Be Your Own Designer

Recently I wrote about the strictly coded gender practices associated with the cocktail party in postwar America.  I talked about how mixing drinks was the purview of men and shared pages from Playboy magazine that included tips for the urbane bachelor on how to mix drinks and which tools he needed to be successful.  Before Playboy there was Esquire, which in 1949 published a Handbook for Hosts, providing an invaluable resource for single men on what kind of food to serve, drinks to make, games to play, what to wear, and how to behave.  Esquire’s Handbook even provided a “Blueprint for a Cocktail Party” (274).


But what of the women?  How to navigate the social quagmire and preserve a sense of self worth in a context where the stakes were high regarding one’s appearance?  A woman’s cocktail attire indicated not only that she understood what to wear and when but also her dress often signaled her husband’s accomplishments, that is, if she belonged to the married class.  His buying power was reflected through the quality of her garments and if she was beautifully groomed her appearance further indicated she had the time to spend at a beauty salon getting coiffed and massaged and lacquered. 


Yet our hostess was not merely a hothouse flower unable to bloom except under optimal pampering conditions.  She could be creative and cultivate her image through home sewing.  Although what she wore might be interpreted as a reflection of her husband’s social worth, it could also be her outlet for personal expression especially if she knew how to construct her own garments.


As so many feminist historians have lamented, women’s stories often get lost in the annals that privilege the public sphere where men are more likely to be at the center such as in politics.  Home sewing, by contrast, takes place in private spaces, in the domestic environment where women often hold sway.  It is a marginalized practice that has received little investigation unlike the more public histories of high profile boutiques and designers (Buckley 65).  Among those to consider domestic sewing history is British scholar Cheryl Buckley who reminds us that the topic is important because it “is not just about the technologies of production and processes of consumption, rather it is about design as a mechanism for the material and visual representation of feminine identities” (Buckley 67). 


Home sewing in the 1950s and early 1960s was hugely popular if one is to gauge such popularity by the proliferation of sewing instruction books and sewing machine and commercial pattern sales (Laboissonniere 1999).  Both Hollywood film costume designers and fashion designers saw value in marketing their creations to the home sewer during this period by lending their designs and names to such popular commercial manufacturers as Vogue Patterns, Advance, and McCalls.  Among the earliest costume designers to attach her name to a line was Edith Head.   In 1951, Star Pattern Fashions advertised its selections in newspapers across the country.  By simply filling out a coupon and mailing in fifty cents, a budding designing woman in Martins Ferry, Ohio could have her very own 32-page booklet filled with available design patterns by Edith Head, Travilla, Helen Rose, and other Hollywood designers (Martins Ferry, OH, Times Leader, 12/15/51 from the Edith Head Scrapbook #3 at the Margaret Herrick Library). 


Well-known fashion designers got into the act as well.  Among them was Norman Hartnell for Advance Import; Emilio Pucci, Pauline Trigère, and Givenchy for McCalls; Nina Ricci, Jacques Fath, and Elsa Schiaparelli for Vogue Paris Original (Laboissoinneire 1999).  In addition to designer endorsed patterns, the industry offered the less expensive alternative of its own “couture” styles that reflected current fashion trends. 

Simplicity ad in Ebony, November 1959

The commercial sewing pattern industry advertised to women in the newspapers and also in consumer-oriented publications such as the November 1959 issue of Ebony magazine.  Patterns connected to Hollywood films were often also promoted in fan magazines such as Photoplay and included a mail in coupon.  Of course, a home sewer could also purchase patterns in the sewing supplies sections of department stores and independent fabric stores.  For those living away from the bustle of larger cities, there were the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs.


Home sewing had the potential to instill in women a sense of agency where clothing construction could be both a creative outlet and a means for achieving greater autonomy in the presentation of self.  Significantly, home sewing was a pursuit that could cut across class lines.  Domestic sewing machines were relatively affordable.  While commercial patterns and fabrics varied in price, a creative and resourceful home sewer could cross-class cross-dress.  By that I mean that in the days before fast fashion, a middle-class home sewer could purchase a designer endorsed commercial pattern and create her own Givenchy look to rival anything Audrey Hepburn might wear on the screen.  Moreover, if she were an adept seamstress, her garment would be sure to have a custom fit unlike anything she might purchase at stores that fell within her budget. 

Better Homes & Gardens Sewing Book (1961)

Publications such as Better Homes & Gardens encouraged advanced and more intrepid home sewers to reinterpret patterns to suit individual needs or even to draft original patterns.  Since a woman often sewed for amusement as well as for the sake of economizing, special occasion attire was an ideal project.  The 1961 edition of the Better Homes & Gardens Sewing Book devoted an entire chapter to such projects called “Making Evening and Cocktail Fashions” (185-208) and another called “Be Your Own Designer” (269-284). 

A thorough investigation into the subject of women’s home sewing practices in the postwar United States is called for.  While we have some evidence about machine sales and the types of patterns sold, there is sadly little historical documentation of the sewing practices of actual women.  What did these women make?  How likely were they to draft their own patterns?  How successful were their creations in terms of meeting social and personal expectations? 


Until more concrete evidence of home sewing as tool for agency comes to light, we are left with precious little to go on save the indicators of sewing’s popularity in the form of instruction books and commercial patterns.  Is it a stretch to say that home sewers were stitching subversion through the act of creating and adorning themselves in highly personal ways?  To that I say, look no further than home sewer and the postwar era’s best-known pin-up model, Bettie Page, immortalized in bondage and discipline photos taken by siblings Irving and Paula Klaw.  Page was a Tennessee native who designed and constructed some of her own ensembles.  While burlesque and pin-up do not necessarily constitute feminist acts, there is an intriguing element of subverting the normative through such performances, which I explore in a future post.



Better Homes & Gardens Sewing Book (1961)

Blueprints of Fashion: Home Sewing Patterns of the 1950s, Wade Laboissionniere (1999)

“On the Margins: Theorizing the History and Significance of Making and Designing Clothes at Home, “ Cheryl Buckley in The Culture of Sewing: Gender, Consumption and Home Dressmaking, edited by Barbara Burman (1999)

Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts (1949, Hearst; 1999 edition published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers)

Archives consulted:

Ebony archives available on GoogleScholar

Edith Head Collection at the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, CA

Commercial patterns in the collections at the Fashion Institute of Design and Technology Museum, Los Angeles, CA

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