Category Archives: Curiosities

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

When Casual Corner Was Cool – 1973

We all remember Casual Corner, don’t we? Twenty years ago it was the blandest of all the boring shops at your local shopping mall. But if you are old enough, you can remember when Casual Corner was young and hip.

I can remember very clearly the Casual Corner at McAllister Square Mall in Greenville, South Carolina. When I was a kid we drove down to Greenville occasionally to outlet shop and to visit cousins. By the early 70s we added McAllister Square to the mix. Shopping malls were a new thing, and Asheville didn’t even have one yet, so all your modern shopping happened on trips to Greenville or Atlanta.

Casual Corner was first on my list of places to browse. I can recall buying only one item in all the years I loved the store because most of what they carried was over my budget. But once they were having a really great sale, and I bought a printed sheer cotton blouse, with purple and pink romantically entwined flowers. I could have made this myself, but it was a big treat having a blouse from my favorite place of sewing inspiration. I wore it until it fell apart.

By the time Casual Corner closed in 2005, it was more of a store for career women. Most of the inventory was their own brand of goods. But in the 1970s Casual Corner carried lots of brands that are remembered fondly by girls of the Seventies – Whiting and Davis bags, Organically Grown, Levi Strauss, Sweet Baby Jane, and Happy Legs were just a few of them.

I was pretty happy to run across this catalog from the 1970s on eBay. It’s just the sort of whimsy I associated with Casual Corner. There is no date anywhere, but from the beginning I was convinced this was from 1973, the year I started college. More on that later. First, the clothes…

I’m not going to make many comments about each page, as these clothes pretty much sum up what young women and girls wanted to wear in 1973. It was all about nostalgia and if you don’t see the 1940s in these designs, then look again. From the platform shoes to the puffed shoulders, 1973 was all about the idea of the 1940s.

Were the pants legs really that wide? Well, no, but we thought they were, especially as they swished around the tall platforms, making us look six inches taller.

There was also a bit of a cartoon vibe to 1973. And this was before smoking became such a touchy subject. I wouldn’t have blinked at the smoking image on this “wrappy satin top with angel sleeves.”

Here’s more 1940s in the form of a turban, mixed with a bit of a 1920s biplane.

Wrap sweaters were also very big, and stayed in style for the next few years. I made my own, having access to great chunky knit fabric in the knitting mills’ outlet stores.

Here’s another reference to smoking, and the Camel logo is also a bit of a 40s throwback. We all thought people who smoked Camels had to be WWII vets.

My heart skipped a beat when I read the description of the cardigan at the bottom of the page. It’s the 1970s sweater of my dreams.

I really enjoy the tourist sweater too, with scintillating strips and city names (New York, Miami, San Francisco) knitted in lurex.

Could that be the start of the leisure suit? And that sweater at bottom? I had similar ones in every color. We loved the Fair Isle look.

When I got to this page I knew I had an image to confirm the dating of the catalog. The Charlie Chaplin bag was made by Whiting & Davis, and the story goes that this bag and others that featured silent screen stars had to be pulled from production due to copyright infringement. Because of that, the bags are pretty rare today, plus the fact that they cost $20, which was a lot of money then.

I knew I had an image of this bag in a 1970s Seventeen magazine, but rather than head to the magazine stacks, I took the shortcut of an internet search. What I found was surprising. Several websites dated this bag to 1976. The more I looked and read, the more I realized this is a case of information being copied and re-copied from the same original source.

All that sent me to the magazines stacks – the place I should have gone to in the first place. I started with 1973, and there was the photo I needed, in the November, 1973 issue of Seventeen.  This confirms that my catalog is indeed from 1973.

As for the 1976 date, the only way that could be true is if Whiting & Davis re-released the bag that year. I tend to think not, but I’m open to being corrected.

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Filed under Curiosities, Shopping

The Art of Reweaving

This swatch is on the reverse side of a very lovely vintage skirt. You are looking at one of the best examples of reweaving I’ve ever seen.

Here is the front of the same section of the skirt. Don’t bother looking for the mends as they are completely invisible. Reweaving is one of those skills that sounds simple to acquire, but is, in fact, quite difficult to do properly. I know because I’ve tried, with varying success. I would never attempt to reweave such a complicated and finely woven plaid.

In this enlargement you can better see how the reweaver used a needle to replicate the pattern. And in the center is the hole. Reweaving is still practiced today, but be prepared to pay for the service. This is highly skilled  work.

And here’s the suit, part of the collection at Style and Salvage, a local vintage business. I love visiting and watching them work because there is always something new to see and to learn.

I can see why the original owner had this suit repaired. It is a great set, and she bought it at Miller’s, THE department store in Knoxville, Tennessee. And this was during the time that people did not see their clothing as being disposable. Repairs were considered part of the upkeep of nice things.

The curve of the collar is repeated in the pockets.

I’m not familiar with the maker, Elynor, but a trip to the trademark site told me the company first used the name in 1927. It was one of the many quality suit makers in the New York Garment District.

Stroock was, as the label clearly proclaims, a fine woolen cloth manufacturer. The history of the company dates back to 1866 as a maker of blankets of fine fibers including cashmere and vicuna.

Thanks to Mel and Jeff at Style and Salvage for allowing me to share this great suit.

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Filed under Curiosities, manufacturing, Sewing

Calamity Jane’s Duds: Historical Center’s Exciting Discovery

Usually a back issue of True West magazine would not interest me, but this one found at the Goodwill Treasure Center caught my eye with the word “Duds”.  And then there was a photo of some interesting looking clothing along with Ms. Calamity herself.

Note the publication date of 1990. This was pretty much pre-internet, and so the nature of research was very different than a search of this nature would be today. in 1989 Elizabeth A. Brink, researcher at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming was given the task of determining whether three garments thought to have belonged to Calamity Jane were, in fact, hers.

The items had come to the Cody Center from the collection of artist Frederic Remington.  According to an 1897 inventory of Remington’s studio, there were no items belonging to Calamity Jane. But a 1916 catalog of the contents listed her vest, coat, and trousers.

Brink turned to photographs to see if any of the objects at the Cody Center matched up with garments Calamity Jane wore in publicity shots. Brink was able to locate around two dozen shots of Jane, most of which are easily accessed today on the internet. In 1989 Brink had to rely on the Center’s library, which fortunately, was up to the task.

In three of the photos Calamity Jane is wearing the outfit above, a coat, vest, and trousers. That certainly sounded promising. In fact, enough of the decorated vest was showing so that Brink was able to positively identify it as being the vest in the Bill Cody Historical Center’s collection.

To add to the evidence, both in the photo and on the garment, the third button down is missing.

Brink then turned her attention to the coat. A garment in the collection, a pullover shirt with beaded American flag decorations was labeled as being the coat. But there was no such garment evident in the known Calamity Jane photos. Encouraged by the presence of the vest, Brink decided to closely examine the other garments in the Remington collection.

She found a coat that was very similar to the one Calamity Jane wore over the vest in the three photos. In the old photos, there was fur at the cuffs, but no fur was present on the existing coat. However, a close examination of the sleeves revealed needle holes and threads where fur could have one time been attached. She was also able to match up the tear on the lower front seen in the photo with a repair in the garment. The final clue that this was Calamity Jane’s coat was found in the buttonholes, which had a distinctive pattern, with some being vertical, but others being horizontal.

The pants were also mislabeled, but another search found a different pair that matched those being worn in the photographs. They were identified by the matching brass buttons and a patch on the left leg.

I went on a search for an online version of this story, and was unable to locate it. The article by researcher Brink is referred to in much of the literature on Calamity Jane, but I felt that this great story needed a presence on the WWW.

 

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Museums, Vintage Photographs

Late 1940s Photographic Prints on Fabric

Late in 1947 the big news on the textiles front was the development of a process that allowed photographs to be printed on fabric. It was so big that Life magazine reported on the new printing processes in December of 1947. Today, photos printed on fabrics are everywhere, and one can even do it at home on their own computer. And when I think of vintage photo prints, I tend to think of those from the 1970s that were printed on polyester knits.

Occasionally a photo printed piece from the 1940s surfaces on the market. Most of the ones I have seen are multiple photos of a place. I have seen prints of San Francisco and of Seattle. I have also seen a fabric that had a variety of travel destinations. And at the present time there are Florida and Hawaii themed photo print garments for sale on eBay.

I had been wanting to add one of these unusual prints to my collection, but had been holding out for a woman’s garment in a travel print. As luck would have it, I stumbled on a sports themed print on a scarf instead.

This scarf is from the late 1940s or early 50s, and seems to be printed on parachute silk. I say seems to be because there is not enough available random fiber to do a burn test. The other alternative is that this is a thin and crisp acetate.

I especially love that most of the sports people are women, and that they are dressed in practical clothing for active sports.

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Filed under Collecting, Curiosities

Currently Reading – Quilt Books

I’m fascinated with quilts. No, I don’t collect them, nor do I make them. It’s the historical meaning hidden within these little pieces of textiles that keep me interested in them.

Recently I drove to the Pickens flea market in Pickens, SC. I’d been before, and knew that it’s a very mixed bag of good and bad, new and old, and down right bizarre. The highlight of the visit was a bluegrass band in which a little mutty dog was the fifth member. He had been taught to let out a howl at just the right time. I was too amazed to even take a video.

I had been all over the field – and it’s a big one – with no luck when I stumbled upon a used book seller. He had a few books on quilting so I stopped to have a browse. I asked the price, which was a dollar each, so I was feeling extravagant and had about five or six picked out when the seller said he had more in the back of the truck.

What he had was the entire library of a long-time quilter. There were easily several hundred books on quilts, most of them how-to books. I wasn’t interested in those, but there were also quite a few books on quilt and textile history. I ended up with eighteen of them, which he let me have for $10.

The prize of the lot is the book above, Barbara Brackman’s quilting classic, Clues in the Calico. I had been looking for this book for a long time, but I didn’t want to pay the high price it commands. It is a guide to dating quilts, but more than that, it’s a guide to identifying antique textiles. I’m still reading this one, but I found myself using the information a few days ago when someone on Instagram posted a recently found hoard of old fabrics. Immediately I knew that some of the prints had been printed with “fugitive” green dyes, as the stems and leaves of plants were now a tannish brown.

Some of the books are general quilt histories, but most focus on a particular type or region. I thought this title was very interesting, as I do not associate quilting with Native Americans. I’ll probably put this one at the top of the reading queue.

There were also a couple of books on textiles, and in particular the types of textiles commonly used for quilts.

I’ve read probably four or five of the books, and I’m beginning to see quite a bit of the same information. That’s not a bad thing. I certainly don’t want to read conflicting “facts” as then, how would I figure out who to trust?

Several of the authors have pointed out one of the big fallacies of early quilt-making in America: that colonists made patchwork quilts out of their old textiles out of necessity. I already knew this, but it seems to be a generally held belief when so many writers take the time to make sure that the earliest quilts were not scrap projects in a make do and reuse sense.  The earliest American quilts were generally whole cloth quilts, or were quilts made from appliques cut from fabrics that were printed specifically for that purpose.

Two of the books are detailed accounts of the quilts of one family of makers. I’m in the process of reading one of these, Mary Black’s Family Quilts, by Laurel Horton. I’m enjoying this one partially because Mary Black lived in Spartanburg, SC, which is only an hour and a half down the road from me. And besides that, many quilt books tend to focus on quilts from Pennsylvania or New England, so it’s nice reading about quilts from a Southern family.

I need to point out that it’s almost impossible to separate the production of quilts, textiles and clothing in the days before the Industrial Revolution. All the quilt books I’ve read so far also discuss cloth and clothing production. I’ve had to stop and remind myself that the authors of these books are quilt – not clothing – experts.

In referring to the South Carolina backcountry in the late 18th century, Horton writes, “Fabrics were available in abundant variety in local stores for home sewing as was ready-made clothing.” While ready-made fabrics were readily available, ready-made clothing was not. Most of the ready-made clothing at this time was very cheaply made, and was marketed in the South as being appropriate for enslaved people. The best explanation I know of for this is found in Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America by Claudia Kidwell and Margaret Christman.

Okay, no more quibbling over the details; let’s look at some quilts. The one above is pictured in Kentucky Quilts 1800 – 1900 by John Finley and Jonathan Holstein. It was made by Ann Johnson Armstrong, circa 1890.

Emma Van Fleet made this quilt in 1866 to commemorate the Civil War battles in which her husband had fought. There are forty-seven battles. Seen in Threads of Time by Nancy J. Martin.

The maker of this one, also seen in Threads of Time, is unknown. It was made around 1865.

And finally, this marvelous creation is seen in New Discoveries in American Quilts by Robert Bishop. The quilt was made by Celestine Bacheller, and the blocks are thought to depict real places around her home in Massachusetts.

It’s a sort of scenic/crazy quilt hybrid. It is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Currently Reading, Sewing

Catalina Contures, 1960s Key to Confidence in Swimwear Comfort

Here’s one to be filed under “Things I found while looking for something else.” I could also put it under, “Things I didn’t know existed.”

Not that I didn’t know about “falsies” or bust pads; I just didn’t know that Catalina made these for swimsuits back in the 1960s. And considering how much time I spent  between 1965 and 1972 devouring Seventeen and Teen magazines, You’d think I’d have known every product that was marketed to my demographic (otherwise known as the teenager).

I have a fairly decent selection of Seventeen and other fashion magazines from the 60s, so after I found this item, I decided to revisit the magazines to see if I could spot an ad for Contures. I was pretty sure that I’d come up empty, as I felt sure I would have remembered seeing this product, and especially if the mermaid packaging was featured in the ads. And I was right, there were no Contures ads to be found.

From reading many online ads for vintage Catalina bathing suits, it does appear that many of their styles were made with pockets in which to insert the pads. I’m still trying to figure out how that would lead to “confidence in swimwear comfort”.

Looking at this product and the language used to sell it, it’s no wonder so many young women developed (and unfortunately still develop) body image issues. I do hope that all of you who have girls and teens are teaching them that their bodies are not objects that need correcting. Well, unless they have scoliosis or some other medical condition.

It’s really quite remarkable that these have survived at all, much less in the original box in a plastic bag. It’s obvious they were never used. Maybe the buyer had a moment of clarity and decided her breasts were fine as is. I like to think that’s the case.

The condition of the pads is amazing. They look like new, which is surprising considering they are made from a spongy synthetic substance and were wrapped in a plastic bag for fifty years. I have re-homed them in a muslin pouch, after wrapping them in acid-free tissue. Maybe that will help them last another fifty years.

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Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Summer Sports