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Lady Violette

The Romantic Lifestyle

A Very Special Dress from the 1950’s and the Family Story Behind It

May 9th, 2011 by violette

Today I was carefully looking over this dress that belonged to my mother that I have now inherited and thinking over its history as well as the style and era it came from. I think many families have things like this but just get rid of them when the owner dies. Being the sentimental, and analytical type I can’t do that! I have, instead, given the matter serious thoughts which I will share!

Sheer Navy Shadow Striped Voile Shirtwaist Dress Made in 1952

Here is a Lovely New Look 1950’s Sheer Navy Shadow Striped Shirtwaist Voile Dress with Sparkling Prong Set Rhinestone Buttons.

This is a very special dress. Not only is the design interesting, the family history behind it is also.

First, the full skirt features a beautiful job of pleating.The skirt is pleated all the way around – and each pleat is created with six folds and there are ten of them total! This makes a very full skirt but it is flat therefore flattering around the waist and hips because of the pleating technique and the fine lightweight fabric that was used. The circumference of the skirt at the hem is almost 4 yards. The skirt has a very narrow hem so that the lace border on a beautiful navy slip will be able to show through at the bottom. The hem of the skirt is also hand stitched with very perfect even tiny stitches. Something that would never be done nowadays!

Pleated Bodice Back

The bodice back is pleated into a small yoke that leads to the collar in order to continue the pleated design. Full sleeves  are cuffed just below the elbows, and the sheer bodice is darted and perfectly shaped. A navy lace full slip with an ornate lace decorated bodice would be beautiful showing through this and would have been characteristic lingerie for it’s era.


Sparkling Rhinestone Prong Set Buttons

Like an elegant shirt the dress buttons up the front with seven sparkling prong set rhinestone buttons to reach a flattering open collar.




Classic Shirtwaist Look

The cuffs also button with two rhinestone buttons each. There are a total of 9 beautiful big glass rhinestone buttons. It has beautiful, perfectly made buttonholes. Very finely sewn.

Gathered 3/4 Length Full Sleeves with Buttoned Cuffs


There is no fabric content label inside the dress as you get nowadays. It is a very soft fine voile with a narrow striped pattern of sheer navy and then a stripe of not quite so sheer navy right next to it in a repetitive design. Both types of stripes are the same width about 1/8 inch. The fabric feels like a very fine Swiss or Italian cotton to me. It is very soft. It is what my grandmother, who was a couturier seamstress and designer trained in Switzerland always referred to as cotton voile. She loved such fabrics and often used them for custom making fine made to order women’s blouses and dresses.


And now we get to the more interesting part:


The dress is very well made. There is no designer label, but I can tell you who made it! My grandmother made this dress. She made custom designs for private clients. And it is technically perfect. Every seam is carefully finished, the hem is turned and stitched by hand. There is not a loose thread or raw finish throughout. The construction is very refined. My grandmother made this tasteful and very refined dress for my mother.

There was no self covered or other belt with the dress. I tried it on with a navy reptile one and that looked nice. And a navy patent one and a very narrow rhinestone one, They all looked pretty but I feel that the very best belt solution and a look I would like now would be a very narrow silver leather belt ~ about 1/2 inch wide. I think that would look good with the dress and be a timely look in 2011.

The entire dress is sheer and I have photographed it over the mannequin with nothing underneath it so you can see this. Of course it is meant to be worn over a slip. I think a full navy slip with a lot of lace on it would be perfection. I think I have one and I am going to look for it right away. In fact, it may very well be the slip that was originally used with this dress. If so, I’ll keep it with the dress and photograph them together again.

We have a photograph of my mother sitting on a sofa with her legs gracefully extended wearing this dress and she looked beautiful in it. Her long thick red hair was pulled back in a low chignon. She was wearing her trademark apple green jade jewelry that my father had given her ~ earrings of carved squirrels with diamond eyes, a Chinese jade and gold necklace in the neckline, and a green jade and gold bangle bracelet, and her wedding rings. She also wore green slingback pumps that she had gotten on a trip to Italy. She loved green accessories with navy blue. My father liked this dress and had asked her to wear it that day for the photographer to take the family pictures.( I can’t post that photo today as the only copy is at my father’s house now in Oregon and I am in Seattle, WA. )

The Entire Dress is Sheer

There are more photos taken the same day that include the entire family and different combinations of various members of them. She is in several of these as well still wearing this dress. So am I. I am about 5 years old in these. And my brother is about 4 years old. That dates this photo to 1957. I know she had had the dress a at least a couple of years already .

I do not really remember my mother wearing this dress. I just know she did because of those photos and because I was told that she did! I do remember seeing this very dress hanging in a closet in her house though years later when she was no longer wearing it because styles had changed. She kept a lot of clothes that she no longer wore in a large cedar closet at the end of a hallway.

The Full Elaborately Pleated Skirt, Typical of the Era is 30 " Long and Measures Nearly 4 yds. in Circumference Around the Hem

Once we were looking through it and my father said,”I really liked that dress on your mother.” And she said, “Yes. He won’t let me get rid of it, but it’s totally out of style now!” And he said, “I don’t know why you need new dresses when you have so many that are still perfectly good!” In and out of style were concepts regarding women’s clothing that he could not grasp! He was a college professor and he wore the same tweed sports coats for years if not decades! He would often say, “There is no need to buy new things when the things you have are still perfectly serviceable!” He, of course, lived through the Depression and we never heard the end of it! Of course he called it “The Great Depression.”

Fortunately my mother had her own money and bought herself new things and kept up with the styles as they changed. She also took good care of her things and kept a lot of them so there is a nice collection to go through. Interestingly, when arranged, chronologically, they tell the story of her life in styles ~ as styles changed over the decades and time passed.

In that way the changing of the styles during her life time and the fact that she kept up with them and kept them is an interesting recording, historically, of her lifetime. And something that I, as her daughter, actually find very interesting. By using the word lifetime I really mean her life and the time in which it took place.

She lived a little over eight decades, And, stylistically, each decade is really quite amazingly different! That is really very interesting to see. One way of studying times is to look at things people used that were made and were used and popular during those times. Like look at a certain decade, and consider this, then do it for the next decade, the next and so on! If you do this just for the few you have lived through yourself you can see how quickly things have changed and evolved! It is really fascinating.

My mother was quite petite and very proud of her figure. She said she had been on a diet every day of her adult life to retain it. She managed to do so all her life without a glitch. She was very self disciplined. She was 5’4″ tall and weighed 117 lbs with her clothes and shoes on. People always say that vintage clothes run very small. And that people are larger these days. I have no idea if that is really true or not. I find plenty of them that fit me. Out of curiosity however I measured this dress. These are 1/2 the measurements circumference as they are taken with the dress lying flat. Double for the around figures. I do not think they are really that much smaller than a proportionate woman of today.

Measurements taken with garment lying flat:

Bust from armpit to armpit – 19″ ( x 2 is a 38″ bust)

Waist – 13″ (x2 is a 26″ waist)

Shoulder to Shoulder across upper back – 15 1/2″

Center back seam from collar to waist – 17″

Hips – free because skirt is very full – nearly 4 yds around circumference of hem!

Length of skirt from waist to hem – 30″

It is all very interesting material to contemplate isn’t it?


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2 Responses to “A Very Special Dress from the 1950’s and the Family Story Behind It”

  1. seattlesamba says:

    I love this dress–the pleating, the material, all the fine details–and the story behind it. Also, the transparency of the fabric, paired with a modest design, speaks to a much more subtly-minded era. It is so rare these days to find a dress that stands as a work of art in itself!