Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading – A Variety of Crafting Books

When I was teaching, one of the questions most asked by parents was, “How do I get my child to read?”  By this they were really saying, “My kid won’t sit down with a book and enjoy it.”  As the conversation progressed it was usually revealed that the parent never read either.  Of course, there were the dozens of excuses with, “I don’t have time,” being the big winner.

I was lucky.  My mother managed to do a full day’s worth of housework by one in the afternoon, and the time between lunch (and Jeopardy, which came on at 12:30) and dinner was her reading time.  She always had at least one book with her place marked, as well as a magazine of two.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that her four children turned out to be big readers as well.

Whenever anyone asks how I’ve learned about fashion history, I tell them the truth – that I read a lot.  When I get a new book, I read it immediately, or put it in my reading queue.   If the reading queue runs dry, I pull out an older book to reread.  So I always have fashion or textile history of some kind on my mind.

Lately, I’ve discovered a new source of excellent clothing and textile information.  On rainy days I often drive over to the Goodwill Clearance Center, where there are usually eight or ten bins of used books.  In such a place you can experience first hand the old saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”  I’ve learned to open and flip through any book that seems remotely promising.  That’s how I learned that craft books, especially older ones, often have excellent historical information about the craft.

Tartans, Their Art and History, was an easy one, as the authors come right out and let the reader know this is not just about weaving.  And it is not just history, but also the process of making tartan.  Above you can see a vintage photo of women and girls gathering lichen which was used for dye.

And if the reader happens to be a weaver, there are beautiful photos of many tartans with the weaving diagram for each.

Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans is for knitters, but it too has lots of information about the history of fishermen’s sweaters and the symbolism they contain.  The author, Gladys Thompson actually went to the traditional fishing villages and followed any man who was wearing an interesting sweater.  Today she’d be accused of stalking.

This book is a Dover reprint of a 1969 work, and is still available on their website.

My latest find, and the one I’m currently reading, is Smocks and Smocking by Beverley Marshall.  It was published in 1980 at the end of the big crafts revival and back to nature movement of the 1970s.  From the cover you might think it was just another lets-get-funky-and-wear-funny clothes tome, but a glimpse inside tells another story.

There is a large and fascinating look at the historical garment which traces the evolution of the smock from agricultural clothing to fashion statement.

It also has good instructions on how to make a smock, and some 1980s dudes awkwardly modeling the modern examples.

I have a pretty good fashion library (and you can too) but the information in these books is so specialized that it would be hard to find elsewhere.   I’d love to hear of other unexpected sources of fashion information that you might know of.


Filed under Currently Reading, Viewpoint

Currently Reading: Christian Dior and I

I keep an ongoing list of vintage books that I want to acquire, and this one, Christian Dior and I, has been on it for a while.  The book was actually reprinted several years ago (and in the UK as Dior by Dior), but I was hoping to find a reasonably priced copy of the original.  And I did.

The book is marketed as Dior’s autobiography, but it really is not so much the story of his life as it is the story of the House of Dior.  He does tell bits about his childhood, and about how he became a designer, but the bulk of the book is concerned with telling how a couture house operates.  It’s a fascinating and personal look inside fashion at the highest level.

Dior starts with how he conceives the ideas for a collection.  A collection’s development began the day after the first showing of the last collection.  Dior would leave Paris for his country home where he would try to not even think of fashion for several weeks.  After that, he began the process by doodling, scribbling, drawing on individual sheets of paper which he kept stacked.  From these sketches, his ideas for the new collection emerged.

The finished sketches then went to the premiere of the atelier, where she and Dior would analyze and discuss the designs.  Then the workshops went to work on the toiles, or muslin patterns.  Dior and the head of each workroom would then tweak the design, and sometimes discard the idea completely.  Fabrics were chosen for the successful designs, and the work began on the models.

Over the next weeks, Dior would study each dress, and make changes, and then the day came when all the finished work was viewed, studied, analyzed, and altered.  No wonder Monsieur Dior did not want to look at the dresses after the first official showing!

Dior also explained how sales operated in his house.  He actually had nothing at all to do with the sales, and usually was not there when women came in to view the collection (which was done in the form of a show every afternoon).  A couture customer would pick out the models she wanted, and then the workshops would make the dress to her measurements.  A retail customer, like Neiman Marcus, would buy the toile so that the dress could be reproduced for sale in the US.

I read this book slowly, as to absorb the details of the workings of the House of Dior, but there is a lot of material, and I’ll be rereading this one very soon.

The book was published in 1957.  In the last lines of the book Dior talked about how he hoped to someday retire to his home in Provence.  “I think of this house as my real home, the home to which, God willing, I shall one day retire…”  But it was not to be.  That same year, Dior died of a heart attack.



Filed under Currently Reading, Designers

Currently Reading – Sixties Fashion by Jonathan Walford

One thing I’ve come to expect from books by Jonathan Walford is consistency and quality, and his latest, Sixties Fashion, From Less Is More to Youthquake does not disappoint.  Written from the fashion historian’s point of view, this is the type of book I like best.

What makes this book so great is how Walford effectively uses primary sources, especially magazine and newspaper accounts from the era, to add weight and meaning to the narrative.  It’s one thing to say that  in the mid 1960s fashions for the youthful were taking over, but it’s so much more enlightening when Walford quotes a New York Times  article from 1964 that explains the phenomena.

We are all familiar with the big names of the 1960s:  Mary Quant, Pierre Cardin, Courreges, Emilio Pucci,  Rudi Gernreich.  But Walford does not stop with the usual discussion of the familiar.  He also discusses designers who were influential, but who are not household names today.

As in Walford’s other books, the photographs are superb.  One complaint that I often have with fashion books is that the same famous photos tend to be used over and over.  But Walford uses photographs of garments from the Fashion History Museum combined with vintage fashion shoot photos and vintage ads.  The content is fresh, and the illustrations are very relevant to the text.

Another plus is the  readability of the book.  For a highly researched history, the writing is engaging and fluid.  It is fun to read.

The vintage photo is of Mary Quant, on the right, with models sporting her necktie dress.  The actual dress from the Fashion History Museum’s collection is also shown.

Here’s another example of a fashion shot along with the actual garment.  This dress is by Geoffery Beene, 1969.  Note the Midi protesters in the vintage photo at left.

Remember the granny gown of the mid to late 60s?

The book also talks about shoes and accessories, and there is a section on men’s fashions of the Sixties.

The late Sixties brought an increasing acceptance of pants for women.  It also was a time of bright and wild prints.

Modern art also influenced fashion in the Sixties.  How about those Op Art designs?

The hippie influence was important in the late 1960s and into the 70s.  Walford tells in the book how Afghani coats like the one pictured on the right became popular after John Lennon wore one to the launch of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.

I’ve read the book through, just to enjoy it, and now I’m going to give it a second, slower read to try and absorb all the great information.  If you are interested in how people dressed in the 1960s, this book is a must-have for your library.




Filed under Currently Reading

Currently Reading: Vintage Fashion and Couture

I bought this book in a moment of weakness.  I had sworn off any more books aimed at the vintage market, but after seeing some of the pages from this one, I let my guard down.

First, it has to be said that Kerry Taylor is a professional in the vintage business.  After running the Costume and Textiles division at Sotheby’s, she went on to establish her own auction house that specializes in clothing and textiles.  She’s handled thousands of old garments, and has seen works come through her business that most of us see only in museums.  Kerry Taylor knows vintage clothing.

But that aside, her book is like most other books on collecting vintage clothing.  It tries to be both history and sales guide, and it ends up failing at both.

It was this type of page that made me order the book.  Kerry picked out influential designers from each decade, and then showed typical garments, and even details and labels.   The Delphos dress on the right is quite commonly seen, but the stenciled velvet coat and jacket are not, and it is great having them illustrated in the book.  Had all the pages lived up to this quality, the book would be a real treasure.

In this page on Jeanne Lanvin, we are shown two dresses, including an example of her famous robe de style.  I know you can’t read it, but on each of the pages the last paragraph or two is about the market for that designer.  This information is very valuable, especially for people who can afford to buy at that level of collecting.

And while I’m not a fan of Martin Margiela, I did like the section showing and explaining his work.

Taylor also has sections illustrating style “icons.”  This one is, of course, Audrey Hepburn.  We’d know that dress anywhere, which is a problem.  Many of the photographs in the book are so commonly seen as to be nonessential.  Why show a photo of Hepburn in this dress, when most people have seen it many times?

Another example is this photo of Coco Chanel.  This section was, however, saved by the inclusion of the early Chanel labels.

But my biggest problem with the vintage photos is this particular one showing Dior’s famous Bar suit of 1947.  This photo has become almost synonymous with the suit, even though it was taken in 1957.  There is quite a bit wrong with this photo, as Jonathan Walford has explained.  Seriously, fashion publishers, it is time to retire this photo.

Unfortunately, there are also quite a few factual errors in the book.  The first one I noticed was in the Lanvin information.  Taylor wrote that Antonio Castillo was the designer at Lanvin from 1963, when actually he was there from 1950 through 1963.  In writing about Schiaparelli, Taylor declares that there does not seem to be a surviving example of her skeleton dress of 1938, when in fact, there is one in Taylor’s own city, at the Victoria and Albert.   Taylor also changes history by putting the Woodstock festival in 1968 instead of 69.

After catching the first error, I had to make myself stop looking for others.  The temptation was to sit with a fashion encyclopedia at hand and fact-check the entire book.  Since the book is somewhat UK-centric, I have no idea about so many of the labels she discussed, but I know I’d never quote this book without double-checking elsewhere.  In short, it is pretty much useless as a reference.

It makes me wish that Taylor had just stuck to what she knew, and that is the vintage market.  There was so much potential that just did not materialize.


Filed under Collecting, Currently Reading

Currently Reading: Cath Kidston’s In Print

I was vaguely familiar with the Cath Kidston name when I spotted this book at a thrift store recently.  And the subtitle, “Brilliant Ideas for Using Vintage Fabrics in Your Home”, pulled me right in.  I finally got around to reading it in the quiet hours after Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s pretty much just a picture book, with lots of soft and romantic prints splashed across each page, so I was able to get through it in one sitting.

For people not in Britain where the Kidston company is located, a bit of history is in order.  According to their website, Kidson became interested in vintage fabrics while working for a dealer of antique fabrics.  In 1993 she set up shop, making accessories from vintage fabrics and selling her own fabric based on a vintage wallpaper design.  By 1999 the business was a huge success and Cath Kidston released her first book, Vintage Style.  Now there over a dozen books, including the one above, published in 2006.

As with any “lifestyle” book that is written by someone who has a product to sell, the lines of vintage fabric and Cath Kidson fabric are somewhat blurred in the book.  Which are actually vintage prints, and which are Cath Kidston prints are not clearly identified in the text.  Perhaps they are all vintage, but some do look like updates to me.

In one section on abstract prints, I was impressed by one particular passage:

Abstract prints are still easy to pick up and well worth looking for, despite the fact that they are becoming increasingly fashionable.  There are famous designs by artists such as Lucienne Day, which are expensive and collectible.  They tend to appear at better auction houses and are a serious investment, not to be chopped into cushion covers.  Because I know little about this era, I am always cautious about cutting fabric up for cushions without looking at the seams.  Fabrics are normally named along the edge if they are by a famous studio or artist, so it is really worth checking before you get out the scissors.

Could it be that there is someone out there advocating caution before chopping up old textiles?  But later on, this brought me back to reality:

Some of the best painterly prints can be found on old fifties sundresses and summer skirts.  For me, the problem is that they never fit because they all have such tiny waists, so chop them up.

If you are in the UK, then if you take Kidson’s advice, you very well could be chopping into a Lucienne Day textile, as she did produce fabrics that were used by such dressmakers as Horrockses.  If you are in the US, then you might be cutting into a Picasso or Klee print from the Modern Masters line that was used by designers such as Claire McCardell.

Caution should be taken before cutting into any textile.  I’m a believer in redesigning old unwearable clothes that have no real value otherwise, and I have little problem using my stash of vintage fabrics.  But some thought has to go into the decision-making process before cutting.  Any vintage garment may have historic value, not just those by a famous designer.

As a collector of sportswear, I know that a 1920s wool sweater for a woman is much rarer than a beaded  party dress of the same era.  We need to be preserving a full range of what people wore, not just the couture and the special.

Okay, I’m not a fan of big rose prints, so I couldn’t really relate to the photos nor to the style promoted by the book.  Today, Cath Kidston is big business.  The prints are a bit trendier, and cute in a mumsy sort of way.  I have to admit that if I were traveling to London this season I’d be tempted by the London Christmas print umbrella.  It’s a seriously great novelty print.

Edited to correct spelling errors.


Filed under Currently Reading, Viewpoint

Currently Reading – Chanel by Amy de la Haye

I know we all love a juicy story, and that is what made the Chanel-with-a-Nazi-lover tale so great.  But sometimes we just need pure fashion, and that is what Amy de la Haye delivers in her book, Chanel.  In spite of the portrait of Coco Chanel on the cover, this book is not a biography.  It is a detailed overview of Chanel’s creations, and by Chanel it means both the woman and the company.

Of course it is pretty much impossible to explain Chanel’s work without examining her life to some extent.  More so than many designers, Chanel’s designs reflected what she experienced and lived and loved.  For instance, it is impossible to grasp her love of tweed without telling about her happy years in Scotland with the Duke of Westminster.  And you can see her religious training at the convent reflected in the symbols she used for her jewelry.

Chanel surveys the various stages of Coco Chanel’s career, from milliner to maker of jersey clothes to couture house in Paris to her comeback in 1954.  Her style and inspirations are broken down into segments of time, with each development building upon the last.

Today when many people think of  Chanel, they think of the suit that she developed in the early 1950s.  But de la Haye points out that Chanel was making similar suits in the 1920s.   Above you see an example from 1928.

The classic Chanel suit of the 1950s and 60s often came with a coordinating blouse.  The fabric of the blouse was often used as accents of trim on the suit.  Again, this coat and dress ensemble shows that Chanel was already using this technique in 1929.

De la Haye writes about how the company became stagnant after the death of Chanel in 1971.  It was not until Karl Lagerfeld showed his first collection for Chanel in 1983 that the house began to regain what it had lost.  From the beginning Lagerfeld made strong references to the signature designes that were associated with Chanel for so many years.  He took her love of camellias to a new level, and he took the famous chain from the strap of the 2.55 bag and the hem of the jacket to make it a prominent design feature.

Sometimes Lagerfeld will reference an entire collection from the past.  On the left you see a dress from Coco Chanel’s Tricolor collection of 1939.  Lagerfeld used that collection as the inspiration for his 2010 spring ready-to-wear showing, seen on the right.

There has been so much written about Chanel that it is hard to pick just one book on the topic.  For the person who is serious in the designs and the influences, this is the one I’d recommend.  For photos of Chanel and Lagerfeld’s work, then the catalog from the Met’s 2005 show is beautifully done.  And as for a pure biography, there are so many, that I really can’t suggest one.  Feel free to make a recommendation in the comments.


Filed under Currently Reading, Designers

Currently Reading: Sleeping With the Enemy, Coco Chanel’s Secret War

In preparation for making my “French Couture” jacket, I decided to reread my books about Coco Chanel, and I bought a few new ones as well.  One that I’d been meaning to read was Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War.

If you have read any of the hundreds of books about Chanel, then you know that she closed her couture house before the Nazi takeover of France, and that during World War II she lived in the Ritz Hotel and took a Nazi lover.  But for the most part the years between 1939 and 1954, when Chanel reopened her house, are just sort of skipped over in writings about her.

This book by Hal Vaughan attempts to fill in the blanks.  Vaughan spent years studying documents in England, France, Germany, Spain and Russia.  What emerged from his research is a pretty sorry tale.

Though the book is primarily concerned with the war years, Vaughan starts with Chanel’s birth in 1883, and follows her rise to fame.   He takes a close look at the influences of her life in an attempt to explain (but not justify) the actions she took during WWII.

Chanel was born to poor peasant parents.  When she was twelve her mother died and her father took her and her sisters to a convent to be reared by nuns.   According to Vaughan this is where Chanel first encountered anti-Semitism, as she was taught that it was the Jews who had killed Christ.   These beliefs were strengthened through several of her relationships, including those with her lovers the Duke of Westminster and artist Paul Iribe.

She was also quite bitter about an arrangement she made with Pierre and Paul Wertheimer in 1923.  The Wertheimers were Jews who were in the perfume business.  Chanel entered into a legal relationship where she pretty much signed over the rights to make Chanel *5 in return for 10% of the profits.  Even though the arrangement made her wealthy, after a while she began to feel that she had been cheated by the brothers.

In 1936 Europe was in turmoil.  The Nazis were gaining strength, the Spanish were at war, and in France the government seemed to be moving toward Communism.  Many labor unions organized strikes, closing down industry, services, and shops.   In June all of Chanel’s employees closed down her shop and atelier.  Chanel was infuriated, and to a large extent blamed the French Prime minister, Leon Blum, who was Jewish.  After a standoff that lasted several months, Chanel gave in to the worker’s demands.

In 1939, after Germany invaded Poland and France declared war on Germany, Chanel abruptly closed her business.  She declared that war was no time for fashion, but Vaughan proposes the idea that this was Chanel’s way of getting even with her workers who had gone on strike three years earlier.  The closing of a couture house might not seem like a big deal, but the closure meant that 3000 workers lost their jobs.

As the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, Chanel took another lover, Nazi agent Gunther von Dincklage.  Vaughan suggests that Chanel first became involved with Dincklage because her nephew, Andre Palasse had been captured by the Germans.  She needed help getting his release from a German camp.  In 1941 she made a deal to obtain Andre’s release.  It involved Chanel going to Spain as an agent for Germany in return for his release.

After the occupation Chanel also tried to get back control of her perfume business, claiming that the Jewish Wertheimers could not be the legal owners under German law.  But the brothers had foreseen Chanel’s move and had signed over the company to an “Aryan”business associate.  After the war they had to fight him to regain control and were successful.

Throughout the war Chanel continued to made trips on the behalf of the Third Reich.  She was even involved in an effort of some Nazi officers to get a message to Winston Churchill, hoping to save their skin as it became obvious that Hitler’s regime was doomed.  During the years that Chanel had been the lover of the Duke of Westminster, she had become great friends with Churchill.  These officers attempted to exploit this relationship.

After the Liberation, life became quite difficult for those who had collaborated with the enemy.  Thousands of French citizens, including Chanel, were arrested.  In Chanel’s case, she was interrogated and released, possibly with the help of her old friend, Churchill.  She quickly fled Paris, going to live in Switzerland.  For a while she looked to be in the clear, but in 1946, her involvement was again questioned.  This time she denied all the charges, even though there were documents that contradicted her testimony.

For some years Chanel lived with Dincklage in Switzerland, but by 1951 she was by herself and at loose ends.  In 1953 she decided the time was right for her to return to fashion.  Her comeback show was in February, 1954, and was met with a lukewarm reception in Paris, but it was acclaimed in the Unites States.   Her company was in deep financial trouble, and an unlikely savior appeared to save it.

Pierre Wertheimer offered to buy the business, the Chanel name, and her real estate.  In return all  of Chanel’s expenses would be paid by the company and she would retain control of the couture house.  At 71 years of age, it was too good a deal to pass up.  It was a money maker for them all.  Chanel spent the rest of her life in comfort, and the Wertheimers became fabulously wealthy.  The family still owns Chanel.

This is a greatly simplified account of Vaughan’s research.  The evidence against Chanel is pretty clear – she was not just sleeping with the enemy, she was the enemy.   While Vaughan gives a convincing case for Chanel’s guilt, the writing is at times disjointed and hard to follow.  There is a lot of skipping back and forth in time, and so it helps to have a good grasp of the larger events of the 1930s and 40s.

It might be easy to say that Chanel lived a charmed life, that she escaped justice and instead of punishment, spent her later years in luxury.  But the truth seems to be that she was one unhappy individual for most of her life.   Her lovers never stayed, but instead, married others.  Her last years were spent in what she feared most, being alone.


Filed under Currently Reading, Designers, World War II