Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on June 26, 2011
I am excited to share some pictures of a vintage 1950s dress I’ve been wanting to sew for months! This 50s style dress was more or less made from Butterick pattern 4790, with some alterations to make it look like the original pattern that was printed 60 years ago. If you have ever wondered how to sew a 1950s dress, I would highly recommend this pattern with the recommended adjustments.
When I first saw the original sketch on Butterick’s website, I thought, “Oh, that’s gorgeous!” But after viewing their picture for the actual dress they sewed from the pattern, I was a bit puzzled. “Is that really the same pattern?” I wondered.
Even a casual observer would probably notice that the bodice isn’t well-fitted, the wraparound bodice pieces are too low, and the skirt hangs down around the knees instead of standing out in a “pouffy” fashion. In short, it didn’t look like a 1950s dress, but I was sure there was a way to fix it! (If you read the pattern reviews online, most seamstresses complain that Butterick 4790 doesn’t fit like the pattern illustration shows, but the solution for that is to fit your dress as you go along so you can see what you need to change.)
Last year I talked with McCalls Fit Expert Pati Palmer about it, and she confirmed my suspicions that this wasn’t the original pattern they used back in the 50s. Pati informed me that all the vintage patterns are redesigned for the modern figure (which isn’t always a pretty sight!), though the pattern companies often use the original artwork. And she should know, since she’s been designing patterns for McCalls since the 1970s! So together we did the “tissue fit” of the pattern on me, and she insisted that I choose my pattern size by the “above-bust” measurement, rather than the regular chest measurement. So if your collarbone circumference is 31″, you would use a pattern size 8 (substitute the “above-bust” measurement for the regular bust circumference). Of course this makes it much too small everywhere else, so you just add width to the side seams to fit the rest of your body. I was a bit apprehensive about using this method, but Pati assured me that it is the best option, because “the collarbone area is the hardest part of your body to fit,” she explained. So as long as it fits in the shoulder area, you can easily widen the rest of the pattern, try it on to make sure it fits, and continue with your project!
And it worked out great! I usually have too much room in the collarbone anyhow, but this is one pattern that fits perfectly now! So back to the rest of the alterations to make this pattern look like the pattern cover – I decided there were a few simple adjustments that should make this pattern fit well and look like a classic 1950s dress!
- Make the bodice more fitted in the collarbone (already described above).
- Redraw the “v” shaped bodice wrap-around to hit higher in the ribcage.
- Have the bias binding visible only on the inside.
- Wear the appropriate foundation garments for a fuller skirt and smaller bodice!
The second alteration is very simple, and I show how to do it below:
- Place a strip of pattern tissue paper behind the curved part of the back bodice wrap-around. Tape in place.
- Redraw the curve to be more of a “v” shape, rather than a “u”. (It will just look like a diagonal line right now, but with one on either side it will look like a “v”.)
- Cut off the excess pattern paper.
Once these steps are done, you can follow the pattern instructions exactly, although I chose to sew the binding so that it is only visible on the inside. While the pattern instructions tell you to simply encase the raw edge in the bias binding, my impression of the visible (and often contrasting) bias binding is that it gives the dress a rather homemade look. One lady who has sewn this pattern even likened it to a hospital gown! So simply stitch the bias binding on the right side of the fabric, trim the seam allowance down, press well, turn the binding to the inside, and handstitch in place.
Lastly, wear a corset and a crinoline! I am always amazed when I see pictures online of a 1950s reproduction dress which is worn without any support to make the skirt stand out. If you want to look like a 1950s lady, you definitely need to wear what the women from that era wore to achieve the same silhouette. True, they really wore girdles instead of corsets, but a corset will do basically the same thing, and many of us already have a corset or two that we’ve sewn for other fashion eras. Below are “before” and “after” pictures of how the exact same dress looks with and without the afore mentioned foundation garments. It really does make a huge difference! When you wear a crinoline skirt underneath, the dress skirt has a lovely “swoosh” whenever you move.
So next time you need a 1950s dress, try this method for a fairly simple-to-sew pattern! I added a flower pin, white gloves, and birdcage veil, but it would look cute with a vintage hat, too!
UPDATE: If any of you are interested in how to sew the 1950s walkaway dress, feel free to join our Butterick 4790 Sew-along that’s happening in August!