This is one of my favorite vintage dresses.
Some of you might recognize the picture from Instagram.
I bought this Mad Men era beauty about five years ago at the Alameda Flea Market, with the original department store tags still attached.
It’s constructed of a soft and cozy blended flannel that never wrinkles or clings. The top is cut on the bias, which adds both an interesting design detail and allows the dress to fit snugly but comfortably. This of course, required more fabric from the manufacturer. It’s shaped with two curved French darts, a difficult thing to sew but extremely flattering. The skirt has two double welt pockets. It closes with a lapped zipper. The sleeve and skirt hem are both finished with a blind hem. These are some of the signs and details of a well-made tailored dress.
I’ve worn this dress regularly for five years and it pretty much looks the same as when I bought it.
So what department store did this lovely dress come from? Was it Saks? Macy’s even?
It was Sears. Your very basic, middle class source for serviceable clothing.
Today, this dress would cost a bundle.
Nowadays, those details that I mentioned are not just signs of a typical well-made piece of clothing, they are signs of an expensive piece of clothing.
Clothing that lasts, fits well, and employs interesting design details (not merely flashy surface embellishment) is almost entirely the domain of high-end labels now.
Not that a high price tag is any guarantee of quality either. At my favorite independent boutique here in town, I’ve seen $500 silk dresses with runs in the fabric, and a $400 blazer with fake pockets (I hate that). I’ve seen $800 coats with acetate linings.
Nevertheless, if someone who doesn’t sew really wants a quality garment, they almost always have to either pay through the nose for it, or find something made 50 years ago or more.
In other words, you won’t find bias cuts and french darts at Sears anymore.
Good design for the masses?
There is a lot of talk about how cheap manufacturing can bring good design “to the masses.” I think that, at least as far as clothing goes, it’s done exactly the opposite. It’s dulled our sense of good design and totally transformed acceptable levels of quality.
I think we can look at mid-range, moderately priced clothing today and think, “sure, the quality seems fine”. It’s only when you compare it to what mid-range stores were selling decades ago that you really get a sense in the shift, and how much the way we dress has changed because of it.
Do you think really high-quality mid-priced clothing still exists?