To meet someone for tea on a warm afternoon, Brigitte Bergman of South Pasadena has on a wispy, fluttery '30s floral georgette dress with shirring at the shoulders and down the sleeves. It looks for all the world like an antique. It isn't. It's one of about 20 garments Bergman has made for herself from the 100 or so vintage sewing patterns she has collected.
She, like home sewers of all stripes, has discovered that the best way to get exactly what she wants is to make it herself.
But what she and others like her want are the aesthetics of the past--the intricate geometric seaming of an Art Deco day dress perhaps or the feminine flounce of a peplum on a '40s suit or the fine tailoring of a '30s men's suit. And to get them, they are using vintage sewing patterns.
This is a pursuit that takes some sewing skill, to be sure. Before World War II, most home-sewing patterns did not have any indicia printed on them--they were just blank pieces of tissue with perforations to indicate such things as darts or what was to be cut on the fabric fold. Further, the directions are much skimpier than those of today. Some consist of little more than a series of sketches and arrows.
Pattern manufacturers then could make certain assumptions, says Mark Jones of Mark Jones Couture in San Francisco, who makes vintage-looking clothing, teaches costume classes at a Bay Area community college, and has about 4,000 vintage patterns of his own.
"One of the major ones was that women had learned to sew--all of them--the same way at home at an early age," says Jones.
Pattern makers assumed a home sewer could make bound buttonholes or that she would know how to proceed if the directions said simply: "regulation side-placket closing." (Translation: three snaps below the waist, two snaps above it, and a hook and eye at the waist, on a continuous lap placket.)
Today, making anything more complicated than, say, a simple '20s tube dress might take some research--classes, books and looking at old garments to see how they were made. Bergman and Jones, for instance, each started by restoring vintage clothing.
And there's the shopping: for the fabrics and buttons (often vintage) and the hard-to-find notions, as well as for the patterns themselves, that will give desired period effect. Finding that perfect '50s boomerang-print cotton or 12 cherry-red celluloid buttons takes hours combing yard sales, thrift shops, flea markets and specialty shows such as those devoted to crafts or paper goods or vintage clothing.
But that's all part of the appeal. A home-sewing project back then wasn't to be "a 'speedy sew'--it was to be beautiful," says Tamara McFarlane of Long Beach, who's partial to the '40s. "They didn't skimp on anything. It wasn't supposed to look like you made it yourself."
If there's such a thing as a sewing gene, Bergman was born with it. Her mother was a well-known dressmaker in her native Sweden, her father an upholsterer who specialized in restoring antiques. Bergman's own profession involves exacting detail--she makes teeth used in cosmetic dentistry.
But she loves any pursuit connected with textiles or needlework. She holds up a 1936 Vogue pattern for a coat with raglan sleeves that curve at the shoulder line, enthusiastically describing her plans to render it in a color-block look--perhaps white melton with black, or cerise with orange. "Won't that be nice?" It will indeed, and as timeless as a Balenciaga or Saint Laurent.
Equally classic is a favorite gold lame gown--modern lame that looks antique--that she made into a bias-cut sheath with shaped bust and spaghetti straps.
Still, for all her fascination with sewing of the past, she's no purist. She'll use modern technology such as a machine that sews seams, cuts and finishes them all at the same time "if I can save a piece of fabric" doing it that way.
Bergman relishes the research of it all--the classes at Otis, visits to libraries across the United States or in Europe, and anything in between. She happily devotes considerable effort to shopping for the materials that go into her projects--ribbons, braid, buttons. Seeing a shop or stall most would dismiss as unpromising brings out the contrarian in her. "You never know. You might find some old buttons in there.
"Can you imagine," she says, "spending $500 to $600 on a blouse and you come to a party and somebody has the same? That has never happened to me. Never. Never. Never."
Costumer Diane Crooke is inspired by the glamorous clothes from the Golden Age of Hollywood. On the wall above the sewing corner in her West Los Angeles apartment is a frame containing several '30s and '40s designs from a now-defunct company called Hollywood Patterns, whose envelopes for a time featured pictures of actresses such as Carole Lombard or Ginger Rogers along with the pattern illustrations.
These are "people I grew up watching on TV, the old movies," Crooke says. "I think that's one of the reasons I love doing this."
A shelf to the right of her industrial machine holds dozens of rayons and cottons in prints and solids, most of them vintage goods. Neatly filed in the storage boxes on the floor are her 300-odd vintage patterns.
Where did she get them? "Everywhere." But she prefers sources outside Los Angeles--they're cheaper. "For a while I did my own little mass mailing to the Midwest and the East to antique shops there, and in Texas and Oklahoma," asking whether they had vintage patterns. Now folks give her a call when they get something.
Crooke has put her patterns to use. On a dress form is a just-finished coatee from the early 1900s. Crooke wore it to an art opening. The fabric is a black faille with cutwork embroidery at the hem and collar.
Most of the things she's made are for day. For one, a square-neck dress design from the '20s, she combined contemporary and old fabrics, using a new navy linen for the body and a vintage blue floral for the sleeves. "I get a lot of compliments on it," she notes, "from men and women."
A contemporary pastel cotton Liberty print is made into a sweet '30s day dress using a crocheted-edge handkerchief points for the collar and pocket flaps. A '50s sitcom-mom circle-skirt dress with oversized cuffs on the short sleeves is made from a new-but-looks-old blue cotton daisy print. It's Donna Reed all the way.
She holds up a short red floral high-waisted dress from a late '30s pattern, noting that she'd seen it in an evening-gown version on Melrose Avenue.
Tamara McFarlane's appreciation for vintage clothing started with her first pair of '40s-style side-zip trousers. "They're just great-fitting pants," says McFarlane, who works at Meow vintage clothing store in Long Beach. But they're hard to find, she says, so she started stitching on her own.
"You can either dress them up--wear 'em with a jacket or a big ol' men's shirt; put 'em on with nice little sandals or with tennis shoes." She's not going for a strict period look here--"I just kinda coordinate with whatever else I have."
Lately, she's been experimenting with straight and draped skirts, using vintage rayon prints and modern rayon twills.
Jones, who specializes in vintage-looking clothing for women and men, says a significant portion of his work is based on vintage patterns.
"I've always loved '20s and '30s and '40s and '50s clothing," Jones says. His female customers, such as brides and businesswomen, are people who are "really tired of trying to find what they want at Macy's or Bullock's."
"They want something a little more unusual, a little more special. Lots of them are old-movie buffs--they've seen Jean Harlow in something or Ann Sheridan in something, and it stuck, and 'Gee, I wish I could get something that looked like that.' "
Jones adapts the designs to the '90s, making skirts a little shorter, shoulders a little more modern, "but still keeping the style points, like a seam that turns into a pocket or a wonderful series of pleats all sitting on one hip." (His prices range from $150 for a simple day dress to $3,000 for a wedding gown.)
His men's clothes are more strictly period, he says. He once worked with a tailor, "and I've got all his patterns now, going back to about 1915. Amazing things.
"Old-fashioned men's patterns are completely different than women's things--the way they're cut, the way they're used . . . . It was like opening myself up to a completely different school of thought."
What kind of man would want a custom-made suit that looks more like Astaire than Armani? Car collectors who want something appropriate to the age of their cars, according to Jones, or men who like the beautiful tailoring of '30s suits but can't find them in good condition. (Prices range from $90 for a shirt to $1,100 for a suit.)
Los Angeles designer Fayette Hauser sells a line of vests sewn from a 1950s Simplicity men's design to stores across the country. Many of these are made up in vintage upholstery or menswear fabrics, then decorated with interesting old buttons, pins and other odds and ends.
Hauser, who's been sewing since she made doll clothes as a girl, has made plenty of things for herself from her collection of 200 vintage patterns, in both old and new fabrics. For day, for instance, there's the amusing late-'30s V-neck dress of a vintage peach rayon printed with clouds and dragons. For evening, a lovely early-'30s short kimono jacket of a contemporary lightweight royal-blue velvet with a wine velvet collar and sleeve bands.
A favorite is a fitted mid-'30s hunter-green velveteen peplum jacket with a high collar, self-covered buttons, and leg o'mutton sleeves. "For me, that jacket crosses the barrier of period clothes to something that's really a classic," Hauser says.
"It can be worn with a lot of different things, dressed up or dressed down. If I wear it with a velvet skirt, it's dressy, and I add some necklaces to it. Sometimes I wear it with satin pajama-style pants. But I can also wear it with jeans or leggings and it still works."
More than a way to have something useful, sewing with vintage patterns connects those who do it to the past.
"Some of the things we take for granted in our lives--whether it's emotional feelings or sexual feelings--are projected in the clothing we wear," Hauser says. "With clothing from the past, the associations are completely different. You get the shadow of the feelings of these people--the way they related to their time is expressed in the clothing."