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An Inside Look at Vintage Dior Strapless Gowns from the 1950s

Oct 09, 2017
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In the Study Collection of boned garments at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City, there is a group of Dior strapless garments from midcentury. While there are similarities among these garments, they varied in their methods of construction.

 A gown with an inner corselet

This sketch of a Dior gown shows the splendor of the design.

 

The reality, however, is a little sad.

This gown looked as if it had begun life well but ended up being badly altered and handed down.

This once fabluous dress has information for us. With the back unfastened, it is clear to see the cotton bobbinette corselet structure from the inside. Other elements of the dress are sewn to the corselet.

Dior famously said, “Without foundations, there can be no fashion.” 

This interior demonstrates what he meant. The corselet is a princess-line bodice, which has more seams, thus more opportunities, to fine-tune its fit.

Note the boning, the strong hook-and-eye closure, the W-shaped underwire, which extends across the bodice front. This underwire is special, and I’ve only seen it in Dior foundations. Also note what are referred to as Hollywood darts-horizontal darts that run between the bust apexes, to give shaping that holds the bodice against the sternum.

Dior extended the boning over the bust. To people who say never to do this, my response is, if Dior did it, it’s good enough for me.

The edges of the corselet are stayed with satin ribbon sewn by machine. The hooks and eyes are sewn in by hand, and a layer of bobbinette was inserted to cushion the skin so the hooks wouldn’t dig into the wearer’s back. The casings for the boning are sewn by machine.

Here’s a close-up of some of the hand sewing that attaches the bodice section to the corselet. You can see the center-front portion of the underwire as well.

 A bobbinette corselet from 1956

Dior sometimes made undergarments that were independent of the dress. This is one such garment from Autumn-Winter 1956.

This is the same kind of cotton bobbinette corselet, complete with the W-shaped underwire supporting the shaped cups and hooks and eyes to close the back. A silk slip hangs from the bottom edge of this corselet.

 A cocktail dress from 1961

The bodice of this strapless cocktail dress features black chiffon over nude chiffon, the skirt is pleated silk crepe, with a yoke of black silk satin. There’s a bow on the side.

This detail shows the finely pleated silk. Also noteworthy is the fine hand stitching that attaches the yoke to the pleating.

In this view of the dress’s back, you can see the bobbinette corselet within.

With the back open, it is clear that there are fewer bones in this corselet than in the others, and the W-shaped underwire is absent. The boning casings are sewn by machine.

There are bust pads, but it is unclear whether they were original to the gown or were added later. You can clearly see the Hollywood darts in this dress.

Spring/Summer 1961. Now you know what the well-dressed gal was wearing.

As is typical in a dress of this sort, the other parts of the dress are sewn to the corselet. In this instance, they are attached by hand and some of the stitching has come loose over time.

In the couture, they used the sewing machine for strength. The placket that mounts the hooks is stitched with many rows of machine sewing.

This piece is a masterful combination of machine and hand sewing.

Have you ever constructed a complex bodice with an inner corselet or other foundation?

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  1. User avater JoanatChesterleStreet October 21st

    Hi, I love articles like this. Inside secrets are always fascinating. I have recently been to the Balenciaga exhibition in London's V&A museum, and they had x-ray pics of the corselettes in his gowns. Very similar but different underwires. Michelle Pye in UK runs a course teaching how to make a corselette which I attended a few years ago and it proved a great help me for me and I have subsequently made several very supportive strapless gowns for full figured ladies and is a really interesting challenge for pattern drafting and fitting that I love.

  2. User avater furballs October 18th

    Fascinating. Such lovely work. Many thanks for letting us see this. Only once have I attempted to make anything with boning. The dress I made did not have a fully separate foundation, rather, the boning was inserted into channels that were sewn into the lining. A friend at work was determined to upstage a bride at her wedding. Not sure why, but she was willing to pay me to make her a custom dress It was tightly fitted, strapless, from a couturier pattern. It took me ages, having never done quite that sort of work before, but it was fun, though very challenging. The dress had princess seaming, super snug bodice with a snug skirt to just above the knee, that had flared & shaped inserts in the side-back seams. They were shaped like a long, narrow triangle; width at the top, tapering to nothing at the hem. The inserts were accented in between, just below the waist, with a huge, hand-sewn decoration. In some ways, it was one of the toughest details to get right. It was made of many layers of tulle, cut in circular shapes. The layers were stitched together, the outer border was then edged in horsehair braid, overlaid with a ribbon. This made the outer edges stand out, while the inner edges were hand gathered into a tightly bundled flower shape. Lovely dress, she was happy and I was very pleased with how it turned out. There was more hand sewing in that dress than anything else I've ever made, excepting a hand tailored jacket once upon a time. She was a stunning girl & the dress looked amazing on her, though her boyfriend promptly paid me to make her a bolero jacket to match when he saw her in it the first time! I'm told the dress achieved her goal :-).

  3. WhiteBow October 18th

    Years ago I saw Bob Mackie interviewed on TV. He showed gowns that he had designed for Cher and Carol Burnett, and he showed the inside--boned, with padded bust cups. The interviewer remarked on that, and he explained that the beaded gowns in particular were so heavy that they would flatten an actress's bust, so the pads were necessary for shaping and support.

    I saw a photo of Marilyn Monroe in a ruched chiffon evening gown. It was so tight that the inner boning pressed through to the right side. I counted 9 pieces of boning across the front, and I guessed that there were about 7 across the back. A heavily boned dress indeed--that would have been in the mid-1950s in Hollywood.

    Susan Khalje teaches that boning is only meant to the support the gown, so the woman should always wear a bra underneath. This puzzles me. All the other sources I know of--magazines (Threads), books (Claire Schaeffer and many fashion books), instances like the Bob Mackie interview, classes (such as with the late Laura Brown), fashion documentaries (such as the one on Valentino) etc. etc.--always present the boning as obviating the need for a bra. Susan is definitely an amazing dressmaker and wonderful teacher, so her singular belief on this issue is surprising.

    Thank you so much for this article. I am very interested in learning about the finest sewing techniques, and this is so helpful.

  4. Lauraellene October 17th

    About 50 years ago, I modelled many Dior creations, as well as other designers, but it was the Dior's I loved the most. They fit beautifully and never needed collar adjustments, etc. However, being an avid seamstress at the time, it was when a show was over and I got to examine the inside of the dresses, etc., that I found myself the most delighted. That job improved my tailoring abilities exponentially. I love the work of the House of Dior. Thank you, Mr. King, for this memory lane tour.

  5. El Bargo October 17th

    Thanks, Mr. King. One of my favorite issues of Threads featured a cover article about the couture construction of Hillary Clinton's ball gown from one of her husband's inaugural balls. This reminds me of that article. Thanks so much for all the interesting detail.

  6. User avater billbrandt October 17th

    This is an excellent article. The photography is very well documentedl and detailed. You are very fortunate to have access to this treasures of fashion and the craft like these. I did a "Lecture Notes" based on a similar Dior from the late 1950s (YSL era?) and the use of the Bustier/Foundation for my Parsons students. Bravo! BB

  7. User avater psfws1963 October 17th

    "hay" is their some way i can post a picture of something that I've sewn, and post it on this website for everyone to see my work, as well. let me know if i can do that. Thank you.

  8. User avater JenKar October 17th

    I was fortunate to see the Diors exhibition in Paris last week, nearly fainting when I walked into the room filled floor to ceiling with toilles, (dying to get my hands on one of them). Here is this gem from Kenneth D. King in the next Threads issue--thanks for the great pics and your excellent insights into the construction of these beautiful classic gowns.

  9. User avater JenKar October 17th

    I was fortunate to see the Diors exhibition in Paris last week, nearly fainting when I walked into the room filled floor to ceiling with toilles, (dying to get my hands on one of them). Here is this gem from Kenneth D. King in the next Threads issue--thanks for the great pics and your excellent insights into the construction of these beautiful classic gowns.

  10. User avater psfws1963 October 17th

    love that drawing of the 50's strapless gown very lovely drawing.

  11. User avater LuvThreadsMagazine October 17th

    Senor King,

    Thank you for taking us along on your latest adventure.

    Thought there would be more bones in a Dior (including some horizontal arcs to really secure the upper sides) - alas, he did more with less. That "W" is an interesting feature - he probably could have built suspension bridges.

    Have not constructed a corselet, corset, or complex bodice, but have always been fascinated by the inner workings, and who better to study, than Dior (guided by your knowing narration).

    Thanks again.

  12. User avater GeorgeBrown50 October 16th

    It's a dream dress. I would love to try it out on me!

  13. User avater JohnJackson1970 October 16th

    I have similar dresses at my grandma's house. She was really rich and she wore Dior. I love this collection. Vintage rocks!

  14. User avater Cvillemarie October 12th

    The work is actually so amazing! Well done long time ago!

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