Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading: Liberty: British, Colour, Pattern

Liberty of London is one of those companies whose products make my heart skip a beat.  Their Tana Lawn cottons simply cannot be beaten, and the scarves are some of the best in the world.  I always have my eyes open for Liberty scarves and garments made with Liberty fabrics when thrifting, as quality of this caliber comes at a price.  I also appreciate the history of the company, which has its roots in the Orientalist movement of the nineteenth century.

I can’t remember where I first saw this book, but after seeing the photos online I scurried off to Amazon to see if it were available.  This was back in the summer, and the book just arrived last week.  I spent much of that afternoon being absorbed into the world of Liberty textiles.

For those not familiar with Liberty’s history, the author, Marie-Therese Rieber, gives a good overview of it.  She tells about the founder, Authur Liberty, and how his Oriental emporium became one of the world’s most famous stores.  But the best parts of the book are the sections about the Liberty textiles and the clothing made from them.  Above you see two early twentieth century evening wraps.

An interesting feature of the book is that it is somewhat interactive.  The are several envelopes throughout that are filled with replicas of old Liberty advertising and other ephemera.  These are quite interesting, but this type of thing adds considerably to the cost of the book.  I enjoyed playing with all the little bits, but I’m not sure they actually add a lot to the value of the book.

Fortunately, there is more than enough great information in the book to make it valuable to the lover of textiles.   There was an excellent feature on how the Tana Lawns were originally block printed by hand.

In the early 1930s Paul Poiret was commissioned to do designs for Liberty.  The green and ivory gown on the left was designed by Poiret for Liberty in 1933.  Seeing all these early 1930s designs along with the fabric swatches makes me want to spend a week lost in the Liberty archives.

The peacock scarf above is in one of Liberty’s trademark prints, the Hera.  It was created in 1887  and continues to be a Liberty favorite.

In the late 1960s, Liberty prints became very popular with fashion designers, and so Liberty expanded the fabrics available to designers.  Their fabric designers like Bernard Nevill and Susan Collier called upon the feeling of nostalgia for Art Nouveau and Art Deco in their work.

The last section of the book is about modern Liberty prints and the inspirations and stories behind them.  This is the stuff textile lovers dream of.  To fully appreciate this book, you have to love textiles, and Liberty in particular.  It is not so much about fashion, and there is a small section on Liberty furniture and ceramics.  Still, there was enough material that was new to me to earn this book a spot in my library.

 

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Currently Reading – Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

I think I’d made the comment here that one thing the world does not need is another book about Coco Chanel.  Between 2009 and 2012, at least twelve books on Chanel’s life were published.  What more was there to say?

As it happens, I was wrong.  The world does need Mademoiselle:Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History , a book that at over 600 pages (including notes and references) attempts to set the story of Chanel’s life straight, and to place it and her work into the historical framework of the Twentieth Century.  It was a huge task, especially considering the myths surrounding the woman and her namesake business.

Through meticulous research and the locating of some key new resources such as the diaries and private papers of some of Chanel’s lovers, Rhonda Garelick has painted the most authentic portrait of Chanel to date. It isn’t as though there is a lot of new material, because there is not.  What makes this book so good is that Garelick cuts to the heart of the many conflicting stories about Chanel, and through her research comes up with the most plausible versions.  To add to the narrative, she also relates the alternate versions when there is any question as to the truth.

Most people writing about Chanel point out how she appropriated the clothing of her lovers.  What Garelick adds to this is how she also  absorbed and reflected their ideological and political views as well. Unfortunately, Chanel seemed to be attracted to men who were openly anti-semitic and who leaned toward fascism.

With the exception of Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping with the Enemy, most books about Chanel have reduced her life during the years between 1939 and 1945 to that of an aging romantic woman becoming infatuated with a younger German army officer.  With Mademoiselle, there is no white-washing of history.  Drawing on the research of Hal Vaughan, Garelick clearly presents the truth that Chanel was a spy for Germany.  There is also proof that she exposed an acquaintance as being Jewish, and that she went into at least one apartment that had been abandoned by its fleeing Jewish occupant and helped herself to art and antiques.

Garelick points out in her introduction that Chanel has become a popular first name for baby girls.  I’ve got to assume that the parents of these babies know nothing about Chanel the woman. As much as we might acknowledge her talent, Chanel was not a nice person, and she certainly would not be a good role model for your kid.

It also brings up the disturbing question of how much are we willing to overlook in the admiration of Chanel’s design talent and in the pursuit of style. Should we be like the Jewish Wertheimer family who continued to do business with Chanel even though she tried to “aryanize” their business during WWII, and who continue to protect her image even today?

Almost 45% of the book consists of end notes and the bibliography.  Unfortunately I was reading a advance reviewer’s copy on my e-reader and the notes were not linked.  I finally gave up tying to flip back and forth and read the notes at the end of each chapter.  They added a lot to the narrative.

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House.

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Currently Reading: Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town.

Factory Man by Beth Macy has nothing to do with fashion, and very little to do with textiles, but it is one of the most interesting and compelling stories I’ve read in a very long time.  It’s the story of John Bassett, who despite all odds has managed to keep his furniture business, Vaughn-Bassett, producing in the United States.

John Bassett was born into the the Southern furniture business.  His grandfather, J.D. Bassett founded Bassett in 1902, and from there the various branches of the Bassett family formed furniture factories all over south-western Virginia.  For years the companies were highly successful, even weathering the Great Depression without worker lay-offs.  After John Bassett’s grandfather and father died, he was presumed to be the next head of the family business, but instead his brother-in-law was put in charge.  In 1982, John Bassett was essentially edged out of his family’s company.  He decided to leave and work as the head at Vaughn-Bassett, which was a company owned by his wife’s family.

At this point I have to say that keeping all the Bassett’s straight was a difficult thing.  Thankfully there is a family tree in the back of the book to help keep who owned what in order.

Things continued to be fine in the furniture business until the 1990s.  At that point, workers began noticing groups of oriental people coming through on tours of the factories.  As amazing as it might sound, the factory owners welcomed people from Taiwan and China to come in and observe.  In many cases they took notes and even video taped the operations.

The furniture makers should not have been surprised when Chinese-made furniture began showing up in the American market.  At Vaughn-Bassett, which makes bedroom suites, they noticed a chest that looked very much like what they were making, but that had a price tag of only $100.  John Bassett bought one as a sample, had his engineers disassemble it and work up a cost projection.  They realized that the cost of the materials far exceeded $100.

So Bassett sent his son and an interpreter to China to try and locate the maker of the chest.  After days of searching, the factory was located.  John himself went to the place to talk with the head of the Chinese factory, and was told point-blank that it was in his best interest to close the US factory and to buy from China, that they could and would continue to undercut American furniture makers until they were forced out.

Today this story does not seem to be very surprising, but in the early 1990s, the first ripples of the Chinese way of doing business were just beginning to reach the US.  John Bassett went home and studied the trade laws and realized that the Chinese were guilty of a practice called “dumping.”  You flood the market with a cheaply priced product until the competition either joins you or folds, then you can raise prices and make a profit.

John Bassett then began legal proceedings against the Chinese.  It was not easy because he had to get the other bedroom furniture makers to join him, and many were reluctant because they were already involved with importing the cheaper goods.  Eventually, the case was won, and Vaughn-Bassett and the other companies who signed on with the complaint were granted millions of dollars in duties that the Chinese were forced to pay in order to continue to do business in the US.

Vaughn-Bassett took its share and reinvested it in the company, buying the latest equipment with the aim of becoming more efficient and more competitive.  But other companies were not able to survive even with the influx of cash.  The original Bassett eventually closed all seven of its US factories.  They put their duty money into developing retail stores.  Today, Bassett is mainly an importer and retailer.  The company survived at the cost of the communities that made Bassett rich.

All in all, there have been around 300,000 furniture manufacturing jobs lost in the US since 1990. Today Vaughn-Bassett employs around 700 people, and other companies, mainly makers of upholstered furniture, have also managed to keep domestic production.  With the closing of Bassett, the town of Bassett lost much of its infrastructure. Other towns in the area have unemployment rates as high as one third.

I’ve heard some know-it-all experts say that America does not need manufacturing jobs as long as we have the design and engineering that goes into manufacturing.  Try telling that to a 45 year old man or woman who worked for Bassett for twenty-five years and suddenly found themselves jobless.  All the fast food and retail jobs in the world can’t absorb 300,000 workers.

The book is very well researched, with what must have been hundreds of hours of interviews conducted by Beth Macy.  I was just thinking what a great movie this would make when I read on Macy’s website that a HBO mini-series based on the book is in development. What could have been a pretty dry story instead comes across like a spy novel.  The only negative thing I have to note is that Macy can’t resist trying to mimic the Southern Appalachian accent when recalling conversations with John Bassett. It comes across as patronizing.

I was given a digital review copy of Factory Man by the publisher, through Net Galley.  Just be aware if you read books on Kindle or other e-reader, that there are lots of end notes.  In my review copy they were not linked to the text, so accessing them was very inconvenient.

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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.

UPDATE
I neglected to mention that I was sent an e-copy of this book through Netgalley for review purposes.

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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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