Category Archives: Collecting

WWII English Siren Suit

A lot of the fashion origin stories one encounters are not entirely true, but the one about pants for women being popularized during the World War Two years is pretty much accurate. Many Western women had been wearing pants of some form since the middle of the nineteenth century, and as the 1940s approached, more women were wearing pants for sports, leisure, and work. But it wasn’t until war broke out that more and more women began wearing pants as they took over jobs traditionally allotted to men.

Women had been wearing pants as part of a pajama suit since at least the 1910s, but WWII brought a new nighttime pants suit to those in England and France – the siren suit. The siren suit was designed to go over one’s nightie in case the air raid sirens went off and it became necessary to head for the nearest shelter.

The siren suit (I’ve also seen it referred to as a blitz suit) was designed for speed of dressing, comfort, and warmth. The style above shows buttons or snaps, but most examples I’ve seen in photos show the suit as having a long front zipper. Most styles have multiple pockets in which to stow essentials that may be needed during the time in shelter. Many also had hoods, and were made of warm fabrics.

Which brings me to this garment, one of the newest additions to my collection. I recently was the high bidder on a few lots from an auction house that specializes in old clothes and textiles. I always enjoy this auction’s offerings, as they usually have nice sporting things. This last auction was no exception, so I sent in a few bids and crossed my fingers.

The jumpsuit was paired with a 1930s outdoors ensemble from the 1930s, consisting of pants, jacket, and matching hat. I wanted that set, and to be honest, didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the jumpsuit. It was described as being a 1940s one-piece ski suit.

When the package arrived, I acted like a kid on Christmas morning, and then got down to the work of examining each piece. When I picked up this one, I immediately got the feeling that this was no ski suit. Actually, I should have noticed this just from the photos, but like I said, I was distracted by the other piece.

On reflection, I realized that I’d never seen a photo of a woman’s one-piece ski suit from the 1940s. That does not mean this type was not made, only that if they were, they had escaped my attention in the many hours I’ve spent looking in fashion magazines and catalogs. Then I started thinking about the legs of my new suit. A ski suit has to have leg hems that are narrow, to keep the snow out. These are anything but narrow.

At this point I knew it was time to look at the details. First up was the center front zipper. The pull had an odd shape (not too unusual for earlier zippers) and I got out my new magnifier to read the brand name stamped on it. The brand is Lightning. This was the first clue this item was not manufactured in the US, as Lightning zippers were made in England.

There are also two zippers on the back, as this jumpsuit has a drop-flap to aid in the use of the toilet.  My apologies about this photo as it is upside-down, but it has a very useful patent number and the words “Made in ENG”. Actually the patent number, 472518, has escaped me, and I’ve searched both US and UK patents.

I put the patent search on hold and took another look at the interior of the garment. The edges were serged, or overlocked, but in a style of stitch with which I am unfamiliar. Again, this points to a foreign manufacture.

I finally began to see the light. Big, functional pockets, a front zipper, wide legs, and a drop seat all told me this was not a ski suit. The fact that it was most probably made in England pointed to the siren suit, a garment you’d not expect to see in the US.

As I stated, I’ve never seen a one piece ski suit for adults of this era. Women were wearing jumpsuits and overalls for work, and these, while not terribly common, are found in the US fairly easily. But they are made from cotton or lightweight gabardine of wool, sometimes with cotton mixed in. This is a nice, textured wool and is quite hefty.

The drop seat also makes no sense in a ski suit. After skiing where you get wet (and this fabric would really make the snow cling) and cold, and you would change into something dry as soon as possible.

A former owner had sewn the flap shut. I can see why, especially if it has been worn in recent years as a jumpsuit. There is a bit of a gap between zipper and buttons. There is also a bit of a belt loop that was hidden under the stitches. I’m assuming there was a matching belt.

And speaking of buttons – these are not the originals. They are modern replacements, and while they match nicely, the buttons on the flap are too large for the holes.

There are four roomy pockets, and this one on the chest has a bit of a pocket within a pocket. Could it be for eyeglasses?

The other pockets expand to hold things and each has a single button closure. If you were headed to the air raid shelter, these pockets would be very practical, and could hold everything from your identification papers to a snack.

But these pockets make no sense on a ski suit, where the patch pockets are not secure enough to keep things safe while hurtling down a mountain. Most ski pants and jackets have deep inset pockets, and these are generally zippered.

The presence of a hood certainly seems to say “outdoors wear” but this hood is quite loose around the head, and there is no way to secure it. A ski hood or cap would tie or fit snugly on the head.

It would be warm, though!

In spite of the wrong buttons, the missing belt, and the mis-attribution of the piece, I’m very happy with this purchase. I already have quite a few ski ensembles, but where would I ever find a siren suit?

Thanks so much to Jonathan Walford at the Fashion History Museum for the help. Also, the photo of the pattern is not mine, and since I found it on Pinterest, I can’t locate the origin. My apologies to the owner.

UPDATE: The pattern belongs to Miss Rayne, and she has graciously agreed to let me use it.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Proper Clothing, World War II

Fashions & Home, Outdoor Number, May, 1927

This publication straddles the line between catalog and magazine. The William F. Gable Co, was a department store in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1884, it closed in 1990, another victim of the shopping mall.

My decision to buy this publication was based solely on the cover. How could I miss with four sports represented on the cover? Inside is a mix of articles about Paris fashions and advice on what to buy for summer sports, complete with prices. There is also an article on how to decorate a porch with wicker furniture sets beginning at $46.50.

The illustrations are really great, with a big emphasis, as promised, on sports. This woman in her pretty robe de style, is unpacking the summer things she had packed away the previous fall. Is that a bathing cap with a Scottie dog?

This could be a photograph right out of Vogue which regularly featured the real life costumes of the rich and titled.

A “two-piece Knitted Frock, a Swiss or French import…” would have indeed been the choice for the golf course.

Here we see the knitted golf  ensemble, along with the linen tennis dress.

This illustration accompanied an article on picnicking, complete with suggestions, menu, and recipes.

I suspect this haircut would have been a bit outre for Altoona, PA. The dress was designed by Madeleine des Hayes. I have never encountered the name before, so please let me know if you know more about the elusive Mademoiselle des Hayes.

The dress is about as short as hemlines actually reached in the mid to late 1920s.

In contrast is this dress.

Bouffant dance frock for the graduate with tight bodice  and long full skirt of orchid and pink taffeta, uneven hem.

Yes, as early as 1927 it was evident that hemlines were going to drop. The high-low trend of just a few years ago was truly inspired by the designers who used this trick to ease the fashionable into longer skirt lengths in 1927.

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Filed under 1920s fashion, Collecting, Fashion Magazines, Proper Clothing, Sportswear

Harford Frocks Sales Cards, 1940s

I think most of us would be familiar with at least one company that marketed direct to consumers in their homes. Examples are Avon cosmetics, Longaberger baskets, and Fuller brushes.  In most cases the salespersons were (are, as some of these are still in business) not employees of the company, but were private contractors who took orders for a commission. There were also several companies that sold clothing. One was Doncaster, who first used members of the Junior League as their “fashion consultants”. Doncaster recently closed after eighty-seven years.

Another fashion company that used direst sales was Harford Frocks of Cincinnati. Consultants were usually women, especially homemakers who wanted to make a little extra money. Each consultant had a sales kit that included cards showing all the available styles. The best part was the attached fabric swatch on each card, allowing the customer to actually feel the fabric.

I haven’t spent a lot of time researching the company so I can’t give a complete history of the company. The president was Clarence Israel, who arrived in Cincinnati in the early 1930s. His papers are held by the American Jewish Archives, but there is probably not much about his time at Harford. His more important work was as a social activist, and he worked to benefit the Jewish community of Cincinnati.

There are several interesting tidbits I want to share, however. I couldn’t find any firm dates for when Harford was in business, but the best source for trying to figure it out was Pinterest. Lots of cards are on view there, with the earliest ones dating to the mid 1920s, and the latest to the mid 1960s.

The company advertised in cheap magazines and comics, and according to the ads, the consultant got a free dress for every three she sold. I also found ads in the want ads section of Popular Mechanics.

The company was located in what is today the American Sign Museum. In 1937 the Ohio flooded, and the building was damaged. They sued their insurance company because it would not pay for damages. The insurance company won the case.

I have thirty-seven cards, but they are double-sided. They are not dated, but the designs look to be 1946 ish to me.  There are all kinds of garments, including  socks for men and “Curve Curbers” (aka girdles). There are suits for women and a few designs for little girls. But by far the best represented garment is the frock.

Each design has a fabric swatch or two, and included are the sizes available. They had three size ranges, what we would today call juniors, misses and half sizes. Some of the designs went up to a 44 inch bust.

The designs marketed to the teen market often had novelty features, like the pockets above.

This two piece dress looks like it has Schiaparelli-inspired buttons, but look closer and you’ll see that the buttons are round, and the top of the notes are embroidered onto the jacket.

Noticeably absent are pants. These shorts were the only pants in the entire set, though I have no way of knowing if some cards, which may include pants suits, are missing.

There were several sundresses with jackets. The horse fabric is a printed pique.

This is a versatile set, but it would be even more so if a pair of shorts were included.

One of the best things about post-World War Two fashion was the return of lots of color. Note that even the shoes are a bright, cherry color.

Like so much of the clothing advertising in the first six decades of the twentieth century, the fabric was up front and featured. Bates was a well-known brand of textiles, and Harford was quick to point out the connection.

Pleated to capacity!

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Filed under Advertisements, Collecting, manufacturing, Proper Clothing

Kleinert’s for 1961 Swim Caps – Beach Bags

I have always loved catalogs. I wasn’t too crazy about the Barbie I got for Christmas in 1962, but I loved that little catalog that came with it, the one showing her latest fashions. And the arrival of the yearly Sears Wish Book was a big event in the Adams household.

It amazes me that so many old catalogs have survived. Why would anyone keep a 1961 Kleinert’s swim cap catalog? After a season its usefulness is wiped out. When I was a kid, there were never stray catalogs nor newspapers nor magazines lying around. My mother kept a tight ship when it came to clutter, and her method of dealing with it was to get rid of it as soon as possible.

But I’m grateful for the savers – the people who didn’t mind a few old catalogs taking up space in their homes or business. The latest addition to my collection is a wholesale catalog. The shop owner chose what she or he thought would sell. The original owner of this catalog made notes in the margins such as, “Add 6 to order, natural only”.

An obvious benefit of having catalogs of the things one collects is that they help so much when trying to place a date on an object. I’m sure a lot of people must think that these fancy bathing caps disappeared at the end of the 1950s, but this catalog is full of them. The bathing cap covered with flowers must have been really popular because so many of them survive. Most are in bad shape. The caps tend to age quite well, but the attached flowers get all mashed out of shape when stored flat. I’ve even seen them melted and sticky.

The “Gamine” style is less common, but not really rare. I have one that is covered in shiny black “hair”.

I’d like to see someone with that much hair actually put that rubber cap on! That is a sweet cap though, with the braid trim and that flower on the back of the neck. And how about those rubber bangs on the Bouquet cap?

Here we are getting in rarer territory. I’ve never seen a gingham swim cap, not in reality nor in print. This gives me something to aspire to, preferably in turquoise.

But most of all, I need this Regatta swim cap in my life, along with the matching beach bag.

When I think of bathing caps, I think of old ladies round the pool in Florida. I must have gotten that from some movie I saw as a girl. My actual experience with bathing caps was short-lived. My local public pool and the summer camp I attended both required caps for girls, insisting that the long hair of girls got clogged in the filtration system. In the mid-1960s when boys started growing their hair longer, we girls rebelled, saying truthfully that many of the boys had longer hair than we did.

Of course, instead of making boys wear the caps, the rule for the girls was “forgotten”.

The catalog has much more than just swim caps. I think that this postcard beach tote is simply the best.

Some time ago a reader emailed a photo of one of these folding hats that she had. I’ll admit I was clueless about it, so seeing this one was a real treat, despite the very unfortunate name. I’ve forgotten who had this hat, but if you are still around and you still have it, I’m ready to buy!

And here’s a different take on the sunglasses hat. Again, this is a new one to me.

The catalog has several styles of hats that have an attached scarf to tie on the head. I have a fairly generic one that belonged to my mother-in-law, but how I’d love to have this one that just looks so Italian.

 

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Filed under Collecting, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Summer Sports

1917, Von Lengerke & Antoine Sporting Goods Exclusively

I know that blogging has now been replaced with Instagram and whatever the social media platform of the week happens to be, but I can tell you that having a more permanent place on the internet can really pay off. The biggest advantage seems to me to be that having a site that is searchable by google brings the blogger into contact with  all sorts of people.

My favorite type of such people is the one who is searching an item she has in her possession, but doesn’t know what to do with it. Through the miracle of Goggle this person finds me, and by the end of our email exchanges, the item is on its way to me. In this case, my new best friend, Joanna, had an old catalog from Von Lengerke & Antoine, a Chicago sporting goods store that was bought by Abercrombie & Fitch in 1928.

This catalog predated the acquisition, and looked to be about 1920 to me. There was no date on the catalog, but using the No. 53 designation on the cover and the fact they released about two catalogs a year put date at 1918 or 1919. Whatever; I was thrilled when Joanne offered to send it to me.

 

There was no date on the cover, nor in any of the pages that give all the information about the catalog, but here in the description of the bathing suit we learn that the 1917 line of bathing suits make up all the latest fashions. The most striking thing about the bathing suit above is the price of it. $50 was a very high price for a swimsuit in 1917. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, That 1917 $50 would buy $1075 worth of goods today.

The other styles were more reasonably priced, but even $20 was a big expense for an item that was not truly necessary. Von Lengerke was not for the bargain hunter.

The bathing caps are really interesting, with the two plain styles being for men. The sad thing for collectors is that few of these seem to have survived.

Another must-have item for the 1917 bather was a pair of bathing slippers. These were made of sateen cotton or canvas, and so survive in greater numbers. It’s interesting that these have leather and linoleum soles. All the ones in my collection have canvas soles.

This may be a 1917 catalog, but the Von Lengerke people did not spring for a new illustration for their outing shirts. This one dates to the previous decade, but since the style didn’t change much, why change the illustration?

But here’s where I really get a bad case of antique catalog envy. I’ll take either of these outing hats, please.

The last item is not clothing, but it is such a great example of how technology was changing the way people thought about camping that I had to include it. The auto was taking people places they’d never imagined, but it took a while for the accommodations industry to catch up. In the meantime, auto camping was a good solution to the question of where to spend the night.

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Filed under Camping and Hiking, Collecting, Proper Clothing, Sportswear

White Stag, 1953

Over the years I’ve written a lot about White Stag. It continues to be one of my favorite American sportswear companies, and with good reason. It represents a time when quality in clothing was more important than quantity. I’ve seen dozens of White Stag pieces from the 1940s through the 1960s over the years, and in only one instance can I say a piece looked worn out.

Until the 1960s, White Stag made most of their clothing from the same material they used to make tents and other canvas outdoors items. I’ve seen White Stag rucksacks that were made from the same fabric as a canvas coat I have. The fabric was sturdy and remarkably color-fast.

I recently acquired this White Stag blouse from one of my favorite vintage sellers, Past Perfect Vintage. I was eager to add it to my collection because I have some other coordinating pieces from White Stag. And that is part of the joy of collecting sportswear. I never know when a matching piece to things I already have will pop up.

And as luck will have it, I found an ad for this line from 1953. It does not show any pieces in brown, but the ad copy reveals that these items were available in “eleven sunbright colors.” White Stag used brown quite often, sometimes combining it with turquoise and black. I am hoping to someday find that nifty carry-all.

The top-stitching adds to the sporty look. It’s another common feature of White Stag clothing from the 1950s.

I have, on occasion, been accused of putting too much store in the labels found in vintage garments, but when combined with a dated ad, all the guesswork of when certain labels were used is erased. I know without a doubt that this label was used in 1953.

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Filed under Collecting, Sportswear, Vintage Clothing

The Dress I’ll Not Be Buying

Very high on my wish list for a very long time has been a late 1920s white dress appropriate for tennis. The dresses above are from 1927, seen in a B.Altman catalog. It shows the type of thing I’ve been desiring for a long time.

These are hard to come by. It’s much easier to find a fantastically beaded evening dress from 1927 than it is to find a simple white linen or cotton frock. That does not keep me from looking. I have the usual hunting sites, like Etsy, eBay, and Ruby Lane, but occasionally I’ll venture into high price territory, in the hopes that a dress I can afford will magically appear.

So I went to one such high-priced site, and my search for “tennis dress” returned a list of five or six actual dresses, one of which was labeled as 1920s. Unfortunately,  labeling a dress “1920s” does not automatically make it so.

While old, the dress was not from the twenties, but was very similar to the third dress in this group. And this is from a 1931 B. Altman catalog. Still, it was a great dress, and the best part was a little tennis racket motif embroidered on the bodice. Yes, this was an actual tennis dress.

I’ll admit that at first glance I was smitten. I was charmed by the obviousness of the embroidery. Then I started reading the description and looking at the photos. There were numerous stains and even a tear in the fabric. But what really stopped me in my shopping tracks was a description of the underarms. They were described as having “authentic sweat stains”.  A look at the photos confirmed that yes, these sweat stains were indeed authentic.

I can’t remember ever having read an item description where sweat stains were spun into a good thing. Perhaps that helps explain the $1200 (plus $25 shipping) price tag.

For the most part, I don’t complain about what people choose to charge for their old stuff. I figure that the marketplace really does help establish prices. That said, there are definite trends even in vintage clothing that do affect pricing. I long for the old days when I could buy 1950s travel-themed skirts for $40, and when the competition for old sportswear was non-existent, but I realize these fads too shall pass. I can remember when plain Victorian white underwear brought hundreds of dollars, things that today bring less than fifty.

In the meantime the $1225 1920s-but-really-1930s tennis dress will not be added to my little collection.

 

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Filed under Collecting