I’ve dated this towel to circa 1973. In that year one could also buy a sweater with Chaplin’s face, and if you had acted very quickly before the product was pulled from the market due to copyright issues, you could buy a Whiting & Davis mesh handbag. 1973 seems to be the year that Chaplin made a comeback. It was the year after he had been awarded an honorary Oscar for his ground-breaking work in film, so he must have been on people’s minds.
The other type is like my Charlie Chaplin towel. It’s thick and full, and the design is woven in rather than printed onto the terrycloth.
That RN number on the label proved to be the key to the company that produced the towel. There is an online database where you can type in the number, and it tells you who owned the label. It’s a handy little tool.
A recent acquisition is this cute little 1920s blouse with an interesting back-story. It wasn’t so much the blouse that sold me on this piece, but rather, the label.
This one ticked several boxes: women’s college related, somewhat local to me, and after digging a bit, sportswear related. And the Deco-ish embroidery didn’t hurt a bit. So what’s the story?
Maryville College is one of the fifty oldest colleges in the country, being founded in 1819 as a Presbyterian seminary. From the beginning the school was racially integrated, until it was forced to segregate in 1901. It began admitting women in the 1860s, and in 1875 granted the first degree to a women in Tennessee. By the 1920s there were more women than men in the college, probably because it offered degrees in education.
In 1921 (or 1920, according to one source) home economics teacher Kathryn McMurray devised a plan to help girls who were not able to afford their college fees to stay in school. She set up a sewing enterprise where students made simple garments that were then sold under the label “College-Maid”. The program started with ten girls, but three years later more than 400 girls were earning money to help pay for their education.
Several types of garments were made by the students. One was the apron, which is the champion of beginning sewing projects. I also found references to house dresses and work dresses, but best of all, by 1926 they were making two-piece pajamas. I am quite sure that my blouse is actually a pajama top.
Ms. McMurray traveled around the country, encouraging women’s organizations and department stores to sell College-Maid products. Women’s groups would have what we today would call pop-up shops to sell the garments for the college. Some department stores advertised the goods as late as 1934. A dress cost $1.95 at that time.
Several years ago I found some pages from a photo album belonging to a Maryville College student.
Ruth, Gert, Mae and Eva had lots of adventures. I can’t help but wonder if any of them worked making College-Maid garments.
I purchased this circa 1940 tennis dress for several reasons. First, I love labels that sport the name of a star in the sport. Today the practice is ubiquitous, but in the first half of the Twentieth Century, the practice was new. Alice Marble is not exactly a household name today, but she was tennis’s hottest woman star in the late 1930s.
At the time I knew very little about Marble, except that she dominated women’s tennis in the late 1930s. It turns out that she was much more than just a tennis champion.
“… I had no way of knowing then that, when the time came for me to be up for an invitation to play at Forest Hills, my biggest supporter, aside from a handful of my own people, would be this same Alice Marble.”
Because she was Black, segregation rules kept Althea from playing in the big US tournaments. Incensed, in 1950 Alice wrote an editorial in the American Lawn Tennis Magazine.
“Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
And so they did. And the rest is history. Althea went on to win both the US Open and Wimbledon twice, and was the dominant women’s player in the late 1950s.
The dress in my collection is a great example of early 1940s tennis wear. The fit is easy, with a pullover bodice and side zipper. The skirt is very full and is knee-length. The sleeves are mere caps, and are split for mobility.
There’s no place to store an extra ball, but that feature might have been incorporated into the panties.
The Tom Boy label began in 1938, and was owned by the same Baltimore company, Straus, Royer, and Strass, that owned American Golfer. I found references to Alice Marble designs from 1939 to 1941.
One of the problems in collecting clothes that are somewhat utilitarian is that there is often not a lot of change between say, an eye shade or visor, made in 1925 and one made in 1975 and one made in 2005. There are differences in materials, of course (no velcro in 1925) and in construction techniques, but these things are not immediately obvious when one is shopping primarily online.
I’ve found that sometimes it’s best to buy certain items like bucket hats (which were made for sports as early as the 1880s) in connection with a matching item. I located a 1910s bucket along with a pair of knickers that were made of the identical fabric. That removed all doubt concerning the age of the hat.
I had been wanting a 1920s eye shade of the sort worn by tennis star Helen Wills, but an online search proved impossible. That is, until I ran across the Portia Super Sports Shade. The packaging left no doubt that this was made in the mid 1920s. Better yet, there was a UK registered design number.
I’m fairly experienced in looking up US patent numbers, but the UK system stymied me. All I could figure out was that the design was registered in 1926. If some smart person who knows their way around the UK patent site can help, the number is 722887. I’d love to have a copy of the paperwork concerning this design.
The shade is in very good condition. It was altered by someone with a very small head. I’ll be leaving in the alteration because it does not change the look nor the function of the shade.
I’ve got to say that I’m amazed that this item has survived. Things made of plastics and rubber and elastic and such tend to degrade. And to have the original envelope is a real bonus. From a time when plastics could be highly flammable, it is comforting to see that my sports shade is non-flam.
The seller had another eye shade made by Portia, but it was sold as a reading shade. It was from the 1930s. It appears that Portia is still in business, making sunglasses and eye patches.
Those who have followed this blog for a while know that my interest is mainly American women’s sportswear. But that does not mean that I can’t look to other countries to see how women were adapting dress as sports for women became more popular. When I spotted this Manby catalog from 1892, I had to add it to my collection of print resources.
My high school French is more than a little rusty, but even I could figure out that this catalog was for tailored women’s garments for sports. The title page tells us that here are clothes for travel, campaign, promenade, sea bathing, riding, yachting, and hunting. Yes, I can relate to all that.
Manby was located at 21 Rue Auber, and they advertised as a Maison Anglaise, specializing in tailored clothes for English clients. Later advertisements added Americans to the targeted clientele.
The catalog does not give a lot of information about each model offered for sale. I’m guessing that they knew the models their customers were after.
For the most part, the styles don’t look particularly French to me. In a way it seems like going to Paris only to eat at McDonalds.
But it does give a great look at what English, and probably American, women were looking for in the way of sports clothing in the 1890s.
The clothes look to me as they could have been made in the United States until I got to the illustration on the back cover.
I’ve looked at a lot of images of American women in sportswear, and never have I seen anything that compares to the pants and short “skirt” worn in this illustration. I do have another French print, dated to the 1870s that shows a similar short dress over pants, but it is a caricature.
As I said in my last post, online shopping has been great lately. Maybe it is due to sellers not having as many in real life selling opportunities, but there have been some fantastic things come up for sale this summer and fall. High on my list of purchases is this bathing suit from Gantner & Mattern.
I could talk all day about the attributes of this suit, starting with the colors. By 1920s orange was a popular fashion color, and it remained in style throughout the decade. The blue is also a good 1920s color. In fast, I have another early 1920s bathing suit in the exact color.
By 1920 the women’s bathing standby suit, two pieces usually made of a thin woven wool or blends of mohair and silk was being replaced by the knit suit. Most knit suits were knit in one piece, with the trunks attached to the dress. This suit is interesting because it is two pieces like the older style.
It is also interesting because of the slightly raised waistline. We tend to associate the dropped waist with the 1920s, but in the beginning of the decade the waist continued to be high as it was in the last part of the 1910s. At the same time, the shape of the body was becoming more tubular.
When I first saw this suit on Instagram, the crocheted trim intrigued me. When evaluating a piece of old clothing, you always have to consider that alterations could have been made at some point in the garment’s life. I have actually seen a 1920s knit suit where the back was cut to a fashionable 1930s scoop, with the edges finished with crochet. So I spent a long time looking at the crochet trim, trying to figure if it was original. The uniformity of the color, and the evenness of the applied trim led me to believe the crochet was original.
The real proof can be seen in this photo. Where the label was stitched onto the suit stitches over the orange yarn of the crochet, indicating the crochet was applied before the label.
Here’s a bit of Gantner & Mattern history I wrote several years ago in another post:
One of the great, but lesser-known California swimwear makers of the 20th century was Gantner-Mattern. Like most of the makers of swimsuits, they started out as makers of knitwear – stockings, underwear, and sporting sweaters. By the turn of the century, they were making the swimsuits that made them famous.
The company got its start in San Francisco in 1877 at the J.J. Pfister Knitting Company. By the late 1890s, two employees, corporate secretary John O. Gantner and mill superintendent Alfred Mattern had left Pfister to start their own knitting company. That was lucky for them because the Great Earthquake of 1906 destroyed the Pfister operation, while Gantner-Mattern was located in a safe area. Pfister was able to rebuild with the help of two friends, but it is not known if the friends in question were actually Gantner and Mattern.
Swimwear quickly became the main product at Gantner-Mattern. In the first days of the 20th century, swimming was becoming increasingly popular, and with the purchase of a Gantner-Mattern swimsuit, one got a free pair of waterwings to help the buyer learn to swim, or at least stay afloat! In 1932, Gantner-Mattern was the first company to produce a topless swimsuit – for men! Yes, it was still considered indecent in many places for a man to swim without a tank top in the early 1930s, but before long this quaint old custom was only a memory.
This post should have a subtitle. Maybe “Sometimes You Just Get Lucky.” Probably though, “It Pays to Be a Bookworm” is more appropriate. The truth is, unless I had read and reread my favorite book on women in sports, When the Girls Came Out to Play, by Patricia Campbell Warner, I would never have had an inkling of the purpose of this garment. As it was, it took me a while to actually figure out the purpose of this set, mainly because spotting it on Instagram was so unexpected.
The set has three pieces, and the seller, @vintageloftny, photographed the set with the blouse over the top of the skirt. That’s understandable, as there is elastic in the bottom of the blouse, and it makes sense that it would be on the outside of the skirt. However, something made me stop and visualize the blouse tucked into the waist of the skirt.
Once I saw the blouse in a different light, it rang a bell. The nautical details and the marine blue color pointed to a garment that was worn on the water. I ruled out sailing or yachting because I have been involved in studying issues of Harper’s Bazar from the 1860s through 1900. All the boating costumes shown (and there were a surprising lot of them) were styled in the current fashion, and were worn over a corset. The top two bodices are good examples.
My blouse does not follow the style of the late 1800s. Its loose fit pointed to a use in sports. I suspected it might be for rowing crew, and as good luck would have it, When the Girls Came Out to Play has a whole chapter on how Wellesley and other women’s colleges formed crew teams in the late 1870s.
Warner showed quite a few crew uniforms from the 1880s. Each class at the college had a crew team, all with their own special uniform. You might be surprised that the crew teams were not for racing. They were for performing musical spectacles for the public. This would explain why skirts were used instead of the bloomers the young women were accustomed to in gym class. Bloomers were not for public consumption.
Warner put forth the possibility that bloomers could have been worn underneath the skirts, but that there is no evidence of that. My set tends to say no, because it is complete with blouse, skirt, and belt. I would think that if these three pieces had been kept together for 135 years, if bloomers had existed, they would be present as well.
My set is made of the loveliest blue wool, and it appears to have been made by an expert dressmaker. All the tiny eyelets where the string fastens the blouse were made by hand. The white braid was laid on by hand.
Unmistakably nautical in design.
The skirt is also gathered and attached to the waistband by hand.
And the nicest surprise of all is the presence of a nice, deep pocket.
I have dated this piece as probably 1880 through 1886. After 1885 the crews began to turn from comfort to fashion, and most adapted a stylish corseted bodice. However, it’s not quite as silly at it sounds because these bodices were often made of jersey, which did afford a degree of comfort.
The blouse top did remain, however, and was used for gym class and other outdoor activities. I have read articles from the late 1800s that advised women hikers to wear a sports blouse. The page of Butterick patterns seen above is from 1889, and you can see that the puffed sleeve creeping in. My smooth capped sleeves are prior to that date.
I have long kept a list of older sportswear pieces that I would love to own, but a crew uniform was not on the list. I guess I thought that since they were such a specialized item, used for only a short time and in only a few places, it was doubtful one would ever turn up. But in the world of antique clothing, you just never know. Thanks so much to Mary Caroline of Vintage Loft NY.