Seems like Jen, Darlene, and I all got bored of this pandemic at the same time and decided to start writing again! In my case, I’m still in NYC and have been working from home for a month. But without any meetings and limited chances to develop new projects, there isn’t a whole lot to do each week, so I’ve also been doing a ton of sewing.
I finally got to some clothing repairs that have been sitting in a pile for ages and I bought a few vintage dress patterns on Etsy (though those are coming from the UK, so shipping is quite delayed). But what I’ve really been working on is sewing pleated fabric masks (using this pattern from NY Times). I got through 16 of them, and then on number 17…my 35ish-year-old sewing machine kicked the bucket.
I’ve wanted a new machine for ages (the current one was a hand-me-down from my grandmother), and I won’t be able to take the old girl in for repairs for who knows how long, so I decided to just buy a new one. There are plenty of highly rated budget-friendly machines out there, and even the most basic of machines has more features than my old Necchi.
While I wait for the new machine to arrive from SewingMachinesPlus.com (highly recommended, by the way. They’re a small business with great customer service—and the only place I could find that has stock and is still shipping!), I’ve gotta find another hobby to keep me busy. So naturally, I turned to Hourglassy! This is a perfect time to mine my closet and finally do the brand roundups I’ve been meaning to get to.
This week, it’s Bernie Dexter! Bernie produces a wide variety of dress styles in loads of cute prints. Most of her dresses are made of quilting cotton, which is very lightweight and is available in endless prints (I should know, I worked at a Joann Fabrics in college). But she also introduced some rayon items within the past year. Rayon has a really beautiful drape and feels slightly cool to the touch (though it usually requires dry cleaning). So both of these are perfect summer options.
I’ve tried several Bernie styles through the years before figuring out which ones worked with a full bust and which ones didn’t. The size chart seems pretty standard, maybe an inch smaller than usual on each size. But the dresses are not always consistent. Different styles fit slightly differently and sometimes the same style fits differently from print to print.
I’ll start with a brief overview of the styles that don’t work. These are dresses I purchased and then returned, so I don’t have photos.
The Paris dress was what drew me to Bernie in the first place. There were so many beautiful prints and I loved the look of the gathered shelf bust. But oh boy, this thing does not like boobs. I don’t think even a medium-size bust would fit well in it. It is for modest curves only. I first tried a Paris in medium and could just zip it closed. But there was boob hanging out everywhere. And forget about wearing a bra, even a strapless, because the tiny bust could barely cover the bra in front and didn’t come close to covering it in the underarm.
I exchanged for a size up, and it still didn’t look good. In large, the waist and ribcage were loose, but the bust was still too small. The bust shelf is extremely short and shallow. There’s just no hope of having the bottom of the shelf sit at your underbust. And I think it looks really weird to have the shelf floating on top of your boobs cutting across them.
The Chelsea dress I bought was a black background with rows of red lipstick in metallic gold tubes. I wear red lipstick so often that I was really excited for the print. I had read some reviews that claimed this dress in this particular print ran large, so I tried size medium again. This time, the waist fit well, but once again the bust was tiny.
There is a straight seam under the bust and a dart on each side, but the darts were so shallow that the bodice was little better than a flat piece of fabric with no shaping. It literally fit like a chest binder. This one has such simple construction that I could have sized up and altered the ribcage, but I think it would have taken several sizes up to accommodate my boobs, so I returned it and gave up on the Chelsea cut.
This was actually my first Bernie purchase. I got it in the red dogs print you’ll see down below. I adored the print and it was a good deal on eBay, so I took a chance on size large. This time, there was enough bust space, but the waist and ribs were loose, so it just didn’t look right. Once again, the darts are shallow and the whole front is basically flat. I also didn’t really care for the shoulders on me and I ended up re-selling it. Definitely not the worst of the bunch, but certainly not designed with curves in mind.
Now for the positive news:
There are some Bernie cuts that work pretty well for a full bust. None of them are what I consider a perfect fit, but they’ll do. My measurements at present are 38”-29”-42” with height 5’6” and bra size UK 28GG/30G. In these photos, I’m wearing a Bravissimo “Flo” plunge bra in 30G.
First up is the “Amy” dress in size large. This is a pretty good substitute for the Paris. It has a gathered bust, elasticated neckline and cap sleeves, and a dirndl-style lace-up panel under the bust. The skirt is slightly shorter and less full compared to the Paris. Like most (all?) Bernie dresses, it has lipstick pockets (so named because they’re basically too small to fit anything more than a lipstick tube…I really wish she would make the pockets bigger).
The underbust seam is actually pretty well under my bust, and the dirndl panel comes up high enough on the sides that it pulls your boobs in nicely. The lace-up panel means you can tighten the waist a bit so that the ribcage isn’t loose if you need to size up for the bust (as I did). However, the one issue is that the armholes are huge. There’s a lot of visible bra on the sides. Normally, I wear a tan bra so it’s not as noticeable.
Next up is the “Jodi” dress in size large, which is once again similar to Paris and Amy. I like Jodi so much that I have it in two prints, and it fits exactly the same in both. Jodi has a gathered peasant-style bust, slightly longer cap sleeves than Amy, elasticated neckline and arm holes, a flat waistband, belt loops, and lipstick pockets. Jodi (like many Bernie dresses) came with a 1” black faux patent leather belt. But I think the faux patent looks cheap, so I always swap it out for a non-shiny canvas belt instead. The skirt is very full and covers my knee.
The underbust seam here comes up a little high, but with a busy print like this, I don’t think it’s too terribly noticeable. Given that the neckline isn’t very low, you could replace the elastic in the neckline with a longer piece so that the shoulders are elongated and the neckline and underbust seam both sit lower. But that would lengthen the waist too, which is already pretty long (i.e. it fits my freaky long torso), so that wouldn’t work for petite or short-waisted gals. The waist on this size large is a little loose, but not enough that I would go back down to medium. The belt solves the issue just fine.
Third, we have the “Mari” dress in size large (in that dogs print I mentioned before!). This one has a long zipper up the front—which makes it an absolute dream to take on and off. It also has a slightly wide collar, no sleeves, very fully skirt with belt loops and lipstick pockets, and the skirt hits just above the knee.
This time, there are finally proper darts at both the waist and on the sides. However, the waist is a full size big on me. I still don’t think I would want to size down, though, because the bust fits well, so a medium might be squashy. You could, however, leave the zipper down a little rather than zipping it up all the way, to get a bit more bust room.
The gathered skirt means I can cinch in the waist and hide the excess fabric in the skirt, so I’m fine with my size large.
One thing I didn’t notice until I took these photos is that my bra straps are sticking out in back. But it’s just a little, so if I had realized they were visible, I would have just tucked them back in.
There’s one more Bernie dress that worked well for me, but it was a Halloween candy print that I didn’t wear very often, so I ended up selling it during a closet clear-out. So I don’t have photos, but I’ll tell you about it anyway. It was the “Kelly” dress:
How freaking cute is that?? Once again, I got a size large. Kelly is the same construction as Mari (front zipper, proper darts, belt loops, gathered skirt), only it has short sleeves and is a little longer, covering the knee. Like Mari, Kelly’s waist was a bit loose. But this time, the bust had enough room that I think I could have sized down to a medium. If I buy another Kelly in the future, I’ll get a medium. But once again, the skirt hides any bunched-up fabric from cinching in the waist with a belt.
Finally, a note about prices: Upon first glance, Bernie’s dresses are very expensive. $172 for a dress made of quilting cotton is steep! But there are constant sales and coupons announced through the brand’s newsletter. There is almost always a 70% off coupon for the items in the “sale” section. They’re actually listed at full price and the coupon is what brings them down. There are also occasional site-wide coupons for 25% off. During the current crisis, there have been coupons for 55% off site-wide. So definitely sign up!