Vintage Sewing 101: Lines Can Be Friendly!

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Welcome back to Vintage Sewing 101! First of all, a big thank you for all of the feedback on my Vintage Sewing 101: You and Your Figure post. I’m glad that so many of you enjoyed it and could laugh at the ridiculousness along with me! Obviously it was necessary to take a bit of a break from this series after such a keen appraisal of my body situation but now we move forwards into the rest of what our 1950s sewing course – Sew with Distinction – has to offer.

Fortunately, the next couple of posts will be moving us away from judging our own figure flaws and into the world of 1950s fashion. This week’s post will be looking at lines. I’d never thought too much about lines in home sewing – or in fashion generally. That said, I have always understood the conventional wisdom that horizontal lines broaden whilst vertical lines narrow. Sew with Distinction takes us far beyond this basic understanding of lines and their effect on clothing. So strap in and get ready for some learning…

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I do appreciate our introduction to this topic via cartoon (particularly after the heaviness of the previous post) – even if it does remind me a little of how I used to force quite irrelevant Clip Art into school projects. Yet Sew with Distinction manages to relate it all back. As the manual explains, “Just as a magician fools his public, so also (within limits) can the clever designer achieve illusion – by making discreet use of the camouflage afforded by line arrangement.” It’s nice that they manage our expectations from the get-go. There are, after all, limits to what camouflage can achieve to hide the terrible flaws that we spent an hour analysing in front of the mirror, as per the instructions of the course. I also enjoy that using clothing to flatter is compared to “a magician fool[ing] his public.” So deceptive of us.

This said, the course does offer some genuinely insightful ways for using lines in your garments in order to create particular silhouettes. As the introduction to the section notes, you can use various forms of lines – including through the placement of pleats, tucks, and the colour/pattern of the fabric itself – in order to achieve certain effects. As Sew with Distinction goes on to note, this works because of the way that the eye travels when it’s faced with particular scenes. Essentially, our eyes work over dominant lines and tend to breeze over blank (or “uninteresting”) spaces.

So how do we use this information when we’re designing our own garments? The course begins by considering how we can use lines to broaden certain proportions…

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As I mentioned earlier, it’s pretty conventional wisdom that horizontal lines increase width, whilst vertical lines increase length. The course also notes that horizontal lines shorten proportions. The diagram accompanying this offers three different ways in which lines are used to widen/broaden. Figure 1 shows “bands of trimming” that suggest a wider chest and hips, with a smaller waist. Essentially, the lines are used here to give an hourglass shape. Figure 2 apparently depicts “evenly spaced vertical lines which create a horizontal eye movement.” I’m not sure I quite agree on this one since it seems to fly in the face of what we were previously told about vertical versus horizontal lines – plus, I really do feel like these lines elongate the figure rather than broaden/shorten it. But that could just be the illustration and/or my eyes. Figure 3 shows the use of “a horizontal accessory” in the stole and hat. I really like the phrase ‘horizontal accessory’ and I’m pretty sure that I’m going to incorporate it regularly into conversation.

Alternatively, Sew with Distinction suggests that we might use lines to heighten out figure. Of course, there are accompanying illustrations…

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The course doesn’t go into any detail on these three figures, noting only that “height is added, and a slenderizing effect is given.” Of all of these, I love the third illustration most. I spent a good amount of time (definitely more than I should) trying to figure out what’s on her head. I’m guessing it’s supposed to be a feather. But it reminds me of the spades suit on a pack of cards. Or the hand on a clock. I think I’ve just stumbled upon the ultimate guessing game (suggestions and guesses welcome in the comments!). And while I agree that the accessory certainly adds height, I would probably suggest that the price paid in dignity is simply too great.

Moving on…

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Fortunately, all of this talk about lines only takes up two pages. So if you feel yourself getting sleepy, stay with me because we’re almost done – and who knows what we might learn along the way?

Our next point of consideration is lines that divide. This definitely isn’t something that I’ve ever thought about. Before reading this section of the manual, I would honestly have thought that you were talking about crop tops (I do love a crop top). But apparently crops weren’t big in the 1950s, so let’s see what we’re dealing with instead:

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Sew with Distinction describes: “When lines divide an object into unequal parts, the eye is attracted to the larger parts rather than the lines.” This makes sense, of course. Figure 1, for example, demonstrates that “we notice the widths of the outer portions – and the lines result in making the figure look broader.” Alternatively, Figure 2 divides the body into equal sections meaning that the eye follows the lines and elongates the figure. Figure 3 (the one that definitely confuses me most because I don’t understand what this style is supposed to be at all) “shows how a horizontal line (ordinarily broadening in effect) can be shortened by being divided by a vertical line.” I don’t even understand the description. I guess the horizontal line is divided by the vertical, which is supposed to have the effect of lengthening the figure? I don’t even know if I paraphrased that correctly. But I’ll go with yes. Finally, reflecting my waning interest in this whole to-do, Figure 4 “is less interesting because the jacket line divides the figure exactly in half.” I feel you, Figure 4.

However, now we get to talk accessories!

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Here, Sew with Distinction is describing how accessories can be used to create lines that focus interest – as with the centre of the bullseye depicted in Figure 1 (it totally had a meaning!). Figure 2 shows the use of “radiating lines” (the ruffles from the belt to the neck) that focus out attention on the centre of the belt. Figure 3 draws the eye to the neckline through an “intricate design which seems to be framed,” while Figure 4 draws the eye vertically to the “diminishing repetition of dominant lines” through the use of tucks.

I think this advice is actually pretty useful. I’m generally not one for using accessories – I don’t wear a lot of jewellery or really any belts. But it’s certainly worth considering that accessories – or additional design elements placed onto the garment itself – can change the way that the silhouette is perceived. Although I definitely maintain that everyone should wear whatever they want regardless of their shape/size, this doesn’t mean that our insecurities should be dismissed or disregarded. Sometimes we want to accentuate certain features and hide others because it simply makes us feel most confident when we do so!

On that note, our penultimate stop on this tour of lines takes us to using them to detract attention from certain features…

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With everything I said above in mind, we’ll breeze over Sew for Distinction‘s use of the word “ungainly” to describe those bits of ourselves from which we might want to distract attention. Because we can want to make out bum look smaller (hello Laura’s insecurities!) without feeling “ungainly” or unattractive if we don’t. But this is just another reminder of why we should be so glad that we can choose to replicate 1950s style without having to actually live in the 1950s.

In terms of distracting attention, the course suggests that “since all things are comparative, we can make the less desirable portion appear larger or smaller (as we choose) by making the part to which we direct attention appear smaller or larger. In short, the only lines which detract attention are those which lead to, or are located, somewhere else.” So basically, direct your detail or lines away from the thing you don’t want people to focus on. With Figure 1, the illustration shows the use of lines to broaden the shoulders and therefore detract from the width of the hips (I think her hips look pretty amazing, honestly). Figure 2 depicts an effort to distract attention from “a too large bosom” by emphasising the waist and hips. And, finally, Figure 3 shows a way to minimise one high shoulder by drawing attention to the other shoulder. Wonderful.

At last, we arrive at the final point, with a few last minute words on our use of lines:

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Looking at these illustrations, it’s highly unlikely that you would accompany them with the purpose intended by Sew with Distinction. The first figure shows us how we might use “Youthful Lines.” That’s right, everyone! No need to look any further because the secret to youth is in the fact that “curved lines appear soft, graceful, and youthful.” Don’t get too excited though because curved lines also “add roundness to the figure which must be avoided, unless your figure is slight.” Bad news if you’re young but don’t have a figure that can be defined as ‘slight’. You’re destined to look old from birth, according to Sears et al.

Have you abandoned the idea of using lines to look 20 years younger? Well, fortunately, you can also use them to look sophisticated, as per Figure 2. Here, “a simple silhouette and straight lines create the impression of sophistication by being direct, obvious, and  – in extreme cases – austere.” I don’t know what would be defined as an “extreme case” but it definitely doesn’t lend itself to me wanting to give this a go. Sew with Distinction does a consistently excellent job of undermining its own suggestions.

Finally, Figure 3 offers use an “extreme case” of what not to do. I so hope that these illustrations aren’t based off of real people because the accompanying description would definitely constitute a direct lecture – “To be effective, lines must be seen. When there are too many lines, or the lines run in all directions without plan, the eye cannot ‘see’ any one line. It just wanders over the whole figure in confusion!” Oh dear. Poor Maude had better give it another go.

So there we have it. More information than you ever knew you wanted about lines! Just the word ‘line’ is starting to annoy me at this point, so I think I had best leave off there. Hopefully you will actually return to join me for the next Vintage Sewing 101 post. Next time, we’ll be looking at basic facts about 1950s fashion and how we might incorporate them into our sewing projects!

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