Book Review: The Empress of Fashion

I don’t know about all y’all, but for me Christmas isn’t Christmas if I don’t get at least one fantastic book that I burn through like a flash fire. This year, I asked for (Thanks Ro and George!) and got this marvelous book about Diana Vreeland:

Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland

Honestly, it was everything I hoped for and more — much more biographical detail than Vreeland put into her own books (Allure and D.V.), much more historical context (I had no idea of the connections between Vreeland and Warhol, for instance), and many, many, many fantastic quotes, including:

I suffered, as only the very young can suffer, the torture of being conspicuous.


When you’ve heard the word, it means so much more than if you’ve only seen it.


You must always give ideas away. Under every idea is a new one waiting to be born.

and especially

Luck is infatuated with the efficient.


Funny girls would rather look interesting than safely pretty. The look they avoid, in fact, is prettiness in the country-club sense.

and — further proof that DV was very wise —

What do I want with a bloody old handbag that one leaves in taxis and so on? It should all go into pockets. Real pockets, like a man has, for goodness’ sake.

Honestly, if you can read all those quotes and NOT want to read this book … well, go back to the beginning and read them again.

Vreeland has always topped my list of “what person in history would you want to have dinner with?” and this book almost makes up for that never happening. Almost. (Where’s my gosh-darn time machine?)

New Book Help?

So … I have a new book coming out next year. It’s called The Hundred Dresses, and it’s about the most iconic dress styles of our age, and how and why to wear them.  What do I mean by “iconic dress styles”? Well, it’s everything from fashion classics like the Fortuny column and the Chanel jersey dress, to folklore styles like the wench and the “Guinevere,” ethnic styles like the flamenco, the cheongsam and the sari, as well as pop-culture icons like the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” dirndl, and modern touchpoints like the J-Lo (yeah, you know the one I’m talking about) and the Mouret Galaxy. Whew!

Here’s a quick excerpt from the current draft — a dress archetype familiar to regular readers of this blog, the Airship Hostess.

The Airship Hostess dress is not for present-day flight attendants or even stewardesses: it is a purely notional dress for an alternate history where giant cruise-ship-like dirigibles float through the skies, doing the New York to still-exotic San Francisco run at a leisurely 135 mph.

The Airship Hostess dress is vaguely 1930s; vaguely 1940s, but with a distinctly official air. There are useful pockets (usually asymmetrical); there are buttons (usually asymmetrical); there’s a long, narrow skirt and a little collar, and definitely something pointy and art-deco-y going on. It’s worn bare-headed, or with a jaunty little hat, and purses or bags are not carried while on duty (that’s what the pockets are for). Dickies and gloves? Optional.

The women in the Airship Hostess dresses are the heroines of screwball comedies: they’re heiresses running away from their inheritances, grifters on the make (with hearts of gold), dames both dizzy and hard-bitten. They have secrets; they have repartee; they do their safety briefing before takeoff as a patter song. They always fall in love on their voyages, either with the poor boy in steerage (who is a prince in disguise) or with the older, world-weary war correspondent, or (occasionally) with the semi-sloshed and semi-louche lounge piano player.

Even though modern airships are limited to thrill rides and hovering over major sporting events (yawn) the Airship Hostess dress is not. It’s amazing how competent a trim, tailored, functional dress — one that isn’t trying to be a man’s suit — can make you feel. The Airship Hostess is prepared for any disaster on the ground or in the skies (short of a full-on Hindenberg), and you can be too.

So here’s where I could use your help — I need a subtitle, and I need it *now*. The usual publishing practice of just adding “… and how they CHANGED the WORLD” as a subtitle isn’t really working for this one, sadly. Any suggestions? I will pick my favorite from any comments left on this post today, and send the winner a copy of my last book (signed, if you like!) and also a random piece of fabric or pattern from my stash! (How’s that for incentive?)

I’m also looking for some “who wore it best” type links to pictures of famousish people wearing the archetypes. I’ve set up a Pinterest Board and tried to put up pictures of all the types … if you know where to find a picture of, say, Cameron Diaz wearing the Airship Hostess (oh, if only she WOULD) or Zooey Deschanel wearing a “Face” dress … or Drew Barrymore wearing the Flower Child Bride … and so on, Pinterest lets you leave comments on the pins. Which would be awesome.

What else can I tell you? It’s being published by Bloomsbury (they’re wonderful). It’s illustrated — every dress! — by Donna Mehalko, who is super-wonderful. It will be out in 2013 sometime, available wherever books are sold.

Long-Overdue Q&A with Sarai Mitnick!

I know you all know Sarai Mitnick, of Colette Patterns … her new book (The Colette Sewing Handbook) has been out for a while (go check it out, if you didn't already get it for Christmas) and it is fantastic. I learned three new great ideas (including keeping a "someday" notebook for imagined projects) just from flipping through it, and it really rewards sitting down with it and a stack of sticky notes to mark things you want to try. 🙂

My favorite thing about Sarai's book is her emphasis on sewing as an experience, rather than just as a slower method of acquiring new clothes. I have a hard time explaining why I sew to people if I don't start with saying that I enjoy the process as much as the outcome. (If I became fabulously wealthy overnight, for instance, I would probably sew MORE, not less.)


Sarai graciously agreed (quite some time ago) to do a Q&A for me, and finally, here it is!

Q. What do you usually suggest as a first project for people learning to sew?

A. I think it's important to choose something that you have a good chance of (1) successfully finishing and (2) actually wanting to wear.

For those reasons, it's a good idea to start with simple, tailored shapes. That means nothing too flowy, no weird lines or corners, just a straightforward design without too many pieces. Patterns with fewer pieces are just faster to sew, and it's nice for a beginner to have that gratification sooner rather than risk frustration with long sewing marathons.

Skirts are a really excellent place to start when it comes to garment sewing, since they don't usually require as much fitting as something with a bodice. The bust and shoulders are usually the area that can be most challenging to get a good fit on, but with a skirt you just have to worry about the waist and maybe the hips, depending on the shape you choose.

As for making something you'll actually want to wear, a lot of classes start with the wrap skirt, which is easy to sew but isn't something that would really fit in my wardrobe, personally. But there are plenty of other really easy skirt shapes that would. I'd say to choose one of those, then pick a really cute or pretty fabric to make it in.

I'd also advise not to fear the zipper! So many people get hung up on zippers, and yeah, they can be fiddly and annoying sometimes. But most clothing does need a closure of some kind, and the more you practice with them the better you get. Look up tutorials, learn different ways of doing it, practice, make friends with your seam ripper, and go forth fearlessly!

Q. I love your approach to wardrobe planning (although I'm more of an impulse-sewer myself). Do you personally start with fabric, or colors, or shapes, or does your inspiration vary?

A. It does vary, but I think I'm pretty color oriented. We do these seasonal "palette challenges" over on my blog, where everyone comes up with their own color palette for the season and sews a little mini-wardrobe based on that palette. That's really helped me get creative with my sewing in the last year. But it all sort of fits together, because sometimes my palette comes from fabrics I own (or want to own).

Erin, even though you're an impulse sewer, one of the things I love about your sewing projects is that you'll often take a pattern and make it in several different fabrics. I do the same thing, when I find a style I love and that works, I stick with it. That's a great way to minimize frustration. I really love making the same dress in different fabrics, and trying out different techniques or details on each one.

Q. What was the hardest thing for you to learn about patternmaking? What do you like best about it?

A. Grading was pretty tricky at first. That is, learning how to create different sizes from a single size. I am the rare person who actually really likes doing math, but wrapping my head around the calculations and finding ways to keep them all straight was definitely a challenge at first. I'd made plenty of patterns before, but it wasn't until I decided to start Colette Patterns that I actually had to learn how to make different sizes! Fortunately, grading is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it.

The thing I like best about patternmaking is seeing the clothes come to life. It's really amazing to see something go from a sketch on paper to a 3D, real life garment. It never ceases to amaze me.

Q. Can you give us any sneak previews of upcoming patterns? e.g. are you working on a ball gown? A jumpsuit? A pair of Katherine-Hepburn pants? 🙂

A. Right now, we're working on a few new designs for spring/summer: two sundresses and a pair of shorts. One of the sundresses we've codenamed Sophia Loren because it just reminds me of something she would have worn in the early 60s. Probably in white and paired with big sunglasses. The other dress has a really cool shape and is going to work splendidly with border prints and eyelets, which I think is pretty exciting.
One last thing — my favorite tip from Sarai's book, on creating a "match point". I've never seen it explained as clearly before (or maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, always possible): 
Screen shot 2012-01-13 at 6.06.20 PM

Book Review: Built By Wendy Coats and Jackets

I am simultaneously the best and worst audience for Built by Wendy Coats and Jackets: best, because I have at least three coats cut out or fabric-bought-for, and worst, because I have exactly ZERO coats completed. (There's a plastic bin lurking somewhere around here with a really, really nice corduroy coat cut out in it, but I haven't seen it since my son was born … and he's been in double-digits for a year now.)

It's not because I don't like coats. I LOVE coats. I have lots and lots and lots of coats, but my usual coat M.O. is: buy vintage coat near the end of its life from eBay or Etsy, wear until dead. Repeat. (I also like to buy Lands' End coats in unloved colors on super-clearance, men's coats from Goodwill, and any creaky vintage leather coat in a weird color, like gray or forest green.)

It's always seemed like a stretch to me to SEW a coat, though. That combination of interfacing and lining and thick wool has always been a bit too daunting. 

However, after reading this new Built By Wendy book, I'm starting to have a change of heart. Maybe this is the year I'll sew a coat! (See how I conveniently state this in Spring …)

For one thing, the basic patterns are classic: a short fitted coat, a raglan sleeve coat, and a windbreakery hoodie type coat. And as in her other books, Wendy rings the changes on them in simple and complex ways, showing everything from a minimalist zip front coat that you could easily hide on the rack in Eileen Fisher to a hipster-friendly hooded poncho. (My fave was the "Puff the Magic Jacket" bolero-type jacket which would be magical for sure in black pique over summer sundresses.)

The patterns are included, and range from a 32" to a 41" bust. There are pages and pages of sewing instructions (very clear illustrations!) and lists of necessary notions, explanations of interfacings and linings, and much more. 

Until I make a coat with one of the patterns I won't be able to say for sure, but this book at least makes me WANT to make a coat, which is half the battle. (Have you made a coat with this book yet? If so, let us know in the comments!)

One Night Only …

So I kind of forgot to mention that I'm signing books tonight in Burlingame. It's a lovely bookstore! They are super-nice! And if you show up in a dress I will give you a Dress a Day tape measure, while supplies last!

(The one night only part is kind of a lie, though, because I live in Burlingame, so technically I'm there pretty much every night.)

Hope to see you there!

[There *will* be an East Bay event, but I don't have my travel dates pinned down enough to schedule it yet. I hope to know this week …]

February 10th: BOOK PARTY!

So the first SECRET LIVES OF DRESSES event is scheduled for Thursday, February 10 (the release date), from 6-9 PM at Ver Unica, 526 Hayes St. in San Francisco. 


In case you can't read the small type, if you buy a dress at the event, I'll write a one-line Secret Life for it (and you)!

Needless to say, dressing up in vintage is encouraged. 🙂 Hope to see you there!

[PS There will definitely be an East Bay event as well, I'm still putting that together.]

Dresses in Literature: Imprudent Purchases Edition


When did the "imprudent vain purchases" trope stop being so prevalent in stories intended for girls? I seem to recall quite a lot of it in Alcott (Eight Cousins, Little Women) but I don't think I've seen it in modern YA books. Is it the credit culture? Too many vampires? People having actual sex? Or have I only been reading apocalypticYA? Not too many descriptions like this in those books:

Now Grandmama is a very prim old lady, sweet and neat, and dainty as can be, but still rather precise and severely plain in everything; and this frivolous, fussy little costume, with its low-cut neck, trimmed with many rows of dainty lace, and little more than a few flounces of lace to serve as sleeves — no, nothing about the little dress seemed at all like the Grandmama we know.

Anyway, this image comes from a story called "The Pink Gown" in an issue of St. Nicholas. 

First Review!

The first review of The Secret Lives of Dresses has shown up in my feed reader … from Sarah at the blog Domestic Sluttery:

As the author of A Dress A Day, Erin McKean conjures up the most beautiful descriptions of clothes, including a cherry pie print blouse that sent me straight to eBay. In Mimi's shop, Dora discovers that each item comes with a story, and these were absolutely beautiful. The dress that is only for dancing, the dress that is for a very particular meeting…

Although certain elements of the plot were a little predictable for me, The Secret Lives of Dresses is a heart-warming and lovely book that would make a great Christmas present for any vintage lover.

Thanks Sarah! Of course, the book isn't out until February, but I assume they still have book tokens in the UK, right? (I used to love reading about book tokens in children's books. And speaking of children's books, the cover image at that post is for the UK edition — doesn't it look very Noel Streatfeild? I am so lucky in my book covers …)

Shillings and Ginger Beer


I dare anyone who ever spent time reading British children's literature to look at this pattern and not want to spend the rest of the day reading E. Nesbit, Noel Streatfeild, or even C.S. Lewis. (Or Edward Eager, although he's not a Brit.) Preferably on the couch, under an afghan, while drinking cocoa. (Or ginger beer.)

(This could be Susan and Lucy — couldn't it? The youngest girl is always full of pluck, right? Pattern is from Tina at What I Found Vintage.) 

Feel free to reminisce about your favorite children's books in the comments … 

Book Review: 1,000 Clever Sewing Shortcuts and Tips


Deepika (disclosure: advertises on this blog) sent me a copy of the new PatternReview book, 1,000 Clever Sewing Shortcuts and Tips: Top-Rated Favorites from Sewing Fans and Master Teachers, and boy, am I happy to have it.

I love books of tips because they reinforce two of my prized assumptions: first, that no one is ever so much of an expert that they can't LEARN SOMETHING NEW, and second, that bite-sized pieces of information are always more fun than long tracts.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker for huge, project-based books (I think I still have a copy of a book called 'Make Your Own Mission Furniture' around here somewhere) but in my current reality, it's as much as I can manage to learn that (for instance) you can fold the fabric in the seam allowance perpendicular to the stitching line and clip notches OUTWARD, letting you have nice neat notches in curves without the risk of cutting into the stitching! (Which I do with regularity.) 

Some of the other tips I will be using:

  • make cardboard templates to make spacing guides — I really need one of these for pockets, so I remember that the best spacing for a pocket opening for me is about 5 inches … 
  • use fusible interfacing instead of tape to shorten or lengthen pattern pieces (genius!)
  • take apart a jeweled stretch bracelet for gorgeous sew-on decorations — they already have holes!
  • buttons too shiny? Sand 'em down with fine-grit sandpaper or an emery board.

I really like that this book is organized by category — makes it easier to find tips that apply just to the difficult project you're currently tearing your hair out over. And part of this book's charm is that some of the tips are really cautionary tales, of the "don't let this happen to you" variety — who doesn't identify with a good story about a heinous mistake? 

I also recommend reading it with a bunch of little sticky notes, so that you can mark the pages of the tips you want to try for yourself!