Monday, November 21, 2011

Building a Vintage Wardrobe: Dresses

As much as we all love novelty print dresses, they're not terribly versatile as the print generally makes embellishment superfluous. As you start building your wardrobe it's worth investing in one or two so-called 'background' dresses - solid-colour dresses, which you can accessorize for a variety of looks.

"Background" doesn't have to mean "boring": The background dress's simplicity means it's a blank canvas, and you can go wild with different colour schemes and accessories for a different mood each time. You can play with eras (with dainty gloves and a snood that shirtwaist is 40s; switch those out for a wide-brimmed floppy hat and knee high boots, and it becomes 70s) and adapt it to a variety of occasions (changing your shoes and hairstyle take a swing dress from casual to cocktail).

Solanah's sweater dress ~ Casey's broderie Anglaise sundress ~ My coduroy shirtwaist

When it comes to prints, polka dots, ginghams and plaids (choose monochromatics - which isn't to say neutral - for maximum versatility) are always very wearable. Great novelty print dresses can often be expensive, so it's usually best to be more sure of your style before you start investing. Figure out what styles work on your body shape: A 1940s or 50s shirtwaist is generally a safe bet for most figures; on the other hand you may find that (for example) dropwaist styles, shift dresses, high necklines or puff sleeves do nothing for you, so you'll know to avoid them.

The Shirtwaist

When it first appeared in the late Victorian era, a shirtwaist was a type of women's blouse ("waist" meant bodice or blouse) inspired by men's tailoring and free from the elaborate ornamentation that was common at the time. Gradually the term came to mean a one-piece dress with a shirt-like, collared bodice. Shirtwaist dresses can button from neck to waist seam, or through to the hem. Traditionally they are daywear, though 1950s versions in silk and acetate taffetas made the transition to cocktail wear.

The Pinafore or Jumper Dress

As you can imagine, this style was originally conceived as workwear, essentially an apron intended to protect the frock underneath. By the 1930s it had evolved into a fashion garment in its own right. It was popular during the 1940s (it was a perfect "make do and mend" project) and through the 50s in both slim and full skirted styles. The pinafore had a complete makeover in the late 60s and early 70s at the hands of designers such as Mary Quant, who created A-line, mini length versions and daring cutaway variations. Whichever era you choose, a pinafore/jumper dress is great daywear, which will take you from early autumn through to next spring just by changing what you wear with it (blouse, cashmere sweater, cardigan). Mine (made from the 1950s pattern above, but I drafted a new neckline) is a wardrobe staple. New Look currently has a perfect 1960s style mini pinafore which is seriously tempting me to introduce some of the 60s into my wardrobe.

The Peplum Dress

The fashion peplum has its origins way back, as a detachable flounce intended to give a little extra emphasis to one's bustle. Some flapper frocks featured similar flounces to their dropwaist dresses in the 1920s to add swish to their charleston, and peplum styles continued into the 30s. The 1940s saw a real heyday for peplum dresses exaggerating the nipped-in waist, with short peplums, long peplums, asymmetrical peplums, flounced and flat, draped and tiered peplums, peplums which tied sarong-style at the waist. In the early 1950s the peplum one-piece dress all but disappeared, though peplum suit jackets were wildly popular. Peplum dresses enjoyed a huge resurgence in the 1980s, then faded into obscurity during the 90s, only to re-emerge once more in about 2009.

The Drop-waist Dress

Drop-waist dresses are of course most closely associated with the 1920s, but by no means did they end there. Towards the end of the 20s waistlines moved back up toward the natural waist, and remained there through the 30s, but in the mid-40s a new style of dropped waist emerged, slim fitting over the waist and hips then flaring into an A-line or gathered skirt. These fitted drop-waist styles remained popular through the 50s. Fashion started de-emphasising the waist once more in the late 50s in the boxy silhouette associated with the "Mad Men" period, paving the way for a revival of the 1920s loose-fitting drop-waist. Late 60s and early 70s mod fashions featured drop-waists as an alternative to the simple shift. The drop-waist enjoyed another resurgence in popularity during the 1980s.

Princess dresses

A princess dress is one in which the shaping is achieved through vertical panelled construction, with no waist seam.


  1. Charlotte...I've been lOVING these posts! Especially this one! It's funny because I think of peplum and dropped waist dresses with a specific era but it's so interesting to see how it is interpreted in each of the decades! Thanks again for a lovely post!! xoxoxo

  2. Dresses are definitely something you need to know your body for. I can't do drop waist in any era, and to be honest, anything 20s dress-wise doesn't suit me. But Princess and Pinafore...both are very 'me' so I look to them for every era, 30s-modern. It makes shopping/styling so easy to know a style that suits you.

  3. So much eye candy! I love dresses and these are all so pretty! I have to say, the pinafore dress is my favorite for it's versatility, though.

  4. I have to say, though the 40s/50s tried to create its own "drop wiast" it isn't a true drop waist as you see in the 20's and 60's and even in the 80s.

  5. Thank you, I love your posts, they are so informative and wonderfully creative. Helps keep me on the right track.

  6. What a fab selection! I have one or two background dresses - which, unfortunately, tend to be black. Must get myself a nice red one!

  7. Very interesting and informative. Thanks for taking the time to gather all this information and make it easily available for us to read.

  8. Thanks for this post I really loved to see the dresses in different decades

  9. Love this post! I've been wating to create a vitnage-style wardrobe for ages, but have always been afraid I would make something in a style that wouldn't suit! Thanks!


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