Thursday, July 01, 2010

vintage trousers.

This post is part nostalgic trouser lesson and part vintage pattern tutorial!

I decided to experiment this morning with this adorable vintage pajama/lounge pattern from the mid 1940s. I've been wanting some cute, high-waisted shorts for the summer heat. (I debated trying out the "Marlene Dietrich" trouser/bermuda pattern from a recent Ottobre Woman, but none of the garment photos were really that flattering. Not the best incentive.)

Vintage pant patterns for women are scarce (as you probably know if you sew vintage!) Before WWII, trousers were more than a little scandalous for women. During the war due to rationing and factory work, trousers became more of a necessity; how much do we still love Rosie the Riveter?

Pants thus began to worm their way into female fashion. It would still take more than 15 years before pants were really considered a necessary or regular part of women's wardrobes.

You can't discount the influence of early Hollywood either. Even today we refer to high waist, full leg trousers as "Marlene Dietrich" pants. She was one of the first stars to wear pants in films during the 1930s, then continued wearing trousers outside of her movie roles (and it was quite a scandal too!)

Katherine Hepburn is the other film actress most often associated with introducing trousers into womens' fashions.

I do think it is misstating things a bit to say that Dietrich and Hepburn "popularized" pants for women. They were simply the first to wear them in such a public way (along with, of course, Amelia Earhart, who could hardly fly a biplane in a dress.) Pants wouldn't really be popular (nor allowed in all public venues) for a few decades. (And I love Hepburn, but Dietrich has always left me cold.)

As for pant patterns from the 1930s and 1940s, while we love and covet them now, I can't imagine these were hot sellers, as mainstream America wasn't quite ready for the idea. These patterns were probably never reprinted, and most likely had a very small initial circulation to begin with. I have never had the opportunity to see (in person) a 1930s trouser pattern for women.

However, there is this great reproduction pattern from c. 1933 is from EvaDress:

On the other hand, if you long for that authentic 1940s trouser, here's a little tip/secret (which you already know if you listened to my podcast interview with Lori in April): There are many vintage pajama/lounge patterns available in a variety of sizes that actually feature that same trouser silhouette. Even though they were essentially for sleeping, the pajama pants in the two or three patterns that I have from the era are quite detailed. They feature pleats, darts, a fitted waistband and closure; details just as you would find in a regular "trouser".

After I remembered this vintage pattern lying in my stash this morning, on a lark, I decided to muslin the shorts (view 3).

My pattern is NOT in my hip measurement. My hips are 8 inches larger. (Eight!!) Adjustments would be necessary. It may be tempting to just pin and hack and tape away at these vintage patterns, especially if you luck onto a factory-folded one in pristine condition. HOWEVER...bear in mind that these patterns are upwards of 70 years old. They're more fragile than they look. While I think they should most definitely be used and enjoyed, I also try to preserve them for future generations.

That means I trace each piece and carefully replace original tissue patterns to the package. If the guide sheet is in poor shape, I will also copy that (my printer does that at home.) Patterns from the 1940s will often be unprinted; that means you'll have to adjust your thinking about pattern markings. Without printed markings, look instead for punched holes (small and large) and punched notches. The guidesheet will have a "key" telling you what each dot size and notch means. Read that first.

Also look for the seam allowance listed in the guide sheet. It will be different from modern patterns! For example, for my trousers, the side seams are 3/4" to allow for fitting adjustments (built in!! woohoo!) but for the remainder of the pattern the seam allowance is 1/2" (so 1/8" smaller than today's commercial pattern). Write it on your tracing, you won't remember. I promise.

Vintage, high-waist trousers are VERY high-waisted. The crotch length will be so long that you might be unsure which end is the crotch and which is the leg, especially if you're doing a short. I'm not kidding:

Hopefully there are darts or pleats to orient you later.

For my shorts, I decided to simplify things by making a straight muslin, as drafted. The ONLY adjustment I made to the pattern was to add 2 inches to each side seam (my hip difference). I was SOOOO tempted to do my usual pant adjustments.

( are my own body quirks/pant adjustments I normally make/fiddle with on current pant patterns: add for full and high hips, lengthen back crotch, flattish yet full bottom/scoop out back crotch, lower center front waist, add 1/2" to front side seam at waist for tummy, full inner thighs). Quite a list, huh? I might get a decent pant after fiddling with most of these.

But I abstained from any adjustments and did a quick & dirty muslin in an ugly banana print cotton woven.

They're perfect. I'm serious. I need a tiny fisheye dart removed from the front crotch about mid-way, and that's it. My butt looks fabulous. I've NEVER gotten such a good fit, ever (not from Burda or Ottobre or any pattern bar none).

Soo...I'm off now to cut out a "real" pair in a dusty coral linen. I'll still be making the shorts length, but I can't wait to do a full trouser length too! I'll share more pictures and details in the next post!

I was so excited, I had to share now without pictures, haha!

Stay tuned...


  1. Excited to see the finished shorts!

  2. A little clip at the top of the seam is what I use to remind me of how wide I made it. Of course I also write it on the pattern.
    Definitely a long crotch!

  3. fun post! brought back memories of my dour grandmother who never wore pants in her life! and was horrified when her granddaughters were allowed to wear pants and jeans, no less. i don't think my mom started wearing pants til the 70's or maybe late 60's. now it seems the young women are returning to dresses and skirts ...

  4. That is awesome! I have similar lower body issues. Can't wait to see them either!

  5. Now you have us all waiting impatiently to see these beauties!

  6. what? all that and no photos of you in the ugly banana print? I'm so disappointed! g

  7. all that and there are no PHOTOS? of PERFECT MUSLINS? Sheesh. What kind of person are you?

    I used to know an elderly lady here in Texas (she was married in the late 1920's to give you an idea of her age). Anyway, I can remember we were all shocked when one day we picked her up to go out to Lunch and she was wearing -gasp- JEANS. I mean, not only pants, but DENIM pants! The scandal. I had literally never seen this woman in anything but a Chanel suit (a actual Chanel suit, not a knock-off). She sure looked cute in her jeans and chambray shirt and she said she just woke up that morning (in 1995 no less) and said to herself, "Skirts be damned (ooo, language, another shocker), I'm wearing TROUSERS."

    Remind me to tell you sometime the story about her smuggling the Dead Sea Scrolls out of the Middle East in her husband's dirty underwear.

    I'm serious. She did stuff like that.

  8. Very informative post! I can't wait to see the finished shorts!


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