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Jan 10, 2012

On "Famous Frocks" and sewing books in general

Friends, I'm happy to report that I'm feeling much better and was able to make it to the library yesterday, where I happened upon a copy of the new sewing book Famous Frocks by Sara Alm and Hannah McDevitt.  Are you familiar with it?

I rarely find sewing books at the library, not that I look for them much.  I own a ton already and have leafed through even more, but I find that for my current level of sewing -- which I'd categorize as intermediate, whatever that really means -- there isn't much new; the masters remain the masters. And let's face it, 90% of what a sewist is ever going to need to know can be found in the highly untrendy Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing.  Am I wrong?

More experienced sewers are already committed to their craft and don't need a strong hook to lure them into a book purchase, or expect a book to come with patterns included.  And they probably already own too many (books and patterns).

But demographics change and a new generation of sewers demands its own sewing books, and why not?  But to judge from many of the new sewing books, the focus today is on making sewing fun.  I have a lot of thoughts about why this is the case, but I'll save that for another post.

So I borrowed Famous Frocks and had a look. 

It's much easier to criticize other people's work than to create your own, readers, and a lot of how a book ends up is beyond the author's control.  That said, as much as I wanted to love Famous Frocks, I was a little disappointed.  Here's why and I'll be specific.

The title and subheading of this book are a bit misleading.  The authors choose 10 celebrities with highly identifiable (some to the point of banality) signature looks (Jackie, Audrey, Marilyn, Twiggy: all present and accounted for).  The book includes a paper pattern reinterpreting (i.e. simplifying) each iconic look.  Included too is a slight variation for each look/dress.

While Jackie's signature A-line is attributed to Oleg Cassini, Audrey's LBD to Givenchy, and Marilyn's Seven Year Itch dress to William Travilla, no designer is mentioned for Bette Davis, although Orry-Kelly and Edith Head played a huge role in creating her onscreen wardrobe.  Am I being too picky?  No designer is mentioned with regard to Twiggy either.   Shouldn't a book entitled Famous Frocks either mention all the frock's original designers, or the designers behind the icon's famous look?

Farrah Fawcett is shown in what is referred to as a wrap dress, "likely inspired by none other than Diane von Furstenberg."  Notice anything unusual about this wrap dress, eagle-eyed readers?

Whoops, it's a shirtdress.  Anyway, Farrah's hair was iconic, and the book includes a wrap dress pattern, which I think most people prefer to a shirtdress these days anyway.

The book contains no photographs of its patterns sewn up, just leggy illustrations, which may have had more to do with budget constraints than anything else, but I think the book really suffers for it.

You can see some versions of the finished dresses here, at a website whose URL is buried in the closing acknowledgments.  (I think some of them are cute, actually.)  Much is made about uploading your own versions to   Obviously, something went wrong.

Like so many sewing books I've seen lately, Famous Frocks seems primarily targeted at the young female Project Runway fan who'd like to learn to sew her own clothes.  That's why there's a glossary with terms like baste and gather.  And why pretty much all the outfits lean toward the slim 'n' sexy.   

For someone like that this book could be inspiring and fun.  I know I'm not the target audience.  But would someone who wanted to dress like mid-Eighties Madonna also want to dress like Rita Hayworth or Twiggy?

One last pet peeve: I find some version of this in many contemporary sewing books with regard to using vintage patterns and it's here as well:

With vintage patterns, sizing and fit is always an issue...

ALWAYS?  Now as then, if your measurements match those of your pattern, the garment should fit.  If not -- which is more the rule than the exception -- you're going to have to make some alterations to the pattern.  Sometimes, true, patterns of yore (especially Fifties-era patterns) assumed you'd be wearing different undergarments than those popular today, which would enhance the final look and affect the fit of the garment, but there's a modern version available today of virtually everything grandma wore.  Or just adjust the fit.

You can see more pics of Famous Frocks here.

Finally, my dream sewing book, which isn't really a sewing book at all:

A highly experienced costumer, perhaps with the aid of a writer, deconstructs a series of actual dresses or gowns from Hollywood's Golden Age -- perhaps from a private collection; they don't have to be iconic, though ideally we would be able to track the costume to a specific film and performer -- and shows, in extreme detail, precisely what techniques were involved, specifically what materials, shortcuts, and so forth, maybe even how the design was intended to flatter or camouflage the person's body.  That is a book I'd buy.  

Any thoughts about favorite or not-so-favorite sewing books you wish to share?

Go for it!


  1. Ever thought about writing a book? I love your idea and would totally buy it. Maybe a collaboration with the folks who pick the garments for the back cover of Threads magazine?

    My biggest complaint about FF (I bought it when it first came out) was that it way way way over simplifies even the dresses that it highlights. Also, it didn't always pick the dress that I thought should be picked for an icon. Rather, it picked the one that had the simplest silhouette. If I ever got rid of sewing books, I'd probably get rid of this one.

  2. Like you, I have loads of sewing books. It does seem that one is put out to entice new sewers in every generation; my own collection has sewing books from the turn of the century through the 1960's. But most of the new ones seem to be stuffed with fluff, rather than sewing lessons. I did buy the new Burda book for my college age daughter, and she liked it very much(I am trying to lure her back to sewing; I could use some help finishing my projects!). I still rely on the Vogue as my favorite go-to book. And, I am with you on what book you would buy-there are plenty of visual costume reference books available, but not much if you want to recreate a particular genre look. I think that is the true blessing of the internet for sewers-someone out there has fastidiously done the research, made the garment, and blogged about it.

  3. A book that has lots of pictures and descriptions of techniques would be amazing! From my dearth of experience and resources, I think making mistakes and learning as you go is how many home sewers end up sewing. I have an auntie to ask if I get stuck with something, and my mother can usually help me with the easy stuff...but there just isn't a good resource out there for someone who wishes to go it alone and without the ear of an experienced seamstress.

    Maybe there isn't enough documentation of how a lot of these costumes were made?

  4. Glad you’re feeling better!

    I agree with Valerie S. Perhaps YOU should create the sewing book you would buy. I would buy it. One caveat is that Hollywood costumes were not constructed for “regular” wear. They were put together quickly and only needed to last as long as the shoot. But that information would be interesting too! Remember that Ginger Rogers dress you blogged about a while back? The one from Swing Time? I would love to know the details of that dress. Give it some thought.

    In the meantime, the book I keep going back to is Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing.

  5. Hannah, if you mean recorded documentation, I think there's very little, other than the original sketches. I don't think anybody thought about recording for the future.

    But you can see how something was made by taking it apart -- or at least, inspecting it closely. You can still do this with some museum collections, but I've never seen a book about Hollywood dress design with anything other than photos of the garment on a mannequin.

  6. Yep. Reader's Digest is the best-est one. (Sort of like using the Betty Crocker red gingham cookbook: reliable recipes for the beginner.) I also like Sandra Betzina's Power Sewing. And Threads magazine is an invaluable resource.
    Don't know how many theater costume textbooks are still in print. Dover Books has a ton of reproductions of 19th century fashion magazine plates; ditto costume collections, drawings and construction manuals for several eras. I find them most useful.

  7. I just got a copy of "Famous Frocks" for Christmas and I like it (though I haven't tried my hand at any of the patterns yet).
    As far as techniques in it, I think there's a section at the beginning for that kind of thing, but I'd just skip it since I have my trusty Dressmaker's Technique Bible.

    My ideal sewing book? It'd be a lot like yours, actually, Peter, but would cover all of history, and naturally, be spiral bound so I could keep it open on my sewing table while I worked or sketched out a new look.
    (And it'd include croquis.)

  8. It sounds as if "Famous Frocks" is a great idea, carelessly executed. I've always wanted a book showing exactly all those little tricks and tips that allowed costumers to put garments together cleverly, but not necessarily traditionally.

    Where photos are allow at museum exhibits, I often take close-ups of closures, seam lines, or unusual use of fabrics. Even a standard photo is often large enough on a computer screen to allow deconstruction of a technique when it's examined at home.

    I've been able to learn a surprising amount about vintage garment construction using my camera this way, or, where that's not allowed, attending exhibits during unpopular hours, and taking my time to observe details carefully. Most exhibitors will allow you to take notes in pencil, too, so I always have one, and a small notebook, with me.

    But I'd love to hold and read a book that documented these things.

  9. really thoughtful post, peter. i agree--past a certain stage, you're not looking for a book with a glossary and some paper patterns, but if you are buying one, you want it to deliver on its premise and provide at least some inspiration and useful photographs. there's nothing wrong with a new crop of books to appeal to us project-runway-inspired youngsters, but they need to be thoughtfully done and provide substance. the best recent example of this is the colette sewing handbook, and i expect gertie's book will similarly be strong in these important areas. otherwise, give me a tried-and-true technique book--or even a computer and an internet connection--and i'll find my own photos and inspiration, thank you.

  10. I just bought a book from one of the local second hand stores Its called Designing Dress patterns by Helen Nicol Tanous. It has ideas in there that I havent seen in any of the other many sewing books I have. Such as a box pleated bodice,a burnoose sleeve, a saddle sleeve, darted saddle sleeve. There are several ideas on darts besides the basic ones we all know about. Like doing decorative darts with gathers, horizontal slash with gathers. needles to saY its a cool book. :)

  11. Peter,

    You mentioned a while back that you now own Claire Shaeffer's Couture Sewing Techniques Revised, but haven't seen you review it. Now there's a book where I'd like to see you weigh in on, and I doubt I'm alone on that.

    Stay well,


  12. I got this book for Christmas and I think its quite cute. I teach so I took it into my classes and the teens and beginning sewers are excited about the fun styles and very do-able patterns. I think you hit the nail on the head when you identified the target market.

    I must ask, were you as horrified by the BUTT GATHERS on the Rita dress as I was? What woman in her right mind decides to add saggy looking gathers on her booty?!

  13. Candace, YES! I thought, "that sewer had better know EXACTLY where those gathers are going to end up on that 4-way stretch fabric recommended on the instructions." LOL

  14. Excellent post! As someone who wants to move beyond the project-runway-watching-beginner stage, I sometimes feel a little disappointed when the independent pattern companies are really focusing their efforts on beginner patterns. I completely get that that's where the market is, but still. I want harder, more ambitious projects for meeeeee

    that said, I have the colette book, and am heartened that she comes down on quilting cottons for garments.

  15. "With vintage patterns, sizing and fit is always an issue" - my guess is whoever wrote that wants to encourage people to buy the book by scaring them off the real deal. What complete nonsense. Anyways...

    Like you I have a mountain of sewing books, some of which I love, and yet I find I rarely use them. If I get stuck or feel there must be a better way of doing something, I immediately go online to find out what others have to suggest. Sometimes there'll even be a video. Like Gertie's online tutorials which I've found fantastically useful; Sarai at Colette Patterns also has some very useful tips. For me that's the future of teaching people how to sew. But I'll still buy the books!

  16. I sort of tend to agree with your assessment - at a certain point there needs to be something extra special about a sewing book in order for me to want to purchase it. Up to this point I have been collecting books mainly on sewing techniques and fit, but now I think I have turned my eye towards fashion history books as the next hole in my knowledge. There are some interesting looking books about historical fashion (16th-19th century), but I haven't seen any really great books about the history of costuming (movies, theater, etc.) and I would LOVE to read that. Actually, what I would love even more is a history of skating costumes. That would be an amazing book that would have me shelling out the cash.

  17. OMG, your dream book is my dream book. When I see an amazing dress, I just want to peek inside and see how it was made (don't we all?)

    For xmas, I received The Basic of Corset Building by Linda Sparks. This is a technique-focused sewing book and I love it. It goes pretty in depth on the tools, materials and hardware that you need to construct a corset (coutil, busks, pliers...). It would have been SO incredibly helpful to read the section on boning before I sewed my jumpsuit last August. It talks about fitting and muslining, but assumes that the reader already has good sewing skills.

  18. Oh yes Peter, please please write that deconstructing book! I would totally buy it!

    Have you looked at or own the book Couture Sewing Techniques?

    I'd be interested to know what you think Peter(or anyone else!).

    Kind regards,


  19. Hi Peter, so agree with your review. I have a book that almost fits your dream book's qualifications. "Hollywood", by David Chierichetti. Sorry, add to title "Costume Design". Just for fun, Norma Shearer (her real name) was my grandmother's cousin, and the Shearers lived across the street (never met them - ??????). However, I do have her nose, and facial bone structure, as do some other people of Scottish Highland descent (?????)
    Love your blog. Cathie, with tech help and morale support from Robert.

  20. Part of it is that novices expect their RTW sizing and their pattern sizing to be the same. It's not anywhere close. And those that are used to the fit of modern patterns might have major issues with vintage because even though the measurements are the same, vintage patterns are smaller. Somewhere in the late 70s-early 80s, the big four adjusted their pattern sizing and made each size bigger--they have much more ease now than they used to. I think it's in part due to vanity sizing.

    I will say that for fit for my girls, I prefer the vintage patterns, because they fit better than the modern ones. I can get a perfect fit with little alteration (length, usually, because they're tall) with vintage--it's more effort with modern.

    Would it surprise you to know that even though I consider myself "intermediate", too, that I only own about two sewing books? I didn't learn to sew from books--I learned from my mom, my grandmother, and through trial and error. Imagine my shock when I found out that things I'd discovered myself were things people paid to learn in sewing classes! I guess 25+ years of experience counts for something?

  21. Oh gosh, I'd buy that too! Also would like to see vintage clothes reconstructed in detail...

  22. Discuss this----the uniquely talented Mr. Chris March! Nothing tame about his creations, my daughter has his laugh ( and Viking outfit ) on her laptop as a stress reliever.

  23. Peter, If you of a mind to travel upstate to Turning Stone Casino, there is an exhibit--tho I'm sure you have probably seen this in NYC already.

    Icons of Costume: Hollywood's Golden Era and Beyond

    November 25, 2011 - January 28, 2012
    Event Center Exhibit Gallery

    Wednesdays, Thursdays & Sundays: 12pm - 8pm
    Fridays & Saturdays: 1pm - 9pm

    With special Memorabilia Collection by John Lebold, a long time assistant to award-winning designer Edith Head. Featuring costumes from:
    • 1939 "The Wizard of Oz" - Judy Garland dress & socks
    • 1953 "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" - Marilyn Monroe gold lame pleated gown
    • 1940 "The Strawberry Blonde" - Rita Hayworth black satin gown, hoop & petticoat
    • 1941 "The Men in her Life" - Loretta Young black velvet gown, hoop & petticoat, hat, & muff

  24. Thanks, Rowsella -- sounds intriguing!

  25. I only own two sewing books: Sandra Betzina's Fast Fit and The Tudor Tailor by Ninya Mikhaila. The Tudor Tailor is my favourite :-). My dream sewing book is something similar for an early 40's wardrobe. Basic patterns and instructions on how to fit them, descriptions of who would wear what, materials, techniques, embellishments etc.

  26. I grew up sewing using Vogue patterns which used to illustrate sewing techniques in the pattern instructions. My go-tos are the old Vogue Sewing book and Clair Shaeffer's Couture Sewing which has much of the material that used to be in the old Vogue patterns. I just bought Harriet Pepin's Apparel Design (quaint and not really useful) and Modern Pattern Design (useful for illustrating basic pattern drafting.) I like Sandra Betzina's books on sewing modern fabrics as the old techniques for silk, cotton and wool don't really work on a lot of modern textiles.

    I'd like to see a book on Irene, the woman who designed some of Myrna Loy's costumes for the Thin Man movies.

  27. Thanks, Bunnykins. I am also very interested in Irene! I saw a dress of hers at the current FIT exhibit. If you cut and paste the link below, you can see it in the last photo on the far right (it's black -- it's identified in the caption).

  28. For many years my core sewing library consisted of older or the large "sewing encyclopedia" type books. Which focuses more on techniques than projects. I think ultimately, those are the ones I prefer. I have gotten a few of the newer "project" books of late (and yes--was delighted to be featured in one!), but feel like in some ways another demographic of the sewing world is being forgotten. I'd love to see more in-depth books on details and executing these techniques like you mentioned--something geeky enough for us sewing nerds! ;)

  29. I own an embarrassing amount of sewing books, I'm afraid, and it's usually what I'm asking for when Christmas rolls around...I think that Susan Khalje's Bridal Couture is one of the absolute best, and a great book that seems to be forgotten these days is 'Couture, The Art of Fine Sewing' by Roberta Carr. Of course, I love Claire Shaeffer's books and I own several vintage books I'm very fond of; my favorite might be 'Sewing the French Way' by Line Jacques which is pretty much all about couture handsewing techniques and uses. It rocks.

  30. My response to this book was much the same as yours. Nice idea, but not overly well done. The sewing books I use are some of the TNT favorites: Readers Digest, an old Vogue, Fit For Real Peoplea and a bargain book called The Complete Guide to Sewing that is surprisingly useful. My current favorite new book is Saria Mitnick's Colette Sewing Handbook, more for her love of the craft than technique or patterns, though those are certainly useful. I'm sure I'll spring for Gertie's book when it comes out, and would like to take a look at the Sarah Veblen fitting book. And of course, I'll buy yours when you write it!:)

  31. Totally agreed as well. A cute intro, but lacks some of the meatier inf necessary to make something really nice. I'm afraid it will turn off those newbies who think they can just tra-la-la along with the book and look like Audrey Hepburn.
    I would also love to see a book that talks more about the more 'common' couture techniques. Every book I have spends so much time on the uber-fancy techniques of high quality garments, but not the basics, like:
    -Best way to edge-finish the seams of a pair of lightweight lined wool pants without binding & creating bulk?
    -When (if) and overlock can be used on a high-end garment?
    -Stitch lengths for different techniques AND WHY.
    -Basic hems that aren't bulky.
    I love Roberta Carr's book, as well as the Bridal Couture one. I have a bunch of vintage ones as well, but they're less practical than I'd wish. The stitching sample bible I made in undergrad is more useful that anything I own now, I'm pulling that thing out all the time! (Shameless promotion for IU's Fashion Design program)

  32. Great post! Bratling, I'd been wondering when Vogue's sizing adjustment happened.. And I've also become interested in Irene after watching a few of the Thin Man movies with my wife recently.

    Your dream book idea sounds fantastic-- "A highly experienced costumer, perhaps with the aid of a writer"..? Clearly you should team up with Claire Shaeffer. Seriously!

  33. Love your book idea and I'm agreeing with Sarah on teaming up with Claire Shaeffer.

    As many others here I have enough practical sewing books and I'm more interested buying eye candy or a good read than sewing instructions. I like the V&A Dress in detail series and books about fashion history. Could not help myself from buying Colette Sewing Handbook though, the patterns are nice and works well but the graphic packaging is gorgeous. I had to own it.

    I don't mind there being only illustrations in Famous Frocks or the over simplified patters, that could have worked. But my first thought about the book was that its to slick. Seeing some of the dresses I would never have guessed who the star was supposed to be or in what time.

  34. I'm adding my voice to urge you to write that dream sewing book!

    My daughter and I visited the Shelburne Museum last summer for a look at their In Fashion:High Style 1690-2011. t was a tidy little show with just enough beaded embellishment to justify the trip. One room was devoted to a selection of Hattie Carnegie dresses from the 1950's which was really fun - but my daughter and and I both wished that they had put at least one of those dresses on the mannequin Inside Out!

    For those of us who sew, Vintage fashion is as much about the magic of how it was put together as the runway appeal.

  35. Thanks, Sarah. Who knows? ;)

    For you and Laura, pattern sizing changes are explained in "Fit for Real People," on pp. 11-17, if you own that book.

  36. Oh! That should save me a lot of trial and error. Thanks, Peter!

  37. Great post Peter! I love vintage patterns, they can be more of a challenge then the newer offerings. Different pattern companies cut for different body types. Most cut for a B cup bra size, although some are now offering a few with 4 different bodice fronts to accommodate smaller or larger sizes, which is a boon to many women, believe me!
    I love Claire Shaeffer's Fabric Sewing Guide, and my old, old Good Housekeeping Needlecraft Encyclopedia. I always include The Readers Digest Book in my recommendations for my beginning sewing classes.
    I can't believe they would have neglected to name Edith Head in their list of designers in Famous Frocks! She did some of the most elegant costumes. I loved the clothes she designed for Doris Day in the 50's. Perfect fit and style for the actress.
    Yes, you could probably put together a book in which these perfect garments were deconstructed and explained. I'd love that. There was an article in Threads quite a while ago that deconstructed designer jackets to see the inner was fascinating and very educational.
    Love your blog!

  38. I'm not sure I can vouch for this book, since I haven't been able to bring myself to shell out for it yet, but this looks great, and appears to deconstruct some clothing by historical designers of note:

  39. Well, I should have borrowed this from the library before I bought it, but our library isn't as fashion forward as I bought the book, and like you, it's not a complete loser, but it's a disappointment for me. And although it would be a dream to have, say a "prototype" dress from YSL, Edith Head, Travilla, Chanel, Givenchy and take it apart and what made it so great, why were the lines so fab, what made those lines work...all that stuff. And some of the dresses were a cop out (uh-oh - showing my age!) Farrah was all about hair, not her style of was hair! And wrap dresses were always a disaster...they always flew open and just the wrong time, which sounds like it could be sexy, but showing everything at just the wrong time is and has never been's what we "wish" we could see when Marilyn's skirt goes up as the subway goes by, that's exciting.

    My favorite book right now is the catalog from the Met - Savage Beauty - I'm still getting ideas from this book. I put it down for a couple of weeks, then go fetch it again and get another idea!

  40. As a student in costume making I can safely say that such books you describe (reproducing patterns from historical dress with notes on their construction) definitely exist. Try the Patterns of Fashions series by Janet Arnold, the many books by Norah Waugh, or Costume in Detail by Nancy Bradfield, key texts underpinning historical dressmaking. They are pretty expensive, but they are great tools.
    Thanks for this review, I was curious about the book and you've summed it up really nicely!

  41. I love your review. The photo of FF in the non-wrap dress was one of the first things that bugged me on opening this book - plus the way over use of knits - I cannot imagine Rita Hayworth in a jersey dress - silk satin ont eh bias, maybe - jersey, no! The laziness of fashion sketches as opposed to photos of the actual outfits was another downer.
    I love your blog and wish you would publish your dream book...

  42. "But would someone who wanted to dress like mid-Eighties Madonna also want to dress like Rita Hayworth or Twiggy?" I can prodly tell you: Yes, I do most definately! ;-) And even if I wouldn't, I would have enough different types of dress-patterns from this book so swap with my friends.

    I think the book is nice for a beginner. It gives you an idea how to construct some classic dresses (which you can form to your individual liking, once you have some practice). I can understand that it's not exciting to a pro, but for a beginner it offers a variety of looks with good explanations how to execute the dress.

    I had a giggle about the Facett dress as well. But as you pointed out - a wrap dress might have been a better chioce for the book than the shirt dress.

  43. Another version of this book is out and I'm very tempted by it. I googled the book reviews, and came upon your review. I don't think much of it have changed, but reading your review swayed me against buying the book. Thank you for your honest review! I love sewing books, but since I'm no longer a beginner, I find a lot of these books redundant. I'm holding out for the dream book you mentioned.


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