Make It Your Own: Bette Davis' Defiant Dinner Dress

Hi, everyone! Since this is our first real post and not an introductory one, we want to start out by saying thank you to all of the people who have been poking around the blog for the past few weeks and for our two followers. Special thanks go to our friends in the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. We appreciate your support!

When we set out to start this blog, we knew that we wanted a place where we could showcase our progress with our various sewing projects and generate discussion, but seeing as though we’re both busy for a great deal of the year (I’m a college student, but this coming school year will be my last (!) and my mother works full-time) we knew that would be a challenge. However, our work doesn’t stop us from thinking about sewing!

This post, and future ones like it, is dedicated to showing what is going on in our minds when we see outfits that we find particularly inspiring, which usually includes the question, “How can I make this myself?”

This week’s inspiration comes from Warner Bros.’ 1942 film, Now, Voyager, starring Bette Davis. Now, Voyager is a favorite movie of ours as it involves the transformation of a woman who overcomes adversity. Second only to La Bette are the clothes she wears that signifies the transformation. The centerpiece: the long, dark evening dress with the camellias at the apex of the plunging neckline that Davis, as Charlotte Vale, wears after she returns home from her transformative trip to Rio d Janeiro. The dress, of which her mother disapproves, is the symbol of Charlotte’s independence and rank disobedience towards her mother. For the purposes of this post, we will call it the Defiant Dinner Dress.

Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale after her transformation and South American
cruise in Now, Voyager. Photo obtained from thefoxling@Flickr.

This gown, along with others worn by Davis’ female colleagues, was designed by Orry-Kelly, a Hollywood designer who worked for all of the major studios and was responsible for dressing some of Hollywood’s most popular actresses during the pre-code era through the 1960s. Kelly was also the recipient of three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design for An American in Paris (1951) (another favorite of ours), Les Girls (1957), and Some Like It Hot (1959).

Kelly was the costuming genius behind the majority of the films Bette Davis made while under contract to Warner Bros. He is perhaps best known for his work in Jezebel (1938), Warner Bros.’ answer to David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939).
Bette Davis as Julie Marsden in Jezebel. This is a photograph of the
scandalous red dress that Julie wears to the ball.
Photo obtained from kndynt2099 @Flickr.

But while the costumes in Jezebel are magnificent, we feel that the simplicity and clean lines of the Now, Voyager evening dress far outshine the clothing of the antebellum South. It is the timelessness of this design tells us that it can be worn and be equally elegant today, and also makes it so appealing to us that we’ve decided to show you how to replicate it.

As we mentioned before, the dress in question is a dark-colored evening gown. We aren’t sure what the color of the dress was in person, the actual color of the dress could have been dark green, dark blue, or black, all of which would appear black on black-and-white film. It also seems that the dress either wraps or has a tie-belt at the waist (you’ll notice in the picture below with Bonita Granville that there is a tie hanging from the waist of Davis’s dress).

Charlotte (Davis) and niece June (Bonita Granville, right) at the
 family dinner party in Now, Voyager.  Photo obtained from thefoxling @Flickr.

So, after a day-long search for dress patterns that emulate the design, we settled on two: Simplicity 2145 and McCall’s 5974. Both patterns feature v-neck, long-sleeve dresses with a sort of wrapping element at the waist.

Simplicity 2145 requires roughly 3 ½ yards of  60” fabric for a size 14. The reason I say “roughly” is because this is a Project Runway pattern. For those of you who are not familiar with this subgroup of patterns, the yardage is non-cumulative. Therefore, you can add the yardages of each of the pieces together to find your total yardage. To get the 3 ½ yards to which we referred, add the yardages for the long sleeves, front wrap, and dress with the v-neck bodice (bodice A) together.

This pattern allows the use of many different types of fabric, including laundered cottons, linens, and, oddly enough, matte jersey. We speculate that the original Orry-Kelly design was made of wool jersey, wool crepe, or silk velvet, given the drape and movement of the dress. For this pattern, we suggest that you use crepe rather than cottons or jersey. Crepe provides you with the drape of a jersey without the clinginess. Matte jersey, while comfortable, will most likely prove to be far too stretchy for this pattern (Authors’ note: If you do decide to use knits for any pattern drafted for wovens, you will have to subtract ease from the pieces. For more information on this, please consult Fast Fit by Sandra Betzina).

McCall’s 5974 requires slightly less fabric than the Simplicity pattern. It takes 2 7/8 yards of 60” fabric for a size 14. This pattern says that it is to be used with stretch knits only. For our purposes, we believe that a silk jersey would be best. Since this will be a longer dress, we do want a fabric that is lightweight, but that also has excellent drape.

As for modifying these dress patterns, please be generous with your yardages. Add 2 ½-3 extra yards to accommodate an evening length dress. We also suggest that you use invisible zippers. The insertion of an invisible zipper may be more time consuming, but always remember the end result! Or, if hand sewing is your thing and you prefer standard zippers, you may want to hand-pick your zipper, which will capture the true vintage spirit of the design. For more information on hand-picked zippers, please click here.

Happy Sewing!

-Debra and Christina

Note: Information concerning Orry-Kelly can be found here and here.

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