dress detective / fashion / haute couture / madeline newport / re-modelling

Unpicking the past


Tiny machine stitches hold the zipper in place but are a nightmare to unpick.

Work on this vintage wedding dress requires patience and skill. So far I’ve spent over 2 hours unpicking the zipper and separating the bodice from its voluminous skirt and there are many more hours of this painstaking work to go. I have to carefully slip the tip of the unpicker, or seam ripper, under every other stitch and slice the thread that holds the seams together. I say carefully, because any rough handling of the delicate silk organza could result in tears or holes. It’s then a matter of gently prising the layers apart and further cutting the seam stitches to finish the process. It feels bad to be undoing the work of another seamstress but I keep reminding myself that it will enable the dress to have a life again when it is finished. I have carefully photographed the dress in all its stages so that there is a record of it before and after its renovation.



Bodice detail – inside showing  exposed seams and hand overcasting

Peeking inside vintage garments allows a fascinating insight into how they were made and who made them. Inside this vintage dress the seam edges are exposed, quite a commonplace treatment for a garment of this period. The lining and shell fabric have been treated as a single layer and are sewn together. The raw edges of the seams have been neatly trimmed and hand overcast with a regular slanting slipstitch. The hooks and eyes have been sewn so that the metal is covered by thread using a buttonhole stitch, a lovely couture finish.

The machine stitches are small and slightly uneven, which makes me wonder what type of machine was used to sew the dress. There is little difference between how garments were made in the 50’s and how they are made now. Overlockers were used in the 1950’s but not often seen in high-end garment making which tended to use hand finishing to stop seams fraying. There is also an aesthetic expectation today of how a garment should look inside. We expect the ‘finished’ look that is an overlocked seam.

Hand sewing is still used exclusively in some Haute Couture ateliers. In the documentary film Valentino Garavani, The Last Emperor, the ‘petit mains’, little hands or skilled dressmakers, stand before a row of lonely sewing machines and declare that they never use them. Hand sewing is preferred in Haute Couture for its control and gentleness when using delicate and slippery fabrics. A recurrent image of women working in the Haute Couture end of fashion is of small groups gathered around a table sitting companionably together sewing. Of course this is only possible if you’re not using machines and a far cry from how the majority of garments are made today.


Inside the Valentino Atelier

There is a lot of discussion around the use stage in a Lifecycle Analysis of a garment and the environmental impact this stage has. Use stage is the stage after manufacture and during the wearing of the garment. The general agreement is that most garments are over washed and cleaned to the detriment of our environment. We can learn a lot from vintage garments in our quest to reduce the harmful aspects of our clothing use. The old practice of tacking small sweat-pads into evening-wear and wedding dresses under the arms is one. Sweat-pads were removed when needed, hand washed, and then sewn back into a garment. Those women had the good sense to only wash the area of a garment that was actually dirty. Now I see that there are many different disposable sweat pads available. Eeek, just adding to the problem of waste! Garments were also carefully spot cleaned, with talcum powder, and by dry brushing the affected area. Airing a garment by hanging it so air could circulate around it was done to remove stale smells.

Back to the un-picking, I’m wondering what the working conditions were like for the person who made this dress and if it was indeed Madeleine Newport who made it, or a nameless skilled woman working in the Sydney garment business of the 50’s.






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