Irene Lentz Early 1960s Dress

This Irene dress in my collection is a great example of beginner’s luck.  This was so long ago that clothes from the 1970s were not vintage, and people were just beginning to see that maybe there were some things of interest from the late 1950s and early 60s.  Most of the few books that had been published about vintage clothing suggested that there was not much of value after the early 50s.

So with that mindset I was at a church rummage sale, looking for things from the 1930s and 40s, when I came across this dress.  I knew it was older, due to the construction and the very fine metal zipper, though not as old as I was seeking.  Because it was so beautifully embroidered, I plunked down my $2 and took it home.  From there it languished in a box with other miscellaneous bits for at least a decade.

After the internet came into my life I could see how it was going to be a great help in getting information about old clothes.  It was the early days of eBay, and I would come home every afternoon from teaching, sit down in front of the computer and go through all the new listings in the vintage clothing category.  It took me about thirty minutes. Before long eBay set up discussion rooms, and I gravitated toward the one for vintage clothing.

People there were great about sharing knowledge, and one thing that was popular was to post a label and everyone would sort of pool information.  One day someone posted an irene label.  I remembered my dress that I’d stuck away all those years ago.  Though I’d seen that it was a very nice dress, I had no idea of the wonderful history behind it.

It was a common practice for high end designers to do some designs that were exclusive for a particular store.  I’ve read that Adrian had agreements with twenty-five stores across the country.  The Halle Bros. Co. was located in Cleveland.

The embroidery is machine made, but still very beautiful.  It reminds me of an Oriental shawl.

The bust darts are on the outside of the dress.  What makes this so special is that the darts do not stop at the side seam, but continue around to the back where they form a little bustle effect.

The bodice front and back are cut as one piece.

It just makes me worry about the great things I saw in the 1980s but was too foolish to buy.

UPDATE:  The dress is not ombre shaded the way my photos look.  It is the light beige you see in the small photos.


Filed under Designers, Vintage Clothing

Sun Proof Sola Hat

Ever since reading Women Travelers, I’ve sort of felt the need for a pith helmet.  They are a fairly easy item to find, but every time I ran across one, I was not impressed with the quality.  I mean, did Gertrude Bell ride across Iraq wearing plastic and faux leather?  I think not.  But I recently found a hat actually made of pith, and I knew I’d found my hat.

To be honest, I knew nothing about pith helmets before I found this one.  I’ve had to do a bit of homework, and what I found was fascinating.  The hats were originally actually made from the pith of the aeschynomene aspera plant.  This plant was commonly known as the sola with the hats being called “sola topee” in Hindi.  The English thought they were saying “solar topee”, and so the name sun hat, or sun helmet, was also applied to the hat.

Hats made from sola pith were made mainly in India, but also in surrounding countries like Pakistan.  In places where the sola did not grow, other materials were used, like cork.

My hat is a style called the “Bombay Bowler.”  There is a photo of Churchill wearing one during WWII.  Pith helmets date back to the first half of the nineteenth century, but I could not find when this particular style originated.

My helmet is missing the inside band.  It would have covered the writing and gone nearly to the edge of the grey cloth you can see in the top right corner of my photo.

Can you tell that the grey cloth covers a heavy paper that is pleated?  That is to allow for additional ventilation.  There are also four holes that allow air to circulate.

Besides the inside band, this hat is also missing the chin strap which rested across the front brim.

These hats were worn by officials in the British Empire, but they were also available for civilians to purchase and wear.  Perhaps some woman traveler bought this one while traversing the East and brought it home to North Carolina.


Filed under Proper Clothing, Vintage Clothing

Vintage Miscellany – September 14, 2014

How did the 1930s woman manage to look so chic?  Even on horseback this woman is tailored and sleek.  Remove boots and breeches, put on skirt, and she’s ready for lunch at the club.  What a life!

*  Last week was New York Fashion Week, and Bill Cunningham noted a trend in the woman’s working uniform.

*  The Metropolitan Museum has announced the theme of next spring’s costume exhibition, Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film, and Fashion.  It sounds interesting, but from reading the press release, it seems like there is to be an overabundance of more modern fashion, with a John Galliano gown being chosen as the cover photo for the release.  With Andrew Bolton as the curator, I think that is what we can expect.

*   The latest product from Louboutin, a bottle of nail polish, costs $50.  How much does it cost to produce it?

*   Jen at Pintucks has added a great visual timeline of 1950s fashions.

*   When in New York, I love walking past the Stoll knitting factory to watch the machines.  It’s an amazing operation.

*   The LA Times had a good article on how the fashion industry there is having to change in order to survive.

*   Some shoppers are beginning to buy less, but spend more per garment.

*   An intriguing new book, Women in Clothes, is reviewed at NPR.  thanks to Brooke for the link.

*   An exhibition at the Canton Art Museum (Ohio) is about art forgeries.  The twist is that the visitor is given the chance to see if he or she can distinguish between the forgeries and the authentic art in the exhibition.  In February it travels to Oklahoma City.

* Lauren of Wearing History is working toward producing a line of vintage-inspired clothing.  She is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign that is going well, but could use a bit of support.  Even her fabrics are made in the USA!


Filed under Vintage Miscellany

1960s Chanel-Inspired Davidow Jacket, Part II

Earlier in the summer I posted about a great find I made, an early 1960s Davidow jacket that was clearly Chanel-inspired.  Unfortunately, there was no matching skirt, so instead of buying this jacket for my collection, I bought it to actually wear.

On the negative side was the condition of the lining.  As you can see, there were major issues in the underarm area.  I decided that the best thing to do was to send the piece off to the dry cleaners and then replace the lining.  The problem then became one of finding a nice silk fabric that would go with the tweed.  It’s times like this that I really miss Waechter’s.  I did try the remaining fabric store in the area that carries luxury fabrics, House of Fabrics, but they did not have a suitable match.

The tweed is so wonderful.  It really looks a lot like the tweeds that Bonnie Cashin used in her beautiful coats. But the two shades of blue were proving to be a color challenge.  Then while sorting through some damaged scarves, I happened on a nice old Vera polka dot.   It was not large enough for the entire job, but I also had an oblong scarf in ombre blues that could be used for the sleeves.

This is the point where I make the cutting up old stuff disclaimer.  If you are a vintage clothing shopper then you are well aware that much of what is on the market is not in its original form.  If someone were to run across my bell bottoms from 1973 they would wonder why would anyone mutilate a pair of pants like that.  Well, I cut them off because I am very short.  I also chopped off my skirts and dresses.  My cutting was part of the history of the garments, but it would tend to make them less attractive to a collector today.

Unfortunately there are sellers who are still cutting old clothing up in order to make it marketable to a certain market.  I’m not saying that it is always a bad idea to cut up old clothing; I’m saying it needs to be done thoughtfully, keeping in mind several factors.  You would like to think that anyone would know not to cut into a Charles James, but not everyone who loves old stuff is concerned with designer names.  My big fear in condoning “up-cycling” is that important pieces are being lost. Condition also plays a role, but even a very damaged Charles James is a valuable treasure.

The truth is that most clothing does not end its life as it began it.  I can be very much against remodeling vintage clothes, but then I do have to fact the fact that the mere act of wearing a garment shortens its life.  It is possible to love a garment to death, as you probably know from experience.

So what if you have a common item that is damaged, like my Vera scarf?  I feel I can cut into it with a clear conscience.  (Be aware that while Vera scarves were made by the thousands, some designs are quite rare and valuable.  Research before cutting.)  The jacket, while lovely and very wearable, is less collectible minus the skirt.  I’ll be wearing it, hopefully for a very long time.  It is quite possible that I will love it to death.

I carefully removed the old lining and removed the seams so I could use the pieces as a pattern.  The sleeve is made from two pieces, and I had just enough silk to make the pieces.  I attached them by hand, using the fringe of the scarf at the cuff.

When that was finished I cut out the bodice, using the border of the Vera scarf as part of the design. Here you can see that there was no underlining in the jacket.  The seams were in good condition.  I attached each piece to the jacket separately.

Because there was a pattern to the dotted design, I cut the back from the very middle of the scarf so that the density design would be retained.  The last pieces that I attached were the sides of the bodice.

When doing something like this, lots of basting is essential.  The silk is slippery, and the more control you have, the better.

The last step, one that I’m still working on, is the quilting.  I decided to let the dots determine the quilting design.  I’m not going to quilt every dot.  I’m already seeing spots in front of my eyes from working with it.

I’ll be changing the buttons as well.  I thought I’d found the perfect buttons, some that I’d salvaged from a destroyed sweater, but they are not the quality I was wanting, so they will probably be temporary until I can locate exactly what I need.


Filed under Vintage Clothing, Vintage Sewing

Currently Reading – Irene: A Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood; The MGM Years 1942 – 1949

I made the comment some time ago that we are over-run with books about some designers (Chanel) and for others there is practically no information to be found in print. This new book on Hollywood designer Irene is a step toward making a lesser known name more familiar.

Irene is generally known only by her first name, but she was Irene Lentz Gibbons. This is important to remember because there was another Irene, Irene Sharaff,  working in Hollywood at the time, and there was a milliner Irene in New York.  It can be confusing, especially since both Irene costume designers worked together at MGM for a time.

Irene Lentz arrived in Hollywood as the town was emerging as a center for making movies.  She was working in a drug store when she befriended Dick Jones, a director at Mack Sennett Studios.  Irene was cast in several movies, but she decided that she wanted to design and make clothes.  She and Dick opened a dress shop in 1928. They married the next year, but Dick soon died of TB.

Irene then formed a partnership with friends – a venture called Irene, LTD.  Here she made clothes to order for the Hollywood set and gained a reputation for glamorous dresses.  She got the attention of Bullock’s Wilshire department store, and in 1933 she became the custom designer there.  Her designs were labeled simply, “irene.”

In 1936 Irene married Eliot Gibbons and she continued to work at Bullock’s.  By the late 1930s studios were beginning to offer her employment as costume designer, but she did not go to work at MGM until 1942 when Louis B. Mayer offered screen credit for her work.

At this point the book becomes very detailed about the various people working with Irene at MGM.  I’ll admit that I was lost through much of it, as the names were not familiar and it was hard to keep all of them straight. I had not seen many of the movies mentioned and the details made my eyes glaze over.  So instead of trying to keep it all straight I focused on the illustrations – beautiful original sketches and photos of the actresses wearing the finished products.

Some interesting things about movie wardrobes are revealed in the text.  First, designers like Irene worked in a team.  She may or may not have designed all the clothes for which she got screen credit.  Also, the studio was really good at recycling costumes.  Lesser actresses often wore hand-me-downs in later movies after A-list actresses wore them in more important movies.  An example of this is a fur trimmed paisley jacket that was made for Ingrid Bergman to wear in Gaslight in 1944, and was also worn by Ava Gardner in The Great Sinner of 1949. That jacket can be seen today at the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina.

There are also some juicy, gossipy bits.  LB Mayer had Irene design Judy Garland’s wedding dress.  He insisted on approving it even before Judy herself saw the dress.  Irene got along with the actors and actresses she dressed with one notable exception – Katherine Hepburn.  Hepburn was very particular about her clothes and rarely approved them on the first viewing.  If she were made to wear a design she did not like she would find a way to “sabotage” it, position herself on screen so that the garment could not be seen.

Unfortunately, there are many details about Irene’s alcoholism. As early as 1933 people had begun to notice her excessive drinking.  It was the pressure of working at MGM and the added problems with her husband that began to make her drinking a major problem.

In 1947 Irene reentered the clothing manufacturing business with the first collection being shown in 1948.  At the same time her contract with MGM was renewed for another five years.  Her role there changed, as she was able to choose the movies she wanted to work on.  It was an encounter with Katherine Hepburn that led to her firing at MGM.  Hepburn complained about Irene being drunk on the job and she was soon let go.

At that point, the book is over.  Even though the title tells us that it is about Irene’s years at MGM, the story ends so abruptly that it leaves the reader hanging. Irene went on to run her dress and suit business for thirteen more years before killing herself in 1962.  Did her alcoholism play a role in her death? Was her business a success? For the reader unfamiliar with Irene’s work and life, there are a lot of unanswered questions.

The book was written by Frank Billecci and Lauranne Fisher.  Fisher is the daughter of Virginia Fisher who was Irene’s sketch artist at MGM.  Much of the content is based on Fisher’s recollections, and those of Irene’s secretary, Chrys Carter.  Irene also kept a scrapbook which has survived, and the list of primary sources was impressive.

But the big strength of this book is the quality of the illustrations.  Even though Irene was designing for characters, you can get a real feel for her design aesthetic, one that carried over to Irene, Inc.

I’ve included three ads from the 1950s which show what Irene was all about.  She designed glamorous evening and cocktail dresses along with tailored suits.

When I first started buying vintage clothing, years and years ago, I found a beautiful linen dress with an interesting structure and very nice embroidery.  It was not until I got it home that I found the irene label, and not until years later that I learned who she was.  I’ll share photos of my irene dress next week.

I neglected to mention that I was sent an e-copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes.


Filed under Currently Reading

Ad Campaign – Camel Cigarettes, 1930

En Route

Unnumbered miles slip away from the Limited…sagebrush and sand and a painted desert…mountains stark above timberline. But through all the changing scene, this cigarette will be your best companion.  Fragrant, refreshing, dependable, it adds the flavor of enjoyment to your journey…And whether you travel three days or three hours, you know that you’re going some place, when you go with Camels.

Because of the reference to sagebrush and sand, I assume this ad is talking about the Sunset Limited, which runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles. About twenty years ago we got the idea to take a long train trip, and we settled on the Sunset, traveling from New Orleans to Tuscon, Arizona.  Most of the trip was through Texas, and I can tell you that is one big state with lots of sagebrush and sand.  It would take more than cigarettes to make all those miles slip away.

The ad makes train travel look so chic.  In 1995, the dress of most travelers was very casual, though I expect that today many are shuffling around in slippers and pajama pants.  And of course, the train is now smoke free.  At least some things are an improvement!


Filed under Ad Campaign

North Carolina – Variety Vacationland

Here in the North Carolina mountains we are sort of between tourist seasons.  The summer season is over and it is another month until the fall leaf season gets crazy.  So while things are quiet around here, I thought I’d share a bit of vintage NC, from a booklet the state published.  There’s no date anywhere, but there is a note from Governor Gregg Cherry, who served from 1945 to 1949.  (Side note:  In Gastonia, Cherry’s hometown, it was said that sober he was the best lawyer in town, and drunk he was the second best.)

For those of you unfamiliar with my state, North Carolina starts at the Atlantic Ocean and ends at the crest of the Appalachians (app uh lach uns).  It’s a long, very diverse state.  People tend to confuse it with South Carolina, which is an entirely different place. It’s Charlotte, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina.

I live in the mountains.  For long weekends I like to go to the coast, and in doing so pass on the highway people from the coast going to the mountains.  It’s a good system as it keeps the state even.  According to this brochure, there are also places to visit in the middle of the state, such as looking at the Old Well on the UNC Chapel Hill campus and riding to the hounds at Sedgefield. Somehow I think I’ll stick with the beach.

Mount Le Conte is along the crest of the Appalachians, right on the Tennessee line.  I’ve hiked that trail, and I can tell you that I did not do it in  a dress as the hiker above did.  This is very wild country, though in the summer there is a steady stream of people going up to spend the night at the Le Conte Lodge.

There’s another silly hiker wearing a dress.  I don’t know the location of this trail, but it looks a bit dangerous to me, and I’m used to mountain trails!  The dude ranch is probably the Cataloochee Ranch, which is still in operation.  It’s a beautiful place.

Cherokee is just west of me, near the entrance to the Great Smokies.  No, the Cherokee did not wear feathered headdresses, but a guy has to make a living.  Even today there are Cherokee “chiefs” set up along the side of the road waiting to be the tourist’s next photo op.

As you can see, Dry Falls are not really dry.  The name comes from the fact that one can walk behind the falls without getting wet, well, at least not much.

This is the Blowing Rock, which is near Boone.  There are all kinds of “legends” about the rock, most of which involve lovelorn Indians.

Lake Junaluska is just down the road from me, and it is a lovely little lake.  It is the site of the Methodist Assembly which was started in 1913.  The old camp style auditorium still stands, as do two old hotels from the era.

Now this is interesting.  Neel’s Creek, which is near Mount Mitchell, really was open for fishing only to women.  There were creeks nearby where husbands and boyfriends could fish, but men were not allowed at Neel’s Creek.  In the mid 1940s it was so popular that there was talk of making another trout stream women only.

I was just joking earlier about the middle of North Carolina being just a place to pass through.  The golfing is world class, and there are plenty of historic sites.

Pivers Island looks like a nice place in the late 1940s.  Today the little island is almost covered by a NOAA facility and the Duke University Marine Lab.  Behind the two women you get a glimpse of Beaufort, which is a fishing and sailing center, and a nice little historic town.

Happy sailing!



Filed under North Carolina