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The Rachel Wrap Dress in Vintage Fabric

 

I didn’t grow up in the 70s, so although I have always understood Diane Furstenberg’s work during that period as iconic, I never had any firsthand experience with it. I knew that her signature wrap dresses were a defining aesthetic of the decade, making women of all shapes, sizes and ages feel beautiful with their simple, figure flattering design, but I figured that all wrap dresses were essentially the same. GUESS WHAT I WAS WRONG. And I didn’t know how wrong I was til I got my hands on an authentic DVF design a few years ago from a TJ Maxx in a ritzy suburb of LA.

sidenote: The “ritziness” of this TJ Maxx is important to note because not all discount brand name clothing stores like this are created the same- this Maxx had a whole section of expensive designer garments with price tags way higher than I was used to seeing at, say, the TJ Maxx in Birmingham that I spent my high school years shopping in. In my opinion, a Maxx’s proximity to high-end department stores in a large, fashion forward metropolitan area has an effect on the kind of stock the store will have, but you also have to take into account how busy that store will be. For example, the TJ Maxx in Manhattan was always a dud for me because all the super nice clothes that came through there got nabbed almost immediately by all the stylists, fashionistas and bargain-hunters that made it their job to find good deals before everyone else in the city nabbed them up. I am convinced those shoppers had people on the “inside” alerting them to when they got especially good shipments of clothing. Anyway, this Maxx in the ritzy suburb was a goldmine because it was close enough to the Bloomingdales/Nordstroms/Saks of LA, but far enough outside of the city to have not been scavenged yet.

a DVF original

Anyways, as I was saying, I found a bright orange, white and black floral printed DVF wrap dress on the rack, tried it on, and was very, very impressed. Every wrap dress I had ever owned, worn or looked at before suddenly vanished from my memory and all that was left was me and this gorgeous garment, which was miraculously impervious to any flaws created by the overhead fluorescent lights of the dressing room. I swear I felt a wind machine start to blow on me as I oohed and ahhed over myself in front of the mirror. The fit was spot on, and the design made all the right things happen exactly where they needed to- the hem ended at the perfect spot just above my knees, the waist was ever-so-slightly gathered in the back so that there were no puckers or folds in weird places, the skirt hugged my hips and then dropped straight down at my thighs giving my shape an hourglass frame without making it impossible to walk. The fabric was made of a 2-way stretch knit so it had give in some places but felt stable and secure everywhere else. It was comfortable, it was sexy without revealing too much of my skin, and the color and pattern was eye-catching without being too busy. I was in love! This DVF dress was much pricier than anything I had ever paid for at TJ Maxx before, but it seemed worth it. This was at a time when I was only dabbling in becoming a better sewist and I hadn’t yet committed myself to making all my clothes, so finding a RTW garment in a discount department store that looked this good was rare for me.

just posting these DVF wrap dress shots for comparison’s sake!

Three years later, this DVF wrap dress is one of maybe 5 RTW dresses that I still own, but it is hands down the one that gets the most wear. For three years it has been my go-to audition dress for any character with the words “sexy” or “sophisticated” in her breakdown description, and I have gotten at least one compliment every single time I have worn it.

another sidenote: I just realized I have never washed this dress in the three years I have owned it!?!?! Hahahahaha!! That probably seems ridiculous to some people but unless I have a visible stain/dirt on a garment or if I know I sweat a lot in it because I lost my mind on the dance floor at an event (which happens A LOT), I don’t launder the dressier items in my closet very frequently. I was always taught that this preserves the life of your clothing, and because the majority of wears for this dress have been for only a few hours at a time- the approximate length of an audition- I simply didn’t notice that it needed immediate cleaning. Of course, after this realization I ran to the closet to pull the dress out and examine the underarms and…ummmm…IT DEFINITELY NEEDED CLEANING! The pits were yellowed from sweat + deodorant and they also had the not-so-faint smell of old sweat combined with fermented grapefruit and cedar, which are the essential oils I like to use most in my homemade deodorants! LOL! Needless to say the dress went straight to the cleaners!)

 

ANYWAYS! I have thought many times of how awesome it would be to replicate this wrap dress in other colors and prints, but this dress’s design is a little more intricate than it appears to be at first glance. I’m sure that the DVF company has played around with the original concept over the past few decades to add a little more interest and nuance to the design, and the dress I own seems to be a more recent incarnation. It has a seam at the back waist which allows the skirt to be ever-so-slightly gathered to pull into the waist while also allowing room for a fuller bottom, and the outside front edge of the dress where the neckline binding meets the wrap tie is constructed in an interesting way- it’s gathered so that the edge of the skirt creates lovely draped lines that fall down across your hip. I’m not entirely sure why that design element was included, but I’m guessing it provides a little visual interest while also camouflaging any “problem” areas around the hips and thighs (that’s not my term- I’m just using it because I figure that’s what the fashion world would call an area of the body that they think many women wouldn’t want to draw attention to).

 

I can’t imagine replicating my DVF dress successfully without taking it apart (I’m sure a more skilled sewist could do it, but that sewist is not me), so for now it will stay in my closet, finally laundered (LOL) until I get sick of it or it doesn’t fit well anymore at which point I can take it apart and create a pattern from it. This of course got me thinking about how I should just look for a wrap dress pattern to replicate the general look, if not the exact DVF design. I know that DVF doesn’t license her patterns anymore so the only way to get your hands on one of her original Vogue designs is to stumble across a paper pattern at an estate sale or pay upwards of $100 for it on eBay. Since I have not had any luck on the former and I refuse to do the latter, I have been keeping my eyes peeled for something comparable by another designer. I tried the Very Easy Vogue wrap dress pattern and attempted to make a version of it for my mother before working on one for myself, but soon after I started constructing it I knew it wasn’t the dress for me- the design and fit were not what I was looking for, and I ultimately had to trash the whole project because my knit crepe fabric was too heavy for the (weirdly large) skirt portion of the dress and it was sagging and drooping in all the wrong places. Eventually I stumbled upon Pattern Review (I don’t use this site as a resource as much as I should!) and found some promising wrap dress designs by indie pattern makers. One was called The Onion dress and the other was by a company called Maria of Denmark. I had trouble finding out where to buy the first pattern online so I decided to get the Rachel Wrap Dress by MOD instead and keep my fingers crossed that it would be a winner.

Although the finished product is a much more simple design than that of my original DVF dress, I have to say that I love the Rachel Wrap just as much. It is an incredibly quick project to sew, despite the snafus I made in the construction of mine that I then had to spend a fair amount of time undoing. It isn’t fussy or overly detailed so the fit is smooth and classic, giving the exact silhouette you’re probably looking for if you’re in the market for a wrap dress. Now in most of the finished versions I saw online, sewists used a simple cotton jersey to make their wrap dress in, usually in a fun novelty print. These looked great, giving it a very easy and casual feeling, but I was way more interested in ramping my wrap dress up and using a more sophisticated fabric. Maybe it’s because I always wear my DVF wrap dress when I am dressing up for an event or an audition, but I much prefer a more styled, dolled-up version of this kind of design as opposed to a casual one. No matter if you prefer to dress your wrap up or down, I love that this pattern accommodates the whole spectrum- you really can’t go wrong!

 

So about my fabric- I have had this in my stash for probably 3 years. After moving to LA four years ago I became slightly obsessed with going to estate sales where sewists and crafters used to live. I would find the most amazing vintage notions, old quilting fabrics and random bundles of sewing goodies and I would be so excited to give them a new life in some way. Once my fabric stash got too big for comfort I stopped going to the sales, but I accumulated some pretty fantastic vintage pieces in my heydey, including this incredible silky 2 way stretch knit. I have no idea what it’s made of, all I know is that when I got it it smelled like a stinky vintage store but the color palette was gorgeous. I saved this fabric for a long time because even though I don’t think the print is dated, it reminded me of a 70’s disco babe, and I wanted to wait for a pattern that could really amp up that retro-feeling. Last week I was looking for some scrap fabric in my fabric bureau for a different project and this black and peach yardage practically jumped out at me. I had literally JUST purchased the Rachel Wrap dress the night before and I knew immediately that these two would be a marriage made in heaven.

As much as I love this fabric, I decided not to make a muslin before cutting into it, and thankfully the sewing goddesses were on my side. I cut a size ___ at the bust and a ____ at the waist and hips. The instructions for this pattern are just ok. I knew how to construct most of this garment except for the neck binding so I didn’t need to rely on them very much, but there are no line drawings to accompany the steps and the photos (and one illustration) that are used are pretty subpar. One of the images is downright confusing! I sat at my sewing table scratching my head for 5 minutes trying to decipher what these wavey lines and color codes meant and finally I just ignored it and tried to figure it out myself. You can complete this dress in a few hours but it took me a bit longer because I made one silly mistake from the very beginning. I decided to interface my neck binding to give it more structure and keep it from stretching out too much because I know that lots of complaints about wrap dresses revolve around the dress needing to fit better around neckline so that the wrap at the bust doesn’t sag out and expose people’s cleavage and bras.

I didn’t realize that the neck binding in this pattern is drafted to be stretched out along the neck of the dress considerably when you construct it- that elasticity is what gives the wrap it’s snugness at the bust and keeps all your goodies covered up and supported. Initially I just thought that the neck binding was cut way too short but then I realized it is actually supposed to stretch a lot. Thankfully I was able to remove my interfacing from the piece and get the band to fit the neckline, but now that the dress is completed I would definitely add a bit more length to the binding. The binding at the neck is stretched out so much that it creates little gathers along the neckline, and maybe if you have a really full bust or torso your body will fill up all that space so that the gathers are stretched out and the neckline looks smooth, but on me it just looks puckered and weird- that amount of stretch in the neckband is unnecessary on a smaller bust like mine. I carefully steamed and ironed out the fabric around the neckline which helped ease the gathers a lot. It’s not obvious enough for me to dislike the dress at all, but again, next time I make it I will try adding an inch of two of length to the neckline pattern piece so that it doesn’t need to be stretched out as much.

I had a bit of trouble getting the edges of the straps of the dress (where the binding intersects with the dress fronts) to lay smooth and flat. This is a bit difficult to describe without any photos, so I forgive me for that oversight! I am not sure what the culprit is, but I suspect that more detailed instructions for these steps would have been incredibly helpful. The issue resulted in the front edges of the dress, which get turned in towards the inside to create a hem, curving in a weird way and not laying flat. But when I tried to keep the fold on the edge straight, the section above it where the neck binding and strap met would not stay even and would morph into a very wonky shape. Again, explaining this doesn’t make much sense when you can’t see what I am talking about, so just know that I somehow managed to unpick my stitches and shift the pieces around so that they looked even and smooth. I’m not sure if this is a drafting issue or just a miscommunication in the instructions for this part of construction, so next time I make it I will pay close attention to how these steps are supposed to be worked (and what I did to fix them, if necessary).

demonstrating how much fabric is underneath the wrap of the dress – it’s plenty! so less chance of the wind blowing your skirt wide open!

After taking the photos for this dress, realized that I didn’t like the edges of the sleeves. Maybe because the fabric is relatively fancy or maybe because I prefer cuffs on sleeves in general, but the simple folded hems with twin needle stitching just didn’t do it for me. They looked too casual for a dress with this much oompf. So a couple of weeks after completing this garment I went back and took out the stitching at the sleeve hems. I cut out some cuffs whose final measurements would equal the width of the neckline band for visual consistency and then I serged them into the sleeve edges. The addition of the cuffs added a tiny bit more length to my sleeves (which I didn’t mind as they already ended a couple of inches beneath my elbow) and looked way more finished than they had previously. To finish the front edges and bottom hem of the dress, I folded in the allowance and used a twin needle to stitch everything down as I had initially done on the sleeve hems. It looks clean and pretty on the inside.

Despite my complaints about the sub par sewing instructions, I do think this is an easy pattern to make that comes together quickly and yields pretty dynamite results. You are required to draft a couple of pattern pieces (I think just for ties, whose length you can adjust depending on your preference- I made mine longer than suggested) and it’s important to note that you have to add seam allowances to certain parts of the dress and that not all of the seam allowances are the same, but those are listed pretty clearly in the instructions. One last thing is that this dress is the perfect length on me as drafted, and I usually have to shorten patterns considerably to keep them from being too long, so if you are one of those #blessed with long limbs, keep that in mind if you don’t want this to end up being too short on you.

Big thumbs up to this pattern- I hope some of you who have been keeping your eyes out for a classic but simple wrap dress give this one a shot!