Sewing Dresses from the Teens Era

By Bridget Conlogue

The clothing of the early teens was quite lavish, with day and evening gowns featuring elegant drapery, embroidery, lace and handwork. Evening gowns were often heavily beaded and had square or pointed trains. The Great War began in Europe in 1914, with the U.S.A. entering in 1917. In cooperation with the somber mood the war created, in regard to their dressing "... women applied the simplicity and practicality they were encouraged to adopt. The earlier fashion plates -- 1915 and 1916 -- display the sunset of Edwardian froufrou."1 

The war opened doors of opportunity for many women, and fashions reflected a need for more utilitarian clothes for active women. "... simplicity of cut also meant a revival of home dressmaking ... "2 and "Paper patterns had improved, and the few pieces required to make a dress were quite comprehensible and easily assembled."3

To the modern seamstress however, these patterns can be quite puzzling. Today's patterns are written with the assumption that the person making the garment knows nothing about the fundamentals of sewing, while antique patterns were written with the assumption that the sewer knew all about plackets, facings, and finishings; and therefore, did not need instructions for such basics.

Bridget wearing a c. 1913 hobble skirt evening gown.


As simple as many teens dresses appear to be, the closure of these gowns can be quite complex. Day dresses generally closed in the center front, and evening gowns in the center back. From 1912-1920 the most common way to attach a bodice and a skirt and to close the dress was with a center back or center front bodice placket and a side left skirt placket. This was usually accomplished by mounting the bodice and skirt on an inner staybelt. The hooks and eyes travel down the bodice center front or center back, move left along the waistline and staybelt, then down the left skirt placket. Once you master this vintage technique, the rest of the project is quite straightforward. For a good illustration of this closure, I recommend After a Fashion by Frances Grimble. More on staybelts later.

If you need help with cuffs and collars and setting sleeves and making plackets, you can refer to a modern sewing book. The technique for attaching them is pretty much the same now as it was then. The seam that attaches the collar to the neckline, however, was finished with twill tape @ 3/8" wide, rather than with a facing cut from the dress material as it is now. Necklines of evening gowns in the first part of the decade were finished with twill tape as well. The twill tape formed a casing around the neck through which a drawstring was run to keep the neckline from sagging. The drawstring was tied at the center back and the bow hidden under the lining. Gowns with bodices made entirely of filmy net or chiffon of course would not be finished with twill tape.

Plan your construction approach carefully and allow yourself a generous time-frame, especially if you are sewing a dress from the first part of the decade. These often require more handsewing. The dainty, sheer fabrics that were extensively used throughout the decade will call for special handling, i.e., rolled hems, picot edges (if your machine can do this). The linings of bodices were frequently boned and fitted until @1914. Light boning was used in the later teens, but more often the lining was simply gathered to the staybelt as was the bodice. Bodices were almost always lined, but skirts frequently were not. Linings were made of plain lightweight cotton, silk net, and light silk. Hem tape was not used. Hems were turned up 1/4" and then turned up again another 2"-4" and hand hemstitched. Hems were often faced (especially skirts with trains). Hems and trains were sometimes weighted with small metal disks or weighted cloth tape. This gave body and extra drape to the skirt.

Kathleen Weaver wearing a c.1917 evening gown of pink silk net. The skirt has a
pleated silk underskirt. The bodice is not lined.


If you are using a reproduction of a pattern (such as those by Attic Copies), you would be wise to make a muslin first to work out any fitting problems or confusion you may have with the assembly. In her instruction booklet Drafting and Plain Dressmaking, 1915, Mary Picken advises two fittings for a dress. For the first fitting, the bodice is pinned and basted at the shoulders, then the sleeves pinned and basted, then the side seams. The same procedure follows with the skirt. It is then recommended that the seamstress observe the fit and make any necessary adjustments. The bodice and skirt are then stitched separately. For the second fitting, the bodice and skirt are joined. The hem is turned and the fasteners sewed on. These fittings are illustrated using the fashion fabric, but if you are uncertain about the pattern, it is probably best to do the fitting in muslin and make any corrections to the patterns pieces. Read the pattern instructions for clues (scanty as they are!) carefully and observe the pattern pieces closely for clues. When I use these patterns, I lay all the pieces on my living room floor and put them together in my head before cutting or buying anything. You will have to figure out what notions are required and how much yardage is needed for the lining. A combination of hooks and eyes and snaps is appropriate for the closure; zippers were not used on clothing until the 1940s. Buttons were for the most part decorative.

For dresses from the first half of the decade, a staybelt should be used. The staybelt made the raised Empire waistline possible. Though raised, the waistline was quite fitted in the early part of the decade. As the years progressed, the waistline loosened, but staybelts were still used. Sometimes they were omitted when a tight, boned lining was used. If you choose a style from the later teens with a loose waistline, you can probably omit the staybelt, just stitch the bodice right to the skirt, and pull the finished dress over your head. This works best with light fabrics. I made Attic Copies #9225 in this way in a light voile. For heavier fabrics, however, I recommend the staybelt to reduce bulk at the waist and for better hang of the fabric. Staybelts were made of cotton webbing or grosgrain ribbon, usually white in color. The width of the belt ranged from 1 1/2" to 4", the higher-waisted gowns having the widest widths. The staybelts of 2 1/2" or wider usually had darts to help shape them to the waist. I use grosgrain ribbon for staybelts as I have not found cotton webbing that would be suitable. To determine the length of your staybelt, take your waist measurement at the natural waistline. Factor in your corset (if you plan to wear one) and breathing
room (ease). Add 1" to each end for finishing. Turn each end of the ribbon under 1/2", then again 1/2" Stitch the fold, and stitch 2 or 3 hooks to one end and 2 or 3 loop eyes to the other end.

But how to attach the bodice and skirt to the staybelt? The staybelt is put on the dress form, with the closure at the center front or center back. The bodice lining is fitted or gathered to the outside of the staybelt. The lining is then stitched to the staybelt and the excess fabric below the stitching is trimmed. This process is repeated with the bodice fabric. The skirt with a left side placket is then fitted or gathered to the outside of the staybelt, then stitched to the staybelt. The raw edges of the bodice and skirt on the exterior of the dress are covered with a girdle, belt, or sash. Sometimes the pattern pieces and yardage required for the sash are included in the antique pattern, sometimes
not.

Ann O'Neill wearing Attic Copies #9225 in yellow and white voile. The bodice insert and collar are made of embroidered net.

Careful fabric selection is critical for reproduction clothing. Sadly, the many types of fabrics that women could choose from have disappeared or are available only to the couturier. One of the biggest challenges in making reproductions is finding fabric that looks appropriate for the era being focused on. From Drafting and Plain Dressmaking, I have compiled a list of fabrics that were used then and are still in fabric stores today:

From my experience with teens dresses: 

Evening dresses in the early teens often had tunics that were decorated with glass or crystal beads and sequins. Although most of us don't have the patience, time, or skill to hand-bead an overskirt and bodice, you can still achieve a very decorative look by choosing chiffons or nets that are embroidered, or woven with delicate metallic thread, for example. There was not as much emphasis on beading in the later teens, but the fabric choices were still similar. All-over lace for tunics was popular throughout the decade. Fabric stores carry bands of sequins, braids of metallic threads with beads, and strings of beads that can be easily applied to sleeves and skirts, etc., for a period look.

Two or three fabrics and colors were commonly used in one dress for day and evening wear. Lace trim was frequently used for day and evening dress, but, by about 1918, it was applied very minimally. Lingerie dresses and blouses with extraordinary handiwork and lace were worn throughout the teens. Tailored suits were a wardrobe staple.


Color should be given careful consideration as well. Mrs. Picken includes an extensive table of color combinations, in her booklet Harmony of Dress, a sample of which follows: 

Rita McNamara wearing a copy of a c.1912 dress. 

Rita's dress was copied from an original garment in the collection of the Lackawanna Historical Society in Scranton, PA. The original gown is amaethyst velvet with black trim. This copy is burgundy faille with velvet trim. The Society's home is a 1912 mansion, The Catlin House. All four photos were taken in the house. Rita is docent. This photo was taken in the Breakfast Room.

Finally, to be historically correct, you must select your pattern and the fabric in accordance with its intended use. Fortunately, Mrs. Picken also provides A Guide to Correct Dress for Social Functions--All Seasons, in Harmony of Dress so that you will be spared committing a major fashion faux pas by showing up inappropriately dressed (heavens!) for a given event. A sample of the guide thus follows:


Footnotes

1. Phillip Livoni, ed., Introduction, Russell's Standard Fashions, 1915-1919. Mineola, New York, Dover, 1996, p. v.

2. Norah Waugh, The Cut of Women's Clothes, 1600-1930, New York, Theatre Arts Books, 1968, p. 265.

3. Mary Brooks Picken, Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, Drafting and Plain Dressmaking, Part 2, Great Britain, International Educational Publishing Company, 1915, pp. 4-5.

4. Mary Brooks Picken, Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, Woolen Materials and Tailored Plackets, 12, Great Britain, International Educational Publishing Company, 1916, pp. 6-12.

5. Mary Brooks Picken, Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, Harmony of Dress, 11-2, Great Britain, International Educational Publishing Company, 1916, pp. 2-3.

6. Ibid., pp. 56-57.

About the Author
Bridget is a collector of antique and vintage clothing, and her favorite era is the teens. She is a volunteer at the Lackawanna Historical Society in Scranton, PA, where she assists with managing the society's extensive fashion collection.

Return to Articles
Return to Table of Contents