Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading: How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Currently Reading – Portrait of a Woman in Silk

I think I’ve mentioned here that my first history obsession was with the American colonial period.  Since my college days I’ve gone on to other interests, but I’ve recently rediscovered  early American history after reading a biography of Abigail Adams, and then I discovered my latest podcast love, Ben Franklin’s World. It was through Ben Franklin’s World that I found the book that is today’s topic.  The author, Zara Anishanslin, was the featured guest on the podcast, and she made her book sound so interesting that I had to read it.

And I’m so glad that I did.  I love biographies, and you might say the book is a biography of the portrait, which weaves together the stories of four people who had a hand in the creation of it – the woman who designed the pattern of the silk, the man who wove the silk, the woman who wore the dress, and the man who painted the portrait.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of “material culture” (otherwise known as stuff) and what we can learn from from objects from the past.  And while I usually explore the not so distant past, it was so interesting to see a historian travel back 250 years to see what evidence can be found in portraits, bits of silk, drawings, not to mention the usual historical sources of written records.  The challenge of this study was that there were few written records.  None of the four people involved left written accounts of their lives. Other written evidence was sketchy, such as mentions in guild records or other people’s letters.

So Anishanslan turned to what was plentiful – the objects themselves, especially the portrait and others painted by the artist, Robert Feke.  It’s helpful to know how to “read” a portrait, and Anishanslin provides plenty of instruction in the symbolism and clues found in a colonial portrait.  I had no idea you could learn so much about a person just by the careful examination of her portrait.

The woman in the portrait is Anne Shippen Willing, and it now hangs at Winterthur in Delaware.  It was Anishanslin’s recall of the portrait as she was examining designs for Spitalfields silk fabrics housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum that led to her research.  Seeing the similarities between the dress in the portrait and the designs in the museum, she was then able to find the original drawing for that particular piece of silk, which was drawn by Anna Maria Garthwaite.  From there she discovered that the weaver of the cloth was Spitalfields weaver Simon Julins.

One important person that could have added to this story that was not uncovered by Anishanlin was the dressmaker who constructed the dress.  It’s a shame that her (the dressmaker’s) work was not somehow recorded.  But then, she was just a seamstress, out of a multitude of sewers working in a city like Philadelphia, where Willing lived.  If only Willing had kept a diary!

It’s rather amazing that one portrait could inspire an entire book, but Anishanlin left no stone unturned in her pursuit of her subjects. The book is full of tangents and detours, and it is all the richer for them.  This book is not just about the portrait, or the fabric, or the people directly involved in the creation of the two.  There’s a rich study of the importance of botany in the eighteenth century, a close look at New England trade and the merchants who got rich off from trans-Atlantic trade, and the role of slavery in both Philadelphia and New England.

Portrait of a Woman in Silk

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Currently Reading – Empress of Fashion, Diana Vreeland

This biography of Diana Vreeland has been out since 2012, and I’d been meaning to get it and read it, but it was not until I ran across a copy in a used bookstore that I was reminded to do so.  So much has been written about Vreeland that I feel she needs little introduction.  As far as fashion is concerned, she held three main positions: American fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar 1939 through 1962, associate editor then editor in chief at Vogue 1962 through 1971, and Special Consultant at the Costume Institute from 1972 until 1986.

What makes this biography so good is that Stuart somehow managed to cut through all the fantasy Vreeland had built around her life to give a true picture of what really transpired.  Vreeland was never one to be bothered with factual truth; she was more interested in the essence of truth.  To really understand this, I suggest reading Vreeland’s DV before reading Empress of Fashion.

As much as I love losing myself in vintage fashion magazines – the fruit of Vreeland’s labor from 1936 through 1971 – it is her time at the Costume Institute that I find to be the most interesting.  After being fired by Vogue in 1971, Vreeland was at loose ends when the opportunity to organize exhibitions for the Met’s Costume Institute came her way.  Her official title was that of Special Consultant, but she was actually acting as curator of exhibitions.

From the beginning, Vreeland’s approach to fashion exhibition was unorthodox.  She was not interested in chronology, nor in the construction of garments.  Her belief was that the important thing was the mood that clothing portrayed.  She never let historical facts get in the way of how an exhibition should feel to the visitor to the museum.  The curatorial staff at the Costume Institute often went behind Vreeland, correcting  anachronisms and historical errors.

Despite her dismissal of a factual approach, Mrs. Vreeland  did not believe that fashion was art.  As she put it, “People say a little Schiaparelli design is an art form.  Why can’t it just be a very good dress?”  And that, to me is the essence of Mrs. Vreeland’s contribution to fashion display.  Fashion should be seen as an important part of a  culture, and whether or not it is art makes no difference.

Vreeland transformed the Costume Institute from an afterthought at the Met to a department that brought in the crowds.  Many of her exhibitions broke attendance records, and brought needed attention to fashion studies and the display of dress.  Still, many did not agree with her methods.  The director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London  wrote in 1983, “… We are all totally opposed to Diana Vreeland’s degradation of fashion.”

But no matter, as Diana continued doing what she did best, creating exhibitions that inspired designers and delighted the public.  And while I might prefer a more factual approach to fashion curation, I can certainly appreciate how much she did for the discipline.

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Currently Reading – American Style and Spirit

American Style and Spirit: Fashion and Lives of the Roddis Family, 1850 – 1995 is the companion book to an exhibition currently showing at The Henry Ford Museum in Deerborn, Michigan.  Don’t be concerned that you’ve never heard of the Roddis family, as that is part of the point.  The clothing is that of an upper middle class family, and as such is not the couture clothing often featured in fashion exhibitions.

Instead, we are given a look at what many “average” Americans were wearing in the years the book and exhibition cover.  I love this very “slice of life” approach to fashion history.  Several exhibitions and books have been mounted on the wardrobes of the rich and famous (Isis Apfel, Heather Firbank, Anne Bonfoey Taylor) but this close look at the clothing of one extended family is a fresh approach to fashion history.

First, let me give you  a bit of Roddis background.  They lived in Marshfield, Wisconsin, where the family was in the wood veneer and plywood business.  The fortunes of the family mirror those of US history in general, with times being tight during the Great Depression, but booming during WWII and afterward. The family shopped a lot in Chicago, but some of the women were also accomplished dressmakers, and many of the clothes in the collection are home sewn.

The clothes were stored in the attic (actually a large closet) of the Roddis family home, and for years were preserved by Augusta Roddis.  When she died in 2011, the clothes passed to her niece, Jane Bradbury (co-author of the book).  In 2014, Bradbury donated most of the clothes to the Henry Ford Museum.

In addition to the clothing were all the family photographs and many family documents including letters.  Because this documentation still exists, Bradbury and co-author Edward Maeder were able to identify the original wearers of most of the items.  Many are shown in the photos, and some are even described in letters.  It’s a remarkable archive.

Silk chiffon dress with cotton lace, c.1910. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Photo by Gillian Bostock Ewing. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury.

This dress was worn by Sara Roddis, Augusta’s grandmother.  There are two portraits showing Sara wearing this dress, one circa 1895, in which the dress has the large puffy sleeves of the day.  The sleeves were later altered to the shape you see in the photo.  Sara wore the altered version for a photo taken in 1910.  It’s the inclusion of these photos that makes the book so interesting.

“Cocktail”, a silk taffeta evening dress designed by the newly prominent designer, Gladys Parker, 1934. Photo by Gillian Bostock Ewing From the collections of The Henry Ford Museum. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury

This 1934 dress belonged to Augusta Roddis.  The authors found an advertisement for the dress in the March 10, 1934 New York Times.  It is possible she bought the dress at Best & co., the store in the ad, or she may have gotten it closer to home in another store.  Augusta mentioned in a letter to a sister that she was planning to wear the dress to a ball in 1936, as it was a first date and the young man had not seen the dress before.  Since it cost $36 – quite an extravagance – she wanted to get as much wear as possible from it.

Formal portrait of Augusta by Kay Carrington, 1937. Roddis Family Photo Archive. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury.

This 1937 portrait of Augusta shows her in another favorite gown.  Made in 1932, it originally belonged to an older sister and was handed down to Augusta when she went to Northwestern University.  The dress was made of a creme silk taffeta with a huge magenta velvet bow on the back.  The Roddis women seemed to have a knack for choosing clothing that would remain in style over a period of years.

Rear view (detail) of printed rayon/cotton day dress by Samuel Kass, designed for “Tuya” perfume. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Photo by Gillian Bostock Ewing. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury

This is another dress belonging to Augusta Roddis.  There is a photograph of her on the Queen Mary in 1949 wearing this dress.

Still Life portraying the Roddis women’s shopping trips. Photo by Doug Mindell. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury.

The book is full of “still life” photographs that feature clothing, accessories, and ephemera from the Roddis collection.  This one shows items from the 1950s.

I am enjoying this book so much, and really wish a trip to Deerborn were in my plans as I’d love to see the exhibition.  I’m hoping it will travel, as this is such a great study of the fashions of one family.  Maybe some other families with similar attics will see this and take steps to keep their collection together for study.  We can hope!

I was sent a pdf copy of the book for review, but I love it so much that I will be purchasing a hard copy.

 

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Currently Reading, Textile Collections, Plus a Bit About Museums

In order to really understand the nature of this book, you have to pay close attention to the subtitle.  The words Preservation, Access, Curation and Interpretation in the Digital Age tell us that this book is not about textiles so much as it is about the ways that computers and other digital devices have opened up new possibilities in the world of textile collection management.

As such, Textile Collections by Amanda Grace Sikarskie, is not for everyone.  But I could not resist the title, and thought that at least part of it would be relevant to a private collector like me.  Not only was that thought correct, the book also contains a lot of food for thought in the area of fashion and textile exhibitions.  And if you are a regular reader, you know how that interests me.

Textile Collections has four major themes, as stated in the subtitle.  Of the four, I found the chapter on curation to be the most interesting.  The use of the word curate has, since the advent of social media, changed.  Traditionally, curators have been museum keepers who plan exhibitions and who determine what will be on view and what will be said about it.

But  Sikarskie points out that this idea – that museums dispense knowledge without taking anything back from the exhibition’s viewers – is quite old-fashioned.  In other words, it can be a passive activity, much like watching TV or listening to a recording, as opposed to enacting a play or creating music.  But the computer has made it easy to not just watch or read, but to interact with web content.  Blogs and Instagram and even newspaper articles allow the reader or viewer to voice his or her opinion, or even better, to add to the knowledge presented.

Silarskie argues that people on the web “curate” all the time.  We choose which photos to post on Instagram.  We create outfits on Polyvore.  We choose articles and images to reblog on Tumblr.  Of course, museum curators tend to dislike the appropriation of their job title.  But, the meanings of words are not static, and changes happen all the time.  And while I was a teacher, that term can be applied to anyone who teaches.  Might not the same be said of anyone who “curates”?

Much of the issue as laid out by Sikarskie centers around how a traditional museum that is used to having complete control of their collection and how it is displayed can adjust to a generation of young museum-goers who are used to interacting with things they see displayed on the internet.  In a way web users have moved past the old model of having information fed to us.  We have become used to posting replies on blogs, commenting on Instagram, liking on Facebook, and re-tweeting on Twitter.

As I’ve said many times, the comments here are often the very best part of The Vintage Traveler.  I’m praised for sharing my knowledge, but I can tell you I learn just as much from you readers.We interact and share and ask questions.  We find answers and go deeper.  I value every email and reply I get, as I know that is how we increase the body of information concerning clothing history.

So, how is this sort of interaction to be achieved in a museum setting?   Sikarskie used the example of how some museums are putting  i-pads or computer stations in exhibitions with which visitors can “interact.”  But the goal is not accomplished because the information on the device is also static.  I started thinking about how when I encounter an ipad in an exhibition, I tend to flip through the photos, and that is pretty much it.

Then I remembered how ipads are being used at SCADFASH.  Instead of having ipads stationed around the room, they are carried by docents who use them to engage visitors in a conversation about the objects on display.  This gives the visitor a chance to tell his or her stories, and I’m sure the students at SCADFASH have heard some great ones.

We are all historians.  Yes, some know more history than others, and have worked very hard to develop this knowledge.  But one does not need to have a history degree in order to share important stories about the past.

I’ll finish this up with a link to an interview with fashion curator Timothy Long.  Long tells about how he got into curation, and a bit about his job at the Museum of  London.  He works directly with the fashion collection at the museum, which he shares on social media.  His Instagram posts are like  treasure boxes being opened.   But what I found to be really interesting was that Long was not originally  in favor of using social media in his job, and that the museum actually had a policy forbidding it.  But things change, and now the Museum of London has a growing audience through Mr. Long’s creative posts.

 

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Currently Reading: Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It.

This newly released book on the life and work of designer Bonnie Cashin was a very long time in coming.  Writer Stephanie Lake got to know Cashin in the late 1990s while doing research in Cashin’s archive.  Their friendship led to discussions about a book, but Cashin died in 2000 before it could be written.  Lake found herself in the possession of the archive and of many of Cashin’s personal effects.  The professional archive went to to the UCLA Library, and Lake spent years cataloging it.

I can’t imaging a person more qualified to write this book than Lake.  She spent many days over the course of three years talking with Cashin.  She has thoroughly studied the archive and knows the content.  At times it feels like the writing is that of a daughter.

Cashin grew up drawing and sewing.  The beach costume on the left was drawn by her when she was about eighteen, and that’s her on the right at about the same age.  Her mother, Eunice, was a very accomplished dressmaker, and so Bonnie was around sewing and creating throughout her childhood.   Eunice worked with Bonnie as a sample maker until her death in the 1960s.

Over the years, Bonnie Cashin designed clothes and accessories for more than forty different companies.  She employed a novel business model in which she designed the clothes she wanted, and then found companies that would make them to her specifications (and put her name on the label, of course.)  That way she was in control of the items that had her name on them.  The only person who ever designed under a Bonnie Cashin label was Bonnie Cashin.

Contrast her model with the one that prevails today – that of a designer licensing her name to a company that uses a team of designers to create the designs.

One of Bonnie Cashin’s biggest ideas was that of layering.  She explained this philosophy toward dressing in a 1952 illustration, shown above.  We might think today that is just how we all get dressed, but that was not the case in 1952.

One thing that comes across clearly in this book is Cashin’s love of and use of color.  The above caption reads, “I’m a colorist. Matching everything is dull, dull, dull.” Her interesting color combinations were anything but dull.

You can also see in the two examples above how Cashin did not rely on the usual buttons and zippers.  Bits of metal were more her style.

One of the strengths of this book is the use of odds and ends of archival material.  There are color charts and advertising ephemera, sketches and journal entries, closeup looks at fabrics and personal photographs.  And, of course, there are lots of photos of stunning clothing.

In the mid 1960s Cashin designed a line of cashmere sweaters that were made for her by Ballantyne of Scotland.  Again, you can see how her sense of color created a look that was distinctly Cashin.

The items above are from a line Cashin started in the 1970s, The Knittery.  She wanted to do a more handmade, craft-based line of sweaters.  Her idea was to use hand knitters who were marginalized by society – the poor elderly, the imprisoned, the handicapped.

This is the type of dress that makes me think I could live in a Bonnie Cashin wardrobe.  Note that the neckline and the sleeve cuffs are edged in leather, and the belt is leather as well.

One of the best advertisements for her clothes was Cashin herself.  That’s her on the left, late 1960s.

I also enjoyed seeing so many photos of Cashin’s workspace and home.  The ones above show her country house, where she did a lot of her designing in the 1950s and 60s.  The colored blocks on the wall contain favorite poems and quotes which she hand inscribed.

There is a lot of information contained in this book, but it is not a scholarly study of Cashin.  The only source sited is the UCLA archive, which, along with her personal conversations with Cashin, were really all that were needed to properly tell the story.  For most readers, this is enough, but I can’t help but think that detailed notations of items used from the archive might really help consequent researchers.

Also, there is no index.  To me, this is the biggest shortcoming of the book.  Writers and publishers, non-fiction books need to be indexed.

If you are a fan of Bonnie Cashin’s work, this book will delight you.  And if you are not familiar with her, the book is sure to make you a fan as well.

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Currently Reading: High Style, by Jan Glier Reeder

This book is the companion to the exhibition of the same name which featured highlights from the Brooklyn Museum’s incredible clothing collection.  This exhibition was planned to show off the collection after it was transferred from Brooklyn to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By the late 1990s, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the costume collection at the Brooklyn Museum was in trouble.  Clothing and textiles are hard and expensive to maintain.  A lot of skill is necessary for preservation and conservation.  The museum had cut back on costume displays because they feared it was too damaging to the textiles. The solution was to transfer the collection to the Met where the financial situation was much better.

This transfer was not universally popular (but what is these days?), especially when it became known that many of the pieces never made their way from Brooklyn to the Met.  The entire collection had been recataloged, photographed, and assessed.  Many items, presumably those of which there were better examples already in the Costume Institute, were sent to auction.  Included was a large portion of a donation to the Brooklyn Museum by designer Elizabeth Hawes and several of her clients.

The costume collection at the Brooklyn Museum has an interesting history.  It was started in the early days of the twentieth century, not as an historical or artistic collection, but for design inspiration.  The earliest pieces collected were examples from other cultures, and one curator made yearly buying trips to Europe in order to collect traditional costumes and textiles.

The textile above was the type of object being collected in the early twentieth century.  It is a Russian wedding veil, and was added to the Brooklyn’s growing collection of textiles in 1931.  Textiles were shown in the Textile Study Room, which had opened in 1918.  After the outbreak of World War II, the museum sought out designers and textile manufacturers and offered their services in the field of design inspiration.  It was during this time that American designers such as  Bonnie Cashin and Carolyn Schnurer began their association with the museum. This ultimately led to contributions to the collection by these designers.

After the war ended, many American designers continued to look to the world for inspiration. Starting in 1946, Carolyn Schnurer traveled the world in search of inspiration and textiles.  Each year’s resort collection was based on her trip to a different country.  The photos above show part of 1950’s “Flight to India” collection, in which Schnurer had the fabrics she found in Europe adapted to her needs.  You can see how she took the idea of a sari and fit it into the current fashion.

Of course, today we’d be hearing all sorts of cries of cultural appropriation.  In reading this book, it struck me just how much of twentieth century fashion was somehow based on borrowing from other cultures.  It also struck me just how much more rich fashion history is because of these appropriations.

This 1944 dress from Madame Eta Hentz, was based on two Greek garments, the chiton and the himation.

In the mid 1920s, French designer Suzanne Talbot based this dress on the toga.

Jeanne Lanvin adapted the Japanese obi as the train of the 1923 dress.

Couturier Emile Pingat used motifs based on those of American Plains Indians in 1891.

Madame Gres produced Greek inspired dresses throughout her long career, this one in 1937.

Even Bonnie Cashin, who is generally not classified as the type to indulge in “ethnic” fantasies, took the poncho from South America and turned it into a fashion statement.

It’s hard to imagine our wardrobes were they to be stripped of all the cultural influences, but still the internet is quick to pounce on any trace of cultural appropriation.  Some, of course, would be considered by many to be justified, as in the using of sacred garment to create fashion.  But most might be looked on as part of the broader picture, of fashion as design sponge.

High Style by Jan Glier Reeder is the catalog that accompanied this exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and the Cincinnati Art Museum.  I bought it at the Cincinnati museum when I saw the exhibition, as I like to do, especially when a museum is free.  It helps the museum, and it gives me a nice remembrance.  I like and enjoy it, but it’s not the sort of useful book that I would recommend for other to buy.

 

 

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