Category Archives: 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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Currently Reading – Nautical Chic by Amber Jane Butchart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Currently Reading: Women in Pants

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

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

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

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

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

And here are some of my favorite women in pants:

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Currently Reading: Hollywood Diet and Fitness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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