Image: Illustration from McCall Fashion Book, 1933
In our current issue – Issue 95: Heritage – Sarah Sheehan celebrates the 150th anniversary of the McCall Pattern Company by looking at the heyday of couture sewing patterns. Sheehan is founder of the PatternVault blog, which documents and celebrates the rich history of home sewing, with a focus on the intersections between high fashion and the commercial pattern industry. Here's a taster.
In the 1920s and 1930s, decades before Vogue launched its famous Paris Originals, McCall’s sold patterns from the Paris couture houses. Over the course of fifteen years, the company produced hundreds of couturier designs, from what can seem like the entire Chambre Syndicale. Prior to World War Two, McCall’s roster of couturiers included the famous rivals Chanel and Patou; the storied House of Worth; Lanvin, Nina Ricci, and Rochas, maisons that endure to this day; Lucile, who survived the sinking of the Titanic; Chéruit, immortalised in Proust; Wallis Simpson’s favourite, Mainbocher; and the singular talents Vionnet, Alix (the future Madame Grès), and the inimitable Schiaparelli.
Betty Williams, the late costume designer who founded the Commercial Pattern Archive, was one of the few authorities on McCall’s couture patterns. For her 1995 article, ‘1920s Couture Patterns and the Home Sewer,’ she inquired with the house of Patou about a McCall’s design in her collection. Although staff found no record of early business dealings with the company, they agreed her Patou was authentic. In more recent memory, during the postwar Golden Age of Couture, McCall’s and Vogue inked licensing deals with the great French fashion houses. (Think Dior and Givenchy.) But in the days before licensing, the flourishing couture copying industry worked directly from originals imported from Paris. As Caroline Evans has argued, the seasonal shows were staged less for individual couture clients than for trade buyers, such as McCall’s, engaged in the copying business. Unfortunately for today’s collectors, identifying early couture patterns takes some detective work.
Image: Robe de Style, House of Lanvin fall/winter 1924–25, Met Museum, Gift of Mrs. Loretta Hines Howard, 1980. By 1925 this design was available as a commercial sewing pattern from McCall's.
Read the full article in Selvedge Issue 95: Heritage.