Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading – Fashion: The Definitive Visual Guide

Since no one protested in my last post about more book reviews, here’s the latest one that’s occupying my time. I bought this book after seeing it on Instagram. I usually don’t buy survey of fashion history books because I already have quite a few, but this one seemed to have great illustrations, and it also included fashion all the way back to ancient times.

To be honest, this is not a curl up by the fire on a chilly day type of book. It’s huge and heavy and that makes it a bit hard to curl with. But it is just full of details and pictures, which makes this a great book to pick up when one has a few minutes to sit and absorb a few fashion history details.

The book is structured chronically, and  the authors point out details that characterize each garment. This concept is not new. and long-time fashion history students may remember the John Peacock Fashion Sourcebook from the 1990s. Still, it works to draw the reader’s attention to what is important. I do little mini-lessons on Instagram using this technique and have found that it’s quite popular.

Another nice feature of the book are the sidebars that give extra information.

The timeline format makes changes in fashion easy to see. I tried the effectiveness of this out on my husband, who after a few minutes study was able to correctly identify dresses from 1870 – 1895. He was quite proud of himself.

One of the things I really like about the book is the emphasis on sporting attire. There are several pages like this one, showing both men’s and women’s sportswear.

So much can be learned just from examining photos of women dressed for various activities, especially with the commentary.

One of my biggest concerns about books of this type is that through the 1960s or early 70s the clothes shown seem to be from an upper class wardrobe, but at the same time, they look like what people actually wore. But after the mid-seventies, there’s much more emphasis on designer fashion. While the outfits above from the 1970s are interesting, they are more high style than what actually was worn by most women.

Yes, these styles filtered down, and many women would have worn a version of the Mary Quant sweater suit above, but it’s just misleading as I think I’m right in assuming that people who were not there would see these dresses as what was typically worn.

A better example is that there are full pages of the work of Vivienne Westwood, Comme des Garcons, and Alexander McQueen, but no mention that I could find of designer jeans, and indeed, very few mentions of jeans at all.

One section I found interesting was this one on the influence of “vintage” on fashion. It wasn’t so much about wearing fashion, as it was about fashion having a “vintage” look. It’s no wonder that so many people don’t realize that vintage clothes are actually old!

The book has several nice timelines in the reference part of the book, along with a fairly comprehensive glossary.

I assume it has to do with the aesthetics of the look, but it bothered me that the photo credits are stuck in the back of the book, in tiny print. Many of them are from Getty or Corbus, and don’t have a lot of information about the image, including dates.

Still, this is an interesting overview of fashion history. It’s very readable, and can be taken in by small doses. The illustrations are excellent, and engaging. I think it would make a great introduction to fashion history for teens. I know my sixteen-year-old self would have loved it.

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Currently Reading – I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson

One thing good about spending so much time at home is that one can really blow through her reading queue. Under normal circumstances, I have anywhere from five to ten books waiting to be read. I’m down to one. It may be time to fire up the Kindle, or to search for some new treasures on eBay.

I found this book, I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson in my usual shopping place. I knew about Johnson from reading lots of books about “lady adventurers” of the past. And a quick look at the photos in the book sealed the deal.

Osa was from a small town in Kansas. Born in 1894, she was only sixteen when she married Martin Johnson in 1910. By that time, Martin had been on an expedition to the South Pacific with Jack London, and he was hooked on adventure. Martin was lecturing about his trip in Osa’s town when they met, and she was intrigued. Little did she know that Martin had no intentions of settling for a domestic life in Kansas.  He talked her into traveling again to the South Pacific with photographic equipment. He wanted to document the lives of people in the area before they became adapted to the Western lifestyle.

The five trunks you see in this photo proved to be inadequate for Osa and Martin’s needs. In future trips they traveled with three dozen trunks. On this first trip, the couple had only a small amount of film, and Martin had bought a motion picture camera. They did encounter the “natives” as you can see, but they ended up being chased off one island, nearly ending their lives of adventure.

This was just the beginning, as the Johnson’s returned to the US and went on the Vaudeville circuit, showing the movie and telling about their adventure. When they had enough money, Martin bought another camera, and the couple headed back to the Pacific, this time with enough movie film to make a short film for distribution.

This was in 1914, when movies were new. Most people in the West had never seen foreign animals in motion. The movie, the first of many, was a hit.

In the early 1920s, the Johnsons set their sights on documenting African wildlife. Over the next thirteen years they made several trips to Africa, sometimes staying as long as four years at a time.

Above is probably the most famous photo of Osa Johnson. It was taken in Kenya at the home of a man they met who was raising zebras and taming them.

Which leads me to the obvious – attitudes toward places like Africa and Borneo and the Solomon Islands were very different than they are today. Both people and animals were considered to be exotic, and were not treated with the respect we (hopefully) place on them today. Osa’s attitude toward the Black people she encounters is patronizing. Some articles about Martin Johnson describe him as a big game hunter, which is not strictly true. Martin was a photographer and filmmaker, and the couple did not hunt for fun. They did kill animals when they felt endangered, and they also helped kill animals for the exhibits for the Museum of Natural History in New York.

The book proves that one does meet people in the strangest places. Here are Osa and Martin enjoying an afternoon with the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the parents of the present Queen of England.

From their first trip in 1912, Osa adapted a practical wardrobe of pants, overalls, and breeches. This 1920s outfit is identical to the type worn by other outdoors women in the 1920s.

As time and technology progressed, the Johnsons were quick to adapt new inventions to aid in their photographs. They bought two airplanes, and produced what are most likely the first aerial films of African wildlife.

Back in the US in 1937, Osa and Martin were on another promotion tour when the plane in which they were traveling crashed. Martin was killed, and Osa was badly injured.  Several years later she wrote this book, which was the bestselling nonfiction book of 1940. On her own she made more trips to Africa before her death in 1953. Today there is a museum in Osa’s hometown of Chanute, Kansas, The Martin and Osa Safari Museum.

I didn’t know this when I bought the book, but it turns out that  the cover makes it a favorite with home decorators. There is a companion volume by her that has a giraffe print cover.

 

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Currently Reading – Theatre de la Mode

The story of the Théâtre de la Mode is quite well-known. Briefly, it was a project undertaken after the liberation of Paris in 1944 to show that the Haute Couture had survived the war, and to raise money for war recovery. Dolls, sculptures actually, were designed by young artist Jean Saint-Martin, and members of the  Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne designed fashions for the dolls to wear. Scene sets were designed by famous artists like Christian Bérard.

Lots of money was raised. The show toured Europe, and then went to New York, with the show ending in San Francisco. When the show ended, the dolls somehow ended up at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Oregon.

There is, of course, so much more to this story. When I spotted this book in an antique mall last fall, I picked it up and then put in my to-read pile. Well, that pile has been shrinking, and I finally got around to reading Théâtre de la Mode. My timing could not have been better, because this is not just the story of some beautifully dressed sculptures; it’s the story of how beauty can survive in the midst of the most terrible of circumstances.

As an American Baby Boomer, I grew up with my family’s tales of the depravitations of World War II. There were stories of cars with no gasoline, of cakes with no chocolate, and of new clothes being remade from old. To my middle class 1960s life, it all sounded so dreadful. In recent years the sufferings of life in Britain during and after the war have been well documented in movies and television. But what about life in Paris after the liberation from Nazi control?

The writers of Théâtre de la Mode did an exceptional job of painting a picture of post-liberation Paris. What was pointed out was that after the cheering was over, one of the harshest winters in known history set in, with shortages of everything from coal to milk. The infant mortality rate soared to 10.9 percent. Electricity was turned on only at meal times and at night. New, warm clothing was not to be had.

But in spite of all the misery and hardships, the couture had survived. Paris had lost its position of the world’s fashion leader, but plans were made in 1944 for the city to regain what it had lost. Part of the plan was the Théâtre de la Mode.

Couture houses, milliners, and shoemakers worked through the winter of 1944-1945 on their contributions to the project. Sets were built, dolls constructed, and tiny garments constructed. In March, 1945, the Théâtre de la Mode opened at the Pavillon Marsan. It was a smashing success. Paris was ready for some beauty and fantasy.

Above you see Eliane Bonabel, who was instrumental in the development of the dolls.

When the show closed in Paris, it traveled to other cities across Europe. Late in 1945 new clothes in what couturiers imagined to be the latest fashions were made before the dolls were sent to New York, accompanied by Bonabel. The show opened there in May of 1946, and then traveled to San Francisco where it was shown at the De Young Museum. When it closed, the dolls were stored at the City of Paris department store in the city.

There the dolls stayed until 1951 when Paul Verdier, president of the store, arranged for the dolls to be sent to Maryhill. There they resided until they were “rediscovered” in 1984 by Stanley Garfinkel of Kent State University.  A plan was hatched to send the dolls back to Paris where they would be restored, and put on display again at the Pavillon Marsan. All the original sets had been lost so reproductions were made of nine sets.

This book came about as a result of the restoration and the Paris exhibition. There are essays by people involved in the project, and by historians. All are interesting. The photos by David Seidner are really special.

Today the Maryhill Museum of Art displays the dolls and sets on a rotating basis. I have definitely put Maryhill on my long range plan list. And now, a little taste of the lovely photos of the dolls.

Coat and dress by Martial & Armand, hat by Blanche & Simone, shoes by Bertili

Left: Suit by Lucile Manguin, accessories by Vedrennes

Right: Suit by Dupouy-Magnin, hat by Jane Blanchot, shoes by Gelé.

The only slacks that I spotted: Sport ensemble by Freddy Sport

Beachwear ensemble by Maggie Rouff, hat by Gilbert Orcel, sandals by Casale

Beachwear ensemble and hat by Jacques Heim, sandals by Hellstern

Dress by Madame Grés, veil by Caroline Reboux

Left: Dress by Henriette Beaujeu, hat by Rose Valois, gloves by Hermés, shoes by Grezy

Right: Dress and hat by Schiaparelli, gloves by Faré, shoes by Casale

In all there were over 235 dolls, though some are now missing. Many of the accessories are also missing. For the 1991 exhibition, Massaro made some reproduction shoes.

Essays by  Edmonde Charles-Roux, Herbert R. Lottman, Stanley Garfinkel, Nadine Gasc, Katell le Bourhis, and photographs by  David Seidner 

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Currently Reading: French Fashion: Women & the First World War

Looking through my library, I was surprised to realize how many of my favorite books are actually exhibition catalogs. If I see an exhibition that I love, I always buy the catalog if there is one, but seeing the show is not absolutely necessary when it comes to enjoying the catalog.  A note: exhibition catalogs are not for buying; they are for learning more about what is on display.

French Fashion: Women & the First World War was shown at the Bard Graduate Center in New York last fall. Unfortunately I was not about to attend, but from all the stunning photographs of the exhibition on Instagram, I knew I need to have the accompanying book.

Another great thing about exhibition catalogs is that the curators of the show are usually the writers of the book. From reading a really good exhibition catalog you can see just how much work and research goes into a show that is on view for only a few months. In this way the research keeps on giving to people like me.

I usually leave what I don’t like about a book to the end of a review, but in this case I’m just going to get it out of the way. I hate the way this book is designed. The cover is interesting, but not compelling. The more I look at it, the more I dislike it. But as they say, don’t judge a book by its cover.

My big problem with the design is in how the print is applied to the page. There’s a reason man invented the paragraph. The eye has to rest even when reading the most interesting text. I found the oldly spaced breaks to be distracting.  And look at how the text runs all the way to the margins. There’s a reason man invented margins. Without them the eye tends to run right off the page.

It took a while, but I did finally get used to the format of the text. There are nice cross-references, and the notes are well-placed. But another quirk of the book is how the illustrations were clustered together instead of being interspersed with the text. Okay, I get that I’m being picky, but the older my eyes get, the more I appreciate easy to read text. I did appreciate the size and dark color of the print.

Now that’s out of the way I can concentrate on what makes this book so good. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the research and writing of catalogs that make them such great resources. The writers and curators were Maude Bass-Krueger and Sophie Kurkdjan, with a few of the essays being written by other scholars. There were subjects ranging from the role of gender, to the strikes of the Midinettes for better pay, to fashion counterfeiting.  All were interesting reading. Who knew that before and during the war Germans were printing fake Parisian fashion magazines and then selling them back to French consumers?

The illustration are a real asset to this book – a combination of period fashion illustrations, cartoons, newspaper articles, archival photographs, and photos of garments used in the exhibition. Most illustrations are the size of the page, so you get a really good look. Here we see how the French patriotic red, white, and blue were used in fashion illustrations.

There are lots of photos of this sort, which gives a great look at the French fashion industry during the war.

My favorite photos are a group from the Excelsior Archives showing the French working woman.  The photos are large and clear enough to see the details of work clothes of the era.

From 1917 to 1919, fashion designs could be registered with the Parisian Labor Court. The authors give us a good look at some of these, like this 1917 design and fabric swatch from the House of Worth.

I loved seeing the photos of clothing from the exhibition. I wanted to see more. This Callot Soeurs dress is from 1917.

You can see how the silhouette changed to a more tubular style as a prelude to the 1920s. Both of these dresses are by Madeleine Vionnet, 1918.

All exhibition catalogs should do this. In the back of the book are thumbnails and descriptions of all the objects in the exhibition. They are tiny, but most of them are reproduced elsewhere in the book. As a person who sees a lot of fashion exhibitions, this is a very handy reference to the details of each object.

The book is heavy, but small (8″ X 6″ X 1.5″) and so it is comfortable to hold and read.

So, I’ll not just this great book by the cover, nor by the print layout. Judging it by the content makes it a must-have for anyone interested in the fashions and culture of WWI era France.

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Currently Reading – Southern Tufts by Ashley Callahan

Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion is one of those books for which one would  have thought there was not enough information to fill two hundred plus pages. But Ashley Callahan has proved me wrong with this publication. Actually, I heard Ashley speak on the topic in 2012 at the national Costume Society of America symposium in Atlanta, and I’m amazed at how much she uncovered in the time between her presentation and the book’s publication in 2015.

This is a great example of a seemingly small story of what is pretty much one product that was produced for a short time in a specific place. In today’s world when so much is written about Chanel and Dior, it’s great learning about how a small town industry made a product that became popular across the USA.  The product was cotton chenille and the bedspreads and garments made from it, and the small town is Dalton, Georgia.

I think that one reason I enjoyed this book so much is because so many of my interests are addressed in it. The story begins with the early twentieth century crafts revival, tells about an obscure sector of the Southern textile industry, brings in the early tourist industry in the USA, and includes the making of sportswear.

Tufting is a form of candlewick work, where thick cotton threads are stitched in rows to produce designs, and then the threads are cut on the front of the fabric, and the threads separated to form tufts. The end result is called chenille.

The chenille industry that was centered around the little town of Dalton in Northwest Georgia began with Catherine Evans Whitener, who in 1895 took up hand tufting to make a bedspread after seeing an antique one in a neighbor’s house. Catherine continued with the craft, and began selling them. As other women saw the spreads, Catherine began getting orders for more. By 1910 she was selling her tufted bedspreads to department stores, and other women in the area were recruited to help make the spreads.

By the mid 1920s the industry was firmly established with many women and men involved in the making and distribution of tufted spreads. The craft spread across North Georgia and even into neighboring states.

The earliest products are all hand stitched, but in the 1920s experiments with machine tufting began. By the mid-1930s the use of tufting machines was widespread in Georgia’s chenille industry. It’s fairly easy to tell a hand tufted fabric from a machine tufted one. On machine made tufts, the lines are very uniform, but hand tufting can be very irregular.

With the improving of highways and the growing popularity of the automobile in the 1920s, American hit the road and the tourist industry boomed. The Dixie Highway which started in Michigan and ended in Florida was begun in 1915, with one branch going through the Dalton area. It didn’t take long for the tufters to realize there was money to be made from all the people traveling to Florida on vacation. Roadside stands selling chenille goods sprang up all over Northwest Georgia.

Chenille clothing was advertised as early as 1921, but it was not until the single needle machine tufter was invented that clothing became a major product. Most of the clothing made was suitable for wear at the beach, with capes and robes being the most widely available. This chenille dress is a rare early example of a garment made by a single needle machine.

In these examples of beach capes, look closely at the one on the right to see that the cape was made first, then it was tufted.  Some makers made the tufted fabric first, then cut it out and made the garment. This became more prevalent after 1941 when multi-needle machines were patented, making the process much faster.

Here’s a cape from my collection. You can see the regular stitches on the interior of the cape, a sign of machine tufting. Note also that the lines of chenille are fairly far apart, with probably means this cape was tufted using a single needle machine.

This example from my collection is later. See how close the rows of tufts are? This points to the use of a multi-needle tufting machine. Also, the anchors and ropes are tufted over the white tufting. This is a process that was developed after the multi-needle machine came into use.

Another way to tell the later multi-needle garments is that often the lines of the tufts run horizontally around the garment. Note how in my earlier cape the lines of tufts are diagonal, a process that was easier with the single-needle machine.

This was not addressed in the book, but many of the later examples are made using lighter colors, like the green seen around the border of my cape. Starting in 1957, rayon was sometimes added to the threads, and in 1963, nylon was used. I’ve seen plenty of the nylon tufted bedspreads. They have a very different look and feel from the cotton ones.

And just when you think you have seen it all, photos of the most amazing chenille pants appear. These were made around 1940. I’ve never seen a pair, and now I must find one for my collection.

During the 1950s, long chenille bathrobes were the most popular garment produced by the tufters. But by the 1960s, terry cloth robes were gaining in popularity, with chenille being thought to be an old-fashioned option.  Even worse, the chenille companies were having a difficult time figuring out how to comply with the fire prevention laws that were passed in the 1950s. Times grew tough for the chenille industry. Many of the companies closed, but others survived by switching production to carpets. Today Dalton calls itself the Carpet Capital of the World.

There were dozens of companies making chenille products in the mid twentieth century, and Callahan has documented the history of many of them. Unfortunately, chenille garments tend to not be labeled. I have four examples in my collection, none of which have labels, and from looking at them obsessively on Etsy and Ebay, I rarely ever see one with a maker’s label.

I really loved reading this book, especially since I learned so much about how to date my examples. My thanks to Liza at Better Dresses Vintage for knowing I’d love the book, and for loaning her copy to me.

 

 

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Currently Reading – Fashion in the Age of Jane Austen by Hilary Davidson

Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion by Hilary Davidson is one of those books that you wish could just go on and on. At 300 plus pages, one would think I’d be satisfied, but the topic is so interesting, and Hilary’s approach is so novel that I could do with a few more chapters.

But that would be tampering with how she approached Regency dress. Instead of looking at the topic chronologically, Davidson chose to make each chapter focus on how people of Austen’s time interacted with the world, in terms of self, home, village, country, city, nation, and world. It’s like an ever widening circle of relationships, and this worked well in the context of Austen and the Regency.

While it’s not completely necessary to be a fan of Jane Austen’s work, it really does help in the understanding of the text. Davidson refers often to Austen’s characters, and a knowledge of them, especially in the film versions, adds greatly to the enjoyment of this book. I really do wish I’d have reread all of Austen’s novels before reading this book, even though I’m well acquainted with her work.

Hilary Davidson chose the years of 1795 through 1825 to study. The Regency technically was from 1811 to 1820, but most historians extend the period for a longer time, as the fashions just didn’t change overnight. The beginnings of what we think of Regency fashion do start in the eighteenth century.

The illustrations are excellent, and well chosen. Above you see the only garment that we know was owned by Jane Austen. It’s a pelisse from around 1812. A lot can be told about Austen by studying this garment. For instance, we learn she was tall and thin.  And if you aren’t acquainted with the term pelisse, there’s a convenient glossary in the book.

So many times books on fashion deal with the clothing of the privileged only. Davidson has strived to give us a look at what different classes of people would have worn. Here we see the grocer alongside the shopper of a higher class.

Most interestingly, Davidson shows how fashion spread across the world, even in the early nineteenth century. These women on St. Kitts in the Caribbean can immediately be identified as wearing Regency fashion, though they are thousands of miles from Britain.

Another strength of the book is the inclusion of men’s attire.

We also are treated to looks at accessories like hats and shoes.

The book contains a through explanation of how textiles were, even two hundred years ago, a global enterprise. Muslin from India and cashmere shawls from Kashmir were highly prized in Regency England. This dress is circa 1800.

Along with telling what people wore during Jane Austen’s time, we also learn how clothing and textiles were acquired by consumers. I loved this look at an 1809 draper’s emporium.

Davidson also makes clear the changes that occurred in the thirty-five year span the book covers. Compare the circa 1820 gown above to the circa 1800 dress shown earlier. The waistline is moving downward toward the natural waist. The skirt is widening and gaining decoration.

So, what did I not like about this book? The only thing I really can complain about is the color of the print. Instead of being black, it’s a medium gray. That may not be an issue for readers with excellent eyes, but I found I had to either read under a strong lamp, or in bright natural light. But considering the quality of the research and the writing, I gladly gave up my habit of reading in bed to enjoy this one in my armchair with a 100 watt bulb.

 

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Currently Reading: The Art of Dress by Jane Ashelford

I have a lot of respect for all the recent fashion historians who have published such richly illustrated, researched, and documented books. Most fashion history books one encounters these days really are heavily documented, and still manage to be readable by mere fashion enthusiasts like me.

The book I’m currently reading, The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914 was published in 1996, but it too has all the features I look for in choosing a book on fashion history. Based on the collections of The British National Trust properties, Ashelford takes the reader on an in depth look at English fashion through the examination of paintings, extant garments, written records, ephemeria, and photographs.

The author begins in 1500, and because so few actual garments from the sixteenth century survive, most of the illustrations are from paintings in The National Trust collection. The details of each ensemble is carefully analyzed and explained to the reader. As you can see, both men’s and women’s clothing is addressed. Above is Richard Sackville, 1613, and Mary Curzon, circa 1610; both paintings are by William Larkin.

One of the earliest garments shown is this embroidered apron from between 1702 and 1714.

This circa 1745 painting of the Trevelyan family of Wallington, Northumberland, is a “conversation piece”, meaning that the people in the painting  were engaged  in conversation in an informal setting. These paintings are important because it makes it possible to see differences in dress worn by people of the same family or group of friends. The hound is a nice touch!

And as we move into the eighteenth century, there are more actual articles of clothing to be found.  Above is a detail of a mid century Spitalfields silk brocade court mantua, with silver gilt threads that showed to best advantage in the candlelight of the palace.

The author does an excellent job of detailing the drastic changes in fashion that occurred in the last part of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Fabrics were lighter, like the cotton muslin above, circa 1812.

Actual garments are shown along with period fashion plates. Here we get a better sense of how this 1820s silk dress would have been worn, with the hair style, jewelry, fan, and shoes.

By the 1850s and 1860s photographs became a valuable form of fashion documentation. Above we can see the fan shaped skirt of 1860s, and how the fullness of the skirt was gradually being pulled to the back.

In 1903 Lady Mary Curzon was painted wearing the famous Peacock Dress, made by the House of Worth of golden cloth with peacock feathers embroidered in gold and silver threads. Remarkably, this dress has survived, and can be seen at Kedleston Hall in a special climate controlled display case. To the left in the photo you get a glimpse of the fabric. What look like jewels in each feather are actually beetle wings.

One of my favorite things about The Art of Dress is that not only does Ashelford tell what people wore, but also how they obtained their clothing. This ends up being a good overview of the rise of ready-to-wear in Britain, and also of the emergence of the department store.  Above we see how mail order was also becoming an important part of shopping.

I do highly recommend The Art of Dress. It can be found on Amazon for a very reasonable price, and I imagine that most fashion school libraries have a copy.  At 303 pages, it can make for a lot of cozy wintertime reading, or if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, a lot of lazy summertime reading.

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