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Madame Grès: The Art of Draping, at SCADFASH in Atlanta

Last week I made the trip down to Atlanta to see Madame Grès: The Art of Draping at SCADFASH. With over seventy garments made over a span of about a half century, the show was a real treat.

Most of the clothing came from the collection of the late designer, Azzedine Alaïa. He was a dedicated collector of vintage fashion, and today the more than 20,000 objects in his collection form the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation. This is the second show in which SCADFASH has featured this collection. The other was Alaïa – Adrian: Masters of Cut in 2020.

The photo above shows the types of gowns for which Madame Grès is most famous. She was a master of draping, and elaborate pleating was one of her hallmarks. This type of work is so associated with Madame Grès that it might be easy to assume she did nothing else. But nothing could be further from the truth.

While it is obvious to any visitor to this exhibition that Madame Grès loved her pleats, the show also shows that she was no one trick pony. And pleats come in many forms, as you will see.

Left to right: 1947, 1955, 1956, 1976, 1975, 1960

These three garments all feature pleats, but they are also a far cry from the pleating most associated with  Madame Grès’ Grecian inspired gowns.

Left to right: Wool jersey, 1969; Silk 1976, Silk crepe, 1946

One of my favorite gowns was this stunning silk jersey from 1975. The entire dress seems to be made from only two pieces, with the skirt pieces folded and draped to form the bodice. There’s a zipper in the skirt, but the only thing holding up the bodice is that ribbon. Tie with care!

The middle dress sure looks 1950s, but the exhibition notes date it as circa 1940. Made of very pale pink and black silk organza, the pink is repeated on the underskirt as two big hearts. It’s simply a marvelous dress.

The dress on the right is from 1959, and it shows Madame Grès’ wonderfully quirky sense of color. The dress is actually green, and the show notes describe the overskirt as rhubarb.

We can’t love everything we see, and I’ll admit that the undated dress on the left reminded me of a nightgown.

Never one to back away from drama, this dress was made in 1980 near the end of  Madame Grès’ career. It’s proof that even at the age of 77, she was still making dresses for the woman who wanted to make an entrance.

Made of black silk velvet, unfortunately this dress was behind glass and was hard to see. Still, it’s a completely stunning.

PS. The pleats are in the back.

It seems to me that some of  Madame Grès’ best designs were the ones that were unexpected. I loved this black silk gown from 1967. If you are like me, you were thinking this one was made in the 1970s.

And look at the back of the sportswear set in the background.

This three piece set was my favorite in the exhibition, and it is so wonderful that words almost fail me. I am glad the jacket is displayed separately, though it would be interesting to see it over the rest of the ensemble. The skirt is actually culottes.

In the entire exhibition, this is the closest thing there was to a print. From 1970.

Here’s a Grecian gown with a twist – the addition of velvet bands that tied on the side. This dress was placed so that visitors could closely examine the structure.

What looks to be a seam is actually the tiny stitches that hold the pleating in place. 1957.

The dress on the left is one of the oldest in the exhibition, being made in 1935.  Madame Grès was famous for being outside of fashion; for doing her own thing. Consequently, her work can be hard too date. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice the strong sleeve, a feature of many dresses in the 1930s.

The black dress is also from 1935.

The black silk crepe dress on the left is circa 1936. Already you can see how  Madame Grès is developing her trademark pleating, a technique that was in full bloom in the post WWII years.

I love the dress on the right. It’s circa 1949, made from one of my favorite fabrics, ottoman silk. I wish this dress had been mounted on a mannequin with arms because I could not see the sleeves well enough to really figure them out.

Here’s an interesting twist on pleating. It’s done only on the collar and the sleeves. Circa 1980, this dress could have been designed at almost anytime in  Madame Grès’ long career.

The back of this dress is shown on the right. I thought the wrap closure was a bit of a surprise.

The dress on the left is dated as being from the early 1940s. To look at the front, I would have guessed that it was from the late 1970s. But take a look at the back, on the left in the next photo:

Here’s her wonderful pleating again.

The dress and jacket on the right are the work of Azzedine Alaïa. I included this photo from the former exhibition to show how he took inspiration from the clothing in his collection.

An important part of any fashion exhibition is seeing it with a fashion loving friend. Here’s Liza appreciating a stunning dress and cape ensemble from 1987, the year before Madame Grès’ business was sold and her association with it ended..


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Currently Reading – Westernwear by Sonya Abrego

I had pretty much decided not to buy this newly published book. Westernwear is not one of my main interests, and I already have several books on the topic. It took listening to a podcast on which Sonja Abrego was a guest to convince me that I needed to have this one.

You see, I was basing my opinion of the book on preconceived notions. I was merely expecting more pictures of beautiful pieces of the works of the famous rodeo and movie clothing makers like Nudie and N. Turk. But listening to Sonja, I realized this book was so much more.

At the heart of the book are several questions. Why did post WWII Americans embrace the clothing of the Old West? In a time when modernity was highly prized, why were we looking to an imagined past for sartorial inspiration? What are the cultural influences that were merged into a “Western” look?

In answering these questions, Sonya looks at four clothing companies that used the West as inspiration and marketing motifs. These are jeans makers Lee and Wrangler, Pendleton, and Westernwear catalog Miller Stockman. All have extensive archives which allowed her to take a deep dive into the products and marketing of each company. It’s a fascinating study, even if your interests do not involve Westernwear.

For one thing, there’s a lot of crossover between sportswear and Westernwear. I knew that, but this is to me the first study that looks at both as having so much in common. Also, I found the discussion of Native influences in clothing, as opposed to the portrayal of American Indians in movies and television to be enlightening.

Very interesting was her look at the development of the patio dress, also called the “squaw” dress. Both terms were used in the 1950s when the dress was popular among travelers to the American Southwest. Not only do we see the Navajo (and other nations) inspiration for the dress, Sonja takes a close look at why the dress had two names, one of them considered to be a term that is a racial slur.

Westernwear has its roots in workwear, especially in the case of jeans. These dude ranch duds are a far cry from what women in the Old West actually wore to work on the family ranch.

The same can be said of these men’s shirts from Miller Stockman. Gene (Autry) and Roy (Rogers) may have worn fancy shirts to work in, but it is doubtful that any actual working rancher wore them. Except on a dude ranch, of course.

By the 1950s, workwear companies who had been making jeans primarily for working men, began to see that there was a larger market out there. The whole family could wear jeans! Styles were developed with the needs of a woman’s body in mind.

Even in the 1960s, makers were still relying on the image of the Old West in order to sell jeans.

As a side note, in studying the large group of Seventeen magazines I bought last year, I could not help but notice the great increase in jeans advertising staring in the mid 1960s. Sometimes Lee would have three or four different ads in a single issue. In 1960 they were hardly advertised in that fashion magazine at all.

One of the most interesting parts of the book was how Pendleton Woolen blankets and clothing came to be sold in Disneyland. For years there was a Pendleton store in the Frontierland section of Disneyland. I had seen Pendleton clothes with a Disney label, so it was great learning how that venture came to be.

Did every Baby Boomer have a cowgirl or cowboy suit? I think I am three in this photo. The snow indicates that it’s my brother’s February birthday. Note his fancy boots, and of course, the hat. I’m sure there’s a pair of six-shooters sitting on his hips.


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Berea College Student Industries

For years I’ve been interested in the craft revival that took place in America in the early twentieth century. Much of this revival was centered in the Appalachians, where it was mistakenly assumed that women were still weaving and men still whittling kitchen utensils. The revival was pretty much spearheaded by women do-gooders from outside the region, who were shocked to learn that people in the Appalachians were buying their textiles like everyone else.

Not to be deterred, old looms were sourced from barns where they had been stored decades earlier. Elderly women were found who still remembered the weaving skills, and some of the weaving programs even imported weavers from Scandinavia to teach the craft to mountain women. In an area where cash was hard to come by for women, many learned to weave in order to sell their products.

A leader in weaving programs was Berea College in Kentucky. I visited the campus several years ago and wrote about the program then, so I’ll not repeat it here. The short story is that Berea was, and continues to be a Work to Learn institution, where tuition is free, but all students are expected to provide labor. One of the work programs is Berea Student Industries wherein the students make crafts to sell in the college stores.

I recently found a catalog of the student crafts. Most prominently shown are the products from the weaving shed. There’s no date on the catalog, but various hints led me to conclude it was from the mid 1950s.

Today, a phrase like “All the charm of handweaving…” might hide the fact that the items were not handwoven at all, but in this catalog, all the woven items were handwoven by students on campus.

It’s amazing to me that students at Berea learn overshot weaving. The ones shown in my catalog sold for six to nine dollars. I paid considerably more for my blue and white scarf, but it is worth every cent.

You could also buy handwoven wool yardage. According to what I have read, these fabrics were woven by boys because the large looms made for strenuous work. I’ve also read that the yardage was phased out in the 1940s, but some of it must have continued into the 1950s, or perhaps it was leftover stock.

There was also a sewing program. Items were made from both the wool produced in the program and from commercially available cottons. Students made skirts, aprons, handbags, neckties, and stuffed toys.

Besides the textiles, woodcrafts and ceramics were also made. Old fashioned games, like spinning tops and skittles were made along with carved animals. Many of the products, like stools with wooden splint seats, had a decidedly “pioneer” look to them. In the Berea gift shops today, all the items have a fresh, modern look. Times change.

The back cover of the catalog has a lot of good information about the college and the crafts program. I looked and looked for clues to help narrow down the date, but came up empty. In the end I was forced to go by the styles of the skirts and handbags.

If you are ever in that area, Berea is well worth a stop. You can stay and eat in the old Boone Tavern which is owned by the college and where students work. You can visit the crafts shops and watch the weavers at work. And you can help pay for a student’s education by buying a lovely object from the college’s gift shops.


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1892 Delineator and the Bicycling Craze

The Delineator marketed itself as “A Journal of Fashion, Culture, and Fine Arts” but it was primarily a catalog for Butterick sewing patterns. When I run across copies in antique stores, I take the time to browse through them, but I usually don’t buy them. So what made this copy from August, 1892 different?

It was this pattern for a bicycling skirt. In 1892, the bicycling fad was just getting stared, but women riders already knew that modifications needed to be made to accommodate fashion. Skirts still pretty much touched the ground, and the danger of getting the hem caught in the bike workings was great. The drop frame bicycle for ladies had been invented in 1888, but there was still that pesky problem of gears, pedals, and chains grasping the fabric of the skirt.

Inventors, especially women, set about trying to come up with the perfect solution. Most fashion history fans are familiar with the divided skirt and the bloomers solutions, but most women were not willing to take on something as radical as wearing pants. The solution for many was in finding a way to temporarily shorten the skirt while riding the bicycle.

Here you see an early design by Butterick. At first glance it appears to be an ordinary skirt, but there is an accommodation. Interestingly, the implementation of it is not shown in the illustration. Notice the cord and tie that sits below the waistline. The cord actually runs through a series of rings, so that it works like a drawstring. To shorten the skirt one merely had to tighten the drawstring so that it sat higher above the hips. Ingenious!

This view shows the rings and drawstring more clearly. Note also the deep pleat, which was also designed to give the rider greater mobility.

The back view also shows a pleat. This one buttons for a more streamlined appearance when walking but more mobility when riding.

There were dozens of ideas about how to make the long skirt safe for biking, but the best solution for the day was the most common sense one – simply shorten the skirt. The skirt convention was just too strong for most women to overcome. Bloomer suits got all the attention in the press, but it was an above the ankle skirt, often with knickerbockers or bloomers safely hidden underneath, that finally won the most riders. The style was a forerunner of the shorter skirts adopted due to necessity during World War I.

A great source of information about all the various biking skirt inventions is Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel. This book presents a great picture of the many patents that were submitted during the 1890s. Kat went so far as to actually make some of the designs, trying them out on her bicycle.

There are other great designs in this Delineator, including this hooded jacket. It wasn’t specifically recommended for bike riding, but that deep vent in the side sure gives it a sporty look.

There is also quite a bit of print devoted to exercise. This is a really good illustration of an exercise blouse over a plain gathered skirt.

The advertisements in old magazines are always interesting. Here, the Ypsilanti Underwear Company is trying to cash in on the writings of Dr. Jaeger.

And getting back to bicycles, there were a few ads for them. By1895 there would be pages of ads for bikes, biking corsets, biking skirts, and on and on. This Delineator at the beginning of the biking craze had only four small ads related to bikes.


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Local History – The Upcountry History Museum

You might have noticed that I have been spending a lot of time recently in local history museums. It seems like most towns, large and small, have some sort of museum that is there to tell the story of their history. Not surprisingly, I am finding huge differences in the types of things that are highlighted from these local collections. The bottom line appears to be this: Museums that have a clear focus and mission tend to tell a very good story. Museums that do not tend to get bogged down in the display of random stuff.

I’m not sure what causes this extreme difference in presentation. I suspect that a lot of it has to do with money. Local museums are funded partly by public funds, partly by private donors, and marginally by visitors. So a larger museum, like the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, SC, might have better access to public funds. Museums in small towns pray that at least one member of the town leadership is a history buff.

Still, I have seen some extraordinary results in small towns. I have seen some pretty dismal displays in towns of equal size. It really gives one a lot to ponder over.

The Upcountry History Museum is organized around a series of vignettes that feature life-sized mannequins that tell their stories through audio. They begin with the Indigenous people, and then move into to early days of settlement. A great deal of the space is taken up with telling the story of the cotton textile industry, the major force in the development of the region.

The cotton mill owner in his office…

and the textile operative at her machine.

I like how the story is told from the two perspectives.

There is also this interactive game that lets museum visitors experience the stress of having to do the work on a sped-up schedule. This is beginning to look a little run down, or maybe the appeal of it is diminished by the covid-inducted fear of handling displays.

If you look carefully at these vignettes, you will see that they are not artifact centered. There are artifacts – the machines are authentic, but the message is conveyed mainly through the photographs and the audio.

But after viewing the mise en scenes, one does encounter a group of artifacts that explain more about the lives of the cotton mill workers. The pay envelope – $9.75 for a week of hard work – cuts right to the reality of their lives as working poor.

Instead of the expected WWII uniforms, we are shown a display of WWI artifacts. That is because Greenville County was the site of an Army training camp.

A local WWI soldier’s equipment…

and a tent to walk through.

One exhibit has the space displayed to represent actual stores from the early days of Greenville. While I like the concept, the mix of actual artifacts and modern props was confusing. I just felt it would have been more effective if all the items on display were authentic artifacts.

The corset seen above was especially troubling. I didn’t like the display of the back, and I really did not like the synthetic fabric of the reproduction.

From a side window I could see the side, which showed a really weird mounting.

I hope that does not come across as overly critical. It’s just that I find it hard to believe that with all the old families in Greenville that someone would not have an authentic Victorian corset in the attic.

Still, the Upcountry History Museum gets high marks for sticking to the local story. After a visit, one would have a good idea of what makes the South Carolina Upcounty unique. And that, in my opinion, is the mission of any local history museum.


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1930s Kit Klein Snow Suit

I had never heard of skater Kit Klein, but after I spotted this suit for sale, I went on a search for information about her. As it turns out, Kit was a speed skater, and a very good one at that. She won gold at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics in the 1500 speed skate, and she won the All Around Womwn’s Speed Skating World Championship in 1936. Both events were more spectacle than official. Maybe that’s why she isn’t widely remembered.

But in the 1930s she was famous enough to have a deal with a clothing manufacturer who produced winter sports attire. Lots of online searching has produced nothing about the line. There is quite a bit from 1930s newspapers about Kit though. Seems like there was a minor scandal when she announced her engagement without mentioning that she was already married. But it worked out in the end.

I already had an early1940s ski suit with the Sonja Henie label. Sonja and Klein were contemporaries, but today Sonja is still well-known. Is it because she competed in the more feminine figure skating, or maybe it was her movie and Ice Revue career? At any rate, Sonja’s endorsement deals included ice skating dresses, wool gloves and hats, and dolls. She became a very rich woman.

I love all the details on this suit. There are two zippered pockets on the jacket.

The pants have a side-buttoning closure with two buckles.

There are nice plastic buttons on the jacket, including ones that allow for tightening the sleeves.

If you are a close observer of the photo, you probably noticed something else about the jacket, a nasty surprise that was not fully disclosed in the seller’s description.

Yes, moth holes. Dozens of them. The seller took a somewhat lackadaisical approach to my complaint, which is really the worst kind of attitude. But one thing I have noted about one type of seller, and that is that damage is no big deal. In fact, it’s seen as the clothing having lived a life, and now the buyer gets to share that history.

I really don’t mind a small bit of damage or wear. My Edwardian motoring coat has a grease stain. A favorite 1930s tropical print bathing suit coverup is slightly faded. Most of my wool sweaters have a moth nibble or two. But this is damage on a different level.

Still, I did decide to keep this suit. The story behind the label is just so very interesting. So now the suit is wrapped in plastic and resides in my freezer, though one person has suggested that I also bake it on low heat just to make sure there are no remaining live bugs. It’s a hassle I didn’t sign up for, but sometimes we are handed challenges in life. I think I’m up to it.


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Nutcracker Costumes at the Upcountry History Museum

On a recent trip to Greenville, SC, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the region’s regional history museum, the Upcountry History Museum. I’ll be writing about that museum’s permanent exhibitions later on. Today we’ll just look at some spectacular costumes.

The Upcountry History Museum hosts a lot of exhibitions with artifacts from other museums. This one incorporates artifacts from ”Walt Disney Archives, The Walt Disney Family Museum, Charles M. Schulz Museum, artists James Ransome and Maurice Sendak, private collectors, and the Carolina Ballet Theatre” though the majority of the objects are from a 2018 Disney film, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. I haven’t seen the movie, but according to reviews, it was a bit of a disappointment, with not enough dancing and not enough Tchaikovsky. The costumes were praised, however, for having just the right touch of fantasy.

That’s not surprising, since the designer was Jenny Beavan. Jenny has been designing for decades, having won three Academy Awards for best design, including my favorite, A Room with a View. She’s up this year for Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.

The naming of the costumes confused me, partly because I had not seen the movie, but also because such creative license was taken with the original story and the characters. No matter, these men’s suits were spectacular.

If you know the Nutcracker story, then you know Clara is the main character. I did see the relationship here, along with the costume of the Nutcracker/Captain Hoffman.

I think part of the disappointment with the movie must have come from the fact that Misty Copeland played the ballerina, and there just wasn’t enough of her onscreen to satisfy ballet fans.

A plus to the exhibition was that they included the original movie posters showing most of the costumes displayed on the actors who portrayed them.

Here’s another beautiful Clara costume, as played by Mackenzie Foy.

The show notes talked about Victorian fashion references, but I didn’t see that at all. If anything, Clara’s dress references Regency dress, while most of the men’s costumes look wildly late eighteenth century. No matter. This is a fantasy after all.

As a counterpoint to the Disney costumes, the curators included more traditional Nutcracker costumes from the Carolina Ballet Theatre. Interestingly, I saw a poster of a ballerina wearing this dress. Why I didn’t snap a photo I’ll never know.

There were more Disney artifacts, including a really nice display of background scenes from the Nutcracker sequence in Fastasia. There were other artist renderings of the story as well. And the finale was a display case full of one family’s collection of nutcrackers.

Most of the objects are behind glass, but that didn’t seem to distract from the quality of the display. The glare was minimized, and even the photos turned out alright.


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