When modern tailoring really was

modern tailoring

Film obsessions

We’ve all had our film crushes – usually they’re directed at leading men and women (nope – we’re not telling so don’t even ask). However we’re pretty sure we’re not alone in having had similarly intense passions on what actors are wearing, as much as the individuals themselves. Now don’t mock – this is serious stuff. This blogger was in a tailoring class a little while back when a classmate confessed to having paused, rewound and paused again an episode of Luther – simply to take a good look at Iris Elba’s felt undercollar. And why not. As someone who’s  scanned, paused and enlarged endless toilet scenes from Glee in order to get a good view of the back of a prom gown in the mirror (on request of youngest daughter) that seems completely reasonable.

We’d love to hear about film wardrobes that have inspired your personal style – meanwhile we thought we’d share with you one of our most long-standing film fashion obsessions – which has inspired our inaugural AW16 make.

Our screen inspiration

The 1953 film Genevieve has long been a favourite of ours. It portrays an energetic clash of culture, style and sexual politics, telling the story of two couples racing each other on the London-Brighton car rally. We see the frustration of Dinah Sheridan’s Wendy, dressed up in her quasi-Edwardian finery in Genevieve (the vintage car after whom the film is named), contrasted with the modern elegance of Kay Kendall as Rosalind. Kendall’s trumpet-playing performance in a Brighton club is often cited as the film’s highlight (in fact she was miming to Kenny Baker) but for us the star of the show isn’t her musical ability or even her massive St. Bernard, Susie. It’s certainly not the wretched cars. It’s Kay Kendall’s magnificent, sulphurous, futuristic wool jacket.

Kay Kendall jacket modern tailoring
Kay Kendall in Genevieve, 1953

If you have a copy of the film on DVD then you’ll find the best shots of this fabulous garment (part of a classic skirt suit) towards the beginning, as the drivers prepare to commence their trip to Brighton. Kendall is simply regal as she poses and walks her dog towards Kenneth More’s car – and there are excellent shots of her suit from the side, front and back. In the following clip you can see the closing scenes of the film in which she wears the extended right-hand lapel down, revealing the full asymmetric design.

We should go no further without acknowledging that the wardrobe credit in the film goes to Marjory Cornelius – who has relatively few films to her credit, but who was also responsible for the costumes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We don’t know whether Cornelius designed the jacket herself – and that’s a research project we’d love to have the time to undertake (more of which later). However if anyone has further information about the origin of the design, then we’d be thrilled to know.

Why do we love this jacket so? Partly it’s the fabric, inevitably. That ochre wool with its thoroughly ‘of the moment’ slubs of brighter and darker yarns woven into it, bringing texture and complexity to the party. The teal scarf and long gloves are the perfect contrast and define cleverly that asymmetric, single-buttoned lapel. Which of course, steals the show – if not the whole film as far as we’re concerned. A bold, unconventional style statement which although a wool tweed suit, couldn’t be more different from the traditional version being sported by Kenneth More to her side. If any outfit could define the concept of ‘modern tailoring’ at any point in time, then this suit does.

Thoroughly modern tailoring

In a recent column on the upcoming AW16 season, Jess Cartner-Morley commented that “The phrase “modern tailoring” is to fashion’s September issues what “hard-working families” is to party conference season”. She’s not wrong – a quick search shows that it turns up at the outset of most seasons, as well as in innumerable fashion show and collection reviews. There’s another conversation to be had about the way that new seasons are introduced and the fashion cycle as a whole (pop back in a couple of weeks – we’re working up a lather on that one) but we think that in this case, the ‘Genevieve jacket’ not only justifies, but defines the phrase ‘Modern tailoring’. Here’s why.

In order to create our version of this jacket, not only did we wear out the ‘Pause’ button on our DVD player, but we also did a little research. This came about as we simply couldn’t tell from the film whether the jacket bodice and sleeves were cut in a single piece – or if the sleeves were attached separately. More on that below – but the more we researched, the more we began to question how the ‘Genevieve jacket’ came to have such a different style to the women’s tailoring in evidence only a couple of years before. Initially we were taken aback as to the date of the film – 1953 seemed early for such an ‘out there’ design but no – it turns out that it was spot-on according to our favourite fashion history reference – John Peacock’s Fashion Sketchbook 1920-1960.

1951 suit - modern tailoring
This 1951 suit shows batwing sleeves cut as one with the body of the jacket, as well as the belted silhouette and peplum.
1953 suit - modern tailoring
By 1953 the silhouette is much sharper, with an asymmetric front fastening, no collar and an angled peplum.

You can see from these images that the defining characteristics of the ‘Genevieve jacket’ are very much in evidence by 1953 – the absence of a collar, an asymmetric front fastening and 3/4 length sleeves. We can see that the cut-as-one batwing sleeves had emerged a couple of years before – but that the 1953 suit especially, is a very different style either to the Dior-style New Look fitted jacket or indeed the flared coats and jackets in evidence towards the end of the 1940s.

We wondered at the sudden injection of modernity into the cut of these jackets – and what might have inspired that. The answer came from the film again. In the early scenes of Genevieve, one of the things we’ve always loved is the interior of the mews house shared by Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson – owner of Genevieve the car. There’s a contemporary freshness in there – greys, blues, ochres, graphic prints and light, bright paintwork. Prints, plants and overall styling are all evidence of the impact of the Festival of Britain. And suddenly it all falls into place.

We continued our research to see if we couldn’t find some evidence of the impact of the Festival of Britain on fashion design. Sadly, time and resources failed us. However we suspect that if there’s not already a design thesis out there on the subject, then there’s certainly the potential for one. In the meantime we did unearth this film of the Festival of Britain.

We think this is interesting from a fashion perspective since what you don’t see visitors wearing are suits like Kay Kendall’s. New Look-style skirts and dresses and flared coats abound – suggesting that jackets like ours followed on from the explosion of interest in design, modernity and creative imagination that the Festival inspired. Of course the gold and teal colours of Kendall’s outfit also echo colours used in the exhibitions of the Festival as well as many of the fabric designs that followed on from it.

We tested our theory with a retired Textiles & Dress teacher who was leaving training college in 1952. She clearly remembered the asymmetry of jackets and the pointed peplums that appeared as she began her career. She couldn’t afford them but remembers them in the shops and felt that they were very much a reflection of the ‘zeitgeist’ following the Festival of Britain. (Thanks, Mum!)

How we made our jacket

Since we’d harboured a desire for this jacket for many a year, when we managed to bag some stunning 100% wool tweed fabrics from Moon’s this season, we decided this was our moment. Now – the wool used in the original jacket was a much flatter weave we think – it’s a stunning, multicoloured ochre fabric with slubs of lighter and darker yarns woven in there. We decided to go with our ‘Autumn sunset’ soft purple wool tweed fabric which is definitely a winter weight – mostly because we liked the colour. However it did mean that our jacket is a slightly different beast to the Genevieve original – which is most evident in the somewhat less draping, more structured look of our jacket.

This informed our decision not to go with a welt buttonhole in the corner of that asymmetric lapel. We’d have loved to – the one in the original jacket is a beauty – but lots of practice shots at it suggested that it was going to be too bulky, even if executed to perfection. We couldn’t guarantee that perfection – and we certainly didn’t want to detract from the lines of the jacket – so we went with a fabric-covered hook behind the button together with a worked loop on the left shoulder.

We also went with long sleeves. The reasons for this were first, the non-availability of long gloves in colours we liked (we were devastated). Second, we hate cold arms in the winter – and this is definitely a winter jacket. Moreover, a full length jacket sleeve tends to make your blogger look as if she’s just grown out of whatever she’s wearing. We have a couple of covered buttons set aside to create tucks in the cuffs of our version – but for the moment we’ve left them as they are.

Our biggest issue was the cut of the sleeves. As we explained, lots of pausing our DVD failed to reveal any obvious seamlines for either raglan or set-in sleeves. We could see that the grain of the fabric continued across the front and the sleeves however – and we could also pick out seams over the shoulders and down the outside of the arm. We grabbed a roll of reject fabric and began to drape and toile. And drape. And toile… Our first attempt as a cut-in-one design put in a sharp angle from the side seam to the underarm and didn’t give us enough arm movement. The second cut a straighter line and introduced far too much fabric into the underarm area. We then tried various cuts of raglan sleeve but they gave us the same issues.

That’s when we undertook our research which suggested that a cut-in-one approach was the one to go with – but how to resolve the issue of providing freedom of movement without bulking up the fabric under the arm? The answer came from a judicious pause in the film where Kendall poses with a hand on her hip. There seemed to be a curve under that arm – so we tried that, refined it and ended up with the following pattern shape:

Pattern shape modern tailoring jacket
Final pattern shape for jacket left front

From then on it was plain sailing. We adored the fact that an elegant and well-fitted jacket could be achieved from such a simple shape. The only darting is at the back of the neck, where we inserted two long, shallow darts to help the neck fit and to shape across the shoulders as you can see here.

Back darts on modern tailoring jacket
Back of jacket showing neck darts

We lined it with our Glowing copper viscose lining fabric

Modern tailoring jacket lining
Jacket lining

and ran up a tailored belt simply by using some heavy fusible interfacing on a folded and top-stitched length of our fabric. We’ll probably re-do that as time was running short and our top stitching is nothing to write home about. Here’s a gallery of the finished piece – modelled by the ever-tolerant Lizzie.

Modern tailoring jacket
Completed jacket
Modern tailoring jacket
Lapel detail
Modern tailoring jacket
Front showing design
Modern tailoring jacket
Front detail
Jacket relief modern tailoring
OK Lizzie – it’s a wrap – you can take it off now – it’s hot out here!

We can’t think of a better way to close than the Festival of Britain film, which concludes that the Festival was a celebration of the nation’s ability to ‘Build with gladness on an old inheritance’ – which we thought summed up our venture perfectly.

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8 thoughts on “When modern tailoring really was

  1. Sarah says:

    Wow – I love this ! Nothing wrong with stopping a film to look at the clothes – I also do it for location details as well as clothes ! My mother and I would often choose a programme ‘just for the clothes’ ( Downton – I’m looking at you ! ) I loved the film clip – I stopped it to look at the ironmongers – you don’t see many like that anymore…
    I love the whole context of this project and hard to believe that this is 50s inspiration . I’m also intrigued by the all in one sleeve /front. I think that this might have to experimented with as I hate putting in sleeves….No front darts either ? 🙂

    • ClothSpot says:

      So pleased you enjoyed it, Sarah – and no indeed – not a front dart in sight!!! And isn’t that ironmonger’s brilliant. I think it’s in Uxbridge – nowhere near the London-Brighton route but worth a ‘Pause’ nonetheless!

  2. Jenny says:

    I love that yellow jacket. To me it looks far more British than the other woman’s outfit, which reminds me of the over styled costumes in American happy-family-type films of the time. Your interpretation is inspired. I now really really really want a copy of that Fashion Sketchbook, and I have spent far too long on Amazon looking for it!

    My Mum used to tell us the tale of when she took me and my twin, then aged 11 months, and our sister, two and a half, to the Festival of Britain in our twin pram, which she took on the tube and got stuck. We lived north of Newcastle at the time and were staying with friends of hers in London. I wish I could remember it. We apparently wore matching dresses with smocking, made by our Aunty Alice out of pale blue nylon, a fabric very new to the home sewing market then, with boleros knitted in a fuzzy angora wool.

  3. Roswyn Glenny says:

    Only just read this blog. Thank you so much for the movie of the Festival of Britain I enjoyed it so much. I went with the school when I was 11 years old, what an experience that was, brought back memories.

    You mention seeing clothing from films, my favourite is the dress Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman when she has shopped on Rodeo Drive, cream with big buttons, I still have to copy that sometime.

    Love the blog.

    • ClothSpot says:

      Hello Roswyn – we’re delighted you enjoyed the blog and thank you for letting us know. What a fabulous memory to have of the Festival of Britain – we envy you that experience! Ah yes – *that* dress – also the spotted one she wears for the polo match – that was quite a wardrobe… *sigh*…

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