20-minute 1920s dress

May 19, 2012

Hi everyone.  I’m Kass.  I’m new to We Sew Retro.  This is my first time posting.  I hope I can add something to the wonderful mix you have here.

I am the patternmaker at Reconstructing History patterns.  But this post isn’t about one of our patterns.  It’s about making a retro dress without a pattern.

I know!  Crazy, right?  A patternmaker who’s not pimping her patterns.  Unheard of!

Well, everybody’s gotta take a day off sometime.  =)

I hope you like it:

The 20-minute 1920s Dress

You’ve all heard about the 1-hour dress, right?

Well, today I’m going to show you how to make the 20-minute dress.

Impossible? Not hardly!

At the risk of sounding like a commercial for Ronco:  You too can make a gorgeous 1910s evening or party dress in 20 minutes, start to finish.  And by “finish”, I mean done, in the can, ready to wear.  No finishing work required!

This is a design by Madeleine Vionnet from 1919. Vionnet was a master of drape, and this dress (also known as The Jabot Dress or Handkerchief Dress because of its distinctive handkerchief decoration) was one of her favourite designs. It was part of her collection for years to come and it was copied by many other designers and pattern makers.

You need:

Lay one of your square scarves directly on top of another, wrong sides to wrong sides. The right side of the top scarf should be facing up.
Pin the top scarf to the bottom scarf along a diagonal line running from approximately 11″ from top corner to 8″ from the bottom corner (the path of the pins is shown by the position of the rulers)
Open up the scarves on their non-pinned corner and add another scarf, wrong sides to wrong sides, to the pile. Pin the second and third scarf together as pictured above.
Repeat the pinning process with the fourth scarf.
Repeat once more, pinning the last (fourth) scarf to the first scarf. Your scarves should look like the photo at right: two rows of pins traveling diagonally across the scarves.  (The fabric has been plumped up around the pins to better show their position.)

Pin each of the two adjacent corners to each other, wrong sides to wrong sides, to make the shoulder seams.

Put the dress on your dress form or try it on.  Adjust the pins as necessary at the neckline and armscye.  You can adjust the size of the dress by widening or narrowing the spacing of the pins.  As you can see from the sketch of Vionnet’s original dress above, the dress is meant to hang rather freely from the shoulders.  But you can make it as fitted as you like by playing with the placement of the pins.

I used 35″x 35″ scarves because I measure 42″ from my shoulder ridge to my knees and the diagonal of a 35″x35″ scarf is 49.5″ (hello, Pythagoras!) and that gives me some length to pin at the shoulders and still get a goodly amount below-the-knee for that hankie hem.  You can use any size scarves you want.  The only real requirement is that your scarves be perfectly square.

Sew along the pinline with your needle and thread or sewing machine.

Tip:  These seams are on the bias.  So remember to pull the fabric taut both in front and behind your needle as you sew.  Also, take the time to get your tension dialed in before you sew.  You won’t be sorry!

Add a sash around the hips and you’re done.  (See, it’s already hemmed!)

The 20-minute Vionnet

I dyed mine turquoise blue.

You can completely change the look of the dress by where you tie the scarf. I like it around the waist. Around the hips looks more mid-1920s.

You can read more about this dress and other period fashion ramblings in the RH blog.

Editor’s note: Lots of visitors struggling with these instructions, but thankfully Rebecca has recommended the following more comprehensive tutorial. Thanks Rebecca! 🙂

  1. Holy cow! This is amazing. I’m going to order from Dharma Trading right away as I love the look of the dress. Thanks so much for sharing this with us!

  2. Can you perhaps post a video of yourself making the dress? I’m am VERY interested in making this dress, but I just find the directions very confusing. They are just too straight forward and do not describe well how to pin the dress in place. Also the pictures do not correspond to well to all of the steps. I was very pleased to come across this seemingly simple 1910s dress and already have all of the materials but I do not want to go forward with sewing the dress because I am not sure if I properly pinned the dress in place. Thank you for your consideration

  3. Hi, I was intrigued by this idea, so I decided to try it. I made mine in silver coloured scarves and once I had worked out the instructions, it wasn’t too slow. 🙂
    I ended up using a slightly different technique, but it s truly hard to get my head around explaining it. This is where I think being a more numerate kind of person might be useful.
    Suffice to say, it looks amazing. I like it best just draped without a belt on. I also think hat I could have used smaller scarves, but it would be hard to say hw much smaller. I just think I have almost too much extra.
    Thanks so much for posting this. I plan to wear mine to a Tango dinner this month for Roaring Twenties month in Blue Mountains, Australia.

  4. Hello Kass 🙂

    LOVE this tutorial…however, I am really having a hard time wrapping my brain around the instructions. I know it must be very simple–I think I am just getting confused between the photos and the text. So, my questions are:

    *which two corners are you speaking of when you say a diagonal line of pins 11″ inches from the top corner and 8″ from the bottom? Are you saying the corners at both ends of the ruler, or the two corners above and below it?

    * which corner is the ‘non pinned’ corner? (I didn’t think we had pinned any corners, the pins running diagonally across the middle of the scarves?)

    *How are we ending up with two lines of pins? I understand that is necessary, but it is not clear to me how it happens, unless we are turning the pile of scarves?

    I love your blog and hope that you will not take offense–I’m just very excited to try my hand at this 🙂 Thank you for your time!

  5. I’m having the same problem as Jennifer – I can’t work out the instructions. They aren’t very clear. If anyone has worked them out, can you please explain?

  6. I am under 5 feet so I think this size scarf would end up too long, I’m also an apple shape. I’d like to know the formula for the pythagrian theorim( is that how you say/spell it), as this might tell me the best size scarf to order.

    1. Please let us know both ur heights for our knowledge. I’m sooo looking forward to making this dress. Thank you so much for your a help. C

  7. Hi, I have a 1920’s party this Sunday (08/18/13) and I’m a beginner so I would like help trying to figure out the size of each square for my size. I’m 5’7 and size 12. How do I figure this out? Please help! I bought 2 yards of chiffon (for the bottom of the dress), 2 yards of silk (for the top of the dress) and 2 yards of lining material (because I was nervous!). So how do I figure out my measurements so i can cut my squares and hem them. Thank you so much! If anyone can help via email I would really appreciate it also. I have to start on this tonight and I know this is not going to be a 20 minute dress for me.

    1. This is one of those “fit all” things. This should be easy, but since you are a beginner, I think you visualized the dress somewhat incorrectly. There really isn’t a “bottom” or “top”–the one corner of each square meets at the shoulder and the opposite diagonal is the hem–when laid flat the dress looks like this: http://juliaritson.com/2011/10/20/vionnet-fabric-sculptures/

      Measure the fullest part of your bust and hips. For your height, 36″ x 36″ squares should be appropriate, it’ll make the dress around 50″ long at the longest. They have to be perfectly square. You can probably alternate the two fabrics that you bought and use the lining you bought to make into a slip so that you have coverage under the chiffon sections.

      Once you have your four hemmed pieces, read and visualize each of the steps. Use the hemmed pieces to help you with each step (or, square napkins if you want to try this before starting). Once you feel comfortable, start to pin, using half plus one of each of your measurements. If you don’t have a dress form to test the fit, baste the pieces together and try it on. Do this as many times as you need to until you feel comfortable. Don’t forget to pin and test the shoulder points, too. Sew along the pin lines, and be very careful not to stretch the fabric as it runs through the machine. Tension on the bias will pull it all wonky and out of shape, and it will look funky.

      Even though you are a beginner, don’t panic! This is simple, but not easy! Just take your time, focus on each step as you do it. Don’t stress about time or future steps. Each step at a time. You can do this!

      1. Heidilea,

        Thank you, I saw the 3 scarf one as well but i like the flowyness of the 4 scarves. Now I dont know how to use the silk and chiffon. I should have just bought a dress. I understand the concept of it but i dont understand where the 3rd and 4th scarves are placed. I wish there was a youtube video!

  8. Hello I am thinking of making this for the 19th of december. I live in the uk and don’t know where to get the hemmed squares of fabric; from my collar bone to where i want the hem is 80cm so i would need about a 60cm square in a block colour (preferably black, dark red or dark purple e.g. http://i.ebayimg.com/t/90-x-90cm-Large-Ladies-Silk-Square-Scarf-Nautical-Headband-Neck-Neckerchief-/00/s/NTA4WDUxNw==/z/kCwAAMXQuu9Rlhmq/$T2eC16J,!zQE9s3sr!RTBRlhmqsQcg~~60_35.JPG). Does anyone know where i could get this on short notice as i have looked everywhere!!??

  9. Love the idea of this dress! I just can’t figure out the directions and pictures. I’ve looked at links others have posted to help clarify and I even got 4 squares of fabric and a giant teddy bear (my model) and still nothing. Any help with each step/scarf would be greatly appreciated. I have a weeding in June to attend and I’d like to get this done so I can spend my time looking for shoes and a hat for the dress. 🙂

  10. Hi Kass, I need to make this dress by April 25th 2014. I have read and re-read the directions but still seem to need a ton of assistance. Care to offer better picture? I even got out my nephew’s trig book and looked up pythagoras but he didn’t help me either. When and where do I sew the thing together? Or do I just wear the thing with pins in it (ouchy)? I am not really a seamstress or designer or anything like that. Please help. Thanks! ~~~Kelly

  11. The only thing I’m confused about is where the row of pins sit. You say corner to corner but in the picture they are actually off centre. How far off centre do you sew, measurements for this would be a great help. Thanks.

  12. Angie, I am a little bit confused on how I can measure for my size and it fit properly. I am curvy and short. My hips are 40 in and my bust 39. I am only 5ft. Needless to say i need help. I am also mew to sewing.

  13. the dropped waistline (around the hips) was the only waistline used throughout the 20s. only towards the very end did it begin to move up towards a more natural waist.

  14. I love this design. I have a mental picture of making this with a mock hip level sash that looks like it’s running under all the draping bias fabric. If I do it, I’ll post a picture for you to see. Thanks! Nancy

  15. For anyone who still does not know what size scarf to use, the last paragraph clearly explains why she used size 35 inch scarves. Direction are just to measure from the shoulder point to your knee point of wherever you want your dress length to be. The author used a 35 in scarf because the diagonal measurement of the scarf is 49.5 inches…49.5 is how long she wanted her dress to be. The diagonal measurement of a smaller 30 inch scarf is 42.3 inches. If you do not like doing math, get a big square sheet of paper that is the size you want and measure it on the diagonal. Or you can just google it…”what is the diagonal length of a 30 inch square?”

  16. I don’t understand these instructions, they are much too vague. A better diagram with step by step instructions would be really helpful!

    1. Hi Kam,

      I also had a lot of difficulty understanding the instructions above, but I found something that I think is a little more helpful.

      Try using this tutorial instead:

      She uses four post-it notes to demonstrate how you will join the squares together. It’s actually four seams instead of the two it looks like from the picture above. Plus sewing the shoulder straps together – so 6 seams total.

  17. For anyone still confused about how to stitch this, I found another tutorial (link below) with extremely detailed notes as to how it was made, including the use of four post-it notes as a diagram for where you will stitch it. I found it extremely helpful as these instructions are really confusing for me (I’m a novice sewer, with novice being extremely generous a description – more pre-novice if such a word exists haha). I love the idea but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the execution without further help!

    I just ordered my silk squares and I can’t wait to get started on it! I’m definitely going to do a couple of small scale tests with some scrap fabric first, but I’m so excited to see how this will look.

    Here’s the link to the tutorial I mentioned above;

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