Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading: London Society Fashion, 1905 – 1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank

After reading about this new book in three different blogs, having two friends email me about it, and then seeing it mentioned in several articles, I knew I needed to add it to my library.  What I didn’t guess though, was how much I was going to love London Society Fashion, 1905 – 1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank.

Heather Firbank was born in 1888, and made her society debut in 1908.  As a figure in London society she found it necessary to have an extensive and varied wardrobe.  Thank goodness Heather loved clothes.  She spent large amounts on money on them, even after the family fortune disappeared.  After her mother’s death in 1924, Heather was forced to leave the home they had shared to live in various apartments, hotels and lady’s clubs.  She packed away all her wonderful clothes, along with receipts and her collection of fashion articles and clippings, and put them into storage in 1926.  After her death in 1954 the trunks were found, and the contents were distributed among several institutions.

The first Curator of Dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was Madeleine Ginsburg, who in 1957 accepted two hundred pieces of the collection as the foundation of the V & A’s clothing collection.  Other museums then selected pieces, and the remainder was sold at auction in 1974.  In all, Heather had saved over four hundred pieces.  Remarkably, this was not the total of all the garments she owned during the time period of 1905 through 1925, as there are receipts for many items that were not found in the trunks.

I’ve mentioned before how interesting it is to see exhibitions that are based on the wardrobe of one woman, as in the case of Ann Bonfoey Taylor.  You get a complete picture of the wearer of the clothes.  The Heather Firbank collection has an added layer of meaning because so many of the original receipts are present, along with, in many cases, sketches, photographs, or clippings of a particular dress.

The dress above was made in 1912 by Lucile, the famous Lady Duff-Gordon.  The V & A not only has the dress, they have a photograph of Heather wearing it, and they have a sketch showing the original design by Lucile.

Heather not only got her dresses at Lucile, she also patronized lesser-known establishments like Machinka.  The material in the Heather Firbank archive has provided valuable information about such obscure makers.

This stunning velvet dinner dress dates from 1909, and was made at the London House of Redfern.  I love how the photo of Heather shows the back of the gown and that beautiful diamante clip.

As a member of society, Heather needed the proper country clothes, as seen in this golf suit and hat.  It was made by “Frederick Bosworth, Ladies Tailor and Court Dressmaker.”

Here’s an example of a costume that is not in the V & A collection.  We see Heather dressed for tennis, circa 1905.  The hat was for motoring, circa 1910.

Another thing that makes the collection so interesting is that it is not just evening wear.  Day dresses and suits, and even corsets are represented.  The blue linen dress is circa 1915.  Can you see the fantastic pockets?

And then some of the photographs are pure eye candy.  This tailored suit is by Frederick Bosworth, circa 1908.

And here is a lovely afternoon dress, circa 1909, by Mrs. Pickett of Savile Row.

Yes, I do love this book.  It reminds us that fashion history is about more than just frocks.  Real people wore the clothes we love – clothes that contain stories of how people lived in the past.  What a treasure the Heather Firbank collection is.

Authors of London Society Fashion, 1905 – 1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank are Cassie Davies-Strodder, Jenny Lister, and Lou Taylor.

 

 

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Currently Reading – Nautical Chic by Amber Jane Butchart

I’ve been reading fashion history books for a very long time, and I’ve come to a conclusion:  the best books have a narrow focus that is meticulously researched combined with illustrations that clearly illustrate the author’s points.  So often books about “vintage fashion” or even overviews of fashion history fail to hit the mark because the author tries to cover too much territory in too few pages.  Of course, every fashion library needs to have a few volumes that are just fashion history overviews, but once the basics are covered, it is then time to narrow the focus.

Nautical Chic is such a tightly focused book.  I follow author Amber Jane Butchart on Twitter and Instagram, and over the past year or so I’ve read about her on-going research of the influence of the sea upon fashion.  You know a historian is really enjoying her topic when she can’t help but post the great information she is uncovering on twitter.

Butchart identified five major influences of nautical fashion: the officer, the sailor, the fisherman, the sportsman and the pirate. Each chapter is filled with information and illustrations from the seventeenth century through the twenty-first.  The illustrations are a mix of contemporary fashion photos, vintage advertising, historic  lithographs, old photos and photos of examples of vintage and modern clothing.

The officer influence can be seen both in a fashion plate from 1827 and in the work of Alexander McQueen, 1996.

The sailor gave us the middy, or midshipman’s blouse.  On the left you can see Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1928 sweater that incorporates  trompe l’oeil to depict the middy.  Beside it is a 1996 version from designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac.  And on the right is a middy blouse from Yohji Yamamoto, 2007.

It seems like everyone loves a good Breton fisherman’s pullover shirt.  The one above is from French maker St. James.  On the right you see Coco Chanel in a sweater inspired by the chandails of fishermen from Normandy.  Beside it is Karl Lagerfeld’s updated version.

The yachtsman’s sporting attire was easily adapted to fashionable cruise and seashore clothing.  The yachtswoman on the left dates from 1899.  On the right is a fashion illustration from 1932.

And finally, the pirate influence dates from the 1600s, and today is probably most associated with Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano.  Above notice the 1920s “pirates” on the far left.  The modern day pirate is from Marni, 2010, and the two on the right are from 1966.

I love the mix of illustrations, pulled from many different sources.  So often in fashion history books one see the same old photos over and over, but in Nautical Chic there are just a handful that I’ve seen in other resources.  To me this is important.  If an author takes the time to insure that the illustrations are fresh, then it is a good sign that the research is as well.

I really enjoyed reading the text.  It was full of fascinating facts and connections that I’d never made.  For example, it was the Americans Gerald and Sara Murphy who introduced the striped marinière  to their fashionable friends in 1923.  These friends included Hemingway, Picasso, and the Scott Fitzgeralds.  Now we are all wearing the marinière in some form.

To someone like me who loves sportswear, and who loves the stories behind objects, Nautical Chic was a true delight.

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Currently Reading: Women in Pants

Dear Readers, I am having some problems with my computer, and so I’m not able to make any new posts. While we are waiting for a miracle cure for my old HP Touchsmart, here is a post from five years ago.

I’ve been reading this book, Women in Pants, for the past day or so, and I’ve got to say how much I really loved it.   Ironically, I almost didn’t buy it; in fact had passed on it several times.  You see, I was prejudiced against it for several reasons.  First, there are more photos than there is print.  That is usually a bad sign for me, as I love great old vintage photos, but I like a  little information served up with them.  It’s been my experince that books full of vintage photos usually are just about what you see.  And that leads me to former objection number two, which was this book is pretty much the collection of one person, author Catherine Smith.  Again, I’ve really come to suspect books of this type as being long on images, short on info.

I’m happy to say that I did take a chance on the book, and I was terribly wrong about it.  Smith and Greig present a well researched, beautifully illustrated book on the subject of women who literally wore the pants in an era when it was almost completely socially unacceptable to do so.  The photos Smith and others have collected are accompanied with insights gleaned from many primary sources, which are quoted liberally throughout the book.

While the book shows women wearing pants in the expected ways – college girls in bloomers playing basketball, stage actresses dressed as men during performances – there are some really interesting and off-beat photos of women dressed as men lovers and even all female weddings with half the women dressed as men.  And then there are the women adventurers dressed as men as they flew aeroplanes and scaled mountains.  Fantastic stuff!

As a collector of old photos of women in sportswear, I’ve looked through thousands of vintage photos.  Usually the older ones just get a quick glance from me, but now I’ll be looking for the crooked mustache and the too large suit coat!

And here are some of my favorite women in pants:

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Currently Reading: Hollywood Diet and Fitness

If you are looking for new diet ideas, this is not the book for you.  But if you are interested in the pressures put on actresses from the 1920s through the 1960s, this book, Hollywood Diet and Fitness, gives a good but disturbing look at the lengths the studios went to in order to ensure their stars remained slim.

The 1920s silhouette was slim and boyish, and few women, including actresses, typified the ideal.  In order to appear as thin as possible, diets were concocted, including the popular lamb chop and pineapple diet.  A day’s diet would be three grilled chops, five slices of canned pineapple, three cups of coffee and one cup of tea.

Besides extreme dieting, actresses in the 1920s and 1930s turned to fitness “experts” like Sylvia Ullback, who was a masseuse who claimed she could squeeze and beat the pounds off the body.  According to articles in magazines like Photoplay, Madame Sylvia worked miracles with stars such as Carole Lombard.

There were some actresses of the 1920s and 1930s who were naturally athletic, and so the struggle was a bit easier for them.  Women like Greta Garbo followed the dictates of early personal trainers like Gayelord Hauser.  Some of the advice was surprisingly accurate.  Doctor Henry Bieler taught that eating the wrong foods could lead to disease, like allergies, heart disease, and obesity.

Unfortunately, there was plenty of incorrect and dangerous advice and there were even procedures like an early form of liposuction.  Because of weight clauses in contracts where an actress had to keep her weight below a certain level or face dismissal, some women were ready to try almost anything to keep the weight off.  Some actresses turned to pills and to smoking to curb the appetite.

By the 1940s curves were once again fashionable, but that did not mean plump curves.  Women stars were expected to fill out a bathing suit in all the right places, but in none of the wrong ones.   Actresses turned to calisthenics to help tone the body and control weight.  Only the dancers who were getting plenty of exercise just from their work seemed not to have to be constantly worrying about their weight.

The 1950s brought a new idea, that of counting calories.  Magazines published the diets of the stars, and advocated exercise like that of TV fitness leader, Jack LaLanne.

Even a naturally thin woman like Audrey Hepburn watched what she ate.  However, her approach seems to be a bit different.  Audrey grew up in the Netherlands during World War II, and as a teen often did not get enough to eat.  This left her with a more healthy respect for food, and with a small appetite.

There is a lot written today about how celebrities have such a huge influence when it comes to fashion, diet, and appearance.  Author Laura Slater gets the point across that this is nothing new.  Through the medium of magazines it was easy for the average woman to know how the stars dressed and dieted.

Hollywood Diet and Fitness is a fun and quick read, but there is an extensive bibliography and the book is well researched.  I appreciated the inclusion of period magazine articles, even though I did have to get out the magnifying glass in order to read them.  I also loved that I had never seen many of the photos before.  So many times we see the same old famous celebrity photographs over and over.  Slater did a great job in locating pictures that are not so often seen.

My thanks to the publisher, Plexus Books, for providing me with a review copy.

Correction:  An earlier version of this post incorrectly placed Audrey in Belgium during WWII.  She was actually in the Netherlands for most of the war years.

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Currently Reading – Hijacking the Runway

I discovered the writings of Teri Agins years ago after picking up a copy of her 1999 book, The End of Fashion.  Subtitled How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever, that book was a look at how fashion resources were being put more into selling clothes than in creating them.  In an interesting way the book foretold the rise of fast fashion.

Now Agins has tackled the issue of celebrity “designers”.  Starting with the incredible success of Jessica Simpson, Agins tells about the rise of the celebrity label, and how being a “brand” has become so important in the fashion business.

Not that celebrity labels are new.  In the 1930s many celebrities from Amelia Earhart to Shirley Temple had their names on clothes.  I have a 1940s dress with a Dorothy Lamour label, and the Gloria Swanson Forever Young label is quite commonly found today. In the 1960s model Twiggy had her name on a label.

But no time in fashion memory has the celebrity label been what it is today.  And it’s not just the labels.  Celebrities are usually featured on the covers of fashion and women’s magazines.  Celebrities are paid to sit in the most desirable seats in the trade shows otherwise known as fashion weeks. And what celebrity does not have his or her own fragrance?

Agins tells how some celebrities, like Simpson, have been wildly successful.  On the other hand, she examines why others, like Kayne West, have struggled.

So have fashion designers taken a back seat to the celebrity brands?  In many cases yes, but savvy designers like Michael Kors have taken a page from the celebrity manual and have built celebrity-like brands themselves.  Kors was able to do this through his appearances on Project Runway.  It can be argued that Kors is the Project Runway grand prize winner, with his brand going public in 2011 with a value of $3 billion.  It is currently worth around $20 billion.

This is my favorite kind of book – one that not only reveals certain things that might not be obvious to a casual observer of the fashion world, but that also gives the reader plenty of food for thought.

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Currently Reading: Rose Marie Reid, An Extraordinary Life

After seeing the Emilio Pucci in American exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, I was curious about the relationship between Pucci and swimwear maker Rose Marie Reid.   To my surprise I found that a biography of Reid had been published, so I promptly ordered a copy.

Unless the designer is Coco Chanel or maybe Yves Saint Laurent, designer biographies are actually quite rare.  Some are written as exhibition catalogs, such as the wonderful Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism which was published in 1998 to go with an exhibition of McCardell’s work at the Museum at FIT.  There are quite a few autobiographies from twentieth century designers, some good, some bad.  But a biography of a ready-to-wear designer in a niche market is a rarity.

In reading about the life of a fashion designer – or any important person for that matter – the thing that interests me most is that person’s work and the influences on the work.  There are a few designers, again, Coco Chanel, whose work was so important and so entwined with the time in which she lived that her private life and political and religious views are an important part of the narrative.

Rose Marie Reid, An Extraordinary Life is actually more about Reid the mother, the Mormon, and the woman with whom people had difficult relationships.  Not that the details of her design career are not present, as they are, but the timeline  is fuzzy and confusing.  To a person like me who likes to examine the when of things, it was a bit frustrating.  For instance, the book tells a great story about how Rose Marie first started making bathing suits.  Her new husband, Jack Reid was a swimming instructor who hated his saggy wool trunks.  Rose Marie took a piece of cotton duck to which she added lacing on the sides to make for a good fit.

The design was so successful that Jack took a copy to the local Hudson’s Bay Company store, where the buyer there asked for a women’s design.  From that order the business was formed, and  within a year Rose Marie was overseeing a factory with thirty-two sewing machines.  But the book never says exactly when this all took place.

Of course I realize that history is not always measured in dates.  However, when you are studying design it helps to know when such innovations actually took place.  The best I can figure was sometime between November 1935, when Rose Marie and Jack were married, and 1937 when it is mentioned that Rose Marie’s suits were used in some 1937 games.

Interwoven into the story of the formation of the business are the details of the birth of their children, the disintegration of their marriage, and how Rose Marie prayed through it all.  The theme and the timeline constantly changed and at times I was left shaking my head.

I guess it is important to let you know that one of Rose Marie’s daughters, Carole Reid Burr, was the co-author.  There were endnotes that gave sources, and from that it is easy to see that this book is mainly a compilation of oral family stories.  Numerous interviews were listed as references, and from that I could begin to see why the telling seemed so disjointed.

There were actually sixteen different people interviewed for the book, and along with old letters and newspaper clippings, they seem to be the source for most of the information.  Company records did not seem to be used at all, but that is not surprising since Rose Marie sold the business and franchised her name starting in 1962.  Subsequently there are more details about the many lawsuits in which Rose Marie was involved than there were of the actual business of making swimsuits.

Near the end of the book I finally spotted the name of Emilio Pucci, and began to take notice.  Unfortunately the anecdote was about how he had bought some Rose Marie Reid swimsuits for his staff, and had given one to fashion journalist Ann Scott James.  And that was the end of Emilio, with no mention of the collaboration between him and Reid.

A great deal is made of Reid’s Mormon faith, and I suppose that is understandable considering that the book was published by a Mormon company.  In some ways her faith was important to her design story, as the dictates of modesty by the Mormon Church led her to strongly reject the bikini.   And it was probably this rejection that led Rose Marie to sell the company in 1962.

Besides the fuzzy storytelling, there were quite a few factual mistakes.  The book refers to, but does not explain a relationship with White Stag.  Unfortunately, it is consistently spelled “White Stagg.”  There was also a big discussion of the great success of rival  swimsuit maker Cole of California.  The authors refer to Cole’s Scandal Suit as a bikini, which it was not. (There was a version that resembled two pieces connected by mesh, but even it was not a true bikini.)

It’s such a shame that the story of a company that was the world’s largest producer of women’s swimwear in the late 1950s should be told in such an off-putting way.  Between the preaching of Mormon principles and the accolades of Reid’s mothering ability, I’ve found it hard to go back through and try to establish just the story of the swimsuit company.  Maybe someday I’ll be stranded on a desert island with just this book and a pencil and I can figure it all out.

 

 

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Currently Reading: Liberty: British, Colour, Pattern

Liberty of London is one of those companies whose products make my heart skip a beat.  Their Tana Lawn cottons simply cannot be beaten, and the scarves are some of the best in the world.  I always have my eyes open for Liberty scarves and garments made with Liberty fabrics when thrifting, as quality of this caliber comes at a price.  I also appreciate the history of the company, which has its roots in the Orientalist movement of the nineteenth century.

I can’t remember where I first saw this book, but after seeing the photos online I scurried off to Amazon to see if it were available.  This was back in the summer, and the book just arrived last week.  I spent much of that afternoon being absorbed into the world of Liberty textiles.

For those not familiar with Liberty’s history, the author, Marie-Therese Rieber, gives a good overview of it.  She tells about the founder, Authur Liberty, and how his Oriental emporium became one of the world’s most famous stores.  But the best parts of the book are the sections about the Liberty textiles and the clothing made from them.  Above you see two early twentieth century evening wraps.

An interesting feature of the book is that it is somewhat interactive.  The are several envelopes throughout that are filled with replicas of old Liberty advertising and other ephemera.  These are quite interesting, but this type of thing adds considerably to the cost of the book.  I enjoyed playing with all the little bits, but I’m not sure they actually add a lot to the value of the book.

Fortunately, there is more than enough great information in the book to make it valuable to the lover of textiles.   There was an excellent feature on how the Tana Lawns were originally block printed by hand.

In the early 1930s Paul Poiret was commissioned to do designs for Liberty.  The green and ivory gown on the left was designed by Poiret for Liberty in 1933.  Seeing all these early 1930s designs along with the fabric swatches makes me want to spend a week lost in the Liberty archives.

The peacock scarf above is in one of Liberty’s trademark prints, the Hera.  It was created in 1887  and continues to be a Liberty favorite.

In the late 1960s, Liberty prints became very popular with fashion designers, and so Liberty expanded the fabrics available to designers.  Their fabric designers like Bernard Nevill and Susan Collier called upon the feeling of nostalgia for Art Nouveau and Art Deco in their work.

The last section of the book is about modern Liberty prints and the inspirations and stories behind them.  This is the stuff textile lovers dream of.  To fully appreciate this book, you have to love textiles, and Liberty in particular.  It is not so much about fashion, and there is a small section on Liberty furniture and ceramics.  Still, there was enough material that was new to me to earn this book a spot in my library.

 

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