Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading: The Hidden History of American Fashion

One of the things I love about fashion history studies right now is that historians seem to have moved beyond writing about Chanel and Dior. I said some time ago that I didn’t know what else could be said about the great and familiar names of fashion. It appears that lots of others are in agreement.

The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th Century Women Designers is a book after my own heart. Edited by Nancy Deihl, the lives and careers of sixteen designers are explored. Some, like Tina Leser, are familiar to me, but others, like Pauline Fracchia and Catherine Scott were not. All are important to the story of American fashion.

Each chapter features a different designer, and each is written by a different historian or team of two. I like this type of book because it is easy to pick up and read one chapter when time (or attention) is short. Each chapter is well-documented with the sources given.

One of my favorite chapters is about designer Libby Payne. Payne was one of the hundreds of designers who worked without ever having their names on the label. Though her career spanned from 1937 to 1987, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that her name was on the label of a line she worked on. She designed for some very big names, among them Bobbie Brooks, Jonathan Logan, and Saks fifth Avenue. It’s great that now her name is a part of the historical records of the companies she helped make successful.

I was really surprised and pleased to spot my own name in the bibliography of one of the chapters, that on Fira Benenson. I was familiar with Benenson because I had seen the sewing patterns adapted by the Spadea company. Author Michael Mamp referred to the patterns, and referenced and quoted the article I wrote concerning how Spadea cut their patterns directly from the designers’ garments. This was information I got from Anne Spadea Combs, the daughter of the owners of Spadea Patterns.

I can’t help but think of how the internet has allowed this book to be written. So many of the sources are primary ones that are easily accessible due to back issues of newspapers and trade materials being available online. Material that used to be buried deep in microfilm is now easily found.

It is gratifying to know that even blogs like this one are now contributing to the written record and are useful to others doing research.

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Currently Reading – Fashion Victims

I think we are all very much aware of the problems and dangers associated with the production of textiles and clothing. They range from unsafe working conditions to pollutants caused by dyes and other processes. But what about the clothes themselves? Can our garments be dangerous to our health?

According to author Alison Matthews David, the answer is an unfortunate yes. There is a long history of poisonous colors, flammable fabrics, and plastics that combust. But this is all in the past, one might say. Today there are laws to protect us. Don’t be so sure!

When thinking of the dangers of clothing, a good starting place is with the producers of fashion. This cartoon from 1863 shows that little has changed when it comes to how fashion is produced. It is the makers who toil in dangerous conditions and who must work to exhaustion just to make enough money on which to survive. While we’d like to think such practices are firmly in the past, all we have to do is watch the news to see that abuses in the clothing industry continue.

Perhaps we have overcome one danger from the past, that of catching disease from our clothes. When skirts dragged the ground, all sorts of trash and microbes were gathered just from walking on the street. This 1900 cartoon in Puck magazine helps illustrate the problem.

Sometimes the dangers from clothing have been part of the deliberate act of manufacture. People knew that arsenic was poisonous, but the fears of it were set aside when it was discovered that arsenic made a lovely shade of green dye.

People knew that the dye was dangerous, but we all must suffer a bit for fashion. The above cartoon was published in Punch, 1862.

Problematic ingredients have also been used in cosmetics. The chemicals in hair dye and mascara could lead to blindness.

Probably the most famous example of death by fashion is that of dancer Isadora Duncan. In 1927 as she sped off in a car, she wrapped her long silk scarf around her neck, the ends streaming behind her. The fringe became entwined in the wheel, and Duncan’s neck was snapped.

One of the most mocked skirt fashions, the hobble skirt, was also a dangerous fashion. There were examples of women being trampled and drowned while wearing the style, which was fashionable from 1910 through 1914.

Fire was one a major danger. In the days before electric light, stages were lit with gaslights, and especially dangerous where the footlights. Ballerina costumes were highly flammable, being made of gauze and tulle, and fires were common.

Women wearing the cage crinoline were also at risk for burns, as the space under the cage acted as a chimney, allowing flames to quickly race up a skirt.

Today we have all sorts of laws and regulations that are meant to keep us safe from the clothes we wear. It would be foolish to think that our clothing is without danger, however. It may be safer to wear, but what about the safety of the makers? What about the toxins used in the production of clothing? The clothing industry needs quite a bit of improvement before our clothes are truly free from dangers.

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Currently Reading – Stitches in Time by Lucy Adlington

Looking back at my post archives, I haven’t written a book review since April. It’s not that I’m not reading. Last year I read almost sixty books, half of which were fashion or textile related. I’ve been a bit of a slacker when it comes to posting, to be honest. The current state of affairs in the world have zapped my motivation, but I’ve vowed to try harder to share the wonderful things that I run across.

And to start off, I want to tell you about Stitches in Time. Published in 2015, I had seen the book online, but didn’t feel the urge to buy it. The subtitle, The Story of the Clothes We Wear, reminded me too much of that book from a few years ago where people were interviewed about their clothes. But on a whim a few weeks ago, I put it in my cart. When I received it I was pleased to see that there were over 400 pages, a long bibliography, an index, and even footnotes!

The book is divided into chapters that take on one particular aspect of clothing. There are chapters on pants and coats and undergarments and pockets (and many more). Each chapter delves deep into the history of the garment, for both men’s and women’s clothing. I love that Adlington points out expressions that have made their way into English, things like boot licking.

As someone who knows a bit about fashion history, I pretty much don’t enjoy books that are a fashion overview. But that is not what Stitches in Time is. It’s a group of histories of garments, and it is engaging and interesting. If you know someone who thinks fashion is frivolous, give them this book.

The book is rich in text, but low in illustrations. The illustrations are small and there’s not one for every concept introduced in the text. Personally, I’d much rather have it this way. Isn’t that what Google is for? Read the book with a computer or other device nearby so you can look up what you can’t quite visualize.

There is a small section of color illustrations, but I found them to be of little use. They weren’t referenced in the text so you just have to take them as they are.

Another small consideration is that Adlington is British, and the book is written from that point of view. I know that when it comes to certain objects, the history within the US can be different from that in Britain, Europe, or Australia. Adlington addresses this when it is appropriate, but a reader outside of Britain needs to remember this is a UK point of view.

Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. It’s very inexpensive, and is a good one to read on Kindle.

And now a question for readers. Do you want more book reviews?

 

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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 nit-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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