For my dissertation project on Historical Garment Making (a very serious endeavor), I constructed two garments as a method of exploring the process. One of the goals was to better understand how to make a historical garment reproduction without the use of an extant garment for copying.
This left me to use only text-based resources, although my research was supported by my access to the historic costume collection at my university. Anyway, I chose to create a “Make Do and Mend” style suit. This goal was achieved with a stack of printed resources- namely, the related pamphlets published by the UK and the US during WWII. These guides helped with the initial research and planning, but also left me with several gaps throughout the process.
I chose to work with a suit from as close to the WWII era as I could afford, which was a late 1940s or early 1950s mens suit from Fintex. This was a medium weight wool suit with a pebble-like weave in a size 40R.
The suit was disassembled and gently washed by hand. As you can see, there was quite a bit of color in the water, but this was not dye loss. Although the final image of the women’s suit above looks lighter, it was just an overexposure of the photograph. All that color in the water was, disturbingly, dirt and sweat!
My chosen pattern was a vintage 1940s Simplicity pattern, which needed to be slightly adjusted to fit onto the deconstructed suit panels. The jacket was fairly straightforward, with few alterations. I added several inches of length to the jacket to maintain the original flap pockets on the hips. The skirt provided an interesting challenge. The width of the skirt panels of my chosen pattern were too wide for the pant legs from the disassembled suit. Luckily, I had access to the historic costume collection at my school, which has several 1940s skirt suits. I compared the hem circumference from those skirts to the pant leg width, and found that if I narrowed the skirt width I would maintain historical accuracy. This did require adding a pleat or vent at the back hem.
As you can see from the photo above, I also needed to flip the skirt pattern upside down on the pant leg to get enough width. I had wanted to maintain the pockets because as a 21st century woman, I expect pockets in my clothing. However, from the viewpoint of a 1940s home sewer, pockets wouldn’t be commonly seen on a suit skirt. After flipping the pattern, I narrowed the pattern side seams to fit on the pant leg pieces, and shortened the original waistband to fit to the new waistline measurement.
As I began to assemble the jacket, the aforementioned hip pockets started becoming more of a nuisance. The under arm fit required several rounds of fitting, pinning, and basting to achieve an appropriate 1940s silhouette. The images above reveal some of my struggles creating more of a female silhouette from a man’s suit structure.
Want to see what’s inside?
This is the hair canvas I salvaged from the original suit. I removed a thick layer of wool batting that had served as chest padding, to align more with the softer structure of a woman’s suit. The canvas piece also needed a fisheye dart to create shaping over the bust and waist. On the left, the fisheye dart is cut out, and on the right, the dart has been stitched and a 3-dimensional shape has been created.
The sleeves were relatively easily, compared to the rest of the suit. I needed to fill in the armscye of the bodice to make the circumference smaller, and then used the sleeve pattern on the original sleeves. The patches under the arms are invisible in a relaxed position. Then I needed to make some styling decisions. These choices actually held me up for a long time during the process. I pondered over button number, placement, collar style, and sleeve length for weeks. Finally, I found a balance between the original traditional design of the suit combined with the collar of the sewing pattern. I also chose to use vintage pressed glass buttons rather than the plastic tortoiseshell buttons from the original suit.
The jacket is lined in a light vintage lining fabric of unknown origin and fiber content, which you can see peeking out of the sleeves in the above photo. I hadn’t gotten the linings stitched at the armscye yet, and they were slightly sagging out of the sleeve (all finished now!).
This was an interesting challenge overall, to conduct a historical garment reproduction without an extant garment to copy. I relied on the make Do and mend pamphlets, the sewing pattern instruction booklet, and finally referenced the book Tailoring Garments from the series published by the Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in the early 20th century. This kept all my resources appropriate to my timeframe of WWII.
However, due to the limited original materials of the man’s suit, the women’s suit is a small size. My original intention was to make a suit that I could wear myself. I believe that one of the benefits of historical garment making is the element of embodiment, but with this limitation in sizes, my embodiment experience ended once the garment was completed. Because of this restriction on sizes, I find it unlikely that the Make Do and Mend practice of tailoring a man’s suit into a women’s suit was a common practice. In the course of my research, I’ve only found one example of a remade suit from this era in a historical collection, and it was a tuxedo converted for a special event. Could this be a phenomenon that evolved into a fashion myth? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
The suit will go on display in my university department this summer, at a date tbd. I hope to share photos of that display, as well as the related didactics!