Currently Reading – Fashion in the Age of Jane Austen by Hilary Davidson

Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion by Hilary Davidson is one of those books that you wish could just go on and on. At 300 plus pages, one would think I’d be satisfied, but the topic is so interesting, and Hilary’s approach is so novel that I could do with a few more chapters.

But that would be tampering with how she approached Regency dress. Instead of looking at the topic chronologically, Davidson chose to make each chapter focus on how people of Austen’s time interacted with the world, in terms of self, home, village, country, city, nation, and world. It’s like an ever widening circle of relationships, and this worked well in the context of Austen and the Regency.

While it’s not completely necessary to be a fan of Jane Austen’s work, it really does help in the understanding of the text. Davidson refers often to Austen’s characters, and a knowledge of them, especially in the film versions, adds greatly to the enjoyment of this book. I really do wish I’d have reread all of Austen’s novels before reading this book, even though I’m well acquainted with her work.

Hilary Davidson chose the years of 1795 through 1825 to study. The Regency technically was from 1811 to 1820, but most historians extend the period for a longer time, as the fashions just didn’t change overnight. The beginnings of what we think of Regency fashion do start in the eighteenth century.

The illustrations are excellent, and well chosen. Above you see the only garment that we know was owned by Jane Austen. It’s a pelisse from around 1812. A lot can be told about Austen by studying this garment. For instance, we learn she was tall and thin.  And if you aren’t acquainted with the term pelisse, there’s a convenient glossary in the book.

So many times books on fashion deal with the clothing of the privileged only. Davidson has strived to give us a look at what different classes of people would have worn. Here we see the grocer alongside the shopper of a higher class.

Most interestingly, Davidson shows how fashion spread across the world, even in the early nineteenth century. These women on St. Kitts in the Caribbean can immediately be identified as wearing Regency fashion, though they are thousands of miles from Britain.

Another strength of the book is the inclusion of men’s attire.

We also are treated to looks at accessories like hats and shoes.

The book contains a through explanation of how textiles were, even two hundred years ago, a global enterprise. Muslin from India and cashmere shawls from Kashmir were highly prized in Regency England. This dress is circa 1800.

Along with telling what people wore during Jane Austen’s time, we also learn how clothing and textiles were acquired by consumers. I loved this look at an 1809 draper’s emporium.

Davidson also makes clear the changes that occurred in the thirty-five year span the book covers. Compare the circa 1820 gown above to the circa 1800 dress shown earlier. The waistline is moving downward toward the natural waist. The skirt is widening and gaining decoration.

So, what did I not like about this book? The only thing I really can complain about is the color of the print. Instead of being black, it’s a medium gray. That may not be an issue for readers with excellent eyes, but I found I had to either read under a strong lamp, or in bright natural light. But considering the quality of the research and the writing, I gladly gave up my habit of reading in bed to enjoy this one in my armchair with a 100 watt bulb.

 

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Button Collecting

When friend Liza asked if I wanted to go with her to see a button collection, there was no hesitation on my part. She said it was a great collection in a historic house, but nothing prepared me for what I was to see.

The collection belongs to Linda who does live in a fabulous Victorian house in a small town in north Georgia. Liza had met her on a tour of homes, and was invited back for a closer look at Linda’s stuff. And I say stuff because it’s not just buttons, but also antique and vintage sewing and knitting implements.I thought we would stay an hour or so, but Linda and her husband, Steve, were so gracious that one hour turned to four. And we still could have stayed longer.

These buttons were stored in an old dental case, which has lots of little drawers that once held dental tools. Now each drawer is packed full of buttons. All these plaid decorated ones came from the same estate.

Button collectors often make framed assemblages of buttons on a theme. Here are some of Linda’s dog buttons.

You may not be able to tell from the photo, but this cabinet was about ten feet high. It was custom built for a coin collector.  All the little drawers are full of buttons, with some of Linda’s yarn in the shelves beneath. Linda is a knitter, and she does beautiful work.

There were fancy wooden buttons…

buttons carved from nuts…

figural bakelite buttons…

sports themed buttons…

and plastic buttons.

These printed cloth nursery rhyme buttons are still on the original card.

Remember my post that told about the Muscatine, Iowa button industry?  Linda has a shell from there with the little blanks stamped out.

But it’s not just buttons. Linda also collects other sewing things, and has a wonderful grouping of pincushions and novelty tape measures.

This little sewing machine is a music box that plays “Buttons and Bows.”

Linda also has an enviable collection of antique ribbons and trims.

This trim is silk with silver metal bauble and embroidery.

Like any good button collector, Linda loves all sorts of miniatures. This is a hiking themed pin.

I loved this tiny terrier trimmed purse.

A knitter must also collect knitting aids. These string holders are by Holt Howard and are perfect for yarn.

I’m sorry this is so fuzzy, but I had to show it anyway. This is a silver yarn holder with a bracelet ring.  Beauty and function.

Thanks so much to Liza at Better Dresses Vintage for taking me along on this button adventure.

 

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Vintage Miscellany – December 8, 2019

I collect photographs for several reasons. I love how you can glimpse into the past to see how people actually dressed, and sometimes a photo helps me assemble an ensemble of clothing and accessories. I also look for photos that help date and document items in my collection.

Between looking for old photos, I managed to read some interesting news.

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Update on Key West Hand Print Fabrics

I’ve written quite a bit about Key West Hand Print Fabrics in the past, especially concerning their relationship with Lilly Pulitzer.  For those of you who don’t know, for years Key West Hand Prints designed and made the distinctive fabrics Pulitzer used in her dresses.

Before 1961, Key West Hand Prints was a small fabric printing business in Key West, Florida, owned by Walter Starkey. The company made small printed linens, like tea towels. In 1961, Peter Pell and Jim Russell were visiting the island when they decided it was a good place to live. They bought Key West Hand Prints and hired a designer for the prints, Suzie Zuzek dePoo. 

On the other side of Florida, another entrepreneur was at work developing a line of tropical print dresses. Lilly Pulitzer had enlisted the services of a dressmaker to make dresses in loud prints that would cover juice stains she got while working in her family business, an orange grove and juice stand. So many customers at the stand asked about Pulitzer’s dresses that she saw an opportunity to make similar dresses for sale. She learned about Key West Hand Prints and visited the island to see if she could use the prints in her new line.

For the next fourteen years (or so, as I don’t have the exact dates), Key West Hand Print Fabrics designed and made the iconic Lilly Pulitzer fabrics. The little hand print business employed as many as two hundred people during this time, and they worked around the clock to keep up with demand. They were producing fabric not only for Lilly Pulitzer, but also for their own line of dresses, labeled “Vanda Fashions, Key West Hand Prints” and for yardage that could be purchased in their Key West store. Vanda was designed by Virginia Peirce. 

Artist Suzie dePoo designed the prints, but the colors were worked out by others on the staff, including co-owner Peter Pell. Lilly Pulitzer would fly into Key West to visit with Pell and Russell and to pick out the fabrics for her next collection. They would spend the day involved in  business, and then they would retire to the bar to celebrate. 

It was a system that worked well until a new business manager hired by Pulitzer in 1976 or 77 ended the relationship between Lilly Pulitzer and Key West Hand Print Fabrics. It was a decision that ultimately harmed both businesses. Key West Hand Prints lost their largest customer, and the atmosphere of the business changed, especially for Peter Pell, who lost interest in the enterprise. Lilly Pulitzer prints changed, becoming more “fashionable” and less “Florida” and in 1984, Lilly shut down her business.

A lot of the information above was given to me by Jacq Staub, whose mother Jacquolyn was the in-house model and the merchandising manager for Key West Hand Print Fabrics. He has shared with me all these stories as well as some wonderful photos.  The model in all these photos is Jacq’s mother. In the photo at the top, Jacquolyn is modeling a caftan that was ordered for Elizabeth Taylor.

Key West Hand Prints was a casual, family business, though most of the staff were not actually related. Jacq refers to Pell and Russell as Uncle Peter and Uncle Jim, though they were actually his godfathers. The photo above was taken in Vanda’s design studio, and was used for the company’s catalog.

Here’s another look at that distinctive corner in Vanda’s studio. These photos were taken in the early 1970s.

This photo wasn’t dated, but the hairstyles sure are saying mid to late 1960s. Just when we thought men were going to loosen up in their clothing choices, Dress for Success came along and swept it all away.

Here’s Uncle Jim and Jacquolyn at a fashion show in 1973.

The designer holding onto Peter Pell? Lilly Pulitzer, of course! And how about those printed jeans?

So, where is Key West Hand Prints today? The owners are long gone, but Key West Fashions continued in business until 2007. The original screens used to make the prints and the dye formulations were bought by Ed Swift, who stored the items for years. It appears that these items have now been sold, with the new owner exploring the possibility of reopening the print business.

It also appears that there is also a book, exhibition, and film about Key West Hand Prints in the works. Behind this project is the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, a division of the Smithsonian. It will be interesting to see how they tell the story, as many of the people involved with Key West Hand Print are still with us.  It’s a chance to tell the story of a unique American textile business that had a lasting influence on how we dress. 

My thanks to Jacq Staub for the photos and the stories.

 

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The Rest of the Story – Collection Updates

It probably does not surprise any reader here that I keep a detailed list of things I hope to find. Most of these are items that would fill a gap in my collection, such as an important bathing suit style of which I have no example. For this type of thing I keep a close eye on sellers on Instagram, and I do regular web shop searches.

But much more often I find things through serendipity, in other words, I pull an item from the Goodwill bins. This scarf is an example. Scarves are a good find at my bins. I’ll never have to buy another wool scarf, as I have so many I’ve bought for my own use. Still, I can’t help but look at any that turn up in the bins.

Back in August I wrote about our trip to Berea and seeing the student weaving operation there. So yes, I was pretty happy to find this vintage Berea College Student Industries scarf in the bins last week. Wool scarves can be difficult to date, but something about this one points to the 1940s.

Some time ago I wrote about my desire to own a Catalina bathing suit made from California Hand Print fabric. These come on the market quite rarely, and they are never cheap, so I’ve been biding my time, waiting for the perfect suit.

Catalina did a great job of advertising these suits, and so most of the designs are well documented. At the top of my wishlist was this suit from 1951, and I jumped into action when Cheshire Vintage posted one on Instagram. So, another gap filled, much to my delight. Now to located the men’s matching set!

 

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Abercrombie & Fitch Summer Sport Styles 1939

I’m always happy to locate a catalog that features women’s sports clothing, especially when it’s from a company like Abercrombie & Fitch. This newest acquisition is from 1939, and I also have the winter 1938 edition. These are the only two I’ve ever seen, so I have no idea how long A&F put out this particular catalog.

If I ever get around to building that time machine, one place I definitely want to visit is the A&F flagship store that was located on Madison Avenue at 45th Street in New York City.  That would be true adventure shopping!

The copywriter lays it out straight – don’t expect frou-frou at Abercrombie & Fitch. But that does not mean the the clothing sold by A&F in the spring of 1939 was not fashionable.

The move toward the very strong shoulders associated with the 1940s had already begun, and you can clearly see it in the sleeves of these rayon and linen frocks. Insead of shoulder pads, the 1930s designer used deep pleats at the top of the sleeve to create the desired width.

By the end of the 1930s, fashionable length in tennis dresses had been abandoned in favor of shorter skirts that increased the players’ mobility.  I love the zipper in the sleeve of the dress on the left. I’ve never seen this feature in a blouse or dress. Usually what is seen is the split sleeve on the right. Both free the arms to make for a better swing.

The dress in the center is the same as the one on the cover. The buttons not only can be unfastened to allow the player to have a wider stride, according to the catalog it “unbuttons down each side so it may be laundered easily.”  All these dresses are available only in white.

Golf attire did not adopt the shorter skirt like the tennis dress. Golf does not require the long stride of tennis, and golf and country clubs tended to be very conservative spaces.  Only one of these dresses was available in white, as color was standard on the golf course.

It’s always amazing to realize how much more conservative swim and beachwear was in the late 1930s than in the late 20s and early 30s. All these suits except the one in the middle are made from woven fabrics, and most likely they all have zippers down the back.  The willowy beach pajamas of a few years earlier have been replaced with slacks.

Riding attire depended on where one was riding. The look on the left was appropriate  for Western ranch wear. The riding coat and jodhpurs were more suited for Eastern wear.

Here we have a selection of clothing for boating. The slacks suit in the middle was made from denim, but the one on the right was constructed of waterproof silk. It was also available in cotton sailcloth.

This page was titled, “Country Compromise”. One could wear her shorts and her skirt too. The set on the left is called an exercise suit, and comes with shorts beneath the skirt.

As much as I love the clothes, I’ll admit that this page of accessories is my favorite. Number 4 is a beach bag from Paris, and that’s a watch set into the wooden lid. Number 6 is described as lastex panties, to wear under sports clothing. And number 11 is a pouch to hold one’s golf incidentals.

 

 

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Fashion Queens – Southeastern Region Symposium in Charlotte, NC

I joined the Costume Society of America way back in 2005, and for a person like me who loves all aspects of fashion and social history, it has been a super learning experience. Once a year there’s an organization-wide symposium where members present their research, and on a smaller scale, there are yearly regional meetings as well.

I like the large symposiums, but I love the regional ones. There’s an intimate atmosphere where even if you do not know  a single person when you arrive, when you leave you have lots of new friends and contacts.

So I was pretty excited to learn that the Southeastern Region was holding this fall’s symposium in Charlotte, only about two and a half hours from me. The theme was Fashion Queens, which gives a nod to Charlotte, the Queen City, and Queen Charlotte for whom the city was named.

I know that sitting in a room with a bunch of history fanatics is not everyone’s cup of tea, to to me it’s an exciting opportunity to learn from the best.  The images above are from the research of Linda Baumgarten on designs of eighteenth century quilted petticoats. Linda is a Curator Emerita at Colonial Williamsburg. She’s the author of  books on the subject, including my favorite, What Clothes Reveal.

For attendees not familiar with quilting terminology, Linda provided clear photos to make her study easier to understand.

The presentation above was really interesting. Dr. Dina Smith of VA Tech studied “the design process of reenactors who create Regency gowns.” To do this she conducted interviews with reenactors attending the Jane Austin Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.

One of my favorite presentations was about the pearl button industry of Muscatine, Iowa. This research was conducted by Jade Papa of Thomas Jefferson University.  Anyone who studies clothing that predates the emergence of plastics has seen lots of  mother of pearl buttons, but do you know where they were made? Well, neither did I until I was enlightened by Jade.

Mussel and clam shells were harvested from the Mississippi River at Muscatine starting in 1891. By the 1920s the seven button companies in Muscatine were producing 37% of the world’s pearl buttons. Above you can see how discs were stamped out from the shells. This was just the beginning of the process, as each disc was handled thirty times before it became a button.

The beginning of the end of the Muscatine button industry came in the 1930s when the Great Depression hit. At the same time plastics were being made into buttons cheaper and easier. And the shells had been over-harvested which led to several species becoming extinct or endangered.  I hope Jade writes a book.

Jean Druesedow, who recently retired as director of the Kent State University Museum, talked about how Kent acquired the clothing of actress Katherine Hepburn. This was really interesting, partly because I have seen the exhibition using Hepburn’s clothing twice. Jean talked about the relationships that Katherine Hepburn developed with the designers of her screen and stage clothing.

After the presentations there’s the chance for the audience to ask questions. What really made this particular symposium so special was the exchange of ideas between professionals like Baumgarten and Druesedow, plus experienced conservators like Colleen Callahan and Margaret Ordonez. And just so you will not think the attendees were just the elders of the profession, there were quite a few college students and masters candidates who attended, and some who even presented. It was a great mix of ideas and experiences.

Another favorite part of CSA symposia are the trips to local museums. In this case we went to the Mint Museum. I’ve visited the Mint numerous times, but there’s always something new to see. Above you have part of a special exhibition from Studio Drift. The piece is Fragile Future 3.5, and it’s made of dandelion fluff attached to tiny lights. There’s a complete circuit of the metal parts.

And here’s my irregularly scheduled reminder that a museum does not have to have actually clothing on display for visitors to see fashion. So much of what we know about fashion history is learned from period art, like this 1857 painting by James Goodlyn Clonney, Offering Baby a Rose.

I would usually be more interested in the mother’s dress, or the hound observer, but in this case, it’s the father’s robe or banyan that caught my eye.

A big thanks to the Department of Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and especially to Aly Amidei, for hosting the symposium.

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