Vintage 101: a black silk mystery dress ’20s-’30s

I see a lot of dresses and they all have stories to tell: nowadays fashions like to be adaptable, transeasonal and multi-functional but for our grandparents in the past, it was very different.

People wore different clothes at different ages, for different times in their life, for different occasions – even different times of the day! It wasn’t unusual for a lady a century ago to get changed several times a day, with gowns for breakfast, for walking, for afternoon tea dances or afternoon tea. Then she would dress for dinner, perhaps for the opera or theatre….today, all we need is the clothes to be able to decipher who would would probably have worn them, to what occasion and when. It’s part of the mystery and romance of antique and vintage clothing.

Today, clothes are fairly disposable – the washing process takes a lot out of them and you might get twenty five wears out of a t-shirt or two or three events out of a cocktail dress before it’s out of fashion and a new one is desired. In the past, clothes were more expensive so you’d have fewer of them and look after them better – you might pass something on to your sister or daughter. As fashions changed, the styles were updated or altered – most women were skilled dressmakers so it made more sense to “make do”, especially during the Great Depression of the ’30s or WW2 of the ’40s and the resulting rationing (that went into the ’50s).

One of the things that fascinate me the most is when they’ve been updated – the original garment will reveal older fabrics and perhaps construction techniques whilst the style will be more modern. Adaptations usually show themselves on the interior if not externally. A new seamstress may use a different cotton or a different stitch. It just doesn’t “feel right”.

This dress is a case in point.

I bought this dress three years ago from a local collector, along with a quantity of ’20s and ’30s dresses (including my wedding gown) and recently we did this one up for the webshop – you can see the full listing here.

Firstly, the silk satin fabric seems very ’20s and so does the fairly unstructured bodice: no bust shaping, just a little gathering into the waist. But the long sleeves with elastic cuffs are wrong, as is the rayon underskirt. The lace is also very similar to the type frequently seen in late ’20s-mid ’30s dresses. There is one opening, on the side with a hook and eye (very 1930s) – and the overskirt has splits in the sides. It has a small, high and round neckline – more like a ’20s than a ’30s. The rayon underskirt is a similar material to lingerie in the ’30s.

I couldn’t decide – so I asked the Vintage Fashion Guild – and the consensus was early ’30s. That’s certainly what the style looks like (although it’s still odd for that time) but I wasn’t convinced – so when I got into the shop today I gave it a good turning-inside out and looked at all the seams, and the fabric close up and this is what I found:

There are a lot of possible changes and additions including the lace that is just sewn on the outside (and not into the seams as you’d expect if it were original). The fabric of the sleeves is very slightly different to the rest of it – not quite as matt as the dress so I suspect they may have been added. The waist seam isn’t as neat as the side seams so I suspect it isn’t original either – and the rayon underskirt has been sewn into it. There’s also some odd cotton tape inside, some of which is attached and some hanging (not sure what’s going on there).

Basically, I think this dress started life as a simple ’20s evening tunic, with no openings and was adapted and updated in the early ’30s – sleeves were added (or replaced), a waistline was cut and a simple side opening added – the underskirt was added to create a more fashionable length and this necessitated splits to be inserted into the side seams of the original dress (you can see the hem is original in the silk dress but the side seams have been unstitched and opened up).

Perhaps I should add “forensic seamstress” to my list of attributes? I love deciphering the stories they have to tell – this gown has already enjoyed outtings in the ’20s and ’30s, is a rare large size and is now ready for a new life.


  1. ‘forensic seamstress’ is an awesome job title. A lot of what archaeology is, is the same kind of deconstruction of evidence to date and determine the level and kind of activity/

  2. this is an awesome piece ! I love it too when I discover older fabrics or notions in a garment … I have that wonderful 40s jacket that is the same, or maybe very late 30s, recut and resewn, I even found bit of newspaper used for some padding … total awesomeness !

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