Vintage 101 – reconstructing a 1950s Coat Dress.

One of my favourite dress designs is the Coat Dress – the dress that looks like a coat, or the coat that looks like a dress.

In my ideal world they would never go out of fashion, but in the real world their time in the sun was the late ’40s to early ’50s. You see them again a bit in the ’60s and again in the ’70s and again around 1990-1991 but for some reason they didn’t make much of an impact.

Recently I bought a beautiful ’50s coat dress with a large white collar….

Now apart from the fact that she’s too big for Emily Charlotte, my size 6 Victorian mannequin, you can see some issues already: the centre front is not centred, the collar doesn’t sit very well either and there’s all this lumpiness around the hem. Let’s have a closer look at that collar….

See how badly it sits at the front where it clasps? There was another issue too, that you can’t see here – although the dress is a size 10, the collar is tiny, made for a petite lady so it sits quite comfortably on my size 6 mannequin but on the real size it’s all squished.

This dress had been mucked with. Updated or altered. As a seamstress, costumer and collector, I like my vintage to be authentic, in part out of respect for the original design but mostly because I believe that fashion works best as it was originally envisaged. I hope I don’t shock you here, but I’m afraid that I’m not a fan of “upcycling”….we like to think that vintage fashions are worn for a while, then put away until that modern day when you arrive to give her a new home but the reality is that many, if not most, vintage has been altered to fit a changing figure or new wearer, or updated as fashions change.

I find this eternally fascinating – you might recall my posts on the subject previously (see here and here).

To unlock the secrets of the coat dress, Esther and I set to work, first unpicking the collar to see what it would reveal….and we found another collar!

The second collar sat much better than the first one, and I considered stopping, but then I realised there were some issues with the cream fabric…it was a lighter weight than the rayon faille it was trimming, and so didn’t sit well either (boy am I fussy!) and worse still, it was stained in places and oh, dear…top stitched…

I like to tell people that I have to be fussy because my customers are fussy – and so you should be!

Top stitching was a popular stitching treatment in the ’60s and ’70s and nowadays it’s often used because it’s quick and easy, but you didn’t see it much in the ’50s and certainly a circa 1949-51 coat dress would not have been finished in this way – the cream trim was not original, was badly sewn and would have to go….so somewhat hesitantly, I unpicked it all. Hesitantly, because sometimes trims are added to hide holes, stains or other flaws…what would I find underneath? Would I be putting it altogether again later?

Finally, the coat dress as she was meant to be – and doesn’t Kate look wonderful in her? Now available at Circa.


  1. A fantastic improvement! Is this a Stell-Ricks of Melbourne coatdress? I have one that is almost identical, but has jet beads on the collar.

  2. ~ * ♥ * ~

    I agree with you; I detest upcycling. I bought this adorable lemon yellow sailor~styled dress off Etsy without realizing someone had hacked inches and inches off the skirt so it sits mid~thigh and looks “chic”! AArgh!!

    I love the top and practically cried when I tried it on and realized that someone had pretty much destroyed this gorgeous vintage dress. I think I have to try to turn it into a blouse because I won’t wear it as it is. : (

    bonita of Depict This!
    ~ * ♥ * ~

  3. Angie, this one is from Elegance, a Melbourne label that was based in Flinders Lane.

    Harbourmaster, I suspect it was an update to make it more fashionable. Thankfully they didn’t damage the dress underneath!

    Bonita, oh I agree! We can’t stop the people who hack vintage for a modern taste but they will succeed in increasing the value of the authentic garments. Perhaps you could wear yours over a skirt?

    Esz, don’t be greedy! Size 10 ladies need something beautiful to wear too 🙂

  4. I too detest up cycling. I’m an old fashioned girl, and I love the character that an original piece holds.
    Fantastic recovery of the dress- just beautiful 🙂

  5. I’m not a fan of upcycling either. Quite often a perfectly good garment is butchered into something quite amateur! As a collector of many things, buttons, vintage clothing and fabric, braids etc.. I believe in the ‘integrity of the item’. That means as close as possible to its original purpose.

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