Restoring an early 1940s American evening gown

This week I’ve had the pleasure to work on a beautiful gown that was recently purchased from an Australian webshop, and needed a little TLC.

This dress came to the Australian webshop via the Rose Bowl markets in L.A, and probably dates to 1940 or early 1941, before the US joined WW2 and full length dresses were seen as too wasteful with all their fabric. Later during the war, even these long dresses were shortened so they’re hard to find in their original length.

The bodice, sleeves and pockets are decorated with a fancy cotton braid, a technique sometimes known as “Cornelli” or “Soutache”, it’s a type of passementerie and particularly popular in the ’40s (it had a brief resurgence along with other ’40s design elements during the 1980s).

The fabric is one of my favourites: a rayon knit sometimes called “Celanese” in Australia (perhaps because it was the Celanese company that wove rayons amongst other other products, much as Manchester factories produced linens?).

You see a bit of it during the ’30s and ’40s and it has lovely soft draping and breathability – it’s also quite a robust fabric as long as you don’t get any holes in it, upon which, like other knits, it can start to develop bigger holes. One of my tasks was to darn the holes, and secure the cornelli work where it was starting to unravel.

Notice how the bodice is drooping a little on one side – that’s because the seam from sleeve to almost the waist was ripped open.

This pic is a little clearer – a very brave lady would be needed to wear this gown!

Here are more rips – now, the difference between a rip and a tear: a rip is where stitches are missing along a seam, and a tear is where the fabric is has been damaged. Rips are easy to fix and in this case when I found more than twenty, I realised it would be more effective to resew every seam.

Back before synthetic textiles were invented in the ’50s, all garments were sewn with pure cotton (or sometimes silk) thread – and as wonderful as that is, over time the natural materials deteriorate. Many dresses from the early ’40s still have strong stitching, but when you see random missing stitches like this it’s usually a sign that the thread itself needs replacing.

From the ’50s to the ’80s, thread was generally a mix of cotton and polyester – and in more recent time, threads are pure polyester. Now as much as I dislike poly, I have to admit that it’s much stronger than the earlier materials and comes in a great range of vibrant colours, that don’t fade.

Here’s an example of a tear at the neckline – someone has probably been in a hurry to take the dress off and has tugged at the neckline, tearing into the fabric. To fix this, I unpicked the neckline a bit, ironed the opening flat, stitched the two broken sides together and then resewed the neckline a little over to one side, to take the stress off the weak spot. In this case, with the ruching at the neckline you don’t see the repair. Neckline rips are common, but straightforward to fix.

If you’re reeling at my mention that I restitched every seam, I’ll show you another reason why it was a good idea: the gown showed signs of many previous repairs – and not only were they not done very well, the thread colour didn’t match.

Inexpert hand sewn repairs can often be lumpy, and ruin the line of a seam – I carefully unpicked every repair and restitched by machine. As well, I replaced the lumpy shoulder pads with smooth modern versions (WW2 shoulder pads are often misshappen) of a size preferred by the client, and secured the neck and sleeve facings by hand.

I’m sure that I now know the gown inside out and it’s probably the most attention it’s had since the original seamstress did her work! Thankfully this is a beautiful gown, and looks wonderful on her new wearer and its now strong enough to last many years and hopefully grace many lovely events.

These dresses are getting harder to find, but if you fancy whipping one up for yourself, I have a similar pattern in the webshop. It would be great in a nice silk jersey.

As an aside, I’d like to mention that if you do receive a damaged garment from an online trader, regardless of any policies they might have saying “No Returns”, they have a responsibility to provide a garment that is fit for its purpose, ie, wearable – and under Australian law you are entitled to a refund, or happy resolution.

I like to think that all traders seek satisfied customers and are keen to resolve any issues, so I always recommend bringing them to their attention so that they have an opportunity to do the right thing.

And if you do have a frock that needs some love – I’m at your service!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *