Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading – Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life by Emmanuelle Poole

I’m not a collector of couture clothing, but that does not mean I can’t learn from the lives of the masters of it.  One French couturier whose work I have always loved is Jean Patou.  Patou’s rise in the fashion industry came about at the same time as that of Coco Chanel, and the two are often compared.  They had similar design aesthetics, and their clientele overlapped, leading to competition and mutual dislike of one another.

Of course today Chanel is a household name and Patou is barely remembered outside of the fashion history set.  If not for his famous fragrance, Joy, it is possible that the name Patou would be even more obscure.  And while volumes and volumes have been written about Chanel, little has been written about Jean Patou.  I was delighted to find this 2013 book by Emmanuelle Polle.

Patou’s work in fashion began around 1910.  By 1914 he had opened a couture house under his own name, but World War I intervened.  After serving in the war, Patou returned to Paris where his business was revived.  He soon became the darling of the modern woman.  Like Chanel, he realized life had changed for women, and they required easy to wear clothing that allowed them to move about their lives with freedom.  And he was an early designer of sportswear.

In 1925 Patou opened “Les Coin des Sports” on the ground floor of his couture house.  It was a place where women could go to shop for his sports clothes, which were then made to order.  He was popular with tennis stars Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills who often played against each other, both attired in Patou dresses.

Les Coin des Sports also made swimsuits, ski wear, and clothing for sports spectating.  The book is rich in photographs, not just of the clothing, but also of the original sketches and often with matching vintage photos.  The ski suit on the right can also be seen in the small sketch.

I had no idea that the Jean Patou archive still survives.  Patou unfortunately died in 1936 with his sister and brother-in-law continuing to run the business, which made clothing under a variety of designers until 1987.  Today Patou produces only perfumes.  But because the house never closed, the archive remains, and so there is a rich treasure of sketches, photos, documents, and even garments.

I was most amazed at these photos of Patou sweaters, which are folded across a rail.  They date from the 1920s.  The model on the left appears to be wearing the red and white sweater in the upper left.

Of course, Patou made more than sportswear.  He was also a master of beaded evening dresses, like the one above which is from 1927.

And here is the dress as worn by dancer Eleanora Ambrose.

I loved the close-up look that the reader is given of many of the garments featured.  This dress from 1926 is stunning, but the full length view does not tell the entire story.  It was only with the close-ups that I could see the beautiful textile and the intricate beadwork. In all, there were four photos of this one dress.

I’m really not a fan of huge, heavy books.  Measuring 12.5 by 9.75 inches, and weighing five pounds, it’s a bit hard to curl up in a cozy corner with this one.  However, the wonderful large photos of details more than make up for that bit of inconvenience.

The book is an English translation of the French original, and I must say that at times the writing seemed a bit odd to this American-English reader.  Added to that, the organization is also not what might be expected.  After an initial brief biographical sketch of Patou’s life, there was little adherence to any sort of timeline.

Some of the vintage photos in the book have been widely reproduced, especially those of his bathing suits, but most of the photos were new to me.  That is always a good thing.

Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life is a bit expensive, even at discount.  Even if you don’t buy this one, I do recommend tracking it down through your library.  It’s a fascinating look at a designer that you just don’t see every day.

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Ad Campaign: Lovable Bra, 1951

To be honest, this post is not so much about the ad than it is about discovery.  In this case, it is the story of my discovery of the Lovable Brassiere Company of Atlanta, Georgia.  And while I’m not a collector of lingerie (though I do have a few pieces in my collection) I’m always interested in a good story about the clothing industry.

It started when I found this book Woman in Atlanta, at my local Goodwill Outlet.  How could I not love the photo on the front?  And I knew that co-author Susan Neill used to be a fashion and textiles curator at the Atlanta History Center, so I put the book in my shopping cart.  As it turns out the book was an outgrowth of an exhibition at the museum in 2004, Gone with the Girdle, an exhibition I had seen and loved. There are photos of some of the clothing in the exhibition along with 150 years of photos of the women of Atlanta.

Courtesy of the Ida Pearle and Joseph Cuba Archives of the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

While I loved seeing all the photos and learning much about Atlanta history, one photo stood out – this image of workers of the Lovable bra factory in Atlanta, circa 1940.

Established in Atlanta by Jewish businessman Frank Garcon in 1914, Lovable Brassiere Company became “the world’s leading producer of popular priced bra fashions.”  Beginning in the 1930s, Lovable fully integrated its factories and lunchrooms.  The company was progressive for its wages as well; workers received $9 per week, $4 above the national average.  Lovable’s marketing was aimed at both white and black consumers, though all the advertising featured white models.

For those not familiar with the Jim Crow South of the early to mid twentieth century, that might not seem like such a big deal.  But consider that in many places having black and white workers together in the same workplace was just not allowed.  In South Carolina, usually the only black workers at textile mills were outside workers such as the men who loaded trucks.  One of the excuses made for not hiring Blacks was that white people would not work along side them.  Mr Garcon proved that wrong by paying a higher than average wage.  I had to know more about Mr. Frank Garcon.

A big obstacle to internet searches for old companies is that they often have a common word as the name of the company.  Searching “lovable” brings up all sorts of odd links, but knowing the name of the owner and the place where the company was located really helps narrow things down.  In this case, I was able to find out quite a bit about Frank Garcon and Lovable, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions.

Frank, who was a native of Poland, met and married his wife Gussie (from Austria) in New York City.  The couple moved to Atlanta where Frank found work in the undergarment industry.

Many of the online sources I found date the founding of Lovable to 1926 instead of the 1914 stated in my book. It’s not possible that Garcon started the business in Atlanta in 1914 because the move to Atlanta did not happen until after son Arthur was born around 1916.  It’s likely that the firm that Frank worked for was started in 1914 and that Frank did not acquire it until 1926.  This is conjecture on my part.  The answer is probably in the Breman Museum archive, which has oral histories from the Garcon family.

This led me to do a trademark search for Lovable.  Interestingly, the US Trademark database lists 1932 as the beginning of the use of the Lovable trademark, and it lists the owners as Frank and Arthur Gottesman.  Ancestry.com revealed that Frank Gottesman changed his name to Garcon at some point after 1940.  Arthur was the oldest son of Frank and his wife Gussie.

Lovable remained a family business with son Dan taking over from his father, and his son Frank II after him.  They company maintained a cutting factory (with the sewing being done in Central America) in the Atlanta area until it closed in the late 1990s.  Things went bad for Lovable in 1995 when Walmart, their largest customer, changed the terms of their agreement, which made it all but impossible for Lovable to make a profit.  They closed in 1998.

Even though the details of the Lovable Brassiere Company seem to be somewhat sketchy, one thing is for sure.  Frank Garcon was able to look past the accepted social “rules” in order to do the right thing.  That’s a really nice legacy for a company to have.

 

 

 

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Currently Reading: The Dress Detective by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim

If you notice the subtitle of this recently published book, A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion, then you might have correctly guessed that I love this book.  Written by two museum professionals, the book gives an organized method of evaluating any piece of clothing.

One of the old criticisms of dress studies was that professionals often gave the appearance of being concerned with just what can be measured.  The description of an item in a collection might give the dimensions in minute detail, every smudge and tear would be measured and noted, and every bead counted.  But what did all this information tell the researcher?

The answer is quite a lot, as long as you are asking the right questions.  In order to understand a garment, the first step is observation.  The means to note not only the things that can be measured, but also other information contained within the garment itself.  Are there any alterations?  What is the fiber content?  Are there labels?  Mida and Kim give a list of forty questions that help you gather the information in the garment.

The next step is to reflect on the information and what it means.  You also need to take time and reflect on your own reaction to the garment.  Would you wear it?  Does it appeal to the senses?  Are you reminded of other garments by some aspect of it?  Is there any documentation on this garment?  Reflection is time-consuming, but is a necessary step in understanding the garment and where it fits into an area of study.

The last step is interpretation in which you connect all the information and make conclusions.  Your conclusions will depend on what your objectives of study were to begin with.  This is what makes the study of fashion so fascinating.

The authors work through each of the three steps, and then they present seven case studies using their method.  All the right questions are asked as each garment is closely observed.  There are plenty of photographs to show what they are looking at as it is described.

One of the case studies is a Lanvin wedding dress and matching veil. By close observation it was determined that this dress had been altered.

Close-up photographs show that the fabric in the sleeves is a newer, synthetic fabric, and is not original to the dress.  The original trim was reused on the new sleeves.

The label is missing from the dress, but is still present in the veil.  You can see that some material (and awkward stitching) had been added to the veil.

Another case study was of a late Victorian velveteen and wool bodice.  Part of the reflection of the piece involved looking at period fashion plates to find similar styles.  This helps not only with dating but might also provide clues into the social and economic class of the original wearer.

Also of use is the study of period photos.  It is rare (but delightful) to have a photograph of the wearer of the actual garment, but even photos of people wearing similar garments can be of use.

As this garment is close to the era of ready-made clothing, another avenue of study might be into the way companies like Eaton in Canada, and Sears in the US were operating dressmaking services.  Could this bodice have been made in this manner?

These interior shots show the complexity of construction.

The book was written as a guide for students and researchers, but I think many people who deal with clothing could learn a lot from it about how to read a garment.  I especially liked the sections on taking what you see in the garment and looking for external information .  In the world of the internet it is increasingly easy to search museum databases, find newspaper ads and references, and to find similar garments for sale.  Information about labels is readily available on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Label Resource.

The Dress Detective does not give the researcher all the knowledge that one will need in looking at old clothes.  It would take a much larger book to tell things like when the NRA eagle label was used, the invention of the zipper, or the first use of synthetic fabrics.  These are the facts that have to be learned by the researcher, or else researched.  A book of these dating tidbits would make a great companion to The Dress Detective.

 

 

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Currently Reading: A Fabric of Defeat

One of the things that makes fashion history so interesting to me is that there are hundreds of ways to approach it, and hundreds of subtopics to grab my attention.  Growing up in the South in a town that was dominated by its relationship with the local factory (paper, not textiles) and having relatives who worked in cotton mills from the 1930s through the 90s  has made me quite interested in the textile and garment industries of the Carolinas.

People often make the mistake of confusing the two states. The piedmont (the area between the coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains) of both was textile country, but having different governing bodies meant that what applied in one state did not always apply to the other.  Being from North Carolina I am quite familiar with the labor movement here, and the struggles workers went through in order to have safe working conditions and a fair wage.  I knew about the deadly battles fought between unionizers and law enforcement in my state, but was ignorant of similar situations that happened just south of me.

I found A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910 – 1948 at my favorite Goodwill.  I’ve been reading it over the past month, interspersed with other, lighter reading.  It’s not that the reading is hard, but that it is difficult to digest.

There were quite a few truisms that I was exposed to in my days as a history student, and one of them was that it is rarely fair to judge the actions of people in the past by the mores of today.  Still, it is hard to come to grips with the way people were treated in factories, and also with the racism that kept Blacks out of the mills and in the worst kind of poverty.  It is especially true knowing that mill conditions have not really changed, they have just moved to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

There is no way I can summarize the story this book tells, as it is too complicated to go into the sort of detail that would lead to a real understanding of the situation.  But simply put, the situation in the mills was good through World War I because of the increased demand for textiles.  We tend to think of the 1920s as boom years, but for many Southern textile companies, this was not so.  The loss of army contracts combined with fashions that required much less fabric led to over-production, which led to the collapse of prices.  Many millhands lost their jobs even before the stock market crash of 1929.

The Great Depression just served to make the situation worse.  And in another of those great history truisms, it was not until the war machine cranked back up in the late 1930s that recovery came to the mills of South Carolina.  By that time the mill workers had tried, and failed, to influence the politics of South Carolina in a way that would better their lives.

There are no heroes in this story.  Most of the state’s leaders were not from the area where the mills were located, and saw no reason to pass laws to help the workers. The few politicians who did fight to improve the lives of the mill workers also worked to keep the vote from Black people.  The mill workers themselves refused to work in factories where Black people worked, thereby keeping their one claim of status – that they were at least better off than the Black man.

Several years ago I visited the South Carolina State Museum.  There were several great exhibits on the textile industry and the lives of mill workers.  I can’t recall reading a word about the political strife of the 1920s and 30s, even though workers were killed.  In all, it now seems like a sanitized version of the past, with a model of a cute mill village viewed through a rosy lens.  To be fair, I may have missed that part of the history, and will be revisiting the museum in the near future.

Bryant Simon managed to take a difficult subject and report on it objectively and without judgement.  Even though I found A Fabric of Defeat to be very enlightening, I can’t really recommend it to readers who are just wanting to read about fashion.  What I do suggest is that you explore the historical roots of your own state or region, whether it be on the subject of fashion or any other topic.

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Currently Reading – Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America

Suiting Everyone was published in 1974 as a work to go with an exhibition of the same name at the Smithsonian.  Written by curators Claudia Kidwell and Margaret Christman, the book  is about the history of ready-to-wear clothing, and how it changed from being cheaply made garments for the poor to being available at all prices and to suit all Americans.

I found the subtitle to be especially interesting.  Today fashion people are always talking about how designer collaborations with stores like Target and H&M have led to the democratization of fashion.  What they don’t seem to realize, and something that the book does an excellent job of explaining, is that fashion became “democratized” over one hundred years ago with the rise of the ready-to-wear industry.  Fashionable clothing has been available for most Americans for over a century.

It’s not a process that happened over night.  There were a lot of things that had to fall into place to make the mass production of clothing possible.  A big factor was, of course, the Industrial Revolution with inventions ranging from the cotton gin to the sewing machine.  But there were other, more obscure players in this story, such as how the War of 1812 led to the idea of the standardization of sizes, at least for men’s clothing.

Partly because of fit issues, and the problems solved by the US Army in making uniforms, ready-to-wear for men came about much earlier than that for women.  The earliest ready-mades for women were items that did not require a close fit, like these loose-fitting tea gowns of 1898.  Blouses, or waists as they were referred to then, underwear, and skirts were also early ready-made products for women.

Other early ready-mades for women included outerwear like capes and mantles.  This is a golf cape from 1899.  This garment was called a golf cape because they were made from plaids which come from Scotland which is where golf originated.  It was a bit of a reach!

Sporting attire, especially bathing suits, were another category of ready-mades.  The examples on the above left are from 1898.  On the right you can see some cycling suits from 1897.

And while the catalog does show one knicker suit, there are seven suits that are short skirts.  Note the knickers peeking out from under the skirt in the middle outfit.

The survey of ready-to-wear goes up to the present day, or at least at the time of the writing.  Things have changed so much in the clothing manufacturing that it would be easy to double the size of the book just from the events of the past forty years.

In the preface to the book Claudia Kidwell tells how when planning the exhibition the Smithsonian staff realized they did not have the variety of garments necessary to represent all the ideas they wanted to illustrate.  To get the needed clothing they announced to the public that they were in need of clothing from the 1920s through the 1970s.  The internet did not invent crowd-sourcing.

This book was a gift from reader and friend Lynn Mally who writes the AmericanAgeFashion blog.  We have this transcontinental book exchange going that just happened naturally when we realized we have shared interests.  It makes me see just how important it is to me to be able to connect with so many fashion history lovers.  The internet is a true miracle.

From going to the Costume Society symposium last week, I also realized that gatherings like that one are also very important in the sharing and exchange of ideas.  One of the papers that was presented was about how clothing for slaves in America was some of the very first ready-to-wear, with there being ads for this clothing being placed in Charleston newspapers as early as the mid eighteenth century.  The book touched on this very briefly, and so the paper tied in perfectly with what I’d just been reading.  This research adds a great deal to the story of ready-made clothing.

Another of the presenters and I found that our research had over-lapped somewhat.  As a graduate student some years ago she had interviewed twelve women who came of age in the same small town during the 1920s.  Her questions centered on their dress during a time when hemlines got very short and which is today described as being “scandalous.”  When she asked each if they ever wore any “scandalous” garment, several laughed and replied that yes, they had been very bad and had worn knickers.  One even went so far as to put on her brother’s knickers and walk with friends to the next town, just to show off.

I want to thank all who read and commented, and all those who emailed saying that you liked my “Knickerbockers” paper.  The best comments have to be from Karen of SmallEarthVintage, who read my description of the 1920s knickers-wearing girl, and knew I was talking about her grandmother.  Karen is lucky to have a full range of photos of her grandmother wearing pants, starting with her as a teen in the 1920s wearing her knickers, to her as a grandmother in the 1970s, still wearing her pants.

As I concluded in my paper,  “The knickers-wearing girls of the 1920s became the pantsuit–wearing grandmothers of the 1970s, who had learned years earlier the comfort and practicality of pants.”  I could not have found a better example than Karen’s Grandmother Edna.

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Cheap Chic: The 40th Anniversary Edition

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the book Cheap Chic, and how it was the book that introduced me to vintage clothing.  That was in 1975.  I was in college, and I found the newly released book at the library.  No one else got a chance to read it because I hoarded that book for the next two years until I bought my own copy.  I still have it, and I still pull it out from time to time to reread parts of it.

When the book was released forty years ago, I’d never seen anything like it.  Most fashion books that I’d been exposed to were advice books for teens, and all were terribly out of date for the late Sixties and early Seventies.  But Cheap Chic was relevant to me, a very young woman in the mid Seventies.  At that time fashion rules were being broken, with the young (and not-so-young) taking up the wearing of everything from antique underwear to the uniforms of the working class.

To me the biggest value in Cheap Chic today is that it is a good document of how many people in the Seventies were dressing.  To completely understand the attitudes toward dressing in that decade, you really must read this book.

But what about the “hundreds of money saving hints to create your own look”?  To be honest, much of the content is still relevant, while some of it is now old hat.  Still, it is hard not to be inspired by the content, even though a lot of it is a bit quirky.   Or maybe we can be inspired because it is quirky.  At any rate, the writing is honest and sincere, and very 1970s.

It used to be that to get a copy of Cheap Chic, you had to search for a used copy, but as of yesterday the book is back in print.  And the good news is that the publicist for the book has sent a copy to me to offer as a give-away to readers of The Vintage Traveler.  All you have to do to put your name in the hat for the book is to leave a comment on this thread.  I’ll be taking names until Sunday, September 6 at noon, EDT.

And to encourage participation, here’s a little taste of the contents.

Cheap Chic, by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy, 1975

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Currently Reading: American Quilts by Robert Shaw

I know that having two posts on quilts is straying a bit from the usual fare here at The Vintage Traveler, but I’m sure that lovers of textiles will appreciate the beauty and work that goes into a well-crafted quilt.

I don’t buy quilt books, as a general rule, but I spotted this one at a local fabric store and after thumbing through it decided I had to have it, if only for the visual inspiration.  The book is stunningly beautiful, with 358 pages of lovely photos.  It is arranged loosely chronologically, with different eras of quilt styles serving as chapters.  And it is not just pretty pictures, as Shaw also writes about the textile industry and the development of the sewing machine and other matters of interest.

Since I’m not well versed in quilts, I’m really not qualified to comment on the the quilts chosen for the book, so I read the reviews of others who do know quilts.  Some reviewers were concerned that some quilting styles, such as Amish quilts, were given too much space in the book at the exclusion of others, such as quilts from the Appalachian regions.  And truly, I found my eyes glazing over by the end of the chapter on Amish quilts.  It was a bit too much.

But for the most part, the text is engaging and informative, just like I’d want a book of this sort to be.  The real stars though, are the quilts themselves.

Believe it or not, the cover image is from a quilt that was made in 1933 by Edith Morrow Matthews.

We sometimes think of quilts as being patchwork, but many of the earliest American quilts were appliqued.  This quilt is attributed to Mary Jane Carr of Columbia, Pennsylvania, circa 1850.  Note the dogs in the lower corners.

Named for the ship in the center, this is known as The Constitution Quilt, circa 1880. The blocks depict scenes from the Bible, patriotic and Masonic symbols, and scenes of everyday life.

The maker evidently loved birds.

I do love a good crazy quilt, or in this case, a great one.  Note how it was actually pieced in blocks and then assembled.  The embroidery tends to tie it all together.

The book points out that it is very difficult to attribute a quilt to an African-American maker.  In this case, it seems to be the subject matter that identifies this snake design as African-American.

This circa 1875 to 1900 quilt is from eastern North Carolina,  where coral snakes are a danger.

This detail is from a large quilt that is a variation of the log cabin design.  Because all the people are black and are not caricatures, it is assumed that the maker was African-American.  Circa 1890, and probably from New Jersey.

This is an Amish quilt from Ohio, made in 1928 by Christina Yoder Schlaabach.  Amish quilts varied from community to community, and in accordance to how much influence there was from the “English” world.  One thing they have in common is that they are never pictorial.

A variation of the fan design, this quilt was found in New York City, where it was possibly made around 1920.  The pieces are velvet and cotton, and is tied (the ties look like dots in the photo) rather than stitch quilted.

I love this amazing quilt.  It was made by a farmer’s wife, Fannie B. Shaw, between 1930 and 1932.  The appliqued figures all represent a profession, and are labeled as such.  And why are they looking around the corner?  They are looking for prosperity, something that President Hoover promised was “just around the corner.”  Note the representatives of the GOP and the Democrats, and finally, Uncle Sam with sacks of gold, farm relief and free beer!

This is just a corner of a fantastic quilt made by Goldie Tracy Richmond in 1966.  Richmond and her husband ran a trading post on the Papago reservation in Arizona, and she made quilts to sell to tourists.  This one shows life on the reservation.

As the twentieth century advanced, the practice of quilting declined.  But the 1970s brought a renewed interest in the traditional crafts of America, and people began to take up quilting as a hobby.  In many cases, the line between craft and art is blurred as quilts changed from being utilitarian items to being strictly decorative.  Many go beyond that into the realm of sending a message.

The quilt above is from 1986, and was made by Judy Mathieson.  Called Nautical Stars, it was inspired by a watercolor of compass roses.

Click to see a larger view

Susan at Witness2Fashion recent wrote about this quilt on her blog, and I was delighted to see it in this book.  The quilt, Portrait of a Textile Worker, is made entirely of clothing labels that were donated to the maker, Terese Agnew.  Read more about it on Susan’s blog.

Once again I have to say a word or two about historical accuracy.  While I do not know a lot about the history of quilts, the fashion historian in me could not help but be disturbed by this paragraph:

The Lancaster Amish continued to work the same small group of patterns until World War II put an end to the supply of fine wool, most of which had been imported from England. With their favored material no longer readily available, Lancaster Amish women were forced to use polyester, and the classic period of their quiltmaking effectively came to an end.

I may be reading this incorrectly, but it seems to me the author is saying that polyester replaced wool during the war.  That would not be possible because polyester became available to consumers only after the war was over, in 1950.  Another inaccuracy was that Illinois was stated to be the first state to give women the right to vote in 1913.  Actually, it was Wyoming, in 1869.  And finally, Diana Vreeland was referred to as “the influential designer” when she was, in fact, the editor of Vogue.

The point needs to be made that when reading one has to be both a reader and and editor.  We are used to relying on books to supply correct information, but that is not always the case, unfortunately.  Reader beware!

All photos were taken from the book, American Quilts: The Democratic Art, by Robert Shaw.  Please do not copy photos from this site.

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