Roaring & Swinging: The Plus Pattern Project

I’m delighted to announce the opening today of an exhibition I worked on this year at the Museum at FIT: The Roaring Twenties and the Swinging Sixties. I developed the public programming for the exhibition along with Becca Carr, and you can see this content through the Extras tab on the site.

What I’d like to talk about today is the Plus Pattern Project – a series of patterns we took from extant 1920s plus-size (contemporarily, ‘stout’) garments, which are available for free download.

This project was inspired by the LACMA Undertaking the Making pattern project developed alongside the Fashioning Fashion and Reigning Men exhibits. As I’m sure some of you have noticed, finding and discussing plus-size historical garments is a passion of mine – enough to be the topic of my MA thesis and possibly also my PhD dissertation in the future.

Museums have the tendency to collect and display small garments, which reinforces the idea that historically, people were much smaller than they are now. (While this has roots in some amount of truth, it is fallacious to say that fat people never existed, were never fashionable, or were never accepted, and the average waist was certainly not 18-22″.) I think it’s a valuable experience to be able to look at a set of historical clothing in your own size and shape, but that experience is off-limits to a lot of people, including those of larger sizes, a variety of disabilities, and diverse gender presentations.

When Becca and I began developing ideas for programs to accompany this exhibit, we knew immediately that we wanted to include representation for plus-size viewers. I brought up the LACMA pattern project; the idea for this project was born.

There are a few larger garments in the FIT Grad Studies Collection, but COVID-19 restrictions made planning for that difficult. I reached out to my followers on Instagram and was almost instantly rewarded with five extant 1920s dresses in personal collections – really, this shouldn’t be surprising, as a quick search on Etsy shows that plus-size ’20s dresses are lovely and plentiful. (Which of course makes it even more painful to know that museums tend not to purchase or display them.) One dress was a bit too far away to do anything with, but that left four excellent pieces to work with. Only one was what I would really consider plus-size (subjective and socially-constructed concepts, ahoy!), but they were all around a 40″ bust or above, which satisfied the requirement. These were dresses that a larger proportion of the population could wear! They’re also mostly pretty easy to enlarge or trim down at the side seams and sleeves, so I’m hoping people of a variety of sizes will be able to use these.

(I won’t lie; seeing the Hamilton spencer release in such a limited initial range of sizes while I was working on this made me even prouder to be here doing this. I’m quite glad they’ve expanded the range, but plus-size historical patterns and extants need all the representation they can get!)

pattern dress example
The Noon-Day Dress, author’s personal collection

Additionally, mid-way through the project I was browsing Etsy and happened upon an absolutely amazing find: a 1920s wash dress with a 54″ bust for an absolute steal. (Not that it’s in wearable condition, but it was a steal to me!) This became the Noon-Day Dress, and is honestly my favorite purely because it’s an example of a casual day dress that somebody really lived in – the kind that was worn to rags and thrown out; the kind that museums don’t or can’t collect; the kind that really represents the everyday woman. This became the fifth dress to be patterned, and actually also the most popular with testers! (I stand by my assertion that there’s a serious market for plus-size historical patterns.) I could write a whole paper on this dress, and thankfully it was pretty straightforward to pattern by myself towards the end of my available time.

I worked with Becca to pattern the two dresses leant to us by Lauren Marks, the Sleek and the Refashioned; with one of our colleagues, Sarah Brennan-Martin, on the Welmade, lent by Gina White; and then the last dress – the Devoré – is owned and was kindly patterned by Sophia Khan. I’m not a professional pattern-maker in any way, so it was deeply important to have these patterns tested out ahead of time and I put out a call on Instagram and Facebook to bring people in. They helped me to iron out any errors, figure out some odd aspects of construction, and of course – promote the project once the exhibition launched! You can see some of their creations on the main project page, and others will be tagged across social media as #RoaringAndSwinging.

The Sleek Dress, collection of Lauren Marks

The Sleek dress, at left, is a lovely black silk-chiffon-and-lace number with beaded appliqués, large rounded gores towards the bottom, and a 40″ bust. Testers have played with the design by leaving off the lace (rendering the dress more of a modern skater-style, as the lace adds a full 12″ of length to the hem) and adding a tie along the neckline to bring it from a formal evening style to a daytime tennis dress. The original would probably have been worn over a black slip; one tester made it out of black lace and added a layer of silver satin underneath for flash and modesty.

pattern dress example
The Refashioned Dress,
collection of Lauren Marks

The Refashioned dress, a beaded navy knit acetate day dress, turned out to be perfect for this exhibition as it had been home-made initially in the ’20s and then, well, refashioned in the ’60s. It has a 38″ bustline, but it’s stretchy and can be worn with positive or negative ease. (Several testers made it in a woven, though, and it worked just fine.) The alterations presented a real challenge in the patterning, and in the end some of the pleating will be up to whoever makes it! The oil-slick beading and rhinestoning are the real stars of the show here, and of course barely show up in my cataloging photo. Several testers recreated the beading to wonderful effect, and the pattern done in a chiffon is positively delightful. The knit aspect makes this dress a bit of an odd bird – how many knit day dresses do you see in the ’20s that are beaded? – but it’s a bit shimmery and just transparent enough that a slip would have been necessary. What you’re looking at is the ’60s version – the ’20s was longer in the bodice and wider in the shoulders, and I’ve added options to the pattern if you want to do either.

pattern dress example
The Welmade Dress,
collection of Gina White

According to advertisements, the Welmade dress was a “conservative dress for a conservative woman” and was probably sold at a department store. It’s a lovely chocolate-brown wool twill with an under-waist construction, attached belt, and large pleats down the front and back. It has a 42″ bust. My favorite fun fact about this dress is that the cuffs are fake – while they’re lined in a separate piece of fabric, from the outside it’s all actually one piece of sleeve, artfully tucked from the inside to give the appearance of a separate cuff. It’s a very cool method! Like a lot of earlier teens dresses, the sleeves are connected to an underwaist (think an undershirt) in a separate garment, and the dress itself is more of a tunic style. There’s also a separate shield or gilet (called a ‘stomacher’ on the pattern, as that’s more recognizable) for modesty. Let’s just say I could write a paper on this one too! This is definitely the most complex of the patterns offered, and I am indebted to Maria of @historicalgarments for creating a YouTube video of the construction process. (And for having multiple hour-long Instagram video chats about the method and details, because wow, this dress is amazing and complicated.)

The Devoré Dress, collection of Sophia Khan

The Devoré dress is an amazing slate-blue burnout (devoré, also called ‘voided’) velvet tabard-style overdress with a waterfall detail and a matching crepe-de-chine silk slip (both patterns are included). The hips are 48″ and the bust is totally free because of the style. I think this and the Sleek are most reflective of what people think of when they think of the ’20s – tube-shaped dresses in chiffon or velvet. (Right?) I tried to provide similar museum examples in the documentation I wrote for all of the dresses, and this one ended up being pretty difficult, which was so ridiculous because it’s a common style and there are similar dresses all over auction sites online! How hard could it be to find something similar at the Met or on Europeana? (Answer: very.) Testers generally made this one out of flashy, luxurious fabrics, which is the best thing to do because the overall construction is pretty simple. My favorite thing about this dress is that there’s a little pieced bit at the end of the waterfall section that was added with the nap in the wrong direction, so the light reflects the opposite way on it. Nobody’s perfect!

I picked the names, by the way, according to what felt right – if you don’t like them, I’m to blame! The Welmade and the Noon-Day are named for their labels, though, as both were store-bought.

Included along with the patterns are zip files full of images of the original dresses as well as somewhat lengthy documents describing the dresses and construction process for each (links to museum comparisons are included there). These are not step-by-step instructions; I am sorry that I was not able to provide those in the time allotted. If you are making one of these dresses and are stuck, I recommend checking through the #RoaringAndSwinging tag to see what other people have done and asking around for advice in groups and forums. You can always tag me with questions, but my memories of the intricacies of each dress will likely fade over the next few months and only the Noon-Day dress is in my personal collection to be looked at on call. (If you have questions about that one, well, fire away!)

Lastly, some lovely links….

  • Maria of Historical Garments made a great construction video for the Welmade dress using a small-scale mockup that should help to demystify the pattern – she shows the darting and pleating, the fake cuff construction, and how the whole thing goes together and comes apart. I couldn’t take photos of that on the original for obvious reasons, so this is great.
  • Christine of The Saucy Seamstress made a step-by-step construction video for the Noon-Day dress which will be really helpful if anyone is confused about the bias tape and the sewing order! She is also open to questions about the process if you need help.
  • Colleen Marble made an in-depth construction video for the Sleek dress – she had to make adjustments for a full bust and made hers out of two layers of lace and satin, so there’s a lot to see and I hope people will find it helpful.
  • Colleen is also finishing up a video for the Welmade dress, so I will link that when it comes out!

I am really, really excited to see these dress patterns disseminated amongst the vintage and historical sewing communities; please do tag me in your posts and/or send me pictures of your makes!

A hearty thank-you goes out to all helpers and testers; the MFIT for hosting the exhibition; and my fellow MA students for working so hard on it over the last year and a half.

2 thoughts on “Roaring & Swinging: The Plus Pattern Project

  1. this is so, so awesome!! I am mildly annoyed that I will have to adjust the Noon-Day dress to be smaller but like… that is a new and exciting feeling! thank you so much for making this happen!!


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