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Feb 22, 2011

Taffeta, tulle, and the big, BIG dress

Friends, I'm scared.  As you know, my plan for the Cathy Comeback dress is this late Fifties Vogue pattern I purchased on Etsy last week:

I plan to make View C, the black dress in the middle, albeit in a rose print that more closely resembles View B.  Obviously I'm going to have to make some sort of underskirt to give this dress volume.  But once you're poofing up your dress, it's a slippery slope to Harajuku horror, I fear.

If Cathy came out Gothic Lolita she'd never forgive me.  Would you?

Why ever did dresses get so big do you think -- can we blame it all on Christian Dior?  Was it all about re-feminizing the middle class postwar woman, who'd gotten used to working during WWII? Recall that in the late 40s, early 50s, most dresses looked more or less like this.

There might have been a slip under there, maybe even a ruffled petticoat, but certainly nothing you couldn't get through the door in.  Then suddenly skirts got bigger.

And bigger...

And bigger!

The problem with this whole look is that to really pull it off, in addition to a big, BIG petticoat, you need one of these.

Which wouldn't be a bad investment since it is actually becoming a popular men's look.

But even with the corset, you can easily end up looking, I'm sorry, like Sunday morning sausage.

Readers who know about such things or just want to express an opinion, how much of a headache is it going to be to make a crinoline for Cathy's Comeback dress?  I already have the pattern.

But I don't know my tulle from my taffeta; it's going to be a steep learning curve.  My understanding is that one can easily spend an afternoon or two gathering those layers, not to mention trimming them with seam binding and lace.

The alternative, of course, is to purchase a ready made one.  But that's sort of cheating, don't you think?  And a lot of those look cheap to me.  Hence my dilemma.

Readers, in closing, am I going to regret this?  Can I save time with a serger -- can you even serge tulle or net?  (What exactly is the difference between tulle and net?)  We're talking poly and nylon, right?  Nothing in the silk department I hope.

Have you ever made a crinoline?  If you did, can I borrow it?

Someday soon I see Cathy on the dance floor with her own Bobby Burgess.  And it will all be worth it.  (What's Barbara got going on under that dress, in your opinion?)  Cha cha cha! 


  1. "Have you ever made a crinoline? If you did, can I borrow it?" FUNNY!!
    Peter, you're bound (:-O) and determined to make this thing, eh?? I'd buy it... You are a brave man!!
    Warm greetings, Rhonda

  2. If you chicken out on making one, I'd be happy to lend you a crinoline. Though mine is fairly short!

  3. Gertie did a crinoline tutorial:

    Her crinoline isn't super-poofy, but the instructions would probably be useful.

  4. Peter, remember during the war, everything was rationed, even fabric. So when the rationing was lifted after the war, straight, fabric-conserving skirts were out, and in came the big poufy ones that used YARDS of fabric.

    I'll bet you can find an old bridal crinoline on Craigslist or Ebay or at a flea market, and shorten it as needed for Cathy's dress.

  5. Consider buying a ruffler if you go for it.

  6. Tanit-isis successfully made one. Maybe u can solicit her help

  7. Don't you have a gathering/shirring foot in your arsenal? That will make things easy. Also, tulle won't fray so you wouldn't have to finish the hem. I like taffeta's rustley sound..

  8. Yeah, mine was not hard (though the gathering did get a bit out of control ;) (thanks for the shout-out, Niki!)

    Another good tute out there is Sugardale's

    The only remotely tricky part is the gathering, and I can't believe that a vintage-machine hoarder, er, I mean conoisseur, doesn't have at least one gathering foot in his collection (I used a ruffler foot for mine and it went a bit out-of-control on the tulle. Although vintage ruffler feet are better than my modern one). Although if you don't, use the zig-zag-over-a-supplementary-thread technique.

    Start on the bottom tier, or you'll want to kill yourself.

    The only thing I'm not sure of is how you get that round, poofy look right at the hips---I believe in the 50s they used hip pads. You might get more of it if your crinoline is still quite full in the top tier...

    Have fun, Peter! :)
    (Here's my post on making mine.

  9. I was once talking to an elderly woman about the dramatic change in skirt styles that took place between the 40s and 50s and she said that the shorter and generally a-line skirts of the40s were due to fabric rationing. So when they war was over and the 50s became all about abundance, the fabric-greedy full skirts became a sign of happy days being here again. The re-feminizing was no doubt a big a big a bart of it as well. Abundance, after all.

  10. i made a crinoline last summer. it was pretty easy - just time-consuming. i used sugardale's tutorial, except i gathered my fabric using the crochet thread method. oh, and i made my crinoline out of horsehair crinoline - which is way stiffer than tulle, so i used less but i still got a nice poof.

  11. Or maybe buy a short one from a halloween costume web site and just add more tiers of net to the bottom? Thye're lots of fun but I always need an underskirt for more than abut a hour of wear because nylon net itches.

  12. In the fifties (I was there), the very full skirts were worn mostly by high school girls. No hip pads were used by anyone. Petticoats were made out of anything that was stiff enough, and they did look cheap. Better quality fabric wilted too quickly. Most of us ended by wearing 2 or 3 petticoats because the stiffness of a new one faded so fast. (Not comfortable in summer, but we did it). Best fabrics were nylon net and some kind of super-stiffened nylon taffeta that seems not to be made any more.
    For a few months, wire frame hoop skirts were sold, but they were very impractical and were around barely long enough to be a fad.

  13. I was but a child when I wore what you call a crinoline, and we called a "can can." I believe we wore 2 or 3 at a time for the effect you are going for. I also remember a hooped petticoat, which I hated! As to why they were in style, I don't know, except that fashion evolves and tends to go to extremes before swinging back the other way.

    Yes you need one of those waist tightener things--foundation garments we used to call them.

    Cathy will have to be prepared for discomfort, I think.

  14. I'll be making a crinoline of sorts this week, so this post is very timely. And your commenters have been very helpful with links, too! :D I'm just going to wing it, and I am NOT finishing the edges. I've got to wear this thing on Saturday, and the dress is still mostly in pieces!

  15. I made a crinoline-type thing long ago for my sister's wedding dress, out of nylon net. My recollection is that it was surprisingly quick to make up, mostly because net doesn't require any hemming. Do make sure that Cathy's skin is protected from any scratchy, gathered edges.

  16. I have used that very pattern but it's several years ago. I remember the pattern recommends organza for most layers. I didn't do that and neither (IMO) should you. Organza doesn't give the 'puff' you are after. I used stiff tule and that worked just fine. Do make some kind of lining or fabric underlayer because, yes, tule itches.
    Making a crinoline is not hard, just time-consuming (although ruffler feet etc. might make things easier and faster, I don't know).

    And about the foundation garment: are you buying one, or making it? If you plan on making, consider your choice of boning carefully. Poly boning may be cheap but if it bends, it will stay out of shape. And it will bend if used in a more than waist length garments. Spiral steel boning may sound hard-core (it isn't though, flat steel boning is), be harder to find and more expensive but is ultimately worth it.

  17. Crinolines are actually quite easy to make, although you'll feel like you're drowning in itchy, scratchy fake fabric.

    Do not use tulle; it won't hold up for long and the natural fabrics are actually too fragile to be much good. You can use nylon net which will work better but eventually deflate. The best is actual fabric called crinoline or 'crin' -- I have no idea where you'd get it although I'm sure it's in NYC somewhere.

    To get even more loft, sew horsehair braid in the seams and around the hems of the layers; more than one layer is best for more volume. You can wire these seams and hems as well, but then you're getting perilously close to a hoop skirt.

    And yes, I would consider a ruffler essential. It's difficult to put net through a ruffler but you can do it and it will save you a lot of angst.

  18. could be your best friend. Inexpensive, ready-made petticoats in all sorts of lengths, sizes and color combinations. I believe you want the "Longer-length 50's look petticoat." I've never made a petticoat, but it seems like a tedious project- not necessarily challenging, just tedious and boring. But if you're bound & determined to make it, then go for it! What I can tell you is that the more stiff the net, the better the shape will hold, despite how heavy the dress fabric is on top of it. But, stiff net is also the most uncomfortable, so some type of lining is crucial. Good luck!

  19. In the late fifties we (15-17 year olds) wore 2 or 3 crinolines at once and had to starch them every few weeks to keep the required bouffant look. I pinned them together at the waist but even so they would fall to the ground at terrible moments. They were heavy...

  20. Thanks for all these resources, guys! I guess I should make the dress first so I have an idea of length and degree of poofiness required...

  21. A real crinoline (vintage Victoria) had actual hoops in it, and did require wider doors. Thanks to Obama, you may now be able to find hula hoops of the right sizes fairly easily. But I'd still make my own if I were you, without hoops.

    Use tulle and not taffeta, so you don't have to hold off on the photoshoot till next November or die suffocated :-). You'll also save a couple visits to the chiropractor. The Simplicity pattern doesn't have nearly enough layers imho, not if you want a really big dress. And there's no real need to trim tulle, it doesn't ravel at all. Not unless you want to pull your skirt over your head and show off your trims to everyone. In any case, I'd make this a separate petticoat, so you may use it with something else. Don't worry, you'll still spend a couple days gathering. That's where you'll wish for a modern machine...

  22. summerset ( is the Queen of Crinolines. Check her back posts, or shoot her an email.

    I'm so glad I was born in the 1950s and was not in high school then...with my very short waist, I can't imagine how awful I would have looked.

  23. Like Lauriana, I made that pattern too, only I listened to the pattern and used organza. The view I made only called for one layer of gathered fabric, and I ended up needing to add two more to get moderate poof (you can see how poofy it is
    ). The sheer yardage of fabric required in all those layers made this an expensive project! I'd definitely recommend using something stiffer than organza to reduce the number of layers you need.

  24. I was around in those years but never wore a crinoline, we were too poor. You wore a slip to protect you from the itchiness of the net used and then one or two crinolines on top of that. Girdles were not that frequent, back then everyone was rail thin. The idea of the fashions was to reassert women's femininity so they would go back to the kitchen and boudoir after working independently for years while the men were away. Also it was to show off the new wealth after the poor times of the depression and WWII.

  25. I made one for a dress for my daughter. I lined it in a poly charmeuse and found some really stiff netting, stiffer than tulle at Joanne's; that was the next layer. The top layer was tiers of tulle, each progressively fuller . There was no need to finish the edges on any of these fabrics except for the charmeuse. I used 2 layers of tulle for the bottom ruffle and finished both by zigzaging on some pretty lace. I used a modern ruffling foot - the one with a hole in it - to gather all the tulle. I found my vintage ruffling foots, which grab the fabric and move it along,like an extra feed dog on top, were too harsh with the tulle.

    When I was in kindergarten one of my friends had a blow up slip; I coveted it. Her skirts always stuck out more than those of the other 5 year olds. But then, she was a child model, appearing in ads for dept. stores in the NYTimes.

  26. I've given up on crinolines and now I just use wide horsehair braid in the hems of my full skirts. Works like a charm. And it's not too poofy!

  27. I wasn't clear: I want the hem of this skirt to be HORIZONTAL! ;)

  28. Hi Peter!
    I've been following your blog for a while now, but just had to post on this one!
    Having made and worn several skirts like this, I have achieved very nice results by combining two purchased crinoline slips.
    Use the first as-is. Just remove the elastic so the yoke can become flat. Use the second slip for "parts."
    Gather and apply extra fullness from the parts slip, around the top (hips) so you achieve the fuller rounded hip look, however only allow this excess to go about half the length of the slip, blending the fullness about half way down the petticoat, still allowing the last flounce to be the fullest. Just gather and pin in place on the yoke until it looks right and then sew it down to the slip at the top.
    At this point you can cut a full circle skirt of a stiff net or tule as a finised "top layer to help things look smoother and more blended.
    Sew a double-fold bias tape waste band on at the top securing it all and run some elastic through it. There you have it!
    As for the wasit cincher, remember, it's all about proportion. Fuller hips will make a waste look smaller and therefore require less restrictive lacing and a fuller skirt sweep below will balance the gal with broad shoulders up top.
    Sorry for the rant! I hope all this helps!

  29. I'm working on one. And I have worked with tulle before and it's not that hard. And no, you can't borrow it. It wouldn't fit. It's to go under a 50s little girl dress in size 2.

  30. The petticoat will make the waist look smaller... I installed a crinoline in a dress, and I regret not having made it separately now, WAY after the fact. I would use the netting with the wider holes for more poof, put the seams on the outside, and attach a cotton half or 3/4 circle slip to the inside for extra va-voom and comfort.
    Sugardale's tutorial, which you have several links to, is AWESOME. Starting from the bottom is good! I would zig-zag over a thread, and break the gathering up into quarters, even eighths on the bottom layer, to ensure proportionate gathering all the way around. I'll be making a crinoline after I sew my men's shirt. Have fun!

  31. Oh, I remember crinolines. The really cool girls wore several, with wide belts cinched as tight as they could get them. If you make one, I'd suggest binding the raw edges as raw edges and stockings = lots of runs. The binding should match or contrast well with the dress as you'll see it when you sit down, and sitting down takes practice. We used to wear a regular slip under them, slightly longer, as they will scratch you raw. My friend with the poofiest crinolines had a mum who used to sugar starch them until they could stand up by themselves. BTW, storing a couple of crinolines is a challenge as they eat closet space.

    And, yes, it's all about not having fabric rationing any more (see Dior's new look) and the urge to repopulate after the war. The crinkly stuff was tissue taffeta which isn't the same now. It used to make little crackling noises when you walked.

  32. OK, I bought a lot of stuff -- net, tulle, a few other things.

    I checked out the slip under a 3/4 length bridal gown at Goodwill. It had layers of gathered net sewn to the slip itself starting at mid thigh, with the longer layer -- maybe 18" wide -- covering (and thus forming a layer over) the bottom one, which was about densely gathered strip about 6" wide.

    Isn't this easier than sewing tulle onto tulle or net onto net? Why not just attach these gathered net stripes to a full-cut four panel slip?

  33. Peter, I can't wait to see the finished product. Cathy is such a lucky girl!

  34. I have made pettiskirts from rolls found on this site:

    I just line them up with my ruffler and go to town. Goes very fast and the nylon is super soft.

  35. I can't wait to see Cathy in that dress!! I've made little skirts out of tule, and it really wasn't bad at all to sew, I think you will do just fine making the petticoat. I know that feeling of wanting to make it all from head to toe. Go for it!!

  36. I think you are on the right track. I made a simillar petticoat for my wedding dress many years ago. I took a readymade slip and added several tiers of net as you discribed. The slip was a must for scratch protection. I didn't have any fancy foot, so I gathered using my usual method of a basting stitch. It gave plenty of volume. I would stick with the net and not the tulle.
    As it was, I removed the petticoat during the dancing because my heal kept getting caught in the net. This won't be a problem if you ar making the shorter dress shown on the pattern envelope.
    Good luck

  37. Petticoats and a well matched dress or skirt (avoid the waterfall look!) can give a lady a very glamourous look. Even for those gals with not-so-perfect figures. It was mentioned about foundations, not that a bra/girdle is necessary but since this is a 1950s look you are going for, then need it to be formfitted (bra-less look simply will ruin the look). A good fit foundation or bra or girdle does not have to be uncomfortable, just like high heels if they are uncomfortable, then you chose the wrong product.

    I don't think of making petticoats (too time consuming) and any size/length can be ordered at I recommend a crystal fabric at least 30 inches, most standard petticoats online are square dance (19 to 23") which are too short for fifties look.

    How to wear a petticoat at and on foundations, actually where Linda the bra lady writes about avoiding pain a wrong bra can be There must be someone on the information superhighway with guidelines on well fitted girdles.


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