Flapper dress

Posted by on Apr 10, 2013 in Design, Historical Costuming | Comments Off on Flapper dress

I was super excited last month to receive an invitation to a friend’s roaring twenties-themed birthday party. I might have jumped up and down a bit. I do love me a good theme party.
I spent a good month planning the perfect dress. I wanted to do something with stripes, to coincide with the historical sew fortnightly challenge ending the week before. Alas, there was an ordering snafu with the online fabric store and my fabric did not look likely to make it in any way soon enough to use. In the end it got to me Friday afternoon before the party on Saturday.  By Wednesday before the party, of course, I had to start sewing SOMETHING.
Not wanting to buy more fabric, I tried to figure out what to do last minute with what I had. I didn’t have an awful lot that would work for evening wear. Period. Let alone for the drape-y, loose styles in the 20s. The only thing I could come up with was an old sequined silk skirt of my grandmother’s.  I’m not sure how old it was as the elastic at the waist was all stretched out but the rows of machine-stitched flat sequins were clearly modern plastic material.  Could be from anywhere from the 70s on, I expect.  I pulled out some black polyester velvet that I bought on sale from the remnant bin, which I expected to have a fairly stiff hand.  In fact, it had a better drape than I expected, so I threw it into the mix.


Shiny! In a borrowed bowler hat.


I looked at a lot of period dresses,as well as the booklets “The one hour dress” and “Easy ways with pretty frocks”, which I purchased from Emailed Vintage Patterns, in order to come up with the dress pattern.  In the end I didn’t have much time so the dress was made pretty simply.  The bodice is basically a 36″ wide tube of velvet with the wider tube of sequined fabric pleated onto it to fit.  It is open under the L arm and closed with a ribbon lacing (I wanted hook-and-eye tape but none was available locally, so I improvised).  The straps are inspired by a dress Edith wore in Downton Abbey’s last season.  The side openings and the top are faced with bias tape and quilt binding in a lovely crimson color.

The side detail I also got from my grandmother.  It was pinned onto a terrible sequined elastic 80s style headband.  I’m not sure what it was meant for, or what it was originally, but I thought it matched well.  I glued it on with fabric glue, but will have to be stitched on eventually.  The sequins on the top were originally the belt of the skirt.


I tried a marcel wave, but as you can see it fell flat. Also, I make the most ridiculous faces when people photograph me.

I made the headband out of two leftover strips of velvet sewn together onto some ribbon.  I added a cheap feather detail that I picked up at the local fabric store when looking for hook-and-eye tape, and hot glued on some pearl and crystal beads.   I did this at 4pm or so the night of the party.   The whole thing was covered in hot glue, and it was quite a mess, but under low light nobody was going to notice.


Isn’t my husband an amazing photographer?

What I love:  I was able to finish this fairly quickly.  The overall shape/pattern would have gone together in a few hours if not for the materials used.  It gives a period sillouhette but has the “glitz” that people expect of a flapper costume.  Honestly, this was probably a better fit for the party than the original dress I had planned.

What I learned:  I have never sewn on velvet.  It is a (if you will excuse the acronym) PITA.  It slides around, it ruches unpredictably when sewn to the bias binding, and you can’t really unpick it because the act of stitching ruins the pile.  The good news is all the things I thought of to do (use a stabilizer.  decrease the tension.  decrease the pressure foot pressure.  baste.) are good ideas.  The bad news is I didn’t do most of those things (other than decrease the foot pressure) but just powered through it, screaming at the fabric.

I have also never sewn with sequined fabric.  This fabric was particularly difficult because it was already sewn to a lining, and it was slippery and hard to get a straight line.  I spent HOURS clipping off sequins, trying not to pull a thread that would unravel an entire row of sequins.  It was not fun.  And I kind of hate this gaudy all-over sequin look, so I probably won’t be sewing with sequins again any time soon.

Ribbon lacing is probably best done with the laces on the outside of the garment.  I didn’t do this because I wanted an “invisible seam”.  Instead I got a seam that puckers and gapes.  Oh well.  I’m hoping a few strategically placed hook-and-eyes will fix the gaping.  It is still in a very awkward place to tie.

You can’t make a tube that is several inches larger than your upper chest and expect it to sit right on a sleeveless dress.  Maybe if it had been a really really drapey fabric it would have been OK.  In the end I put in an inside-out box pleat in the back to take in the extra room.  We’ll call it a “design feature”.  Next time I need to plan for a narrower upper chest if making a sleeveless tubular garment.  It seems it might pull tightly over the bust, but I guess the 20s silhouette called for a flattened bust anyhow.  As long as it ends above the hip points I can cut the skirt with pleats to accommodate my wider hips.

Love it or leave it?:  Eh.  For historical accuracy it gets few points.  Plastic sequins weren’t invented for years after, and it is unclear to me if celluloid sequins were even widely available in that era.  Seems like most sequins were metal or possibly shell.  The all-over sequin look doesn’t appear to be particularly common (except maybe in 70s-80s reproductions).  Modern polyester velvet doesn’t really have the same soft hand as period silk velvet, so the overall drape of my garment is a little too stiff.  But it looks pretty.  If I were in this situation again I would probably have tried to find some passable polyester charmeuse and draped a Vionnet style dress.  But I’m not sorry I made it, and I will probably wear it again given another flapper party opportunity.  I will still plan on making my original brown-and-blue striped dress, but it might turn out as more of a day dress, and I can wear it to the Gatsby picnic someday if I can make it up to the bay area.  Someday.