Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Evolution of Home Sewing: The Photographic Pattern Envelope

This is the second thrilling installment in my "Evolution of Home Sewing" series. Previously, I wondered how publishing a large, photographic book like Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing could have been profitable in 1952. Well, I think I've found some clues!

This excellent article on the history of home sewing patterns explains that the years 1949-1950 were years of great progress in the pattern business, introducing printed patterns and four-color photographic catalogs. The reason for this was that new printing equipment was becoming widely available. The major result was this: companies now had the option to use photographs instead of just illustrations to showcase their designs on their envelopes.

From what I can tell, it seems like VoNBBS itself was an experiment in this new technology, one that was supposed to stimulate the business and bring in more profits.

Most, if not all, of the fourteen VoNBBS patterns were released in 1951. Then, it seems, they were re-released in 1952 to coincide with the publication of VoNBBS. To promote the book, the pattern envelopes were redesigned, featuring photographs (the same ones used in the book), as well as copy advertising the book. See two examples here (notice that the envelopes featured both illustrations and photographs):

The Chemise Dress

The Bow Tied Blouse

A line on the front of the patterns above reads, "As shown in Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing." On the back, there's a little tagline reading, "The First Learn-As-You-Sew Book: Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing."

Now, at this point, the Vogue Pattern Service was still owned by Conde Nast, the same company as the legendary Vogue magazine. (The Vogue pattern company was sold to Butterick in 1961.) Can't you just see a bunch of Conde Nast hot shots sitting around a huge conference table, making the decision to do a bunch of fashion shoots and publish a book to sell their patterns? It's like a 1952 version of corporate synergy--the book promotes the patterns, and the patterns promote the book.

However, I wonder if it did not turn out as grandly as Conde Nast might have hoped. Had VoNBBS been a huge success, I imagine it would have been updated and reissued as new patterns came out. Alas, the 1952 publication is the one and only edition of the book. Furthermore, Vogue patterns in the following years of the fifties did not feature photographs; they reverted back to strictly illustrated designs.

Of course, one of the reasons I love vintage pattern envelopes is for the illustrations. Sure, they don't seem at all realistic. The wasp waists are exaggerated beyond what any foundation garment could achieve. But, in my opinion, they're works of art, showing us a vision of what a garment could be.

I've heard the advice (regarding contemporary patterns) to avoid any pattern with no photograph of the garment, because supposedly this means that the garment won't work well on an actual person. What do you make of that?


  1. Interesting - although I think with modern technology we have well and truly debunked the myth of "the camera never lies".

    Plus, I know from experience how easy it is to take a photo of my sewing that hides all the dodgy bits!

    A pattern isn't reality - it's a possibility. So to me an illustration works perfectly :-)

  2. Hello Gertie. Interesting post. I agree with the above, until you make it for yourself how do you know what it will really look like. I doesn't matter if it is a photo or drawing, they just give the possibility. I adore the drawings on the vintage. I am in love with the bow tie blouse. I need to find a pattern comparable. Any ideas?

  3. I think there are plenty of counterexamples to that supposed drule about new patterns: the whole "Vogue Basic Design" line just has sketches, for example, and many of them work well, judging from PatternReview. It's also pretty clear that finished garments are frequently clipped and manipulated into place for the photos...so we really can't trust those either...

  4. Good points! So many ways to manipulate photos too. Plus, when you consider that each photo shoot has a stylist, that adds another dimension. Often, I don't like the way something is styled, so I think I don't like the pattern! Then, of course, I see how someone else has made it and it's darling.

    Cindy, the bow tie blouse would be very easy to replicate. I was surprised at the construction of it. It's a basic kimono sleeve blouse, with a simple band collar. There's a gap between the band and the blouse at center front. The bow tie is simply a long tie that you can "thread" through the gap and tie in a bow. That's it! The version here has a button back--can you believe that? How impractical! I'll need help buttoning up every time I want to wear it! In a modern re-do, I would definitely do a side zip instead.

  5. Cindy, while I haven't seen any similar no-sleeve modern patterns there are a lot of similar vintage ones available. Just be sure to get a good price, around $6 for it. Some of the vintage sites are ruthless with high prices for not only the rare ones but also for patterns that constantly (every few months) keep showing up.

  6. I find that the technical drawings are really the most important element for deciding what a pattern will look like, because they clearly show all the features.

  7. Thanks for the tips! I know that I need to be more adventurous and try to draft it myself. Can't be too hard. I still like the crutch of a pattern to help me. Just like I seem to buy the same style dress pattern over and over...just in case has a bit of variance. I will do a bit of a search for vintage kimono style blouses. Thanks!

  8. It's interesting to me that Butterick bought Vogue in 1961. That's about when I did all my clothing sewing and I always thought Vogue or Butterick were the only patterns to buy - they had good style and were relatively simple to use.

  9. Yes, for some reason I still associated Vogue patterns with Vogue magazine, even though they haven't been owned by the same company for 48 years now!

    Sarai, excellent point about the technical drawings--they really are so much more helpful than a sketch or photo.

  10. When I wore back-buttoned blouses in the '80s, I used to button some of the buttons before putting the blouse on and then button the last two or three over my shoulder. No husband necessary.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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