Book Review: Vintage Details – A Fashion Sourcebook by Jeffrey Mayer and Basia Szkutnicka

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As a self-taught seamstress, I’ve relied heavily on a variety of different resources to help me learn and develop my skills. As much as I love a good Youtube video – and they’re pretty indispensable for seeing exactly how things are supposed to be done – books are definitely my go-to place for learning or refreshing my knowledge! As my sewing library has grown, I’ve developed a core group of reference books, all of which I continually return to when I need a little inspiration. But of all my books, none has been so vital to me as Vintage Details: A Fashion Sourcebook by Jeffrey Mayer and Basnia Szkutnicka.* Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows that I talk about this book with incredible regularity because it is such a valuable resource for my sewing adventures. So I thought that it was high time that I write up a review on Sew for Victory for all those of you who might need a little bit of added vintage inspiration.

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Vintage Details: A Fashion Sourcebook is exactly what it claims to be – a sourcebook. It’s an incredibly well categorised and curated set of photos of different garments, covering the years from 1913 to 1995. As you can see from the Contents page above, the garments are indexed and referenced, as appropriate, in the book’s various chapters. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of vintage detailing – from stunning necklines to gorgeous embellishments.

The Visual Index provides a full-length shot of all of the garments referenced in the book, organised by date, and providing a brief set of details. It’s important to note that more detailed close-up shots of the garments are given in the chapters where they are referenced (so, for example, if a dress is referenced under the ‘Collars’ section, you can expect close-up shots of the collar). The Visual Index is important, however, because it allows you to have a flip through to find particular periods of interest and then cross-reference with any sections of the book that you’re especially keen to look at. As you can see from the photo below, the information in the Visual Index also provides page numbers for where each garment is referenced, as well as abbreviations for the section (for example, EMB for embellishments or SLV for sleeves). This system makes the book incredibly simple to use. When I was making my dress for the Big Vintage Sew-Along, for example, I knew that I wanted to add some authentic 1930s flairs to the pattern. Looking for inspiration, I cycled through the Visual Index to the 1930s dresses and paid particular attention to those referenced in the EMB section of the book. Quick and easy.

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As I mentioned above, where the garments pop up in later sections, you will find more detailed shots of the garment. What you won’t find, however, is any great amount of information about the garment and the details on which the specific section focuses. The information provided in the book’s main sections is a simple reiteration of what you find in the Visual Index – so very basic info regarding the year, location, colour and fabric. This book is entirely a photo sourcebook. While that is incredibly valuable in its own right, it can be a little frustrating when you are looking to incorporate something of what you’re seeing into your own makes – particularly if you’re a relative beginner to vintage sewing and wouldn’t be able to replicate garments/details from sight. I tend to use this book for the first stages of gathering inspiration. I might be looking at colours, buttons, piping – things that are easily replicable without having to drastically alter whatever pattern I’m working with. If you’re at the pre-pattern selection phase, the book can be a useful resource simply for considering silhouettes. If, for example, you know you want to make a 1950s inspired dress but aren’t sure where you want to go with it, it can be useful to look at the various shapes of 1950s garments before settling on a pattern.

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Of course, this book is an incredible resource beyond the sewing world. For anyone simply interested in vintage fashion, it certainly satisfies curiosity. I find myself flipping through the pages with nothing particular in mind, continuously stumbling upon photos that pique my interest. The photos are so incredibly well-taken and the book is so well organised that it would make for a perfect coffee-table book, as well as an obvious addition to the library of any vintage sewist.

I don’t need to tell you all how massively I recommend this book. I’m clearly a fan! But especially for those of you who have an interest in vintage fashion or sewing, Vintage Details: A Fashion Sourcebook will definitely serve as a fantastic resource that I have no doubt you’ll be returning to time and time again.


Vintage Details: A Fashion Sourcebook by Jeffrey Mayer and Basia Szkutnicka is available pretty much everywhere. It is available on both US Amazon and UK Amazon.

* Sidenote: I’m not being paid to review this book. My husband bought it for me ages ago and I just happen to think it’s amazing!

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My Vintage Life: The Story Behind Singin’ In The Rain

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There is nothing I like better on a lazy weekend that pulling a film out of my collection of classics and losing myself to it for a couple of hours. As a form of escapism – and education on vintage style – there really is no better resource. Although my collection of films is growing – and with streaming services the choices are now pretty unlimited anyway – I always find myself returning to a favourite handful. And, of all of those favourites, there is none so comforting, joyous, and all-around amazing as the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain.

I love Singin’ in the Rain. It has everything I’m looking for from a classic movie – beautiful costumes, the most incredible dancing, a wonderful plot, and a truly knockout cast. It’s a film that’s been on virtual repeat throughout my life. It has been the background witness to many watershed moments and milestones – my constant companion through years of schooling, work, travel, and relationships. And, as time has passed, I’ve learnt increasing amounts about the stories behind the film’s production and release. As a homage to this incredible classic, I thought I would share with you today some of those gems of information that have added a layer of depth to my Singin’ in the Rain experience.

So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and the story behind one of the world’s favourite classic movies.


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Singin’ in the Rain was a production that emerged from within a stream of musical endeavours by MGM. It was the work of co-directors Gene Kelly (also one of the film’s main stars) and Stanley Donen, as well as the producer Arthur Freed. Freed came to the film from a long legacy of assisting in the production of film musicals. Originally working as a songwriter with his writing partner Nacio Herb Brown, Freed wrote a number of bestselling hits throughout the 1920s and, in 1929, was taken on by MGM to assist in the production of the studio’s very first musical The Broadway Melody (ring any bells for Singin’ in the Rain fans?!). Throughout his history with MGM, Freed assisted in the production of a number of stand-out musical hits, including Judy Garland’s Babes in Arms and Meet Me in St. Louis. It was Freed who, in 1948, conceptualised a musical film that could utilise songs that he had written with Brown in the 1920s. For this new film, Freed decided to use the title of one of these songs – Singin’ in the Rain.

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The film was novel in that it was not an adaptation of a Broadway musical. However, it was initially supposed to be worked as an adaptation of the plot from the romantic silent film Excess Baggage (1928). It was down to Ben Feiner, one of MGMs writers, to develop an outline for Singin’ in the Rain from this starting point. Unsatisfied with Feiner’s work, however, Freed turned to an alternate team of MGM writers – Betty Comden and Adolph Green. As guidance, Freed provided simply the title for the film and the songs that he wished to include. From here, Comden and Green had total creative freedom to develop a story that would work. It was Comden and Green who decided that the focus of the film should be on Hollywood’s response to the development of Talkies in the 1920s.

To direct the resulting film, Freed settled on Stanley Donen. Donen had formed a firm friendship with one of MGMs favourite stars, Gene Kelly, when Donen was just a 16 year-old working as a Broadway dancer. Although Kelly was substantially older that Donen (he was 28 at the time that they met), a firm friendship began that enabled Donen to make his way into the world of film-making. Donen credits Kelly with equipping him with the contacts and knowledge of Hollywood that would see him directing major stars – Kelly and Fred Astaire included – while still in his 20s. Before working as a director, however, Donen served as a choreographer, working on one of my favourite musicals – Anchors Aweigh. Following Kelly’s break from Hollywood to serve during World War II, Donen and Kelly decided that they wished to direct a film themselves. In 1947, they worked with Freed to produce Take Me Out to the Ball Game – a film that Donen and Kelly choreographed. It was Freed who provided Donen and Kelly with their much desired opportunity to direct by charging them with the film On the Town in 1949.

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After appointing Donen and Kelly to direct Singin’ in the Rain, it was down to the team to decide how to bring the film to fruition. This included making a decision about the eventual cast. Kelly’s involvement in the film’s development – and his proven record as a major musical star – made him a clear choice. However, casting Kelly’s sidekick – Cosmo Brown – proved a little more contentious. Initially, Freed hoped to cast Oscar Levant, a close friend and star of An American in Paris. But Kelly and Donen resisted the idea. Although undoubtedly a talented musician, the directors questioned Levant’s dancing abilities. Freed refused to consider anyone else. Fortunately for Kelly and Donen, the issue was resolved when one of the film’s writer’s, Adolph Green, mistakenly believed that the role had already been taken away from Levant. When Green approached Levant to offer his apologies, Levant was incensed and, recognising the conflict was unresolvable, Freed agreed to recast the role as per Kelly and Donen’s wishes.

Kelly and Donen had already settled on the actor Donald O’Connor as their perfect Cosmo. They did not, however, have such an easy time deciding who would play opposite Kelly as the film’s female romantic lead, Kathy Seldon. It was MGM’s head, Louis B. Mayer, who settled the dispute. Debbie Reynolds – just 18 years old and newly introduced to the film industry – had recently caught his eye. He signed her up to work on Singin’ in the Rain without discussing the decision with Freed, Kelly, or Donen. Kelly was not impressed. In his own words:

“Mayer said she was to be my leading lady in Singin’ in the Rain. That statement hit me like a ton of bricks. He was forcing her on me. What the hell was I going to do with her? She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t dance, she couldn’t act. She was a triple threat.”

This opinion perhaps explains Kelly’s resulting treatment of Reynolds during the making of Singin’ in the Rain. Reynolds has often referred to Kelly acting harshly with her and being particularly critical of her dancing abilities. One particularly famous story relates how, following an especially harsh set of insults from Kelly, Reynolds hid underneath a piano. Fred Astaire found her crying, offered her reassurance and some assistance with her dancing. There was an obvious conflict of personalities and talents. Donen became increasingly critical of Reynolds’ attitude, calling her “…a royal pain in the ass. She thought she knew more than Gene and I combined – she knew everything and we knew nothing.”

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Following the casting of Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont, Singin’ in the Rain was able to begin production in 1951. From here, it became the film that so many of us know and love. Of particular note during filming was Donald O’Connor’s performance of Make ‘Em Laugh (one of my favourite parts of the film). Improvising the performance in its entirety, Kelly recalls of O’Connor:

“It was all improvisation, it was unbelievable. We had twenty minutes of it that we threw out. The difficulty of doing choreography for it was that Donald was a spontaneous artist and comedian, and he never could do anything the same way twice.”

On the song’s title number, Singin’ in the Rain was initially intended as a joint performance by the film’s three leads. But Kelly insisted that the piece would make for a better solo number. It is widely reported that, during the shooting of the sequence, Kelly was extremely unwell. The song was shot on the MGM back lot, using strategically placed back lighting in order to ensure that the rain would be visible on camera. Not only was Kelly suffering with a fever during the shoot, the simulated rain meant that Kelly’s soaking wet tweed suit shrank while performing.

The film’s final product was completed for $2.5 million, more than $0.5 million over the initial budget set. Surprisingly, the film was not met with any particular critical claim or reception. It did not garner a Best Picture nomination in 1953, instead having to be content with Donald O’Connor’s Golden Globe win for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and Jean Hagen’s Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. However, the film’s reputation grew after release and it is now well-deservedly reputed as one of the greatest American films of all time.

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Singin’ in the Rain is such a stand-out film. It honours one of the most interesting periods in Hollywood history, while simultaneously demonstrating some of the best musical talents on offer.  It showcases excellence on all sides and the history behind its production only makes it more interesting from the perspective of avid viewers. So I highly encourage you to take some time out this weekend, have a watch, and enjoy one of the greatest films of the 20th century (and probably ever). Have fun!


For anyone who wants to read more about the making of Singin’ in the Rain or delve a little deeper into the history of those associated with the film, I recommend taking a look at:

  • Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his Movies by Stephen Silverman
  • Debbie: My Life by Debbie Reynolds and David Patrick Columbia
  • Unsinkable: A Memoir by Debbie Reynolds
  • Singin’ in the Rain by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

 

 

 

Project Updates!

It’s been a while since I did one of these posts – mostly because the mayhem of everyday life had basically eliminated my sewing time. Since being in my new place, however, I’ve been totally reinvigorated with the urge to plan projects and actually make progress on my ongoing makes. This is largely thanks to having my own designated sewing space, which is no longer just a sea of boxes and bags of material. I’ll be writing a more detailed post all about my sewing space – and tips on making your designated sewing area work for you – very soon. In the meantime, a sneak peak. From this…

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To this…

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It’s truly a perfect little space. After 8 months of moving from place to place, it’s wonderful to finally be somewhere permanent where I can invest in my sewing set-up! This room was the site of my recent triumph with the Tyyni trousers – one of my favourite patterns to-date and certainly one of the most wearable.

Since my foray into trouser-making, I’ve actually been reflecting hard on the direction of my sewing. Sew for Victory and my decision to take up sewing in the first place were very much a product of my love for vintage fashion. I wanted to have the skills to make vintage clothes with complete freedom – and without the associated price-tag of reproduction or genuine vintage clothes. Vintage fashion is what I love to sew. However, I have been finding problems with wearability. There are many people who feel comfortable – and look amazing – decked out in 1950s clothes, hair, and make-up on an everyday basis. I’m not one of those people. My style has split personalities. Special occasions definitely call for me to root through my vintage makes for something appropriate. But, otherwise, I typically go for optimal comfort or what I would identify as a more European style of dress. To stop it getting a bit dispiriting looking at a rack of me-made clothes that I don’t get as much use out of, I’ve decided to alternate my makes – one everyday item to every one vintage piece. While I’m going to try to keep the everyday makes as vintage as possible – similar to the vintage flair of the Tyyni trousers – I want to strike a better balance with my sewing. I think that this approach will let me continue to make the vintage clothes that I love so much, while also ensuring that I build a wardrobe of more wearable items. If any of you have grappled with similar issues, definitely let me know how you struck a better balance in what you sew!

Anyway, enough soul searching and onto my current projects. When I decide to make something, it’s typically the case that I’ve stumbled upon a pattern I love. Turning this on its head, my current make is instead inspired by a fabric that I fell head-over-heels for as soon as I saw it. For any Harry Potter fans out there, you’ll understand why…

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The cutest fabric in the universe. As you can see, I decided to have a go at making the Zadie dress from Tilly and the Buttons. I’ve loved the look of this pattern for ages but have always avoided knit fabric. In fact, until this fabric turned up, I didn’t even realise that it was knit! After my success with trouser-making, however, I’m feeling extra brave and ready to take on the challenge. That said, I came up against a problem almost immediately. I took great pains to research every aspect of working with knit fabric. When it came to cutting, I made sure that I treated the fabric as well as I possibly could. To ensure that I cut perfectly on grain, I even followed and pinned the ribbing up the fold. It took me forever. Then, after cutting out my pieces and getting ready to sew, I realised that I had cut my skirt and bodice pieces upside down.

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Many, many tears ensued. I think mostly because I was so disappointed in myself for making such an elementary mistake. I’ve never worked with one-directional fabric before and it hadn’t even occurred to me that I would need to worry about cutting my pattern pieces appropriately. And my sadness only got worse when I found out that the company I’d ordered the fabric from was out of stock. My husband spent an entire evening trying to source it from elsewhere – making calls and sending emails – but we found nothing. In the end, I figured that the only way forward would be to either scrap the project entirely or to try and make it work on the fabric that I still have. I managed to recut the bodice pieces from some remnants. The skirt was the real issue. In this instance, I had to reshape and resize the pieces to fit on the existing pieces of skirt fabric – basically turning them upside down. I mocked up a version with some cheap knit fabric to see if it would work and it seems like it should – although it’s difficult to gauge on this particular pattern because there are a lot of different parts to the dress. So keep your fingers crossed for me and hopefully I’ll have a dress to show you before long!

To keep me from getting too depressed about my silliness, I’ve also had my eyes on a project to come after this one. For those of you who are on Instagram (there’s a link to my profile in the sidebar for anyone interested), you might have already seen the Sewing the Scene challenge. This challenge is asking participants to sew a garment inspired by a film or a TV show. I’m definitely feeling the potential here and I’ve been searching around trying to settle on something that I could make. There are just so many options! If you’re planning on participating, definitely let me know. I’d love to hear what you’re up to and follow your process.

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That’s all for now. I’ll be back on Friday with a new My Vintage Life post – I’m planning a really great one, so I hope you’ll stop by. In the meantime, happy Wednesday!

Tyyni Cigarette Trousers (Named Clothing)

The past week has seen some serious gains in my sewing productivity. After a wedding and another move, I’m finally settled with my husband in an apartment of our own! And, along with all of the other major advantages of our new place, I even get my own sewing room – I’ll be putting a photo tour up on Sew for Victory soon! Needless to say, I’ve been sewing up a storm since we moved. For a while now, I’ve been working on my very first pair of trousers. I’ve been super scared of making trousers because I’ve heard so many stories about tight crotches and flappy thighs. It just felt like there’d be so many different measurements to contend with. Not to mention, shopping for trousers has always been my least favourite thing. I have bigger hips/bum measurements in proportion to the rest of me and have always struggled with finding trousers that fit my butt but don’t gape massively around my thighs. Obviously, this is a big argument in favour of making your own trousers. But shopping for them has always been such a nightmare that it had basically deterred me from even attempting to contend with my own measurements.

Boy do I regret waiting for so long! I decided that I wanted to take a leap by making a pair of trousers, while still trying to keep the style on the vintage end. So, after searching around for a while, I settled on the Tyyni Cigarette Trousers from Named Clothing. And I could not be more impressed with how this pattern came together…

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Hey! An excuse to wear my favourite hat!

For how afraid I was about the complexity of trouser sewing, I still can’t express how easy this pattern was to construct. I used a PDF version that – magically – actually glued together without any problems (I am too used to having to manipulate the pages together to get the lines to match up!). I graded out a size at the hips/thighs which was super simple to do. The only thing to watch for is how this impacts the zipper flap – but use a curved ruler and you shouldn’t have any problems. Given that the fit was my major concern, I made literally no modifications other than the initial grade out. And I’m incredibly happy with the final sizing. The trousers have just enough ease to be comfortable and allow perfectly for moving around/sitting. I took them on an outing to see a documentary at the local art museum and sat still in them for 90 minutes without any comfort issues.

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Having a great time with my hat.

Since the trousers are high-waisted, this is probably the main area to be concerned with when assessing comfort. Had I reduced the size even slightly, I can imagine that the waist would have cut into my stomach pretty badly. Since I used a heavier trousering fabric – I can’t remember what blend it was exactly but it has an almost velvety feel to it – and the waist is reinforced with interfaced facing, it’s got a pretty stiff structure to it. This obviously means that, when sitting, the waist has the potential to be pretty problematic if you cut it too small. Just be sure to watch for that!

Speaking of the waist, literally the only issue I had when sewing up this pair of trousers was with the facing for the waist. No matter how desperately I tried to get the facing to fit on the waist, the facing was obviously two-ish inches too small for the waist line. I have absolutely no idea how this was the case. I double checked the cut for the facing from my pattern piece and honestly couldn’t see any discrepancy in my fabric pieces. I spent about two hours trying and trying again to get it to work. I thought that perhaps I was folding the fly wrong or placing the facing incorrectly. I tried easing the two together in every conceivable way. But every time, I was coming up very short with the facing. In the end, I cut out another two inches from my fabric and added it on to the facing piece that I had already constructed. It attached totally fine after this and everything looked great – so I’m still not sure what the issue was. It’s much more likely that this was my problem, rather than an issue with the pattern. But I wanted to mention it so that you don’t make yourself crazy over it if you end up with the same issue!

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I also really want to mention the shape of the final garment. I was genuinely quite concerned about how flattering the finished product would look on my body. I still have crazy insecurities about my bum/hips which, despite working hard to discard what I know are ridiculous and society-imposed rules about body size and shape, I struggle to shed. I’m definitely doing much better about it but I still find myself trying to avoid anything that I feel emphasises those areas of my body. The Tyyni trousers are not ones that serve the shape I traditionally look for – I generally go low-waisted and actually a bit tighter to my body. But I am amazed by how great I feel in these trousers! I love how they look – the darts give them a beautiful shape and I honestly feel like they’re super flattering. So flattering, in fact, that I was happy to throw on a crop top and go.

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Also, side note on the pockets! What a fantastic excuse to whip my William Morris fabric back out. Those of you who’ve been reading Sew for Victory since the very beginning will remember this fabric from the lining of my Beignet Skirt. I’ve been looking for a way to use up some of the remnants and HELLO POCKETS!

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I’ve sewn many different patterns that I’ve felt I would make other versions of in the future. Mostly, however, I struggle to find occasions that make a lot of the patterns wearable on an everyday basis. These trousers have a definite vintage flair to them but are probably the first thing I’ve made that I could see myself wearing on a super regular basis. I will definitely be making more versions of the Tyyni trousers in the future – they are just so easy to put together and the finished product is amazing. But, in the meantime, I can see myself pretty much living in this pair. So, if you’re looking to make your very first pair of trousers or are just looking for a new pattern, definitely go for Tyyni. Named Clothing have made trousers a super and surprisingly simple sewing endeavour!

Meet My New Serger – Brother 1034D

Obviously the past few weeks have been replete with a whole host of different developments for me – most of which have made it to Sew For Victory in one form or another. There have been so many new experiences – moving country, getting married and, most dramatic of all, setting up a whole new sewing system in the US. I brought what I could with me in my transatlantic move but shipping is so expensive that all of the big stuff – my sewing machine, work table etc. – had to stay in the UK. So I’m faced with the task of rebuilding my sewing space and my supply of tools. At the moment, I’m in a temporary living situation. My husband (it’s still super weird typing that) and I are staying with my parents-in-law while we look for an apartment but we’ve now found one we love that would also give me my own perfect sewing space. So keep your fingers crossed for us and hopefully I’ll be giving you a tour before too long! I’ve also introduced you to my brand new sewing machine, Agatha. She and I are having a great time working hard on new projects and I can honestly say that the Janome DC5100 is the best machine I’ve ever used. Definitely check out my review (linked above) if you’re on the lookout for a new machine.

But I’ve been keeping from you one of the greatest sewing developments that has occurred since I arrived in the US – I have a serger!! Meet my Brother 1034D

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Please excuse the table mess. I’m set up on the dining room table right now and working out of boxes and bags!

I’d never really thought all that much about getting a serger. I know a lot of people rave about them but I’d always felt pretty content using the overlock stitch on my old sewing machine. It did the job and, honestly, I was intimidated by what I thought would be an intense threading learning curve. But, after the move and seeing the extent to which my half-finished wedding dress had frayed, I thought that a serger might be a necessary investment. If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, you’ll already know that the wedding dress project went bust but I’ve been using my serger on my on-going projects and it has honestly been pretty revolutionary to the way I finish my garments.

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Getting a strong finish on my makes has always been a bit of a problem. I’ve never been totally happy with the way the inside would look a little jerry-rigged in comparison with the outside. The edges were usually a bit ragged or, at least, sufficiently insecure that washing machines had become my nemesis. Using my sewing machine to overlock was a good interim measure but still didn’t give a totally neat, clean finish. Enter the serger! The Brother 1034D defied my expectations in that it actually wasn’t too tough to get to grips with. I used a number of resources to help guide me in learning how to thread and use the machine (listed at the bottom of this post for anyone interested) and, after a few test runs, I felt confident in my abilities! If you decide to invest in a serger, definitely don’t let yourself be intimidated by the potential learning curve. As scary as the machine looks, it’s really not much trouble.

I will add that the Brother 1034D comes with an excellent guide on the various components of the serger, how to thread, and how to operate. There was also a separate booklet demonstrating the different kinds of problems you could potentially encounter and how to determine threading issues by the way the stitch looks. I trawled through this and it has been incredibly helpful already. Since you’re working with four separate threads that all do different things, it’s important to know what does what. Of course, there are endless video and blogger tutorials to help with this too.

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Threading the left and right needle is pretty similar to threading a regular sewing machine. Pulling the cover back shows the threading system for the upper and lower looper.

One thing I will mention is the tension wheels at the top of the machine. As with a sewing machine, you use these to dictate thread tensions. Since you’re juggling four threads with a serger, it can obviously get a little more tricky determining appropriate tensions. But using a good guide (check the list at the end of the post) can help solve any issues on this front. That said, I spent a good couple of hours re-threading because I couldn’t get the stitches to come through correctly, only to realise that I had jogged one of the tension wheels. The tensions wheels aren’t like those on a sewing machine in that they don’t click in place. They move very easily and, when you’re threading or manipulating your spools at the back of the machine, it’s incredibly likely that you’ll accidentally move the wheels. So just be sure to bear that in mind and, if there are any problems with your stitch, those wheels are a likely culprit. Because of these issues with tension – and the fact that the necessary tensions will vary pretty dramatically depending upon the type of fabric you’re using – it is always worth doing a test run on a spare square of your fabric. Keep testing until you get the tensions right and the threads are sitting where they should on the stitch.

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This is a pretty good representation of how the stitch should look and what each thread does. The threads consist of left needle (yellow), right needle (red), upper looper (green), and lower looper (blue).

I’ve also found that judging where to place the edge of the fabric can be a bit of a challenge. For those not familiar with sergers, they come with an attached upper and lower knife on the right-hand side of the foot. As you serge your fabric, these knives operate to trim off any excess fabric. The knives made me incredibly nervous when serging seams because I was perpetually paranoid that I’d end up taking off too much excess and then stitching over my seam. The stitch itself is pretty wide so, where the seam is already sewn in, it can be a bit tough to judge how far in the stitch is going to reach. However, this is entirely a confidence and experience issue. The more I’ve worked with the serger, the easier it has become to make those judgements. And with typical seam measurements (I’ve serged both 5/8″ and 3/8″ seams), there are not problems with stitching over the allowance.

Even though learning to use a serger is undoubtedly a case of sitting down, watching videos, and troubleshooting a host of inevitable problems, it’s totally worth it. I’m currently working on my first pair of trousers (SO excited to share these with you!) and it’s made such an incredible difference to the way that the inside of the garment looks. Not only does it give a wonderfully neat finish, it also gives the edges enough security that I can finally pop my me-made clothes in the washing machine without being scared that they’ll fall apart. It’s honestly been such a worthy investment!

For those of you interested in learning to serge or looking for help with your serger, here are a few great resources that I’ve been using:


A side note – the Sew For Victory Book Club is making a return this month. I’ll be posting about the book at the end of July. For anyone who wants to read ahead, July’s pick is The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

For those who have doubts about the relevance of this choice to the content of the site, I actually got half way through before deciding to make it the July selection. Not only is it an incredibly important feminist tract (which alone makes it SO worthy of reading), it is hugely insightful in terms of women’s lifestyles during the 1950s and 1960s. So for anyone with a particularly keen interest in reading about the female experience (disclaimer: this book does not do a great job of being intersectional, so I use the term ‘female’ to refer to an incredibly specific type of female experience), The Feminine Mystique is a must-read. I hope you’ll join me!

I Got Married!

As promised, I thought I would post some pictures from my wedding! Although I didn’t end up making my dress (see previous post), I still wanted to share some photos with you. Many of you have followed me and my now-husband through the trials and tribulations of the past few years. After a lot of work and so many months apart, we’re finally closing a chapter dictated by distance and a whole lot of bureaucracy. Thank you to all of you who’ve been here, empathised, and offered your support. Even if I don’t know you personally, I still can’t tell you how incredibly important this little community has been to me. So thank you and now on to some photos…

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How To Sew Your Wedding Dress (Part 3): Stitching Without Stress and Anxiety – Or How To Avoid My Biggest Mistakes

This is definitely not a post that I anticipated having to write. For those of you who have been following my relationship/wedding journey, you’ll know that I was moving along quite happily with progress on my dress. I had a fabulous pattern, beautiful fabric, and a muslin that I had tailored to fit just as I wanted. Yet, for reasons that will be the subject of this post, I’ve wound up two days away from my wedding with no me-made dress. While you might think that I’d be freaking out – and, I won’t lie, there was a fair bit of that going on last week – I actually wish I’d decided to abandon the project sooner.

It’s inevitable that this post is going to turn into something of a P.S.A. for all other sewcialists out there, along the lines of a warning about ambition, internal pressure, and a lack attention to self-care. When I set out to make my wedding dress, it was really a distraction from the turmoil of dealing with a long-distance relationship and a lengthy immigration process. I needed some sort of project to focus on in order to remind myself that there was a light at the end of the LONG tunnel of forms, interviews, and waiting. Had I started even earlier than I did, I might have got the wedding dress finished in plenty of time. My main fear was that, if I started too early, the fit would end up being off if my measurements shifted – especially since I was going for such a tailored fit. Since I also had no idea when I’d finally get my visa and be able to move to the US or schedule a wedding date, it was also totally impossible to determine exactly how much time I would have between finishing the dress and actually getting married. So I delayed. I started sewing just before I left the UK and figured that I’d have plenty of time – around a month or so – to get it finished once I arrived stateside. This didn’t seem too outlandish to me, given that it’s a relatively simple pattern and one that I had already sewn up.

Looking back, I’m not sure that I could’ve dealt with the situation any better. But with the stress of packing up my life in the UK, moving to the US, and trying to get a wedding organised in a month, I definitely took on too much. Just trying to adjust to life in a new place is a big deal and takes up a surprising amount of time. At the end of it, I was left with a week to go until the wedding and no more progress on my dress. While I tried so hard to pull it round, the stress was overwhelming. I’ve shed many tears at my sewing machine before – the curse of being a perfectionist – but sometimes you just have to step back and ask whether its worth it. A wedding dress is such an important garment – perhaps the most important one you’ll wear over the course of your life. As much as I desperately wanted to sew my own, it was pretty necessary – for my sanity and peace of mind – that I admit defeat. Fortunately, I managed to buy one I love and with a few days to spare!

That said, I’ve learnt a whole lot about myself and my relationship with sewing over the course of this project. These are lessons that I’ll definitely be applying to any future projects – particularly those in which I’m sewing for some sort of event or feel especially invested in what I end up producing. So I thought it would be appropriate to close out my series of wedding dress posts with one on sewing without stress – alternatively titled, ‘How to avoid the mistakes I made’.

1. Remember why you sew

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This was, for me, definitely the most important lesson. I was initially really hesitant to commit to sewing my own wedding dress, largely because it felt like it flew in the face of the fact that I sew for self-care. Sewing was a hobby that I developed at a really difficult time in my life. It was a distraction from overwhelming anxiety and debilitating panic attacks, when I struggled to even leave the house. I’m so far away from where I was then, but sewing remains a really fundamental part of my self-care regime. It’s time I take for me, where I’m given space to become totally absorbed in what I’m doing. Choosing to sew my own wedding dress – a high stress project at a high stress time of my life – was a decision that began to feel incredibly disconnected from the reasons why I took up sewing in the first place. That’s not to say that you can’t sew for self-care and still make important garments. You can do absolutely anything you set your mind to. I could’ve finished the wedding dress. I could’ve scrapped Version 1 and began again. But reminding myself of why I sew – primarily for self-care – gave me a much needed wake-up call and the ability to say that enough was enough.

As I said above, the conclusion doesn’t have to be that you scrap a project as soon as it stresses you out. But, if you’re stressing, it’s a good idea to adjust what you’re doing to minimise the negativity. This might simply mean taking a break – get a cup of tea, listen to some music or read a book. Put the garment away for an hour, a day, a week. Work on a different project. Do whatever you need to do to channel the stress elsewhere and return with a fresh perspective. Remembering why you took up sewing – whether simply as a new hobby, a professional skill, or as self-care – can help to pull things back to where they should be. Stress has no place at the sewing machine (unless you’ve sewn over your finger, of course).

2. Forget the ‘should’ and the ‘could’

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I try to avoid these words as much as possible in everyday life. They are not healthy and they never lead the mind to anything good. The above paragraph should show you how easily toxic thoughts of this kind can fester – “I could’ve finished the wedding dress. I could’ve scrapped Version 1…” But this is totally where my mind was for the majority of this project. Despite my initial hesitation, I let myself get swept up in the idea that because I could sew my wedding dress, I should. Everyone would expect it after all, surely? If I didn’t turn up to my wedding in a me-made dress, wouldn’t everyone just be confused or doubt my sewing skills?

For anyone overcoming anxiety or other forms of – incredibly circular and self-defeating – mental illness, getting rid of the shoulds and coulds is one of the hardest battles. These words are often one of the main reasons why we end up where we do: I should have a better job than I do; I could just get out of bed, so why don’t I?; I should be happy and grateful for everything I have. What’s wrong with me? The power of these words is limitless and they come up more often than we’ve trained ourselves to realise. I only monitor my internal language because it was absolutely key to getting through the bad times. But this is not just a problem associated with mental illness. I notice that, in periods of general or high stress, the narrative comes straight back to me. And just because we’re doing crafting projects that we’ve actively chosen, doesn’t mean that we can’t experience stress and berate ourselves for not doing better. I should’ve just started this thing earlier and I wouldn’t be sewing it an hour before the event; Why couldn’t I just have done a better job on these seams? They’re such a piece of trash; Look at all of these bloggers and Instagrammers. They’re making such amazing garments. I should be doing that too. Seriously, why can’t I just do a better job? Does any of this sound familiar or even slightly recognisable to you? If so, you’re definitely not alone. These are the examples that came to mind exactly because they’re the thoughts I have most often. Putting yourself out there via blogs and social media is such an easy avenue to inescapable comparisons with others.

So do yourself a favour. Forget the coulds and the shoulds. Replace them with phrases like I want to or I choose not to. When you’re in periods of high stress – whether sewing a wedding dress, a commission that just won’t work out how you want it to, or a skirt with some beautiful and expensive fabric – remember that beating yourself up with guilt and regret won’t do anything to move you along or make you a better sewist. Talk to yourself the way you would your best friend or a child trying their hand at sewing. There wouldn’t be any shoulds there.

3. Do this the way that you want to do it

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Whatever event or reason you’re sewing for, remember that ultimately it comes down to what you want to do. If you’re sewing for your wedding, it’s about the dress that you want to wear. Make sure that you stay realistic given your time frame but there’s no reason why you can’t get a little ambitious. Combined with the advice above, it’s absolutely key that you don’t compare what you’re doing to what anybody else has done. Your wedding dress doesn’t need to look like those you’ve seen on Facebook or Instagram. The joy of sewing is that you’re making things that are 100% certifiably yours. Take as much time as you need and as many tea breaks. Throw it in the bin a couple of times but be sure that, each time, you rescue it when you calm down and reassess (so don’t throw it on top of food rubbish. I suggest doing what I do and having a separate bin for fabric so you can be sure that any rescued projects aren’t tea bag stained!). Not everything is the catastrophe it seems.

And, something that I’ve had to remember – even if you decide to call it a day, you are not a failure. This is not a life-or-death situation. You tried, you learnt, and you ultimately decided that it wasn’t quite the right time or project for you. That’s seriously ok. It’s rectifiable. Even if it’s only a week until your wedding and you don’t have a dress. I’m proof that there is always a way forward. Nothing is worth your happiness or your peace of mind.

So go forth and sew! Remember the reasons why you first sat at that sewing machine and never forget that you are a superhero for sitting back at it every time things go pear-shaped. We’ve all had those days and part of the joy is – as with this post – sharing them with others.

My Vintage Life: The Hollywood Canteen

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We’re finally returning to a normal blogging schedule after a month of intense disruption. It’s been a crazy time. Between packing up my life in the UK, adjusting to life in the US, and putting together a wedding in 4 weeks, I’ve been incredibly distracted! It has been a classic case of taking on too much. For that reason, I also decided not to make my wedding dress. With everything else going on, I’ve had such little time to work on it, added to which I botched it in a way that will make continuing incredibly difficult and time-consuming. With only a week to go until the wedding, I’m all about minimising the stress at this point! I’ll be posting next week about the entire fiasco and closing my series of posts on making your own wedding dress with how to avoid ending up in the place that I did. Even without a me-made dress, I’ll be sure to post some pictures on here after the day for those of you who have been following my journey!

In an effort to pull myself out of wedding mode, I decided to get back into blogging mode with a new My Vintage Life post. These are always such a lot of fun for me to write – I love having the opportunity to research such fantastically interesting quirks of eras past and (hopefully) peak your interest through these posts. Of all the stories that I’ve come across in my vintage journey, one in particular sparked my fascination. The events surrounding the establishment and running of the Hollywood Canteen, a club that provided food and entertainment to US servicemen, are genuinely some of the most interesting tales in classic Hollywood’s lengthy list of incredible accounts.

So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and the story of how Hollywood’s intersection with World War II produced a site where celebrity met fan, frivolity met fear, and political progress met conservative resistance.


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The Hollywood Canteen was opened on 3rd October 1942 as the creation of Bette Davis and John Garfield. Looking to establish a base to which allied servicemen could flock for evenings of entertainment, Davis and Garfield approached the president of the Music Corporation of America, Jules Stein, for help creating and funding the operation. By all accounts, Stein was fundamental to the success of the project despite his position as a somewhat behind-the-scenes personality. As Bette Davis described it:

“Jules Stein, up to this time, was seldom ever seen. Few people even knew what he looked like. He preferred to live this way. It was a big decision when he said he would head the financial committee. He would have to alter his way of life. Without his hard work, advice, and investments of our funds the Hollywood Canteen could not have been successful, to say nothing of the work of his wife, Doris, who I asked to be the head of the committee for the hostesses necessary for dancing partners for the servicemen. When the canteen was no longer needed after V-J Day, $500,000 remained in the canteen account. These monies were the result of Jules’ ideas. A great source of revenue came from a film he urged Warner Bros. to make called Hollywood Canteen, a large percentage of which was allotted by Mr. Warner to the canteen itself. With the remaining monies a foundation was formed, and to this day contributions are made to worthy projects dealing with the armed forces.”

Despite the popular personalities that dominated ideas of how the Canteen was conceived and run, it was undoubtedly the work of multiple minds. The work to establish the Canteen came to fruition and, as desired by Davis and Garfield, successfully provided a place where servicemen could associate with Hollywood’s biggest stars, dance, eat, and try to forget impending assignments overseas.

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Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth performing their magic act at the Canteen

It’s important to remember, however, how central Stein was to the operation of the Canteen. Responsible for the financing of the project, Stein not only had to fund its creation but also find money and donations to support the hefty expenses that came with day-to-day running. 50 percent of the Canteen’s food was donated, relying on a series of fundraisers in order to raise the money necessary to provide the rest. Since the servicemen went through 4,000 loaves of bread, 400 pounds of butter and 30,000 gallons of punch per month, finding the funds to provide such massive quantities was incredibly necessary. In order to navigate ration restrictions on meat, the Canteen’s head chef – Chef Milani – was forced to write to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanding action:

“The Hollywood Canteen will not be able to provide the necessary amount of meat for the servicemen unless we are able to secure an allotment exception permit immediately. Will you please help us secure this permit by directing this wire to the proper authorities with your O.K.? God bless you.”

Needless to say, the Hollywood Canteen received its permit.

The Hollywood Canteen did much for the way Hollywood’s activities in World War II were perceived. By having major stars – including Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, and Hedy Lamarr – work voluntarily at the Canteen – serving food, signing autographs, and dancing with patrons – the Canteen bridged the gap between these distant celebrities and the men giving their lives for the allied cause. It advanced the idea that, not only was Hollywood fully behind US engagement in WWII, but also that the celebrities themselves were prepared to give their time to boost morale and work in service of those men serving the country at large. To control any potential ‘personal’ mishaps, the Canteen came with strict rules about romantic assignations between the hostesses (both famous and not) and those visiting the Canteen. Although there are accounts suggesting that, in a number of cases, romances did develop, there is nothing to indicated that the Canteen became a site of sexual mayhem.

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Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth working at the Hollywood Canteen

The Canteen was a revolutionary project in a number of ways. Not only did it provide a place for celebrity civilians and allied soldiers to mix on equal terms, it also served as a site of (relative) racial tolerance. Bette Davis immediately shut down the notion that the Hollywood Canteen would enforce a segregation policy. And, for the most part, the Canteen operated without racial incident. If such incidents did occur, the Canteen’s managers had instructed the band to play the national anthem, something that occurred only twice during the Canteen’s existence. It must be observed, however, that operating without segregation did not mean that the Canteen functioned as a site of racial equality. The managers made sure to recruit black hostesses to ensure that black servicemen were tended to by women of their own race and vice versa. Although, in 1940s America, Bette Davis’ decision on the side of tolerance was undoubtedly a forward-thinking move, it would be troubling to suggest that the Canteen totally avoided continuing a tradition of informal and customary segregation. That said, entertainers of all races were welcome to perform before the troops and renowned performers Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong were amongst the most celebrated.

The Hollywood Canteen was an incredibly successful initiative that undoubtedly boosted the morale of all who attended. It offered an opportunity for men, plagued by the thought of walking into the battle, to escape – however briefly. They could mix with celebrities as equals, eat, drink, and share in camaraderie. One of the most fascinating things about the Canteen is its true authenticity. There is little evidence to suggest the project boasted false successes or claimed an impact that it didn’t have. Instead, everything points to an initiative that delivered over and above what it set out to achieve. The 1944 Warner Bros. film Hollywood Canteen, although undeniably a staged and overly positivised account of the Canteen’s operation, is not so far from the mark in showing how fantastically the club boosted the morale of its soldiers and offered Hollywood stars an opportunity to demonstrate their gratitude. The fact that more than 3000 individuals – including celebrities, musicians, dancers, and publicists – had signed up to volunteer at the Canteen before it even opened its doors, shows just how keen people were to offer some form of service to those men ultimately giving their lives for the country. Here, the soldiers were treated like individuals. The millionth guest – Sgt. Carl Bell – attended the venue on 15th September 1943 and, as a prize, was offered both a kiss from Betty Grable and escort by Marlene Dietrich. Stories of stars going out of their way to make guests feel special and valued abound.

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Bette Davis in the film ‘Hollywood Canteen’ (1944)

As war initiatives go, the Hollywood Canteen was undeniably one of the best conceived and most successful. Although it is undoubtedly the case that the Canteen offered at least some opportunity for Hollywood to massage its own ego, there is too much contradictory anecdotal evidence to believe that this was the only motive at play. From 3 October 1942 to 22 November 1945, the Hollywood Canteen operated as a place of hope, fun, and freedom. It provided an invaluable reprieve for those preparing to walk into some of the most horrifying events in history. While the Canteen did not stop a war or save the men who walked through its doors, it reminded its guests that a country stood behind them. And, for that alone, the Hollywood Canteen will be remembered as one of Hollywood’s most generous acts.


For more information on the Hollywood Canteen, I would recommend watching the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen. There are also numerous videos and documentary extracts on Youtube. Another fantastic resource is the book The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced with the Most Beautiful Girls in the World by Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence.

Meet My New Sewing Machine – The Janome DC5100

Happy June, lovelies! I’m back after a bit of radio silence. For those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning, you’ll know that I am now nearly at the end of four years of working to be permanently with my fiancé. I am finally in the US and in the process of putting together a wedding that will be happening in exactly one month. It’s been a hectic few weeks of paperwork, immigration interviews, and travel! Needless to say, Sew for Victory has fallen ever so slightly to the side – but never far from my mind. Now that I’m starting to find my feet, sewing has returned to its usual front-and-centre position in my life. I’m still working on finishing my wedding dress but am also just beginning a new project that I’ll be previewing on the site soon! Most importantly, though, a new country means a new sewing machine! Introducing Agatha (obviously named after one of my favourite authors):

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When I realised that it really wasn’t feasible to ship my UK machine over (not only because of the shipping cost – which was more than the cost of a new machine – but also the need for a voltage converter in order to make it run), I started a search to find a machine that was roughly equivalent to my trusty Constance. I knew that I wouldn’t find the same machine in the US since the Britannia brand is limited to the UK and, even there, is not a common make to come across. I wanted to find a machine that could work with a wide range of fabrics, offer a variety of stitches, and – I’d say most importantly – run incredibly smoothly. There are so many well reviewed machines out there that these requirements obviously didn’t narrow my search down too tremendously. But after searching for lists of ‘intermediate’ sewing machines, the Janome DC5100 caught my eye.

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The machine ticks all of my boxes. It’s got 167 stitches (all of the essentials, plus a lot of decorative stitches that the realistic part of me tells me I won’t use) and five button-hole options. The LCD screen and touchpad also make it incredibly easy to use. For those who need the facility, the DC5100 also has a memory function. I haven’t yet sewn up a complete garment but I’ve tested the machine out and used it to make a bit of progress on my wedding dress. Although I had taken time to read through the manual, there was no real learning curve with the machine. Threading is simple, stitching is simple. Admittedly, I haven’t used a whole lot of the machine’s functions yet but first impressions certainly speak to an incredibly well made and well running machine.

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The other big plus side of the DC5100 is obviously the look. I love the pink accents, although pink is pretty far from my favourite colour. It’s undeniably a sleek and well designed machine. Does it justify the cost though? The machine certainly comes in relatively steep – I found it for $649 (on Amazon, with a bundle of extra goodies), which is a roughly equivalent cost to the ££ of the Britannia. But for a mid-range machine with this many functions, the cost is actually very reasonable and certainly on the lower end of what I was finding for alternative models. Although the machine is one that I think would be easily useable for those new to sewing, as well as the more advanced, the cost may very well be prohibitive to beginners. Unless you have the money to spare, I would recommend starting out with a machine both cheaper and with fewer functions. I’ve only been sewing for 18 months or so and, were I presented with this type of machine so early on, I likely would’ve been incredibly overwhelmed – not to mention I would never have used half of the DC5100’s capabilities. But for those who consider themselves advanced beginners or beyond, the model is utterly perfect!

The final word of this post should, however, go to Constance. My beloved Britannia Instyle 65. All boxed up in her prime. Hopefully she will go on to bigger and brighter things, once I finally get round to putting her on eBay! Thank you, beautiful Constance, for being such a trusty sewing companion over the past year. I’ll miss you!

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My Vintage Life: Fatty Arbuckle and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood

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Welcome back! Firstly, sorry to anyone who checked in last week expecting a post. My fiancé flew over at very short notice to help with some visa-related bits and pieces. As I’m sure you’ll understand, I was pretty well taken up enjoying some time with him. It was definitely wonderful to see him, especially after three months apart. But he’s back in the US now so normal service has resumed once again!

On this week’s My Vintage Life, we’re going to be talking about one of the most momentous and yet little remembered events in Hollywood history – the trial of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle for the rape and death of the actress Virginia Rappe. The scandal was truly the first to blacken Hollywood’s image – an image that had been traditionally dominated by the on-screen faces and personalities of its stars. Fatty Arbuckle’s trial was not only remarkable for its sensationalism and widespread coverage within the press. Its ripples also added fuel to a growing perception that Hollywood required some kind of moral and ethical regulation. I talked in my very first My Vintage Life post about pre-Code Hollywood – the Hollywood that existed before the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code that restricted what could be shown on screen. The censorship that came about in 1934 through the introduction of the Code can be traced back to the fallout of the accusations at Fatty Arbuckle’s trial and the fact that the mask had now been lifted from the true face of Hollywood.

So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and an exploration of the scandal that felled Hollywood’s biggest star and turned the movie-making industry on its head.

Trigger Warning: This post will be talking about rape and sexual assault. 


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In the early part of the 1900s, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was the definition of a household name. Born in 1887 in Kansas, his talents were discovered early and, by the beginning of the 1900s, Arbuckle was well established as a successful vaudeville actor. By 1909, Arbuckle had broken through into film, playing consistently comedic roles that met with widespread recognition. Despite being known mostly for his size, it was his agility, athleticism, and refusal to be consigned to obtaining cheap laughs that really gained him a position as one of Hollywood’s best known stars. In 1914, Paramount Pictures recognised Arbuckle’s growing reputation and success by making him a salary offer of $1000 per day, in addition to paying him 25 percent of all profits make from his films. By 1918, this was increased to a $3,000,000 contract over three years. Such salaries were unheard of at the time and Fatty Arbuckle became Hollywood’s highest paid actor.

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Inevitably, however, Arbuckle’s success was not destined to last. In 1921, Arbuckle made his way to San Francisco to take a short break from making films. His friend, Fred Fischbach, decided that a party was in order to celebrate Arbuckle’s newest contract with Paramount Pictures and the release of his most recent film Crazy To Marry. The party was held at the St. Francis Hotel and among its attendees was a 26-year old actress called Virginia Rappe. Rappe was not particularly well known for her acting. She had secured some relatively minor roles in the later half of the 1910s and appeared in several films directed by Henry Lehrman, to whom she subsequently became engaged.

Accounts obviously differ as to what precisely occurred during the party at the St. Francis Hotel. What is known, however, is that screams were heard from Room 1219 and Virginia Rappe was found writhing in agony. Within the week, she had died from a ruptured bladder. According to Maude Delmont, who was at the party with Rappe but whose relationship with Rappe remained unclear, Arbuckle had pulled Rappe into Room 1219. When Delmont heard Rappe screaming, she ran to the room and, finding the door locked, proceeded to knock and kick until Arbuckle appeared. Delmont found Rappe on the bed in visible agony and, in Delmont’s version, Rappe told her “Arbuckle did it.” This version of events was picked up and widely distributed by the press, who attributed Rappe’s subsequent death from a ruptured bladder to the weight of Arbuckle’s body pressing down on her while he raped her.

Arbuckle’s version of events offers an alternative account. In his telling, he was at no point actually alone with Rappe. He claimed that he had woken up to a party taking place in the rooms and that, later, Rappe’s drinking had made her hysterical. He subsequently found her vomiting and he, with the help of other party guests, moved her to Room 1219 so that she could recover. Despite Arbuckle’s very different account of events, he was charged with manslaughter and sent to trial.

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Virginia Rappe

The subsequent trials show much not only about the state of Hollywood, but also how little has changed in the way of prosecuting sexual assault. Over the course of three trials – the first two of which resulted in hung juries – Rappe’s sexual history and history with abortions were dissected. Arbuckle’s legal team argued that Rappe suffered from a pre-existing bladder condition, corroborating the fact that doctors had not found any evidence of sexual assault on her body. By the end of the third trial, these arguments had convinced the jury. They were, in fact, so incensed by Arbuckle’s subjugation to trial that they issued a formal apology:

“Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed. The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from blame.”

This exoneration could not, however, salvage Arbuckle’s reputation. To assist in dealing with the fallout from the trial, the censor Will Hays was hired by Paramount Pictures to navigate the damage done by the scandal. In the immediate aftermath, Hays decided to remove Arbuckle from all films, although within the year Hays changed his mind. Still, Arbuckle never quite recovered from the trial’s impact. In 1933, on the day that Warner Bros approached him with an offer of a contract, Arbuckle died of a heart attack.

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at Trial

The death of Virginia Rappe and surrounding scandal had a lasting impact, both on the personalities involved and on Hollywood at large. Will Hays, who became so integral in the rehabilitation of Paramount Pictures, subsequently took on the job of assisting the rehabilitation of Hollywood at large. By 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code) had been introduced and Hollywood was subjected to industry-wide censorship of the films that it produced. The Code restricted the portrayal of sexual scenarios and bad language, among a whole host of other things deemed worthy of censorship. Despite Arbuckle’s exoneration, Hollywood’s first scandal did lasting damage. It revealed a Hollywood behind the movie screens – one of parties, illegal drinking, sex, and debauchery. For a country where conservatism had demanded the introduction of prohibition, it was perhaps inevitable that such a revelation would sit uncomfortably with the powers-that-be.

Yet, of all the lasting impacts had by the trial of Fatty Arbuckle, there is one that goes generally unmentioned. When reading about the scandal and trying to dissect what actually happened (which remains really difficult to do), it is Virginia Rappe who comes across as the most maligned of all involved. In a scandal that involved a suspected madam (Delmont) and a suspected murdered (Arbuckle), it is difficult to believe – although, not as difficult as it should be – that the dead victim should be the one to find her reputation most destroyed by events. Rappe’s life and lifestyle were torn to shreds during the trial and continued to be questioned even after Arbuckle’s exoneration. Rumours abounded following the trial, suggesting at different times that she had been a prostitute, an alcoholic, carried STDs, and that she had spread pubic lice around Keystone Studios. This type of character assassination remains still too common in trials of sexual assault and rape – it certainly sits uncomfortably with me that, in reading about the Fatty Arbuckle trial, I could recall too many news stories of similar trials where victims are subjected to the most grotesque types of questioning.

Rappe was a figure of her time and, in many respects, a product of the way in which Hollywood did business. If we assume for a moment that the rumours spread about her were true, it says far more about the cultural dynamics at work in and around Hollywood than it does about her personality or, realistically, her choices. Hollywood of the 1920s – and decades onwards – was one in which women were forced to utilise sex and sexuality to get ahead and get noticed. The expectation that women would sleep with producers, directors, and casting officials was a given. To expect, encourage, and subsequently degrade women for using sex to achieve their goals was a power dynamic that dominated film making for much of the 20th century. The experience of Virginia Rappe, both before and after death, is perhaps one of the best examples of how this relationship between sex, power, and movie-making manifested in the first few decades of the 1900s.


If you have any suggestions for future posts, there are a few ways that you can get in touch. Via email at laura@sewforvictory.co.uk or on Instagram and Twitter by tagging me @sewforvictoryuk and using the hashtag #myvintagelife