Charles James skirt muslin (apparently for Amazon Barbie)


So I started making a version of this:

Charles James “Dorothy” Skirt in the Metropolitan Museum


from this 1950s mail-order sewing pattern:



I just read an article in this month’s U.S. Vogue (May 2014) by Hamish Bowles, talking about the life and work of Charles James, and my guess is that this skirt pattern (and another Charles James dress pattern) were released during a time in the 50s when James was married to heiress Nancy Lee Gregory (the former wife of one of James’ lovers, oh by the way…) who was trying to help him expand his business. But artists are rarely good at business or marriage, and both were pretty much over by the early 60s. (As usual, I felt a jealous frisson at the quality of Hamish Bowles’ writing in the article.)

Here’s a video of Hamish Bowles visiting two iconic Charles James dresses in James’ birthplace of Chicago. Having seen some of Charles James’ erotic drawings, Bowles posits that many of his creations may have been inspired by a certain appendage of the male anatomy: (Video about Charles James)

And here’s an article from the New York Times about the Met’s reconstruction of the “Four Leaf Clover” dress, which will demonstrates the architectural elements of James’ designs: (Charles James New York Times Article)

Since I’d like to have the skirt done by the time I leave on Tuesday for the Charles James exhibit in New York, I’d better do less blabbing and more sewing. So here’s the progress so far:

As with all of the vintage unprinted patterns I use, when I first take them out of the package, I need to label them:


That’s when I discovered that two of the pattern pieces were missing. AAAyyyiiiii!

Curse you, lazy 50s housewife, who made this skirt and then neglected to put back all of the pieces! So what if you had four kids and were probably in the midst of a pre-feminist Betty Draper psychotic episode, it’s Charles James for pity sake!

So after that little meltdown, I realized that it wouldn’t be too hard to re-create the pattern pieces for the back of the waistband and lining for the pleats.

I traced the pattern onto craft paper and put the original away to preserve it. Then I compared the pattern to my recently completed fitting shell pattern. Since the Charles James pattern was cut for a 24″ waist, I knew I would have to size it up considerably to fit me.


The brown is the Charles James skirt pattern and the white is my fitting shell pattern. At this point, I could tell that the front piece (on the right) was far smaller than my fitting shell, while the back piece (left) was close to the same size. So the skirt was designed for the back piece to wrap around the side to meet the front piece in the front. Also, there’s a complex triangular part at the top that extends even further toward the front.

I decided that trying to size up the pattern in the flat pattern state was foolish, and that I should just make the thing up as is, then see what I could do to make it bigger.

I cut the muslin pieces for the test version of the pattern out of two different color fabrics, to better show you the design of the skirt in photos (and I’d like to thank you readers for inspiring me to move forward on the boring parts of projects like this).


This is why it’s worth doing a muslin. You’re looking at the top of the skirt’s side seam, where ordinarily on a pencil skirt the two seams would match, and you would just sew them together on a curve. But on this pattern, the triangular part on the back (in black) wraps forward to meet the front (in white), and the pieces curve away from each other in the opposite direction. When I started to pin them, it reminded me of setting in a sleeve, so I added some basting and gathered the back piece to curve it around.

Here’s how it looked pinned:


You can see I had to ease the back piece around to meet the hip curve of the front piece.

And here’s how the exterior looked after it was sewn:


It’s not just curved, it’s molded. And that’s what made Charles James such a great designer, even with something as simple as a pencil skirt.

Here’s a look at the front of the completed muslin version:


The back (in black) wraps around to the front to make an arch shape in the front. It’s hard to see, but that same shape is mirrored in a subtle arch on the waistband front. At the bottom of each side of the front piece are two lined pleats. (There’s no seam in the center front. I just messed up when I cut it, which is another reason you do a muslin.)

Here’s how the skirt looks from the side:



The seam between the front and back of the waistband meets at the actual side of the waist, over a dart, rather than where the front and the back pieces meet.

And here’s the rear, where there is another pleat in the center back:


The waist on the skirt is a petite 25″, and the hips max out at 37″. The whole thing’s so tiny it won’t fit on my dress form. But the length of the skirt, after hemming, is 32″, and on my 5’6″ long-legged frame, comes just 4″ above my ankle. That’s why I think this original is fitted for Amazon Barbie.

Clearly I’m not going to need to make it any longer, so I’m just going to attempt a massive “slash and spread” revision in the middle to get the skirt to fit me. There’s no way I’m touching the engineering on the sides.

And I hope that Charles James, somewhere in the great beyond, will forgive me for messing with his elegant design. But I can’t imagine that he would.


Vintage Couture Heaven


I was searching online about my favorite vintage dealer, Didier Ludot, and stumbled upon this new video series by Hamish Bowles, world-class couture collector and Editor-at-Large at US Vogue Magazine.

It features Hamish traveling the world and visiting many of the top collections and vendors of vintage haute couture and ready-to-wear, curated by a true connoisseur. The series includes a visit to Didier Ludot’s shop.

You can find it here:

The series is classy and worth a look. I always enjoy Hamish Bowles’ writing in Vogue.

Didier Ludot’s tiny shop in the Palais Royal in Paris can only be described as a crammed museum of fashion, and if you’re lucky enough to charm him into having a look you can see some of the great works of 20th century haute couture. Across the courtyard, (former home of the author Colette, and a place with a checkered history that includes a number of duels) you’ll find Didier Ludot’s other shop, “La Petite Robe Noire” (The Little Black Dress) which sells vintage designer black dresses and his own line of clothing–a modern takes on vintage cocktail numbers. When you see stars on the red carpet coyly saying they’re wearing vintage “from Paris”, it’s probably from his shop.

Part of my story is that, as the wife of the lawyer for a number of big show-biz events, a couple of times a year I need to don a gown with a capital “G”. Shopping that should be fun is actually a pain, because modern eveningwear is expensive and awful.

About 15 years ago, my husband, (who unlike most American men has a good eye, an appreciation for good design, and no intimidation about shopping for his wife) spotted this dress as we were walking by Didier’s shop on the way to Juveniles Wine Bar, which is around the corner from the Palais Royal:

Late 50s Jean Patou Dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld.

Late 50s Jean Patou Dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld.

It was on a Barbie-waist-size mannequin, which coincidentally is not my size. When we looked in the shop, Didier, clad in what appeared to be Louis the 16th’s striped pajama bottoms and dancing slippers, was negotiating with a couple of Japanese guys over a 60s Hermes Kelly bag. My protests about the dress not fitting and being mortified went unbidden.

My husband shoved me in the shop, charmed Didier, and before you knew it, I was being shoveled into the hidden interior mesh and boned corset onto which the dress is loosely tacked. The dress itself was made of a heavily-woven iridescent aubergine silk, lined with silk organza, and it was so stiff it could almost stand by itself. The label was Jean Patou, which at that time was designed by Karl Lagerfeld, just starting his career.

Inside the streamlined exterior of the dress was miles of hand-sewing and more engineering than the Golden Gate. To get the corset closed, I would exhale forcefully, then have my husband do up the band of hooks and eyes on the back. After that he would zip up the zipper on the dress over the corset, and from then on I would not draw another full breath until the dress was off again.

I wore that dress to at least 10 events, because, unlike the very American concept of being cool by wearing “something new”, a dress that distinctive can be worn repeatedly, in the more European concept of something being a signature of your taste. The corset gave me a wasp-waist, wonderful posture, and then incredible internal distress as soon as I would eat something at dinner after the event. The last time I wore it, my son was three months old, and upon returning home to a squalling, hungry child and a dress that required ten minutes and a lady’s maid to remove, I hung it up for good. Oh, how I wish I had taken a picture of the interior before I sold it!

Since then, I’ve always made a point to peer in the vitrine of Didier’s shop while walking through the Palais Royal on the way to Juveniles, and once in awhile, I go in and pick something up.

I’ve seen that my blog has had visitors from Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Netherlands and other points in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, India, Asia, US, Canada… Thank you for stopping by! Do you have a favorite “vintage” shopping place in your area? Please leave a comment; I’d love to hear about it.