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1920s Gingham Romper

About a year ago I went on a rant over how some vintage clothing sellers and buyers have changed the vocabulary of certain garments in order to made them seem more versatile. In particular I was irritated about the use of the word “romper” when the object in question was obviously a gym suit or a bathing suit. I even went so far as to say that women did not wear rompers, that the romper is a garment for a baby or a toddler.

I never like being wrong, but when I am it pleases me that my fellow fashion history lovers care enough to set me straight.  After posting the rant I got an email from Lynne (otherwise known as the best online researcher I know) that contained a 1920s sewing pattern for a woman that was clearly labeled a romper. She also sent along a photo of a very similar garment she has in her own collection.

Properly corrected, I then set off to find an example for my collection.  Last week I finally was able to add the one seen above. There is no doubt this is a garment for an adult, and it is also apparent that this is an outer garment, not lingerie.

Notice that there are snap closures on both shoulders and another on the front of the neck.  This made it easy for the wearer to put on the romper by stepping into it and pulling it up.

The tie belt sits on the top of the hips, giving a proper 1920s silhouette.

The inside legs and the crotch are shaped with the use of a wide gusset. There is elastic in the legs, but it is old, crunchy, and it no longer stretches. I’ll not replace it, but if this ever goes on display some new elastic can be inserted along side the old.

The shoulders have those handy little lingerie strap holders that prevented that embarrassing bra strap slip-up.

I’m quite sure this romper was made at home rather than purchased. The construction is very good, but there are a few places where alterations were made while the garment was being made. There is also quite a bit of hand-stitching.

I tried to locate the photos Lynne sent to me, but failed. I did find an example of a Butterick sewing pattern for a romper in a post at Witness2Fashion. It was included in a feature of costume party patterns. I located another, very similar one from McCall Patterns. 

So rompers definitely were a thing for women, at least in the 1920s and 1930s. Still, I don’t agree with calling a gym suit a romper, no matter how much the garment is similar. In fact, my romper here looks to be a direct descendant of my circa 1915 gym suit.

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Antique Photograph: Tennis Party

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I took a photo of this photo last fall at the Liberty flea market.  It was pretty expensive, but the owner was nice enough to let me take a shot of it.  There is so much to look at and think about, and it has given me a chance to use my dating skills to give a shot at when it might have been taken.

Unfortunately there was no information about the photo at all, so I have no idea who these young people were.  Were they friends?  Relatives? Members of a club?

The first thing I looked at was the shape of the heads of the tennis racquets.  Look carefully at the racquets in the photo and you will notice that they all have a squared off shape at the top of the head.  One site I found dated this shape to the late 1880s.

Because all the women are seated, and three of them are partly obscured, we might be able to tell more from the men’s attire and hair.  I thought it was interesting that seven of the eight have facial hair, with all but one of them having only mustaches.  Only the man with the beard has sideburns.  Their hair is very short, very controlled, and several have center parts.

Here’s what Joan Severa had to say about men’s hair in the early 1890s:

…very short haircuts, almost shaved up the sides, and clipped necks.  A center part was usual, and the hair was oiled.  A generous walrus-style mustache appears with some frequency in the photographs.  

Most of the men are wearing sack jackets, in a style that came out in the late 1880s.  The jackets were rounded at the hem to show off the waistcoat, with three or four buttons.  The sleeves were shorter than before, allowing a bit of shirt cuff to show.  The ties shown are also consistent with the styles of the late 1880s and early 1890s, with both the bowtie, and the black neck tie (tied either over or under the collar) being popular.  Pant legs were slim, which you can see on several of the men.

As for the women, there are some clues as well.  First, I considered what I did not see – the puffed sleeve caps that came into vogue at the beginning of the 1890s.  By the middle of the decade the sleeves were the huge leg-o’-mutton that is so associated with the 1890s.  Since none of the women are wearing the puffed sleeve, I think it is safe to say the photo had to have been made before 1892.

We can see the most detail on the woman on the right.  She certainly does not seem to be dressed for tennis, with the lacy underskirt and front of her bodice.  The skirt has a draped apron effect, which became more prevalent as the bustle started to collapse around 1886.  The woman on the left has a much sportier look with her striped skirt.

All the women have high collars, another feature of the late 1880s.  The sleeves on all are shorter than full length, with the wrist bones being exposed.

As we saw with the men, the hairstyles reveal a lot of information.  Joan Severa quoted the July, 1890 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal to describe changes to hair styles that year:

And then remember that the “bang” is no longer a heavy “mop,” but should be a softly curled fringed that comes like a halo about one’s face, not overshadowing the eyes or hiding the forehead, only shading and softening the entire face.  The frizzy bang is essentially bad form.

The addition of the little dog in the lap adds a lot of charm to the scene.  And do any hat experts care to comment on the hat that is in front of the woman on the right?

The woman on the right in this section of the photo is wearing a plaid dress with a sort of pinafore over it.  I could not find a similar garment in any of my sources, poor as they are.  When I posted this photo on Instagram it was asked if that was another dog on her lap.  At first I thought it was her hat, but you can see the plain straw hat to the right.  Could this be a cat, maybe a dog?

So, add it all up and what do we get?  My best guess is 1889 or 1890.  I don’t mind if you care to point out something I missed, or to correct my dating.

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And the Winners Are…

Fashion in Detail –  jlnieling  (Please be in touch with your mailing address.)

Couture Sewing Techniques – Jennifer Faust

My thanks to all who threw her name into the pot, and most of all, for all the extremely kind comments.  In a world that seems like civility has been tossed aside, it is heart-warming to see evidence of graciousness and thoughtfulness.  Your readership is most appreciated, and I wish the best for all of us in the new  year, and beyond!

Lizzie

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Public Service Announcement

Every so often I get so disgusted by the internet that I long for the good old days when people could only insult one another to their faces, or as is more likely, behind their backs.  If you really want to contemplate the difference between such unpleasantness in the face-to-face world and the typing-on-a-computer world, then you must read this article by Andrew Marantz in this week’s The New Yorker.

People talk about the on-line world as if it were not a real thing, that social media is made up of fake friends, and that one can choose, if they wish, to leave it as if it does not even exist.  But I’m sure that Leslie Jones would disagree with that.

To me, as an older woman who only follows fashion history and vintage sellers on Twitter and Instagram, the net usually seems like a safe place.  All the posters to this blog’s comments have nice things to say, and even when someone disagrees, it is said in a manner that is not disturbing.  That’s why I’ve been a bit concerned about two recent comments I’ve read on other blogs, where the commenters were just plain rude, and even condescending.

I know I’ve been lucky, but in the eleven years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had to delete only two comments, both of which were angry responses to other comments.  I love that we have a bit of a fashion history “community” where things can be said without the worry of someone else being a jerk.  So this is a not so subtle reminder to keep it that way, please.

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Late 1950s Poodle Print

While shopping recently I spotted this 1950s poodle novelty print apron.  I’d seen the print several times before, mainly on a facebook page that is devoted to vintage novelty prints.  I snapped a shot for Instagram, and then forgot about it.

Then a couple of days later, Susan at NorthStar Vintage found the same print but in pink.  It got me to thinking about how common a practice it was for companies to offer prints in different colorways.

So I took to the internet in search of more poodles on different colored backgrounds.  The brown and tan version above is for sale at Heartbreaking.  What made her listing so great was that a shot of the selvage was included in the description.

John Wolf Textiles was registered for business in 1946 as a maker of home decorating fabrics.  The prints were perfect for curtains in a child’s room or kitchen, and were also intended for use as aprons.  But they were also used in clothing, and today gathered and pleated skirts are highly prized by collectors.

As was often the case, the fabrics were available to home sewers and to commercial clothing manufacturers.  The prints were not exclusive to any one maker.

This dress (for trade on Facebook by Leslie Coward) with the poodles on blue and black was a manufactured item.  Note how a bit of the stripe accents the bodice.  Also note there is a band of black at the hem that was added.

This dress was sold at Sears, Roebuck.  I also spotted the identical dress in an early 1960s Lana Lobell catalog.  You will have to click to see the catalog page because I found it on Pinterest and there was no way to establish who the originator of the photo was. (This is why I hate Pinterest…)

And here is the identical dress in green, which has been sold, but was in the FrocksnFrills shop.  This dress was sold by JC Penney, under their Brentwood label.  The poodles have buttons for eyes, and you can just barely tell that the black and blue version sold by Sears also have buttons for eyes, as does the one sold at Lana Lobell.

According to the Lana Lobell catalog copy, they sold the dress in black/blue, brown/tan, and mint/dark green.  I just find it interesting that the identical dress with different labels could be purchased in at least three places.

 

Although this print is not an exact match, I think it is close enough to be included here. The poses of the dogs are identical in both prints, but the dogs playing dress-up are a bit less poodley. Still, I think it shows how ideas evolved and changed, or perhaps, how ideas were “borrowed”.  This skirt was sold by Cheshire Vintage.

The facebook group I referred to, Novelty And Border Print B/S/T, is a great one to be involved in if you like novelty prints, or if you just want to learn more about them.  People in the group are very knowledgeable, and someone is always posting a new find  from a catalog to help document a print.

If anyone reading has this print in a different colorway, I’d love to show it off along with the others.

Edited for addition of photo.

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Vintage Miscellany – June 12, 2016

We have just returned home from a coastal roadtrip.  I’m always amazed at how much stuff we can cram into my little Ford Focus, so I can only imagine the luxury of space in this mid 1950s Ford Fairlane.  I just know that trunk is full of great old stuff.

Being in a laid-back coastal village means I’m short on news this week.  I was just too lazy to spend much time doing my regular internet reading.  Unplugging is nice, from time to time.  Try it.

 

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Currently Reading: A Fabric of Defeat

One of the things that makes fashion history so interesting to me is that there are hundreds of ways to approach it, and hundreds of subtopics to grab my attention.  Growing up in the South in a town that was dominated by its relationship with the local factory (paper, not textiles) and having relatives who worked in cotton mills from the 1930s through the 90s  has made me quite interested in the textile and garment industries of the Carolinas.

People often make the mistake of confusing the two states. The piedmont (the area between the coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains) of both was textile country, but having different governing bodies meant that what applied in one state did not always apply to the other.  Being from North Carolina I am quite familiar with the labor movement here, and the struggles workers went through in order to have safe working conditions and a fair wage.  I knew about the deadly battles fought between unionizers and law enforcement in my state, but was ignorant of similar situations that happened just south of me.

I found A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910 – 1948 at my favorite Goodwill.  I’ve been reading it over the past month, interspersed with other, lighter reading.  It’s not that the reading is hard, but that it is difficult to digest.

There were quite a few truisms that I was exposed to in my days as a history student, and one of them was that it is rarely fair to judge the actions of people in the past by the mores of today.  Still, it is hard to come to grips with the way people were treated in factories, and also with the racism that kept Blacks out of the mills and in the worst kind of poverty.  It is especially true knowing that mill conditions have not really changed, they have just moved to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

There is no way I can summarize the story this book tells, as it is too complicated to go into the sort of detail that would lead to a real understanding of the situation.  But simply put, the situation in the mills was good through World War I because of the increased demand for textiles.  We tend to think of the 1920s as boom years, but for many Southern textile companies, this was not so.  The loss of army contracts combined with fashions that required much less fabric led to over-production, which led to the collapse of prices.  Many millhands lost their jobs even before the stock market crash of 1929.

The Great Depression just served to make the situation worse.  And in another of those great history truisms, it was not until the war machine cranked back up in the late 1930s that recovery came to the mills of South Carolina.  By that time the mill workers had tried, and failed, to influence the politics of South Carolina in a way that would better their lives.

There are no heroes in this story.  Most of the state’s leaders were not from the area where the mills were located, and saw no reason to pass laws to help the workers. The few politicians who did fight to improve the lives of the mill workers also worked to keep the vote from Black people.  The mill workers themselves refused to work in factories where Black people worked, thereby keeping their one claim of status – that they were at least better off than the Black man.

Several years ago I visited the South Carolina State Museum.  There were several great exhibits on the textile industry and the lives of mill workers.  I can’t recall reading a word about the political strife of the 1920s and 30s, even though workers were killed.  In all, it now seems like a sanitized version of the past, with a model of a cute mill village viewed through a rosy lens.  To be fair, I may have missed that part of the history, and will be revisiting the museum in the near future.

Bryant Simon managed to take a difficult subject and report on it objectively and without judgement.  Even though I found A Fabric of Defeat to be very enlightening, I can’t really recommend it to readers who are just wanting to read about fashion.  What I do suggest is that you explore the historical roots of your own state or region, whether it be on the subject of fashion or any other topic.

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