Coffin clothes

I think everybody’s figured out what I mean by the term coffin clothes but I’ll define it anyway. It’s an outfit that only has design details on the front, as though nobody would ever see you from behind. If you’re laying in a coffin, that’d certainly be true. Here’s a sample of a vintage home sewing pattern:

Notice the back, it’s plain, there’s no carrying forward of the details shown on the front of the dress. This could be the back to any number of dresses. It’s a template, a half design.

Most clothes these days are made like this, it didn’t used to be this way. For most clothes, being casual sportswear, I don’t think it really matters. For some things though, I think it does. If you have a design on the front that is really outstanding and unusual, having a modicum of design integrity should mean you translate something unique to the back side too. I mean, break up the skirt or something. It also matters depending on your target. If you’re targeting the bridge or designer level of apparel and are stymied at your failure to make a hit in the market, this could be a reason why. Bridge and designer labels are more costly, in part, because they cost more to develop. Here’s an illustration of the previous example with the design transferred to the back. Something like this is designer or bridge. Saying something is designer or bridge doesn’t make it so.

I think this would be a cool dress to make. The patterning would be a challenge so you know I’d like it.

I hope I’m not too crabby sounding. I can’t concentrate and it comes out as irritation and at least today (through the rest of the week) my irritation is misplaced. I can’t concentrate amid the thumps and crashes inherent to bathroom remodeling, comings and goings, coupled with ancient rancheras so it’s coming out all over. This can’t be over soon enough, nice as these gentlemen are (and they are gentlemen; the dirtiest word they’ve said is “pedo” which can mean anything from drunk to a scandal, although the literal translation is fart). Here’s a picture of Alfredo. By the way, if you’re in Las Cruces, we’re using Pena Tile.

Before I digressed, isn’t anyone interested in real design anymore? Doesn’t anyone care about how things used to be made? Coffin clothes weren’t as common as they are today. And there’s nothing wrong with making them either. The problem is overselling; don’t describe a line as bridge or designer if the same back design is applied to every dress you sell. Think of this as an opportunity if you want to scale up to another market; your aspirational market.

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  1. Irene says:

    I’ve been reading for a couple weeks now–first post. When you mentioned you wished more sleeves had interesting detail it got me to thinking… why do I start sketching designs at the front bodice or front skirt? Why not the sleeve? And now, why not the back? This is beginning to change for me, and I wanted to thank you!

    As a brief introduction, since I’m new, I am a relatively recent graduate of a non-technical design program… we had draping and pattern-drafting and such but generally only a quarter of study where a fashion school would have had a year. I am planning on applying to IFM in Paris. The school excites me because of the extent to which it involves industry. I won’t apply for a year or more because I need stronger technical skills, tailoring for instance, as part of the application process involves sending a physical garment to them.

    I am very amazed and thankful as to the quality of your blog and the regulars’ comments. I can’t wait to get your book.

  2. elizabeth says:

    Kathleen, I’m so with you on this! Not only does the design have to carry to the back of the garment, but is has to have a harmonious transition- people see you from profile view too! I’ve redone a cowl on a dress so many times I lost count, it has to look good from the front/ back and the profile has to be flattering too- it’s so easy to add extra visual weight, the trick to a good design is functionality, design interest and making the body look good. We’re 3D creatures, clothes should reflect it in design. Think Danielle’s draped demo dress- 3D!
    The dress in the picture has so many possibilities for the back view design, the generic block may work in some cases, but the front of this dress is too detailed to make it an appropriate match.

  3. Amy says:

    I just discovered this blog yesterday and really enjoying the dialogue! All those nifty sleeve and back details adds to the cost of production and would the average shopper even notice them? I’m with Kathleen, I’d love to draft that dress, but forget about grading it.

  4. I have that pattern, and I’ve always thought the back view was a pity.

    There are two basic ways to dress up the back view of a dress. One is what you suggested, carry the detail to the back. Another is to wear it with a jacket or coat which was pretty much abandoned in the mid-seventies when women stopped wearing dresses in cool weather. (I’m thinking of this kind of outfit)

    If you are going to be wearing a dress with a coat, back details are going to be obscured – and you don’t want any bulky back details anyway because then the coat will appear bulky and won’t sit right.

    (This particular dress is probably designed this way just for simplicity, not as part of any overarching plot to promote nylon stockings – it just got me thinking. I like vintage clothes and details partly because it’s surprising what they can reveal about the little details of people’s lives.)

  5. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    I know what you mean.

    The site has a lot of costume pictures from several eras of history; you can go there to see that Victorian era clothes, especially in the 1870’s and 1880’s, were definitely not coffin clothes. :-)

  6. Marie-Christine says:

    I always called them ‘catalog clothes’, but I like the coffin much better, thanks :-). I think they’re much more prevalent now because so much more of clothes shopping is done by catalog or online, where you can’t see the back. And it doesn’t help that even fashion magazines rarely allow more than one view of a single design.
    I totally agree with you on the concept. It’s one of the reasons I like Miyake so much, there’s always at least as much going on in the back as in the front.
    For other home sewers, I’d say that getting a dressform is the best cure for coffin clothes. When you see how utterly boring your back looks in most patterns, it inspires you to add something, if only good buttons..

  7. Tonya says:

    Coffin clothes is sooo the right word to use! As a plus-size woman, coffin blouses are the norm even in the designer brands like Nine West and Jones NY. To me, this feature alone sets ‘real’ fashion apart from commoditywear.

  8. standgale says:

    I’ve never commented here before, but I must say that “coffin clothes” are one of my personal hates. I have never understood why people do it. Especially annoying is a print, for example a design on a t-shirt that stops abruptly at the side seams. I can see that it would be a whole lot harder to continue the pattern around and match it, but it looks ugly. Something easier to fix, but still not commonly done, is having applied decoration, like sequins or beads, stopping abruptly at the side seam and the back is boring.

    The example you have here is totally ridiculous in contrast of back and front design!! Imagine if you saw that woman at a party, chatting away to a group of people, her back to you. She might look attractive, the dress is made of pretty material, but it is boring and plain and lacking in personality so you don’t talk to her. If you see the front of the dress however it is a whole different story! (especially if she made it herself!)

  9. Georgina says:

    I never knew the term, “coffin clothes”. Ha!
    This has been a huge annoyance for me always. I also hate when facings don’t go completely around an area, just where it is visible. This happens alot on children’s clothes.

  10. Oxanna says:

    Love the term “coffin clothes”. For some things it’s OK; others, it just makes them look cheap. And others, it just makes them look boring! I have a love of 1910’s fashion, and there are so many lovely back bodice designs. Today, who (in the moderate price range) would make a surplice-styled back to match a front? Interesting back detail is usually relegated to eveningwear.

  11. I LOVE the term Coffin Clothes!!! I’m always trying to figure out what the back should look like with my Bridal clients, not all of them realize the major importance of it on a Wedding Gown.
    A Mass Art Senior had an entire collection of it last year that had me scratchin’ my head. Not sure she knew what she was missing…..

    I’m totally obsessed with the way things are constructed, I have a collection of vintage that I buy just for that not to mention my patterns from 1880-now.

  12. Stephanie says:

    This phenomenon drives me crazy! I’m a technical designer at a mass-market, low-end childrenswear company, and I consistently have to ask the ‘designers’ to provide sketches of the back sides of garments they wish to develop! Cheap though they are, we are not making clothing for paper dolls. I wonder why this is such a difficult concept for some?

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