In my previous article, I explored how I went about recreating vintage designs in a contemporary context. You can read that here.
This project came with a complex brief. The replicas needed to fulfil a number of roles and appeal to a wide audience visiting the museum, from children to professional tailors. We especially wanted the garments to expand the experience for visually impaired visitors. One of the best ways to understand clothing is to touch it. This isn’t something the general public can do with museum pieces, so a recreation is the next best thing.
Had I been asked to make other 1960s fashions, I could have sourced original vintage materials, used an original 1960s sewing machine and original patterns. However, when the request is to remake something to look the same as one in a museum, this is not an option.
Sourcing the right fabrics was the biggest challenge. It’s always a struggle to find fabric suitable for particular eras. Making it look and feel like the original is nearly impossible. Unless you have it specially made, or the original mill is still working and making the same material. Even though the 1960s does not seem that long ago, textile production has changed. Fabrics popular and in fashion then are not necessarily the same now, and as a result aren’t produced.
For example, the wool jersey mini dress was a real problem. Extensively made in the 1960s, wool jersey has since been replaced by a preference for cotton or synthetic jersey and scuba. Finding a wool jersey that has been bonded, as the originals were made, was difficult. After a lot of searching, I found a remnant of a piece of wool jersey from Italy which I snapped up, as it was the closest I was going to get.
The original garments, though not as fragile as some I have recreated, have been collected by V&A South Kensington to protect them for the future. This includes protecting them for (and from!) passionate observers like me. I got to view each of the garments, ask questions and request alternate views. But I was not able handle the garments themselves, to prevent them getting handled too frequently and to preserve them for future generations.
The museum has a wonderful catalogue and the curators were helpful at supplying me with photos once I returned to my studio. However, the reason for taking the photo is an important consideration when recreating pieces. Taking a photo for a catalogue is one thing, and detailing the overall style, back and front view, any damage, etc. is fantastic. But rarely does that include images of the inside, the hem, the stitching, whether it’s a French seam or a bound seam, etc. As a dressmaker, I have to fill in the blanks.
Because I know the era of construction, I have a number of original vintage garments I can look at. Also, plenty of sewing guides and patterns to consult and an aunt who lived through the era! These were all essential when it came to getting the finer points right.
Though I own a rather jazzy 1960s sewing machine, it is not up to the task of sewing a number of garments anymore without having a huff. I also used modern threads as they are indistinguishable from the artificial threads used in the 1960s. Vintage hooks, eyes and buttons were sourced to give a lovely realism to the overall garments.
Despite all this, the PVC bag was a real challenge to make. PVC is renowned for being a difficult fabric to sew as it ‘sticks’ when you are sewing and doesn’t feed through the machine easily. You have to have a Teflon foot on the machine to make it work. You can’t use pins as the fabric doesn’t mend afterwards and there is a risk of tearing. Instead, clips can be used but even this doesn’t solve all problems. To do the binding, I resorted to gluing it down before top stitching it.
Even knowing how many problems Quant faced in her ‘wet look’ collection didn’t make me feel any better by the end of this! Her first range caused numerous problems and she eventually teamed up with Alligator, a specialist rainwear producer. They had the equipment and expertise to create her designs in PVC.
An extra challenge none of us could anticipate for this project was trying to complete it during a worldwide pandemic. It delayed the exhibition and my visit to V&A Dundee. It also closed fabric warehouses and haberdashers which hindered the progress of the project.
Despite this, I think these pieces clearly demonstrate the timeless charm of Quant’s original designs. I want to wear them, and I don’t think anyone would look at me oddly if I did. They’re as fresh as a daisy, and as vibrant now as they were when they were first designed over 50 years ago.
Meridith Towne is a costume historian and historic dressmaker who works with museums to complement exhibitions, enhance visitor experience and facilitate learning with dress-up boxes.