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Jan 15, 2012

Dress Silhouettes Gone Wrong + POLL!


Readers, do you believe in objective truth?  Do some ideas live in the universal mind and transcend both history and geography?  Are some concepts simply not up for discussion? 

I believe that, despite changing fashion trends and cultural differences, the human eye finds -- and has always found -- beauty in the natural silhouette of the human body, and humans have chosen to attire themselves in garments that closely echo that silhouette.  There are different body shapes, certainly, but the differences are relatively minor.

When we examine women's fashion of the last hundred years or so, we find that fashion has often followed or sought subtly to enhance, the natural lines of the body.  But we also discover trends in which the "ideal" silhouette presented is in conflict with the body's natural shape, putting the waist at the hips, say, or the shoulders as high as the earlobes.  Worse, "fashion" has sometimes reshaped the body into no clearly identifiable shape at all!  This is all likely due to the fashion industry's need to increase sales, a desire among fashion designers to court controversy, and downright misogyny.

While no doubt considered the height of fashion at the time, we often revisit these silhouettes in horror.  How could we have been so stupid not to see what is (now) so obvious?

Friends, today I would like to share a group of such dress patterns with you.  Depending on your age and eyesight, some of these dresses may look appealing.  Rest assured, these patterns were not chosen arbitrarily, but rather derived from a complicated algorithm.  This is science, not opinion.

Below are a few highlights.  You can view the grouping in its entirety here.  Occasionally, one view on the pattern envelope may look acceptable.  Discount that and seek out the view that is a nightmare -- it's there.

As you can see, the biggest culprit here is the ruffle.  This detail, used sparingly on an apron edge or petticoat hem, may charm.  Used in excess however, or intentionally applied to a part of the body where gathered fullness distorts our natural human proportions into something freakish, they are an embarrassment.

Unless you are 1) square dancing, or 2) reenacting the Charles and Diana wedding, please use ruffles sparingly.  (Infant-wear excluded.)

Another blemish on the fashion world is the effort to impose exaggerated geometry on the human (primarily female) body.  Few of us are truly rectangular, and yet in the 1980s, many dresses might just as well have been cardboard boxes, perhaps with Old Gold written across the front.

These patterns look wrong because they were wrong -- wrong according to taste, truth, and a very sophisticated algorithm I cannot share with you.

Finally, there is the attempt to create the panted version of every dress, no doubt in an attempt to court the casual, comfort-minded consumer, regardless of what the result might look like.  I can only say ugh, or rather ugg-a-wugg.

In closing sophisticated readers, do you agree with the basic thrust of my argument (and my top-secret algorithm)?  Can you see how attempts to distort the natural shape of the human body fail every time, and are met with little more than derision in hindsight?  Are you hiding any vintage nightmares in your closet?

Please complete the following poll:

NOTE: An ugly rumor has been circulating in the blogosphere to the effect that I hate orange.  I do not hate orange.  On me, it is an atrocity, but if you like it, more power to you.  Tangerine Tango, on the other hand, may end up being the Eighties knee-ruffle of tomorrow.

What is your favorite silhouette and are giant shoulder pads and parachute pants involved?

Jump in!


  1. Whew! I have never made, or purchased and contemplated making any of the above patterns. I had to laugh about the survey...I wish there was a narrow part on my body, ahem.

  2. I was afraid when I first started reading this that perhaps you would highlight a favorite of mine and I would have to hang my head in shame. Thank goodness they appear as Ugh to me as they do to you. Although on the days I feel bloated that caftan sure would feel comfy!

  3. Some of those silhouettes only look good on bodies with that shape. For example, Simplicity 6162 would be darling - on my 4 year old daughter. 5691 screams maternity - a look I run screaming from when not with child, and having been pregnant 4 times, I am QUITE over that look.

    I think you have to know your own body better than the trends in order not to get sucked into some horribly unflattering stuff.

    BTW - My next project - Colette's Clover pants in...Tangerine Tango!;-)

    1. Mentioned 'excluding infants' right?...should I assume children too?

  4. I've tried to get with the billowy trend it it never works. All those billowy caftan shapes make me look like a house. I've accepted that my bust and my hips always see eye to eye no matter how my weight fluctuates and I will always somewhat have the illusion of a waist line so I need to dress it accordingly

  5. I like orange, it suits my skin tone!
    Dropped waist 20s stuff looks very chic on the models, but frumpy and dumpy on me, and probably a lot of other women too!

  6. Your on the money Peter. Any care to patent that top-secret algorithm of yours? You could make a fortune selling it at a highly-inflated price to pattern making companies...

  7. I spent a big part of the 70's thru the 90's in tees and jeans because of the fashion designs being thrust upon us. At times I did succumb to a few ill-fated outfits. Several years ago I was given a few file boxes full of patterns, most were pretty ugly, however I did find a few gems. I'm with you on Tangerine Tango, but Cockatoo and Beliflower are divine on me.

  8. All the patterns are ugly, but OMG what drugs would someone have to take to think that McCalls 5210 was a Fashion Basic, the dress is bad but the jumpsuit/bloomer thing has to be the ugliest garment I have ever seen, and that includes Lady Gaga's meat dress.

    I think I need go and wash out my eyes.

  9. I have to defend Simplicity 8354. Unlike most of the other patterns, I wouldn't call it street wear. I had a caftan made from this pattern made of terry cloth in the late 60s-early 70s... the end of my high school years and the beginning of college. For dorm living... getting from the showers to my room, curling up totally inside it to study when the heat wasn't working, etc... It was the most marvelous garment I owned. It also had a certain "accessibility" in certain situations. :)

  10. I agree with Sandi--Simplicity 6162 would look adorable... on my three-year-old and her little sister!

  11. Yuck, they are indeed all terrible! Except.... that Butterick 5624 DOES look like something my favourite 80s cartoon character Jem (from Jem and the Holograms, OBVIOUSLY) would wear, so I can't absolutely hate it....

  12. It's funny how freakish the 80s patterns in particular look to the modern eye. We seem to be in an era of unrestrained 80s-hate. What's interesting is, many of my 30s-40s-50s books talk the same way about the twenties--the drop-waisted style is "grotesque" or "bizarre" or "unwomanly," the skirts are "vulgarly" or "ridiculously" short. I wonder if it has something to do with social changes happening at the time--unprecedented economic prosperity, women in public life/the workplace as never before, etc.?

  13. I believe in universal truths, to be sure. One of those seems to be beauty- it's always there, always elusive and I just don't believe you have the algorithm.. ;) I mean.. Da Vinci couldn't crack it, or Pythagoras...

    Anyway, geeking out aside... I think fashion is dumb. Super dumb. For precisely the reasons you wrote about. I like to think of clothes as something of a second skin I can change like a chameleon depending on what I want to project to the outside world, or what's going on inside me.

    So on a super happy (or a super depressed) day, I'll probably dress in bright, happy colors.

    Or cuts like my big fluffy 50's dresses. Nothing gets rid of the blues like one of those dresses.

    If I want to be taken seriously, I wear something like this:

    If I want to be invisible, I wear jeans and a t-shirt. Or all gray.

    It's all about interacting with the reality behind you... Fashion is... Boring.

  14. "around" not "behind." I need more coffee...

  15. My favorite silhouette is the bias cut slip dress, knee length or longer. Easy to wear, dress up, or down and versatile in the design arena. I have been business like, with a suit dress and jacket, fun in a thin strapped sun dress, with the shirt and or blouse underneath, I was in Birkenstock mode. Loved the time of this look better than any I can remember.

  16. I think I may own Simplicity 6162... *hangs head in shame*

  17. Hi Peter

    I thought of you whilst eating breakfast and watching the tv this morning (in Australia). They were doing some crosses to the pre-red carpet at the Golden Globes, and one of the US tv station presenters was wearing a pale orange dress that she described as TANGERINE! The trend is!!!!!!!


  18. Holy crap! I don't think I've ever seen such a large collection of really ugly patterns. And while the dress on Simplicity 5210 is one that I've owned and looked good in, the pants version started the "Teddy Bear Picnic" song off in my head. Butterick 5624-- I can't imagine that looking good on anyone.

  19. Ruffles are for little girls. However, I had garments MADE from patterns like these and there was a cultural subtext to some of the looks. I suppose in the 60s, a tent dress worn short with tights expressed an ease of movement, some women had not experienced before. And the shoulders, a lame attempt to mimic football players in the office, circa 1980.

  20. I remember lusting after an RTW dress exactly like Vogue 9716 in mustard ponti. I resisted only because I was so broke. Now I look at it and I'm like "What was I thinking!!!" I wonder what "now" look will eventually be revealed as the current version.

  21. I own Simplicity 5691, but in my defense, it came to me in a box of patterns that someone else had left out for the trash. I did not choose it to sew for myself or for my relatives.

  22. I think being young in the 80s and seeing/dealing with all those shoulder-padded and ruffled monstrosities left me really hating clothes and fashion. I was totally a sweatshirt and jeans kid until I started sewing for myself, at which point I could control the style, fit, and color of things. Now I am all about finding styles that give me the hourglass look - I don't tend to wear poofy blouses well (though I wish I could some days), and the skinny jeans are out. For me it is all about the tailored jacket, wide leg trousers, and fitted tops, usually in a knit. Mostly in dark colors and jewel tones. Of course, I don't actually own too many of these items since I haven't been sewing too long, but this year I am going to try to work on sewing day-to-day clothes so I have more things I can wear rather than mostly having costumes and pretty dresses for parties.

    (BTW, that McCall's 5210 is so hideous I almost felt the need to gouge my eyes out with a spoon. Those ruffly pantaloon jumpsuit things? Gross!)

    (Also BTW, in defense of Jem, I don't think she would have worn Butterick 5264. She was far too stylish. I mean, yes, she had a thing for ruffles and bows, but she also always had a waist. And she didn't wear clothes that were awkward lengths. Far too difficult to run around in... Though I do think she would approve of Tangerine Tango!)

  23. SeamsterEast@aol.comJanuary 16, 2012 at 11:06 AM

    Generally speaking, women's clothing (fashion) tends to accentuate the femaleness of the wearer, particularly strongly so during times of war and/or economic good times. The idea is that women are competing for a scarce resource.

    Co-existing men's clothing (fashion) goes quite blah.

    However ...

    ... let the war(s) end, the economic times go bad women's clothing (fashion) goes anything but provocative. Female fashion almost looks to be dressing fire hydrant.

    Yet ...

    ... SOMEONE has to be provocative (that's a social requirement), and the (young) men in turn get to be quite carried away.

    The early to mid 1980's was a seriously bad economic situation (I seem to remember unemployment then in NYC was over 12% the entire decade).

    I was watching something about baseball recently, and the show was then talking about early 1980's game play. I could not believe just how TIGHT the MLB players pants were. Up close and personal from ever direction. The pants looked almost like dancer's tights, but in woven fabric. I couldn't believe they played baseball -- making headlong dives for baseballs maybe just in reach, sliding into base at full speed, twisting hard to swing the bat to drive the ball over the fence -- without breaking every seam in their pants before end of 2nd inning. There MUST have been Lycra in those pants.

    A few years later -- and the economy recovered -- (young) men started wearing truly baggy jeans and the women again were wearing feminine fashions.

    For social reasons, someone has GOT to be provocative, and if one desired group isn't, the other is. Keeps the hearts beating, people making new friends as needed.

  24. I was definitely into the big shoulders, small waist, pleated and pegged pants look during the 80's. Now when I see that look in an old movie late at night, I cringe. But we looked great then. And I made most of those looks out of fabulous fabric, and they fit me well. What silhouette in the world will those designers come up with next???? Can't wait!

  25. I have never made any of these, but when I was growing up in the late 70s, my mom would buy some of the ugliest clothes I hated, and made me where them (or she would disown me). When I did wear them, I would just sit myself down in some inconspicuous corner and try to make myself disappear wherever she brought me. When I was in my rebellious teen during the 80s, I would cut them up (like the big puff sleeves and extra high waist bell bottom pants) to my liking and wore them with pride...ha!...and showed her how it should be worn....that at least I still wore them!

  26. I have to comment I laughed when I remembered those dancing cigarette packages!!! Those poor dancers! They all had beautiful legs and never showed their faces or bodies! The dancer's nightmare!


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