(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.