WELCOME TO PART ONE OF A NEW SERIES ABOUT WOMEN AND THEIR VINTAGE WARDROBES
“Fashion is a language. Some know it, some learn it, some never will – like an instinct.”
– Edith Head
Whangarei-based artist, blogger and seamstress Angela Carter shares her sartorial secrets with Natasha Francois.
With her sharp tailored silhouettes and angled vintage hats, Angela Carter is one of those women who simply oozes style. She’s certainly one of the most ‘authentic looking’ vintage ladies I’ve ever seen at events. She looks like she could have just stepped out of a Dior advertisement or a gritty 1940s film noir.
The most amazing thing about her wardrobe however, is that it’s largely self-created. The couture-obsessed fashion fiend is sewing her way to her dream wardrobe, one vintage pattern at a time.
Read on to find out about her enviable wardrobe, why modern patterns don’t do it for her, and the power of a good hat.
Femme fatale: This film noir gown is one of her favourite dresses she’s made.
You have a great wardrobe. Wanna take us on a tour?
Thank you! I have a host of garments I have sewn, op shop pieces and ready to wear I have bought and looked after, way back when I was in regular paid employment, almost 10 years ago now, including quite a few hats, vintage gloves and scarves.
I have a few original vintage garments, a classic trench, a deep green wool coat, a full length leather coat, a couple of suits and dresses that I enjoy, but most of the time I’m wearing me made, supplemented with op shop finds.
My accessories are mostly vintage, I have way too many vintage gloves, scarves and items of custom jewellery, and hats! For me, I’m keen on a good design, good quality, and you can get that with some reproduction pieces.
Look sharp: Angela wears a bolero and skirt suit she made last year.
You’re also a keen sewer, do you make most of your clothes?
Yes! I make enough to kit myself out for most days, I have staple garments that get a lot of wear, like my favourite ’40s slacks, variations on some elegant McCalls dresses, a classic 50s-shaped shirt, and some jumpsuits, which are my current favourites to wear.
I can’t resist making cocktail frocks though!
How long have you been sewing?
I used to sew as child, making doll clothes, toys, but found sewing at high school so boring, and so I dropped it as soon as I could.
I started again around 9 years ago, properly, when I realised I could create a wardrobe I would enjoy more that what was available to buy.
Angela’s project for the Vintage Suit Sew Along.
I had also had my first baby, and I was pretty sick of seeing off-the-rack clothes that were heavily marketed to surly looking teens and middle-aged women.
I just didn’t see myself in those clothes, so looked at styles that were fabulous and more individual.
I also had a limited budget, so started sewing as it was the most affordable way I could create my own style.
It helped that my mum still had my nana’s sewing machine and, as it turns out, quite a lot of fabric and haberdashery items.
Do you make your own patterns or use vintage ones?
I know the basics of pattern drafting, but I use vintage patterns, often making style adjustments, flaring a pant leg or lengthening a sleeve to create a more varied wardrobe.
I can drape and shape well, but I have an extensive collection of patterns to work from, so that makes it easy!
I have a couple of patterns that I use at starting point if I need to grade up or down, I am fortunate that I am mostly standard proportion, so my adjustments are minimal.
I just love working with my old patterns, they are so beautiful.
What are you working on at the moment?
I work on multiple projects at a time, this year I plan to finish some garments that have been languishing on the shelves of my sewing room.
At the moment, I’m completing a Vogue Couturier pattern I started last year, which has some finishing details that have been challenging, mostly due to the fabric choice, a luxurious cream wool crepe (op shop score!).
Also on my ‘to finish’ list is a jumpsuit in black, a pair of slacks, to match a classic swing jacket I made this summer, on my ‘new projects’ list are a pair of pyjamas from a pattern that belonged to my nana, with a mandarin collar and ‘one piece’ pant legs, and a Vogue Special Design sheath dress using some soft upholstery fabric I picked up at an op shop – if I can can make it fit the small piece of fabric.
“I’m looking forward to some really snuggly pyjamas.”
Are you a vintage purist?
So far, I only sew from genuine vintage patterns, so that might make me a bit of a purist when it comes to my source patterns, I just prefer them now. I started sewing garments (as an adult) with a couple of early 60s and 70s patterns, and I haven’t looked back!
The 60s pattern I started with was a simple kimono sleeve wriggle dress, on unprinted pre-cut tissue paper, with different sized holes to represent the seam allowances, darts, straight grain etc.
I still find unprinted vintage patterns ideal to work with, no visual overload, and once you get your eye in, it’s easy. I also know the pattern companies various fit and style components that suit me, so basically, I use what I love and what works for my lifestyle.
Modern patterns just don’t do it for me!
What are some of your most prized pieces in your collection?
Oh so many! I think of my ‘vintage collection’ so broadly, I have the pleasure to sew on my nana’s old Bernina, notions and a few stunning pieces of very vintage fabric inherited from both nanas. I have a couple of patterns I inherited from my nana, and some Couturier patterns that I scored on TradeMe a while back.
These are really hard to find, and would fetch top dollar, so ‘investment’ pieces (cough) you could say.
As you might expect, Vintage Couturier and designer patterns were pricier, are rarer, have the most unusual features, they are sometimes very complex and well, they are so stylish!
Sewing from the Couturier patterns I have has been challenging and very rewarding.
I also have a number of precious printed posters that my poppa screen printed in the 50s and 60s, these are so special, as I also worked in the signage and print industry in my twenties, there is a family connection there that makes them more special.
There are other random treasures too, like a globe, some pressed glass and other odd bits that remind me of family.
“I love these women, they remind me of my mum, she used to draw women like this when she studied sewing at high school.”
Any noteworthy recent purchases?
Ooo I am on a bit of a ‘downsize’ the sewing room at the moment and I haven’t had any dream finds come up for a while.
Earlier this year I did pick up some stunning patterns, I have sewn up one, and have others on the ‘to make’ list.
I love this dress, and hope to make one of these coats for winter but I’m a little late starting.
Angela shows off a recent op shop score.
How did you first become interested in vintage style?
I used to be sort of anti-fashion, I am a bit shy, and internalised stuff about not attracting attention to myself, so other than being a bit of a goth teen, I was not that into fashion or clothes.
But growing up with two nanas who sewed, a mum who sewed, and loving all my grandparents old stuff, some of which I inherited, and are now special pieces to me, it was only a matter of time before it became a bit of a passion.
I got some of my angst out and started to think more about what I wore, I had had my babies, and had reached a point, where I knew myself, and was a bit ‘life is short’ I’m going to embrace the styles I love!
I was also out of the paid work force, I knew how to sew, fabric was easy to come by in op shops, so I just started sewing clothes I liked, learned along the way, found my style, and didn’t stop.
How does it make you feel when you wear it?
I love to wear my makes. Most days I’m wearing something I have made, like my slacks from my most used 40s pattern, so comfy, and a great style.
I’m still working on that perfect fit, though most of the time, my clothes fit me well, and I chose fabric and colours I love.
“I finished this dress this year, just in time for my nana’s funeral, sad days.”
“I’m wearing vintage gold gloves, op shop score, my VVDO shoes, black, read and gold brocade, and my other nana’s flower brooch.”
Since I have been sewing my own, I rarely go to clothing stores, and when I am in malls (which I loathe!) I look around and wonder, how many people have sewn their own clothes? Or have a connection to what they wear?
What are your favourite eras when it comes to clothes?
I gravitate to the 30s and 40s, I love jump suits, and the shapes that were popular during the war years, utilitarian yet chic.
There are so many things to love about past fashion trends and styles, so I dip into what I enjoy in the moment, sometimes that reflects what I’m reading or watching.
“One of my jump suits, made with a 60s Vogue pattern.”
What are your general thoughts about op shopping and vintage shopping in New Zealand?
I have seen prices rise, and quality in secondhand and op shops drop, over the last ten years especially.
I think it’s a combination of rising rents (particularly in Auckland), op shopping becoming more trendy, and sometimes people forget that they are selling used goods – and that buying new all the time, is not an option for plenty of people, especially families, so it bugs me a bit.
“A recent make, using a new to me vintage Butterick pattern, using fabric my nana gave me.”
The finished result.
The drop in quality clothing, speaks to the huge problem of fast fashion, garments are not made to last, and are of low quality fabrics, they are less well cared for, most of the time, they swamp the op shops. That makes the special vintage finds even more exciting though.
I enjoy op shopping, you never know what you may find, but it requires a level of commitment, time and regularly visiting, that I don’t always have!
My grandparents and mum used to get up early for Saturday morning garage sales, which were great for bargains and meeting your neighbours, it’s a bit of a shame that is no longer a past time.
I have a great green wool coat I scored at a garage sale, took out the shoulder pads, and voila! one of my most worn garments.
Do you have any holy grail pieces?
My holy grails are usually the rarer Vogue Couturier or Special Design patterns, I would love more 30s and 40s, they are hard to come by if you’re a bargain hunter like me!
I limit my buying to local auctions (like TM) though some really nice patterns can be found on eBay and Etsy, the cost of shipping from international sellers is prohibitive.
Whose closet do you envy and why?
Actually, none! I’m pretty happy with what I have.
Who are some of your style icons and influences?
I love the work of Edith Head, she dressed a number of women on screen, so superbly, including some Hitchcock films I enjoy such as Vertigo, To Catch a Thief and Marnie, she used dress so cleverly to communicate.
Diana Vreeland was a very interesting person, and I think she knew how to dress, and be herself, I admire her for her work and how she wasn’t just all about traditional beauty.
I find collaborations really intriguing, Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen, and Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn, these relationships seemed to help define a personality through dress.
How do members of the public react to your get-ups?
You know, when I’m out, I forget that I might look a bit different. I often receive compliments from people, especially if I’m wearing a jumpsuit, I see a few onesies around, but jumpsuits, not so much!
If I go all-out hat, dress, pearls, people stare, and sometimes rush up and say, “Oh my god I have to say you look amazing!”
That’s the power of a good hat for you.
Does your vintage obsession extend into other areas too such as home decor, car, accessories and other collections?
Absolutely. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a child, and loved their old stuff, I learned about quality and care, and many of my memories are associated with their homes, the textiles and homewares that we used.
The fact that these items can still be found in use is a testimony to the quality of such pieces.
I use Crown Lynn for my tea and coffee, we listen to records, occasionally use a reel to reel player, we have a bit of a mix of analog and high tech, for movies and music at home.
We shop second hand for almost everything, so we chose carefully and go for mid century pieces of furniture when budget permits.
“My make of Butterick 7653, my nana’s fascinator, and gloves.”
My make of Butterick 7653, my nana’s fascinator, and gloves.
My love of vintage is also about knowing where I come from.
I love history and the social~political side of dress, and how various social movements have been reflected in fashion. Like the move to evacuate children out of London during WW1 brought into the public eye the scale of poverty that many families were coping with, the clothing they wore said it all.
I am a bit of a sci-fi nerd and collect and read John Wyndham books, and when I can put aside the glaring chauvinism of the period, I get into 40s-50s sci novels, by writers such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clark.
And film! I love classic cinema, noir film, Hitchcock, and 60s science fiction series like Star Trek TOS, and Batman, so awesome! I have spent a couple of months binge watching Batman with the kids, and the costume design and set design is spectacular.
I also love a good classic cocktail…that counts doesn’t it?
See more of Angela and her amazing style at the below links:
“I love this dress, such great detailing in the sleeves and back, I’m wearing a hat I that I picked up at an op shop for $3, it had a terrific shape, but was a little dull and faded. So I revamped it with some black fabric and it comes out more now.”