Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style, Stylish Books

The “Perfect Shirt” Project Begins

There’s not a single style manual on the planet that doesn’t suggest to all of us that among the essential wardrobe staples we should have in our closets is the button-up shirt (as opposed to the button-down shirt which I’ve discussed before!).

American “style expert” Lloyd Boston lists “the white shirt” number one in his book The Style Checklist: The Ultimate Wardrobe Essentials for You. He specifically suggests that this fashion must-have should be white. And I’m sure that we all have a few white button-up shirts in our fashion arsenal, but I think it’s safe to say that we also need other colours.

Dearer to our hearts perhaps (at least for those of us who create some of our own fashion pieces) Sarah Gunn and Julie Starr authors of the recent book A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing include the shirt among their 30 timeless garments and they include both styling tips and sewing tips. They also don’t confine this classic to white and consider that we ought to have a few in different colours in our wardrobes.

Why is the shirt such a universally appealing wardrobe piece? I think because it is endlessly versatile.

A shirt can say corporate meeting. It can say casual Saturday. It can say sexy Saturday night. Youthful, put-together, classic, chic, tasteful, refined and classy – these are all words that come to my mind when I think of a classic shirt. And throughout the twentieth century, a variety of iconic women made the shirt an icon all on its own.

Who wouldn’t swoon over Lauren Bacall in Key Largo in her ever-present button-up?

See the yoke and the men’s styling features? Wonderful! And so versatile

Or the ever-chic Audrey Hepburn? Sexy and buttoned-up all at the same time!

More recently, remember Uma  Thurman in Pulp Fiction? Even if you didn’t see the movie, I’m sure you saw the stills where she is smouldering in her white button-up with French cuffs.

Then, if you still think a button-up shirt is too prissy for you, may I reintroduce you to Marilyn? You can never see a classic shirt the same way again once you’ve seen one on Marilyn.

Unmistakably Marilyn!

There doesn’t seem to be any agreement on precisely when women started wearing button-up shirts. Some sources suggest it was in the 1950s when women in movies would wear their partner’s shirt (i.e. a men’s shirt) after the suggestion that they had just had sex. But that can’t be right because women in the armed services wore shirts long before that and we’ve seen photos of women in the late 1800s wearing what appear to be collared shirts with ankle-grazing skirts.  

In the 19th century, these early women’s “shirts” were often referred to as “shirtwaists.” This is the term we now use when referring to shirt-dresses.

The problem with many of the shirts on offer to women in ready-to-wear these days is that they don’t fit very well. The darts are often in the wrong places. The fit over the bust is often a problem in general. Enter the gape! They are often too wide across the shoulders and nip in too much at the waist. Or they look like bags all over. A smart button-up shirt ought to fit perfectly, n’est ce pas?

I enjoyed Justine Leconte’s tips on how a shirt should fit and found it very useful so I’ll use her approach when I check on the fit of my own perfect shirt…

This is right up my alley, although I often wonder what women whose foundational style is artistic boho think about this. In any case, who am I to argue with the wardrobe police? I agree: everyone looks terrific in a shirt. But it has to be perfect. Enter my new project.

After I finished my husband’s perfectly-fitted (and very expensive) shirt project, it occurred to me that I ought to have a perfectly-fitted pattern that I can use for both a shirt and a blouse. And there is a difference between a shirt and a blouse in my mind. The fashion police suggest that a blouse is a type of shirt (because it blouses?) but a shirt is not always a blouse. A shirt is crisp while a blouse is drapey. At least that’s how I’m going to define them. I plan to start the project by creating the perfect shirt pattern then modifying it for blouses.

So what does my perfect shirt need?

  • It needs to be fitted either with darts or princess lines. I think I’ll start with darts because princess lines are really just a variation on that and I can always manipulate darts into a princess seam if I want to do that in the future.
  • It needs to have a collar. Kind of a no-brainer since this is part of the definition of a shirt. However, there are different kinds of collars and I want this to be a collar with a stand.
  • It needs to have well-fitted sleeves. I find that commercial patterns often have sleeves that are very large around the bicep. They seem to think we are all stevedores or wrestlers.
  • It needs to have nice cuffs with a nice placket. This is a skill I will need to learn more about since I see so many different kinds of plackets around.
  • It needs to have a back yoke. Yokes support the material in the shirt. I can always manipulate this out if I choose a blouse-type approach in the future.
  • It needs to be the right length. I’ll figure that out as I fit the test shirt.
  • I don’t necessarily want the shirt to have any breast pockets, but that’s an option I’ll keep in mind for variations.

Where to begin? I decided to start with an examination of commercial patterns. I own a couple, none of which is perfect.

McCall’s 6649 (copyright marked 2012 and now out of print it seems) seems to tick all the boxes, as does McCall’s 7575 (a 2017 addition). In fact, they are so similar as to make one wonder why they got rid of one and created another one just the same. I also picked up Burda 6908 in the discards box at a Fabricville outpost in Muskoka during our fall road trip. This pattern is dated 2014 and is a bit different from the previous ones in that it is more of a tunic style – no darts, quite long and very balloony. Not quite what I’m looking for in a basic pattern, but I do think I will make it as part fo this project.

So it does seem as if I’m going to have to really work on my own pattern. I’ll start with M7575 and modify it for fit and style. And what about fabric?

Well, these classic shirts are by definition fabricated from wovens, usually 100% cotton or a cotton blend. Obviously, they have to be fairly lightweight – just imagine what these shirts would look like made from canvas. Not the image I’m going for. Eventually, I’d love to have a fine Italian cotton, but for the first go-around, I’m going to see what I have leftover from other projects. Stay tuned for my test shirt – a kind of “Frankenstyle” design while I test out my pattern details.

I’ll give LB the final word…

Posted in Fashion, Style, Style Influencers

Edith Head:Style lessons from a costume designer

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[Above, the extraordinary Grace Kelly in an Edith Head gown.]

It’s really an understatement to call the legendary Edith Head simply a ‘costume designer.’ She certainly was that, and a whole lot more. Even as a junior-high-school nerd, I knew who she was. To me her name conjured up stylish women in sophisticated suits, coats, gowns and even hats (although to tell you the truth I’ve never really been a hat woman myself – look terrible in them!). And did you know that she has won more Oscars than any other woman? Not an actress, but a designer!

This week I stumbled on a piece about her and it made me think about how her movie costumes might have influenced the way I see fashion for those of us of a certain age – and all other women who care about themselves.

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Her day dress for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951)

Edith Head designed costumes for so many movies that not only captured a film era, but also a style era. When I look back on many of the pieces she created I see timeless classics that work for young women and for women of a certain age. When you’re in your 50’s and beyond you can carry off a whole lot of sophistication and elegance that in today’s fabrics would also offer comfort. I mean, who really wouldn’t like to have a great suit like Audrey is wearing in Funny Face? (in spite of the fact that my suit wearing days are thankfully behind me as I navigate a whole new life after work!)

Funny Hepburn
7th July 1956: Belgian-born actress Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) films a scene for the Paramount musical ‘Funny Face’. Costumes by Givenchy. Original Publication: Picture Post – 8540 – Audrey Dances With Astaire – pub. 1957 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Five lessons I have learned from Edith Head about style at a certain age:

  • Sexy doesn’t equal skin exposure. It was true in her time, and it is true now.
  • Alluring is better than sexy anyway – at any age.
  • Fit is everything. If a piece fits to perfection it doesn’t matter if it’s from TJ Maxx or Chanel.
  • Most of the time, less really is more. A great piece of clothing doesn’t need huge jewelry despite what the fashion magazines might say. Big accessories are trying to distract you from something nasty usually!
  • Quality beats quantity every time. Wonderful fabrics make everything better – for me it’s better to have one fantastic, well-crafted sweater that I love to wear than three that are just meh.

Edith Head is one of my fashion influencers. But there are others! Til next time!