The Dress

One dead giveaway to a 1950’s lady is the fashion. We all know it when we see it: it’s classic, simplistically complex, and looks like the model walked right out of Mad Men. There are so many glamorous dresses dedicated to pinup fashion on many sites. Stop Staring is just one of many examples of vintage inspired dresses out there. However many of the designs are not really “housewife friendly”; they’re more for the lady who is entertaining or for an event. Pinup. Glamorous. It certainly raises brows and provokes stares out in public. How is a retro housewife supposed to look the part in tight skirts when there are REAL chores to be done? There is a time and place for each costume, but elbow deep in dishes isn’t where I want to be wearing a fully lined, $100+ dress. Other than pinup sites designers don’t cater to this style. Some trends are close, but they lack authenticity to be more attractive to the masses.

But really, the cuts, styles, and drafting of a classic house dress doesn’t differ from today’s fashion at all. When you learn to look at the pattern itself and break it down into manageable sections, creating a 1950’s inspired dress is very simple. I have researched, referenced, and rounded up a ton of designs and have found my own way into daily 50’s wear that is gorgeous, inexpensive, unique, and retro-repro. I’m committed to creating this look myself and doing it for a reasonable price. I’ve been sewing since the age of 8 and taking this on is the only logical conclusion. If you don’t know how to sew, by all means, browse my blog for sewing lessons and start practicing. So what exactly makes a dress retro AND casual?

The Top

If you notice in vintage patterns, photos, and movies every day tops were fairly simple. The collars and frames are all very familiar to what we know today. There are V-necks, squared necks, scoop necks, etc. The type of neckline you choose will depend on your face shape and personal style. The embellishment will reflect your personality. I like my house dresses to have a blouse top with a high folded collar that forms a V-neckline.


Neckline Options

I debated adding the heart neckline since it is a basic squared neck concept scalloped, but it gives a much different look to a piece and there are plenty of dresses (even if more formal) out there that sport this neckline, so here it is.

Sleeves are dependent on the weather and personal taste. Shoulder, short, quarter length, half length, 3/4 length, or full length, these of which can all be modified in width.


Some ways to customize your top with seams and darts

The body of the top can be darted or tailored (3 or more panels cut to shape and contour the body), or gathered in some way to flatter the womanly figure. It is closed by buttons down the front, sometimes a zipper in the back or side, but buttons would be far easier to manage. You may choose to add a yoke in the front or back, but this is purely a design choice and works best when dealing with some patterned fabric. Yokes should be cut on the bias which may be advanced for some new seamstresses, but it will also give more stretch to the shoulders this way. This all goes in flattering the figure, creating an visually interesting pattern, and exploring your design options. All of which are still used in modern patterns. Pockets over the breast are a great touch for a shirt as well since they are functional and also visually stimulating.

Above all the top should not be too fitted or restrictive unless the fabric has appropriate give; you’ll be doing work around the house after all–but you won’t be embarrassed to open the door or run to the store for groceries worried about being too dressed up or not dressed enough. The dress can be as simple or intricate as your imagination and skills allow.

The Skirt


Most skirts will be a couple inches below the knee with a longer skirt reserved for more formal events. The only time shorts or shorter skirts are really worn are for activities like swimming and sports. My skirts will usually fall right where my knee ends or an inch below that. Pockets on the skirt can be in the seams, or displayed on the front like patches if pockets are to exist at all. The skirt can be A-line (not to be confused with a pencil skirt) or a circle skirt.

What that means is the A-line skirt will have minimal cutting but will require more work to pleat and gather than a typical circle skirt. The A-line skirt varies widely between dresses. They are easy to sew and look cute when done well. A circle skirt is literally a large circle of fabric (when laid out) with whole cut in the very middle for the waist. Circle skirts are not usually gathered because of the billowing fullness they have on their own, but they certainly can be cut larger to gather and pleat. For a really neat effect you could cut out 2 circles, sew them together, and tailor the waist smaller to have a marvelously flowing skirt.

Where the skirt is cut and gathered changes the look of the whole dress. It may be evenly pleated or gathered all around, pleated only at the sides, only in back, every quarter angle, or brought in to not gather at all. One lovely design depicts a tailored top, the front panels extending gown as part of the skirt, and the sides cut into half circles and gathered at the sides for extra fullness.

The weight of your chosen fabric will be a factor in determining how full you can make the skirt and how much fabric it will take to achieve the desired fullness. The skirt bottom may, of course, be as customized as you like: ribbon, lace, straight hem, scalloped, etc. Once you have both your top and skirt designed and sewn the last step is to attach the two halves together.Something I love to do is have extra blouses, sweater tops, and separate skirts hanging around so I can mix and match, getting the most options out of my closet. This is a perfectly acceptable option for the vintage housewife who may not necessarily have the skill to sew or the money to drop in pinup shops. If you can manage to cut 4 yards of fabric, pleat it, sew it in to a sash and add a hem you can manage to give yourself several options in one skirt project and pair it with shirts you already own.

Circle Vs A-Line

When to use a circle skirt. This design is great if you want a gorgeous billowing skirt with a nipped-in waist and minimal fabric to deal with when attaching the top and bottom pieces. Once you have a good pattern the cutting and sewing of this skirt is really quite simple. The largest issue with this versus the a-line is simplicity in the cut and hemming. If you had to cut straight lines versus not cutting at all, which would you prefer? In hemming you will need to snip, stretch, and carefully pin the bottom or cut out a partial circle-strip that will meet the radius of the skirt to line it and then possibly sew down the inner lining to the skirt itself.

When to use an a-line skirt. From a design perspective each style of skirt has it’s own time and place. An a-line skirt is always easiest but no matter what style you use there is always something to contend with. For the a-line you must consider the sheer amount of fabric you must pin and hem. It is daunting, but still easy overall. You must also contend with the gathering method. You must make sure the gathered edges are all caught in the final seam. It is awful to pleat or gather everything into a waistline only to notice raw edges popping out that were not tucked in right. Also with the a-line you must consider that if you want a full skirt you MUST gather the fabric. This skirt is perfect when attached to elastic. Also depending on the pattern a circle skirt is not practice.

Remember the more flare you want at the bottom and the less gathering you want at the top, the more rounded you will need to make your bottom hem… Thus creating the need for a circle skirt.


Circle Skirt

The amount of fabric you buy will depend upon what fabric widths are available to you. Usually about 44-46″ is standard with anything above that being gloriously ideal for longer skirts and bigger project. Next you will determine the length you want your skirt to be. Since I am tall and I like my skirts to hang at or below the knee I need to take into account my skirt will be about 26″ in length (24″ is usually just fine though, or even shorter if you’re petite). Skirts are usually cut as a full circle, half, or quarter circles. If you require a very long and full skirt then you may need get creative with laying your pattern if your fabric is not wide enough. Also remember that your circle skirt does not need to be a complete circle. Cutting the waist larger you could have a half circle skirt or even a quarter circle skirt. Equally you could take in the waist and double the circle skirt for a really full dress.

Ok got it. So how do you figure? Well you could do the math or check out this awesomely convenient app.

A-Line Skirt

I prefer a full gathered skirt that is a light top-weight fabric. The perfect calculation for this that I’ve found is 61% of your waist measurement. So take:
Waist #” ÷ .61 ÷ 12 = Yards
If your waist is 30″ then the yards you want to gather for your skirt will be a total of 4 yards.
You could add a yard more if you’re daring, but more than this calculation really isn’t necessary. Then you could always add less, tailoring into your exact waist measurements but that comes down to personal taste and experimentation. For the most basic and simplest of skirts I recommend the calculation above.

So there are some bare basics of starting to think about making your own retro dresses and what to look for in patterns. Taking down sewing intimidation one post at a time!

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