THE FUTURE IS NOW: REIMAGINING CLAIRE MCCARDELL’S FUTURE DRESS, Part I

by Daughter Fish

My first go at the future dress

As a kid, I often liked to watch old musicals simply for the costumes. I could appreciate Fred and Ginger’s fancy footwork, but it was usually Ginger’s gowns that really got me excited. I dreamed of recreating these ethereal, flowing dresses, and I sketched them out on napkins and ruled paper and anything else laying around the house. I suspect my fascination with these dresses was similar to why my husband, at the same age, obsessively sketched thousands of lamborghinis: these objects tapped into a primal core of what we found beautiful and inspiring.

I still find this sort of inspiration from looking at old dresses.  Last month, I happend upon a Claire McCardell dress,  part of the Met ‘s Costume Institute’s collection, that struck me as particularly elegant. I didn’t know much about McCardell until recently, but since first learning about her, I’ve been fascinated by her simple designs from the 1930′s through 50′s. Her clothing was both timeless, and way ahead of its time (which, perhaps, is the same thing). The dress I’d found was called the future dress, and dated from 1945. From what I could gather in the Met’s short description,  it’s simply made of several large triangles, pieced together, and cut on the bias. It gains all of its shape when belted.

Claire McCardell wearing her own designs. A classic “column dress” with a fashion-forward leather belt and cuff (left), and a denim version of her Future Dress (right). (I snapped these pics from Claire McCardell Redefining Modernism, by Kohle Yohannan on a recent research trip to the library.)

The future dress,  a cross between a modern maxi dress and a grecian gown, looked nothing like the clothes I associate with the 1940′s. Its simplicity, along with the bias cut, intrigued me. It seemed like a fun, and attainable challenge to figure out how to make the dress.

After studying the Met’s picture of the dress for a good hour, I deduced that I needed four triangles of equal size, and that each triangle should be divided into three parts. It was at this point that I had to reteach myself simple geometry. With some graph paper and a protractor printed from the web, I reacquainted myself with degrees and angles, and graphed out a small, to-scale drawing of the triangle piece:

Refresher: the angles of a triangle add up to 180°

From this sketch, I was able to make a full-size pattern. Yet before cutting out my muslin (the dress pictured, btw, is the muslin), I did a little reading up on cutting on the bias. When I’ve sewn bias-cut clothing in the past, sometimes I’ve gotten puckering along the seams, and I wanted to avoid that on the angled seams of the triangle pieces. This fantastic Threads article, by Vionnet expert Bette Kirke, had some good insights, one of which was that Vionnet cut and sewed most of her pattern pieces on the straight grain, but hung them on the bias. This, apparently, helps the seams lay very nice and smooth. I tried this, by cutting the butting edges of each pattern piece along the straight grain (or as close as I could to it) of the fabric, and once sewn together, the seams all laid flat.

I did away with the big neck bow of McCardell’s design, and created a simple halter. I connected the tops of the back triangles to the neckline of the halter. Like McCardell’s original, I inserted inline pockets.

However, when I tried belting the dress, like McCardell’s, it felt a little too costume-y. As much as I love old costumes, I don’t want to wear one. I’d hoped to make something that was more like a modern maxi dress.

Using one color fabric might make this design more wearable. I wanted to make my muslin with the same monotone look as McCardell’s, but didn’t have enough of one fabric, so I used two. I’m not sure I like the effect.  On my next go, I’m planning on using blue chambray I picked up on discount (the dress takes a lot of fabric, I’m not even sure how much now, but over 5 yards).

When Mr. Fish and I went out to take photos, I’d gone from loving this dress (it’s incredibly comfortable) to despising how I felt like I was wearing something from a middle school play. After a few shots, I decided the dress was definitely not working. As an afterthought, I decided to get a few shots of the dress without the belt. That’s when Mr. Fish said hold up.

Without the belt, the dress suddenly seemed much, much more future-y and Japanese. Essentially, it’s like wearing a big sack, but the bias cut helps the fabric hug the body’s curves in an interesting way.  

For now, I’m happy with this as a first pass, although I have no idea where I’d wear it. Perhaps it’s destined to be a glorified house dress. I could definitely do worse. There are a bunch of Fred and Ginger movies I should catch up on anyway.