"Bess, You Is My Woman Now": the 1930's picnic dress

Oh, Bess… You is definitely my woman now… at least for the duration of an afternoon at the theater ! The creation my 1930’s feedsack frock for Porgy and Bess involved methods that would have left ingenious housewives of the Great Depression tickled pink.

Let’s begin !

Starting off, my inspiration images were of the sundress worn to the “Kittiwah” Island picnic in Act II of the opera…

Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

Don’t you love the floral print pattern of the material ? I did. So much so that I scoured the web in search of my perfectly matching feedsack print. (More about that in my post about the opera and my guest article for Fabric Mart’s blog.) While researching, I learned how the flour and sugar sacks back in the 30’s and 40’s used to be sold with colorful motifs stamped on them so housewives could sew clothes for their families after using the dry goods inside. Clever ? Yes !

Promotional poster for printed flour sacks

The Porgy and Bess dress had several attributes I wanted to replicate in my own frock. Namely, the underbust gathers, square neckline, and mid-calf hem. I thought of drafting my own pattern from scratch, but what’s the point when a commercial pattern with the same style will do the same ? Seeking simplicity, I perused through my mother’s pattern box and fingered over a never-before-used jumper pattern.

McCall’s 3154

View A, here I come ! Since I only needed the bodice portion of the jumper, I traced its outline onto tissue paper, made the appropriate markings, and rotated the dart from the side to the waist. I also drafted an ascending waist yoke… very vintage.

The original pattern and the new patterns made

My muslin mock-up indicated some impending flaws. The back gaped and the gathers were thick and unflattering, especially when taking into consideration that the muslin was already thin. I ditched the idea. Using some of the same ingenuity from the Depression-era, I experimented with small pleats in place of the gathers, which were much more efficient and comely. I marked ½ inch lines along the area of the waist dart as a guide for the pleats…

…and pinned them in place.

Attaching the waist yoke came next. First, I sewed a row of piping along the bottom seam line of the bodice…

…and then clipped the curves along the seam allowances.

The yoke was now attached !

Time to work on the skirt…

When I assembled my mock-up, I traced a basic A-line skirt pattern and altered the waist measurements to line up with those on the lower portion of the waist yoke. The pattern was straightforward and needed few adjustments once sewn. Two back halves were cut as well as one piece on the fold. I also added a pair of inseam pockets because… well, who doesn’t love pockets ?

The inside of the skirt

Now for the zipper ! Sewing over two rows of piping and seam allowances can be tough on sewing machines… but not for my Baby Lock ! A zipper foot certainly aided in gliding over the hilly terrain.

Sewing the zipper

All that was left was to line the bodice, which also included the waist yoke. The easiest way to go about this was to cut identical pieces of the waist yoke (and remembering to close the dart of the front bodice piece before cutting !), sew them together with the bodice pieces along the seam lines, and then fold under the bottom ½ inch along the lower edge of the waist yoke. Here’s what the inside of the bodice looked like after I “stitched in the ditch” of the bottom row of piping from the front:

The dress basically finished, it was time to add the bows onto the front.

Cutting the right size and shape for a fabric bow can be a toss of the dice. Eyeballing a flat paper pattern piece can at times be tricky when gauging how the pattern will translate into fabric. Because I had such success with the tie bows for the baby clothes I had sewn recently, it followed in my logic that the same pattern would work again.

It didn’t work out. Too long, too flat, too thin ! Back to the drawing board… this time with a free pattern I found online.

Close, but no cigar. However, by modifying the pattern just a bit (and swapping out the pocket lining material for the floral stretch poplin), I felt I could have a winner on my hands…

Success !

The additional ¼ inch seam allowance created a perfectly fashionable bow, which was pinched together in the center and sewn with a folded rectangle of fabric for the knot.

The bows were just subtle enough sewn down the front of the bodice, but too stiff for the tops of the shoulder straps.

Show time !

I wore a curly 30’s style wig and carried my mother’s Nantucket basket purse for my sundries.

Every project has a flaw and in this dress, it was the shoulder strap placement. I hypothesized that along the way in the multiple manipulations of the original pattern, the shoulder strap became deformed, was cut too wide, and as a result, wanted to slide off my shoulders. Therefore, I found myself constantly checking to ensure the dress concealed my bra straps. As evidenced by some of the pictures, that wasn’t always accomplished. Oh, well !

The dress had flaws, Bess had flaws. Perhaps the old line was more pertinent than I realized─ “Bess, we two is one !”

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

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