Thursday, July 2, 2015

Behind the Construction of the 1935 Vionnet Evening Dress

In my review of the 1935 Vionnet Evening Dress, I mentioned that I'd write up a full set of instructions when I made the final dress.  I completed construction of the final dress this past weekend, and all that's left to do is the hem.  So, here are the instructions!
First, a reminder of what that dress looks like.  Front...

...and back.
These instructions should be very useful if you're trying to sew the dress yourself, since I found the instructions in both the Kirke book and the Japanese pattern book to be inadequate.  This discussion should also be interesting if you're curious how this dress was constructed.  Even though the dress looks pretty standard, it has a rather counterintuitive design.  

First, some basics.

The pattern in the Japanese pattern book comes in only one size, which was not specified, at least not in English.  There were no instructions in English about how to resize the pattern.  On the other hand, the pattern fit me fine right out of the gate.  My measurements are 32-27-39 and I'm 5'5".  In Vogue Patterns sizing, that's very close to a size 6.  In RTW dresses I'm generally XS or S.

Fabric Choice:
This pattern works best with a medium weight drapey silk.  Looking at photos of a version of the dress made by Vionnet herself, I'm pretty sure she used silk charmeuse.   I've now constructed versions of the dress in silk crepe de chine, silk charmeuse, and 4 ply silk crepe, and of those choices, I think that the charmeuse and the 4 ply silk crepe are by far the best options.  This design relies on the weight of the fabric to shape the center front skirt, and I don't think the crepe de chine was quite heavy enough.

I would strongly advise against using stretch fabric for this design.  It relies on the tension in the fabric to form the folds in the waist area of the dress.  I made an earlier test version of the dress in stretch silk crepe de chine, and the difference between the folds in the stretch and non-stretch versions is obvious-- the non-stretch version is far superior.  (No pictures yet, unfortunately.)   

This version of the dress whose construction is shown in this post--the white version--is 4 ply silk crepe lined with silk charmeuse.  Originally, I wasn't planning to line the dress, but the 4 ply silk crepe was too translucent to wear without a lining.  I debated whether use charmeuse or habotai as the lining, but decided to go with charmeuse because its weight was more similar to the weight of the 4 ply silk crepe.

Yardage requirements:
I don't believe either the Kirke book or the Japanese pattern book gave yardage requirements, but I found that four yards of 45" wide fabric was about right.  You might be able to do it with three.

Pattern pieces:
There are only three pattern pieces, not counting the strap-- the main dress and two gussets.  The Main Dress pattern piece was too wide for my 45" wide fabric, so I had to piece it together.

It takes a bit of thinking to wrap your head around the Main Dress pattern piece.  The middle of the pattern piece, what looks like it should be the center front, is actually the center back.  The two edges that look like they should be the side seams are actually the center front.  The two large rectangular sections form the bodice.  The gussets are inserted on either side of the small trapezoidal part in the center. To describe the construction in brief, we'll insert the gussets and then sew up this single pattern piece to form a tube.
(1)  Insert the gussets
The gussets are inserted in the location and orientation that the following picture shows.  Note that the gusset pieces are not symmetrical top to bottom; the long side of the trapezoid, the broader point, and the side adjacent to the broader point are the sides of the gusset which are stitched to the Main Dress pattern piece.  I inserted the gussets using my topstitched gusset method (with no interfacing this time) because it was easiest for me; use whatever method works well for you.
(2)  Stitch up the skirt front
Stitch the skirt front together such that the Main Dress pattern piece forms a tube.  Note that, in the photo below, only the angled part is the skirt; the rectangular part, in the upper right hand corner of the photo, is the bodice.  Stitch only as far as the angle where the skirt and the bodice meet.  The center front bodice remains open in the final dress; it is not stitched together.  The tension on the strap and the weight of the skirt holds the bodice closed in practice.
Here's what the result looks like, front and back.
(3)  Finish the edges of the bodice/sew the dress to the lining
If you're not lining the dress, you should finish the edges of the bodice at this point.  I would recommend a narrow hem.  However, I lined the dress, so it was at this point that I sewed the dress and bodice together at the opening edges of the bodice.  Here's the outcome, front and back.
(4)  Sew the casing for the strap
There are three places to sew the casing for the strap:  the two sections at the top of the bodice, and then the bodice back, from the corner of one gusset to the other.  It's a little hard to describe, but you should be able to see what I'm talking about if you enlarge the second photo below-- the casing does not go as far as the seam where the gusset meets the Main Dress pattern piece.
(5)  Make the strap and thread it through the casing
The strap is threaded through the casings so that the strap crosses at the back (see the photo of the back of the completed dress above).  I recommend by threading the strap through the back casing first.  Then, to create the crossover in the strap, thread the end of the strap coming out the back right through the left front bodice, and the end of the strap coming out the back left through the front right bodice.  Connect the two ends at center front.  The finished result looks like this, even though it's not too helpful.  I really wish I'd taken pictures of the threading process, but I didn't. At this point, you can try on the dress.
(6)  Pull together the fullness in the center front waist parts and stitch
I wish I'd taken pictures of this, too, but I forgot.  I don't have good words for this, other than that you're going to have to put the dress on and then try grabbing handfuls of fabric around your waist and pulling them together to the center until the gathers look right and the skirt falls about right.  The pattern calls for you to join the sections of fabric together at the center front with a buckle.  However, I hand-sewed the fabric together in maybe a 2" to 3" section at the center front, since I didn't have a buckle and wanted the dress to be machine washable.  If you were much bustier than me, you'd probably have to use a buckle so that you could get the dress on and off over your head.  
(7)  Let the dress hang for a couple of days
You want the bias to stretch out as much as it's going to before you attempt to hem it.  Otherwise, the hem will eventually go crooked, and you'll have to do it all over again.

(8)  Hem the skirt.
Nothing complicated here.  I'd recommend either a hand-rolled hem or a narrow hem.   I plan to use a narrow hem.'re done.  It really does go together fast.  You could probably handle the entire construction in an afternoon.  I think I'll have to build a whole army of these dresses for myself!


  1. Lovely. Just lovely. Thanks for sharing your suggestions, instructions, and commentary. I may never make it but I surely enjoyed seeing and reading about your dresss.

  2. its truly lovely and you are very brave