Those beautiful gowns that everyone thinks of when you say “Hollywood Glamour”? Or if you’ve heard of the fashion designer Madeline Vionnet? Or maybe you sew, and you’ve heard it should be your biggest fear?
They all have something marvelous in common; bias cut fabric.
So what does that mean? And why might it be scary? Bias cut means that your fabric is cut on the diagonal compared to the woven edges of the fabric. The “true bias” is at a 45 degree angle from the warp and weft of the fabric, but anything cut on the diagonal is considered bias.
In the 1920s, Madeline Vionnet began cutting her dresses on the bias. Bias cut fabrics had been used previously, but Mme. Vionnet took bias to a whole new level. Her graceful and elegant designs became the iconic look of the 1930s, particularly for evening wear.
Cutting the fabric on the bias created a softly draping silhouette that stretched and moved with the wearer, providing comfort and ease of wear that had been unheard of prior to Mme. Vionnet’s designs. The dresses were unlined so as to prevent unsightly bunching or seamlines, and rumor has it that some actresses of the era got into trouble because the dresses could be scandalously see-through.
If you’ve ever worn a close fitting knit or bias-cut garment with underwear, you know that the seams for your undies, as well as the elastic and any wrinkles will show right through slinky, clingy garments. One would think that such garments would also show every tiny flaw of your body, but in my experience, that’s not even a little bit true.
Mme. Vionnet’s dresses were often cut from beautiful silk crepe, georgette and charmeuse. Rayon was also used. These fabrics were very popular for bias cuts because they drape so beautifully, but that same property is what makes them so terrifying to work with. If you want to strike fear into the heart of your sewist friends, ask them to sew with bias cut silk. It’s slinky, slippery, stretchy, and likely to fray. It’s tricky, to say the least.
But it doesn’t have to be! Mme. Vionnet kept her garment seams on-grain as much as possible, leading to so beautiful, graceful diagonal lines and chevrons in the seaming. If your seam isn’t on-grain, then marking your pattern piece with chalk and sewing your stay-stitching BEFORE you cut will prevent warping, and cutting with pinking shears or a pinking blade on your rotary cutter(my preferred method) will control fraying and provide a period correct seam finish in one fell swoop. Stay stitching, hand basting, and judicious pinning (be sure to remove your pins before you sew over them, getting one caught under your needle will cause disastrous runs in your fabric!) will help control unruly fabric.
Fitting your bias garment is also a snap, because bias stretches, providing a very forgiving and comfortable fit. Fabrics with beautiful drape will fall close to the body and skim curves, creating that stunning Hollywood look.
If you’re worried about slinky, shiny fabrics like charmeuse drawing attention to aspects that you maybe would prefer not to draw attention to, bias gowns out of silk georgette are less sheer than crepe, and have an elegant matte finish. Georgette also practically refuses to wrinkle, so garments of it are excellent for travel.
I have now made three dresses out of bias cut silk, one out of georgette, one out of stretch silk charmeuse, and one out of regular silk charmeuse. Each one had it’s own trials, and I learned valuable lessons from each. I also learned that I completely adore wearing bias silk, anywhere and everywhere that I can get away with. The first gown is floor length, and a beautiful stormy gray, and now that I’ve worn it to its intended event, I have been wearing it most evenings as lounge wear because it’s just so luxurious and comfortable. The stretch silk slip gets worn similarly. The third dress will probably join the rotation once the holiday party season is over.
Seriously. Get ye a pattern for a bias cut dress. Either draft it yourself, or go find a simple slip pattern somewhere. It’s scary, and it can be challenging, but it is SO utterly worth it once you learn to sew on the bias. The result is a beautiful, comfortable and classy garment that you’ll love for years.