Learning about Couture (Part One)

I am impressed by this exquisite and elegant book called Sewing Couture by Claire B. Shaeffer. I look forward to reading all of it.

I include the beautiful book cover at the top of this blog entry to catch your eye. But I’ve decided to share a bit about my sewing experience before I talk about the book.

couture sewing

My sewing history is simple. I began with doll clothes as a child—for my 8-inch Madame Alexander. When I was in high school my father offered to keep me in fabric if I sewed my own clothes. What a great deal for me who was on a budget of no money.

I was an early fashionista in high school. I probably saved my lunch money for six months to buy a pair of black leather boots that I found in San Francisco. These boots had tiny buttons and loops all the way up the front. I wish I had a photo of these boots and my high school clothes. Occasionally, I came home from school to find my mother, going through my closet, dress by dress, hanger by hanger, showing each detail to my aunt Bev. She’d say things like, “Look at this top-stitching on the collar that she did by hand,” or “Notice how she matched the plaid design on the side seams.”

My Aunt Bev helped this budding fashionista emerge by cutting my hair. If she were styling hair now, she’d no doubt be in a high-end salon. But her price for me couldn’t be beat. She either cut my hair for free, or my mom slipped her some money. All I know is that my aunt put up with a diva who checked every detail with two mirrors to examine the back. I’d seen an unusual “bob” cut in Vogue (in 1963). I love my aunt who was willing to keep snipping each time I ask her to go shorter and shorter in the back.

I had a unique look that other kids gawked at me.  I was either ahead of my time, or I was a geek, or both. My two besties Linda and Janice, and I made our own winter coats—fully underlined and lined. Lapel collars and bound button holes. Linda’s was green wool, mine was camel, and Janice’s was black and white herringbone.

Janice never credited me for handing her the signature look of black and white. This combo was striking with her black hair and freckles. But this is why I feel blessed to have introduced this idea to my friend. I once saw a beautiful black and white magazine spread, probably in Vogue, maybe in Glamour or Seventeen. I instantly fell in love with the sophistication and elegance of black and white. Black and white fabric. Black and white ribbon. Black and white wallpaper. Unfortunately, this color combo did nothing for me in my brown hair with reddish highlights. When we were shopping for fabric I suggested to Janice that she select the black and white polka dotted fabric .She made the most adorable sleeveless dress with cut-in armholes and a dropped waist in fairly large polka dots. Honestly, my friend should have been featured in a Vogue editorial. There was never a better match than those two colors and my dear friend.

Many years later, when I hadn’t seen Janice in probably 14 years, a friend called me on the phone and said, “Quick. Turn on ABC. Janice is on TV.” There was Janice on a local show talking about the miracle of giving birth with only one kidney. (Those of you who’ve seen Steel Magnolias may remember how the Julia Roberts’ character got pregnant, despite her mother’s huge reservations.) Catching up with a dear friend doesn’t usually occur on television. But what was more remarkable is that Janice chose to wear a black and white dress after all this time.

How I wish I had photos to acknowledge significant occurrences and plain feelings from long ago. The younger generations are so fortunate to own so many cameras that are easy to use. Besides my school pictures, I probably have less than 10 pictures of myself before high school. My parents were not happy people. I don’t think they noticed many Kodak moments in their lives. They were too busy surviving the present than to think about capturing their beautiful children for posterity. Or the other version of the story about no pictures is: My parents didn’t have their shit together and they should have had the decency to take pictures of their children.

I didn’t see Janice again until we were both 37 when we joined the committee for our 20th high school reunion. By then she was very sick. Due to kidney failure at an early age, her body had endured lots of destructive medications. She’d suffered from skin cancer and breast cancer; she’d had a hip replaced; and at this point the breast cancer had spread to her bones, and the kidney from her second transplant was had failed. She couldn’t get on a list for a third kidney until the cancer was in remission.

Her family told me later that working on the high school reunion—and our friendship—had added months to her life. She was so happy for awhile, even though her life had become one long hospital and doctor visit. She survived four months after the reunion. By this time her pain was intolerable, and she knew she couldn’t get another kidney. At the end she refused dialysis. In this way she was able to control some aspects of her death. I’m not too fond of funerals but  this funeral was a profound experience for me when I looked at my beloved friend in her casket to see her and the coffin interior a mixture of black and white.  As I recall, she wore a white nightgown and held a white rose while she lay on a bed of black satin lining.

Can you see why it never mattered to me if she remembered whose idea black and white was? This fashion signature  was not only a “look,” but it represented the many years that we spent sewing, shopping, going out at night, meeting her husband, working on our 20-year class reunion.

My own signature look was a hooded dress that had been virtually non-existent in high school or in California for that matter.  I’d caught a glimpse of a girl on American Bandstand (in Philadelphia) dancing in a hooded dress. I loved the idea, but I found nothing in the pattern books or clothing stores. I purchased a hooded cape pattern and cut out the hood and added it to a sheath dress , and voila!  I don’t think Linda had a signature look but her sewing was close to perfect and she was thin enough to wear clothes made from Vogue Patterns which required advanced sewing techniques. She was the only person who might (possibly) sew better than I did with the exception of her mother and my mother. I remember that she wore White Shoulders; does a signature scent count? Whenever one of us girls had a special occasion coming up, the three of us pitched in and sewed half the night. Janice with her Winstons and me with my Tareytons. We somehow thought that the smoke stench was leaving my room out the open window, instead of the doorway to the hall. (Teenagers with parents  like mine who smoked regularly can be more sneaky). We knew the importance of dressing right, and we depended upon each other in a way that was mature for age 16 or 17.

I thought about going to design school after graduation, but instead, I found myself at “Ma Bell,” as a long-distance operator ( before automation took over). My parents had no money for tuition, and I had no confidence or determination to find my own way without my parents. I rationalized that designers were merely glorified seamstresses. I had been sewing for the outcome, not because I enjoyed the process.

The purpose of sharing my sewing history is to show all that I know, and to show so much that I don’t know. Until recently, I was clueless about what designers actually study; I’d never heard of draping, for instance, until I saw the designers drape their mannequins on Project Runway.

(To be continued in NEXT POST….)


Part Two will be posted by the time most of you come across this blog. Sorry if you must wait.

3 thoughts on “Learning about Couture (Part One)

  1. Hi Sarah, if you get a few minutes to click around on my blog, I’ve shared quite a few pictures of doll clothes that I’ve made and things that I’ve learned while trying various methods. My sewing is turning into a labor of love but I had to learn which patterns to avoid. There are some doll clothes designers who sell patterns that don’t fit all that well, especially when it comes to setting in sleeves. The standard Butterick and Simplicity are okay. There’s a lady who sells sewing books with patterns in them, and her patterns don’t turn out the way she says they will. I only mention this because sometimes a beginning sewer (or any sewer) can make mistakes and assume that these mistakes are THEIRS.

  2. Hi, thank you for saying hello yesterday. I appreciated it. Looking forward to seeing your dolls sewing. The couture book is a great book as well – I’ve got it too, and it has all sorts of handy hints.

  3. Pingback: Just a bit about me. | sarahlizsewstyle

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