Vintage Fabric Prints
Nov 6, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Our eyes are made to respond to color and with apps such as Instagram, our world is now dripping with vivid imagery. Filters allow us to enhance aspects of the visual experience and celebrate a range of styles. This desire to tell stories through color and pattern is nothing new. Even in the most challenging of times, humanity reaches for vibrant forms of expression. Fashion is one such form of expression and we’ve seen this phenomenon beautifully demonstrated with feedsack fabric. Today I’d like to explore more vintage fabric prints and let’s start our journey with the playful polka dot. Most credit a 1857 reference in the Godey’s Lady Book as the first official mention of this pattern. (Funnily enough in prior generations dots had a disparate reputation – they were either a reminder of disease or a symbol of masculinity. You can read more about it here.) But following the shout-out in Godey’s, things developed in a new, decidedly feminine direction. The 1920s were a particularly popular time for the plucky dot, with both Miss America & Minnie Mouse choosing to rock the print. For as grand as these endorsements were, all of this popularity was overshadowed 20 years later when blue eyes himself dedicated a ballad to the cheerful dot. Sinatra’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” became an instant classic and suddenly even the haute couture crowd was taking the dot seriously. Mid-century Parisian fashion houses debuted polka dot creations and the dot took on a new role, becoming a signal for better times ahead. Perhaps because of this hopeful message, this versatile and simple print continues to inspire us. For the vintage enthusiast, it’s a treat being able to combine eras with a singular print. You can wear a 1950s frock, pair it with a 1930s scarf and still match! Let’s explore the golden age of the polka dot and see what other prints were popular…
If we were to have afternoon tea with a flapper gal, we’d most likely be greeted by a floral pattern or simple gingham. Even though the Art Deco period was all about geometry and streamlined, linear expression – fashion’s mirror on this world is reflected more in the silhouettes than the prints themselves. You’ll see that in the striking examples below and note how the structure of the frocks compliment the architectural & industrial design of that time.
If we fast-forward to the 1940s we see similar pattern stories, but there are some subtle changes as designers began to play more with abstract shapes. These were patterns that hinted at nature through their general form, but may not be based on one particular real-life flora or fauna. Naturally, stripes took on a new significance during this time and we see patterns gracing a relatively new shape for women: pants!
The decade following the war ushered in a new era of whimsy. Suddenly the pattern landscape opened up – polka dots mingled with stripe variations, abstract prints and daring new colors proudly adorned gowns. Even simple touches like a statement stitch or applique burst onto the scene. The 1950s set the stage for the funky 60s, the bohemian 70s and the flashy 80s. Tell me, dear reader, as you select your attire – which stories do you wish to tell? The gallery of vintage fabric prints gives us license to share a new tale with each sunrise (or sunset)…
The Roaring 20s
The Fantastic 40s