Sunday, April 3, 2011

Under Tuscan Sun: Sewing Retro Style Dresses


"Under Tuscan Sun" from 2003 remains a popular chick flick, in part due to the vintage styles worn by the lead characters, designed by veteran costume designer Nicoletta Ercole. The 'white dress' that the lead character Frances (Diane Lane) wears created quite a scene when the movie was shown. It was a mini trend at the time. Women everywhere wanted to find that white dress.

Dresses featured in this film seem timeless: fitted bodice with longer tea length hemlines. This look couldn't be more current, as tea length styles are once again in fashion. I thought it might be fun to take a second glance at these costumes.

Three years have passed since I wrote this blog post. At the time, little did I know that it would become one of the most popular posts ever for this blog. Out of respect for those of you that come here looking for these wonderful dresses, I thought it would be a good time to update the sewing patterns that I listed here. I'll share some new patterns with you at the end of the original post.


The white dress seen in a back view shows clearly the silhouette of this outfit. Below the neatly fitting surplice wrapped bodice, a semi-circle skirt is cut to a vintage 1950's 'ballet' or 'tea length' hem line.

The bodice fit is accented by a black belt which is the perfect way to note a slim waistline. I show a close-up view of the wrapped bodice, which crosses over to the front darts. The facing is wide, completely covering the bodice center front. It's my guess that the inside fastens on the front left at the dart to keep this from draping open, as surplice tops often do.

The sleeve is cut in a short kimono style to make this crepe dress look like it has short sleeves, but without a shoulder seam line. This gives it that late 1940's style.

It is important to notice that this is a mock wrapped dress because the skirt is not wrapped, having a half circle skirt instead. To get that look this dress should have a side zipper.

What makes this dress such a success is the fabric selection. I believe this is a quality crepe. During the late 1940's we see many similar dresses in this textile. At that time rayon, silk and wool were used to drape soft fold and body contoured silhouettes. Crepe would provide the necessary weight and hand to drape the front wrap, soft shoulder and graceful circle skirt. The bodice appears unlined, except for the facing.


A wedding scene has Frances appearing in yet another captivating dress. This one is probably Thai silk in luminescent peach. It has a great circle skirt, looking similar to that on the white dress.

The bodice of this dress is a classic cut: front and side darts create a smooth fit. This crisp fabric requires a set in sleeve, seen here with small cuffs. A narrow shawl collar and covered buttons on the front add soft, but not contrasting details. The one color accent is her wide belt. The skirt on this dress does not continue the center front buttons of the bodice. This would require a side zipper.


Katherine, played by Lindsay Duncan is an fanciful character whose references to Fellini are underscored by her wardrobe. Some of these gowns appear to be true vintage, others are close copies. This red dress coat dress and hat serve to give this character the eccentric drama she requires. Wide lapel details enhance the monochromatic theme of her red on red outfit.


In a Fellini moment, we see Katherine in the village fountain, wearing a dress very similar to Fellini's famous fountain scene. It is a slender strapless black sheath with a sheer overskirt lined in gray chiffon. Another black dinner dress with a lace overlay or yoke may be vintage, its delicate details certainly are classic for that era.

Now, where to find or re-create these styles? I have found a few sewing patterns that could be altered to reproduce the same look. Actually, the dress styles here are not difficult to sew. The challenge is in the fit instead, so find a willing assistant to pin your fit may be required.


What both of Frances's dresses have in common is a circle or semi-circle skirt sewn at the waistline to a fitted bodice. In both cases that makes the front closures decorative, because the real dress opening will be a side zipper.

These two wrap front sewing patterns have the essential bodice details of the white dress. The green style by Butterick 5030 is closest in cut (minus the collar and ruffled sleeves). The Butterick pattern has front bust darts and will fit a curvy body shape while the Vogue 6846 style is without darts, for a more slender figure. With both bodices, altering the pattern by drafting a wider shoulder cut from the bodice will create the type of sleeve seen on the white dress.

Because this should be a mock wrap dress, a circle skirt should be sewn to the bodice instead of wrapping the front skirt. This skirt was probably cut in a 1/2 circle.

When adding a circle skirt, completely fit the bodice first to get the waist measurement and skirt length. The skirt will be drafted from those measurements.


The slender shirtwaist dress by McCalls 4769 has the classic darts to make a fitted torso, as well as set in sleeves. The collar is a traditional notch style. It has a placket front that may be eliminated by taping those center front pattern pieces together on the seamline and cutting as one.

The real style challenge is to capture the shirt silhouette. In the movie versions, both were full or semi-circle skirts that were sewn to the fitted bodices, requiring a side seam zipper. While a circle skirt pattern can be found for sale, it is not impossible to cut an original version to fit the bodice.

When preparing to draft a circle skirt, the directions ask for a waist measurement. Use the bodice waistline measurement from a fitted garment. Be sure to draft a skirt with side seams. When doing this, I use an open floor space, chalk, yardsticks and even string to create the true arc.

Hemming circle skirts is most easily done with a very narrow double fold that is hand sewn or machine stitched. When using softer fabrics like crepe, before hemming the finished dress will need to hang for a week or so to let the hem 'hang out'. After that, have the length measured while wearing the dress. This will even out what is probably an uneven skirt length.

If you want more information on drafting circle skirts, the images I show here for the skirt draft are explained in full on the blog: Making Things by Andrea Tung.



This concludes the original post. The sewing patterns shown above, Butterick 5030 and Vogue 8646 are still being sold. McCall's 4769 is now out of print, but seems to be available on the McCall's website, and other stores online.

To add to the wrap dress collection above, I found several more patterns from Vogue 8896, 8784 and 8379. When looking to match a pattern with your fabric, take care to see if the pattern is designed for a woven or stretch textile, as both are available.



The simple, slim cut shirt dress pattern was more difficult to locate. McCall's has two dresses that might fit the bill: 6891 and 6696. McCall's 6891 comes the closest to the original dress design.



Simplicity 1880 has both dress styles in one pattern. While the shoulders have a slight 40's vibe with a wide shoulder yoke, overall either might sew up into the right look. A good belt would define the waistline too.



I want to thank everyone who has contacted me or left comments over the past few years. It has been alot of fun seeing how this post really fills a need that women who sew have. Beautiful dresses that fit well. That isn't too much to ask, is it?

6 comments:

SillyHeart said...

That red outfit is pretty awesome but it makes me think of this: http://media.cleveland.com/ent_impact_home/photo/patrick-swayzejpg-71b9356e6ae76114_medium.jpg

Jen O said...

That's a hilarious red dress Patrick Swayze is wearing!

Ana said...

Oh, thanks so much for posting this. I loved Under The Tuscan Sun, such a fun film. I have been hunting all over for a vintage shirtdress pattern and its so hard to find the right size, the modern pattern would be a perfect place to start for a novice seamstress like myself so thank you , thank you, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this site. Have looked everywhere for the white dress. Please designers take note...we are sick of paisley, jersey anything. These dresses are great.

Anonymous said...

what a wonderful site! i have been altering my patterns to make ME look good for years. I just about fell off my chair when i typed in 'white dress Diane Lane wore in Tuscan Sun" and your wonderful site popped up! Yay for we creative types with a real woman's figure that never say die!!!

Lolita Girl Clothing said...

I'm loving all this vintage style dresses ! I wish they made swimsuits now that looked like that It's been so hot here this weekend, I just want to lounge on the beach with a book too

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