Terminology

Our words are important.  This is true in politics and in fashion history.  I love people who have the strength to sell old clothes online because I know how much work it can be, but what I don’t like is how a garment can morph from its original purpose to something entirely different in the interest of selling that garment.

The garment shown above is a gymsuit.  Period.  It is not a playsuit.  It is not a romper. It is, despite what etsy listings would lead one to believe, a gymsuit.

This is a bathing suit by Tina Leser.  Period.  It is not a playsuit.  It is not a romper. It is, despite what etsy listings would lead one to believe, a bathing suit.

 

This is a 1911 bathing suit.  A similar suit is currently listed on etsy as a “1920’s Cotton Playsuit, Beach Romper, Athletic Wear,  Bloomers” but it too, is a bathing suit.  Nowhere in the description, nor in the tags, was the term bathing suit even used.  That would completely  eliminate that suit from the search I regularly do for older bathing suits.

But more importantly, things like this change the terminology of fashion and of clothing.  It’s like calling a short 1920s dress a “mini”, or a long 1930s dress a “maxi”.  These terms did not come into use until decades later, and so using them in an older context is incorrect.  I will agree that it is possible that some people might have referred to the Tina Leser type suit as a playsuit, but rompers were for toddlers, not for grown women.

As of this writing, there are 3125 listings for “playsuit” in the women’s vintage category on etsy.  Most of these are for 1950s and 1960s bathing suits.  Some are for 1980s jumpsuits.  And all are titled and tagged in a manner that a serious collector is never going to find them.

UPDATE: I know better than to make a statement so definite as ” rompers were for toddlers, not for grown women.”  A friend has emailed a photo of a 1920s sewing pattern of a one piece garment with legs for ladies, misses and girls, and the pattern refers to it as a romper.  Let me rephrase that to say that in my experience, rompers were worn by my little sister and cousins in the 1960s, and I wore culotte dresses in the 60s and jumpsuits in the 70s.

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Manus X Machina, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Part III

Today I finish up tantalizing all of you with photos of stunning clothing.  And today’s view holds some absolutely stellar clothing.

Lace

Above is a suit from Yves Saint Laurent, from the spring 1963 haute couture.  It seemed to be a real crowd favorite, and I can see why.

The lace is just exquisite! It was also made by machine.

The dress on the left is from Simone Rocha, from her spring 2014 ready-to-wear collection.  She called this the “Wet Lace Frill Dress”.  It’s not really wet; the illusion is achieved by use of a foil polyurethane layer laminated to back of the lace of the bodice, which is nylon.  It was not particularity appealing.

At first glance one might have “1920s” fit through the head when looking at the dress on the right, but it is actually a 1963 cocktail dress from Balenciaga.  The lace is machine made, but the dress is constructed by hand.

Here’s where I got to show off a bit of knowledge to my friend, Jill.  This silk lace gown is by Chanel, and is from 1938.  You can see the precise placement of the medallion motifs, but what you can’t see in my photo is how the lace was trimmed and overlapped to match, instead of being constructed with straight seams.

And while Coco Chanel’s use of flowers is exuberant, next to Karl Lagerfeld’s floral concoctions the decoration on this dress looks understated.

This is the place in the exhibition where I was to the point that I’d been exposed to all the hard plastic and 3D garments I could take.  By looking though my photos you are not going to see an accurate representation of this part of the exhibition.  The Hussein Chalayan and Iris van Herpen and threeARFOUR hard dresses simply ceased to be of interest to me.  Maybe due to my viewing of the Iris van Herpen show at the High Museum in Atlanta, I had seen these concepts recently and they were fresh on my mind.

Call me old fashioned, but beautiful as those clothes are, I’ve got to question if they are, in fact, fashion.

This 1920s dress has an interesting history.  It came to the Met as part of the Brooklyn Museum collection, and had been donated to the Brooklyn by Mercedes de Acosta.  The dress and many more garments containing lace had belonged to her sister, Rita de Acosta Lydig.  Lydig was a collector of antique laces, which she had incorporated into her new clothing, much of which was made by Callot Soeurs.  While there is no label, it is thought this dress of handmade lace and black silk was made by Callot Soeurs.

Made around 1870, I’m pretty sure this is the oldest garment in the exhibition.  It is all hand Irish crochet lace.  It looked a bit forlorn and out of place.

Update:  I’ve been told that this dress is miscatalogued, and is actually from the early 20th century.  This is certainly out of my range of knowledge.

Leather

This coat by Paul Poiret was the biggest surprise (to me, anyway) of the show.  None of the many reviews I had read pictured this, one of my all-time favorite garments.  It was in the 1996 Haute Couture show, and in the 2007 Poiret exhibition, so maybe the reviewers had already seen it and did not find it to be of great interest.  If so, I beg to differ!

The white decoration is leather, cut and applied by hand.  You can even see the stitch marks.  The back is also decorated, but unfortunately the method of display did not give a good look at the back.

By contrast, the newer, machine and even laser cut leather decorated garments just did not measure up to the work of this coat.  I was a bit embarrassed for them!

2013 haute couture from Dolce and Gabbana.  The decoration is green laser cut lambs fleece.

Here’s another 1960s look from Paco Rabanne, this one much more wearable that the metal dress I posted earlier. It is made from diamond shaped pieces of leather and astrakhan fur, linked together with pieces of metal.

Synthetic leather was also shown.  This 2013 dress from Comme des Garcon, is made of handmade faux leather flowers, hand linked, over a machine sewn base.

The Tailleur  and the Flou

And as if there was not already enough to digest, the visitor to Manus X Machina is treated to an appendix in the form of showing the two types of haute couture ateliers: the tailleur (tailoring) and the flou (dressmaking).

As a sort of centerpiece of this section, the curators placed a working toile from Charles James (left) next to several more recent works that appear to be toiles, but are, in fact, finished garments.

These two dresses are from Andre Courreges, and I’m sure you recognize them as being from the 1960s.  We sometimes look at clothing from the 60s as being “simple” but a lot of skill goes into the making of dresses like these.

A perfectly executed seam.

Please forgive this incredibly awful photo, but I have to show it to make the next point.  The dress above is by Coco Chanel, made in 1927 of wool jersey and silk satin.  It is an excellent example of the type of thing made in the flou atelier.

The tailleur is represented with a lineup of Chanel suits, with the one on the left dating from 1963, and the one on the right being from 2015.

While the suits on the left and the center are pretty much what you would expect from Chanel, a close-up of the jacket on the right is a whole new thing.  What you are looking at is not fabric at all, but is a 3D printed mesh.  It appears to me that it is laid over a layer of fabric.

The suit looks to be perfectly wearable, but I’ve got some doubts about that.  But it is at least a use of 3D printing that people can relate to, which seems to me to be important if the technology is to be accepted as a viable alternative to conventional fabric.

And with that, I’ll finish up this tour of Manus X Machina.  It’s on view through September 5, 2016, and if possible, you need to put this at the top of your summer plans.  I’d love to hear from others who have already seen the show.

 

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Manus X Machina, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Part II

One thing I need to point out before diving into today’s post is that as a show that is in large part showing how advancing technology is being used in high fashion, many of the clothes in Manus X Machina are less than a decade old.  It’s possible that a few are even still available to buy in high-end retail establishments.

Given the nature of the show this is necessary, but what surprised me was how many of the newer items were courtesy of the fashion house that made them. Probably the most heavily represented was Chanel.  It gave the show a bit of a commercial air, a criticism that is often mentioned in conjunction with the Met’s Chanel show of 2005.

That aside, and regardless if you give a care about current fashion, with almost 200 garments on view, there is more than enough of the best of the Costume Institute for visitors to enjoy.

Artificial Flowers

The dress and detail above are from a 1928 court presentation gown from French couturiers, the Boué Soeurs.  The dress really is a showstopper with the silver threads and the lovely silk flowers.  And even though this is haute couture from the 1920s, much of the work, such as the silver embroidery and the picot edging, was done by machine.

At this point I want to acknowledge the superb work done by the Costume Institute conservators.  This dress looks so fresh and new, but you can be sure it was not received in such condition.  I am in awe of their skill.

There is a clever little detail that tells us this cape and the matching dress is from Chanel.  Can you see it?

Look at the row of pink pearls at the hem of the dress that are used in place of the Chanel chain.  Two Chanelisms for the price of one.

I thought it was really interesting how the common yo-yo, so often found in Depression era quilts and made from feedsack material, has found its way into Chanel haute couture.  Note how the “flowers” are small at the top, and gradually increase in size.

Each flower has little crystals sewn in the center.  There are 1,300 of them.  From the 2010 Spring haute couture.

And here is another from Chanel, a wedding ensemble from 2005.  Coco Chanel used the camellia as her signature flower, but in less conspicuous ways than this dress made of 2500 handmade flowers.  This dress could have also been featured in the feathers category.  Later on in the exhibition, there is a Chanel lace gown showing her more restrained use of artificial camellias.

Again, the color in my photo is off.  This dress is white.

Anyone who ever doubts that Miuccia Prada is very influenced by the past, especially the 1930s, has only to look at these two dresses from the current Prada fall ready-to-wear collection.  The embroidery is done by machine, while the clusters of sequin and bead flowers are made and attached by hand.

What can I possibly say about Monsieur Dior’s floral fantasies?  These two, from 1952 and 1953, were sewn by machine, but otherwise were made by hand.  Note how in both dresses the embroidery “fades” near the hem.

How many shades of green do you suppose the embroiderers used to make those leaves?

Pleating

Here we have not one Fortuny silk pleated dress, but five! Marian0 Fortuny developed a special process for pleating light-weight silk, which he used from 1907 until his death in the 1940s.  The gowns were based on his vision of Greek clothing, and they were decorated with glass beads to add weight, and often trimmed with his hand-printed satin and velvet fabrics.

 

See the little attached beads along the hem?

Many of Fortuny’s processes have never been duplicated, though many have tried.  Notable among them is Mary McFadden, who in the mid 1970s patented a similar pleated fabric made of polyester.  The colors were rich, the decoration often lavish, and the silhouettes straight and long.

This part of the exhibition was very interesting because it was in a hall with the Fortunys on one wall, and the McFaddens on the wall opposite.  The view was simply breathtaking.

Here you see Madame Grés paired with Iris van Herpen.  I’m afraid I witnessed more than one visitor stifling giggles at the sight of the van Herpen skirt.  The top though, is a marvel, being 3-d printed.  The comparison with the pleating of Madame Grés was well done, though the Grés gowns were in the background, and a bit in the shadows.  It was impossible to really see the details.

Here is another example of what makes this exhibition so interesting.  The 1990 pleated pieces above are by Issey Miyake, and on the opposite wall they have displayed the same pieces flat on the floor.

I should have flipped this photo, as the order is reversed, but the closest piece in each photo is the same.  Did they come with instructions for wearing?

I remember these skirts from Raf Simons for Dior.  There were part of the 2015 spring haute couture.  Much of what you see was made by machine, though the pleats were set by hand.  I’m not sure why this was deemed important enough to show off three looks from the collection, but I suspect it was just for the visual impact.

I suppose you can call this technique pleating.  The original concept is the brown dress, made by Pierre Cardin in 1968.  It’s polyester that was heat-molded.  The black dress is from Junya Watanabe and was made from a similar technique in 2015.

Okay, this is where I admit that there are times when I simply do not “get” everything.  Maybe because the juxtaposition of Dior’s 1947 Bar suit with Hussein Chatlayan’s 2007 Mechanical Dress, and Paco Rabanne’s 1968 dress made of links of aluminum was too jarring.  Perhaps I’d already absorbed my limit.  But even while standing there in the gallery, I scratched my head, though happy to see both the Dior and the Rabanne.

Then I realized that the exhibition takes a bit of a detour at that point, and this was a bit of an introduction to the inner workings of a garment.  The Dior is completely dependent on the inside structure of the jacket, the Rabanne has no interior structure, and the Chatlayan is a mix of the two.  I’ll show more of that part of the exhibition in the next installment.

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Manus X Machina, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the best things about New York in the summer is that one gets to take in the costume exhibition at the Met.  I’ve been a bit critical of shows at the Met, as I  often feel like I’ve been bludgeoned over the head by the concept of the show, and in some ways, this one is no different.  But it really does not matter, because this exhibition is a delight to behold, concept or no concept.

And the concept is not so much handmade against machine made as it is the use of both in haute couture and in ready-to-wear.  In many of the examples, it was interesting to see how hand and machine are both crucial to the making of the garment.  Still, when all was said and experienced, the hand techniques of traditional couture come out looking ever so fine.

But let’s see what you think.  Because of the over-abundance of photos, I’m dividing this review into three posts.

The show is organized around six traditional garment maker’s crafts: embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework, and leatherwork.  There is also an area that goes into the two types of haute couture workrooms, the tailleur (tailoring) and the flou (dressmaking).  Visitors are also treated to a selection of toiles, or muslins, the couturier’s pattern.

In the center of the exhibition is the dress seen in both photos above.  It’s by Chanel, and was chosen to show the confluence of hand and machine work.  The fabric of the dress is scuba fabric, and the train is silk that is printed,  and is both machine and hand embroidered.  You can barely see it in my photos, but on the dome there was a swirling projecting of the design of the train.  These projections of details were used in various places in the exhibition.

Embroidery

This 1957 dress was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s debut collection at Dior.  The dress is actually white, and though it looks like a free flowing trapeze design, it is actually quite structured as one would expect in a couture dress from the 1950s.

These two gowns are from Christian Dior’s 1949 fall collection, and it seems like the two are always displayed and photographed together.  On the left is “Junon” and on the right, “Venus.”  They were positioned next to an Alexander McQueen dress that I somehow neglected to photograph.  A note, these two gowns along with at least ten others were on display in 1996 in the Met’s Haute Couture exhibition.  I was surprised (and delighted) to see them.

Two designers, fifty years apart, hand embroidered coral on gowns.  On the left is a couture dress by Givenchy, 1963.  The ready-to-wear dress on the right is from Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.

You can see that the Givenchy dress is almost all coral, while the McQueen one also has pearl beads and pieces of shell.

I cannot tell a lie – I adore this dress from Yves Saint Laurent, 1983.  The dress without the sequins was made in the Saint Laurent atelier, and then was sent to Maison Lesage for the application of the sequins so that it looks as if there are no seams at all.  It took 1500 hours to embroider this dress.

The sequins are actually silver instead of the gold in which they appear under the light, and can you tell how tiny they are?  It is an amazing dress.

Here are two of Norman Norell’s famous sequined gowns.  They almost look as if they could have come from the same collection, but this was a Norell standard.  The dress on the left is from 1965, and the one on the right dates to 1953.  Both are a combination of machine and hand work, as is much of upper level ready-to-wear.

In the background you can see three shiny dresses from Louis Vuitton, designed by Nicolas Ghesquiere.  The surface of each is decorated with tiny applied strips of metal.

This set of three dresses really gets to the heart of the concept.  The dress on the left is from Chanel, 1935.  It is hand embroidered with sequins on silk.  The middle dress is from Maison Margiela, 1996.  It is not sequined at all.  The “sequins” are actually printed onto the synthetic fabric.  And the dress on the right is a sort of combination of the two, being embroidered on machine sewn silk, but then over-printed to get the design.

Feathers

This 1966 dress is from Givenchy.  The dress is machine sewn and hand finished, but what I thought was really interesting is that the feathers are glued onto the silk fabric.

How similar, but oh, so different are these two dresses! On the left, is a dress from Yves Saint Laurent, 1969.  I really should have gotten a closeup of the feathers, as the work was exquisite.  On the right, a 2013 dress from Iris van Herpen.  The “feathers” are made from silicone and the three gull skulls are covered with silicone.

Okay, I know the the Van Herpen is not for everyone, and this is where the contrast between hand and machine widens into a deep divide.  You can look at the previous comparisons and think, “I get it.”  But here you might be tempted to think, “This is cool, but is it where we are in fashion right now?”

I think it is super that the Van Herpens and Gareth Pughs of the world are looking beyond conventional materials in fashion, but I think the point of the exhibition could be better made with things that are more in line with fashion.  A good example is the Maison Margiela printed sequin dress above.  We look back in time to Paco Rabanne.  His metal and plastic clothes were creative and interesting, but they were also uncomfortable (according to Audrey Hepburn, at least) and we all did not end up wearing clothing made of metal and plastic bits.

I hate that my photos are so poor, but I had to include the dress on the left anyway.  It’s Raf Simons for Dior, and the surface of the dress is completely covered in rooster feathers, glued to the silk organza base.  On the right is an ensemble from Sarah Burton for McQueen, and is a cape and dress covered in ostrich and goose feathers, hand sewn onto silk.  The design was based on that of a moth’s wing.

This dress is by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel.  It is haute couture, 2014.  The decoration is an interesting mix of cut cellophane, plastic sequins, and black duck feathers.  Machine sewn, hand embroidered, glued, and hand finished.  Manus X Machina.

Next up, artificial flowers and pleating.

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Uniformity at the Museum at FIT

I’ve just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York, the purpose of which was to play guide to my friend Jill and a pair of twenty-four year olds who wanted to experience the big city. As such, fashion things were not number one on our list, but Jill and I managed to fit in two exhibitions.  First up is Uniformity, the latest at the Museum at FIT.

Uniforms are not fashion (though they can be fashionable) but they do influence fashion and designers.  The museum chose to show this influence though four categories of uniforms: sports, school, work, and the military.  Above, the curator, Emma McClendon, set the stage by giving us an example from each category, with an extra military uniform thrown in for good measure.

Perhaps that is because there are so many military influences in fashion that the category deserved extra representation.

Here we have on the left, a US colonel’s dress blue uniform from the 1950s.  It does not take a lot of imagination to see how designer Mainbocher took the men’s original to develop the US Navy WAVE uniform of WWII, center.  It does take a bit more of an imaginative stretch to see how Coco Chanel was inspired by blue military uniforms, but there it is in the brass buttons and navy wool of her suit from around 1960, right.

And that is how great designers work.  A garment is not so much copied as it is re-interpreted.

On the right you see the famous “Ike Jacket”, named for General Eisenhower, who favored the style.  During the war, and even afterward, the style became a favorite of both men and women as returning GIs found the jacket to be functional for civilian wear ( My father-in-law’s well-worn Ike jacket still hangs in the coat closet of his home.)  Designers like Claire McCardell adapted the look, as in her shorts ensemble shown above.  Note the bit of red plaid halter top, with was definitely not a part of the uniform.

On the left is a 1998 jacket and skirt from Comme des Garcons designer, Rei Kawakubo.  It is a pretty faithful copy of an olive drab men’s army jacket, but the sleeves have been ripped away.  Literally. You can’t really tell from the photo but the armholes are rough and a bit frayed.  On the right is Marc Jacob’s 2010 “army” jacket, which he paired with a long, romantic skirt.

Probably my favorite grouping of the exhibition was this one featuring the influence of the sailor’s uniform.  In the middle you see the typical summer and winter uniforms of a midshipman.  Though they seem timeless, the white suit is from 1912 and the navy is from 1915.

With their middy collars, the midshipman influence in these two very different dresses is unmistakable.  On the left is an 1890s dress made of red and white cotton, and intended for casual summer day wear.  One might even attempt a round of tennis in such a dress.  In an interpretation from the late 1950s, designer Norman Norell turned the dress into a luxury look, using silk instead of the expected cotton.  This dress was definitely not for playing tennis.

You might have mistakenly thought that the center look is a typical French sailor uniform, but instead, this is one of designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s many adaptations of the mariniere, or Breton shirt.  In 1984 Oscar de la Renta did a sequined version for evening.  The lace and striped look on the right is from designer Chitose Abe for her label, Sacai, 2015.

Work uniforms also influence fashion.  The flight suit of aviators has been adapted into fashionable looks many times.  The suit on the right could be a uniform if not for the bright pink color.  Made in 1976 by Elio Fiorucci, this jumpsuit came to the museum from Lauren Bacall.

Another work uniform that has been much adapted is the typical French waiter’s costume.  This ensemble is from Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel in 2015, so you may remember the Chanel show that was staged like a Parisian Brasserie.  All I can see that that perfect cardigan.

Though designed for children and very young adults, the school uniform also has been an influence on fashion.  The blazer dates to 1825 when members of a rowing team at Cambridge University wore “blazing red” jackets.  The garment became associated with college men’s uniforms.  On the left is what is thought to be a Princeton blazer from the 1920s.  The one on the right is a 1944 Princeton blazer.  Today the blazer is more associated with office attire, but it still has preppy connotations.

Here we see an influence of an influence.  The 1927 girl’s school uniform of the left clearly mimics the sailor’s uniform with the navy color and tied collar.  Unfortunately, you can’t tell that the uniform also reflects fashion in the dropped waist and pleated skirt.  On the right is designer Rudi Gernreich’s 1967 version of the schoolgirl’s uniform.  The sailor influences are still present.

Also go back to the very first photo.  What looks to be an additional school uniform is one, though it is from Japan and dates from a much more recent era.

And finally, you can see the influence that sports uniforms have on fashion.  In 1967 designer Geoffrey Beene made fashion news with his sequined football jersey dress.  It was featured in all the best fashion magazines.  In the middle is the real thing, a 1920s football uniform.  The craziness on the right is from Stella Jean.

The outfit on the right is very interesting.  It really could be mistaken for a uniform for an active sport, but it is actually from French designer, Ungaro, 1969.  It’s like he was inviting the wearer to join  Team Ungaro.  The set on the left is a cycling ensemble fro the 1980s, and the Swiss jersey on the wall is from 1972.

It’s interesting how sports teams have capitalized on their uniforms by marketing hats and jerseys to the general public.  Is that fashion?

I really enjoyed this thoughtful and well-presented exhibition.  We went late, an hour or so before the 8 pm closing, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  I really loved having Jill with me, as although she does love pretty clothes, she is a professional educator, not a fashion-obsessed crazy like me.  She was seeing some of these concepts for the first time, and I loved the way the museum made the crossover between uniforms and fashion so clear to her.

Now through September 16, 2016.

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Dating the Swirl Wrap Dress

Longer length plus pocket, so probably 1950s

Usually when you see a Swirl dress advertised, it is described as being from the 1950s.  However, the Swirl wrap dress was made starting in 1944, and its manufacture continued at least through the 1960s and possibly even into the 1970s.  So how does one date a style that was made practically unchanged for thirty years?
First of all, look at the label.   There are two labels that were used in the 1940s; “Ty-wrap by Swirl” and “Swirl by neat ‘n tidy.”  But by far, most Swirl dresses are simply labeled, “Swirl.”  It is thought that some of the early 1950s dresses have this label, but with the addition of the word “sanforized.”

To further complicate matters, the Ty-Wrap label is sometimes found on 1960s wrap dresses.  Perhaps a cache of the old labels was found and put to use at that time.

This Swirl is probably mid 1960s, judging by the length of the skirt.

Probably one of the best ways to judge the age of a Swirl is by its length. The later Swirls are considerably shorter in keeping with the shorter dress styles of the mid 1960s. If you have a short Swirl that you think might be from the 1950s, check the hem to be sure it has not been shortened.  Also, later Swirls are often not as full through the waist as those of the mid 1950s.
Another thing to consider are pockets. Vintage-voyager’s 1940s Swirl has pockets that are sewn into the side seams. The early 1950s Swirls had huge patch pockets. Later Swirls often had smaller pockets, one smaller patch pocket, or even no pockets at all.

Another clue might be the type of print and the colors used. Pink and yellow seem to be popular colors for Swirls, regardless of age, but pay attention to the details. The ultra feminine fabrics of the 1950s gave way to darker colors and more somber prints in the early 1960s.

A later Swirl with shorter length and no pockets

Last of all, there are some dresses from the mid 1960s that are not wrap dresses at all. They sometimes zip up the front, and have a separate tie belt, and they do have the familiar Swirl label. The length, style and colors point toward the mid 1960s for these dresses, and it’s my guess that the Park East and Swirl Girl labels soon followed these styles.

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The Swirl Wrap Dress

Today I have another of the articles I wrote several years ago for my website.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Swirl wrap dress story starts in Philadelphia with the L. Nachman and Son Company, which was located at 10th and Berks Streets. This company had produced clothing since the early days of the 20th century.  By 1940 they were making a product called the Neat ‘N Tidy, which was a pinafore apron.  In 1944 the Swirl dress and label were born.  Actually, the Swirl was originally conceived as an apron. When Lawrence Nachman registered the Swirl name with the US Patent and Trade mark office, the product was listed as “WOMEN’S AND GIRLS’ WRAP-AROUND APRONS”.  The wrap around apron was a common garment of the day.

How the concept of an apron evolved into a dress is not known (by me, at any rate!) but at some point, the Swirl became a dress – not really a housedress, but one step above.  It was a quick and easy way for a busy housewife to get dressed in a hurry for a trip to the market, or for a casual supper on the patio.  As their slogan at the time put it, Swirl was…”YOUR WRAP “N” TIE FASHION”.

This 1940s Swirl is in the vintage-voyager.com collection.

According to the 1951 ad below, the Swirl pictured came in three patterns and cost about $9.  Vivian Vance’s character on the TV classic, I Love Lucy, Ethel Mertz, frequently wore this style Swirl in the early days of the program.

By 1953, Jack Nachman, president of the company, was looking to relocate the Swirl operation to the South.  First, they would to be closer to where the cotton fabrics they were using were being produced. This would save transportation costs.  Secondly, it’s very likely that they wanted a cheaper source of labor, which was easily found in the non-unionized South.

So Mr. Nachman went south, to Greenville, South Carolina. Through business contacts there he settled on the little town of Easley, about fifteen miles from Greenville. The location was ideal. The town was in the middle of the cotton belt – the area where cotton was grown and then made into cloth.  The textile industry was booming.  In fact, there were sixty-seven factories producing cotton fabric in the Greenville area, factories eager to supply their product to a new clothing production plant.

Photo courtesy of Cur.io Vintage, dress is now in my collection.

And labor costs were very cheap. Most of the people eventually employed at Swirl were women, and that combined with the absence of unions worked to keep wages low.

The Nachman Company started construction on the Easley Textile Company (as the new subsidiary was known) in October, 1953, and in January 1954 the new plant opened. The plant was state of the art, with all new machines from Singer. This is interesting, because when a plant relocated in this fashion, it was usual for all the old machinery and equipment to be moved to the new location.

By 1955, the company was known as Swirl, Inc., with the corporate headquarters in Easley. According to the local Chamber of Commerce, the money generated by the plant (along with that from another new factory in town) enriched the town coffers to the point where a long-delayed hospital project was finally finished. Soon, a second Swirl factory was built in nearby Ware Place, South Carolina.

At the same time, the product line was expanded widely. A wide variety of cotton print fabrics were readily available, and Swirl took full advantage of this. Swirls were made in hundreds of different fabrics, and were decorated with embroidery, applique, lace, piping, rick-rack, and a wide variety of trims. The basic shape of the dress was always the same, with a bodice and sleeves cut in one piece and a full, usually gathered, skirt. They used a signature “Swirl” button at the back of the neck.

A Park East by Swirl dress

This one dress, the wrap model, was the sole product of the plant until 1962.  At that time a second product, the Models Coat, was trademarked and produced by Swirl.  The Models Coat, which sounds glamorous, was just a straight cotton robe that snapped up the front.

The Swirl wrap dresses were also made, but they were getting shorter, as the age of the miniskirt was looming.  By 1964, the company could see that fashions were changing radically, and their product was quickly becoming out-moded.  Plans were made to update the image of the company.

A Swirl Girl Wrap dress

As lifestyles changed, so did Swirl.  In the 1960s Swirl began making women’s loungewear and developed different lines for a more diverse consumer base. The first addition was the Park East label in 1964.  Park East was used mainly on shift dresses, sort of in the Lilly Pulitzer mode.  In 1965 came Swirl Girl, a younger, trendier line of casual dresses and loungewear.

I’m not really sure when the last Swirl wrap dress was made, but I’ve seen them that were knee length and had care labels, so it is my guess that the wrap Swirl was still being made in the early 1970s. They also started making them floor length, as the fashion for floor lenght dresses re-emerged in the 1960s.

Swirl with Maxime Caftan

By the end of the 1980s, the main product at Swirl was the Models Coat.  In 1990, the first real signs of trouble for the company came when sewers were laid off and production curtailed.  The decline of the company occurred slowly through the 1990s, and in 1998, Swirl announced that it would be closing its main facility.  The remaining jobs were phased out, and the company closed the Easley factory for good in 1999.

They did continue operations in Ware Place, South Carolina, making the Models Coat. Today, that house coat, or duster, as my grandmother called it, is still being made in New York by Swirl II Ltd, using mainly imported fabrics. The factory is located in Brooklyn, New York.

Geoffrey Beene for Swirl dress

Next: Some hints on dating Swirl dresses.

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