Vintage Miscellany – April 23, 2017

The woman in today’s photograph is not identified, but I can tell you the photo was developed in Keokuk, Iowa. It’s the early 1930s, and she is dressed in a slender dress, possibly knit.  Her gauntlets, handbag, and hat are all white, and while we can’t see them, I’d be willing to bet her shoes are as well. The only contrast is the dark bit on her wrist. I can’t tell if it is a handbag strap or a bracelet. She quite matchy, but I think she is quite chic.

And now for the news…

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1920s Embroidered and Smocked Frock

Any vintage seller who has been in the business more than a few years will tell you that vintage clothing is subject to fads.  One year vintage wearers want 1950s full-skirted dresses, and the next they might move on to 1970s disco attire.  If the comments on Instagram can be believed, one of the hottest items right now is the “ethnic-inspired” smocked and embroidered dress from the 1920s.

This type dress fits in well with the 1920s fascination with the exotic, something I’ve written about in the past. While there were sewing patterns for the dresses, they were also made abroad. I’ve seen them with labels from Czechoslovakia and the Philippines.

To be honest, I’ve never been able to determine exactly when these dresses were made, but the general consensus seems to be from the mid 1920s and into the early 1930s.  If you look at the placement of the waistline on my dress above, you can see that it’s not exactly the stereotypical 1920s silhouette, as the bodice is shorter than expected.

I spent a pleasurable morning looking through 1920s magazines, and the closest I found was this illustration for a 1926 Vogue sewing pattern.  Witness2Fashion posted several examples, also from 1926.  Fashion illustrations did tend to exaggerate the silhouette somewhat, but even so, my example has a longer skirt as well as the short bodice.  By the late 1920s the waistline was inching upward, and the hemline downward.

Another hint that my dress is later 20s or even 1930 is the little bit of shaping in the waist. There is even an opening in the side to allow for easier dressing.

Quite unbelievably, I found this dress at my local Goodwill bins.  It’s not in perfect condition, but the design of the dress lessens the impact of the problems.  Here you can see that some of the red threads have come loose at the neck. That was a very easy fix.

Not so easy to deal with was a small rip on the upper back. To stabilize the tear, I encased it in organdy and then basted the three layers together. While the tear makes the dress unwearable, it would not detract from the garment if it were to be displayed.

You can see some staining in this photo, which a few gentle handwashings removed.  I also had to do a bit of smock repair.

One of favorite things about this dress is how the dots vary in size, and how the pattern of them on the skirt is the reverse or that of the bodice.  And all the dots are hand embroidered.

Today we think of smocked dresses as being just for little girls.  What a shame!

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Currently Reading: How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards

Today is a really great time to be interested in fashion history and how people dressed in the past.  When I first “discovered” fashion history, the reading choices were quite limited. What was available before the 1990s was usually in the form of dry chronological fashion studies or fashion encyclopedias.

Contrast that with the present when there are almost too many choices.  Fashion history, it seems, sells, as not just museums, but also book publishers have discovered. Unfortunately, not all the fashion books published in the past twenty-five years are good. Because of this I’ve gotten pretty particular about which books get added to my library.

One thing I look for when deciding whether to order a new book, is the author and his or her credentials. Not that I’m a fashion intellectual snob; my own degree is, after all in Early American history. But I’ve found that the very best books are written by someone who is either a professional in fashion studies, or has considerable experience in studying historic fashion. There are exceptions of course.

Another thing I look for is a new approach.  I don’t need another basic survey of fashion history, nor do I need another book on “vintage fashion.” I’m always looking for a new way of looking at garments, and on this level, How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards, really delivers. Technically, this book might be considered a survey of fashion history, but it is the author’s use of photos of garments that sets this book apart.

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Edwards starts her survey in 1550 and ends in 1970. It is a chronological study, which helps one to see the subtle, and not so subtle changes that occurred in fashion.  Most importantly, Edwards points out what is important in each garment.

For me, this book was especially helpful in showing me the changes made between 1790 and 1918.  I have a pretty good grasp of twentieth century fashion, but I’ll be the first to admit I need to learn more about fashion prior to WWI.

Another plus in this book is the use of garments from museums that are not commonly seen.  Instead of relying solely on garments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert, Edwards uses images from museums in Australia, Canada, Britain, and the USA. It’s a very refreshing change from the same couture garments that are pictured over and over in publications and on websites.

It serves to remind us there are fashion treasures all over the world.  I was especially pleased to see garments from the collection of the North Carolina Museum of History in the book.  I’ve been in their collection rooms, and I know what a great and extensive collection is there, and yet, these clothes are rarely seen.

I’m hoping this book does well, and that a second edition is published.  As much as I love the book, there were several photos of black garments that were incredibly hard to read.  There are also a few editing errors – repeated lines, seemingly mislabeled photos, and a contradiction or two of place of creation.  But I’m knit-picking. This is a beautiful, well written book.  The photos are a joy to study, and I finished it wishing it were twice as long.

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Late Victorian Bathing Costume

The great bulk of my collection dates after 1915, but I’m slowly educating myself about earlier sportswear, and I’ve begun to acquire a few pieces.  This late nineteenth century bathing suit is my latest.  I bought this one mainly because most of the ones I’ve looked at over the past year are black, so a different color was a plus.  I’ll probably eventually buy a black one, if I find one with great design that is in good condition.

Condition is a major problem with antique bathing suits, as they were for the most part, made from wool.  Besides the fact that moths love them, they were exposed to salt water and who knows what else.  So while this suit photographs and displays well, it has the sort of issues one might expect from a well-used garment that is around 120 years old. In this case, I decided I could live with more damage than I would on a more common garment.

The bathing suit is made up of two pieces, the blouse and bloomers combination, and a matching skirt. This was pretty much the makeup of women’s bathing suits until the second decade of the twentieth century, when the shrunken bloomers were covered by a skirt that was attached to the top.  From there the bathing suit kept getting smaller, and smaller and…

The lighter color tie is attached at the shoulders.  It covers a placket, under which is a row of buttons.

The modesty panel attaches to the collar with buttons on one side, and is permanently attached on the other.

The braid, which is green, was sewn on by machine, and looks to be professionally done.

The braid also decorated the sleeves, the waistband, and the hem of the skirt.  The weight of it helped to keep the skirt from riding or blowing up, thus saving the wearer from extreme embarrassment.

The damage is much more apparent on the back.  There are a number of moth holes, and the waist band is torn.  I’m guessing that the owner had gained a bit of weight, and the band simply ripped from the stress.  The buttons are for attaching the skirt.

Note the fullness below the waistband, which is the top of the bloomers.  I’ll get back to that in a minute.

This bathing suit came with a bit of a mystery attached – an extra piece that was originally part of the garment. It is a slice cut from the skirt. At some point the suit was altered to make the back of the skirt less full.  And while there is only one piece, there is evidence that two pieces were cut out.

This is the inside of the skirt, showing where I think the piece was removed. The most obvious sign is that a different color of thread was used.  On the left you can see that the thread matches the fabric, but the newer seam is stitched in white.  On the front, the original seams are so perfectly matched that it is hard to see them.  On the two new seams, the braid is off somewhat.

There is also white stitching where the skirt is gathered into the waistband.  So the back of the skirt had quite a bit of fullness removed.  But why? It probably has to do with changing fashion.

The image above is from 1898, from The Glass of Fashion. Even though a garment like a bathing suit might not be considered “fashion”, you can see the trends of an era in the shape and the details. Even though this is a dress, it has a lot in common with my bathing costume, with the gored skirt having a flat front and a full back.  The bodice is also similar with the pleats and gathers attached to a yoke. And don’t forget the puffed sleeves.

The bathing suit above is from an 1899 Delineator magazine. You can see how similar this one is to mine, with the tie, sailor collar, puffed sleeves and band at the hem.  This basic style remained popular over the next fifteen or so years, with gradual changes being made to reflect changing fashion.  The bodice became droopy in front, the gathers disappeared and smooth, full gores replaced them.

In period illustrations, bathing costumes are frequently pictured in beautiful colors, but photographs from the same time tell a different story.  The overwhelming majority of bathing suits for women were dark, either black or navy.

There are a few other problems with my suit.  Someone shortened the waist by about three quarters of an inch by making a tuck right above the waist.  I haven’t decided if I’ll remove it, but I probably will just leave it.  Most of the original buttons have been replaced, but buttons of this era are easy to find so I’ll probably replace the newer ones. The elastic in the legs of the bloomers has completely lost its stretch.  I’ll probably just leave it.

It was fun analyzing this piece.  Unfortunately, I know nothing at all about who the original owner was, but I do know she had a very appealing bathing costume.

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Vintage Miscellany – April 9, 2017

I love Mary Fritschi’s shoes, but I love her little dog even more. My guess on the date is 1939 or 1940, but it could be earlier, or later.  My thanks to Lynn at American Age Fashion for the photo.  We have a little transcontinental photo exchange going that really makes me happy.

And now, for the news…

This is not exactly a rare occurrence.  Not too long ago Vogue.com pulled a quote from an interview on my blog without citation. This is why I really do not like to link to big “fashion” sites. The articles on fashion history are rarely written by historians, and seem to be mined from the work of others.  To make the mess even worse, the leading image in the article is of a circa 1870 dress, and the caption has it labeled as 1778.  Quite a few people have pointed out the error in the comments and on Twitter, but the editor obviously trusts Getty Images more than the historians trying to set the record straight.

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Seahorse Silk Blouse: Tache, Rue de Castglione

I realize after looking at this photo that I should have taken the time to try and do a better job of showing just how lovely this late 1940s or early 1950s blouse is. I’m hoping the details will show the special-ness of it.

Every so often the question will arise on vintage clothing chat board, “What makes a garment museum quality or museum worthy?” There’s no easy answer to the question, and it depends on the museum and the collection housed within. For example, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art might turn up its nose at a rather plain mid-nineteenth century dress made and worn by a woman in Kansas, but that same dress might be an important part of a museum that interprets the history of that state.

When it comes to adding something to my own collection, I have several things to think about. “Museum quality” isn’t one of them, but “collection worthiness” is. An item has to not just fit into my theme of sports and travel wear, it must fill a spot that is currently empty, or it has to be a better example of something I already own.

Blouses from the post WWII era are quite common, and I already have a few, including a navy one in rayon, so unless one is pretty special I’m not going to be interested.

I love the under-the-sea theme of the embroidery with the seaweed and seahorses.  But notice also the quality of the embroidery.  This is tambour, which is done with a hook. There is also a machine which can produce a good tambour facsimile, and I’m not enough of an embroidery person to be able to tell the difference. I’m guessing it is machine work because it is just so tiny.  I can’t imagine it being done by hand, but expert embroiderers are magicians.  All I can say is that the work is beautifully done, and the back is neat and lovely as well.

This is the arm opening, and you can see the tambour that is applied to the band that secures it.  Also note the button, which is starburst-cut mother-of-pearl.

I sort of wish the blouse were actually this color, but this is just my camera playing tricks again.  The blouse is navy.  But I included this shot because I wanted to make sure the row of tucks would be noticed.  You probably can’t tell, but they are actually stitched by hand.

This blouse was meant to be tucked into a skirt or slacks, and to help keep it looking neat, there is a series of eight tucks (in addition to these decorative ones) all around  the waist.

The label reads “Tache, Paris, 6 R. de Castiglione. The Rue de Castiglione is a shopping street that connects the Place Vendôme to the Tuileries Gardens. It’s a nice area of the city.  Unfortunately, I have found nothing at all about Tache.  I assume it was a store that sold pricey goods. Today, it appears as if there is a spa located in the space, which is across the street from a Weston Hotel.

As would be expected on a garment of this quality, there is a mixture of machine stitching and hand finishing.  The hem is hand stitched, as are the bindings at the neck and arms.  The machine-stitched side and shoulder seams are finished with a hand overcast stitch.

I also consider condition when deciding on a purchase.  I can deal with a bit of less-than-perfect-ness, especially if the garment is really good. Rarity also is considered.  I’d want a 1960s sportswear piece to be almost perfect, but I’m willing to be a little less picky when it comes to a piece from the 1910s. In this case, the condition is very good, with one light spot and a tiny repaired hole.  There are also some seams that have come loose.  Those I’ll fix with basting.

This was an item I spotted on Instagram, from Ballyhoo Vintage Clothing.  Sellers, if you are not on Instagram, you might be missing opportunities to sell your stuff.

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Martha Washington College, now the Martha Washington Inn

I just spent a few days with friends in my favorite type of place – a town full of history.  The town is Abingdon, VA, and more specifically, I’ll be telling about the inn where we stayed, the Martha Washington.  The central part of the inn was built in 1832 as a residence for General Francis Preston and his family.  Much of the original structure is intact, including the family’s parlors, and a lovely oval staircase.

The house was sold in 1858 to the Methodist church, which was in the process of establishing a school of higher learning for girls which was to be named for Martha Washington.  The school actually opened in 1860.  Over the years the building was enlarged and new wings were added on either side.

All the sources I’ve found call the school Martha Washington College, though, especially in the early years, it was really more of a finishing school.  A girl could attend for two years if she had graduated from high school, or for four years if she had completed two years of high school.  By the 1920s the school was in effect, a junior college.

There are a lot of legends and ghost stories surrounding the school, including tragic love stories involving students and Civil War soldiers.  I also found a lot of differing information concerning dates.  This is a topic in search of a good researcher!

What made the stay at the Martha Washington so interesting to me was the presence of many photographs and other memorabilia concerning the school that lined the walls of the main floor of the inn.  Most of it was from around 1895 to 1932, when the Great Depression forced the school to close.

Many of the photos from the Teens and Twenties show the girls in sports uniforms.  Here’s part of the basketball team from 1924.

And here are some basketball players from a few years later.

Students were properly attired for golf in 1924.

Many of the photos showed the girls wearing middy blouses, that most schoolgirl of all garments.

The inn really has taken great pains to remember the heritage of the old building.  Each guest room is identified with a different vintage photo of the school and its students.  One of the parlors is named for First Lady Edith Wilson, who was a student at Martha Washington for a very short time.

After the college closed in 1932 (some sources say 1931) the building stood empty for a few years.  But fortunately for Abingdon, a new enterprise opened across the street – the Barter Theatre.  In 1933, young (and out of work) actor Robert Porterfield got the idea to open a theatre and let people pay their admissions with either 40 cents or an equivalent amount of food.

The theatre was an immediate success, and that created a need for a hotel.  The Martha Washington opened as an inn in 1935.

In 1948 Abingdon was the “Second healthiest town in America.”  I would love to know which town was number one!

 

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