Sunday, July 14, 2013

Old Hollywood Glamour: 1930s White Bias Cut Evening Gown

I always like a good excuse to make and wear a historical garment. A murder mystery party set in 1936 that my housemate decided to throw was the perfect opportunity to make another 1930s evening gown.

I have previously made an early 1930s dress in red. However, this time I wanted to make one in a light colour that was so popular on Hollywood actresses such as Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard during the period, especially as my assigned character was an American actress.

Carole Lombard, 1933

Jean Harlow, 1933

Paulette Goddard, 1935

Marion Davies, mid-1930s

At first I wanted to do something similar to the white dress that Reese Witherspoon wears in Water for Elephants.

But then I sketched this design (to which a slit in the front was later added):


I used the reproduction 1930s pattern I had made previously to help draft my own for the skirt of the dress. I still wanted the same drape that this patter provided, just different seams. So I created a mock-up from scrap material using this pattern and then drawing in where I wanted to seam lines, before cutting it and then using these as the pattern pieces. Whilst the top of the dress was drafted completely from scratch.


For this project the drafting was the hardest part. Not only did I have to do a mock-up but the original fabric (which was a non stretch silver-white satin) and the original design, with the curved hip seam lines, didn't work - after I'd spent at least a day sewing. Why? Because the fabric frayed A LOT. In fact there was so much fraying that the dress just started to split at the seams.

So, I was forced to start again. Eventually I decided to go with something different, which was hard because there were too many design ideas in my head to choose from! So I told myself that I had to just pick something and make it. Finally I settled on creating something similar to this gown from the film 'Glorious 39'.

Glorious 39 Screencaps courtesy of The Butterfly Balcony

It ticked all the boxes: it had a slit up the centre of the top like I originally planned, and it also had a halter neck type effect, without actually being one. Not that halternecks were uncommon in the 1930s. In fact the 1930s was when the halterneck became big... really big, and was popularised by famous designers such as Madeleine Vionnet. 
Evening Gown by Madeleine Vionnet,  1936-1938
I just decided against the halterneck because I wanted to have a really deep plunging back that was also popularised during the 1930s.

My 'Glorious 39' inspiration is also very period accurate and certainly reminds me of a few contemporary dresses from the mid 1930s.

Joan Crawford, 1935

The new fabric I chose was a bright white stretch satin (the same type I previously used for my other 1930s dress). The dress is cut on the bias, as most evening gowns were during the 1930s, and this makes it hug the curves, drape spectacularly and the stretch makes it easy to put on over my head  (I didn't want to put an invisible zip into the dress as it is not historically accurate to my knowledge).

I tried to research whether stretch satin was common in the 1930s - after all it was the decade when synthetic fabrics such as rayon became really popular. I think my fabric is made from a polyester blend, and this fibre wasn't used in clothing until the 1940s. So the fabric is probably the least historically accurate part of the dress, but I wasn't about to go out and spend $100+ on silk.

Rather than throwing it away I decided to cut up my fraying dress and use it to draft the final gown:
Pattern pieces made from the failed first dress before the cutting
After all the hassle I'd been through previously the new dress went together like a dream. I decided against lining the whole dress and only lined the top section with a nude coloured lining.

Side seam detail on skirt

After all the hemming was done I finished it off by adding an antique silver marcasite brooch that I inherited. I think its probably from the 1940s, but hey that can be our little secret!

The only thing I regret about the design is that where the top meets the skirt under the bust, it forms quite a straight line whereas in most of the designs during this period the skirts met the top in a 'triangle' shape like this:
McCall's pattern # 9919 from 1938

Regardless, it doesn't take away from the authenticity of the dress as many other designs from the period show that the bust of the dress was connected to the skirt without forming this triangle shape, like Wallis Simpson's wedding dress below.

Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, 1937
Overall I love this dress and besides a couple of tiny sewing errors that you would only notice if I pointed them out, this is probably one of the best things I've made to date. So without further adieu I give you my 1930s Old Hollywood Glamour white bias cut evening gown (complete with my attempt at old Hollywood posing!):

Just because we could...

And one from the murder mystery party...
The 1936 Watersdown Murder Suspects...

The Challenge: #15: White
Fabric:  4 metres of white stretch satin, 0.5 metre of nude coloured lining
Pattern: I drafted my own pattern with the help of an original pattern c. 1930 from the Vintage Pattern Lending Library [link].
Year: It could really work for nearly the whole decade. However its probably most accurate to the mid 1930s.
Notions: White thread and an antique silver marcasite brooch.
How historically accurate is it? The fabric I used isn't historically accurate as its a stretch satin made from  a polyester blend (silk olamé would have been better). The lining isn't accurate either. 85-90% accurate.
Hours to complete: If you include all the drafting and the first dress I made that failed probably about 20 hours.
First worn: To a 1930s murder mystery dinner party.
Total cost: $60 for the finished product + $26 for the fabric that went into the failed first dress.


  1. I almost made the same:)
    Your version is very beautiful.

  2. Faboulous dress and blog post. You really nailed it! Your drss is amazing and I loved looking at all your pictures!

  3. Have U ever seen the dress Mryna Loy wears in The Rains Came 1939
    the white dress where she meets Tyrone Power now that's a dress.

    Naomi Doudera

    1. Hi Naomi!
      I haven't seen that film, but having googled it just then I came across the dress you're referring to, it's beautiful!

  4. Many girls want to sports a retro look to appear different at an event. The pictures will surely help many readers in deciding the best 1930s look without doing any extra research.

  5. I am so happy to find this! I've spent most of the morning researching bias cut *stretch* satin. It is so hard to find information on it and someone that actually has done it. And done it well! Congrats! My questions pertain to overall stretchiness of bias cut stretch fabric. Did you find that it altered your pattern measurements vs. straight grain to compensate for lengthening and narrowing and if so how? And did you have to adjust your SAs? I've seen a lot of people saying that you have to have wider allowances with bias cut. Did you cut lining on bias as well? I hope my questions make sense. Any advice and tips would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    1. Hi ElleB!
      Thanks for your comment. :)
      In regards to the pattern measurements, the mock up that I had done using non-stretch satin was actually a bit tight (which is why it probably frayed so much as the seams). When I decided to re-make it in the stretch satin I didn't alter the fit of the pieces at all because I knew that the stretch of this fabric would be more forgiving! So I guess I didn't really alter the pattern at all, I suppose my advise would be that if the original pattern is a little tight or hard to move in (esp. arond the hips and butt) in the original non-stretch material that's OK because when you make the same in a stretchy material will fit really nicely.
      With the seam allowance, I just left the normal 1.5 cms. I don't know if that's what you're supposed to do, but I never had a problem with it. I only used lining for the top of the dress which wasn't cut on the bias, so the lining is just a straight grain cut.
      I hope that answers your question, sorry I couldn't be of more help. I'm not a trained seamstress so all this stuff seams to just 'fall' together! :)

    2. Oh, and probably should add, the pattern that I used to help draft the skirt of the dress was intended to be cut on the bias