The Dress that No One Can Wear GETS WORN!

A while back, you may recall this lovely 1950s dress that, according to the measurements, should fit me perfectly. Thanks to an errant zipper and perhaps not being wiggly enough (flexibility was never my strong point), actually getting the dress on was a physical impossibility:

The Dress No One Can Wear

I listed it on Etsy in the hope that someone more lithe or zipper-skilled could make it work. Soon after, Melissa (who has her own Etsy shop selling adorable hand-knit berets) bought it and promised me pictures of the dress being worn. At first, we thought the zipper might need moving, but after donning some foundation garments (and completing a semester at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wiggle-ry), Melissa performed a feat of unbelievable vintage magic: she conquered the dress no one could wear!


The Dress FORMERLY Known as The Dress No One Can Wear!

Even if Melissa and I are the same size, sometimes straight-forward measurements aren’t enough. Different body fat levels/distribution, bone structure, and even posture can affect how a garment works on different bodies. Undergarments are also very important, since they alter the fit of a garment even on the same body (for example, a modern foam bra vs a seamed bra vs no bra). And for those particularly tricky garments, a bit of hocus-pocus helps, too!

A Sad Day: The Dress I Can’t Wear

Turn a Frown into a Smile!

I have been lusting after an easy-to-wear Victorian event dress for years now. I wanted a dress that was simple, easy-wearing, and inexpensive– the Holy Grail of bustle era costuming! I don’t have the time or money to buy a bustle pattern, but I have successfully used Simplicity 3723 to make dresses, so I thought it would be easy to whip up a dress in a few days for any last-minute spring events. I succeeded, but not in the way I wanted. You see, in my rush, I didn’t take my time to make sure that the finished dress would fit me and guess what…it doesn’t!

The same day I got the idea to make a bustle dress, I found the perfect fabrics right next to each other on the shelf! The main fabric was a polyester woven that’s wonderfully drapey, but lightweight. It is a cool brown shot with threads of tan and olive and reminds me of smooth treebark, especially paired with the shimmery, deep green velour I found right next to it. I would not only have a bustle dress by noon the next day, but it would also be a Victorian dryad’s dream dress!

dress design

My initial sketch. I decided I didn’t like the front drape, so I got rid of it in favor of a single swag over the bustle.

I hate “wasting” expensive fabric on mock-ups, so I trusted my math and previous pattern alterations instead of making toiles: a huge, gigantic mistake! Or, in my case, a too-small, sausage-tube mistake. I thought I had the cat in the bag when I tried the bodice on without the sleeves, but as soon as I sewed the sleeves on, it became painfully obvious that while I had given myself enough room in the bust area proper, I had neglected to widen the area above it. It was not flattering. I would take a picture, but it is so intensely unflattering that even I am embarrassed by it. It’s a shame because everywhere else fits so smoothly! There is no post-production cure for cutting the shoulders 2 inches too small, though, so after letting out the seams as far as I could, I made the agonizing realization that this dress would never ever not-in-a-million-years fit me.

I will admit, I was disappointed. Really disappointed. Bitter, even. It was a rough night that no amount of chocolate and fried food could make better. After being so excited about how well the project had been going, finding out I couldn’t even wear the dress was a major blow to my confidence. I had put all this effort into making a dress that I actually was really, really looking forward to wearing, but I could not. What do you do with something you can’t use, but love? I can put it away in my closet with all my other ill-fitting clothes that I love but can’t wear. However, that just seems so cruel and I’d promised myself to stop keeping things I can’t wear. The other option–throwing it away– hurt too much. Tossing all of that time, materials, and joy into the garbage is not an option!

Instead, I am hoping that someone out there is willing to give this dress a chance. I put it on my dress form and it looked so lovely, I snapped a few pictures and decided it deserved a new home. The listing for it is up on Etsy right now, so if you happen to be a 35-26-35+ gal with 16 inch or smaller shoulders, I know a pretty project dress in need of a friend like you!

Currently plain, but a perfect blank canvas for trims!

This is how the skirt looks with a small pillow bustle. The skirt can also be worn without a bustle for a small train–perfect for an early 1890s look!

The dress is currently listed at $28 (plus shipping), which covers that cost of the fabric that went into the dress (I’m not a professional seamstress, so I don’t comfortable charging for my time.). It is pretty much complete except for closures, the bottom edge of the bodice, and any trimming. For a little extra, I’m also willing to finish the dress for someone who wants it, but doesn’t have the time to do it themselves.

Hopefully my failure can be someone’s success! :)

Mele Kalikimaka: 1950s Christmas Goes Tropical!

A Happy Hawaiian Holiday to You!


LOOK magazine cover, circa 1960

Hawaii became exceptionally popular during the 1950s. Hawaii hadn’t become an US state just yet (that happened in 1959), but it was a bustling tourist destination. The unique culture and laid-back attitude of the isles appealed to mainland Americans, and the topical weather was especially enticing.

 1950s Americans loved Hawaii for it’s hula, ukeleles, brightly printed shirts, and flowery leis. It all may seem pretty campy to us now (it was pretty campy even at the time), but the idea of Hawaii as the perfect tropical paradise was especially appealing near Christmas time. As beautiful as traditional wintery December evenings are, after weeks icy weather, who wouldn’t dream of trading snowy drifts for sandy beaches?

If you couldn’t afford to visit Hawaii at Christmas, you could always tune into the radio or take a trip down to the record store to catch a Hawaiian-inspired Christmas tune. The most famous Hawaiian Christmas song of them all is “Mele Kalikimaka” as sung by the one-and-only Bing Crosby:

Mele Kelikimaka isn’t a translation from English into Hawaiian. It’s more of an accented version (kind of like Americans pronounce the German “Wiener” with a “w” instead of a “v” sound).
“The phrase is borrowed directly from English but since Hawaiian has a different phonological system – Hawaiian does not have the /r/ or /s/ of English and its phonotactic constraints do not permit consonants at the end of syllables or consonant clusters – ‘Merry Christmas‘ becomes ‘Mele Kalikimaka'” – Wikipedia

Add a Little Bit of 1950s Hawaii to Your Christmas

Embrace the kitsch of the 1950s holiday tradition! Here are some fun Hawaiian inspired items that will bring a touch of the tropics to any mid-winter  fandango.

(In Splurge/Save style! All of these finds are from Etsy.)

Bright Tropical Party Dresses

Tropical Orange Dress, circa 1950-60

Tropical Green Dress, circa 1950-60

Charming Bracelets

“Aloha” Natural Seeds of Hawaii Charm Bracelet, circa 1950-60

Vintage Natural Seeds of Hawaii Charm Bracelet, circa 1950-60

For the Holiday Hunk

1950s Shaheen’s of Honolulu Hawaiian Shirt, circa 1950-60

Vintage Men’s Tribal Hawaiian Shirt, circa 1950-70

Welcoming Wreathes

Custom Red Hibiscus Wreath
The hibiscus is the Hawaiian state flower. The native yellow hibiscus is the official state flower as of 1988, but hibiscus flowers of all colors have been used to represent the state since the 1920s.

Make Your Own Seashell Wreath (or Trees)
Seashell artwork of all sorts was immensely popular and was a clever way to display the shell picked up on vacation. Though the huge numbers of tourists makes beachcombing on many Hawaiian shores a challenge, the islands are home to many sea creatures with beautiful shells (here is a pictorial index of Hawaiian seashell types).

Topical Tastes

Macadamia Nut and Coconut Crusted Fish Recipe
Hawaii is the macadamia nut capitol of the world. During the 1950s, large macadamia nut producers increased production and made the creamy macadamia available to a wider audience across America.

Homemade Super Tasty Pineapple Pie from a 1950s Ad
Pineapples have become the symbol of hospitality, especially during the winter months. Plus, if you haven’t tried some kind of pineapple pie, you’re missing out. That stuff is delicious!

Fun and Games

Hong Kong Hula Hoopers: Lin Dai
Humans have swirled and twirled hoops since ancient time, but the hollow, plastic hula hoops we know and love were officially invented in 1958. They were named “hula hoops” because the twisting hip motions imitated basic hula swaying motions. The traditional Hawaiian hula dances are much more complex than just swaying your hips, but for a good bout of party fund, nothing beats a hula hoop! (Just make sure to move breakables out of the way if you’re going to attempt hooping indoors!)

Sunburst Harmony Soprano Ukulele, circa 1950-70
Ukeleles are a Hawaiian version of a Portuguese instrument brought to the Islands by 19th century immigrants. Because they are small, easy-to-learn instruments, the ukelele has really picked up in popularity recently. Any song that can be played on guitar can be played on a uke, but there is plenty of vintage ukelele sheet music available, including this wonderful free-to-download collection and this cutesy free chord map for popular Christmas songs.

Merry Christmas Coconut Postcard
Oranges used to be considered exotic fruits and were common Christmas gifts during the 19th and 20th centuries. However, military men stationed in Hawaii would send home something quite a bit larger: coconuts! The US Postal service has a long list of things you can’t mail, but even more impressive is the things they actually will. The Hawaiian post office will mail a dried, decorated coconut for you, no box required! Decorated “coconut postcards” are available from vendors pre-decorated (like the one above) or, if you are fortunate enough to find your own coconut on a Hawaiian vacation–you lucky duck!–you can decorate it yourself before sending it on it’s merry way to an unsuspecting relative’s PO box!


Mele Kalikimaka!

Portraits for Your Pockets: More Handpainted Portrait Miniatures

What Have I Been Doing? Painting and Procrastinating.

I am so excited! Perhaps you remember this little fellow, my second attempt at portrait miniaturism:


Well, someone loved him enough to give him a new home! I am so giddy for both him and his new owner!

I have another handpainted portrait miniature in my shop now, this time a young lady:

“Portrait of a Young Lady” is available in my Etsy store.

She’s another imaginary character, but her attire has a mix of historical elements from different locales: her red and black gown is decidedly Italian while her plumed hat was inspired by the wild German hats in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portraits (her hat ornament was inspired by one found in the Museum of London). I’d place her style at mid-16th century, but she could pass easily with garb anywhere between 1550 and 1610.

I have been more motivated to paint than sew recently, so I made a few more little portraits to fill the time. I even bit the bullet and began painting portraits of real folks!


The first portrait is of my sister, a gift for her graduation (Sorry, Minnie, if you are reading this. Just act surprised when you see it!).


Staring contest with Mr. Roosevelt!


“Portrait of Amelia” in its pendant frame.

I based her portrait off of a photo I took for the 1840s headdress tutorial, but I changed the flowers and added details to her dress for an 1840s-1860s look.

The next two portraits were a gift to Becky, my mother-in-law, for her wedding anniversary:


A not-so-pretty-penny and a very pretty lady!


I did this portrait in an 18th century style for fun. I didn’t have a reference photo, so I made it up as I went along. I really want that hat now, though!


Becky’s husband, Billy, is in his modern black pearl-snap shirt. There are three things you don’t mess with: rattlesnakes, Texas, and pearl snaps!


Blue backgrounds have been common in miniatures from the very beginning of the art. Blue compliments most skin tones, helping the facial features stand out. In this case, it also helped highlight Billy’s eyes.

Though these were done as gifts for people I knew would love me even if I botched their likenesses, they have given me a little more confidence to work on more direct likenesses in the near future. They are much more work than imaginary people, though!

I haven’t felt motivated to sew at all recently even though I have a stack of new patterns (99 cent sale at Hobby Lobby!) and plenty of new fabric. Nothing seems to “click” right now. I have great patterns, but none of my fabrics seem right for them, while I have tons of great fabrics, but no patterns I feel match them. In reality, I’m probably just a little too perfectionist, but it does put a damper on costume production. So instead, I will continue to focus on painting miniatures, re-stocking my Etsy shop, and dreaming/scheming up the next big project!


More of My Portrait Miniatures:

Portraits for Your Pockets: Handpainted Portrait Miniatures

Spring Cleaning in Autumn: Shop My Closet!

I love collecting and wearing vintage! But when my closet gets too full for me to wear them all, it’s time to let someone else have a chance to enjoy the retro goodness!

Up for Grabs

{Sonja} Skirt Set, circa 1950-60
Adorable blue, purple, and brown print with a full skirt and blouse. Same-fabric belt. Handmade in the USA!
Size: XS/S
24.5 inch waist on the skirt, blouse bust up to 36 inches


{Sir Fame} White Eyelet Dress, circa 1965-85
Cute blousy-fit, button-front dress with high collar. Lots of eyelet lace decoration and puff long sleeves with ruffled cuffs. Needs a little whitening.
Size: S/M
26 inch waist, bust up to 38 inches


Handmade Plaid Maxi Skirt, circa 1975
Super cute maxi skirt with flared gores for fab swish. Polyester, baby!
Size: S
Waist 25.5 inches, hips max 35 inches


{Lady Holiday} Blouse, circa 1975-85
Edwardian-inspired, secretary-style, and super feminine. Puff sleeves with lace cuffs.
Size: M/L
Bust up to 42 inches, but it’s made to fit loosely, so 35-40 inches would fit best.



Vintage Neckties, circa 1940-1970
$7-$20 each
I have a classy assortment of ties for every guy or gal!
Variety of widths and patterns

(Still working on getting these listed. Gotta coerce dear Christopher into modeling!)


Retro 1950s and 1960s Patterns
$5 a pair
Dresses and blouses for the crafty gal, most already cut
Sizes 12 to 18


and lots of Vintage Jewelry, of course!

All of these are currently listed in my and my sister’s joint shop, Atomic Amelia, which specializes in retro and kitsch. Use the coupon code PRAGMATICALLY to get an extra 10% off anything in the shop!

You are also welcome to check out my antique and renaissance themed vintage jewelry shop, Tineseile.

Pssst! To make all your vintage dresses look even more fabulous, I highly recommend a Rago Waist Nipper (821). I got one in beige and it is some kind of vintage magic! It doesn’t reduce as much a corset or full girdle, but it will take an inch off your waist and bring you into a nice hourglass if you have a blocky, stick-straight torso like me. It boosts up the girls, too!

Okay, I’m done raving now (I’ll just have to write more about the waist nipper later.) :)

A Brief Plot Summary of My Thesis: The Ephemeral Museum

There and Gone

Postcard, circa 1968 (eBay)

Postcard, circa 1968
This postcard was found on eBay. The auction for it ended on Dec 11, 2012 10:45:59 PST, so by the time you see this, it will be gone or the auction page relocated to a new url. This link will survive for 90 days before it will be deleted from the eBay servers.

The most comprehensive museum in the world is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre or any other brick and mortar complex. That glory goes to the Internet: the most comprehensive museum of human culture ever devised. You can “google” for almost any information, artifact, or opinion and receive informational responses in minutes. Images uploaded onto now-dead websites can be “dug up” with a few easy-to-learn computer tricks and “preserved” on multiple computers belonging to a wide range of folks around the globe. Of all the websites archiving information, the best artifact database system in the world is the plethora of auction/storefront websites like eBay, Etsy, and Ruby Lane. These sites are ever-changing and chock full of amazing artifacts in their rawest forms. Here is an exceptionally small sampling of iconic historical items found on these sites gleaned from only the one hour’s worth of browsing:

Embroidered Waistcoat, circa 1770-90 (Etsy)

Embroidered Waistcoat, circa 1770-90 (Etsy)

Black Dot Paste Buckle, circa 1780-1800 (eBay UK)

Memorial Ring for Elizabeth Cox, circa 1818 (Etsy)

Silk Jacket, circa 1866-73 (Ebay)

Silk Day Dress, circa 1869-1874 (Ebay)

Straw Bonnet with Silk Ribbons, circa 1875-1885 (Etsy)

Silk Velvet Dinner Dress, circa 1880 (Ebay)

Leather Lattice Button Boots, circa 1860-1870 (Etsy)

Mythological Shell Cameo, 19th to early 20th century (Ruby Lane)

Wedding Dress and Photo, circa 1920 (Etsy)

Leather Peep-Toe Heels, circa 1940 (Etsy)

Halter Dress with Bow, circa 1955-60 (Etsy)

Mini Dress, circa 1960 (Ebay)

Wedding Dress, circa 1960 (Etsy)

1970s shoes

Platform Shoes, circa 1970 (Etsy)

All of these item photos are linked to their current listings, but in 90 days, the eBay listing links will become defunct while Etsy listings may last for a year or more even after the item sells. How long Ruby Lane listings last is dependent upon the individual sellers.

With such a wealth of human culture changing hands in the span of a 3 day auction, these websites have become the most ephemeral museum in existence. Every trip through the thousands of pages yields a fresh exhibit crammed with items that are often untouched by the restorer’s hand and newly discovered after years of lying in a trunk, forgotten. Unlike a physical museum that keeps objects for years–carefully archived and cared for–an item in the “museum of the internet” can disappear from the public view faster than you can say “Buy it now!” The sales pages and images may vanish after only a few days, leaving nothing but residual code and memories of an amazing item that is now, once again, out of reach.


There are a few wonderful websites that are dedicated to preserving the information found on the internet. One of these precious few is Isabella’s “All the Pretty Dresses,” which archives exemplary examples of antique clothing found on internet sales websites.  No doubt you’ve come across a fair share of “Golly, I wish I had the money to buy and save that dress!” listings in your lifetime or even watched an item only to find that it ended an hour ago, before you could get a bid in. Hopefully the gowns themselves went to caring bidders, but what about the information?

Embroidered Button, circa 1740-1780 or 1860-1890 (Etsy)
“It’s taken me a lot of research, this beastie! Though replications are still made by hobbyists today and there was a resurgence of this style as a hobby in the early 1900s, the fact that this one has a wood mould (bone was used after the late 18th century) and is rather large, I’m concluding it is from the mid 1700s or earlier.” – faginsdaughter, Etsy seller

The information, you see, is just as valuable as the artifact itself. The goal of a museum shouldn’t be to squirrel away expensive artifacts so that no one can see or study them. The goal of a museum is quite the opposite: to educate, save, and preserve so that cultural items can be shared with posterity. Collecting and archiving isn’t about owning the the item; it’s about sharing the knowledge contained in the item. With so many rare and wonderful artifacts passing through our servers each day, as history lovers, museum workers, or caring hobbyists, aren’t we responsible for the preservation of such knowledge no matter where we find it?

Mother of Pearl Buttons in Box, circa 1880-1910 (Ruby Lane) 

Combing through such a large swathe of internet for relevant artifacts is a huge task that would take a coordinated team of people to complete. There’s a massive amount of raw data to process. How do you decide what’s worthy of archiving? I am an obsessive history hoarder and would want to archive as much as possible, but even a “real” museum has parameters to follow when it comes to collecting. Not every twisted old Victorian boot or 1950s bow-covered prom dress needs to be meticulously archived, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore such items all together. Designers and name brands are important, but exceptions and common goods are important, too.

International Flags Windbreaker, circa 1985-95 (Ebay)

An all-too-common 1980s windbreaker jacket in hideous colors may not seem worthwhile to us because many of us have clear memories of wearing them, but what about our children? I was born too late to witness the Gunne Sax trend of the 1970s first hand, but my mother remembers coveting one in a store window.  Yet, as time passes, fewer and fewer Gunne Sax dresses will survive.

Maxi Dress, circa 1970-80 (Etsy)

Imagine that disappearance factor multiplied for 1950s cat-eye glasses (now 60 years old), or 1920s beaded collars (80 years), or 1890s watch fobs (120 years). Every generation sees our contemporary common goods become scarcer until that item becomes a mysterious object from a bygone era.

Bobbin Winder/Thread Holder with Pincushion, circa 1870-1930 (Ruby Lane)

Thousands of these cultural items are passing through our internet portals each day. We’re generating tons of archival information. If only we could document it all!

Find of the Month: Romantic Silk Satin Wedding or Evening Boots!

November 2012

After putting together my Romantic Era fall costume, I was feeling a little let down by the lack of square-toe flat shoes, so I consoled myself by browsing the wonderful collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have a wonderful shoe collection that spans thousands of years, including this beautiful pair of satin wedding boots from the 1850s:

Silk Satin Wedding Boots, circa 1854

Silk Satin Wedding Boots, circa 1854

Not two days later, I was browsing Etsy when I found a pair of almost the exact same boots in Jennifer Osner’s fabulous antique textile shop, TextileArtLace!

Antique Wedding Boots from TextileArtLace on Etsy

Antique Wedding Boots from TextileArtLace on Etsy

She packaged them perfectly for their wild ride through the US Postal Service, so they arrived ready for some gentle restoration and conservation work, including relieving stressed and set-in creases, re-humidifying, and taming the splitting silk.

Wedding Boots Before and After Conservation

Before and After Basic Conservation Efforts

Golly, these boots are gems! I can’t help but smile every time I see them. :)

They were made between 1835 and 1855 as you can tell by their characteristic side lacing, flat sole, and narrow squared toe. Not all white boots from this era are wedding boots (white or black shoes were considered the most socially acceptable for day wear), but the minimal wear, fine materials, and delicate craftsmanship of this pair suggest they were worn only for special occasions. Slippers were preferred footwear for evening parties and balls, so it is very likely that these boots were worn to formal daytime events and may indeed be wedding or debutant boots.

134_3044Wedding Boots, circa 1835-1850

They are muslin lined with kid leather tongues and eyelet reinforcement strips. All the eyelets are hand stitched, as is the rest of the shoe. The stitches are gorgeous and impossibly fine–so much more fine than most modern machine sewing. My eyes and fingers hurt just looking at all those itty-bitty stitches! Laced through the eyelets on each shoe is a golden silk ribbon. I cannot tell if it is their original color or not as many old fabrics darken or fade from their original tones to this sort of tan.

Stitching Details

The outside layer is weighted silk satin and is beginning to shatter on both heels, which I have done my best to slow by de-stressing the silk and trimming loose fibers so that they cannot pull. The damage, however, is a slight boon. It has revealed construction features of the shoe that would have otherwise been hidden, in this case, thin kid leather heel supports added between the silk and the inner lining.


The outer soles are of hard leather. They are straight-lasted and are bonded to the boots with a strong adhesive, not by stitches. There are seven stitches into the leather on the outside of the left boot where the silk fabric had come loose soon after they were made, but that’s all.


When new, most straight-lasted shoes are hard to tell apart, but these boots have a very visible right vs. left thanks to the laced openings, which would have been worn on the inside of the ankle (just like modern boots that have a hidden zipper). What I love most about the soles is that you can see the actual footprint of the lady that wore them, right down to her toes! These boots are very, very narrow as were most shoes from the period, but interestingly, the soles don’t fill the whole footprint. Much like in ballet slippers, when the lady put weight down on her foot, it expanded over the edge of the sole and onto the side fabric, molding the shoes to the outline of her feet. The woman who wore these beautiful boots over 150 years ago had about US size 6 narrow feet! :)


The red lines approximate the outline of her foot by following the major wear spots. The toes actually extended a little farther out than the red lines indicate, but because of the slight up-bowing of the toe, the wear was focused on the ball of the foot.

In addition to leaving her mark on the soles, the lady who owned these shoes left an even more exciting mark on the kid leather tongues of both shoes: a signature!

Mysterious Signature

Both shoes are signed, but after so many years, the ink has faded and absorbed into the leather. This is a picture of the clearest of the two signatures. I can make out the last name “Turner,” but I can’t quite read the preceding type. Any guesses?