Marshall Field & Co, Chicago (aka Macy’s)

When visiting a new place, I’m always interested in the history of fashion retail in that town or city. In so many ways, in Chicago this is epitomized by Marshall Field’s, a long established department store located in the heart of the old shopping district of State Street inside the Loop. To sum up a lot of history, the store that became Marshall Field’s was started in 1852 by Chicago big-wig Potter Palmer. Field became involved in a partnership in the store in 1865.

In 1868 the renamed Field, Leiter, and Co. moved to where the store is now located on State Street. But this is not the same building, which was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. As the city rebuilt, so did Field and Leiter. In 1881, Field bought out Leiter, and Marshall Field and Co. was officially born. A series of building additions ensued, and in 1907 the store as it exists today was pretty much finished.

Over time, Marshall Field became a Chicago institution, so much so that in 2005 when the store was bought by Macy’s there was a big protest. Fortunately, much of the interior was left intact so that visitors to the store today can get a good idea of the grandeur in which people shopped in the early part of the Twentieth Century.

The store has two large open areas, and one of them has a favrile glass mosaic vaulted ceiling decorated by Tiffany. It’s worth taking a stroll into the building just to see it.

Today, of course, the shopping experience is just not the same with the bright florescent lighting and the same Macy’s merchandise available across the country. Still, if one uses their imagination…

The Chicago History Museum has a display on Marshall Field & Company, which was a fashion leader in the city.

One block down State Street is the site of another great Chicago department store – Carson, Pirie, Scott. As you can see, today the lower floors are a Target, but the beautiful ironwork in the Louis Sullivan designed building still amazes anyone who takes the time to stop and really look at it.

As I was thinking about the grand old department stores and their disappearance from American retail, I turned to Jan Whitaker’s book on the subject, Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class. Rereading the first few chapters reminded me that while we mourn the demise of stores like Marshall Field and Wanamaker’s and Rich’s, when the department stores took over one hundred or so years ago, people were mourning the loss of the little private owner specialty store. And interestingly enough, it looks like today’s retail beasts – Walmart, Target, Costco, and the like – will soon be at the mercy of Amazon as it moves into the grocery and brick and mortar business. Will we have the same nostalgia for the big box chain store?

As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

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Making Mainbocher at the Chicago History Museum

One of the highlights of our recent trip to Chicago was a visit to the Chicago History Museum, and the highlight of the museum was a current exhibition, Making Mainbocher. You may know the name Mainbocher, as he was a major designer from 1930 through 1971. Though he got his start in fashion in Paris, Main Bocher (as he was originally named) was from Chicago, and the exhibition began with a look at his time in the city, and the influences the city had on his long career.

Bocher always loved the arts, and during his school days in Chicago he studied drama and music. He later started a course in illustration at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and to help make ends meet he worked at Sears, Roebuck, answering customer complaint letters, a job that later he credited with teaching him the value of good customer service.

At nineteen, Main Bocher left Chicago, and never again lived there. In the years before World War I he lived in New York, with long stretches in Europe. He had just had his first major commission as an illustrator (above) when the US entered the war. He enlisted, and remained in France until the outbreak of the next war. During the 1920s Bocher tried fashion illustration, and ended up at Harper’s Bazar as an artist. The exhibition had quite a few examples – typical 1920s illustration, all signed Main Bocher. His big break came in 1923 when he went to work for French Vogue. In 1927 he was made the editor.

But Bocher felt he had more to offer in fashion. He quit his Vogue position to open his own couture house. Unfortunately his timing was poor, as a few months after he quit, Wall Street crashed. He put the plan on hold while he scraped together the money to start the business. In 1930 he opened his salon, named it Mainbocher and Frenchied up the pronunciation. He was forty years old.

Things were slow at first, but his persistence paid off, and the business became a great success. Probably the biggest boost to Mainbocher came in 1937 when Wallis Simpson had him design her wedding dress and trousseau for her wedding to the Duke of Windsor.

The earliest clothes in the exhibition date from 1937. The dress on the left is actually two pieces, a tunic over a long dress. The coat in the middle is really beautiful. It is a wool tweedy plaid cut on the bias, and has a lovely drape. Mainbocher donated these two pieces to the Chicago History Museum in 1968.

This suit is also from 1937, and is quite special as it is one of the designs that originated with the Duchess of Windsor’s trousseau. Her version was grey with blue and white accessories.

This suit belonged to Mrs. Stephen Ingersoll of Chicago. I’m not sure it is possible for a suit to have a prettier neckline.

When it became obvious that Paris was going to fall to the Germans, Mainbocher and his partner (who was also his illustrator) Douglas Pollard, left France and settled in New York. To raise money to restart his business, Mainbocher partnered with Warner Corsets with a line of corsets. As far as I could tell, this is the only time Mainbocher did a line of any type of ready-to-wear.

The two evening dresses above (1945 and 1946) are good examples of Mainbocher’s philosophy toward embellishment. The dresses themselves had spare, elegant lines. Mainbocher added the decoration so to eliminate the need for jewelry.

This dress is from 1945, and was made for Mrs. Watson Armour III. The dress was originally designed in yellow, but Mrs. Watson requested it in grey.

One of the real strengths of the exhibition is the presence of a book of facsimiles of the original sketches and swatches. Here is the same dress in the original yellow.  Almost all the designs had the accompanying sketch, and it added so much to the show.

During WWII, the scarcity of materials forced designers to develop ways of stretching the wardrobes of their clients. Mainbocher made cocktail aprons that matched his gowns. He continued the idea with the 1947 gown on the right. He also came up with the idea of the embellished evening sweater, which went on to be a classic of the 1950s.

This 1951 ballgown rated  its own revolving pedestal. It was a good way to see how Mainbocher used four different colors of satin to make the skirt.

Mainbocher was a master of the strapless gown, which he first designed in 1934. By the late 1940s it was a big part of what he was best known for.

And while Mainbocher is best known for his ball gowns, I do believe that his suits are my favorites.  There were only a few suits in the exhibition, but they were all stunning. The original sketch shows that the applied motif on the jacket and the waist band is also in a matching off-white silk blouse. Details matter.

Possibly my favorite in the entire exhibition, this navy suit dates from 1948.

I love Mainbocher’s continued use of the self-applique. It adds detail without being obvious. This was another case where I really wanted to go up and unbutton the jacket so I could see the rest of it.

I need to see this dress as well. The bodice has an interesting criss-cross that tends to mirror the points of the lace decoration of the skirt.

In the 1960s when the fashion world was going mad, Mainbocher continued to do what he did best – making beautiful clothes for women who wanted to look sophisticated. 1964 and 1966.

In the 1940s Mainbocher did a bit of uniform design work. In 1942 he was contracted to design uniforms for the WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

I especially loved this grey and white seersucker work uniform.  It is actually a dress with jacket.

In 1948 Mainbocher redesigned uniforms for the Girl Scouts of America.

And in what is probably the chicest nurses’ uniform ever, he made this one for the student nurses at Passavant Memorial Hospital (which is now Northwestern Memorial in Chicago).

It was a beautiful exhibition, and I left feeling like I really knew what Mainbocher was about. Curator Petra Slinkard did an excellent job, and if you are in the Chicago area and have not seen this show, it is well-worth the time and effort to see it.  Closes August 20, 2017.

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The Art Institute of Chicago

High on my list of things to do in Chicago was a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. It was so great that I went twice, so I could spend extra time with some of the works I found to be most fascinating. First, I have to say that I was actually surprised by the scope of the collections at the Art Institute. Sometimes we (or maybe I should say I) make the mistake of thinking about artists through their most familiar works and need to be reminded that most artists made works that, while not as well-known, are still masterful. The Art Institute has its share of the most famous, like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884, but it is crammed full of lesser known delights from Winslow Homer, Auguste Renoir, and many others.

I could write about the collections at the Art Institute of Chicago for days, but I’ll be limiting this review of my visit to things mainly of interest to textile and clothing fans.

This work by American artist Charles Demuth is titled Spring. Can you guess why?

This is actually a painted collage of textile samples of the sort that were sent to makers and designers to advertise the new season’s fabrics. The year was 1921, and Demuth was commenting on how the changing seasons were now marked by what people could buy rather than by nature.

John Singer Sargent is best known for the wonderful society portraits he painted, so this work, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frescati, Italy, 1907, was a delightful surprise. I love pictures that show women actively involved in crafts. And I would love to see what Jane von Glehn, the woman portrayed, was herself painting.

It seems as if a woman sitting with her sewing has always been a popular theme for painters. Maybe because having the work helped the sitter hold the pose. Anyway, here’s a pretty example from Renoir, Young Woman Sewing, 1879.

This portrait, Madame Pastoret and her Son, was painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1791/2. I usually find works by David to be gloomy, but this one seems to be cheered a bit by the reddish-brown furniture.

The unmistakable work of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, The Weaver shows weaver Luz Jimenez using a traditional loom with a back strap.

I think my favorite gallery was one containing several works by Winslow Homer. The painting above, Croquet Scene from 1866, might be familiar to readers of fashion history books.  It is commonly used to illustrate the dress elevator, a device that drew up the skirt to protect it while the wearer was participating in outdoor activities.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I have never seen the above painting by Homer, Mount Washington.

When this was painted in 1869, a type of nature tourism had taken hold in the eastern United States. While real pioneers were roughing it on their way west, wealthy Easterners could experience nature while staying in grand hotels and wearing fashionable clothing.

Peach Blossoms, from 1878 is another example of the types of outdoor scenes Winslow Homer created. The placard notes pointed out how the manner in which the blossoms were painted shows how he was influenced by Japanese prints.

Is she wearing pants? I could not tell. This is Nouvart Dzeron, A Daughter of Armenia, painted in 1912 by Chicago artist Ralph Elmer Clarkson. It wasn’t just Paul Poiret in Paris who was pushing “exoticism” in 1912.

Another favorite was Paris Street, Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte. The painting is so large that you feel yourself being drawn into it. The artist used math to figure the perspective, but the wet stones give an air of complete immediacy.

So often parodied, but still, so very good, Hopper’s Nighthawks is one of the best known works in the Art Institute.

Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 better known as Whistler’s Mother, was there on loan from the  Musée d’Orsay. The Art Institute does have large holdings of Whistler’s work, which were displayed along with his mother in a special gallery.

Another example of the influence of Japanese printing, The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt was painted in 1893. The museum has a large collection of Japanese prints, and it was interesting to view them after reading about how so many Western artists in the late Nineteenth Century were influenced by them.

And finally, another American woman artist, Georgia O’keeffe, was well-represented. I’ve seen reproductions of this painting, Sky Above Clouds, IV many times, but I had no idea of the magnitude of it.  The painting is twenty-four feet long and is hung above a stair landing.

I just found out that a major exhibition Georgia O’keeffe: Living Modern will be traveling to Winston-Salem, NC later this summer. If you are in the New York area, better see it before it closes at the Brooklyn Museum in July. In December it travels to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

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1920s Gingham Romper

About a year ago I went on a rant over how some vintage clothing sellers and buyers have changed the vocabulary of certain garments in order to made them seem more versatile. In particular I was irritated about the use of the word “romper” when the object in question was obviously a gym suit or a bathing suit. I even went so far as to say that women did not wear rompers, that the romper is a garment for a baby or a toddler.

I never like being wrong, but when I am it pleases me that my fellow fashion history lovers care enough to set me straight.  After posting the rant I got an email from Lynne (otherwise known as the best online researcher I know) that contained a 1920s sewing pattern for a woman that was clearly labeled a romper. She also sent along a photo of a very similar garment she has in her own collection.

Properly corrected, I then set off to find an example for my collection.  Last week I finally was able to add the one seen above. There is no doubt this is a garment for an adult, and it is also apparent that this is an outer garment, not lingerie.

Notice that there are snap closures on both shoulders and another on the front of the neck.  This made it easy for the wearer to put on the romper by stepping into it and pulling it up.

The tie belt sits on the top of the hips, giving a proper 1920s silhouette.

The inside legs and the crotch are shaped with the use of a wide gusset. There is elastic in the legs, but it is old, crunchy, and it no longer stretches. I’ll not replace it, but if this ever goes on display some new elastic can be inserted along side the old.

The shoulders have those handy little lingerie strap holders that prevented that embarrassing bra strap slip-up.

I’m quite sure this romper was made at home rather than purchased. The construction is very good, but there are a few places where alterations were made while the garment was being made. There is also quite a bit of hand-stitching.

I tried to locate the photos Lynne sent to me, but failed. I did find an example of a Butterick sewing pattern for a romper in a post at Witness2Fashion. It was included in a feature of costume party patterns. I located another, very similar one from McCall Patterns. 

So rompers definitely were a thing for women, at least in the 1920s and 1930s. Still, I don’t agree with calling a gym suit a romper, no matter how much the garment is similar. In fact, my romper here looks to be a direct descendant of my circa 1915 gym suit.

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National Museum of the US Air Force, Dayton, Ohio

One of the big surprises on our recent trip across the Midwest was the National Museum of the US Air Force. It wasn’t one of my choices, but it did end up being a favorite.  I’ve been in enough military museums to know that there are always plenty of textiles, usually in the form of uniforms, but this one proved to be loaded with things of interest.

The museum is huge, and it begins with the earliest of days of aviation. It is appropriate that the museum is located in Dayton, the home of Wilbur and Orville Wright, pioneers of winged flight.

It’s important to note that the Wright Brothers got started in transportation with their bicycle shop in Dayton. Opened in 1892, by 1896 they were making their own brand of bikes. The bicycle was not just a toy; it was an important method of transport, and was especially embraced by women. I was happy to see an example of a Wright bicycle in the museum, and was especially happy to see that it was a woman’s bike.

Starting with World War I, there were plenty of uniforms on display. Most of these items belonged to Stephen Thompson of Dayton, and includes a sock with a bullet hole. Thompson was shot in the leg and because of the unavailability of medical help, he used his own pocket knife to remove the bullet. The bullet is there somewhere.

These items belonged to Lt. Robert Wanamaker, who survived the war, and Lt. Fred Morton, who did not. Wanamaker was shot down by German ace Ernst Udet who took some of the fabric from Wanamaker’s plane as a souvenir. Even though he was badly injured, Wanamaker autographed the scrap for Udet! When they met again in 1931, Udet returned the fabric to Wanamaker.

When the war ended, many french women embroidered banners in appreciation of all that American squandons had done in service to France.  This illustration by George Barbier was in a 1919 issue of fashion magazine Gazette du Bon Ton.

The museum had a display of six of the banners. I’m sorry this photo is so poor as these were so beautiful.

As expected, there were lots of World War II leather jackets. Members of flight crews sometimes decorated their own jackets, but in many cases there was one member of a crew who became the unofficial designer. The jacket above was worn and decorated by Robert Dean of Dayton. All the bombs are dated and labeled.

Artists at the Walt Disney Studios designed many of the official  squadron insignia.

You can’t really tell, but that is Donald Duck and his nephews on this jacket worn by nurse 1st Lt. Evelyn Ordway, on the bottom right of my photo.

All the above items were worn by nurses, most of whom flew on evacuation missions and tended to the wounded. It’s interesting how different the items the women wore for their work from the official uniforms.

The museum has a large display of items from woman flyers and pilots.

WASP stands for Women Airforce Service Pilots, a paramilitary group of women pilots who were trained to fly non-combat aircraft.

There was also an area dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen.  This jacket belonged to Colonel Edward Gleed.

There was an interesting exhibit on the Holocaust, and the role of the Air Force in freeing captives in concentration and prisoner of war camps.

On a much lighter note, there was a nice tribute to comedian Bob Hope, who did fifty-seven tours for the USO, entertaining American troops.

During the Korean War, American airmen took to decorating their headgear. At the top, a Korean painter decorated this helmet with scenes from Korean life. The middle cap was painted with the Thunderbirds emblem.  On the bottom cap, Major Joseph Turner kept a record of his 101 missions.

The museum does a really good job of showing a wide range of uniforms and personal artifacts.  Had this museum just contained aircraft, I’ve have been looking for the nearest bar.

But even some of the “planes” were amusing.  This is not a UFO; it’s an Avro Canada VZ-9AV Avrocar, a 1950s attempt at making a vertical takeoff craft. It was an expensive failure, but an fun ending to our visit.

The National Museum of the US Air Force is located at Wright Patterson air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It’s free and well worth a visit.

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Benjamin B. Green-Field, or Chicago’s Bes-Ben

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Chicago this spring was to see the Mainbocher exhibition (more about that later) at the Chicago History Museum. I had a feeling that there would be more of interest there than that exhibition, and I  was not disappointed. I was delighted to see that the fashion gallery was named for Chicago milliner Benjamin Green-Field, who worked under the label, Bes-Ben.

Benjamin and his sister Bessie, (get it? Bes, Ben.) opened a millinery shop in Chicago in 1919. The business was successful, and by the late 1920s there were five Bes-Ben shops in Chicago.  In 1939 Bessie got married and left the business. As WWII loomed, Benjamin had to get creative as materials began to get scarce and were eventually rationed. He began to incorporate non-traditional millinery materials into his designs. Everything from toy animals to playing cards became a part of a Bes-Ben hat.  Women loved them.

The Bes-Ben material is scattered around the galleries, but it’s not hard to recognize it when you see it.  This hat was designed in 1957 to celebrate the opening of an exhibition in Chicago of the work of Pablo Picasso.

In an area devoted to the industries and stores of Chicago, I found this display of five Bes-Ben hats.

“Women’s hat, black velvet with chenille bees, early 1960s”

Top: “Navy straw with applique butterflies, 1956”

Bottom: “Grey wool with floral embroidery, 1960s”

“Woman’s hat, black linen with embroidery and mirrors, 1958”

Bes-Ben hats did not come cheap, but at the end of each season all remaining hats were put on sale for five dollars each. The only catch was that you had to be outside the store at 2 am the day of the sale, when the hats were thrown out of the window.  Lucky catchers of hats paid their $5 and went home with a real prize!

Not only were his hats whimsical, Green-Field himself was a bit of a character. He wore this suit in the 1970s.

Today, Bes-Ben hats are highly collectible – the crazier the design, the higher the price tag.

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Vintage Miscellany – June 4, 2017

In case you think “fat shaming” is a new thing, here’s proof that it’s over 100 years old.

The interesting thing about this photo is the woman on the left.  Yes, I think she looks like a man too, but I’m sure that is due to the low quality of this print.  In any case, she is not wearing stockings, which at the time this photo was taken, the late nineteenth century, was a big no-no, at least in the USA. Such a rebel!

And now for some news. Since I was gone most of the past two weeks, I’m most grateful to reader Nann for supplying me with quite a few very interesting articles.

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