Tag Archives: Coats & Cloaks & Outerwear

Intro: 1950s vintage coats

(Written May 1, 2011)

I have in my possession two vintage coats in the mid-twentieth century New Look style. Rather than reproduction garments I’ve made, these are original vintage pieces. I’ve done some work on both of them, but in very different ways.

First of all, I should say that I think it’s important to think carefully before changing a vintage garment, especially in a way that can’t be reversed. In very old, very special, very rare, or very high quality garments, I don’t think that “just because” changes are usually a responsible choice. However, for mid-twentieth century and more recent garments, I personally think that it can be reasonable to alter or restyle and use them, when they aren’t special or rare or otherwise museum-quality garments. Naturally, this type of choice is always complicated, especially with older garments, but not everything is going to be saved as a collector’s piece, and while I believe in saving objects for the historical record, I also believe in using things, and in avoiding waste.

The first 1950s coat that I acquired was given to my by my great-aunt, after her mother, my great-grandmother, passed away in 2008. It is a 1950s or early 1960s coat with a fairly wide, mostly straight but slightly flaring silhouette, made of a highly textured wool and synthetic blend, with a dramatic attached fur collar in beige and cream tones. The coat’s label indicates that it is from Kearney, Nebraska, which is where my great-grandparents had a farm, before moving to California. I find it very interesting that the coat has such a lovely, and substantial, fur collar, considering that the quality of the wool-blend fabric is not high. The lining fabric, which I think is probably acetate, is likewise not a very high-quality material. I haven’t been able to identify what sort of fur is on the collar. The coat has three large buttons down the front, as well as a snap at the top of the overlap, and two hooks on the fur collar, which attach to loops on the opposite side. The sleeves are I think intended to be around bracelet length on a smaller framed person than I am (which my great-grandmother was).

(A note about using fur: Personally, I believe that since any animal(s) whose fur went into this collar obviously died upwards of 50 years ago, long before I was born, it would simply be absurd to have a moral quandary about wearing fur. I don’t buy new fur, but I have some secondhand and vintage pieces. Additionally, I would not personally consider it morally reprehensible to use fur that came from a source that raised/hunted the animals responsibly, and was not wasteful of any parts of the animal. However, since that kind of knowledge isn’t readily available, in practice I simply don’t buy new fur. When it’s already on the market, and especially when it’s old, I don’t fret much; I don’t see how it would be any more respectful or responsible to leave furs sitting around unused. Additionally, I feel that if someone does not object morally to using leather or other animal products, it is somewhat silly to object to fur on principle. In conclusion, please do not throw buckets of paint on me; I am not contributing to the deaths of any small, fuzzy animals. Except for that time I ate rabbit stew.)

I didn’t want to leave the coat just sitting neglected somewhere, especially since it had clearly been used and the lining already had some damage (acetate linings are notoriously unstable), so it seemed worth it to make use of the garment instead of saving it for some vague future. The first change I made was to remove the buttons – which resembled reddish-brown plastic crullers and were impressively hideous – and replace them with simple black vintage buttons. I would prefer beige or cream buttons, but the coat requires very large buttons, and finding even those three black ones was difficult enough. For a while, I wore the coat with only the buttons changed out, but the sleeves were an awkward length on me, and highly impractical for a winter coat, because they left my wrists exposed to the cold. I also found the texture of the fabric unpleasant anywhere it rubbed against my skin.

Fast forward to fall semester of my Div III. I was doing a lot of sewing, and a lot of clothing related research, and I found myself increasingly impatient with clothes that didn’t work right. So I pulled out the coat out of my mending box and, over a couple of days, made a couple of changes that made a significant difference in its functionality and my comfort when wearing it. First of all, I did the mending that had put it out of circulation in the first place: I reattached the fur-and-fabric collar piece, which had come un-stitched along much of its length. While I was doing that, I also shifted its front placement, and the placement of the snap, slightly, so as to open up the neckline slightly. This made is a much better fit for my larger frame.

Then I found some cream-colored synthetic satin (probably polyester, if I recall correctly) in my stash of fabric, which matched the lighter shades of the fur collar nicely, and coordinated with the brown of the coating fabric well. I hand-stitched a bias binding of the cream satin around the neckline edge – the collar is a separate, very three-dimensional piece, which is attached away from the neckline edge. It hardly shows when the coat is being worn, and not at all when the collar is fastened, and makes it far more comfortable to have the coat around my neck.

Next I completely picked apart the seams around the cuffs, which were turned about two inches to the inside. Very carefully, I used a steam iron to erase the creases from the wrist edges, and reapplied the stiff blue cotton fabric, which had been used as interlining for the cuff edges, even with the cut edge of the sleeves, which were now two inches longer. I then added new lining sections to the sleeves of the cream satin, which then became a binding around the raw sleeve edges. The cream satin linings show, but the appearance is – in my opinion – quite decorative. And now the sleeves are much better at keeping me warm! I wore this coat through most of a Massachusetts winter, quite snugly, so I consider my alterations to be very successful. They gave the coat a new lease on life – and giving old thing a lease on life is an inherently sustainable, and practical, thing to do. It’s also a very historically accurate approach, for almost any time period but our own.

The next step for this coat, probably before the next winter, will be to completely remove the lining, take it apart, and use it to cut out and construct a new lining, because the (probably) acetate lining is shattering badly, and needs to be replaced. However, it still looks perfectly fine from the outside.

The second coat is a new acquisition. I bought it from a charming little thrift store in Amherst this past March. I spent $50 on it, which I couldn’t really afford (broke college student, etc.), but it was too perfect to pass up. It’s a gorgeous black 1950s evening coat, a full-cut “swing” coat with pleats at the shoulders, and 3/4 length kimono sleeves with big, dramatic cuffs. It has lovely crisp lapels which turn back gracefully, and no closures at all. The material is a black ribbed synthetic or acetate (acetate is technically a man-made cellulosic fiber, like rayon), perhaps a faille. It has a synthetic or acetate lining, in changeable black and dark red. A black swing coat with a red lining! Naturally, I loved it from the moment I set eyes on it. When I put it on and it actually fit, I really couldn’t resist. Being tall and built like a Germanic peasant, it’s very rare that I can find vintage clothes which fit me – especially in anything resembling my budget.

The evening coat is in excellent condition. The lining is, shockingly, in perfect condition. I suspect that the main fabric of the coat is acetate, because it has some of the odd damage at stress points and areas that get abrasion, which are common with acetate, especially vintage acetate. However, the damage is hard to see, and really very minimal. Because this coat is such a fine piece and in such good condition, I would not feel comfortable altering it. I also wouldn’t want to! It’s lovely in its current form.

However, there were a few places where the stitching was coming apart quite badly, especially on one shoulder seam and at the back of the collar, where the two overlapping pieces had been sewn together. In these places, I did careful mending by hand. For the shoulder seam, I picked apart the seam far enough to square knot the loose ends of the threads at each side of the opening. Then I used a doubled length of black cotton thread to execute a very tiny ladder stitch along the opening, overlapping with the still-stitched parts on either side. It was time consuming, but it made for a strong, invisible mend, without requiring that I take the lining apart in order to get at the seam. I also added an additional thread tack, connecting the fabric of the coat to the fabric of the lining, at the center back seam near the hem. There were existing thread tacks connecting the outer fabric and lining fabric at the side seams, and it seemed strange that the center back seam lacked one.

I took different approaches to the two coats, based on my perception of the importance/significance of the garment (whether or not it ought to be preserved intact), its condition, and its potential value as a practical item. In regards to the brown wool blend coat, this was a garment of middling quality, without any real historical significance, and not in wonderful condition as an artifact, but quite usable as a practical garment. Whereas the black evening coat is in excellent condition and is not a workhorse practical garment, so I don’t need to take issues of warmth into consideration; fortunately, it is entirely usable as-is, with only the minimal mending that I did, so I don’t need to consider whether or not to make larger changes.

Ultimately, I think that the repairing and the refashioning or restyling of vintage pieces should be considered carefully, especially for older pieces. On the one hand, finding ways to re-use old things is both sustainable and practical, but on the other hand, even very ordinary garments can be an important part of the historical record, and it is very unfortunate when intact pieces, especially rare ones, are damaged (even with the best of intentions or plenty of artistic merit).

For comparison, here are pictures of vintage coats with similar styling, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Coats similar to my brown wool blend coat:

A red wool coat with a black fur collar, dated “1955,” by American designer Charles James, accession number 2009.300.537. This collar is similar to mine, though mine is larger.

A black or charcoal gray wool coat with a brown fur collar, dated “1952-1956,” also by Charles James, accession number 1995.117.

A while silk evening coat, dated “1966,” from the House of Givenchy, by French designer Hubert de Givenchy, accession number C.I.68.78.7. This coat has very similar shaping to mine.

A pumpkin-colored wool swing coat, dated “spring/summer 1958,” from the House of Dior, by French designer Yves St. Laurent, accession number C.I.65.14.19. This coat also has similar shaping to mine, though it is fuller cut. The deep front overlap with oversized buttons is very similar, though mine has three buttons rather than four.

Coats similar to my black evening coat:

A silver or white textured silk evening coat and gown, dated “fall/winter 1953-54,” from the House of Dior, by French designer Christian Dior, accession number 1970.280. This coat has a similar length and similar sleeve cut to mine, though the collar and lapels are different, these sleeves do not have cuffs, and obviously the material is very different.

An emerald green silk evening coat with notched collar, dated “1950,” from American designer Bonnie Cashin, accession number 2009.300.898a–c. This collar and lapel design is fairly similar to mine.

Intro: 1780s man’s caped topcoat

For: Zachary….at some point….maybe……
Inspiration: Images in Men’s 17th & 18th Century Costume, Cut & Fashion: figure 89-A, 1780, on page 124; figure 113-A, c. 1780, on page 144.
Pattern: To be drafted from diagrams in Men’s 17th & 18th Century Costume, Cut & Fashion
Fabric: TBD
Lining: None? TBD
Construction:  Either hand-stitched or hand-finished; TBD

Status: On hold. At this point, this project is just research and a hypothetical maybe-later. (January 10, 2011)

I’ve done quite a bit of research, and I intend to pursue the project later, but considering that I’m doing far too much, cuts had to be made, and this is one of the pieces being cut. I made this decision in part because of the realization that the fabric I was planning to use really wouldn’t be suitable. Which leads me to an earlier point in the evolution of my plans to attempt 18th century menswear!

Originally I had planned to make a close historical approximation of the extant suit coat, waistcoat, and breeches depicted in Costume Close-Up (#17; item number 1960-697, 1-3; pages 80-88 and following color plate), dating to 1765-1790. The suit doesn’t seem to be included in their online collection, or I would include a link. It’s a lovely suit, and not too elaborate in ornament. And it’s conveniently almost exactly the right measurements for my boyfriend, who could be pressed into service as a dress form and dashing model. (He was more enthusiastic about this than you might think.) So my plan was to scale up the pattern and simply cut it out of muslin with large seam allowances, and fiddle with it until it started looking right. I bought several yards of lightweight, worsted wool, tabby suiting in a nice deep blue from Fashion Fabrics Club, intending it for the jacket and waistcoat, and several yards of beige, or buff-colored, lightweight cotton sateen to use as lining. I planned to recruit silk from my stash to make the waistcoat.

But time, it ran short, and I was trying to do too much. And if I’d made the suit, I would have needed to make a shirt as well! While teaching myself a great many new skills. Given the scope of everything I was trying to do, it simply didn’t make sense. So I scaled back and decided to make a topcoat of the same period instead, having seen designs from the 1780s that I found very intriguing, and thinking I could use the materials I had already purchased. But upon further research into the matter of topcoats and greatcoats, I discovered that such garments were, as far as I could tell, invariably made of tightly woven, densely fulled wool, and were unlined, with unfinished cut edges. That is not something that my tabby suiting would cooperate with. I considered trying to do a historically inspired type garment, but eventually concluded that it would be wasteful to use good materials improperly, and that I would prefer to put both the suit idea and the topcoat idea on the back burner, and eventually make both in the proper fabrics.

So that is the sad saga of my foray into the research of 18th century menswear. I’ve learned quite a lot but nothing three-dimensional will be appearing in the immediate future.  Though I did produce quite a nice design sketch of the topcoat! With three capes, no less.

Topcoats and greatcoats in printed resources:

Online resources:

Updated January 10, 2012

Intro: Mid 18th to early 19th century red wool cloak

Inspiration: The general fabulousness of red wool cloaks (also, piles of snow!)
Pattern: Drafted from Costume Close-Up, #10, Cloak, c. 1750-1810, in the Colonial Williamsburg collection (#1953-968), p 54-56 and color plate 2, with a slight alteration and additional piecing due to yardage constraints
Fabric: Just over two yards of 60-odd-inch-wide coating-weight wool flannel in vivid scarlet red, pieced within an inch of its life
Lining: Front edge facings and hood lining of black silk habotai
Thread: Plain cotton thread in matching red and in black (I couldn’t afford silk)
Closure: Two inch wide black silk satin ribbons which tie at the neck, purchased from Timely Tresses
Construction: Entirely hand-sewn
Fun fact: I had to do quite a bit of piecing in order to get away with using the fabric I had, but it’s really quite difficult to see, because the pieces of fulled wool are butted up against one another and overcast. The original had one bit of piecing, making an ostensibly 4-piece pattern actually five pieces. Mine was nine pieces. When I finished cutting out the fabric, I had literally only a handful of amassed scrap material leftover – of heavy coating-weight wool. Seriously.
Current Status: Finished! (Update! Now with photos to prove it! 3/25/12)

My Reproduction Red Wool Cloak

(Never mind the later period reproduction quilted petticoat under the cloak. My mannequin looked creepy and naked with only the cloak on,  so it is wearing my c. mid 18th century to early 19th century repro cloak with my 1830s-1850s repro quilted petticoat. Which also clashes slightly. Shh, moving on.)

Current Status, in more detail: (Update May 1, 2011) The cloak is now entirely finished! After the ribbon arrived from Timely Tresses, I cut lengths of it and stitched it to the front edges of the cloak. I then proceeded to run around the house in the cloak, in spite of the fact that it’s now full spring and quite warm out. Despite how very unseasonable it now is, I’m very fond of the cloak. Although I must admit that the shaping, which is the same as the shaping of the original in Costume Close-Up, drapes more nicely on people with a slighter build, and narrower shoulders, than I have. Nevertheless, I can and will wear it.

(Status update from April 24, 2011) Happily, the cloak is essentially finished. Unhappily, it has been essentially finished for months. It came together quite quickly initially, due to a confluence of events involving winter inspiration, falling in love with the extant cloak depicted in Costume Close-Up, discovering that I had the perfect wool already, fiendish determination to find a way to cut the pattern out of not-nearly-enough fabric, an epic patterning and cutting effort, and conveniently timed illness that gave me four days of complete uselessness during which I was somehow still capable of executing tiny, perfect hand-stitches. (I don’t believe in feigning modesty about my hand-sewing skills. I am, in fact, quite vain about my hand-sewing.) I was able to construct the cloak, which is made of a coating-weight red wool flannel, with a lining for the hood and facings for the front edges, out of black silk habotai. Both of these things I had on hand, and I was able to buy matching red cotton thread.

But could I get my hands on black silk ribbon? No, I could not. Silk ribbons are notoriously difficult to find, and I was quite unwilling to use synthetic substitutes on a garment that I had spent an astonishing number of hours painstakingly constructing, entirely by hand (including nearly-invisible piecing to get the most out of my scant yardage), of high-quality natural fibers. For such a heavy garment, I didn’t want to try faking ribbons using my habotai. I didn’t have any black silk taffeta on hand, or I might have considered using that. The poor cloak has had to wait until I got around to ordering my millinery supplies – because I was able to buy black silk satin ribbon from Timely Tresses, along with everything needful for my charmingly enormous 1830s bonnet. The order has finally been placed, and with luck, the ribbon will arrive soon, and I will attach it to the cloak in short order. Then it will have ties! Once it has ties, I’ll be able to put it on, and will cut the arm slits. I marked them already, but I want to make certain they’re in the right place.

My Cloak, Side View

Further information online:

Print resources:

It was surprisingly easy to figure out how to put this cloak together – a great deal of information gets packed into the entries in this book! I really can’t recommend it highly enough. I wish there were more resources like this for the 19th century! See the annotated bibliography entry for more information. The cloak is on pages 54-56 and color plate 2.

There is an example of a similar cloak pictured on page 53, with substantial accompanying information on that cloak, a particularly fine example, and red cloaks in general, on page 54. It is noted (without citation) that “It would be typical Sunday best for an English village woman from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. After that date. the younger element were more likely to wear mantles, pelisses and shawls, and the scarlet cloak became an old woman’s garment by the 1830’s” (page 54).

 

Last updated March 25, 2012, to add pictures.