A new trend was evident during the latest spring 2020 Paris Fashion Week. John Galliano for the Maison Margiela brought a spotlight on integrating used fabrics and fashion items into his haute couture ‘Recicla’ collection. (Mower) The focus was on sustainable fashion through upcycling.
Upcycling is simply repurposing old clothes.
My generation still remembers how our mothers used to make dresses from leftover fabric, or how they fixed husband’s old shirts so they fit the son as he grows bigger. The clothes had value as they passed over from older siblings to the younger ones. That value of quality clothing disappeared over time. Buying cheap clothes for the season and discarding them or bringing them to never ending isles of thrift shops is spiraling out of control. Recycling can make you feel better, but it doesn’t solve the problem of growing landfills. Buying less and better quality clothing and upcycling old clothes may be the answer to making an impact on the environment.
Garments must have value so that they are not so easily discarded. Vintage clothes are often associated with value and quality. Vintage doesn’t mean old-fashioned. Remember that fashion evolves constantly and designers often seek elegant and timeless vintage pieces for inspiration. For example, the 70s style is evident in the contemporary maxi dresses. Stella McCartney’s summer collection is a vivid example of fashion déjà vu. (McCartney)
You can use vintage patterns to repurpose old clothes and remnants of fabrics and create bespoke one-of-a-kind couture garments. The first step in making a vintage garment is to discover your taste without being influenced by the latest fashion fads. Find your own unique style. As the famous designer Hubert de Givenchy said: “The secret of elegance is to look like oneself.” (Beyfus) Vintage is a broad category and it includes items from 20 to 100 years old. Ask yourself a question: do you like 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s style? What designs flatter your figure the most? Do you like particular fabrics and colour? Remember the outfit you got the most complements on.
Once you discover your own style, you can start shopping for vintage patterns, fabrics and haberdashery. There are so many vintage patterns available online. You can buy Givenchy, Dior, Laroche, Alexander McQueen and other couture designer patterns. The important thing to watch out for is making sure that the patterns are complete and in good condition.
Tips & Tricks
Make a copy of the pattern on Pellon 830 Easy Pattern, or a similar pattern tracing material every time you want to make modifications to the original. Don’t do the alterations on the original pattern. Label your modified pieces clearly so you don’t forget what was done. I keep my versions of the same pattern in a separate envelope with a photo on the front. Watch tutorials on how to make simple alterations, take a deep breath and give it a try. Make a mockup outfit using leftover fabric or old sheets to check for fit.
Sewing using vintage patterns is not that complicated, it’s like reading a fashion history book with hands-on learning experience. When I sew with vintage patterns, I cannot wait to get to the next step to see how the designer accomplished the final look. For instance, you can master classic techniques, such as making rollaway collars and dolman-style sleeves with gussets à la Givenchy. The hallmarks of haute couture are illustrated in the instructions to vintage patterns, such as basting through construction lines and marking notches by thread, always basting before stitching and overcasting by hand among others.
Create your own style
Incorporate your own unique style into the vintage design by adding reused trimmings, buttons, and fabrics. You can find discounted couture fabric remnants online if you have a particular vision in mind. Alternatively, you can pull apart old clothes that no longer fit or wedding and bridesmaids pieces that have yards of fabric that you can use. Take them out of the storage bags and examine if the fabric is still in good condition, and you can use buttons, zippers, beads, lace or trimmings. Another great way to make a couture garment is to make your own fabric by stitching complementary colours together or make insets and appliqués for a striking effect. (Shaeffer) The treasure-trove of design will open right before your eyes.
You can give a new life to reused fabrics and clothing by incorporating them into your limited-edition vintage garments that you will wear and treasure year after year.
Beyfus, Drusilla. Vogue on Hubert de Givenchy. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited, 2013.
Lucioni, Alessandro. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2020-couture/maison-martin-
McCartney, Stella. https://www.stellamccartney.com/ca/stella-mccartney/midi_cod15034082jt.html#dept=main_dresses. n.d.
Mower, Sarah. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2020-couture/maison-martin-margiela.25 September 2019.
Shaeffer, Claire B. Couture Sewing Techniques. Newtown: The Taunton Press, 2011.
About the Author:
Elena Tran is a Canadian dressmaker and an entrepreneur passionate about haute couture sewing using
beautiful fabrics and notions. After her career as a college administrator and mathematics professor, she
pursued her interest in sewing and opened an online luxury fabric store baudekinstudio.ca. She is
constantly learning and improving her craft. Her training includes lessons with the legendary couture
instructor Angelina di Bello (Montreal, Canada), dressmaking program at Mohawk College (Hamilton,
Canada) and online needlework courses at the Royal School of Needlework (London, UK).