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Making a Fifties Maternity Shirt-Dress | Fit and Flare, Collar & Pleated Skirt

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

Most modern clothes don’t light me up. That lesson was driven home with this

latest project, when I had the intention of making one of those loose, gathered t-shirt type dresses that I’d been seeing on Instagram. A modern dress, in other words. Fabric chooses its own project though, and as I ruffled my three yards of natural coloured linen in my fingers, I realized I just couldn’t settle for that basic, boring dress.

I found an awesome blog post by Sense and Sensibility Patterns all about retro maternity sewing she’s done. At the very end of that blog post were photos of a stunning fifties-style maternity dress that she had created for her pregnancy, by altering one of her standard dress patterns. That was the dress I wanted to make! It was just what I wanted: something fitted on top, with a very full, knee length skirt.

Drafting the Pattern

Disclaimer: My pattern for this dress was self-drafted, meaning the errors and pitfalls I encountered are not a reflection of the Sense and Sensibility pattern which inspired it. If you would like to create something similar from a ready-made pattern, I recommend buying her 1950’s shirt-dress pattern.

Altering my standard bodice pattern for maternity
Maternity Bodice Blocks

To create my version of this dress, I started with my close-fitting bodice block, and made some adjustments so it would fit my pregnant self, as well as have the desired "look". First, I rotated the bust dart into the waist dart position, and made the dart much narrower than it would normally be, to allow more room at the waist. I also gave more room at the side seams of the bodice. Finally, I raised the front-waistline about 2.5 -3'' higher than it would normally be, and swooped it down into more of a natural waistline-height at the back. I shouldn’t have had the back waistline quite so low, as I was to discover. More on that in the “Alterations” section.

I drafted a collar similar to the inspiration photo, as well as fitted sleeves with cuffs. I didn’t draft a skirt because I simply used my remaining fabric for a huge rectangle which would be pleated up. I didn’t draft any facings for this dress, other than a fold-over centre-front button facing. This was a mistake, but more on that later.

Maternity Shirt-Dress
Maternity Shirt-Dress Pattern Pieces

Fabric Choice and Sewing the Dress

Materials for this project included 3-4 yards of 54” wide, natural-coloured linen, a generous amount of cotton organdy, and three wooden buttons.

Sewing the bodice, sleeves, and collar went very smoothly. Next came the skirt, which was more irksome. It took a while to get it pleated to the right size, and once

completed, felt anti-climactic. It wasn’t nearly as full and pouffy as I’d envisioned. I decided to add a built-in organdy petticoat to the dress, using even more yardage than I’d used for the outer skirt. Problem solved. Next came the most difficult part of this project.

Alterations Along the Way

It was time to attach the skirt to the bodice. I had opted for an ambitiously shaped waistline, which was much lower in the back than in the front. After sewing the skirts to the bodice, the waistline looked way too low in the back. So, I resewed this seam, taking up more bodice material in the back this time. Then I tried it on again. Sewed the seam again. Back and forth. Finally, I was satisfied with the waistline and it was symmetrical all around.

Vintage Linen Dress
Sewing a fabric "tape" to finish waist seam

After trimming down the massive, bulky seam allowance, I decided to add a strip of cotton muslin tape to hide the seam allowance of the skirt, as well as to strengthen this seam. The skirts were so heavy compared to the single-layer bodice.

That done, I added the buttons and hand-worked buttonholes to the bodice. At this point I realized the bodice needed some extra stability, badly. I hand stitched a bodice-facing into the centre-front area, which meant having to re-do the buttonholes. This would not only help the bodice to support the skirts better, but gave more strength to the buttons and buttonholes. If I were to make this dress again, I would fully line the bodice.

Hemming the Skirt

Vintage Dress Hem
Wide Invisible Hem

I love the hem of this skirt, but it was tricky to carry out! I folded up a generous width of hem and pinned it only to the organdy under-skirt, so the stitches would be invisible from the outside. The problem with this is that I had to pin it at the exactly correct height on the inner-skirt, or the outer skirt would have awkward bumps and bubbles. I also had to pleat the hem on the inside to get it all to lie smoothly. Finally, I hand stitched it down. All finished!

What About You?

Have you ever sewn a fifties inspired dress? Ever had to alter a garment half-way through making it? Let me know in the comments section.

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