Saturday, February 18, 2017

"The Boat Dress"

My Great Grandmother was very stylish, if you don't believe me, look above. Isn't she just lovely? She not only had great taste in clothes, but she loved shoes too. To celebrate her, and what must have been incredible wardrobe, I wanted to recreate a dress she wore first in 1940. This was a dress that my Great Grandmother wore in her younger years and was photographed in many, many times. It has gained the name “the boat dress” because it was worn on a boat ride aboard the SS North American to celebrate her graduation. This was certainly her most favorite dress according to family lore.

When I first saw this dress and her in the photograph, it was at her funeral visitation. I immediately fell in love with the dress and wanted a version of it for myself. I know that may sound a touch morbid but I can't help myself . . .That was a few years ago and it has taken until now for me to finally get a copy of this coveted picture, Which you can see above. Thank you, you know who!

Before trying to recreate this particular look, I had to do some research which included asking some questions to those who remembered the dress, or actually, a similar one. Taken in 1940, this photograph, the original,  was of my Great Grandmother wearing her absolutely favorite dress. Although no one is around anymore who remembers the original, my great aunt did remember a similar one.  . . . The similar one was purchased sometime in the 50s to replace the original which had been out grown. It was, like the original, purchased from a local department store.

From what I could gather, the original dress was white and navy. The fiber content was possibly cotton or rayon because it was a summer or spring dress. The white was sheer or very close to it. The back, although never photographed from that angle, was very similar to the front but without the slit revealing a pleated white skirt detail. There are 18 sets of little white buttons, 36 in all. I love the shoulder. The stripes are so charming. The sleeves, I think, are pleated.

So how did I execute this one?

 I draped this one myself on my dress form. Although I had some patterns in my stash that were similar to this one, I decided to make the pattern myself here to make it extra unique and to get it as close as I possibly could to the original. The dress was in four parts: the center front, side front, side back, and center back. This dress is almost like a princess seamed dress . . . .The neckline was finished with a facing. The dress, as I planned it, opened at the center front with hook and eyes with decorative buttons flanking the center front sides. For the center front of the dress where there is a pleated skirt hidden by the navy blue front, I planned on doing that as well like pictured. I planned on sewing the top of the pleats to the bottom of the facing, which extended to the waist level to keep the pleats in place. For the sleeves, I liked the idea of pleats to control the fullness and give it some body too but I did tucks pressed to  the side to mimic pleats.

The shoulders, I was sure, were to be the trickiest parts. These could have been done one of two ways: the material was striped or the stripes were done by sewing strips of alternating material together. I planned on sewing white and navy strips together to get that striped effect and top stitching then for body and looks. And it worked too.

To complete this look, I have ivory peep toe wedges and double strand of pearls (which were my actually my Great Grandmother’s ! Were they the pearls like seen in the picture? That I don’t know but I like to think so . . .)
Making this dress came together mostly like I planned although there were some small changes that I made. For one, I added a side zipper in addition to the center front opening to get in and out of this fitted dress much easier. I also did not top stitch the shoulder stripes. On the sleeves, I did three pleats to get that pleated look and then gathered the sleeve into the arm hole. I also starched the heck out of it to get it to stand up on itself. . . Construction was simple, first I did the back cutting the navy center on the fold and then adding the white side back panels. The front was a little tricky but once I did the shoulder stripes, it came together much better. I took in the stripes a great deal. First , they were quite wide but I got them down to just under and inch wide ultimately.

Beyond that how did it go really? Well, there was a lot of trial and error here, that I will admit. Although I draped this on my dress form, I had to take in the initial make up considerably to achieve that smooth fitted look like seen in the original.  For the center font pleated panel, I starched the dickens out of that to get those crisp, clean pleats I adored. I must have used half a bottle . . .

The buttons . . .oh the buttons. ... . Those darn little white buttons . . .There are 36 little white buttons there. Go ahead, count them! I think they took me a total of 5 hours as I had to cover them myself and then stitch them on one. at. a. time. Time consuming, a little painful, but so worth it. Oh yes, my materials. I chose to make my version out of a navy cotton chintz (the best I could possibly buy), and a white sheer cotton.


Anyway, that’s the original and here is what I did. Today, I just could not resist getting in some pictures and I did not sleep a wink last night. I was much too excited. I am just in love with this dress right now! I ended up coaxing my sister to go to Centennial Park for some pictures even though the tulips are not out yet. We still managed to get some wonderful shots though of the architecture of the parks railings, arches, and pagodas. Overall, despite the slight chill in the air, this was a beautiful day.

For my own interpretation, I tried to adhere to the original look as much as possible. Shoes, I wore my original ivory peep toe pumps, like the original, she too wore white (or ivory) peep toes. Although mine have a bow in the front, I think they are quite close in terms of aesthetic. Next, the pearls. The pearls that I am wearing I actually got from she when she passed away. Like said previously, I don’t know if they are the ones form the photograph, but they are similar to ones from the 40s. On her wrist, is a small watch but for me, I chose a little metal bracelet. I do have a little period watch but it is broken now . .. so I leave it in the box.

So, that's my "Boat Dress". Personally, I love it and I hope you all do too. I think drawing from the past is a marvelous method of building not only a period wardrobe but a beautiful one too. Hope you enjoyed viewing this post as much as I enjoyed bringing it together.


  1. What a wonderful project! The dress looks very close to hers. I love seeing the pics of your great grandmother with her more youthful and then fuller figure. The dress works on both. It looks lovely and vintage but not dated on you.

    1. Thank you! I agree, there is something very modern about it yet vintage too. I think that is why I like vintage so much, it is timeless in a way.

  2. Marvelous work and a credit to her memory.

    1. Thank you! I hope I did the original justice because it was just too lovely not to try to make up.

  3. What a wonderful accomplishment! It came out very similar to the original, very graceful and light. I love it, and I imagine your great grandmother would too :)

    1. Thank you! I tried to keep it as close to the original as possible because I thought it really did not need anything extra.