From Marilyn Monroe’s billowy white halter in The Seven Year Itch to Audrey Hepburn’s effortlessly chic black number in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the silver screen’s stunning dresses have always left stylish women enchanted. But no matter how many trips they’ve taken to the mall or even to designer boutiques, it’s still always been nearly impossible to find those dream dresses. But now, with Sew Iconic (Liz Gregory, Thunder Bay Press, £11.09 on Amazon) they can finally have the show-stopping outfits they’ve always wanted! Charlotte Dymock reviews.

When I heard about this book I was immediately intrigued – I’m already developing something of a habit of sewing dresses inspired by my favourite movie dresses, so the whole concept appealed to me right away. Sew Iconic profiles ten movie costumes, each epitomising an era, with patterns and instructions to recreate them.

What I really really like about this book is the selection of dresses featured, which have been carefully chosen from the pool of hundreds of amazing movie outfits. Every decade of the 20th century – from the 1910s to the 1990s – is represented, from a good mix of contemporary and modern films. The dresses also cover a full range of difficulty levels, and incorporate a variety of techniques. The book also (thankfully) avoids fancy dress caricature – all the dresses are wearable in a modern context, though there is a definite bias toward eveningwear, with only a couple appropriate for day.

The dresses featured are, in order of difficulty:

Julia Roberts’ brown polka dot tea dress from Pretty Woman (1990)
Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Jennifer Grey’s pink mambo dress from Dirty Dancing (1987 does 1963)
Marilyn Monroe’s white halter dress from The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Kiera Knightley’s green gown from Atonement (2007 does 1930s)
Catherine Zeta Jones’ black showgirl dress from Chicago (2003 does 1920s Vaudeville)
Grace Kelly’s blue chiffon gown from To Catch A Thief (1955)
Rita Hayworth’s black strapless gown from Gilda (1946)
Fay Dunaway’s coat dress from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Kate Winslet’s dinner dress from Titanic (1997 does 1912)

Although there is an introductory chapter covering sewing basics this isn’t really a book for the novice seamstress. The patterns are provided in one size only, with detailed instructions on how to re-size them – but with no indication of what the base size actually is. It is therefore left to the user to measure the pattern pieces, compare them with their own measurements, and determine the correct amount of “ease” (breathing room or blousiness). This is a shame since, despite efforts to make it accessible to beginners, this oversight puts the book firmly in the intermediate to advanced category.

I love that each chapter includes background to the featured dress, with a brief biography of the actress who wore it, a summary of the movie, and information about both the designer and the dress itself. There are notes on choosing the right fabric for each dress, details of exactly how much fabric and any notions required, and step by step instructions for the construction. The instructions do not have accompanying pictoral diagrams, which again may make them harder for a beginner to follow, but there are video tutorials for some techniques online. Each chapter concludes with notes on “how to work it” – ideas for styling and accessorising, suggestions of variations, and tips on how to recreate the full period look.

One other thing I noted as I looked through is that while some of the designs aim to be faithful reproductions of the original garments (Marilyn’s Seven Year Itch dress even includes – somewhat brief – instructions on how to do the sunray pleats), some are approximations, and still others are complete reinterpretations, (notably Grace Kelly’s gown, which from a heavily structured, boned bodice overlaid with ruched chiffon is recast as a completely unstructured, softly draped Grecian gown).

That said, this is a lovely book of dresses “inspired by” some of the most infamous silver screen dresses ever. I think the book makes a great inspirational volume for any sewist’s library – the patterns are a good basis for a through-the-decades sewing wardrobe, and the well-researched background information on the dresses and their designers is really interesting. If there’s a follow-up book I’ll probably go for it – I’m already wondering which other iconic dresses might feature if there should be one.

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