by Giulia Cassano
“Adornment is never anything except a reflection of the heart” (Coco Chanel)
This time I pull the dress out of a box where I keep the garments gathered over time. I bought it at a street market in Milan, perhaps at the fair of Senigallia, one of the most famous flea markets in Milan, especially known for its unconventional mood and flavour.
Its colours immediately remind me of the bourgeois summers of the 1950s, tourist beach resorts … ice creams and sweets. Its elegance lies in its floral pattern of different shades of blue, it’s a cool, summer dress, even though a little bit old-fashioned.
Instead, I imagine it as a rather more casual dress vaguely fluttering in the breeze of the sea.
The dress is from the 1960s, but it’s a lady dress! An austere, very bon-ton sheath dress but made of simple raw fabric: a printed cotton fabric, however, not very resistant due to the ravages of time. I’d like to give the dress a fresh look of a sea dress to be used outdoors when walking on the beach; I’d like to revolutionize its slightly conservative appearance making it more suitable for different situations.
In the famous film “The Sound of Music” directed by Robert Wise in 1965, a young woman named Maria, who had longed to be a nun but ends up being the governesses in a rich Austrian family, sews playing clothes out of some old curtains, so that the children can play and run without constraints. This is exactly the same funny scene I have in mind as I choose the fabric that matches the blue flowers of my dress: a piece of upholstery fabric.
Just think of a beautiful picture by Munkacsi, the Hungarian photographer (1896-1963)1 who, during a fashion photography session, captures the image of a model running on the beach in a light, short and fluttering dress, in praise of that sense of well-being, new to women, deriving from a direct contact with the natural elements and the environment, a kind of well-being in connection with freedom, nature, sun and open air.
In the twentieth century the image of woman progressively evolves, more or less depending on the decades and with ups and downs in terms of freedom and constraint. For this occasion I’d like to give the dress freshness and freedom of movement, as it takes inspiration from the air and the sea, or, even better, from the sea air. The contrast between the prints is fun and a bit jarring: floral pattern is common in female clothing and depending on the flower the garment appearance and its wearer’s appearance can change dramatically. In the sixties, in particular, we see a wide range of botanical motifs: just think of the colourful dresses by Ken Scott, whom in 1963 the Corriere della Sera (a renowned Italian newspaper) nicknamed “the fashion gardener” and “the master of the super printed flowers”. In his clothes, which I had the opportunity to touch in the beautiful vintage shop where I used to work, we can see psychedelic combinations of complementary colours. Flowers and floral patterns become central in the hippie movement and culture, where even men can indulge in something frivolous, that now remains almost exclusively confined to the Hawaiian shirt with its tropical flowers2.
And exactly with the aim of seeking flowers I go to the shop of fabrics where I imagine to spot a piece of fabric with contrasting botanical prints, with similar flowers in different colours so that I can make inserts to expand and lighten the dress fabric, both on a physical and conceptual level … but nothing satisfies my expectations. It’s so frustrating. But then I enter the “Upholstery Fabrics” DepartmentÂ and suddenly see a lovely piece of fabric with the very same hues of my dress but with a completely different pattern: it’s a naval print, a sea one, with the cardinal points, sailing ships and ancient maps.Â I think it perfectly matches my blue flowers and the sea theme now associated with the dress. I think of “The Lover”, the movie based on the novel by Marguerite Duras, on a ferry under the sea, or “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, but at the seaside …. an outfit for a picnic on the beach, an outfit to go to Venice. The print with the cardinal points evokes ancient memories, old tattoos and seamen.
Coco Chanel symbolizes this style from which she draws inspiration at the beginning of her career: jersey and sailor stripes inspired by seamen.
And so I transform the dress into something different from the original, held on the back by a flesh-coloured grosgrain ribbon, I hem it with an acid yellow bias tape that from the very beginning seems to be the perfect match for blue.
I cut the dress: neckline front and deep neckline back + I cut it twice on both front and back, symmetrically, and there I will insert the panels (skirt)
I take in the side of the bodice (just a little bit) at breast height
I insert the sailor panels
I hem it all with an acid yellow bias tape
I add grosgrain ribbon on the back
1Â Beaumont Newhall,Â The history of photographyÂ (Einaudi Publishing) 1984.
2Â The language of clothesÂ by Alison Lurie (Armando Editore Publishing) 1992.