Category Archives: Currently Reading

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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Currently Reading – Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

I think I’d made the comment here that one thing the world does not need is another book about Coco Chanel.  Between 2009 and 2012, at least twelve books on Chanel’s life were published.  What more was there to say?

As it happens, I was wrong.  The world does need Mademoiselle:Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History , a book that at over 600 pages (including notes and references) attempts to set the story of Chanel’s life straight, and to place it and her work into the historical framework of the Twentieth Century.  It was a huge task, especially considering the myths surrounding the woman and her namesake business.

Through meticulous research and the locating of some key new resources such as the diaries and private papers of some of Chanel’s lovers, Rhonda Garelick has painted the most authentic portrait of Chanel to date. It isn’t as though there is a lot of new material, because there is not.  What makes this book so good is that Garelick cuts to the heart of the many conflicting stories about Chanel, and through her research comes up with the most plausible versions.  To add to the narrative, she also relates the alternate versions when there is any question as to the truth.

Most people writing about Chanel point out how she appropriated the clothing of her lovers.  What Garelick adds to this is how she also  absorbed and reflected their ideological and political views as well. Unfortunately, Chanel seemed to be attracted to men who were openly anti-semitic and who leaned toward fascism.

With the exception of Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping with the Enemy, most books about Chanel have reduced her life during the years between 1939 and 1945 to that of an aging romantic woman becoming infatuated with a younger German army officer.  With Mademoiselle, there is no white-washing of history.  Drawing on the research of Hal Vaughan, Garelick clearly presents the truth that Chanel was a spy for Germany.  There is also proof that she exposed an acquaintance as being Jewish, and that she went into at least one apartment that had been abandoned by its fleeing Jewish occupant and helped herself to art and antiques.

Garelick points out in her introduction that Chanel has become a popular first name for baby girls.  I’ve got to assume that the parents of these babies know nothing about Chanel the woman. As much as we might acknowledge her talent, Chanel was not a nice person, and she certainly would not be a good role model for your kid.

It also brings up the disturbing question of how much are we willing to overlook in the admiration of Chanel’s design talent and in the pursuit of style. Should we be like the Jewish Wertheimer family who continued to do business with Chanel even though she tried to “aryanize” their business during WWII, and who continue to protect her image even today?

Almost 45% of the book consists of end notes and the bibliography.  Unfortunately I was reading a advance reviewer’s copy on my e-reader and the notes were not linked.  I finally gave up tying to flip back and forth and read the notes at the end of each chapter.  They added a lot to the narrative.

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House.

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Currently Reading: Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town.

Factory Man by Beth Macy has nothing to do with fashion, and very little to do with textiles, but it is one of the most interesting and compelling stories I’ve read in a very long time.  It’s the story of John Bassett, who despite all odds has managed to keep his furniture business, Vaughn-Bassett, producing in the United States.

John Bassett was born into the the Southern furniture business.  His grandfather, J.D. Bassett founded Bassett in 1902, and from there the various branches of the Bassett family formed furniture factories all over south-western Virginia.  For years the companies were highly successful, even weathering the Great Depression without worker lay-offs.  After John Bassett’s grandfather and father died, he was presumed to be the next head of the family business, but instead his brother-in-law was put in charge.  In 1982, John Bassett was essentially edged out of his family’s company.  He decided to leave and work as the head at Vaughn-Bassett, which was a company owned by his wife’s family.

At this point I have to say that keeping all the Bassetts straight was a difficult thing.  Thankfully there is a family tree in the back of the book to help keep who owned what in order.

Things continued to be fine in the furniture business until the 1990s.  At that point, workers began noticing groups of Asian people coming through on tours of the factories.  As amazing as it might sound, the factory owners welcomed people from Taiwan and China to come in and observe.  In many cases they took notes and even video taped the operations.

The furniture makers should not have been surprised when Chinese-made furniture began showing up in the American market.  At Vaughn-Bassett, which makes bedroom suites, they noticed a chest that looked very much like what they were making, but that had a price tag of only $100.  John Bassett bought one as a sample, had his engineers disassemble it and work up a cost projection.  They realized that the cost of the materials far exceeded $100.

So Bassett sent his son and an interpreter to China to try and locate the maker of the chest.  After days of searching, the factory was located.  John himself went to the place to talk with the head of the Chinese factory, and was told point-blank that it was in his best interest to close the US factory and to buy from China, that they could and would continue to undercut American furniture makers until they were forced out.

Today this story does not seem to be very surprising, but in the early 1990s, the first ripples of the Chinese way of doing business were just beginning to reach the US.  John Bassett went home and studied the trade laws and realized that the Chinese were guilty of a practice called “dumping.”  You flood the market with a cheaply priced product until the competition either joins you or folds, then you can raise prices and make a profit.

John Bassett then began legal proceedings against the Chinese.  It was not easy because he had to get the other bedroom furniture makers to join him, and many were reluctant because they were already involved with importing the cheaper goods.  Eventually, the case was won, and Vaughn-Bassett and the other companies who signed on with the complaint were granted millions of dollars in duties that the Chinese were forced to pay in order to continue to do business in the US.

Vaughn-Bassett took its share and reinvested it in the company, buying the latest equipment with the aim of becoming more efficient and more competitive.  But other companies were not able to survive even with the influx of cash.  The original Bassett eventually closed all seven of its US factories.  They put their duty money into developing retail stores.  Today, Bassett is mainly an importer and retailer.  The company survived at the cost of the communities that made Bassett rich.

All in all, there have been around 300,000 furniture manufacturing jobs lost in the US since 1990. Today Vaughn-Bassett employs around 700 people, and other companies, mainly makers of upholstered furniture, have also managed to keep domestic production.  With the closing of Bassett, the town of Bassett lost much of its infrastructure. Other towns in the area have unemployment rates as high as one third.

I’ve heard some know-it-all experts say that America does not need manufacturing jobs as long as we have the design and engineering that goes into manufacturing.  Try telling that to a 45 year old man or woman who worked for Bassett for twenty-five years and suddenly found themselves jobless.  All the fast food and retail jobs in the world can’t absorb 300,000 workers.

The book is very well researched, with what must have been hundreds of hours of interviews conducted by Beth Macy.  I was just thinking what a great movie this would make when I read on Macy’s website that a HBO mini-series based on the book is in development. What could have been a pretty dry story instead comes across like a spy novel.  The only negative thing I have to note is that Macy can’t resist trying to mimic the Southern Appalachian accent when recalling conversations with John Bassett. It comes across as patronizing.

I was given a digital review copy of Factory Man by the publisher, through Net Galley.  Just be aware if you read books on Kindle or other e-reader, that there are lots of end notes.  In my review copy they were not linked to the text, so accessing them was very inconvenient.

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Currently Reading – Irene: A Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood; The MGM Years 1942 – 1949

I made the comment some time ago that we are over-run with books about some designers (Chanel) and for others there is practically no information to be found in print. This new book on Hollywood designer Irene is a step toward making a lesser known name more familiar.

Irene is generally known only by her first name, but she was Irene Lentz Gibbons. This is important to remember because there was another Irene, Irene Sharaff,  working in Hollywood at the time, and there was a milliner Irene in New York.  It can be confusing, especially since both Irene costume designers worked together at MGM for a time.

Irene Lentz arrived in Hollywood as the town was emerging as a center for making movies.  She was working in a drug store when she befriended Dick Jones, a director at Mack Sennett Studios.  Irene was cast in several movies, but she decided that she wanted to design and make clothes.  She and Dick opened a dress shop in 1928. They married the next year, but Dick soon died of TB.

Irene then formed a partnership with friends – a venture called Irene, LTD.  Here she made clothes to order for the Hollywood set and gained a reputation for glamorous dresses.  She got the attention of Bullock’s Wilshire department store, and in 1933 she became the custom designer there.  Her designs were labeled simply, “irene.”

In 1936 Irene married Eliot Gibbons and she continued to work at Bullock’s.  By the late 1930s studios were beginning to offer her employment as costume designer, but she did not go to work at MGM until 1942 when Louis B. Mayer offered screen credit for her work.

At this point the book becomes very detailed about the various people working with Irene at MGM.  I’ll admit that I was lost through much of it, as the names were not familiar and it was hard to keep all of them straight. I had not seen many of the movies mentioned and the details made my eyes glaze over.  So instead of trying to keep it all straight I focused on the illustrations – beautiful original sketches and photos of the actresses wearing the finished products.

Some interesting things about movie wardrobes are revealed in the text.  First, designers like Irene worked in a team.  She may or may not have designed all the clothes for which she got screen credit.  Also, the studio was really good at recycling costumes.  Lesser actresses often wore hand-me-downs in later movies after A-list actresses wore them in more important movies.  An example of this is a fur trimmed paisley jacket that was made for Ingrid Bergman to wear in Gaslight in 1944, and was also worn by Ava Gardner in The Great Sinner of 1949. That jacket can be seen today at the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina.

There are also some juicy, gossipy bits.  LB Mayer had Irene design Judy Garland’s wedding dress.  He insisted on approving it even before Judy herself saw the dress.  Irene got along with the actors and actresses she dressed with one notable exception – Katherine Hepburn.  Hepburn was very particular about her clothes and rarely approved them on the first viewing.  If she were made to wear a design she did not like she would find a way to “sabotage” it, position herself on screen so that the garment could not be seen.

Unfortunately, there are many details about Irene’s alcoholism. As early as 1933 people had begun to notice her excessive drinking.  It was the pressure of working at MGM and the added problems with her husband that began to make her drinking a major problem.

In 1947 Irene reentered the clothing manufacturing business with the first collection being shown in 1948.  At the same time her contract with MGM was renewed for another five years.  Her role there changed, as she was able to choose the movies she wanted to work on.  It was an encounter with Katherine Hepburn that led to her firing at MGM.  Hepburn complained about Irene being drunk on the job and she was soon let go.

At that point, the book is over.  Even though the title tells us that it is about Irene’s years at MGM, the story ends so abruptly that it leaves the reader hanging. Irene went on to run her dress and suit business for thirteen more years before killing herself in 1962.  Did her alcoholism play a role in her death? Was her business a success? For the reader unfamiliar with Irene’s work and life, there are a lot of unanswered questions.

The book was written by Frank Billecci and Lauranne Fisher.  Fisher is the daughter of Virginia Fisher who was Irene’s sketch artist at MGM.  Much of the content is based on Fisher’s recollections, and those of Irene’s secretary, Chrys Carter.  Irene also kept a scrapbook which has survived, and the list of primary sources was impressive.

But the big strength of this book is the quality of the illustrations.  Even though Irene was designing for characters, you can get a real feel for her design aesthetic, one that carried over to Irene, Inc.

I’ve included three ads from the 1950s which show what Irene was all about.  She designed glamorous evening and cocktail dresses along with tailored suits.

When I first started buying vintage clothing, years and years ago, I found a beautiful linen dress with an interesting structure and very nice embroidery.  It was not until I got it home that I found the irene label, and not until years later that I learned who she was.  I’ll share photos of my irene dress next week.

UPDATE
I neglected to mention that I was sent an e-copy of this book through Netgalley for review purposes.

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