Sunday, January 11, 2015

Making a 1920s Dress: Pattern, Construction, and Embellisment

In my last post about my handmade 1920s dress, I left off with the fabric and pattern I was using. The pattern, an illustration by Ruth Wyeth Spears that, along with other articles and illustrations made by her, was published by Illustrated Home Sewing Magazine in 1927. The Midvale Cottage Post blog has published these articles and illustrations.


"Back Drapery in Cascade Effect Trims this Graceful Costume"
Blogger and sewist Loran of Loran's World also made this exact frock, which she describes in her blog post here.

"The body of the costume is cut by a straight sleeveless pattern."
Here, Loran recommends using the Collete free Sorbetto pattern as a starting point for drafting a straight dress. I already had made a toile for Festive Attyre's Downton-esque One-Hour Dress, and so just adjusted it to be totally straight, without the hip gathering.

Here is where I ran into my first problem: my bust is 31.5 inches, my waist is 25, and my hips are 36. This meant that in order for the dress to be loose enough around my hips and butt, it would be far too large for my very narrow shoulders and back. To fix this, I narrowed the dress at the top by 1.5 inches, tapering it above my hips.

Ruth Wyeth Spears doesn't give any other details about the dress's construction, so I scoured through period sewing manuals available for free from the Library of Congress and the Antique Pattern Library. The side and shoulder seams are sewn with a french seam. The neckline and armholes are bound with self-fabric bias tape, sewn, then understitched, and then handsewn with a slipstitch to the dress. Though I was aiming for .5-inch-wide binding, I miscalculated and added .5 inches for seam allowance and ended up with large binding for the neck.

I also ended up cutting the armholes too high, afraid that a too-loose armhole would bag and crease (as they usually do from the Big 3 commercial patterns...the narrow shoulder strikes again!). The height of the armhole is not uncomfortable, however, and I wore the dress from 10 am to 5 pm for a video shoot with no wardrobe malfunctions!

The hem is also sewn by hand with a slipstitch. I tried marking the hem as I was wearing the dress, and intended for the hem to hit just below the knee. The hem ended up at the top of my knee, but I don't think this is glaringly inappropriate for the era. It's a deep hem and I didn't cut any material from it, so I could always go back and lengthen it.

"The cascade drapery that falls from the left shoulder in the back is shaped as I have shown here in the diagram sketch. The drapery is cut six inches longer than the dress from shoulder to hem. It is twenty-five inches wide at the top and is gradually sloped to the lower edge. At a point halfway between the upper and lower edges it should be about twenty inches wide as indicated in the diagram."

I followed Spears' instructions exactly here. Like Loran suggested, I cut the long, straight edge of the drape on the selvedge.

I finished the two other edges of the drape by doing a mock rolled hem; that is, when I tried doing a normal rolled hem, the fabric would bunch rather than roll, or not roll at all. Instead, I sewed a line of stitching 1/4 inch from the edge, trimmed it to 1/8 of an inch, folded and ironed it just past the stitching line so the stitching wouldn't show, folded and ironed again and then sewed it with a slipstitch. Time consuming, but easy and it achieved the desired effect!

"When the edges of this piece are finished it is pinned and sewn loosely to the costume and stitched from the shoulder to the hipline as indicated in the draping chart."

Again, I followed Spears' instructions exactly. The drapery would move and reveal the selvedge, though, so I tacked the top few inches of the cascade down over the selvedge to disguise it. At this point, the selvedge was really visible at the bottom of the cascade as well, so I just folded over and ironed down the selvedge and secured it with a slipstitch up to the hipline.

The finished cascade DOES NOT look exactly like Spears' drawing, even though I followed her directions exactly. In her drawing, the cascade effect of the drape begins just a few inches below the elbow. In reality, the cascade begins at the butt.

The cascade effect, though, is worth the effort. It looks very beautiful and could easily be added to any dress. Note, however, that the finished cascade is heavy. Mine was so heavy that it kept tilting the dress back, even on the hanger!

"The girdle is a band of self material cut about fifteen inches wide and slightly on the bias so that it will fall in soft folds. It is draped high on the left hip where it fastens under the cascade."

The girdle DID NOT work for me. I suspect this is because my satin was too think; had it been a crepe or chiffon, the effect of the draped girdle would have been stunning. The girdle drew more attention to my already large hips, and made me look more triangular. I felt that it also interfered with the fluidity of the dress with its thick horizontal lines. I removed the girdle from the dress and moved to other methods of decorating it.


With just the cascade, the dress was very plain. Since it was to be used for the filming of a tour of historic Hobart Manor, I wanted it to be recognizable as a 1920s dress but not stand out as a costume. Beading looked like the best option: beaded dresses are quintessential 1920s evening fashion, and the beads would catch the dim light of the Manor.

The neckline is beaded 1/4 of an inch away with iridescent bronze/black seed beads that were sewn 1/4 of an inch from each other. The edges of the drape were also beaded every 1/4 of an inch.

The front of the dress is decorated with 3 vertical panels of beading, using seed beads and bugle beads. I wanted a geometric design that could easily be mapped out on the fabric; I didn't have time to figure out how to transfer a beading design onto satin. My linear beading design was inspired by the illustration on the left, from 20th Century Fashion by John Peacock.

The shoulders and bottom tip of the cascade are also decorated with beaded motifs left over from my prom dress. All the beads were resewn onto the motifs to secure them, and more beads were added to fill in empty spots.

White silk beaded dress, 1926

Though time consuming, this beading was VERY easy!! My trick for beading straight lines? Use a piece of twill tape or ribbon basted into place to help you align the beadwork!


I am very proud of this dress! This was my first time making a garment entirely in satin; this fabric in particular had a tendency to snag on pins so I worked very slowly and carefully. This was also my first time sewing beads! I learned that the beading part itself is pretty easy and relaxing, but threading that tiny needle requires patience, tweezers, and a magnifying glass! Including the beading and handsewing, the dress took only 5 days to make!

The dress looked amazing on camera, and moved like it was silk instead of $2/yard polyester satin. The drape, just like Ruth Wyeth Spears says, is simple but really "makes" this dress. It was such a pleasure seeing it flutter behind me as I went up the spiral staircase or turned a corner!

This was my first foray into the 1920s, and now I think I'm hooked! Once you get the basic straight and sleeveless dress shape down, it's very easy to add embellishment or interest. And if you've always wanted to add a little extra to your dresses, consider beading! It is a special and unique touch.


  1. What a totally fantastic job, Gabriela! Your dress is elegantly simple, and simply elegant! The cascading drape in combination with your beautifully executed beadwork totally makes the dress. Thank you for including the "fail" of the girdle - I agree that it totally disrupted the lines of the dress, and it is instructive to know that! I am agog at the hand beading - so totally worth the effort. :D I am just going to have repost this tip from Ruth Wyeth Spears, with the link to your post and Loran's.

  2. Oh my, your dress is stunning! Thank you so much for sharing how you made the drape and the beading, I absolutely love both. This is such an inspiring dress.

  3. Oh how utterly stunning! You have done a fabulous job on your 20s dress! The beadwork is excellently done and the color looks very very good on you! LOVE it!

  4. Beautiful job! The beading is such a delicate detail, but it's perfect (and the twill tape guide is a great idea).

  5. I'm just catching up on my blog reading and found your version of the Ruth Wyatt Spears dress (with my notes!) Your dress is gorgeous!!! I wasn't all that impressed with the hip drape but my friend loved it, even though I had to do some last minute stitching on her body to get it to sit right. Yes, her drape pulled the dress to the back but we pinned it to her camisole strap and for the few hours she wore it it was fine. I've got about 6 more of the Ruth Wyatt Spears dresses in various stages of "do". One of these days I'll get them "done" :)