Category Archives: Currently Reading

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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Currently Reading – The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Today’s book review features a book that, quite honestly, will not be to everyone’s taste.  In fact I almost did not buy it after spotting it at an estate sale months ago.  I wasn’t sure it would fit in with my current interests, and I already had a huge stack of books waiting to be read.  It was written by a Harvard professor and had hundreds of footnotes, and my fear was it would be a bit too academic (meaning dry…)

But the subject matter drew me in.  A quick look through The Age of Homespun revealed that this was a book about colonial textiles and the stories behind the objects.  I’d not done any real reading of American colonial history since my college days, but it was my first historical love and my university degree.  So I thought this book might be a nice change of pace.

Ulrich examines twelve homemade objects, all from New England and all having to do with textiles.   There is a chapter for each object and the stories the objects reveal.  Each one was so engrossing that I have only read a chapter a day to give myself time to properly digest all the information.

What could have been a dry examination of physical objects was instead a carefully woven account of how objects reflect the history of the time of their manufacture, how people related to these objects, and how these stories can be revealed to us today.  Ulrich used many sources to gather the information for the book, but what really struck me was just how much information still exists from hundreds of years ago.  Those New Englanders were real record keepers.

I was also impressed at how many diaries from the period were kept and handed down through generations of a family.  I don’t even have my own teenage diary, so to see that many diaries were kept and treasured is interesting.  Even better, Ulrich actually had access to diaries from some of the families who made the objects she featured in the book.  The diaries along with family histories and public records helped to paint a vivid picture of these people’s lives through the objects that survive.

Quite a bit of the book is concerned with the production of cloth.  For many families, producing yarn and fabric was a way to obtain other necessities and small luxuries.  The system of trade was complicated, but it worked for a society in which money was scarce.

To best enjoy and appreciate this book, one does need to have at least some knowledge of the history of New England.  A lot happened in that region between the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and the Shot Heard Round the World at Lexington in 1775.  Ulrich pulls from this extensive history in interpreting the objects.

I learned from 28 years of teaching history to pre-adolescents that the best way to study and learn it was not through the memorization of facts and dates.  The best history students were the ones who looked at the past and could draw conclusions about cause and effect and overlapping influences and see that historical events did not happen in isolation.  This book is a masterful example of that kind of history.

All this go me to thinking about weaving and how treasured a textile would be if one had to either grow or trade for the raw materials, then process the fiber into yarn, and then do the weaving in order just to have the cloth.

In the midst of all this textile pondering, I happened upon a little tabletop loom at an antique store.  I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to leave the store without the loom.  But I was not quite out of the woods.

Now this little flea market find was more my speed!  At least it didn’t take up six square feet of table space.

So yes, I am now trying my hand a some very simple weaving.  I figured that anything suitable for a ten-year-old couldn’t be too complicated.  And it makes a nifty bit of fabric.

Okay, it is a bit loose, but this is my first try.  Do you think all my family members should get handwoven belts for Christmas?

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Currently Reading: You’re Better Off Naked

You know how I love a good dose of fashion advice from the past, so this little book from 1962 was irresistible.  It was written by Wayne Healy, who was actually a woman, and who had worked as a writer and editor for various fashion publications including Glamour and Harper’s Bazaar.  As you might guess from the title, this book was written with a sense of humor, but there is a touch of something else that I can’t quite put my finger on.  Maybe a touch of honesty tinged with sarcasm?

But I’ll let you be the judge.  Here are some of Wayne’s words of wisdom.

The most formidable barrier to good looks on any basis – in or out of clothes – is the load of extra poundage every other woman in the country carries with her.

Fashion magazines are gourmet fare, stuffed from cover to cover with improperly identified goodies.

There are no fashionable or unfashionable colors.

To dress well you must be a sheep.

When color reaches the point of accessories, a number of women turn from gay sports to nitpicking little deacons.  They choose a hat matched to a suit, say – and then drive relentlessly on for matched gloves, jewels, bag and shoes.

Bermuda shorts – with their two-inch-above-the-knee stop – are ghastly on the most beautiful legs in the world.

Fashions that are fundamentally ugly on most women never should be taken seriously, no matter how hard the press and fashion industry try to shove them down your throat.

And most depressingly:

At age thirty-five, nevertheless, a certain amount of physical deterioration has begun in everyone, and will continue till life ends.  The important job of a woman is to hold the deterioration to a minimum, and then recognize  the exact extent of it at all times.

Books like You’re Better Off Naked are important because they give us a glimpse into, if not exactly the way women thought about dressing, then at least about the types of advice they were being given.  Today we’d find a lot to take issue with in Healy’s advice, but it is surprising how much of it stills applies.  Bermuda shorts really are ghastly.

At one point in her career, Healy must have written a fashion advice column, as some of them were added to the back of the book.  One writer asked what were the twenty-five worst fashions.  I’ve edited the list to ten.  Remember, this is 1962.

Cardigans with large fur collars.

Clear plastic or lucite handbags.

Cotton or kid gloves embroidered in rhinestones or sequins.

Small, cheap fur stoles.

The artificial flowers that come with the dress.

Plastic bags stamped to imitate alligator.

Prints with writing – such as Oh, la,la, or L’amour toujours.

Anything decorated with poodles.

Big skirted teen-age taffeta date dresses on ladies past thirty.

Cheap satin.

Clearly, the Fifties were over.

 

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Currently Reading: The Study of Dress History by Lou Taylor

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately,  even more than usual.   That is just a small warning that there will probably be quite a few book reviews here in the coming weeks.

I put the book for today, The Study of Dress History by Lou Taylor on my list of books to find after reading Lynn Mally’s review of it on AmericanAgeFashion.  This is not a book about fashion history; it is a guide to using good research technique in the study of what people have worn.

Published in 2002, Taylor spends a good deal of print explaining why dress history is important.  She talks about how in some circles, dress historians are considered to be little more than measurers and describers who spend their days recording the tiniest of details of the object before them.  By the time one finishes this book, it is pretty clear that the study of clothing is more than just studying the object.

Taylor identifies and discusses many of the sources of information about clothing.  There are, of course, the garments themselves, but that is just the beginning.  We can find fashion information in literature.  It is found in art, including paintings, drawings and cartoons.  We find clothing information in photographs and in motion pictures.  And oral histories are another valid source.

What Taylor really stresses is that in the study of dress, it is vital not to rely too heavily on just one kind of source.  Of course, that is true of all historical studies, and was hammered home in my own university studies.  But I loved how she clearly showed the pitfalls of assuming too much from any one source.

You might realize that I love oral history and the sharing of our own clothing experiences.  But there are so many times that those of us, even when we are of the same age, have different memories of a fad or a particular fashion.  A lot had to do with where we lived, but sometimes things just did not happen as we remember.

I have a good example to share.  A lot of people got really upset when on an episode of Mad Men, Peggy Olsen was hanging her pantihose to dry.  The year was 1962.  The cry went up across the internet, “There were no pantihose in 1962!  I remember!  I was there!”

I did not start wearing stockings until 1967 or so, and my first hose were worn with garters.  About 1968 pantihose became readily available in my town, and we all switched to them.  Does that mean that pantihose were not available until 1968?  That’s what my experience was.

The above ad is from 1960, and clearly shows that Glen Raven Mills was selling pantihose in that year.  So yes, it was correct for Mad Men to show a character wearing them, even though in my corner of the world, they had not yet caught on.

Another caution is to not assume from the ad that despite the fact that pantihose were available, that they were widely accepted and worn.  Even though they were a great idea, they did not replace stockings with garters overnight.

This is what Taylor means by not using just one set of evidence.  The more information we have, the better and more complete a picture we can draw of the past.

If you are interested in the study of history I can’t recommend this book enough.  It is really a great guide to the resources available to clothing historians.

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