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Jun 3, 2011

Making a Ginger Rogers Dress

What can you say about Ginger Rogers that hasn't already been said on a million other sewing/vintage style blogs?  I'll try to come up with something. I've actually written about her a few times, early on, here and here.

Growing up, I adored Ginger Rogers and the more I learned about her the less I liked her.   Aside from her politics -- don't get me started -- she apparently wasn't much fun to work/be/live with.  As recounted by someone I knew years ago who performed with her in Hello Dolly, she was very grand and very cheap, at least by that time in her life. 

But let's not let facts get in the way of fiction.  On screen, especially in the late-Thirties, early-Forties (her heyday), Ginger was wonderful fun.  Working women, especially, identified with her.  You always knew, whatever part she was playing in the film -- and she was usually a shop girl or dancer -- that she'd worked hard to get where she was.  Nothing had been handed to her, and she was tough, which endeared her to struggling Depression-era audiences.

And how lovely she looked.  Obviously she didn't dress herself, but she wore clothes beautifully, having been blessed with a lean and lithe dancer's body.   The films she made with Fred Astaire at RKO are classics and her on-screen contributions are equal to his, especially in the later films.  When they dance, I watch her.

Whatever her personality quirks, Ginger Rogers endured; she started in movies in the Twenties and was still working in the Eighties.  I saw her live at Radio City Music Hall in 1980 in her nostalgic one-woman (and a zillion effeminate chorus boys) show, and I remember being very entertained by it.  She even autographed my program!

Cathy has been begging me to make her a Ginger Rogers-style dress and I'm kind of eager to make one too.  The styles are easy to find: nearly any late-Thirties secretary dress from a pattern company like Hollywood or DuBarry fits the bill, and I recently found one that had a lot of the elements from the dress pictured up top, which Ginger wore in the Pick Yourself Up number in Swing Time, one of the very best of the RKO Astaire-Rogers musicals.

Here's what I recently bought on on Etsy:

Another shot of the Pick Yourself Up dress:

If you inspect Ginger's dress (you can click on it to supersize) you'll notice it has a fitted midriff yoke.  I may or may not try to recreate that.  This Hollywood pattern, currently for sale on Etsy, has a similar yoke, but I will not pay $35 for a vintage dress pattern.

Ginger's skirt is pleated and it seems to wrap across the front, below the midriff yoke (or does it?  If you inspect the top photo you'll see it looks like the layers overlap for additional fullness; in the video below not so much).  What do you think a dress like that was made out of, silk?

Anyway, this is what I'm thinking about sewing next, or soon, though things could change, as they sometimes do.

On an unrelated note, if you haven't contributed your recipe for a happy life on yesterday's post -- or you'd like some good instructions for whipping one up this weekend -- please have a look.  Some wonderful comments -- and a lot of wisdom -- were contributed.

Thoughts about Ginger/the Ginger dress?

Happy Friday, everybody!

Ginger as I saw her:

In her prime:


  1. I was *obsessed* with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers when I was little (and I mean very little -- 3 or 4 years old). I don't know which I wanted to be -- probably both -- but they inspired me to take years of dance and to imagine my grown-up self as some combination of all their combined traits (playful, elegant, sassy, graceful). I think my 4-year-old self might be disappointed to see how I turned out (boo hoo), but I am still entranced by numbers like the one from Swing Time. And I still love Ginger's dresses too -- especially that incredible feather-covered one from Top Hat!!

  2. Personality quirks aside, Ginger (especially when dancing with Fred) sure knew how to move. I always fancied myself related to her in some distant fashion (last name, there can't be that many Rogers'). The way her skirt flows as she moves is sheer magic.

  3. Too emotional a subject for me to leave a comment on yesterday's post; sorry. Mental illness is sh*t. That is all!

    With regard to fitted yokes - how about using Vogue 8727 as a starting point?

  4. Lucy, I just found one in the right size on eBay now -- thanks a million for the suggestion!

  5. You should save your pennies on the pattern. That's silk crepe de chine, lots of it, and nothing else will do..

  6. I often find I have to turn a blind eye to the politics and philosophies of famous people -- otherwise there would be nobody left to read/watch/listen to! Also, there is a great deal of cognitive dissonance in the rich and famous, where they don't realize that what they say would apply to themselves too. Helen Keller was an eugenicist.

    I have managed to miss all of the Ginger Rogers movies, although I caught a few of the Fred Astaire ones on TV growing up (what is the one where he danced on the ceiling? That fascinated me as a kid). I do love the thirties secretary fashion, although I have no place to wear a dress like that. I'm sorely tempted to stitch one up anyway.

  7. Gertie's blog covered the subject of separating the artist from the art awhile ago-you know-when Galliano went on the grape. I din't comment as some of the posts where getting heated and saying that you can't separate. What?? No one would set foot in a museum or listen to music ever again if that where the case. If I said you that an artist drugged and raped a junior high school girl people would be appalled but yet how many of us loved "The Pianist?"

  8. Oh, Peter... why DO all our heroines/heroes HAVE TO "tell it all" and leave us abandoned of any good ideals, goals, motivations??
    Rhonda in Montreal (PR)

  9. I love Ginger Rogers! My favorite movie of hers is The Major and the Minor, it's a def must see.

    Good luck with the dress and please put up your process, I'd love to attempt my own one day.

  10. I love the DuBarry pattern. I would add godets (a scary word) to make the skirt more flirty. I see navy polka dots and crisp white swiss dot for the contrast, and yes tiny white covered buttons. Cathy would look divine.

  11. I think that dress would be lovely. However, I am not much of a movie buff. I enjoy watching many old movies for the language and cultural relevance of that time period.

    I think in some instances that you can't separate when it is something that goes against your own social values. For example, if I knew a famous artist was a bigot and acted on these beliefs, then for me I could not separate the artist from the person. However, for someone else, this may not be something they would even think about. I think too, then you probably have to put it in perspective according to the social values of that time period.

    I have never seen "The Pianist", and have no desire to do so. Not a movie that would interest me, regardless. However, I do love period dramas, especially English ones.

    Love 1930's fashions. Can't wait to see what you dress Cathy in.

  12. I think in the top photo it just looks overlapping because of her swinging movement. After watching the video the fabric has to be a crepe - nothing else would behave like that, and no doubt it would be silk - cos she's a movie star! You could get a similar effect with viscose georgette.

  13. ...not that Cathy isn't a movie star or anything...!

  14. Sherry, has Cathy been talking to you? ;)

  15. I met Ginger Rogers about a year before she died. She was very sweet. She was in a wheelchair, and though she was frail, you could sense her "presence". We didn't talk politics, or social views, so I can't comment on that. But she sure wasn't cheap at that point! :)

  16. Silk crepe de chine? That dress is amazing. The hemline looks alive.

  17. Now I have to go google ginger rogers. I never really watched any of the movies though. I feel the same way about Alice Walker, love her books but when I read some of her stuff with her views on Muslim women, blegh.

    (I'm a muslim woman).

    Anyway, can't wait to see the dress.

  18. Peter, that dance routine from 'Swingtime" is my favourite dance routine of all time. It is just joyous. They are both wonderful - but there are some male dancers whose real gift is letting their partner shine and Fred was one of those.
    Re the skirt there is a lot of volume there, to me it looks like sunray pleats. I second the idea that it was probably silk crepe.
    Lastly so Ginger got a bit cranky at the end of her career? I can forgive her that. I recently read a biography of a very talented and famous present day actress and could never quite feel the same admiration for her again. Maybe ignorance is bliss?

  19. Having made many dance costumes I'd say the midriff is a separate belt, it looks like there's some kind of fastening for jut the belt in the center back if you look closely. That skirt has to be at least a full circle! The dress must open down the center back too, unless there's an opening in the front neck and a side zipper, which was common in dresses of that vintage. And notice the fullness of the sleeves, so she could move her arms. What fun to make this dress, but you wouldn't have to make full sleeves unless Cathy plans to dance like Ginger!

  20. All that fullness at the outside edge of her dance dresses was probably achieved by godets -- tons and tons of them. They were probably circles, slashed to the center and installed quite closely together -- perhaps around the edge of a circular skirt (waistline is derived from the value of pi; easiest to divide one's waist measurement by 6). Thus the close-at-the-waist, uber-full around the hem effect.

  21. yes, but can you tap dance as well as she can, in high heels and backwards?

  22. I sincerely hope you make one! I love that era, and gaze longingly at my own patterns, but never seem to find the time to make them.

  23. I'm dying for my wedding gown to be just like the gown Ginger wore in Swing Time (the white gown-but strapless). If only someone could make it for me! Any thoughts or suggestions on where I could find an ideal designer/gown that's affordable?

  24. I'm looking for a patern to make that dress for me, so if you succes at making one please help me !


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