eat in my version, and it feels great to wear! Here’s a video to show just how swishy it is:

Not exactly Ginger Rogers, but it was “backwards and in heels.”

Hope your sewing’s going well in the new year!

36 thoughts on “The Tale of making a 40s Swishy Skirt (yesss!) and a Golden Girls Spa Robe (noooo!)…and fabric shopping in Paris

  1. Very swishy, indeed! There is something about walking in a skirt like that – very feminine and sensuous!! Well, I really want to see that jacket… Somehow I think you will turn it into a success story. Fun post to read!

  2. Hello Julie –
    The Paris images are wonderful, and your support for a Paris (or any city) that’s been hit by terrorism is admirable. Thank you.

    Your McCardell dirndl (that didn’t cost $700!) is just lovely the way it swishes.

    Can anyone make the dirndl, using the old non-pattern technique of: Waist Measurement x ??? = actual fabric length, to be gathered at the top of the dirndl?

    The ??? was usually 2 or 2.5 times your waist measurement, if you wanted a full or fuller dirndl. This method got you a dirndl, or gathered skirt, really quick. Sometimes you could sew the hem before gathering and attaching to the waistband.

    Can you tell us the approx. x ??? for this dirndl? (I’m guessing it will be 3 or more, being so swishy and pretty.)

    Your gathering technique with the dental floss is primo. The pretty wide sash at the end is just lovely.

    Btw, I just got back from a two week trip to London. I didn’t have much time for fabric shopping (it was a work trip), but it was so nice to see real, active fabric shops all over the city. I almost bought an Italian linen herringbone, but the $$ stopped me.

    Meg McKinney

    • Hi Meg! It’s a dirndl style but it has a few tricks with waistband attachment and the on-seam pockets. Lots of fabric–but I can’t remember the proportions offhand (sitting here ringside at my son’s curling match…) I’ll have to put together a tutorial at some point.

      • I’m not surprised that there are “a few tricks.” Those are the steps that make it a great skirt! I — and most of your followers I’m sure — would love a tutorial. Thanks — enjoy your lovely garments!

  3. Loved your photos of the amazing city of Paris. Hopefully I’ll get back there soon and definitely to Janssens. Your skirt looks so comfortable and and the jacket needs those shoulder seams finished!

  4. Curling Mom! Those Sporty Boys grow up so quickly. Former Karate Mom here is DELIGHTED with the video; it’s the perfect weight and mass, it just flows! And what you want to remember is that you want to make that clock photo into a one yard item (5400pixels tall) so I can buy a yard in silk for a scarf. Spoonflower does photographic printing very very well.

  5. Oh the skirt is lovely! So elegant, I forget that, you know, longer skirts *can* look fabulous. Nice work.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos of Paris too, they brought back memories for me falling in love with the city, and thinking of all these amazing people who had walked the same streets. By the way, everyone talks about Le Lourve, but it’s the Musee D’Orsay for me ❤

    • I agree! The Louvre is a little overstuffed. After we went to see the Impressionists at the d’Orsay, I dragged my son through an early 20th century avant-garde women’s photography exhibit on the same floor, which turned out to be pretty heavy. I loved it, but he turned green and had to meet me at the gift shop!

  6. Thank you so much for this post! My husband is French, and I am a New Englander, so we have a lot in common. Love the pictures of Paris, and I so agree with you about returning. My husband was there during the attack, and I have the same struggles with visiting, but agree that you just have to have the courage to return.

    • I can only imagine how you felt with your husband there. My husband was working in an office close to the White House on 9/11. It takes a long time to process, but Paris will still be there!

  7. Wow, Paris and McCardell! Who could ask for more? And now a question I’ve been wondering about–does the McCardell dirndl just have gathers in the front or all the way around?

    • The version in my collection has them all the way around, but she was very clever to “bunch” gathers, to make skirts and dresses more flattering, in a number of her garments that I’ve seen.

    • Hi Kate! Well, you know I need some slick duds to keep up with your rocking vintage closet! I’m going to get that jacket done in time to rendezvous with you up-island this summer.

  8. Pingback: Golden Girls Go Zen and “Claire McCardell’s Gay New Hostess Sash” | Jet Set Sewing

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