One enjoyable aspect to having fashionable conversations is the associations it brings…
They can be personal – recollecting the occasion an outfit was worn at, historical – what was happening in the world at the time or creative and cultural – what it said about the fashion industry, for instance.
A few weeks ago, having a conversation about a burnt orange cotton dress made in Hull in the early 1960s made us think about textile and fashion illustration all over again.
The sketch is far away from what these days are called fashion flats – technical drawings of a clothing item.
Fashion flats – technical drawings
Fashion flats are the drawings you find on the back of sewing patterns. They are simple black and white line drawings that have no extraneous detail.
They describe the way the pattern pieces fit together in a technical way like the pieces of a puzzle.
The illustrations on the front of sewing patterns may seem more free and expressive and they are, but they have more in common with technical design than the expressive illustrations that come from a couture house.
Dressmakers, home sewists and couture workrooms
The sewist or dressmaker making up a pattern is doing the job that in a couture house would be handled in the sewing Workroom.
Filled with skilled hands with different areas of expertise they would make up the blocks to create the pattern, cut the fabric, and then do all the stitching and finishing.
Workroom staff interpret and complete a couturier’s design so a designer can be as free and expressive as they want in their fashion illustrations.
Home dressmakers need to ‘see’ the design and the technical specifications because they are doing it from start to finish on their own.
That’s mirrored in the style of illustration on the front of the pattern – although artistic it says clearly what the outfit will look like when it’s done.
Fashion illustration at The House of Mirelle
Doing this sketch reminded me of a conversation with someone about The House of Mirelle.
Their mother, Christine, had worked at Mirelle in the late 1940s – 1950s.
Christine was a designer. She’d attended Hull School of Art and by the time the War finished she’d graduated with a portfolio of sketches and designs.
They were not only beautiful to look at and an indication of her huge creative talent but also a snapshot of fashion illustration at the time.
Marjorie Field – 1940s Fashion Designer
Take a look at this gorgeous drawing from the designer Marjorie Field, from the 1940s.
It says everything about the prevailing expectations of beauty and the style of the late 40s and early 50s.
It shows that ‘beautiful’ meant being slender and tall. Despite the effects of textile and fashion rationing, drapey crepes and rayons were very popular and they suited these slender lines too.
Christine’s sketches of clothing from the same era were created to this ideal. The women in them were also tall and slender, the lines were graceful and flowing and the dresses were figure hugging and clingy.
They say everything about how fashion and beauty were intertwined and fashion illustrators were taught to express this stylistically in art school.
Early 1960s Fashion Ideal – Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn
Fast forward to the early 1960s when the burnt orange dress was made and the ideal of women’s beauty and the prevailing fashions had changed enormously from then.
Jackie Kennedy was pictured regularly in the international press, Audrey Hepburn too. They changed the perception of beauty and fashion across the globe.
Illustrating the burnt orange dress
The burnt orange dress was made in the early 1960s by a Hull dressmaker working from home.
There were many dressmakers in the city at the time, those who worked in the many retail outlets and fashion houses often took in dressmaking commissions to make more money outside of the 9 to 5.
When skilled dressmakers left work to get married or start a family, it was common that they continued making up outfits from home.
Sometimes those outfits were made to a pattern the customer brought with them and sometimes they were made from one the dressmaker already owned.
Stylistic adjustments were added or taken away and the skill of fitting and creating to a customers demands were similar to the bespoke service that was found in fashion houses. Because of this, it was a highly skilled profession.
I wondered what the burnt orange dress might look like if it was a sewing pattern…
In honour of the dressmaker’s skills I got out my sketch pad and, inspired by Jackie Kennedy, started again.
I’d been advised that the sleeves were shorter than my original sketch and the skirt was too but the neckline was spot on.
In this drawing I worked on the princess line and back with a shallow ‘V’. The textured cotton was raised, like bricks and that must have shown in the orange cotton.
I kept the style tight and more reserved just like Jackie ‘O’ would be.
Finally, I added a “60s Miss” title and a stamp saying “Designed And Made In Hull” and with that the imaginary sewing pattern envelope was complete.
We may never know who created the original dress, but this pattern envelope honours their work forever.
Here’s to the unsung heroes of dressmaking at home!
© House of Mirelle 2016