A Flapper Flap

I am just about to start work on a new 1920s party dress, often referred to in common parlance as a “flapper dress”. Actually, I’m starting to work on two.  The first will be constructed of a light silk twill fabric in a lovely deep shade of red, using Folkwear pattern #237, the Tango Dress. This silk was acquired a few years ago from the dearly-departed Designer Fabric Outlet, aka the Orange Bag Store.  It took awhile to tell me what it wanted to be when it grew up.

Illustration from the pattern sleeve for Folkwear #237, the Tango Dress.

I plan to do some hand beading on this dress, as well as making use of some amazing star appliques I picked up off of AliExpress.  The second is using fabric I came across while shopping yesterday at Leo’s Textiles in downtown Toronto.  It’s a red sequined fabric in a Deco-type pattern, one I’ve seen used (or something very close to it) in some of the commercially-available “flapper dresses.” It will be lined with a lightweight red satin fabric, and may be finished off at the bottom edge with some fringe I found on sale today at Fabricland.  The sequined fabric ran me about $80/yard, and I bought about a yard and a half.  I have certainly seen dresses online considerably cheaper than this.  So why make what I could get for a lot less money?

Several reasons, actually, beyond the fact that I just like sewing this stuff:

  1. I am constantly bombarded by ads from a company called “Retro-Stage” on Facebook for vintage style clothing.  It very much looks to be a Chinese-based company selling cheap knockoffs.  I have found similar garments at what look to be slightly more legitimate stores….but…
  2. They’re in no way “flapper dresses.”  They are modern party dresses inspired by flapper styles.  The biggest issues?
    1. First, they are skin tight.  Real clothes from the 1920s tended to be straight cut from the bust down past the hips, perhaps with attached skirting to flare below that. They drape, often using properties of the bias with flowing, asymmetric hems. Many of the so-called “flapper dresses” online are cut more like a 40s or 50s “wiggle dress”, hugging close to the the curves of the body
    2. They are often entirely too short.  True 20s dresses tended to reach at least the knee, if not lower.  If the silhouette you see is “minidress”, you’re in all likelihood looking at something from the 60s or later.
    3. The fringe thing. Fringe was definitely sometimes used as a decoration on dresses from this era, but not in the quantity popular imagination would lead the casual researcher to believe.  Far more common was elaborate beading (apparently, from what I learned recently on a trip to the Fashion History Museum,  Russian refugees accounted for the huge uptick in beading on dresses in the 20s–who knew?)

This is not to say that you cannot get pretty decent 20s-style dresses from some of the vintage-inspired clothing vendors.  Here are a few links that show a bit of the spectrum of what’s available:

  1. This, from Retro Stage.  Granted, they do caveat this as a “Latin dance dress”, but this is in no way a 20s fashion.
  2. This, also Retro Stage.  Better silhouette, but look how short it is.  It looks like the underlayer would barely cover your ass.
  3. This, from Unique Vintage. Gorgeous pattern, but cut close to the body down through the thighs.  Too short.  A good 20s dress should not cling. Remember, if you’re going to do the Charleston in this, you need to be able to move in it without showing the world your knickers.
  4. Here we start to get into the good stuff, from Blue Velvet Vintage.  Notice this goes all the way down to her knees with beaded tabs (not cheap fringe) at the bottom. The same company also sells this, which is likewise lovely.  This site clearly marks which dresses are reproductions and which are “20s style.”  I can tell without even looking, because the “20s style” dresses on their site suffer from many of the common problems I mention above (nipped waist, too short, too much fringe.)
  5. This is from House of Foxy, one of my go-tos for vintage-inspired clothing. These guys usually do their research, and it shows.  Note how long it is, the gorgeous “handkerchief” hem, and the flowing, straight cut.

You will probably notice right away that the good stuff is not cheap.  The first dress from Blue Velvet Vintage is $177 USD, and the dress from House of Foxy will run you £99.   I’m in the same ballpark for my sequined-fabric dress, and actually well under that for materials for the red silk dress (so far I have spent about $80 CAD on materials).  Best part will be that the latter dress, in particular, will be quite authentic in construction, and I’m using the basic bodice and back from the Folkwear pattern as a guide for the simple sheath dress I’m making from the sequined fabric.

If all you want is a fun dress for a Roaring 20s or Gatsby party, the cheaper dresses will do you just fine.  But if you want something a little more authentic, something with the right silhouette, I’m hoping this short piece has been helpful.