Style crisis: Keeping my cool in a printed linen shirt dress

Cool linen shirt dress

Despite all the excellent advice I received regarding layering prior to my Bologna excursion, I was determined to have at least one dress. The forecast for our stay (blissfully accurate, it turned out) was beautifully warm and I was determined to fulfill my vision of wafting around the city in cool comfort. I decided that a printed linen shirt dress might be a good solution – reasoning that it could always be worn half-open over trousers or leggings should the need arise.

Pattern choice

This wasn’t my first foray into shirt dress territory – I figured I was fairly certain about my preferences which include:

  • The structure of a classic shirt collar on a stand rather than a flat collar or a notched collar
  • A shaped rather than closely-fitted design so that buttons are less likely to pop open
  • A one-piece length rather than a waisted design

For this project I was also looking for:

  • A sleeve option – just in case of chills and also to avoid sunburn (oh, don’t we love a bit of optimism…)
  • A longer length that could be worn half-open over trousers
  • A simple pattern requiring minimum fitting and fiddling due to time constraints

On this occasion I discounted Vogue 8903 because of a couple of personal fitting issues. It’s a classic that I like – but it’s also fairly closely-fitting across the shoulders and the waist is set way too low for me and needs re-fitting…another time…

After a fair bit of research I came up with Style Arc’s ‘Sacha’ Shirt.

SACHA-SHIRT pattern for printed linen shirt dress
‘Sacha’ Shirt pattern from Style Arc

I liked the collar style, the pattern seemed very straight-forward and the sleeves just what I wanted since I usually find myself rolling my sleeves up – so why not cut to the chase, so to speak.

I know! It’s not a dress. But all it needed, I reasoned, was a couple more feet of fabric on the bottom. Plus if I had time then I’d be familiar enough with the pattern to knock up a shirt as well. I didn’t have the time as it turned out (no, really?) but that remains an option.

Some minor hacking

Hardly even a ‘hack’ really – but I added on 50cm to the dress length, ignored the side vents and once made up, continued the buttons down to around knee level. I continued the angled line of the shirt down to the hemline – no shaping meant maximum wafting potential I reckoned. Easy. Job done.

Making up (and a bit more hacking)

In terms of making up, the Sacha shirt dress turned out to be a breeze. The Style Arc instructions tend not to be as expansive as the Vogue patterns that many of us grew up with, and which are as good as a sewing manual. Having said that, this shirt is easy by design and if you’re a first-timer then worry not – there are diagrams for the collar construction. The sleeves set in with consummate ease and really – it was a pleasure to put together.

The fabric I chose was our ‘Garofano’ ochre and grey printed linen fabric which is a blend of linen and viscose.

Printed linen shirt dress
‘Garofano’ ochre and grey printed linen mix fabric

I love the silver grey and ochre combination – and the colours worked well with the rest of my mini-wardrobe. It pre-washed nicely and steamed beautifully afterwards. Noticeably softer and drapier once washed, it still retained plenty of structure. For the record it was worn in bright sunlight with no special thought to colour of undergarments and modesty was preserved well at this point at least. More on that later…

It’s always tricky choosing a thread for a printed fabric. Personal taste is as important as anything – and in this case I opted to pick out the grey in the pattern for my thread. My button choice took a while. Laying out a selection of whites, greys, charcoals and earthy colours, it was clear that despite my expectations, the darker, warmer greys worked best, blending well with the darker elements of the print pattern and picking up the gentle warmth of the grey in the print background. I still opted for buttonholes in white however – on the basis that most of the background was light coloured. Is there a rule for prints? What would you have done? I’m never quite sure….

Collar & buttons for printed linen shirt dress
Collar & buttons in grey

Once I got to the trying-on stage it was clear that there was an awful lot of dress here. I’ve discussed previously my twitchiness in that department and I realised that something needed to be done. I think the issue here is that this is meant to be a comfortable shirt or tunic and that simply continuing that line down through the length of a dress doesn’t really cut the style mustard. Worn open over a narrower silhouette even with relaxed trousers – or closed over narrower-legged trousers or a pencil skirt, this design would work better. However at this late stage I figured that a couple of well-placed darts at the back would have to suffice.

I whipped out my favourite semi-fitted shirt pattern which I’ve adjusted to fit previously and used it to place two vertical darts in the back panel.

Back darts of printed linen shirt dress
Darts in back panel

This definitely helped with the blousing and shaping to some extent…

Back view of the printed linen shirt dress
Because of course, no-one was looking at the architecture here…

…although I suspect that a more fundamental re-think of the shaping and darting might have been beneficial if I’d had time.

Or even, using an actual dress pattern Alice, do you think that might have helped…?

Yes, yes, I know. Still. It did the job on a short timescale.

The wearing

Our first day started…well – with a bang. Resourceful as ever, my room-mate and I had commissioned the bath mat as a means of wedging shut the rooflight blinds to keep our bedroom as dark and cool as possible. This worked and a good night’s kip was had by all – although the tiled bathroom floor was left with no mat for wet feet. The last one out of the shower, I hurtled from bathroom to bedroom with a towel wrapped around me. As I turned the corner (at some speed, I’ll confess) my feet whipped out from underneath me and I slammed to the floor against the doorpost with my towel landing some distance away. So much for graceful wafting. Wailing and laughing at the same time I managed to persuade my flatmates to keep their distance from my indignity.

Fortunately my new dress covered the bruises and as we climbed into the Amazing Glass Lift we realised that for the first time this year for any of us, we were wearing bare feet and sandals. Whoopee!

Feet for printed linen shirt dress
Did anyone pack nail varnish..?

The sun shone and the temperature was just perfect. Neither too cool nor too warm, we sat outside for a breakfast of coffee and sfogliato. I discovered these to be delicious Italian croissant-y breakfast pastries with a lemony filling and a lightly caramelised glaze. Oh, the self-control required only to eat a single one and not return for a fourth, a fifth…

Italian breakfast with printed linen shirt dress
Meet our Italian pastries – that’s Cannoli on the left, Sfogliato on the right, since you ask.

We had a fabulous time wandering lazily through the city and I’m delighted to confirm that my printed linen shirt dress proved to be the perfect garment for the occasion. It wafted as coolly as one might hope; soft to wear yet holding its shape with remarkably little rumpling.

That first day we took in the University, the Asinelli Tower and more porticos and piazzas than we could believe existed; such extraordinary beauty. As well as all these, Bologna is known for its food. Hence, I’m afraid…

Front view of printed linen shirt dress
“Ooh look Alice; cheese! Quick – stand there!”


Courgettes for printed linen shirt dress
“Ooh look Alice; courgettes! Quick – stand there!”

For these pictures as well as other impromptu photography as we progressed around the city, I’m grateful to Signorina de Ferrer and Signorina Egby. Mario Testino would be proud…

The verdict

I was genuinely delighted with my choice of fabric which was very easy to work and which felt lovely to wear. It also worked well with the rest of my quick-sew wardrobe. As mentioned in my last post, I was completely bowled over by the amount of colour in Italy – all those terracottas, ochres and deep brick reds – framed by greenery and that blue, blue sky. I felt perhaps a little restrained in the face of all this exuberance. On the construction front the collar stood up well and I was pleased with the sleeve length and the cuff detail.

Sleeve cuff for printed linen shirt dress
It is sewn evenly I swear! It’s the angle of the image that makes it look lop-sided.

However despite the relative success of the dress as a whole, it perhaps deserves a bit of a refit. I think that a dress of this length in my case either needs to be much straighter, more columnar – or requires more shaping up the side seams. In which case it might well need a couple of vertical front darts to match those in the back.

I’m not sure that this is a length that works well for me – and I have only the hastiness of my cutting-out to blame. Should I have taken it even longer longer? Or perhaps cutting it off around the knee might have worked better? If all else fails then I might yet refashion it into the original shirt to wear as a tunic.

Finally if I’d had a decent pair of flat sandals then I’d have worn them. Not just for comfort but because I think even my casual cork wedges made the dress feel more – well – ‘dressy’ than I was entirely comfortable with. Or do I simply need to stretch my dress horizons a little more?

As ever, any thoughts on pattern choices, stylings and alternative approaches are welcome! This was a learning experience in terms of what to make for the occasion in question. What would you have worn instead? Answers on a postcard…(or just comment below!)

9 thoughts on “Style crisis: Keeping my cool in a printed linen shirt dress

  1. Jan says:

    Hi Alice. Pleased to read that your trip was a success. I love foreign train trips. The fabric was a complete success and just right for a straightforward shirtwaisted dress which looked all the better for not having a waist seam. I only came across Style Arc patterns last year, they are now my preferred pattern brand straightforward, accurate and great designs. Also they are useful for remodelling into other garments. In my mind a win win situation. I completely understand what you mean when you try on a new garment for the first time during making and find yourself swamped in fabric in all the wrong places! This has happened to me too many times. Going back several decades, too many to mention, I was on holiday with my parents in Cyprus (I am now a Grandma) when we came across a photo shoot for a clothing catalogue. Even at my then much younger age I felt sorry for anyone buying the clothes we saw being photographed. The dress they bought was never going to fit in the same way due to the huge bulldog clips holding in the excess fabric at the back to ensure a more enticing fit! Anyway moving on from my memory lane perhaps a small tie or buckle belt at waist level between the two back darts would provide additional fit adjustment without too much work. I have even been known to place two such small tie belts 15cm either side of both side seams. I have used these to ‘nip in’ a too generous garment at waist level whilst still retaining a casual, relaxed look. Also a huge positive is having an adjustable waist line especially useful after a bowl of proper pasta! Looking forward to seeing your other makes.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello Jan – thank you so much! I agree – I find the sizing of the Style Arc patterns very accurate. I used another two of them in my pre-holiday sew-up and they all performed extremely well. Your account of he photoshoot is *SO* illuminating!! I use clips for fabric on the stand for our fabric shots which is obviously necessary as they’re not garments – but I am aware of all the off-camera chicanery that goes on in model shoots too. I have an old exhibition catalogue from a V&A exhibition of John French the fashion photographer. In that, there are un-retouched images of dresses held out by bottles of milk, tape holding skirts in place and tin cans wedged in the back of belts to cinch waists. And that’s all before PhotoShop! Love your description. Thanks for the suggestion of a tie at the back to add shape. I suspect I have darted all that I can given the cut of the rest of the back panel so that would be a great way of adding some shape. And of course, leaving room for pasta – sooo important!

  2. Kim says:

    Beautiful shirt dress. I love shirts and make quite a few, obviously with all the fabulous material I purchase from Clothspot. I’m inspired to buy a little more fabric and have a go at making a shirt dress. Great story. Thanks.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Thanks Kim! Shirt dresses have gradually turned into a bit of a ‘go-to’ for me as well – it’s a relief to have a style you can rely on!

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Thanks so much! I can’t claim credit for the courgette but I have friends with an unerring eye for a photo-op… :-/

  3. Di says:

    Very classy shirtdress Alice–colour/fabric really looks good on you. Think you were right to put darts, in the back, to give it shape. Not so sure about the length. Whilst the length looks fine at the front, with it partially open, the back isn’t so flattering (nightshirt??). If it was me I’d pin it up in stages to find the ideal balance between back and front (would the GR work?). Difficult if you want to have the front open at the lower half, for walking ease. This is where one of those old style mirrors (triple) would be useful–an all round view without having to take snapshots on the mobile. Yes, I agree flatter sandals would have been better too.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Nightshirt??? Oh Di! You wound!! 🙂 Seriously though – I wonder whether given the lighter colour of he fabric, a shorter length might work better. I’m not sure that it’s a case for the GR if I want it long – but I do think that in that case I might have gone for *seriously* long, with flat sandals and a more vibrant colour. In this fabric, shorter might be the way to go. I haven’t yet tried it with the trousers underneath – that might make all the difference and I’ll try that before I whip out the old shears…

      • Di says:

        Yes, experimentation is the key before doing anything drastic with scissors. I hesitated to suggest shorter BUT that could look good over trousers and still be a smart shirtdress. I hope you update us (photo/s) once you’ve decided. It’s a bit depressing, after making something up, to realise it needs altering. All sewers have been there.

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