A couple of months ago I went on a rant about using the correct terminology when describing vintage and antique garments. Not everyone agreed with me, and I can see why, but because I used playsuit as an example, I’m been looking at lots of images, especially in 1930s and 1940s ads, to make sure playsuit was the proper term.
And it is. The one-piece shorts and top combination above is most commonly referred to as a playsuit in ads of the period. Almost all the ads I found, and there were quite a few, also featured a matching skirt which can be worn over the playsuit.
On my recent trip to the Hillsville Flea Market, I pulled the playsuit out of a big pile of vintage garments. The first thought through my head was, “If only the skirt was here too.” It was my lucky day, as the skirt soon emerged from the heap.
In most of the ads, the skirt buttons up the front, but in my new example, there is a metal zipper closure.
There is also a label in the skirt, something I did not notice until I got the set home and started a better examination. I was a bit surprised by the label, as I’d known Jane Irwill only as a sweater maker. The company was actually called Irwill Knitwear Corporation. But a label is an excellent starting place in trying to learn more about a garment.
The first place I turned to was TESS, the US trademark site. TESS is a great starting point, because it often gives the name of the owner of the label, and it always has the name of the company that produces it. In this case, I learned that Jane Irwill was a maker of sweaters and playsuits, and that the company name was Irwill Knitwear Corporation. The page also states that “Jane Irwill” is not a real person.
According to TESS, The trademark “Jane Irwill” was first used in 1940. I always take first usage dates on TESS with a grain of salt, as I’ve found many errors over the years. Often the trademark application is made many years after the first usage, and people being human, make mistakes. So I really do not give the 1940 date much credence.
My next step was to see what I could find out about the Irwill Knitwear Corporation. Quite a few sites that list business registrations list the year of incorporation as 1923. The founder of the company was Irving Louis. Just because the Irwill Knitting Corporation started in 1923, we cannot assume that the Jane Irwill label dates back that far. The first actual reference I found to the label was in 1939, in a business directory.
I also did a search for “Sun Modes Jane Irwill”, and came up with several newspaper ads ranging from 1946 through 1954. It could have been used earlier, or later, as I only located five examples.
So depending on when the label was really first used, I’m looking at a set that could have been made between about 1935 when play sets became very popular, through the very early 1950s when the style changed to a more fashionable line. This was a basic sportswear design that did not really change much in those years. So it is necessary to really look at the details to narrow down a date.
Note how long the skirt is. Add two inches to that length because the skirt was hemmed at some point. This means that either the wearer was short, or the skirt was shortened to bring it more into style when skirts got shorter during WWII. The skirt length, plus the relatively weak shoulders tend to suggest that this set is either before 1939 or so, or after 1947.
Another clue is that the skirt is cut in eight gores rather than in a front and back cut as two pieces. This uses more fabric, and is another clue that this set was not made during the war.
The next thing I considered was the fabric design and the colors used. The fabric is a very light blue with a brown stripe. Some people I know are very good at identifying the possible years of manufacture just from the colors used. Unfortunately, I am not one of those persons, so without a lot of reading and looking at period examples, that information does not help. What about the stripes, though? In looking at magazines from 1934 through 1950, I noticed the popularity of stripes increased around 1940, and they stayed popular throughout the 1940s.
So, my best guess is that my Sun Modes set dates to around 1947 or 48. I would appreciate any additional insights.
This was a great addition to my collection. In collecting I’ve noticed that the playsuit is often found for sale, but it is rarer for the skirt to be present as well. I already had one set that is most likely early 1940s. It was home sewn using feedsack material, a good example of WWII era thrift. It’s nice to now have a later example.
Let me add a few words about condition. This set was quite dirty, so I did hand wash it with great success. Besides the hemming, there are some crude hand repairs to the sleeves and underarms. For now I’ll leave them as they are. I rather like the evidence of the former owner’s hand.