Finished Object: 50’s Dress and Useful Tips for Making One

Remember that lovely little pattern from Emma in Montana that showed up on my doorstep last week?

I went ahead and made her up for Sew Weekly’s “Mother’s Day” Challenge (without photo-shopping my grandmother’s face on the envelope).  I really think 1950’s fashions celebrate fluctuating mother-bodies without sacrificing style or mobility.  Check out my write up along those lines (including the cheap and dubious source of my fabric) on Sew Weekly.

Rather than double-post, I thought I’d offer a few tips for bringing a 50’s dress ensemble into the casual-modern age without causing a migraine:

  • Make the Bolero- But go down a size and Use a Knit

It’s been a little chilly around here lately and according to my Me Made May pledge I’m only wearing stuff made in the past 6 months.  I had some nice thick sweater knit cotton I picked up on sale a few months ago.  Perfect!  These little boleros often get overlooked in favor of the flashy dresses underneath, but I absolutely love them.  They work great for knits- this pattern was size 32 and I usually use a 34, but that’s just about right.  I fastened the CF with a trouser hook and bar because *this week* I like the uncluttered look of a buttonless front.  (I could make it overlap like the pattern envelope, but I like the way my dress peeks out when closed this way.)

worn with my hair bump and Dior Rose hairclip– you can make one too at Frock Out Night

Tip- instead of hemming or facing the lower edges or the sleeve hems, I just used my standard method for binding knit edges.  The bolero went together in no time.

Don’t Overcomplicate the Fit- And Don’t expect to look like the pattern Illustration!  No One Does!

It’s a fairly simple kimono sleeve surplice with gentle underbust gathers on a midriff band- nothing too tricky to fit.  Past Stephanie (from a year or so ago) would have agonized over a full bust adjustment and all that jazz, but Present-day Stephanie knows it probably wasn’t worth it for a relatively unfitted top.

Present-day Stephanie is a little lazier and more experienced.  I cut it about 5/8″ longer on the front bodice and 1/2″ wider at the side seams on all pieces.  I know the 1950’s size 32 back fits me fine, so I left it as-is.

  • Match Stripes One Piece at a Time:

I do love matching stripes, it’s not terribly difficult if I cut the pattern pieces one at a time instead of on a doubled piece of fabric.

Once I cut the first bodice front, I flipped it so it was right sides together with the remaining fabric.  The stripes on my duvet cover were irregular, so I took a little time to fiddle around and make sure the stripes on my pattern piece matched the ones on the fabric before I cut.  This makes stripes-matching very, very simple.

  • Side Zipper- Invisible, Extra Long and Upside Down:

With very few exceptions, I only use invisible zippers.  I like to insert them in the side seams of my dresses- that’s my preference.  If I haven’t mentioned it before, I live in a bastardly hot climate, and I used to HATE wriggling into my dresses on steamy afternoons when getting ready for evening classes.  Then, once the dress is on, I have to find my dresser husband to zip me up, or go through all kinds of yoga to pull the zipper up.  Irritating.  I “fixed” this problem by buying longer zippers (easier to get in and out) and by putting them in upside down.  I’ve been doing this for years now, I don’t know why I never mentioned it.  It’s much easier to pull a dress zip down than up.  I don’t know why.

We try to come up with “concepts” for taking photos, because standing around being posey makes me feel silly.  This time, Lila and I had a little picnic in the backyard, including some cottage cheese, egg and spinach muffins.  It was a blast.  (I made her little coat-dress, too.)

Do you wear/make 50’s style dresses?  Do you have any cool tips to share?  Don’t worry, I’m no stickler for period accuracy…


  1. As I said a little earlier – your dress and bolero are gorgeous! But I love your zipper tip too! I am going to have to give it a go because there is no dresser or husband here and my teddy bear is lovely but he’s just not that talented!

  2. You mention overcomplicating the fit. Oh boy, have I done that. Tho most times I can defend my the amount of time I spend on fit, I wonder at what point I’m just making more complicated than it had to be. I do have a 42″ bust… Love your 50s vibe!

    • Well generally the simpler the fit ( under bust gathers on a high midriff are pretty simple) then the simpler the alteration should be… I have been known to GROSSLY over complicate simple projects… My full bust is between 36-39 (different every day) but high bust is 34 so that’s usually what I start with… I got away with being lazy because it’s a relaxed fit to begin with….

  3. This is gorgeous Steph – 80’s? doonas never looked so good! I have a fab one with swans on it – could be fun for a 50’s style??! What a great tip about the upside down invisible zip – except I hate putting them in – must revisit them – have the foot and everything. You know I love 50′ style – my tip would be – always make a toile – but I am a size 16 so they are usually never going to fit me first go! And I’m tall (175cm) so I need them to be longer – otherwise the bodice is too short. Great job!

    • Yeah, this is a much better use of the fabric than lying on a bed somewhere …

      Oh!! Do the swan dress! It would be so cool!

      I’m working on an invisible zipper lesson in video form, I just have to get my husband to help out with the camera once I dont sound like a dying cane toad… :)

      • Even non-invisible zippers work better installed “upside down” in a side seam: they are far less likely to unzip themselves as you move about during the day when you pull them shut from the top and open from the bottom. You can probably guess how I know this … not a pretty visual, let me assure you.

  4. What do you mean we can’t look like the pattern illustration? That’s very disappointing!! I thought just the fact of buying one of these vintage patterns would make my waist vanished and my feet turn triangular..

    • I wore a cute little fifties dresss aty wedding too! Just practice getting used to the petti and you’ll be fine. Why a starched one? Tulle works great, it’s cheap and loooow maintenece. There’s a great tutorial at Hectic Eclectic. :) Mozzeltav!

      • Thanks for the advice! My friend did a lot of traditional dancing as a child in Hungary and her Mum and Nana would starch the petticoats for her costumes, which is what gave me the idea. Tulle it is! Will let you know how I get on.

  5. Looks fabulous! I also am an invisible zip kinda gal. Haven’t done them upside down – but I like your logic! Pattern/stripe matching is so much easier when you cut one at a time :)

    • Thanks Zo! :) I really don’t like the look of lapped zips… I mean, they aren’t like that I the shops right? But then again, I’d never find the kind of stuff I like to wear in the shops anyway…. Hmmm..

  6. So it’s ok,m to not look like the illustration??? Bless you, Stephanie! I’m also stealing the upside down zipper insertion- what a brilliant idea!!

    • Heh…. I know, I know it’s super obvious but I REALLY struggled with that when I first started sewing vintage… Those pattern illustration minxes used to make me feel fat.. ;)

  7. This is absolutely gorgeous! This dress makes you look like an old time Hollywood starlet. I might have to hunt this pattern down somewhere

    • Ooh you’re so kind! I was thinking of giving away this pattern anyway, I don’t like to hang on to vintage patterns and I got this one for free.. Maybe with the stipulation it not be sold, but passed on? :)

  8. Such a great dress–the stripes are really fun and it flows so nicely on you. I love the added bolero too–that’s one of my favorite colors. I like the idea of upside down zips too–I just did that on some pants thinking if I wanted to vent the bottom I could have the option.

    I’ve never successfully attempted a vintage pattern before because of the whole sizing issue. Now that I have some TNTs under my belt I feel like I could maybe tackle one with less fear.

    • Thanks! I’m such a sucker for stripes…

      Well, if you make a muslin, it should be ok. At least then you didn’t ruin any pretty fabric, right? (I guess this could qualify as a muslin, I paid a whole $2 for it…)

  9. This turned out so well! I love how these dresses look on other people, but I’m not sure if they’d look good on me, so while I’m in Boise today, I’m hoping to go to a few shops and try on this style. If it looks good, I’m totally making one for myself. Thanks for all your fun inspiration, I really enjoy reading your blog!

    • Yeah do try it out… I’m not wearing any petticoats here (the early 50’s don’t seem to need them, besides the front of the dress is pleated and the back is not…) and it’s shorter than your usual 50’s skirt. :)

  10. What great tips! Zippers upside down –that’s like the world going from flat to round! And the dress looks wonderful on you. When/if you have a moment, could you direct me to your standard method of binding knits? I am gathering courage to dip my toe in the knit fabric water…

    • Hehehe. The first time I did it, I looked around for the sewing police, then I realized it was MUCH easier to zip up. Zip down, I mean. ;)

      You know, I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly posted about the way I bind knits. It’s in my patterns, including the Blank Canvas Tee pattern but I have yet to explain it fully… Tonight’s post!

  11. The dress is gorgeous! I really like it! And the bolero is a great touch! I love the idea of a knit bolero– I think a woven version would be way too formal for me, but I would actually wear a knit one! Great idea! And Lila’s little jacket is so sweet!

    • Yes, that’s just it- a knit one will get worn more… For some reason, my 2012 brain equates a woven bolero with “Too Much Effort” but a knit one seems easy to wear and get along with… ;) Thanks! She likes her little coat dress.. I’m still not sure what it is really, just a whim from last winter. I do like to indulge her funny little whims.

  12. What a lovely dress, and your little picnic looks like great fun! I still haven’t gotten around to starting on my 50’s dress yet (note to self must get on with it!) X

    • Aw thanks. We do try to have a good time. :) Today we’re going to a sushi train to get photos of Lila’s Japanese print deer dress… We sort of plan a weekly event around photos, but we do have fun with it..

      Let me know when you make it, I’d love to see what you do. :)

  13. Yay for 50’s era striped-sheet dresses! I love how you did yours with the thick black stripe on the skirt. And you’re right, matching stripes is pretty painless when you cut pieces one at a time!

    • Yeah! Synchronicity! :)

      I secretly really really love matching stripes. I know I’m supposed to hate it but I LOVE a dress with nicely matched stripes. Does it get any better? I think not… ;)

  14. First of all, I’d just like to say I love how your blog header changes with each post. Do you do that manually, or is it part of your script/program/language – y’know, whatever you call it to make the page look the way it does? Secondly, I LOVE your little one’s coat! What a great outfit! And lastly, I love the 50’s silhouette – although I can be a bit dissatisfied with not-so-period-perfect waist that I own. But I find a nice flouncy petticoat helps, and is a LOT of fun to wear!

    • Sometimes manually, sometimes not. :) I’m a really changeable person at times, I think flipping the header around helps me not change the background colors and fonts every few days…

      Last winter, Lila wanted a “tiger coat.” I took her to the shop and let her choose from a variety of minky and she chose a leopard print… I also made her a tail. It was for a kid’s themed party but she likes wearing it stil sans tail.l.

      Meh- I think women in the 50’s liked to look at over-stylized figures just as much as we do. It’s the Puffin effect. I should write about that. I like a good petticoat too, but I was definitely not wearing one with this dress- the front is about twice as full as the back, I thought it would look super weird.

  15. Both pieces are awesome fun! I don’t have a problem with back zips, but then my arms are the only flexible part of me… I can’t say I’ve really given the side zipper a fair shot, though. :)

    I find my little bolero SO handy. I wish good sweater-knits were easier to come by, because I could really use about five. All the ones I find here are dry-clean only (for realz) and way expensive…

    • How much do you need for your little bolero? I know, I’ve made one too but I forget… I have about .6m of the sweater knit left, sitting there forlornly on my sewing table… Say the word and it’s on its way to you, lovely lady…

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  17. Love the dress! Do you have any recommendations for 50s style dress patterns that I can breast-feed in? I am just starting to sew and have been looking for something similar to this, but maybe with front buttons.


    • Thanks, Julie. :)

      I’m not sure… This is a “surplice” front- that’s the crossover. I haven’t tried it, but I’m pretty sure I could breastfeed in a top like this. Especially if I made it out of a knit. Look for button fronts, also Colette Patterns’ Parfait- I made mine with a half-circle skirt for more coverage, it’s a nifty and comfy little top. (Sometimes I go braless in it, works quite well, very supportive…) Hope that helps! If you have any construction issues, you can email me photos and I’ll do my best. :)

  18. What great lateral thinking – upside down zips – love it! And all the other tips – including not expecting to look like the cover minxes – guilty, your honour :)….. so obvious but hey guess we’re all guilty of it…you really come up with the coolest stuff.
    I’ve tried mid to late 30s (my favourite styles), 40s, and 50s patterns – and you are so right, 50s are the most forgiving. I made a couple of “magyar” sleeved (kimono!) dresses for winter – long sleeved – one in a wool with some stretch, the other with no stretch factor, a light gabardine – so comfortable to wear, and surprisingly mobile, even with no gusset. Not very wide either – certainly not a batwing as I think of them as someone who was around during the Awful Eighties – easy to wear a jacket with rather fitted sleeves on top. They’re great.

    • They sound like it, and I believe it. Fully. I like the 40’s for utility wear and the 30’s for chic-ness, but the 50’s are sort of a lovely marriage between comfort and utility. Mostly. I’m talking about casual wear only here…

  19. I NEVER would have thought to put the zipper in upside-down – that is BRILLIANT (and, er, sorry for overusing the capslock there haha, I’m just excited about this discovery!).

    Fabulous dress, by the way – it look so cool & summery, & the stripe matching is perfect.

    • Thanks! :) Let me know how you go with the upside down zipper. :) (Is your screen name pronounced “Yadybird” or “L-Ladybird”?

    • Ebay? Etsy? An estate sale? A fine purveyor of vintage patterns? I’ll be hosting a giveaway of this dress pattern later this week, check back! :)

  20. I love what you’ve done with this dress. The stripes look awesome. The fit is perfect (yay! for not overcomplicating things). The bolero is adorable. And upside down zips…what a spectacularly brilliant idea.
    Also, your little girl is just too adorable for words! What a cutie!

    • You know, I adore overcomplication… It’s a sickness. But it does turn out SO well not to make it hard, doesn’t it? ;)

      Thank you. I’m pretty attached to her.

  21. ooOOoo! I really like how you handled the stripes, especially in the skirt! You’re so creative. :)

    I haven’t made a 50’s dress, but I’m starting to consider it. I haven’t actually made many dresses, and most of the ones that I have are sort of shapeless sacks. I would like to do a more fitted dress with a wider skirt. Hmm, maybe after I move…to the Yukon…where I probably won’t wear much dresses…*facepalm*

    Thanks for the tip on the side zip! I’m still learning to deal with those, and I’ll keep it in mind to sew it in upside down next time I need to attach one.

    • I used to play a gold prospecting game when I was a kid, set in the Yukon… Like Oregon Trail, but more drinking and bloodshed. Are you going prospecting?

      Thanks. :)

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  23. Damn, that zipper thing is a REALLY good idea! I’m going to have to add you to my crafty genius list for that one. This dress is gorgeous! I haven’t sewn a dress with a full skirt, but my circle skirt is making me reconsider.

  24. The 50’s are growing on me. I always liked the style, but never imagined I could pull it off. I never wore or liked RTW dresses, but my custom sewn dresses are another story, making me rethink dresses in general and 50’s dresses, too.

    I really like the stripes on this, especially on the bodice, even if they are subtle. You make the ensemble look very modern-wearable, too, most likely because you DON’T look like the pattern envelope (a good thing!).

  25. Question re upside down zipper. Do they open at the top? Are you putting in skirt waistbands, for example, where you need the waist to open?

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  27. Upside down zip? GENIUS! What a fantastic tip. Hello Steph, I have just come across your blog via Tilly & the Buttons and it is great. While I love vintage and am very picky about being true to the era/style/whatever when buying it, I believe sewing it gives one creative licence, hence the upside down zip is in my next project :) Besides I am sure all those practical ladies of yesteryear would approve of such a genius idea for when your dresser is unavailable.

    • Thanks. :) I have a dresser, but he can be a bit handsy if you know what I mean… ;) The upside down zip works really well, I’ve done it on I-dont-know how many dresses. Hope it works for you!

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  29. Why is it easier to zip down? I’m guessing gravity has something to do with it – you’re zipping with the weight of the garment. :-)

    • I’m not sure it’s gravity, more like the shape of my arm and the way arms work, it seems to be easier to zip down than to zip up at the side seam. Try it. :)

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  31. Stumbled onto your blog by pure accident. What a fantastic find. Congrats on your dress – it is gorgeous. LOVE the idea of the upside down zipper – simple genius. I crochet and embroider. I have a stunning 50s dress pattern for which I’ve bought the fabric – my first ever vintage dress and first time using a a sewing maching in decades. Scary. Your blog has inspired me to get started. Thank you ;-))

    • Thanks, June. :) Go sew! Have fun! I’d suggest maybe sewing something smallish if it’s been a while, to get you used to fabric and machine again. Even just scraps and testing the stitches and sewing sample seams, I always do that when I haven’t sewn for a while. It’s a great confidence builder.

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