Design Inspiration: Quirky, Casual 40’s Dresses

But first, I should mention- I’m a 2012 Contributor for Sew Weekly!  This week the first challenge was to post about our favorite garment from 2011.  I dithered a bit and chose Terra Incognita.  She’s pretty, she’s comfy, and I wear her all the time.  I’m excited by all the ideas for this year’s themes and it’s been interesting “meeting” the other contributors.  I never knew Brisbane had so many other sewing bloggers!  We’ll have to talk meetups later this year, for sure.

Lately, I find I’m drawn to weird 1940’s dresses, especially those that hold the promise of using little fabric (even less when I shorten the skirt), looking cute and feeling comfy.

What is this?  Square inset?  Double collars?  Why?  Is this what happens when wartime rationing forces you to use whatever bits and pieces of fabric you have to hand?  I’m not sure this is wearable today…

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Is it  plain old hideous, or an ingenious design restricted by rationing?  I do like shoulder tucks and the fly front is kind of cool.  I wonder if it would look better sans beret?

If I look at this any longer, I’ll be tempted to make it- just to see if it “works.”

This I can wear.  I like the unexpected neckline on and otherwise simple frock.  Note the gathers for the skirt are concentrated in the centers front and back, which would create a slimmer silhouette.  I like the black dress’ belt buckle.   Yes, I could easily see this in the floral printed linen I have lying around here… Or the navy and white spotted rayon from someone’s de-stash.

This envelope back is my desktop right now.  I can’t stop thinking about this dress.  It’s simple, and it’s weird.  With the gored back, kimono sleeve top and drapey front, I’m sure this would be flattering.  What if I mixed fabrics?

I like this.  I like this very much, perhaps with a shorter underskirt.

Do you think these dresses have any possibilities, or do I spend too much time on Vintage Pattern Wiki?


  1. 1940’s McCall’s patterns are the most imaginative I’ve seen. They’re quite unusual some of them! And I love them too. They have the most interesting little details. I’m currently eyeing one off on Patterns From the Past which I hope no one buys before I have the money for it.
    It’s got a deep V neckline (edged with buttons) and ‘external’ front darts that become what look like pockets below the waistline, tucked into pleats. WEIRD. But I want it.
    I think the last pattern you’ve got there is the nicest – It will look a lot better with a shorter underskirt definitely. Otherwise it will become too bottom-heavy.
    Vintage Pattern Wiki is so much fun too. I try and contribute with any patterns I have that are missing from there.

    • Please, please tell me you plan to sew it up. I have a big soft spot for those weirdy dresses.

      I keep going back and forth about the length of the skirt… Maybe the longer slim skirt underneath is more dramatic… I’d probably make it longer and then cut it off if it’s annoying…

      • So now I’ve bought the pattern I can release the image to all the internets (where it was before but you know ;-P)

        Ta da!

        It’s not even in the Wiki. I will add it when it arrives. I’m still not sure what to make it out of. Maybe some black & white polka dot rayon/cotton blend stuff I’ve got. I think I’ll make it cap or short sleeve and use contrast stitching to bring out those weird dart details (red of course).
        What do you think? Its quirky isn’t it?

  2. For ’40s patterns, I like them all! And I bet I could make all of them work on me – except maybe that last one. I think you have a fatal attraction to mullet skirts. It would be very striking in bi-colour though.

    I’m not sure if the first pattern is rationing approved – those are a lot of pleats! I’ll have to look up the American ration guidelines. I suspect they weren’t as strict as in the UK and NZ.

    • Yes, I think you’re right… They’d all work on you.

      Mullet dresses? Hehe. Funny, after reading that I went to bed last night and dreamed up any number of Goooooooorgeous mullet skirts… I’m tempted to try to sketch them for your amusement. :)

      Sometimes the pattern illustrations make gathering and etc look deeper than it is… I have a few dresses like that… Hmmm.

      • You and mullet skirts! Ah well, I have a fatal attraction to gilded fabric ;-)

        I’m thinking that standard knife pleats take 3 times as much fabric as a straight front, and even skimpy ones take over twice as much.

        I looked up a few articles on WWII rationing in the US, and it seems that by 1943 at the latest pleats were not allowed in manufactured women’s clothing, but I can’t find specific info on patterns. Mrs C has all my 40s reference books right now.

        • Yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever get that gilded fabric fixation of yours. ;)

          Without looking at the envelope back/instruction sheet, I think we just can’t know about the pleating. I still think it’s likely a flight of fancy by the illustrator who knows what women want to see versus what they know they can have…

      • On my little pattern cheat sheet it says the pattern is from 1941, so it probably was pre-rationing for the US, which is why it has so many wacky details. After rationing set in the pattern companies had to follow the same guidelines as ready to wear companies, and I can’t remember offhand, but I know our rationing wasn’t as strict as Europe at first but after a year or two they amended the regulations to be stricter.

  3. My favourite is the same one you chose, although something about the first one with the square inset is ingtriguing but I doubt it would suit me. I like your suggestion for mixing fabrics, too. You mentioned navy and white dots … I’m seeing navy on white mixed with white on navy. I saw an old Shirley Maclaine film from the 50’s recently in which she wore a black and white spotted outfit that I sketched because I loved it so much. One part was white on black and the other was black on white and she had red patent shoes, belt and bag. That look might be a bit dated these days, but I still like the idea. I don’t think you spend too much time at Pattern Wiki. It’s midnight on Saturday and I was just lurking over there looking at Hollywood waist pants.

    • OOooh it sounds lovely. I did a GIS (google image search) for the dress but no dice.

      I wonder how it would look if I used the white tencel I have lying around for the main part, and the navy with white polka dots for the drape? Or maybe the whole thing could be navy polka dots… Hmm… Now I’m getting all inspired to actually make a dress I don’t have time for! ;)

  4. Isn’t everything better sans beret? That last one has a bit of swishy wonderfulness without being too much material to live practically- I like the multiple color idea- oh, lets see it, please!

    • Soon, perhaps. I have some lesson plans to finish for next month and etc, but I see this dress happening before the end of the summer. So April ish at the latest…

      Or I may just have a small manic episode and stay up all night sewing it because that’s the kind of nutty thing that happens around my house occasionally and everyone’s ok with it. ;)

  5. I like the look of the first one but something tells me the square insets on me would say “Hey, World…look at my gut…No don’t look anywhere else…just my gut. Focus on it to the exclusion of all else.” The girl wearing that either has to have an awesome gut or she hopes the double collar will have the strength to pull the eye away….LOOK AWAY!

    • Hehehehhe. A little bit, it makes me think of the guy in Xmen who has that metal disc on his chest to focus his powers… Except this is a square…

      Now I’m off on a mental tangent thinking about a similar dress, but with a circular inset… Hmm…

  6. oh, I find them very intriguing.
    I am drawn to the last one, too – the top half of that dress is a silhouette I really need in my wardrobe, and as recall, similar to your Birds on a Wire top.

    And that drapey asymmetric skirt feature is a cool way to bring in some volume without overwhelming the figure. I REALLY like it. And the color block looks pretty brilliant to me.

    • Yes, that kind of top is so simple and useful… I’m sure I’ll get tired of them, but so far not so much….

      Thanks! The more I’m thinking about it, the more I want to make it up… Huzzah for blog-sewing-enabling comments!

  7. Very interesting patterns. My favorite is #3… it has a slightly bohemian “I want to go to the boardwalk and stick my toes in the sand” feel. The odd square paneling on #1 kind of reminds of stomachers from the 1700s. Perhaps, when it is all assembled, it actually makes one look slimmer in the front? I’d be more inclined to try out the stripey version verses the green and brown. A question regarding #2–does the “fly front” conceal buttons and then the skirt is all one piece (as in the buttons don’t go all the way to the bottom)? That’s the only way I can make sense of it! The Colette Sewing Handbook has a dress like #4 in it–shorter but similar in the sense it has a drape-y piece in the front. This version looks like a nod to the fashions of the Edwardian Era (early 1900s). I think that dress would actually look really neat two-toned… like mauve on raspberry red or lighter blue on navy blue or maybe even an apple green and a rich warm (not cool) emerald green…

    I’m also a contributor over at the Sew Weekly! New this year, did zip sewing last year (last year was a rough transition year for me, moving back to the States from living abroad and zero success in finding a job really zapped my creativity). BUT new year and I have new “intentions” (sew all my own clothing being one of them) so… huzzah!

    • You know, the “slimmifying” effect was my first thought, too. Especially since I’ve been toying with the idea of building “shaping panels” into dresses as part of the interfacing… Hmmm…

      I’m not sure if the fly front conceals buttons… The Zemelda Dress is from the early 40’s and has a fly front zipper… Maybe that’s what they did on #2 and also some decorative or semi-functional buttons? No idea.

      Two-toned I could see.

      Sounds like you’ve had a rough year. I had a hard time when I moved out here, which is a BIG part of what drove me to sewing a LOT, teaching and to blogging. It gives you something outside yourself to focus on- something you can control a little bit when everything else seems wild.

      I really enjoy your comments, thank you. :)

  8. Congrats on being a contributor this year!

    I actually really love the first dress with the double collar and inset. I would totally wear it :) There’s a WWII event coming up next month and if I owned that pattern I would totally make it for that. Out of the four posted that’s probably the only one that would work on my figure.

    • Thanks, Lauren! I could see you making something like that and looking FABULOUS at an event, but would you wear it in “real life”? Your figure could carry it off, too.

      I’d like to think I could pull something like that off, but I can’t quite see how it would work for running around getting errands done and going to meetings.. ;) For me it would probably not work, I’m sure it could be great for you. (make one! I want to see!)

      • Ha! Nope, not in real life, but I don’t sew much “real life” clothing. ;)
        I’d love to make something similar someday! Last year I went through a double collar obsession and never actually made a dress.

  9. Being immersed in 40’s stuff recently on account of this play, there is definitely a fascination with assymetrical and weirdness. Reminds me of Philip Treacy’s hats. The guy pushed the boat out on what constitutes a hat and now every hat by any hat designer looks like a costume from Midsummer Night’s Dream. So dresses are as little fabric and as much of what we see in movies all mashed up together without ‘an editing eye’ as Lord Tim would say.
    I find this little moment in fashion time interesting, especially as in the late 70’s there was a resurgence of 40’s inspired fashion and so the severe silhouette is in my formative mind. Although that was about short knitted tops and straight skirts with kick pleats, mostly. And snoods. And BERETS (I love berets, anyone who is rude about berets has to get past me grr) ;-)
    Will all look adorable on you!!!

    • Yes, an interesting moment indeed. I’m pleased I can “get away with” wearing more or less whatever I want. I love a good snood, too.

      Well… The beret in the illustration doesn’t do much for berets in general.. They can look quite nice but that just looks like an inkblot the designer dropped on the page and decided to style as a beret….

      I can’t make all of them, MrsC! hehehe.

  10. I like #2, it is just a basic non pretentious everyday work dress, I would wear it. Then again I wear whatever I like and don’t usually care what the “fashion police” have to say, This statement “I’m not sure this is wearable today…” doesn’t fit in my vocabulary, if it makes you feel good and you like the way it fits and feels and flows then all is good.

    I think #4 would be a nice dress if it fits your figure, I like the idea of different colors and/or different fabrics, I believe shortening the skirt would defeat the “look”. Kinda like taking leaves of of a flower… your only left with the head.

    • Oh, I’m sure the fashion police have been fired by a lot of angry citizens after years of oppressive brutality. ;) As for wearability, I suppose it goes down to fabric choice… I like old patterns, I like old styles, but I am aware there’s a line between “pulling off” a unique, pretty dress and letting that pretty, unique dress wear you. That line is different for everyone, depending on their social situations and personal preference.

      I could not agree more with what you said- “..if it makes you feel good and you like the way it fits and feels and flows then all is good.” I’d add that the weirder the frock, the better the workmanship should be…

      Also like what you said about the flower, that sums so well what I think when I see shop windows full of dresses that end a few inches below my crotch. Really? Where’s the rest of it? :)

  11. You know, I like the last one best too, though there are elements of the others I like, the square inserts in the first one, for example. Not sure why. Just do. No idea if it would wear right (because who is flat there anyway?), but interesting none the less. Sorry, not sure about the middle two …. something about them! Odd u shaped necklines etc probably Very weird, I agree with that! I wonder if anyone made them up?

    T’will be interesting to see what happens next. I will watch with bated breath?

    • Well, I don’t *think* I’ll be rolling up my sleeves and throwing these together right this minute, but I am turning my mind to weirdy 40’s styled dresses to make over the next several months… So yes, it’s likely you’ll see some of these designs (or the elements) later. :)

  12. I really like the first one, weird waist squares ‘n’ all! and lucky you to find you’ve other local sewing bloggers!
    ps hope your first consultation day went well – will be bearing you in mind if i run into problems

  13. I like all of these! Then again, this is precisely why I love 40s dresses (other than economical fabric use): interesting design details.

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