Monday 11 October 2010

Homage to the Wiggle Dress

If you’re looking for some deeply insightful commentary from the frontline of the self-stitched revolution, then I’m going to have to disappoint you today. Sorry bout that. Instead, today’s post is about a sartorial obsession of mine: the wiggle dress.

Presumable it was named as such because of the way in which the wearer of the dress might walk due to the tightness of its pencil skirt. This style became very popular during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and offered an arguably sexier and more sophisticated style option than the very full-skirted dresses that have become synonymous stylistically with most of the 1950’s. Earlier in the decade, many designers experimented with a variety of alternative dress silhouettes, such as the trapeze, but it wasn’t really until the very tail end of the 1950’s that the wiggle dress, AKA the sheath dress, really found its way into the wardrobes of many ‘normal’ women.

As sewers interested in mid-century vintage patterns will no doubt have already noticed, many home sewing patterns from the era in question (late 1950’s to early 1960’s) actually included the pattern pieces for both full skirt and slim skirt options, either of which could be paired with the same bodice pieces to created two wildly differing looks (see above and at the very bottom of this post). In a way, the wiggle version shares the same purpose as the full skirted version: emphasising an hour glass silhouette. However, the wiggle version has the added bonus (?) of leaving less to the imagination. Yet I would argue that the tasteful hemline and often demure neckline means a wiggle dress ALWAYS falls on the correct side of the classy/trashy divide.

Mid-century fashion geeks such as myself may get a buzz from tracing the emergence of the wiggle dress and then seeing its continued evolution as it morphed into the shapes that became the shift dresses and A-lines which defined the latter part of the 1960’s. Towards the mid sixties, the trend for undefined waists gained ground in popular consciousness. The wiggle dress started to adopt a straighter line, either by omitting all of the darts and side seam shaping and relying solely on belts to create waist definition (many pattern envelope illustrations began to show these less hourglass versions both belted and unbelted (eg. See above)), OR by gradually easing the severity of the darts and merely hinting at rather than screaming about the existence of the wearer’s waist (see below).

The wiggle or sheath dress is, in my humble opinion, a genius addition to any retro lover’s wardrobe. If fitted well, the right dress or pattern can boast womanly curves using contoured side seams and darting. In addition, a waist seam and possibly even a belt draw the eye to a defined waist. The right wiggle dress or sewing pattern can make the most out of little natural curves OR work by translating all that pre-existing curvy goodness into a sassy shaped garment with the just enough of a touch of class (see Joan in Mad Men, picture below, should you have even the slightest vaguest doubt).

Despite the relative ubiquity of this style of vintage dress pattern, I love the variety that you can find through the different bodice treatments, for example Butterick 6582 (pictured below), or, for that matter, the McCalls 6732 and Simplicity 3038 which featured in my last post. And have you seen Casey’s recent incredible green wiggle dress creation? Or Sew Red Hot's blue floral printed sheath? Both leave me lost for words. Other than ‘want’ of course.

I've been a fan of this style for some time, but didn't approach actually sewing or wearing such a garment myself until earlier this year when I made my coral dress and then later my leopard and black Rockabilly version. I rarely put my 'upper assets' on display, so was drawn to the sophisticated neckline. Similarly, I'm not sure a mini skirt hemline would look very good these days either so the knee-length style also appealed. But once I made and wore these dresses I soon discovered that the neat fitting and figure hugging qualities of this style made me feel more sexy in a dress than I had previously thought possible.

Contemporary fashion, for a number of years, seems to have been focussed on silhouettes that suit relatively boyish and very slender women (well, girls). Tunic tops/smocks, skinny jeans, front-pleated or harem trousers and cropped T-shirts, I feel, generally look better on the teenage 'clothes hanger' frame than on a full grown woman in possession of undeniable curves. Since university I been experimenting with silhouette, contemporary as well as a variety of vintage ones. I would hesitate to conclude that the wiggle dress era makes the most of the positive elements of my kind of body shape, whilst glossing over the less positive ones. That said, I don't think it's the most comfortable style to wear all day every day. I'm no Joan Holloway and wouldn't welcome the feelings of having my shape so on display permantly. But for certain events and going out of an evening, I think I've found the style for me.


Karin van D said...

Ah yes, a well earned homage. I love wiggle dresses. I don't think there are many sorts of garments that I think are more feminine and fabulous. And Joan, well, she's just stunning, isn't she?

Zara said...

I love this post! The wiggle dress is absolutely wonderful - especially on Joan.

By the way, I've been reading your blog for quite a while, and I just realized that I wasn't following via GFC. So I am now. :)

[patty the snug bug] said...

Yay! I recently made my first 'wiggle dress' - a shape I've avoided in RTW as the curve-hugging nature of the style didn't suit my not-boyish shape. Much to my surprise, I found that once in control of the proportions of the garment, it was actually QUITE flattering and not evocative of the stuffed sausage look that the RTW sheath dresses I'd tried on had been! I still feel more comfy in full circle skirts (especially as the hem doesn't ride up when I sit down like a sheath dress does!) but I'm certainly planning on adding a few more sheath dresses to my wardrobe... if I ever get my Lady Grey done!

frk.bustad said...

Great post! I love the wiggle dress too, but find it difficult to get the right fit. I mean, if it isn't perfectly fitted (as you also say), it won't look any good. And if it is too tight, it's just vulgar. Please show us the leopard dress again (because it is so gorgeous), and if you have any tips on fitting wiggle skirts (I'm especially thinking of sway backs) please share!

SEW RED HOT said...

Thanks for the love Zoe! Unfortunately for me I finished my dress just as winter was getting its teeth into Sydney and I wore it once because I just HAD to: but froze! Now that the thaw has come I look forward to getting out in it more.

In this interview reprinted in the smh from the Sunday Telegraph London

its all about the foundation garments.

But I'm not prepared to go there. Who cares if you've got a bit of belly bloat at the end of the day?


Anonymous said...

I love sheath dresses, but I am decidedly pair shaped so it is near impossible for me to fit into them and sewing my own seems daunting. Is there hope for the pair shaped among us?

Minnado said...

A greta post Zoe, I enjoyed reading about the wiggle dress. I am eternally regreting the fact that my mum threw out two 1950s cocktail dresses of my very elegant grandma's about 15 years ago. I have been a bit chicken about trying to sew a wiggle dress but do have a suitable pattern....maybe I could recreate grandma's cocktail dresses.

sewistafashionista said...

Great post on one of the iconic fashions. I enjoyed the read and I kept going back to the Jiffy 2-piece shift and thinking "ya'know..."

Zoe said...

Thanks ladies. I am far from an expert when it comes to fitting, but I did figure out two things that may be of worth to pass on:

1) When I made mine I used a woven fabric with a bit of stretch in it. MUCH more comfortable to wear and a sleeker fit than a completely non-stretchy vintage wiggle dress I have from the 1960's. We are lucky enough to live in a time when fabric with elastane/lycra is an option: use it!

2) In response to the comment from sownbrooklyn, I'm not sure if I would class myself as a pear but my lower half is definately half or a whole size bigger than my top, so I tend to grade either the top part of the dress pattern down a size or the bottom part of the pattern up a size depending on the pattern I bought.

3) Get someone who knows their way around a pot of pins to help you fit a wiggle dress. There is no way on earth you can fit the back of a this type of dress on your own if you want the nicest fit. It's tricky getting garments to fit but not too tight and I think this type of dress shows up ill-fitting more than others might.

Congrats Patty on your creation, do you have a link where we could check it out?

Good luck frk.busted, if anyone could make/rock an awesome vinatge flavoured wiggle dress, it's you!

Lore, as sad as the change of seasons are for us in UK right now, I'm excited for you to be able to wear your stunning floral dress! I bet you end up getting heaps of wear from it, it's such an awesome garment.


Zoe said...

Oh, and minnado, DO IT!!!!!!! Then blog it, then send me the link if I don't find it myself.


[patty the snug bug] said...

Hey Zoe - here's the link to my version - Vogue 8648 - an awesome pattern, with a full circle AND a pencil skirt!

I found the princess seams in my skirt to be super helpful in fitting - especially taking width out of the back!

Also, the second time I wore this I sewed out a bit of width in the hip area - I still can sit in it, but it's bit more form fitting! Not tight, though. I chose my size by my high bust measurement, then did the FBA, then I think I added on a bit more around the hip (can't remember! it might be in the post!)

la inglesita said...

Great Post!! I'm in love with this silhouette and have to say that, for once, I have the perfect curvy figure to go with it. I just see it a little overdressed and don't know when to wear it.

Erin said...

Have to agree about how fabulous this dress style is. Being petite seems to emphasize curves, so I have not had the guts to try a dress like this. Maybe once I get the courage, and skill, to make one for myself I'll go for it - since if it doesn't work out I've invested my own time and effort instead of a lot of money.

DreFindsVintage said...

i was searching for "what is a wiggle dress," for a dress I am listing and u taught me everything i ened to know, thanks!

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