Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading – An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design 1915 – 1928

We all hear about the big fashion shows at the Metropolitan and the Fashion Museum in Bath, UK, but there are lots of smaller institutions which work hard to present fashion and design history, often from a very narrow focus.  One such institution is the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.  Last year they presented a show based on the research of Ann Marguerite Tartsinis.

Tartsinis had been researching how starting in 1915 the American Museum of Natural History worked toward developing a distinctively American style, which would be based on Native American artifacts. World War I had broken out, and New York was deprived somewhat of the Parisian influences that were so much a part of American fashion.  Leaders at the museum saw this as a good time to interest designers in developing a uniquely American design language.

A design center was set up at the museum where designers could go and study artifacts, everything from Peruvian textiles to Navajo basketry, Inuit fur work to Arapaho beadwork.  The idea was not to copy the designs, nor to simply reproduce depictions of the objects.  Instead designers were to come up with their own interpretation of the original work.

The museum curators were successful in getting some designers to develop both fabric and garment designs.  In 1919 the museum put on the Exhibition of Industrial Art in Textiles and Costumes, which showcased these designs, along with the original artifacts which had inspired their making.

But by 1919 the war was over, and designers were casting a more global eye.  The design program lasted until 1928, but in a greatly reduced capacity. And while the program did not have the huge effect the curators had envisioned, it did show how museums and designers could work together to promote good design.

The 2013 exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center centered on the 1919 exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History.  One of the resources for the new exhibition were photos that had been taken of the original.  You can see these photographs and read more about the exhibition in an excellent feature on the Bard website.

I missed seeing the exhibition, so I was glad when Lynn of AmericanAgeFashion suggested this book to me.  She knew that I’d like the book because of my interest in the cultural influences of fashion.  It also gives a look at how appropriation was viewed one hundred years ago.  As you might imagine, the attitudes of 1915 are very different from our twentieth-first century ones.

A very important issue was brought up by Tartsinis in discussing the difficulty in locating artifacts for the 2013 exhibition.  While they were able to locate quite a bit of archival material, the artifacts themselves were extremely hard to locate.  As Tartsinis put it, “The scarcity of surviving examples from this period reflects not only the institutional preference for collecting couture and upmarket garments and textile samples, but also underscores the anonymity of individual designers in textile manufacturing and department stores at this time and the fleeting nature of this movement.”

I like a good label as much as the next collector, but what a shame that in some institutions a design is not deemed worthy unless it has that all-important designer label.  And as for the anonymity of the designers, I suspect that some of this material is actually in collections, but that it has not been identified as being part of the 1919 exhibition.  Hopefully as more and more small museums get their collections photographed and online, things of this manner will start to be identified.

 

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Currently Reading – A History of the Paper Pattern Industry by Joy Spanabel Emery

The History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution by Joy Spanabel Emery is a book that fills a gap in fashion history research that has been needed for a long time.   Because of the multitude of companies, and the fact that they often sprang up, merged with other companies, or simply disappeared within a few years, tracking the industry has been somewhat difficult.

I’m going to start out by saying that this book is probably not for everyone, not even for everyone who sews and enjoys fashion history.  One thing I learned from teaching history to ten through twelve year-olds is that the most effective way to make history interesting is to concentrate on the story aspect.   In some cases this is simply not possible, and what Emery has produced is a straight-forward history with a minimum of story-telling.

While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that you have to want to be surrounded by lots of facts with very little  sense of a narrative.  Personally, I found the book to be of great interest because it cleared up so much about the history of sewing patterns, and also of the story of home sewing.

The book starts with the very earliest sewing patterns and goes through the present.  I found that the chapters on the 1920s through the 1960s were the most interesting, mainly because that is where my interest lies.

Of special interest were sections on designer patterns.  One thing I learned was that in 1925 McCall’s  began making patterns from Parisian designers that were faithful copies, not adaptations.  The only problem is that these were identified in the McCall’s magazine and in their pattern catalog, but not on the pattern envelope.  That means that it takes a large collection like the Commercial Pattern Archive (where Emery is curator) in order to identify these patterns by cross-referencing the patterns with the magazine copy.

The book is richly illustrated, which is a real strength.   Almost every key point in the book has a corresponding illustration.  Here you see on the left a 1941 Dubarry (which I learned was made by Simplicity for Woolworth’s) pattern, and on the right there is a photo of the dress made up.

I also learned about how like the clothing industry and Hollywood designers, the pattern companies had to really scramble after Dior launched his “New Look.”  One solution was to simply re-release a pattern in longer lengths as you can see in the above illustration.

For readers who love a challenge, the author has included gridded patterns for nine designs.  And there is a long list of references for further exploration.

Instead of putting the reference notes in a section at the end, the author opted to put them in the text.  While it is fairly easy to learn to just skip over the parentheses, it can be a bit annoying.  Or maybe that is just one of my personal pet peeves.

I do have to point out that I found one bit of misinformation, which would have gone unnoticed had I not been personally familiar with the topic.  Emery got the history of Folkwear patterns all wrong, saying that Kate Mathews was one of the original owners.  No, Kate bought the company in 2002, but was not originally involved in the formation of the company.  It’s really regrettable that such a mistake was made because it always causes one to doubt the rest of the  facts presented.  I’m hoping this was just a slip caused by the misreading of the company history on Folkwear’s website.

 

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Currently Reading: The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski

I know I’m a bit late to the Lost Art party, but there is so much about this book that I’ve got to talk about that I’m hoping you all will humor me.

First, thanks so much for all the well wishes and kind thoughts extended during my recent surgery and convalescence.  I still have a lot of healing to do, but at least I can now do a bit of typing.  And all the downtime led to a lot of reading, and the luxury of time for reflection on what I was reading.

With The Lost Art of Dress, there was plenty of material for reflection.  In a nutshell, the book is about how women and girls were once taught that the principles of art could and should be applied to one’s manner of dressing.  From the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1960s women college professors, writers of sewing books, scientists that worked for the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and others working under the home economics umbrella helped women and girls apply these principles to their wardrobes.  I loved the many profiles of these remarkable women who worked hard to apply the principles of art, and even science, to the way people dressed.

Przybyszewski also went into some detail in discussing what these principles of art are – things like proportion and color  and harmony – and gave examples on why these things are important when considering what to wear.   I think we all understand the power of color, and how the right one, or the wrong one for that matter, makes all the difference in how our clothes look.  I can remember the moment I tried on the perfect yellow linen blouse and looked in the mirror and learned the awful truth about yellow and me.

Other lessons are not so obvious.  While reading Przybyszewski’s words about proportion I suddenly realized why so many really cute, young bloggers look strange in their clothing.  The very popular skirt that looks like something from the ice skating rink is just too short and oddly out of proportion.  The same is true for 1950s full skirts and big printed 1970s maxi dresses that are chopped into minis.

Today if you want to talk about appropriateness of dress, you end up sounding like an old fogey.  But the home economists (Przybyszewski calls them the Dress Doctors) taught that in order to best present oneself, it is best to dress for the occasion.  The little girl who wears her party dress to school ends up feel uncomfortable.  The same is true of the woman who wears shows up at a party in slacks when all the others are in cocktail frocks.

One of the things from the book that rang so true to me was that we need to have a better sense of dressing appropriately.  I know that Przybyszewski sees the worst of dressing because she works on a university campus, but we all see people padding through Target in their jammies and slippers, people at funerals in shorts and tee shirts, and girls wearing shorts too short and boys wearing pants too low. We live in a time where people resent the imposition of rules.

It was interesting to read Przybyszewski’s thoughts about how the 1960s brought about the demise of home economics.  She makes the argument that the rise of Youthquake and the trend toward the mini skirt and other clothes that were suited for the young led to home ec becoming old fashioned.  The Sixties was a decade when rules were made to be broken, dress codes were challenged in court, and the young wanted to do things their own way.  By the time I took home ec in school in the early Seventies, the only art principle I remember being taught was that of color.  I guess they thought it was enough that they were getting us to sew.  In just a few years, the home ec program was called Family Life and the emphasis changed to sex ed.

Another thing that really struck me is how today the dressing ideal seems to be “sexy” where as in the middle of the twentieth century the ideal was “sophisticated,” or even ” attractive.”  I think Przybyszewski’s point that young women should aspire to something higher than being a sex object is well taken, but some reviews I’ve read of the book accuse her of “slut shaming” and say that this emphasis on clothing and rules is anti-feminist.

Look at it the way the Dress Doctors did.  They believed that knowing how to dress well was freeing for a woman.  It allowed her to get on with life without worrying if her clothing was right or appropriate.  And wearing smart, attractive clothing made a good impression in a time when women needed a hand up in the world.  But that would also be true today, would it not?

There are some things about The Lost Art of Dress that I feel are just too much.  Przybyszewski never misses an opportunity to remind us that people today are slobs, and at times I felt like I was a captive audience in her college classroom in her course, A Nation of Slobs.  And I do believe that there are some good things that have occurred in fashion since 1963, whereas Przybyszewski seemed to blame Mary Quant for all the world’s woes.  I’m exaggerating, of course, but it is easy to see her disdain for the fashion of the Sixties.

The book also suffers a real lack of pertinent illustrations.  There were two nice sections of color illustrations, but they were not cross-referenced with the text.  And some of her major points were not illustrated at all.

Still, this is a book that you need to read.  It is well researched and expertly referenced.  After starting the book I went to my own library to see if I had any of the books Przybyszewski refers to in her text.  To my surprise I have nine of them, including one of the first of these books, The Secrets of Distinctive Dress by Mary Brooks Picken which was published in 1918.  After finishing The Lost Art of Dress I immediately picked up Picken’s book to read, and was impressed with how true to the original thought and feel Przybyszewski managed to be in her own work.

Przybyszewski has gotten a lot of good press, and my hope is that her book will start a conversation on whether or not our anything goes attitude toward dressing is really in the best interest of the individual.  It is worth thinking about.

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Currently Re-reading – When the Girls Came Out to Play

You might have noticed over the past two weeks that I’ve made repeated references to one book, When the Girls Came Out to Play, by Patricia Campbell Warner.  I actually surprised myself because I was sure I had reviewed this book years ago, but a look back into the archives showed that I merely recommended the book back in 2006 when it was released.

The book is an outgrowth of Warner’s doctoral dissertation , but it does not read like an academic journal.  It was written in an easy to follow narrative style, but it is also richly annotated with end notes.  This is really my favorite kind of book – one that reads like a conversation with a very knowledgeable friend.

Reading the book for the first time was like a revelation.  Even though I’d been studying fashion history for a long time, there were no scholarly studies on the progression of American sportswear.  Through Warner’s research, I was able to fill in a lot of gaps in my own knowledge and thinking about the subject.

One of the big ideas in the study is that starting in the Nineteenth Century there were two separate trends in sports attire for women.  There were clothes that were appropriate for public wearing, such as tennis dresses, bathing suits and bicycling ensembles.  In these areas, women were mixed with men and were expected to follow the rules of proper dress.

The other trend was clothing for a more private environment, especially that of the woman’s college.  In places where women were not mixing with men, they were freer to don less feminine garments like bloomer gym suits.

Eventually the two different sports clothing strands began to merge.  Women who had worn bloomers at summer camp or college were used to wearing the pants, so to speak.  It was an easy leap to wearing knickers for outings and beach pyjamas at home and at the shore.

Over the years I’ve repeatedly referred to this book, and I see it as the foundation of my own studies of sportswear.  As with any study there are always new things to be discovered, and there is still a lot to be learned about how women became pants wearers.  It is a fascinating topic, with all kinds of historical and social strands of learning.

When the Girls Came Out to Play can be purchased quite inexpensively from Amazon, but the great news is that it can be read free online in the pdf form.  Either way, this is a must read for those interested in the development of sportswear for women in America.

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Ad Campaign – Levi’s, 1954

Look pretty…  and you’re bound to, in these sparkling new separates from Levi’s Denim Family.

I love a good company history, and Levi’s by Ed Cray did not disappoint.  It’s not a complete history because the book was published in 1978, but in a way it makes it all the more interesting to know what has happened in the company in the past thirty-six years.

You might know that Levi Strauss was an immigrant who ended up in San Francisco.  There he opened a dry goods store soon after his arrival in the city in 1853.  His brothers in New York shipped goods to him which he then sold first as a peddler, then as a shopkeeper.  His big moment came in 1872 when tailor Jacob Davis wrote to him about marketing the duck cloth (canvas) overalls he had devised.  To make them stronger, Davis put in metal rivets at certain stress points.

Strauss and his brothers applied for a patent for Davis, and the rest is, well, history.  Davis sold a half interest in the patent to the Strauss family in return for them handling the manufacture of the pants.  Soon Levi Strauss and Company was selling riveted jeans all over the West.

At first the brothers tried having the jeans manufactured in New York and then shipped to San Francisco, but it soon became apparent that shipping problems made a local factory necessary.  A factory was contracted in San Francisco, and it produced the jeans until the earthquake in 1906.  By that time Levi had died and had passed the company on to his nephews.  The old factory being damaged, the company decided to build a new one which was owned by them.  For the next one hundred years Levi’s jeans would be made primarily in factories owned by the company.

Through the years, the growth at Levi Strauss and Co. was ongoing and consistent.  Even though the family grew wealthy and the company greatly increased in size, the product was mainly regional, being confined to the American West.   And the company was still owned and run by the descendants of the Strauss family.

It took World War II to bring about big changes.  Until the war and the scarcity of materials, there had never been any changes in the design of the jeans, which was the button fly model 501.  During the war, the back cinch belt was eliminated along with six buttons that were for suspenders.  And for a while there were no belt loops, but they were added back after the war.  During the war many GIs and war workers stationed on the West Coast had discovered Levi’s jeans, causing a demand for them nationwide.  It was just what the family had been wanting – a new market for their product.

The factory in San Francisco was no longer able to keep up with demand, and so Levi Strauss and Co.  opened factories all over the country.  They also expanded their product line which included women’s wear.  The company had experimented with Levis for women in the 1930s, but the line was not successful, but the more casual lifestyle of Americans after WWII made jeans more appealing to women.  Along with the jeans, Levi Strauss made casual separates to coordinate with the colors of the jeans and the shorts made of denim.

Levi’s became even more popular with young people because they were being worn by actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, but it was the counter-culture movement of the 1960s that really caused the jeans market to explode.  Take a moment and think about how interesting it is that a movement that was protesting against the status quo was the catalyst for an economic boom for the denim industry.

After the 1960s the growth continued at a frenzied pace.  International expansion took place, with Levi’s jeans being manufactured in the countries where they were sold.  Changes in the design had to be made, especially through the bell-bottom years.  But by the mid 1970s the company was over-extended in some of their markets, and the quality of the jeans made outside the USA had slipped.  The company had to take drastic action to correct the problems and save Levi Strauss and Company’s reputation.

Through all the years and the ups and downs, Levi Strauss remained a company that was committed to their employees.  During the time that factory was closed due to the earthquake, employees continued to receive a paycheck even though most of them were not able to work.   The owners managed to keep the factory going during the Great Depression.  Factory employees made a higher wage than was the industry standard.  The Strauss family took pride in making sure their employees were happy and not tempted by the union organizers.

The book ends in 1977, but there were signs even then that big changes were coming to the clothing manufacturing industry.  For the first time some Levi Strauss employees lost their jobs due to a reorganization of a distribution center.   It was, of course, a drop in the bucket compared to the American jobs lost due to manufacturing of Levi’s products being out-sourced in the years to come.

Today, Levis Strauss and Company is still owned primarily by the descendants of the family of Levi Strauss.  None of the family is involved in the management of the company.  Very few Levi’s products are made in the USA.  The book sure makes one nostalgic for the good old uncomplicated days of the 1950s.

I lucked into this book at a thrift store, but it can be bought very cheaply on Amazon. It’s an entertaining and interesting book, though the parts where the author sings the praises of the charitable work of the Strauss family gets a bit tedious.

1956

1958

 

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Currently Reading: Halston & Warhol, Silver & Suede

When I visited the Mint Museum several weeks ago I picked up a card listing the upcoming exhibitions.  I was thrilled to see that Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede was to be traveling there next spring.   To celebrate I rushed home and ordered the companion book which was complied by the Andy Warhol Museum, the co-organizer (along with Halston’s niece, Leslie Frowick) of the show.

Halston and Warhol were, of course, contemporaries, but they were also friends and collaborators.   Warhol did his first flowers screen prints in the early Sixties, but he returned to the theme in 1970.  Two years later Halston had silk printed with the motif which was made into dresses.

Starting in 1979 Halston created a line of shoes for Garolini.  Warhol photographed a grouping of them in 1980 and created screen prints sprinkled with diamond dust.

In 1982 Halston commissioned Warhol to create art for his men’s wear line’s ad campaign.

The book is arranged in chronological order according to decades.  For each there is a handy timeline for Warhol at the top, and Halston at the bottom of the page.  It helps one see clearly how their lives and work connected.

Though Warhol was an artist, he was also a fashion illustrator, and he continued to be interested in fashion throughout his life.   His work for fashion companies and for fashion magazines spilled over into his non-commercial art.  Shoes was a prominent theme.  In the late Fifties he made stamps, as seen on the right, that he printed on paper and then hand colored.

The exhibition also shows examples of Halston’s signature looks, including the sarong dress.  Inspired by a friend and model who wrapped a towel around herself as she emerged from a swimming pool, Halston began working with the form.  The dress looks simple, but it is meticulously constructed on the bias.

This photograph was taken in 1974 at the famous Studio 54.  Halston is on the left and Warhol is on the right, with various other celebrities mingled in.

If you are a fan of the work of either Warhol or Halston, the book is a great resource to have whether you get to bee the exhibition or not.  It is currently showing in Pittsburgh at The Warhol until August 24, and then it travels to Des Moines.  It ends up in Charlotte next spring.

Hopefully that gives me time to do a little re-reading.  I’m currently in the middle of Popism: The Warhol 60s.  Next up is Simply Halston: A Scandalous Life by Steven Gaines which is a bit soapy and a lot gossipy.  I’ll finish with a marathon reading of The Andy Warhol Diaries, which Warhol narrated over the telephone to his friend Pat Hackett from late in 1976 until his death in 1987.

Talk about gossipy!  After the Diaries were published in 1989, Halston was reportedly so upset at the way he was portrayed that he sold his valuable collection of Warhol works.  But as my sister used to say, “If you don’t want to be portrayed in a bad light, then don’t do and say bad things.”  Unfortunately Halston didn’t have the benefit of my sister’s advice.

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Currently Reading: Charles James by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder

Without a doubt the book that accompanies the Metropolitan’s current costume exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, is the most beautiful book in my library.  Reproduced on the front and back is the famous Cecil Beaton photo of eight models wearing James ballgowns.  It’s a stunning introduction to a book that is full of beautiful clothes, beautifully photographed.

Rather than showing James’s work in a chronological manner, the authors place his work into four categories – Spirals & Wraps, Drapes & Folds, Anatomical Cut & Platonic Form and Architectural Shaping.  It’s a very effective way of presenting his work because sometimes James would work on an idea for years.  It’s easy to see how he developed techniques and applied them in his garments.

To help make sense of Charles James’s life and career, there is a year by year chronology of the events of his life.  The dresses and techniques are cross-referenced with the photos throughout the book.  Because James was known to tell the same story several different ways, the authors and staff of the Met spent hours trying to figure out the truth behind the legends.    They did an amazing job of sorting it all out.

Besides the wonderful photos of the garments, there is quite a bit of supporting visuals, like the vintage photo seen in the layout above.  Many of the dresses were shown with period photos of the dress being worn.

Others were shown with drawings James did of the garment.  Some of the drawings were made at the time that the garment was designed and sewn, but most were done by him many years later.  James had a strong desire to document and preserve his legacy.  The collection of his work that was at the Brooklyn Museum (and which was transferred to the Met several years ago) was mainly donated by the owners who were urged to do so by James.  He even sold drawings to benefactors who then donated the items to the Brooklyn Museum.

The photo of the Clover Leaf Ball Gown was enhanced by two drawings by James, both done in 1970.  The bottom drawing was especially useful as it shows how the shirt was pieced.  If the book lacks anything, it is drawings of this type.  There were good descriptions of how each garment was constructed, but I was frequently not able to visualize the construction.  A few simple diagrams of pattern pieces would really have helped, especially in the Spirals & Wraps section.

This circa 1938 dressing gown was made from wide ribbons, the shape achieved solely through varying the width of the ribbons.

As amazing as the ball gowns are, I have to admit that I prefer the precise tailoring seen in the coats and suits of Charles James.  Ever since I saw the garments he made for Ann Bonfoey Taylor, I’ve been a huge fan of his coats.  Just look at the cut of that sleeve and bodice!

The last section of the book was written by Sarah Scaturro and Glenn Petersen, conservators at the Costume Institute.  They explained how James’s construction techniques were often “inherent vices” or that the very techniques and materials he used often have led to the garment’s deterioration.  He freely mixed materials, and he manipulated fabrics in a way that has led them to be unstable.

Try not to cry over this photo of a badly damaged bodice.  The chiffon has torn due to stress put on the bodice from the weight of the skirt and the operation of the zipper.  There is simply no way to fix the problem, so if this dress were to be displayed pretty much all they could do is overlay the damage with a piece of matching chiffon.

If you are planning to see the exhibition, I’d go ahead and get the book before you go, because you certainly do not want to be carrying that heavy thing around the museum and city.  And if you are not going, you might want to invest in this one anyway.  It is a real gem.

 

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