Category Archives: Collecting

Pajamas for Women, Part 2

Greenhut-Seigal Cooper catalog, Spring/Summer 1912

The style did not catch on as outerwear, but increasingly it was marketed as lingerie. When famous actresses began wearing pajamas on stage, manufacturers were alerted to this by Women’s Wear.

By the middle of 1911 a trade report from Cincinnati said, “Manufacturers of shirtwaists and pajamas say the trade is quite good…” And James McCreery & Co. on 34th Street in New York City had “silk pajamas for women” in their shop windows. Copy in the 1912 spring-summer catalog from Greenhut-Seigal Cooper declared, “Pajamas are growing more popular with women every year.

Women’s Wear​ Novelties in Pajamas, June 28, 1917

By WWI, pajamas were not just for sleeping. They were advertised as loungewear, and Women’s Wear categorized them as negligee. They were even suggested as “an excellent tea gown”. These early women’s pajamas were two pieces like men’s but were feminized most often by being made of pastel colored silk, elaborately decorated with lace and embroidery.

Billie Burke in Gloria’s Romance. 1916

Around 1914 a new idea in women’s pajamas emerged – the one-piece jumpsuit type. These became very popular after actress Billie Burke wore them in a film in 1916. She became so associated with the style that one-piece pajamas were called Billie Burkes until they fell out of favor around 1920.

Even after pajamas had been made for women for a decade, articles in Women’s Wear show that manufacturers worried they were just a fad. As manufacturer R.F. Raskid said in 1917, “I consider [pajamas] as merely a passing fad, that will have worn itself out in the course of a few months…” But pajamas, along with bifurcated workwear like overalls and coveralls, gained favor during the years of WWI because they were practical. And while overalls for women did decrease in popularity after the war ended, women did not give up their pajamas.

“Billie Burkes”,​Butterick Quarterly, Summer 1919

In 1919, Women’s Wear declared, “For lounging and the care-free hours, pajamas are at present favored by the best dressed women. They have freedom, are comfortable, and offer a wide variety of styles.” By 1919 pajamas were mentioned almost daily in the sleepwear section of Women’s Wear. They were no longer a novelty.

In writing about pajamas, Women’s Wear continued to refer to them in “Oriental” terms like Persian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Turkish. Historian Victoria Pass has been conducting research into what Paul Poiret seemed to know in 1911 – that the Orientalist tropes used to market pajamas with trousers to women connected pajamas to “the exotic other”, making the masculine nature of the pants less of an issue.

“Silk Pajamas on the Beach”​ Women’s Wear, ​July 26, 1922

Until 1922, women for the most part confined their pajamas-wearing to their homes. But in July of that year Women’s Wear published a startling new use for pajamas. “Silk Pajamas on the Beach – A New Use for the Silk Pajamas that have long been Manufactured and Used for Negligee Purposes Is Shown in the Accompanying Photograph. This bather, after her dip, has slipped on the pajamas as a protection from sunburn.” The location was unnamed, but later reports identified it as the Lido in Venice, Italy.

It was not until fall of 1923 that Women’s Wear asked its readers, “Will American Women Adopt Pajamas for the Beach?” A few months later Women’s Wear first used the term, beach pajamas.

Tomorrow, Part 3.

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Pajamas for Women Part 1

I’m back from the Costume Society of America Southeast Region Symposium, and I’m pleased to share here my paper that I read. I’ll post it over the course of four days. I hope you enjoy it.

In the mid-1920s a new fad traveled from Italian beaches to those in the United States – that of pajamas as beach attire. It was not new for women to wear bifurcated garments for sports and as underwear, but pajamas for women were relatively new in the 1920s. So how and why did women take to wearing their newly adopted sleepwear on the beach?

Sears,​ Roebuck​ Catalog​, 1902

Even men in the US and most parts of Europe did not begin sleeping in pajamas until the 1870s. Most likely the first Westerners to adapt the Indian Pay- jama as night and loungewear were Englishmen living in India. In 1878 Harper’s Bazar reported, “The loose Japanese costume called the Pajamas has been adapted [by men] as a nightgown, for lounging in the daytime and in midsummer it is worn to board yachts.”

(Of course, the garment was Indian, not Japanese, but at least they got the continent right.)

Wilmington (Delaware) Evening Journal
December 27, 1905​

The first reference I have found to American women wearing pajamas was a comment in an 1895 newspaper article that referenced women’s pajamas in fashion plates. Over the next decade there were occasional references to and ads for women’s pajamas in American newspapers, but not until the summer of 1905 does one see any multiple sources advertising pajamas for women. That year a syndicated sewing pattern for women’s pajamas was for sale in many US newspapers, and some department stores advertised readymade pajamas for Christmas gift giving.

 A 1905 article that ran in many American newspapers titled “Pajamas Healthful”, had the following to say about women wearing pajamas:

“Women everywhere, the country over, and in city and country alike, do wear nightgowns, as they have long, if not always have done. Do women wear pajamas in these days? Well, some, but not many.

“It was a little fad to wear them, for a time, and there are some women who now wear them; but their number is not large, and the custom is not growing.”

Good Housekeeping January, 1906

In 1906 Good Housekeeping magazine offered for sale a sewing pattern for “Lady’s Pajamas”. In the description for the pattern was this line: “The upper part of the pajamas is cut in the broad Mandarin style and the sleeve is loose at the bottom, also reminding one of that Eastern garb.” There didn’t seem to be a big demand for women’s pajamas until 1911 judging by the lack of ads for them in Women’s Wear, the forerunner of Women’s Wear Daily, and in their absence in clothing catalogs. So what happened that convinced American women to wear what was considered, in the West anyway, a man’s garment?

Paul Poiret Harem Pants, Shown in L’Illustration. January 1, 1911

For one thing, in 1911 French designer Paul Poiret introduced what he called harem pants, a design based on a pants style worn by Middle Eastern men and some women. By making a reference to the “Oriental” and not to the Western men’s trousers, he made it seem as though the woman was emulating the exotic “Oriental” and not her own husband or father.

Coming tomorrow, part 2.

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A New Home for my Collection

My collection is now safely housed in its new home, a little prefab cabin. It’s not ideal, though I’m working toward light and climate control. I’m in the process of making blackout curtains for the four windows. Next year the cabin will be insulated and paneled. But for now, I’m happy that everything fit in.

The neighbors are calling it the museum. I need to investigate the sizes of the world’s smallest museums. I might qualify for the Guinness Book.

In preparing for the move, I put as many things as possible in storage boxes. Now that I’m in the new building I see that I have more hanging space, and even room for another rack. I greatly prefer hanging storage, but not everything can be hung. Knits and delicate things will stay in the boxes.
I painted the walls to increase the brightness of the rooms and to keep the hanging clothes from coming into contact with the acidic wood. The exposed wood was varnished for the same reason.
The boxes are acid-free quilt storage boxes. There are thirty of them, neatly stacked according to decade. The contents of each box is written on a card attached to the box.
The hatboxes have all been treated with an acid neutralizer, and I also have muslin barriers inside all of them. My rubber bathing caps are not stored in the building. They are too susceptible to temperature fluctuations so until we get this space under better climate control, they remain in our house.

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1970s Charlie Chaplin Beach Towel

In the past I have written about the early 1970s nostalgia craze. Retailers were quick to catch on, and so it was easier to buy a shirt decorated with the face of Little Orphan Annie than it was to find one featuring current rock stars. One favorite was Charlie Chaplin.

I’ve dated this towel to circa 1973. In that year one could also buy a sweater with Chaplin’s face, and if you had acted very quickly before the product was pulled from the market due to copyright issues, you could buy a Whiting & Davis mesh handbag. 1973 seems to be the year that Chaplin made a comeback. It was the year after he had been awarded an honorary Oscar for his ground-breaking work in film, so he must have been on people’s minds.

It almost seems like there are two types of vintage beach towels. There are the very thin, brightly colored towels with printed beach scenes. I’m betting most of these were actually sold in gift stores and beach shops at the coast (Anyone else remember the fabulous Gay Dolphin store in Myrtle Beach? It’s still open!) I have several of these, dating from the 1950s through the 70s.

The other type is like my Charlie Chaplin towel. It’s thick and full, and the design is woven in rather than printed onto the terrycloth.

Royal Terry International was one of the trademarks of Barth & Dreyfuss of California. The company was an importer, mainly of household and novelty towels. Being made in Brazil, this was one of the first wave of imports that led to the eventual collapse of towel manufacturing in the USA.

That RN number on the label proved to be the key to the company that produced the towel. There is an online database where you can type in the number, and it tells you who owned the label. It’s a handy little tool.

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What Lurks Beneath

I posted a photo of this poster on Instagram, along with a plea for followers to encourage me to buy it. I left it in the antique store where I spotted it, but I could not forget about it. So a month later I decided to go back to the store, and if the poster was still there, I would buy it. And so I did

Not only is this a great piece of sports ephemera, it’s a bit of Asheville history. According to my mother, everyone roller skated in the 1940s, and so the Skateland Rollerdrome was opened in 1946 to capitalize from the fad. The craze faded, and the rink was closed in 1962, The building was converted to a music venue in the late 1960s, first as the Jade Club, and later as the Orange Peel. Both clubs were mainly R & B, and later, Soul, and the clientele came mainly from the nearby Black community. But being the Seventies, the club was not segregated, and White music lovers crowded in to see nationally known acts like The Commodores. By 1980 the (Almighty) Orange Peel had closed, along with everything else in downtown Asheville. But the late 1990s brought a revitalization, and in 2002, the Orange Peel was reborn.

So I bought the poster and brought it home. I knew that antique frame was not the right fit for a mid-century poster. An examination of the poster in the frame showed that it was mounted on some questionable paper, and needed to be removed.

The back showed some interesting mounting, including some tape and corrugated cardboard. It was all going to have to go.

But then came the big surprise.

Between the cardboard and the poster was this early twentieth century portrait. Unfortunately, there was nothing at all written on the back, so I have no clue as to who she might be. What a shame!
At any rate, the portrait is a much better fit for the frame, which has, unfortunately, been painted with blue enamel with a dark overglaze. Still, it’s a lovely portrait which did not deserve to be hidden away. I’ll not be keeping the frame and the portrait. I’m donating them to a local animal rescue group that runs a thrift store with an area for collectibles. I hope she goes to a good home.

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College-Maid, from the Girls at Maryville College

A recent acquisition is this cute little 1920s blouse with an interesting back-story. It wasn’t so much the blouse that sold me on this piece, but rather, the label.

This one ticked several boxes: women’s college related, somewhat local to me, and after digging a bit, sportswear related. And the Deco-ish embroidery didn’t hurt a bit. So what’s the story?

Maryville College is one of the fifty oldest colleges in the country, being founded in 1819 as a Presbyterian seminary. From the beginning the school was racially integrated, until it was forced to segregate in 1901. It began admitting women in the 1860s, and in 1875 granted the first degree to a women in Tennessee. By the 1920s there were more women than men in the college, probably because it offered degrees in education.

In 1921 (or 1920, according to one source) home economics teacher Kathryn McMurray devised a plan to help girls who were not able to afford their college fees to stay in school. She set up a sewing enterprise where students made simple garments that were then sold under the label “College-Maid”. The program started with ten girls, but three years later more than 400 girls were earning money to help pay for their education.

Several types of garments were made by the students. One was the apron, which is the champion of beginning sewing projects. I also found references to house dresses and work dresses, but best of all, by 1926 they were making two-piece pajamas. I am quite sure that my blouse is actually a pajama top.

Ms. McMurray traveled around the country, encouraging women’s organizations and department stores to sell College-Maid products. Women’s groups would have what we today would call pop-up shops to sell the garments for the college. Some department stores advertised the goods as late as 1934. A dress cost $1.95 at that time.

Several years ago I found some pages from a photo album belonging to a Maryville College student.

Ruth, Gert, Mae and Eva had lots of adventures. I can’t help but wonder if any of them worked making College-Maid garments.

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Alice Marble Tennis Dress, Circa 1940

I purchased this circa 1940 tennis dress for several reasons. First, I love labels that sport the name of a star in the sport. Today the practice is ubiquitous, but in the first half of the Twentieth Century, the practice was new. Alice Marble is not exactly a household name today, but she was tennis’s hottest woman star in the late 1930s.

I bought the dress even though it is not complete. There was very likely a matching belt and panties, both of which are missing. But the style was quite nice, I loved the label, and the price was right, so I added it to my collection.

At the time I knew very little about Marble, except that she dominated women’s tennis in the late 1930s. It turns out that she was much more than just a tennis champion.

I recently read tennis star Althea Gibson’s autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. In it she talks about how she watched Alice play an exhibition match around 1940, and how Alice became an important supporter later on:

“… I had no way of knowing then that, when the time came for me to be up for an invitation to play at Forest Hills, my biggest supporter, aside from a handful of my own people, would be this same Alice Marble.”

Because she was Black, segregation rules kept Althea from playing in the big US tournaments. Incensed, in 1950 Alice wrote an editorial in the American Lawn Tennis Magazine.

“Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.” 

And so they did. And the rest is history. Althea went on to win both the US Open and Wimbledon twice, and was the dominant women’s player in the late 1950s.

The dress in my collection is a great example of early 1940s tennis wear. The fit is easy, with a pullover bodice and side zipper. The skirt is very full and is knee-length. The sleeves are mere caps, and are split for mobility.

There’s no place to store an extra ball, but that feature might have been incorporated into the panties.

The Tom Boy label began in 1938, and was owned by the same Baltimore company, Straus, Royer, and Strass, that owned American Golfer. I found references to Alice Marble designs from 1939 to 1941.

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