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Vintage Dress Patterns: Window to the Past

To my dismay, we live in an era where pajama pants & house shoes are not only acceptable attire for shopping excursions to Wal-Mart, but de rigueur as an airport outfit when travelling. As my grandchildren would say, "Sad, Sad". Our mothers and grandmothers made an effort to dress up when they went out AND made their own clothes to boot!

Straw hats

These talented, resourceful, and fashionable ladies wisely knew the impact that "looking good" had on "feeling good". We might call this philosophy "fake it until you make it". Did they always feel as polished and put together as they looked? Well, No. Did they feel like putting forth the effort to dress and put on their makeup before going to the mailbox? I'll bet they didn't, but they weren't going to give up or give in by looking like a slob at the Piggly Wiggly. My mom still puts on her makeup my Nana said that is what you do!

Fabric Therapy

“She was an accomplished seamstress with box after box of old patterns: Butterick, McCall's, Simplicity. ”

When my grandmother died in 2018, we went through that painful but beautiful process of pouring through her home and belongings. The "front bedroom" was her sewing room. She was an accomplished seamstress with box after box of old patterns: Butterick, McCall's, Simplicity. From our 1970's births to 1980's high school graduation, Nana made countless Easter dresses with pinafores and Swiss dots, taffeta prom dresses, bubble jumpsuits, and Laura Ashley-style prairie dresses with lace collars.

Nana paid for me to go on a class trip to Europe as my high school graduation gift. As a bonus, she made me a wool black and white hound's-tooth coat with a hidden zipper pocket to hide my passport because it would be cold and there would be pickpockets. Naively fearless, I did not take advantage of the secret pocket. Had I utilized this safety measure, I would have avoided losing my wallet and passport in a taxi in Paris. As usual, Nana was always thinking ahead.

As I flipped through boxes of her old patterns, I seriously wondered if she ever cringed when sewing designs of our gaudy '80's trends when, just decades earlier, they dressed in beautiful fabrics, tailored designs, and accessorized with matching gloves, hats, shoes, and handbags. Probably. Yet, she lovingly created hideous outfits for her children and grandchildren and acted like we looked cute.

Pure Class

My grandmother was born in 1919. She lived through The Great Depression and life was not easy. She made tremendous sacrifices, as did her siblings and many others of her generation. They don't call them the "Greatest Generation" for nothing. Unlike our existence, it took effort to survive, much less to look fashionable. In spite of the times in which they lived, my grandmother had a desire for a career in cosmetology and loved fashion. She could look at a page in Vogue or take in a store window in downtown Birmingham, AL and copy the design. When I was kid, she and I would stroll through the Gadsden mall on Saturday nights and she was always content to "window shop". You know why? Because she had the ability to recreate anything she saw in the windows. Today, we consider it an inconvenience to leave our home to shop for ready made clothing. The notion of going to a fabric shop, purchasing material, and sewing an outfit is unheard of.

In Tatters

“It is then you realize you are holding a treasure

Many of Nana's patterns are so old they are tattered and fragile. Those are the ones with suits with peplums, and pants with bell bottoms. These are the ones featuring ladies with 26" waists. The tissue paper inside the envelopes are used. It is then you realize you are holding a treasure. You have the patterns that were once cut with precision. These were the blueprint for a fashion plate that made her own clothes out of necessity, and then were lovingly placed back in the envelope for the next person that wanted to use the pattern. In most cases, no one else used the pattern, but it was kept none the less.

Spoiled Rotten

As I examine dress patterns that are so fragile from age, I realize most of us Generation X and Millennials are as fragile as these patterns. We have no idea how to take raw materials and create something. We are so spoiled that we expect to order our clothing from online sources and now think it an inconvenience to even walk into a clothing store. I am so spoiled rotten that I lie in bed, scroll through hundreds of options, place my choices in a cart, and apply my thumbprint to the screen...and voila, my order is placed and will be delivered to my doorstep.

I encourage anyone that has stuck with me to this point to examine your life. No joke. Stop and consider how incredibly spoiled we are and save yourself. Grab your grandmother's dress patterns. If you don't have patterns available, good news! They are available to buy from Etsy, eBay, or an estate sale. Nab an awesome vintage sewing machine, get some thread, fabric, and start working on restoring order to our society, civility to our airports, and flair to our mailbox and grocery store visits!


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