Art History Resources For Writers: Vintage Sewing Patterns (20th century)

Standard 1108; ©1899; Men’s and Boys’ Military Shirt.

If you’re writing about at people who lived in America (or at least, a parallel version of the United States with a similar fashion sense), in a generation or region different from your own, you might not have a clear vision of how your characters dressed. Vintage sewing patterns can tell you what the average person was wearing at the time. Different eras relied more or less on home-sewn clothes, but every generation has worn the styles depicted in sewing patterns, whether they bought off the rack or not.

Peerless 9590W; ca. 1920; Ladies’ & Misses’ Drawers.

Mass market clothing has always been inspired by the high fashion of a couple years prior, and that filters down into the everyday looks worn “today”. It used to be that finding old patterns meant scouring garage sales, or — if you’re lucky — diving deep into your local library’s collection of ephemera. Thanks to the internet, you can now find a lot of these rare pieces on the Vintage Sewing Pattern Wikia.

Hollywood 1090; ca. 1932; One-piece evening frock and short fitted jacket.

Like any other public wiki, this one is updated and maintained by a group of people who may or may not be historians, so double check whatever you glean from their archives, but with sewing patterns, it’s pretty easy to get information about the date and region right there on the package.

Butterick 4133; late 1940s; Misses’ Hostess Gown: Scalloped Midriff.

This site includes both patterns uploaded individually by folks who owned a copy, and some  Vintage Pattern Vendors who allowed their patterns to be used; the site’s About section warns against uploading copyright images.

McCall’s 3616; ©1956; Misses’ Bathing Suit and Beach Robe with or without Sleeves

Vogue 7497; ca. 1968/69; Misses Caftan.

Click on any of the images to see a larger version. All are currently available on the Vintage Sewing Pattern Wikia.

 

Art History Resources For Writers

I’ve occasionally talked about different aspects of art history here: semiotics, evolution of style, photo references, and so on. I don’t work as an art historian now, and I’m no longer pursuing a degree in that field (though I do have one and studied for another), so I’m always on the fence about how much time to devote to discussing it in this space. I think most people who read this blog are here for writing — my writing, or conversations about writing — and I’m not sure how much interest there ever was in me excitably sharing some obscure piece of history or culture that I read about this week.

But the truth is that I read non-fiction every week, in addition to fiction, and most of what I’m studying on my own is related to art history. I’ve always been a sociocultural art historian, which means I seek to understand art by  understanding the culture and context within which it was created, instead of trying to fit the art of another time and place into a framework I’m imposing. (I’m looking at you, Marxist aestheticists.) That’s part of why semiotics is an integral part of my art criticism; visual communication, including art, is an extension of linguistics, and like language, can’t be truly understood unless you know the context in which it’s spoken, and the culture of the people speaking it.

So, I think I’m going to incorporate more of that into this space. It’s a part of who I am, and that’s what you signed up for when you read my blog.

Before you go, check out these links to some previous posts that might interest you:

If you’d like me to talk about anything in particular, please leave me a comment below.

Novel-In-Progress Update:11,333 words

I don’t have as many words on the novel as I was hoping by now; it’s been 3 weeks that I’ve been writing seriously on it, and my goal is 5000 words a week. At this point, I’ve got 18 weeks of writing to go to hit my estimated goal of 100,000 words, which is only an guess until I get closer. I’ll accept anything over 90k, really. That’s not the limit for where it will end up after editing, but I’m hoping to write enough in the first draft that I can cut whatever I need to. (I’ve always been a “write too much, cut down to make better” type of writer, and I’m a little nervous I’ll end up with a novella instead of a novel if I’m not careful.)

The lower word count doesn’t represent the amount of time I’ve spent over the last three weeks, though. The first 5,000 words were down in the first week, but I quickly realized there was more to the story than I’d imagined. Much of my time was spent expanding the outline, and researching, once I figured out the story wanted a different ending, and a couple of extra plot points. That’s not a surprise. This novel is like an origami animal: I can see (in my head) the shape of it, what it is, but I have to unfold it to see all the nooks and crannies.

I know the characters get from A to B to C, and that they change along the way, but I write organically, the way that makes the most sense to me. If I set my story in a real place, and I send a character out in one direction, what will they actually run into? If a kid who’s never been outside has to sleep in a forest, how will they react to rain? Or bugs? Or a sprained ankle? Writing those things out requires knowing the answers.

My research this week has included:

I’m building a Pinterest page for my novel, if you’re interested. This week’s image is the reference I’m using for one of my main characters, Zora:

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Isn’t she lovely? She’s not the MC, but she’s one of the two most important other people in the book (and let me just say right now that I’m not going to allow any editor/publisher to “whiten her up”). She was a minor character when I start drafting the novel, but by really thinking about her motivations and how she’d react to the situation I put her in, I realized I was putting her into a certain trope that a flesh-and-blood woman with the personality I gave her wouldn’t fall into. I like her more, as a person, now.

Stay tuned for more updates!