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Fifties Style Dress - Red Linen Fabric

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

The following blog post is about a fifties style dress I created in linen fabric, inspired by a photo from Threads Magazine.

Finished dress paired with boots and a cardigan, worn to the park

How a Trip to the Store Resulted in a Sewing Project

Last year, while running an errand, I wandered to the magazine rack to check out the latest issue of Threads magazine. The red fifties dress on the cover fascinated me, and flipping through the magazine, I discovered it was designed by James Galanos, who had designed dresses for first lady Nancy Reagan. The image of that stunning dress stayed imprinted on my mind as a sewing project for the future. I loved it because it combined the classic fifties silhouette with a touch of an 18th century look, both of which I love.

What I Learned in Toronto

On a trip to downtown Toronto a few months later, I stopped in the fashion district. I was hoping to find a red linen or silk fabric for sewing my version of the fifties dress. I found both: linen and silk in bright colours, at reasonable prices. The silk fabric was stunning, but it was double the price and would have been more suitable for a special occasion dress. I wanted a fifties dress for casual wear. The style alone is on the fancy end, and silk would have make it “too much” for day-to-day wear.

Finished dress worn on an apple picking trip with the family

Designing a Dress I Couldn’t See

Needless to say, I had no dress pattern for what I wanted to create. I had a photo of the front of the dress, and that was all. What I could see from the photo was a full, pleated skirt, a fitted bodice with no darts, sleeves cut in one with the bodice and a U-shaped neckline piece. I would have to design the back of the dress without seeing it.

I took down my custom made dress blocks from their hanging hook next to my worktable, and traced them off on to pattern paper.

Right away I could see that the dart control would need to be transferred into the seam between the bodice and the U-shaped neckline panel. For the back, I mirrored the style of the front with a simple U-shaped neckline piece and waist darts. I had considered princess seams in the back, but upon making some test sketches decided it would create disunity in the dress to have two different sides like that.

A couple things that puzzled me were the side-front seam on the sleeves (was that the only seam in the sleeve?) and the lack of side seam on the bodice. I also couldn’t tell if the under-panel of the sleeve was in one piece with the bodice. Wishing for more photos, I googled the designer’s name, but to no avail. I found only the front view of this particular dress.

Solving the Sleeve Riddle

A huge sticking-point in this process were the sleeves. Not only were there ambiguous seams, but this was my first time sewing kimono sleeves, or sleeves cut-in-one with the bodice. Using a kimono sleeve pattern block created folds of excess fabric in the underarm - not the look of the magazine dress. I ended up “winging it” with the sleeves, drawing them on at the downward angle I felt would work best.

Really wanting to create the interesting side seam in the sleeve, I spent much time pattern drafting, sewing mock-ups, and starting fresh. I had even spent a sleepless night puzzling over these ambiguous seams. I was frustrated. Finally, I decided to simplify. After all, the most important thing was having the dress, not recreating every single seam.

In the end I created a standard front and back bodice with a side seam, and sleeves cut in one with these pieces , using a seam along the shoulder.

I decided to try something unique and use an all-in-one facing for the short sleeves and neckline.

Selfie wearing my silly Indian tapestry mock-up - sharpie marks and all

Indian Tapestry and a Sharpie: Mock-Up Time

There used to be an Indian tapestry hanging on our old apartment wall. Before throwing it out, I realized it would make great mock-up material. I whipped off this final mock-up and tried it on, black sharpie in hand, on a few different occasions. Because the neckline is so wide and rather low, I had to "dart out" much excess from the neckline to prevent gaping and make sure the dress wouldn’t slip down over my shoulders. I also took a dart out of the upper shoulder portion of the sleeves to help create the shoulder shaping and make sure everything stayed up, as mentioned before. I pinned all this and marked it with a sharpie. The sleeves were also way too loose for the look of the magazine-dress, so I had pinned out a few cm of excess from them as well. This caused trouble later on, as you will see below.

Sewing and a Set-Back

Close-up of the finished sleeve gusset

After adjusting my paper pattern pieces, I cut out the final dress pieces from my beautiful red linen and began work. The sewing felt effortless which I attribute to linen’s ease to work with.

The sleeves were way too tight! I had obviously taken too much width out of the sleeves during the mock-up phase. This was upsetting to say the least. I had no choice but to improvise and add some triangular gussets to the under-side of the sleeves. I sewed and top-stitched them in place. Now I think they add a nice design feature!

The pleated skirt is very full and required a lot of fabric. Piping was sewn into the neckline and waist seams, and for the back closure I hand sewed an invisible zipper. I even added a waist tape, something that is usually used in fancy garments liked wedding dresses. Worrying the facing would bunch up under the dress, I “stitched in the ditch” of some of the seams to subtly connect the facing and outer dress. I also hand-sewed an invisible hem, adding a thin strip of silk organza inside of it to create a fuller, stiffer hem. I felt really proud of all the couture details I put into this, as usually my tendency is to rush through things.

What I Learned For Next Time

First of all, it is okay to simplify and make a project doable for our level of experience, rather than getting frustrated with too difficult an undertaking.

I would use narrower pleats in the skirt and wider, slightly less fitted sleeves. The facing come down a little lower, because it can sometimes cause an awkward ridge right below my bust area. I think shortening this dress pattern to knee-length would be more flattering for me.

For some reason, despite my waist-tape the zipper still “sticks” at the waist area when zipping it up or down, so next time I would eliminate excess bulk in the waist seam to avoid this.

Despite these, I still love this dress and wear it often, several months later.

What About You?

Do you like the fifties look? Have you ever created a garment from a photo? Would you draft the pattern yourself, or mix and match commercial patterns to create the look? Please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

#SewingMachine #FiftiesDress #DressPatterns #CustomMadeSewing #NancyReagan #DressBlock #Couture #Corset #LinenFabric

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