It all started at Musee Galliera. Visiting their inspiring Anatomy of a Collection show, I was stopped in my tracks by a Patou coat dress. It stood in a corner alongside a more flamboyant, intricately draped Caillot Soeurs gown but it was the Patou I could not get out of my head. Jean Patou was the couturier who led Paris fashion into the 1930s with a more feminine silhouette after the androgynous flapper designs of the 1920s. The piece that had caught my eye was a sleek black velvet wrap design, its front draped in a waterfall effect and with dramatically exaggerated cuffs, it hinted at gentle curves and drew the eye to flatter slim wrists and legs. Back in London and still haunted by it, I made a second visit to see it in Paris and this time I made a sketch. I started to wonder: could I make one like it?
My friend, Tina, a professional seamstress and milliner, was the voice of reason. I needed a pattern. After some hunting I managed to find a vintage pattern for a nurse’s overall, almost contemporary with the Patou itself. Though it had none of the design flourishes of the Galliera’s piece, it offered a basic template for a wrap-over coat dress that I could adapt.
Velvet seemed too precious for a prototype so I decided to use a bolt of black and white printed viscose that I thought would drape well. This turned out to be right, however, I had overlooked how difficult these slippery, silky fabrics can be to work with.
It has been a long time since I made something from a pattern and I’d forgotten how long it can take to lay out the fabric, position and pin the pattern and then cut out the pieces. Even more difficult was taking those 2D pieces and ‘thinking’ them into 3D. The vintage pattern came with minimal instructions and I didn’t have a dress-makers’ dummy so I had to visualise the garment, mentally building in the extra design features – waterfall drape and extra-large cuffs – not in the pattern.
In the end it took two days to put the garment together and then a little longer to complete the finishing by hand. The cuffs alone took two hours to construct and attach.
So I have fulfilled my dream of re-creating the Patou. It was enormous fun and very rewarding but much harder mental work than I had expected. I also have even greater respect than I had already for the couture artisans who produced the original. As a garment, my version is a bit of an oddity. I made mistakes, so some parts are slightly defective. Other parts – the hand-rolled hems and ribbon overlocking – are hand-crafted labours of love that give it a couture sensibility, even if the execution falls short of those exacting standards. My final job was to go over some of my handstitching with a sharpie marker, colouring in the white thread where it went through the black spots on the fabric. I’m sure they don’t do this in the ateliers of Paris.
I have an event in mind for it already: a ‘Jazz Age’ evening for which it will be the perfect topper for another recent creation – my own homage to a Fortuny Delphos dress (an adapted velvet scarf). I’ll feel proud wearing my own creations, as I already feel proud going out in the hats I’ve made, knowing the challenges they presented. I particularly love my Patou homage though. Perhaps, it calls for another pilgrimage to original to compare and contrast. I have until 23 October when this beautiful exhibition at the Musee Galliera closes. If you will be in Paris before then, don’t miss this really thought-provoking show – you might even be provoked into some (highly-rewarding) action too.