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Book Reviews > Dress Selection and Design, Hillhouse

Reviewed by: RedEye66
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About RedEye66
VA United States
Member since: 7/9/11
Reviews written: 2
Sewing skills:Intermediate
books reviewed: 1
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Posted on: 7/24/14 4:29 AM
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Recommended? Yes
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Review Rating: Very Helpful by 11 people   
Filed Under: design  dressmaking  wardrobe building  

I must first apologize for the $200 pricetag you may be seeing online for this 216 page hardback by Marion S. Hillhouse, published in 1963 by Macmillan and features a wealth of black and white illustrations. I found a copy for under $60 and regard that as a good buy, and I hope you are fortunate enough to happen upon it locally for much less. I also have its more frequently seen companion book--Dress Design: Draping and Flat Pattern Making--and while I cherish it, I use other draping books more often. Dress Selection and Design is my wardrobe compass. Chapters include:Underneath It All, Silhouette, Structure Makes the Shape, Design Your Own Clothes, Individuality in Dress, Face-Framing Details, Pattern, Costume Textures, Introduction to Color, Color Harmony, Choosing Becoming Colors, More Style Than Money, and the Index.

My figure is not the long-waisted torso that ready-to-wear and commercial patterns expect me to possess--those bust points hit my waistline, the waistline rides my hips, and the hip line has no curve at the back, and puckering at the side seams for saddlebags which I do not have at mid-thigh, and I am long-limbed--especially for my slightly less than medium height. Decades of buying off-the-rack had given me a closet of byzantine combinations of separates and scads of one-specific-use-only outfits that yielded limited choices of what to wear at any given time or occasion. In frustration I turned to making my own garments. I bought fabric because it was pretty in its unsewn state. I picked patterns because I'd always wanted a garment like that and hoped it would work for me as well as it did for the image on the envelope. In too deep, I then realized that my figure also adds up to making a whole lot of alterations to get a pattern to fit yet still look dowdy on me.

I knew that a good fit is one that flatters, and crafting that is an art. I was overwhelmed by making so many choices while not having the knowledge to make decisions that provide delightful results. I found Dress Selection and Design and it immediately became a very useful must have. Instead of being a book that is locked into making choices based on the vagaries of the fashion of the day, it develops the eye to see how the visual geometry of proportion works in form and line, and how to manipulate them to create desired effects.

Hillhouse's work was written and illustrated in the age of smooth graceful lines and every curve in its proper foundation-garmented place. Structural characteristics that are outside of what one can reasonably expect a foundation garment to accomplish are ruthlessly described as flaws. It is tough love--a discipline that clearly presents the consequences of design choices on various silhouettes--young willows, chub debs, misses and matrons of varied proportions. Taken to heart--you will not only know precisely why you will not look That Way in That Dress, but you will also precisely know which design elements, decorations, prints, solids, textures, colors and where to place them that best flatter the perfection of you as you actually are. You are not just a body in a dress. You are a sculptured painting and as an artisan sewist you are herein given the skills and wisdom to direct any viewer's eye to your best advantage. Dress Selection and Design teaches you to see and how to make choices that benefit your visual appeal. Given the rules, you can flaunt them purposefully.

It amazes me that a book written over 50 years ago has such strong relevance today. For my body type--the positive answer is the unifying, uninterrupted line of a sheath dress. The difference between the sheath dress now and fifty years ago is not in the basic dress itself; it is in the style and placement of the details--hem length, neckline, and embellishments. Though fashion may dictate whether or not and where to put those details--the quality of effect that specific details have on my figure has not changed.

Dress Design and Selection is not only about The Dress--it is also about The Jacket worn with it. With the guidance on using horizontals and accent placement, I now know why it is best for me to avoid hip length jackets--they make my bust and waist a non-descript box of clutter, and the strong horizontal cuts my figure in half as it drags the visual focus to the hem of the jacket with nowhere else to go except away. The hemline of a well-crafted bolero provides an underbust area that elongates and slims my visual waist and details are chosen to bring the gaze back up to my face. The advice on placement and use of curved stitching lines, color blocking and drape direction is very valuable. This book makes accessible those refined notes of elegance from Tippi Hedren in The Birds to Robin Wright in House of Cards and provides an aria of evening wear too.

Although there are aspects of what Dress Design and Selection says about the coloring of women and what colors should be worn that are dated, this book has greatly assisted in moving my fabric purchases from haphazard to deliberate. Now, when a gorgeous, large-scale, bold print captures my fancy--I know what weight to buy the fabric in and which garments to make with it so that I am enhanced and not overwhelmed by its drama--and when to let an over-the-top display fly unfettered and free. When I look at my fabric stash I can see coordinated main color chords and patterned accent notes. I know what to destash and why, how to use what I have much more effectively, and make new purchases that improve my wardrobe as a whole.

Instead of thinking I need to be a couture sewist at some distant date in an imaginary future, Dress Design and Selection has allowed me to find a resolution for my fitting issues that gives me the comfortable and appealing clothing I've always wanted--right now. I'm out of the zone of doing mountains of alterations on miles of tissue patterns, and also have me the route to improving my sewing techniques as I have fun joyfully playing with fabrics.

The answer is the dress-jacket-thing. I know that a sheath dress and which lengths work best for me-- and that's a lot of alterations in woven fabric to get it just right and a rigorous diet and exercise regime to keep it that way. I chose an easy camisole tank top pattern for a knit fabric (the out of print Butterick 5226, View D) and I bought 10 yards of a medium-weight cotton double knit in a wine color that coordinates with a lot of fabrics in my stash. I traced the pattern to oaktag and quickly sewed it up with my serger. Yep--it needed an alteration--two inches out of the center of the back panel. I traced the oaktag, added the alteration, drew a skirt on it and now have a tried-n-true sheath dress with lettuced-edged hem. It also works quite nicely in panne velvet with a beautifully invisible blind hem at the bottom. I can make it in any length I desire, with a straight or asymmetrical hemline, and I can move the slit(s) around at will. I've got wearable dresses that fit. I bought 30 yards of butter yellow cotton oxford cloth for a dollar a yard. I can now futz around with draping it on my dressform, changing seams and darts, adjusting fit, adding sleeves, playing with zippers, eyelets, bindings, linings--with no stress at all--because I already have my "perfect" sheath dress. I was looking for an knit tunic with the right proportions for something Downton Abbey-esque and landed on Vogue 1261, View C. On the first pass I omitted the center seams and whipped it up on my serger in the wine-coloured cotton double knit. And there it was--my first and very easy au courant "suit" of my dreams. On the second pass I adjusted the neckline, pulled in the waist using the Bishop Method, shortened the sleeves, added a flounce to the cuffs, and it looks fantastic in various diaphanous sheers. And it brings some underused closet items to life and allows me to do some long overdue discarding. Put the front seam back in, open it up and its a jacket. Play with fabric choices, add pockets, redraw the front panels for a surplice, double-breasted front...sewing bliss! And in the background I've got an adorable 1960s bolero pattern to play with.

Dress Selection and Design is one of my most favorite references. I got a whole new wardrobe I love from this understanding this book, beautifying my Frankenstein's monster closet, and busting through my fabric stash by using two patterns. It more than makes up for all those years I spent in Catholic school uniforms not learning what to wear.

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BabsyBlue said...
Thank you so much for this review. I am going through some of the challenges that you mentioned, (with other proportional concerns). But drwn to fabrics that sit in my stash that I love on the bolt but when I get them home, I am left befuddled- what am I going to do with this that will look fashionable, not weird? I will be on the look out for this book!
10/19/14 10:43 AM
RedEye66 said...
@style inspired--Thank you! It is serving me well--even for the most basic style decisions. For my conversion of the tank top pattern to a tried-and-true fitted knit dress, the book's advice for my figure--hem length and lack of skirt flare--was right on target. I was very pleasantly surprised to see the grand visual impact that resulted from slightly tapering the skirt inwards. I had to redraw the side seams from the waist down several times to get the fit just right, but it was well worth it because it took the dress block out of diy-fitting and into well-dressed, custom-made. I sew this dress often and each time improve on garment construction techniques--seaming, hemming and binding--and playing with fabric choices-cotton lycra, velour, panne velvet--or recrafting dresses that have been abandoned in my closet (or are dirt cheap, oversized thrift store garments of fabulous fabric in excellent condition) into favored wearables. At worse case, I have a fitted slip for wearing under cold-weather dresses. But so far the results are: another dress I love and the fit always flatters on its own and thus improves the overall look of whatever I choose to wear it with. Next, I'm tinkering with set-in sleeves. As I have a very easy dress pattern to work with, it is extremely comforting to know that for however wonky the armscyes may turn out--the body of the dress fits very well.
10/6/14 2:23 PM
style inspired said...
Lucky you to have found this book. It seems like a fantastic useful reference for design.
10/5/14 9:34 AM
ASiverson said...
On your wonderful review, I am going to look into getting a copy from Amazon. TFS!
7/25/14 12:27 PM
VivianZ said...
Thanks for a good and thorough book review. Lucky you to get it at that price. I will be on the lookout for it.
7/25/14 7:20 AM
VivianZ said...
Thanks for a good and thorough book review. Lucky you to get it at that price. I will be on the lookout for it.
7/25/14 7:20 AM
SusanInBoston said...
The focus is history. It is a good read. It's been reviewed here in the last few weeks, so you might get a better idea of the content.
7/24/14 4:41 PM
RedEye66 said...
@minggiddylooloo: Thank you for the compliment!

@SusaninBoston: Linda Przybyszewski's book looks like a good read. Is the focus history or garment construction? How are you enjoying it? Thanks for sending the info my way.

@caroljeancarmichael: Dress Design and Selection has very little to say about pants--however the advice provided will give you the ability to assess and decide whether your choice of tight or loose pants, capri leggings, short culotttes, or long sweeping bell bottoms favor your proportions in a flattering way.
7/24/14 2:42 PM
caroljeancarmichael said...
Thank you so much for bringing this book to the group's attention. Although we did not wear uniforms in public school, the dress code was so restricted that we did not learn what was flattering to us. Does the book include pants, or is it strictly dresses?
7/24/14 1:35 PM
SusanInBoston said...
I haven't read this book, but I'm in the middle of "The Lost Art of Dress," this sounds like one of the last publications of the Dress Doctors.
7/24/14 11:25 AM
minggiddylooloo said...
Thank you for such a thorough and extremely well-written review. I have the Dress Design book and have now added this one to my shopping list.
7/24/14 10:16 AM

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