On padding and a new suit

I’ve been thinking about Schiaparelli jackets because I’ve been working on a new suit, heavily inspired by those elegant late 1930’s Schiaparelli jackets with interesting buttons. My old favourite jacket, a taupe wool blend twill affair with oak leaf leather appliqués, made about four years ago, has been getting an awful lot of use, needs a new lining and is beginning to look and feel rather well-loved by now. It’s not anywhere near worn out, but I wanted a new one, in a rougher, tweedier fabric with less showy details.

The main inspiration was that red and black plaid Schiaparelli jacket below and a set of beautiful, hand-carved and very expensive vintage wood buttons that I lusted over on Etsy for over a year before I gave in and bought them. I found the fabric, a 50’s or 60’s plaid wool in dark brown, tan and olive, at a fleamarket in late summer. There was only 2,25 m of it, on full width, but I’m pretty good at squeezing a lot of garment out of very little fabric, so that wasn’t really a problem.

The pattern is an adaption of my ordinary jacket sloper, used and re-used a number of times already, so I didn’t need to do a lot of fit adjustments. I did experiment with the padding and shaping around the bust, shoulder and armscye, though, as I’ve always had trouble getting the area between bust and shoulder to lie completely smooth – I have a large bust, there’s always a sort of hollow between the bust and the shoulder, and while you need the width there for ease of movement, I tend to get vertical folds there that are tricky to deal with. If the bodice has princess seams running up to the shoulder seam, you can take out some of the excess width in them, producing an inward curve between bust and shoulder; but I’m reluctant to take out too much there, in part for ease of movement, and in part because I feel like it emphasises the bust in a way that I don’t like. I don’t want my bust to look even more prominent than usual in tailored jackets. If possible, I want to make it recede. How do you accomplish that? By padding the hollow, creating more of a smooth line from bust point to shoulder point, raising the surface between them and visually making the bust sort of recede in comparison.

There’s a fantastic post on Witness 2 Fashion with photos of a mid-19th century dress, both inside and out, and that dress is rather heavily padded in that area between bust, shoulder and armscye. That was a real eye-opener to me. The fashion of the 1840’s and 1850’s involved a very specific bottleneck silhouette with sleeves set very low on the shoulders and a wide bust, contrasting with a visually narrow waist. Most bodies don’t really look like that, and as usual it was accomplished partly by clever cut, partly by corsets and partly by strategic padding. The padding part is the aspect we tend to miss today. We rarely get to see the inside of old garments, the padding may have been lost in many cases and it’s rarely pointed out in books, museum exhibitions and the like.

Padding is perhaps a bit of a dirty secret, too. Pointing it out may feel like pointing out all the ways your body fails to live up too – fails to fill out, literally – the current beauty standard. Today many people also see thin as the end game, and when the goal is being as thin as possible it’s easy to see any added bulk as a drawback. But padding is effective, not just to give the impression of a larger bust, wider hips or stronger shoulders, for instance, but also to fill out hollows, create smoother lines, fill out individual quirks like a twisted back or uneven shoulders and, not least, make another physical feature appear smaller by contrast. This is very effective when it comes to small waists, for instance; Cathy Hay has written another excellent article, The Edwardian Silhouette Emerges, that illustrates the point and talks about how padding was likely used to emphasise corseted waists that may not have been nearly as tightly laced as they look.

So I’ve been experimenting with padding the area between the bust and the shoulder in this jacket, more than in my previous garments, and although I still chickened out a bit and made the padding fairly modest – padding anywhere near my bust feels counter-intuitive and scary to me – it’s the most I’ve put in a garment so far, and I like it. It works. Placement is tricky, but it really does what it’s supposed to do.

Otherwise it’s a fairly straightforward tailored suit. The jacket bodice is fully interfaced with wool/hair canvas, the sleeves with a lighter canvas because I can’t leave well alone, it’s hand-finished to a great extent and I tried out a new technique for draping the collar out of Edward Watkins’ excellent The Secret of Successful Tailoring from 1910, which turned out a great collar and will likely replace my drafted collars from now on. It has patch pockets and bound buttonholes, the skirt is very plain, with one buttoned double-welt pocket. I’m pleased with it, I think. I have to wear it for a bit before I can tell.





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