Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading – Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America

Suiting Everyone was published in 1974 as a work to go with an exhibition of the same name at the Smithsonian.  Written by curators Claudia Kidwell and Margaret Christman, the book  is about the history of ready-to-wear clothing, and how it changed from being cheaply made garments for the poor to being available at all prices and to suit all Americans.

I found the subtitle to be especially interesting.  Today fashion people are always talking about how designer collaborations with stores like Target and H&M have led to the democratization of fashion.  What they don’t seem to realize, and something that the book does an excellent job of explaining, is that fashion became “democratized” over one hundred years ago with the rise of the ready-to-wear industry.  Fashionable clothing has been available for most Americans for over a century.

It’s not a process that happened over night.  There were a lot of things that had to fall into place to make the mass production of clothing possible.  A big factor was, of course, the Industrial Revolution with inventions ranging from the cotton gin to the sewing machine.  But there were other, more obscure players in this story, such as how the War of 1812 led to the idea of the standardization of sizes, at least for men’s clothing.

Partly because of fit issues, and the problems solved by the US Army in making uniforms, ready-to-wear for men came about much earlier than that for women.  The earliest ready-mades for women were items that did not require a close fit, like these loose-fitting tea gowns of 1898.  Blouses, or waists as they were referred to then, underwear, and skirts were also early ready-made products for women.

Other early ready-mades for women included outerwear like capes and mantles.  This is a golf cape from 1899.  This garment was called a golf cape because they were made from plaids which come from Scotland which is where golf originated.  It was a bit of a reach!

Sporting attire, especially bathing suits, were another category of ready-mades.  The examples on the above left are from 1898.  On the right you can see some cycling suits from 1897.

And while the catalog does show one knicker suit, there are seven suits that are short skirts.  Note the knickers peeking out from under the skirt in the middle outfit.

The survey of ready-to-wear goes up to the present day, or at least at the time of the writing.  Things have changed so much in the clothing manufacturing that it would be easy to double the size of the book just from the events of the past forty years.

In the preface to the book Claudia Kidwell tells how when planning the exhibition the Smithsonian staff realized they did not have the variety of garments necessary to represent all the ideas they wanted to illustrate.  To get the needed clothing they announced to the public that they were in need of clothing from the 1920s through the 1970s.  The internet did not invent crowd-sourcing.

This book was a gift from reader and friend Lynn Mally who writes the AmericanAgeFashion blog.  We have this transcontinental book exchange going that just happened naturally when we realized we have shared interests.  It makes me see just how important it is to me to be able to connect with so many fashion history lovers.  The internet is a true miracle.

From going to the Costume Society symposium last week, I also realized that gatherings like that one are also very important in the sharing and exchange of ideas.  One of the papers that was presented was about how clothing for slaves in America was some of the very first ready-to-wear, with there being ads for this clothing being placed in Charleston newspapers as early as the mid eighteenth century.  The book touched on this very briefly, and so the paper tied in perfectly with what I’d just been reading.  This research adds a great deal to the story of ready-made clothing.

Another of the presenters and I found that our research had over-lapped somewhat.  As a graduate student some years ago she had interviewed twelve women who came of age in the same small town during the 1920s.  Her questions centered on their dress during a time when hemlines got very short and which is today described as being “scandalous.”  When she asked each if they ever wore any “scandalous” garment, several laughed and replied that yes, they had been very bad and had worn knickers.  One even went so far as to put on her brother’s knickers and walk with friends to the next town, just to show off.

I want to thank all who read and commented, and all those who emailed saying that you liked my “Knickerbockers” paper.  The best comments have to be from Karen of SmallEarthVintage, who read my description of the 1920s knickers-wearing girl, and knew I was talking about her grandmother.  Karen is lucky to have a full range of photos of her grandmother wearing pants, starting with her as a teen in the 1920s wearing her knickers, to her as a grandmother in the 1970s, still wearing her pants.

As I concluded in my paper,  “The knickers-wearing girls of the 1920s became the pantsuit–wearing grandmothers of the 1970s, who had learned years earlier the comfort and practicality of pants.”  I could not have found a better example than Karen’s Grandmother Edna.


Filed under Currently Reading

Cheap Chic: The 40th Anniversary Edition

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the book Cheap Chic, and how it was the book that introduced me to vintage clothing.  That was in 1975.  I was in college, and I found the newly released book at the library.  No one else got a chance to read it because I hoarded that book for the next two years until I bought my own copy.  I still have it, and I still pull it out from time to time to reread parts of it.

When the book was released forty years ago, I’d never seen anything like it.  Most fashion books that I’d been exposed to were advice books for teens, and all were terribly out of date for the late Sixties and early Seventies.  But Cheap Chic was relevant to me, a very young woman in the mid Seventies.  At that time fashion rules were being broken, with the young (and not-so-young) taking up the wearing of everything from antique underwear to the uniforms of the working class.

To me the biggest value in Cheap Chic today is that it is a good document of how many people in the Seventies were dressing.  To completely understand the attitudes toward dressing in that decade, you really must read this book.

But what about the “hundreds of money saving hints to create your own look”?  To be honest, much of the content is still relevant, while some of it is now old hat.  Still, it is hard not to be inspired by the content, even though a lot of it is a bit quirky.   Or maybe we can be inspired because it is quirky.  At any rate, the writing is honest and sincere, and very 1970s.

It used to be that to get a copy of Cheap Chic, you had to search for a used copy, but as of yesterday the book is back in print.  And the good news is that the publicist for the book has sent a copy to me to offer as a give-away to readers of The Vintage Traveler.  All you have to do to put your name in the hat for the book is to leave a comment on this thread.  I’ll be taking names until Sunday, September 6 at noon, EDT.

And to encourage participation, here’s a little taste of the contents.

Cheap Chic, by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy, 1975


Filed under Currently Reading

Currently Reading: American Quilts by Robert Shaw

I know that having two posts on quilts is straying a bit from the usual fare here at The Vintage Traveler, but I’m sure that lovers of textiles will appreciate the beauty and work that goes into a well-crafted quilt.

I don’t buy quilt books, as a general rule, but I spotted this one at a local fabric store and after thumbing through it decided I had to have it, if only for the visual inspiration.  The book is stunningly beautiful, with 358 pages of lovely photos.  It is arranged loosely chronologically, with different eras of quilt styles serving as chapters.  And it is not just pretty pictures, as Shaw also writes about the textile industry and the development of the sewing machine and other matters of interest.

Since I’m not well versed in quilts, I’m really not qualified to comment on the the quilts chosen for the book, so I read the reviews of others who do know quilts.  Some reviewers were concerned that some quilting styles, such as Amish quilts, were given too much space in the book at the exclusion of others, such as quilts from the Appalachian regions.  And truly, I found my eyes glazing over by the end of the chapter on Amish quilts.  It was a bit too much.

But for the most part, the text is engaging and informative, just like I’d want a book of this sort to be.  The real stars though, are the quilts themselves.

Believe it or not, the cover image is from a quilt that was made in 1933 by Edith Morrow Matthews.

We sometimes think of quilts as being patchwork, but many of the earliest American quilts were appliqued.  This quilt is attributed to Mary Jane Carr of Columbia, Pennsylvania, circa 1850.  Note the dogs in the lower corners.

Named for the ship in the center, this is known as The Constitution Quilt, circa 1880. The blocks depict scenes from the Bible, patriotic and Masonic symbols, and scenes of everyday life.

The maker evidently loved birds.

I do love a good crazy quilt, or in this case, a great one.  Note how it was actually pieced in blocks and then assembled.  The embroidery tends to tie it all together.

The book points out that it is very difficult to attribute a quilt to an African-American maker.  In this case, it seems to be the subject matter that identifies this snake design as African-American.

This circa 1875 to 1900 quilt is from eastern North Carolina,  where coral snakes are a danger.

This detail is from a large quilt that is a variation of the log cabin design.  Because all the people are black and are not caricatures, it is assumed that the maker was African-American.  Circa 1890, and probably from New Jersey.

This is an Amish quilt from Ohio, made in 1928 by Christina Yoder Schlaabach.  Amish quilts varied from community to community, and in accordance to how much influence there was from the “English” world.  One thing they have in common is that they are never pictorial.

A variation of the fan design, this quilt was found in New York City, where it was possibly made around 1920.  The pieces are velvet and cotton, and is tied (the ties look like dots in the photo) rather than stitch quilted.

I love this amazing quilt.  It was made by a farmer’s wife, Fannie B. Shaw, between 1930 and 1932.  The appliqued figures all represent a profession, and are labeled as such.  And why are they looking around the corner?  They are looking for prosperity, something that President Hoover promised was “just around the corner.”  Note the representatives of the GOP and the Democrats, and finally, Uncle Sam with sacks of gold, farm relief and free beer!

This is just a corner of a fantastic quilt made by Goldie Tracy Richmond in 1966.  Richmond and her husband ran a trading post on the Papago reservation in Arizona, and she made quilts to sell to tourists.  This one shows life on the reservation.

As the twentieth century advanced, the practice of quilting declined.  But the 1970s brought a renewed interest in the traditional crafts of America, and people began to take up quilting as a hobby.  In many cases, the line between craft and art is blurred as quilts changed from being utilitarian items to being strictly decorative.  Many go beyond that into the realm of sending a message.

The quilt above is from 1986, and was made by Judy Mathieson.  Called Nautical Stars, it was inspired by a watercolor of compass roses.

Click to see a larger view

Susan at Witness2Fashion recent wrote about this quilt on her blog, and I was delighted to see it in this book.  The quilt, Portrait of a Textile Worker, is made entirely of clothing labels that were donated to the maker, Terese Agnew.  Read more about it on Susan’s blog.

Once again I have to say a word or two about historical accuracy.  While I do not know a lot about the history of quilts, the fashion historian in me could not help but be disturbed by this paragraph:

The Lancaster Amish continued to work the same small group of patterns until World War II put an end to the supply of fine wool, most of which had been imported from England. With their favored material no longer readily available, Lancaster Amish women were forced to use polyester, and the classic period of their quiltmaking effectively came to an end.

I may be reading this incorrectly, but it seems to me the author is saying that polyester replaced wool during the war.  That would not be possible because polyester became available to consumers only after the war was over, in 1950.  Another inaccuracy was that Illinois was stated to be the first state to give women the right to vote in 1913.  Actually, it was Wyoming, in 1869.  And finally, Diana Vreeland was referred to as “the influential designer” when she was, in fact, the editor of Vogue.

The point needs to be made that when reading one has to be both a reader and and editor.  We are used to relying on books to supply correct information, but that is not always the case, unfortunately.  Reader beware!

All photos were taken from the book, American Quilts: The Democratic Art, by Robert Shaw.  Please do not copy photos from this site.


Filed under Currently Reading, Vintage Sewing

Currently Reading: The Mountain Artisans Quilting Book

Mountain Artisans shows just exactly how important timing is in business, and in life in general.  After President Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, there were dozens of agencies set up to implement hundreds of programs that were meant to help the poor.  Mountain Artisans was started by a worker in the arts and crafts department of the Department of Commerce, Florette Angel.  Ms. Angel was in West Virginia to help a group of quilters figure out how to market the projects they were making using traditional quilting skills.

It was a good time to be starting a crafts cooperative.  Not only was there the Federal assistance that sent Ms. Angel to the quilters, it was 1968, and interest was increasing in alternative lifestyles such as the back-to-the-earth  movement.  The American Bi-centennial was coming up in 1976, and interest in history and heritage were growing.

Even so, the project got off to a rocky start.  Interestingly, there was money to spend on studies of impoverished people and how they could make money, but there was no money to pay for needed craft supplies.  All the young women who were working to start the business had no experience and they were working without pay.

Help arrived in the person of Sharon Rockefeller, whose famous name helped open doors.  She put the group in touch with the famous Parish-Hadley decorating firm, which arranged for meetings in New York, including one with Diana Vreeland at Vogue.   Through Vreeland, Oscar de la Renta ordered some of the fabric being pieced by the women in the co-op.  The group was on its way.

They also benefited from some excellent press coverage.  Whoever was in charge of public relations did a fantastic job, getting a feature in Life magazine, and mentions in Newsweek and New York Magazine.  The Associated Press and United Press International regularly distributed features on the co-op.

Dorothy Dembosky Weatherford, a local artist, donated her talents as a designer, and her work led to a distinctive Mountain Artisans style.  She liked big bold blocks of color, much in the style of the late 1960s and early 70s.

By 1972 the co-op was a success, and Weatherford won a special Coty award that year for “reviving native handicrafts.” According to an account from the AP in 1972, there were 160 full time quilters, with an additional 60 working part time.  Total sales for the previous year had been a half a million dollars.  A showroom was planned for New York.

Sharon Rockefeller wearing a Mountain Artisans skirt

The success of the group is nicely documented in this book by Alfred Allen Lewis.  Published in 1973, it is a book typical of the time, with the story of the co-op intertwined with directions for making projects based on those of the Mountain Artisans.  I’m not so sure how easy it would be to actually follow the directions, but there are lots of photos of the quilters sitting and sewing along with diagrams showing the design and construction process.

The clothes, which were mainly floor-length “hostess skirts”, were sold in high-end stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, Joseph Magnin, and Neiman Marcus.  The co-operative also made patchwork pillows and quilts.  These items occasionally come up for sale today, and they are easily identified because they are labeled.

Quilt made for the Rockefeller baby

In appreciation for all the support she had given them, the group made a quilt for Sharon Rockefeller’s first baby.  Designed by Weatherford, it was not the average baby quilt made from sweet pastels.  I’ve got to wonder if the Rockefellers still have it.

Dorothy Weatherford experimented with modern-looking variations of old quilt themes.

The early 1970s were an interesting time.  People were discovering traditional handicrafts such as quilting, knitting, and sewing, and there was a definite Little House on the Prairie vibe going on in fashion.  The women running Mountain Artisans were wise to capitalize on this interest.

But fashion changes, and the homespun look died with the passing of time.  After July, 1976, interest in “tradition” waned, as Americans discovered the pleasures of disco.  Mountain Artisans closed in 1978.


Filed under Curiosities, Currently Reading

Currently Reading – The Battle of Versailles


Can one fashion show have enough material for a writer to craft a book around?  The answer is yes, if the event was more than just a regular fashion show, and if the writer is willing to spend years in meticulous research and conduct numerous interviews.  In this case, Robin Givhan has not only done the background work, but has managed to put the events of one night in November of 1973 into their proper place in fashion history.

In the fall of 1973, fashion public relations representative Eleanor Lambert cooked up an idea to help raise funds for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles.  It involved a fashion show of five French fashion designers, and five from New York (all who were clients of Lambert, naturally).  The show would take place at Versailles and they would charge $235 per person to attend.

The show was never intended to be a competition, but people (and the press) being what they are, it soon turned into a matter of us against them.  The five French designers – Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Ungaro, Cardin, and Marc Bohn for Dior – were all masters of the haute couture, although by 1973 all were also producing ready-to-wear.  The Americans – Anne Klein, Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Stephen Burrows – were strictly Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear designers at a time where it was still widely thought that “fashion” came from Paris and clothes came from New York.

Partly because of all the publicity surrounding the publication of this book, the events of November 28, 1973, are now fairly well known.  The French had a huge, overblown production that failed to wow the audience, but the American models with their free and easy modern dance style stole the show.  American fashion had arrived.

But it’s not the basic story that is so interesting.  Givhan sets the stage by recapping the events of the days, most of which have nothing to do with fashion.  The Vietnam War was finally grinding to a halt only to have the world embroiled in an “oil crisis.”  The French had their own problems with rioting and other unpleasantness.

In places Givhan seems to over-think the atmosphere of the early 1970s.  I remember it as a time of hope and progress, with the war ending and people becoming more aware of the effects of pollution and the lack of civil rights for Black Americans and women.  In describing what life was like for Americans in the early Seventies, it seems to me that Givhan was giving the lifestyle of certain big city groups, with their drugs, disco and sex, to Americans in general.  She comments in her endnotes that many of the people she interviewed for the book had trouble recalling details of their lives in the Seventies, echoing the saying that those who could remember the 60s or 70s were not really there.

One of the real strengths of the book is how Givhan gives an in-depth account of all the major players in the spectacle, including the models.  The Americans took thirty-six models to France, ten of which were Black. In doing the research for the book, Givhan interviewed many of the Black models, and gave an account of each, telling how they were able in the late 1960s and early 70s to find success in a field that had been closed to Black women just a few years before.

Givhan also interviewed some of the surviving designers, including Stephen Burrows, Donna Karan (Anne Klein’s) assistant, and Pierre Berge, who was Yves Saint Laurent’s partner.  Fortunately, she also talked with Oscar de la Renta, who died last year, before this book was published.

To me, the most interesting character was Stephen Burrows.  I was in high school and college in 1973, and I was in love with his designs, not that I could have bought them here in Western North Carolina.  But he also did a line of patterns for McCall’s which made his work accessible to me and other young women across the country.

Burrows is almost like an anti-hero, and if you read or view interviews with him today you can see the same traits that Givhan describes in her book.  He was the most non-competitive participant, as he was just thrilled to be there.  While de la Renta and Halston jockeyed for position and models, Burrows kept out of the pettiness and did his own thing.  He really was a child of the 60s.  And as Givhen puts it:

In 1973, Burrows represented a moment when fashion was connecting to women in ways that were both emotional and practical.  In one of Burrows’s dresses, a woman’s body was free.  And she was on her own, for better or worse.

Even though the “Battle of Versailles” brought American fashion into the spotlight, there seems to be little lasting effect of equality for minorities in the fashion business, especially where models are concerned.  In 2015 we are much less likely to see Black models in a runway show than we were in 1973.

I really enjoyed The Battle of Versailles, and I recommend it to those who like a good dose of history mixed in with your fashion.



Filed under Currently Reading

Vintage Fashion Complete

I’m really pretty good about saving emails that contain information that I way need to reference later on in life.  The problem is that I save them in about ten different folders across three email accounts and so it happens ever so often that I cannot find the email I need.  In this case it was an email from the author of this book, Nicky Albrechtsen, asking to use photos in a book she was writing about vintage fashion.

Since I’m not Getty Images, I pretty much let people use my photos in publications and in college papers, and even an occasional employee handbook.  All I ask is the proper acknowledgement.

I’ll admit I had forgotten about this project, and even after a kind reader emailed to say she had seen my name in the book, I was still a bit clueless.  But I ran across the book in my local discount bookstore, and I immediately remembered that this blog was listed as a source.  And a quick look at the credits reminded me that I’d given Albrechtsen permission to use photos of my Helen Bond Carruthers sweaters in the book.

Both of the above sweaters are mine, and I was properly credited.  How refreshing in a world where one’s photos are taken at will and pinned and copied and tumbled and even instagramed without a credit or link back.

And I was so happy to see that my blog was listed under vintage blogs that are about history, and not wearing vintage clothes.

I spent a great deal of time looking at the book, trying to decide whether or not to buy it.  You may recall that I’ve sworn off books that are about “vintage” rather than about fashion history.  But looking through the book, I saw that there was a lot more substance than I find in most books about vintage clothing.

In the end I decided not to buy it, but to instead come home and read online reviews.  They are overwhelming positive, but the best news is that the project was managed by Frances at Last Year Girl, a voice that I respect.  So now I’m leaning toward getting it, and not just because my ego was bolstered by the mentions.

So, do any of you readers have this book?  I’d love your opinions, privately, please.

And if you are reading, Nicky, thanks so much for letting me see my name in print.


Filed under Collecting, Currently Reading

Currently Reading: Vintage Inspired Fiction

Those of you who have been reading The Vintage Traveler for a while might guess that I’m really not a reader of fiction.  It’s true, I’d rather read a great book about history than an historical novel, but I have a deep appreciation for a well-written novel, and my name is on the pre-order list for Go Set a Watchman.

That said, I’ve always had a problem with novels that have been written for the niche market, “people who like old clothes.”  I get the feeling that the writer did some market research, realized that a lot of people who like old clothes also like to read, and set about crafting a book for that market.  So in spite of my misgivings, I knew I had some hand surgery recovery time coming up so I bought the book above at the Goodwill, and I agreed to read another as a possible review.  I needed something light that would not be hard to catch up with if it put me to sleep.

A Vintage Affair is about a woman who owns a vintage clothing store.  She’s probably the luckiest vintage clothing store owner ever because lovely things just fall into her lap quite easily.  The inventory of the store sounds like a who’s who of British fashion and French couture: a 1957 Hardy Amies gown, a Balmain gown from the early 1960s, a Thea Porter kaftan, a Mary Quant dress, a Balenciaga coat,  a Jacques Fath coatdress, a Norman Hartnell cocktail dress, and on and on and on.  It’s an inventory most museums would envy, and it’s very unlikely that a small store would have all these treasures.

So without going into the story line except to say the main character finds love and resolves her guilt issues, let’s just say that unless you like designer name-dropping and the occasional fashion history lesson (such as, Marilyn Monroe was buried in her favorite Pucci) you probably want to skip this one.

I looked at book sites and realized that there are quite a few chick-lit books about vintage clothing store owners, most of whom double as solvers of mysteries.

The second book, The Dress Thief, actually has quite a bit to offer.  The book is set in 1937 Paris, and is concerned with the couture industry.  As the title suggests, this book is about the very real problem of fashion design theft that Elizabeth Hawes wrote about in her wonderful Fashion is Spinach in 1938.

The main character works for a fictional designer, and financial worries tempt her into stealing his designs and passing them on to someone who passes them on to a Seventh Avenue manufacturing business in New York.  After much hand-wringing, our heroine resolves her guilt issues and finds true love.  Unfortunately for her the book ends in 1939 and she is Jewish, but that’s for another book, I suppose.

Evans manages to skillfully merge the real and the imaginary with references to people like Chanel and Vionnet.  A person not familiar with fashion history would have a hard time telling who is real and who is not, were it not for the handy author’s note in the back of the book.

There is a disturbing scene where the main character is victim of something very similar to a date rape.  It made me squirm, but then I don’t need gratuitous sex in my books.

If you love pre-WWII history and fashion, you will find The Dress Thief to be of interest.  It really does help to know a bit about the era in understanding some of the plot lines.

I was given an e-book of The Dress Thief by the publisher.


Filed under Currently Reading