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White Circa 1915 Dress at the Shelton House Museum

I don’t think I have mentioned here that I’m volunteering at a local history and craft museum. The museum, the Shelton House, has a small, but excellent collection of locally worn clothing. Because small local museums are usually strapped for cash and volunteers, I suspected they would welcome my help working on the clothing. I was right.

My main function right now is cataloging the clothing. The museum was started in 1980, but not until the recent director came four years ago was there a serious attempt to catalog the collection. It was started as a museum of North Carolina crafts, and the bulk of the collection is made up of local crafts. There are other textiles, including quilts, handwoven coverlets, and even a work by my favorite folk artist, Granny Donaldson. I need to do a post on her sometime soon.

Once I got into examining the garments, it became obvious that some of them needed a bit of conservation. I asked the director if I could work with them to do some mending, stabilization, and cleaning. My first project is the dress you see above.

Yes, this is the same dress. I started by giving the dress a through exam and determined that the fabric was strong enough for a wet cleaning. Since the dress is all cotton, this was an easy decision to make. Cottons of that era usually respond well to cleaning.

I’m not a professional conservator, but I have attended classes and workshops on textile conservation. Still, I wanted to be extra careful having been entrusted with this dress. The rule when it comes to cleaning is to start with the most gentle process. With wet cleaning this means a rinse of water. After several plain water rinses, I knew I needed to add gentle soap. The key is patience. I probably rinsed this dress thirty times before the rinse ran clear.

To say I am happy with the result is an understatement! I knew there had to be a crisp, white dress under all that grime.

Part of the process was to look through my collection of antique catalogs in order to pin down a date. The tiers on the skirt along with the surplice front sure look 1915 or maybe 1916 to me. I don’t know if you can see the pink embroidery on the edges of the tiers and sleeves. After looking at so many of these dresses, it occurred to me that the dress originally probably had a pink sash.

So I used a piece of modern satin to construct a sash. I have my eyes open for a piece of wide pink antique ribbon, but for now my creation will have to do. At least it has the correct look.

Close examination shows that the dress had been shortened at the waist, and the sleeves had also been shortened. I returned the sleeves to the original length because it amounted to simply pulling out a basting stitch. I decided to leave the waist as is. As you can see above, it’s a bit of a mess, and it looks to me that the possible sixth tier had been cut.

Also, when I took the after photo I forgot to put on the little matching scarf.

All in all, the dress is in excellent shape. How on earth did that little piece of net at the neck survive the stresses of being on a hanger all these years?

A word about local museums: They do a remarkable job with little resources. They are usually run by people with a passion for the past. The workers do not always have the necessary skills to manage a huge variety of objects, especially in a specialized field like textiles. That’s why I am slow to criticize some of the things I’ve seen in many small museums. So if you have a nearby museum that could use some help, I encourage you to reach out to them.

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About the Wearing of Museum Objects

Before I get started on this post, I want to make it clear that this is not about the two women who have worn this dress, Marilyn Monroe and Kim Kardashian. Your comments are welcome, but I must insist that there be no personal comments about either woman. This is about the dress, not the wearers. Well, not directly at any rate.

If you were on the internet at all yesterday then you know all the brouhaha caused by the presence of this dress on the Met Gala red carpet. The dress belongs to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not company, which runs a chain of “museums” in tourist spots around the world. They bought the dress at auction in 2016 for almost $5,000,000.

According to reports (and there are a lot of conflicting stories, of course) Kardashian approached Ripley’s with the idea of wearing the dress. She traveled to Ripley’s Florida headquarters where she tried on the dress. Ripley’s has released video on their website and on social media showing the Ripley’s crew forcing the dress on Kardashian’s body. The dress lacked about ten inches meeting in the back. It was simply too small. Even after a crash diet and loss of sixteen pounds, the dress would not zip, so Kardashian wore a fur stole or coat to cover the gap.

There are strict museum standards about the care of conservation and preservation of textiles and clothing. Rule #1 is that historic clothing is not worn.

At one time, as recently as the 1970s, wearing clothing in museum collections was not really frowned upon. But conservators knew that it was harmful to the textiles, and so industry standards were written that included the no wearing rule.

At this point I guess that we ought to recognize that Ripley’s Believe It of Not is not truly a group of museums. It’s a for profit tourist attraction. They have a valuable dress and they want to make money from it. And what better way than to put the dress on a famous woman at a famous event, knowing it will stir up a lot of conversation. You see, the dress is slated to go on view at the end of this month in Ripley’s Hollywood location. Now that’s what I call timing!

Ripley’s has gone to great trouble to insist that the dress was not comprised in any way, but their own video tells another story. Just the action of pulling the dress onto a body is enough to strain the delicate fibers of a sheer fabric studded with sparkles.

Ripley’s also took great care to say that Kardashian did not pay them to wear the dress. But the publicity produced by this is greater than gold. They certainly knew this when they agreed to loan the dress. Simply put, a historic garment was endangered all for the sake of a publicity stunt.

The dress is not important simply because it was worn by Marilyn Monroe. It was the context of the wearing, at a celebration for President Kennedy where she sang Happy Birthday to him. The dress symbolized so much about celebrity and politics and, yes, sex, in the 1960s.

And now the recent re-wearing of this dress says so much about what is valued in the 21th century. We live in a world where only a celebrity would be allowed to wear this dress. We live in a world where profit trumps preservation of historic artifacts. And unfortunately, we live in a world where misogynistic comments about the two women who wore the dress ran rampant across the internet. In short, it appears that not much at all has changed since 1962.

I will repeat, ugly comments about the wearers will not be tolerated. The conservation is about the dress and about historic preservation, not about anyone’s worthiness to wear a garment.


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Kermess and Romp-N-Rest Juniors, 1967

Adding this 1967 wholesale catalog to my archive was an easy decision. It helps document one of the most important clothing manufacturing centers in the USA, St. Louis. Today we don’t think of St. Louis when we think “fashion”, but starting in the1930s it was a major center for making clothing, especially junior dresses.

I had never heard of Kermess, Romp-N-Rest, or M. Rosenbaum, but that’s not surprising. There were hundreds of clothing manufacturers in the USA in the twentieth century. The big guys like Bobbie Brooks and Jonathan Logan were household names, but many small makers did not even put labels in their clothes, relying on paper hangtags to identify their products.

In 1967 I was twelve years old, and already into clothes. But I was not into labels, because that didn’t matter in those days of shopping at local dress shops and Sears Roebuck. I may not remember the brands, but I certainly do remember the clothes. And this catalog is pretty much dead-on in showing what teens and pre-teens were wearing in small town America in 1967.

The Mod look had hit the States from England only a few years prior. Instead of girls wearing the latest from Mary Quant, most were wearing versions of the look, watered down in order not to look so “out there”. Plaid had been popular for several seasons, and here we see it modernized with a Mod dropped waist.

These were the days of dress codes, and girls in most schools were required to wear skirts. But by buying separates, a girl got more mileage out of her clothes.

It’s a bit difficult to figure which name goes with which garment. Jamaica refers to the shorts, Surfer seems to be the collarless top, and Slim Jim is probably the pants.

The suit is interesting. It seems a bit (or a lot) conservative and grown up for young teens, but I had a very similar suit made by my grandmother. I remember it well because I wore it on our sixth grade field trip to the Biltmore House in 1967. Yes, we wore our best to visit a fancy place like Biltmore.

The next suit my mamaw made me had a much more stylish jacket like this one. That was probably in 1968. To my eyes the Jamaica shorts look a bit dated. By 1967 we were wearing Bermudas, or even shorter shorts.

This is probably the most Mod grouping in the catalog. Somehow exaggerated men’s ties were a fashion item, though I can’t remember anyone at my school actually wearing them. The ribbed knit tee shirt was called a Poor Boy. They were wildly popular. I had one to match all my skirts.

I think that sometimes people who did not live through the late 1960s tend to think it was all about the hippie look. That could not be further from the truth, especially in small towns like the one I lived in. Even though 1967 was The Summer of Love, we didn’t all immediately start dressing like we were on our way to a love-in. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the hippie movement really influenced our dress, and that was hampered by the dress code. Not until I was a senior did I dear to wear the forbidden jeans to school, and I spent the day in fear I’d be sent home. I wasn’t. It seems as if the grown-ups had just given up.

In the 1960s many of the St. Louis dressmakers saw the writing on the wall and switched to sportswear separates. Morris Rosenbaum was one of them. Still, it was not enough to save the company. Imports and discount stores helped seal the deal for Rosenbaum, which closed in 1979.


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Quilts: The Stories They Tell, at the Mountain Heritage Center

Over the years I’ve often visited the Mountain Heritage Center on the campus of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. Being connected with the school, MHC serves as a hands-on learning lab for history and museum studies students. The latest exhibition, Quilts: The Stories They Tell is a great example of the work being done at WCU.

Students were assigned an artifact to research and study, and they were responsible for the wall texts. I was impressed! In most cases quite a bit is known about each quilt. I learned about the makers, and in some cases, even saw photos of them. Best of all, the information was written so that it was engaging and easy to understand.

This quilt is stunning! It’s a Mariner’s Compass, and dates to the mid 19th century. Although the maker is not known, the quilt came out of the Plott Farm, with is about two miles from where I grew up. It’s an example of masterful piecing, as is the quilting stitching itself. In the text, the researcher acknowledged that the land on which the Plott Farm was built was once the Cherokee community known as Spring Garden.

After writing this blog for over fifteen years, you would think I would know to double-check my photos to make sure they are focused.

I wish the photo of the entire quilt came close to showing the amazing work Martha Sitton Rigdon did on this Round the World quilt. According to the text, Martha pieced together over 1400 hexagons that are roughly one inch across. There is no machine stitching.

Here is the very patient Martha. It must have taken her years to complete her quilt.

All that is known about this quilt is that it was made in the Asheville area in the late 19th century. The tulip pattern is not pieced; it is appliqued.

Close examination shows that this quilt (and most of the others on display) is not perfect. There are stains and some deterioration of fabrics. This in no way takes away from the historical significance of the quilt.

In recent months there has been talk on Instagram and Youtube about the taking of old quilts and turning them into clothing. I am a cautious middle-of-the-roader on this issue. Die-hard quilt supporters reject the cutting up of any old quilt. People on the other side say wearing a quilt is better than it languishing in a closet, or worse, ending up in a landfill. My experience of shopping at the Goodwill bins has taught me there is no shortage of old quilts. It’s my hope that quilts for which the provenance is known will be documented and put into appropriate hands. But like it or not, many do end up at Goodwill.

This is one quilt I am glad has been saved and documented. It’s made of rectangles of wool suiting and was made by Bettie Hughes Buchanan, who embroidered the names of her family members on the quilt. The text referred to the fabric rectangles as “samples” and I am sure that is exactly right. In the late19th and even into the 20th century, stores across the country received large catalogs showing the latest in men’s suits, along with these fabric swatches attached to the pages. I see a lot of these catalogs in antique stores and on ebay, and in most cases the swatches are missing. I had always felt that they were removed for quilts, but had never seen the evidence before now.

This is the ultimate crazy quilt. It was made by Julie Prettiman in Henry, Virginia in the last quarter of the 19th century. Most of the pieces are embellished with embroidery.

The pink border was added at a later date.

This quilt seems to be, at first glance, entirely random.

A close-up view reveals that the same feedsack fabric was used throughout, while the small four squares were made of whatever was on hand, leading to the random look of the design. The provenance of this quilt provides a connection to local history. It was made by Alice Enloe Dills, who along with her husband started the nearby town of Dillsboro.

Mrs. Dills looks quite prosperous, which is supported by the fact that she had this studio portrait made in Asheville.

Called a strip quilt, this type has become associated by the quiltmakers in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. But this type quilt was made wherever cloth was precious and not a scrap was wasted. Meant to be functional over decorative, strips quilts are now prized for their strong graphic appearance.

The maker is on the right, Anna Morgan Whitmire of Transylvania County, NC.

The exhibition also has a showcase that used examples to illustrate quilting techniques. Most interesting was how they used unfinished pieced blocks to show the reverse side of the block.

Quilters often used newsprint to stabilize the pieces during stitching. In a finished quilt, the paper was generally removed.

The cloth sacks that held food sundries were an important resource for many families. Several of the quilts in the exhibition were backed with flour sacks, and the printed ones often used used in the piecing.

Yes, quilting bees were a real thing. This quilting group was photographed at the Addie Community Center in 1955.

A big issue in quilt exhibitions is how to mount them for display. This quilt was displayed flat, as it is too fragile to hang. The red dye is causing the fabric to disintegrate. This quilt came from a rescuer of old quilts who did not keep adequate records. Unfortunately all that is known about the quilt is that it came from the Southeast.

Most of the quilts were hung on wooden frames with cloth coverings and supports. The quilts hung near the windows were backed with muslin. I have a feeling that some textile conservators would have been nervous about the amount of light in the room.

Quilts: The Stories They Tell is on exhibition until 8/26/22.


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Shopping with The Vintage Traveler

Several recent shopping trips have produced many nice things that I saw and liked, but did not buy. One such thing is this 1960s bowling ball bag. I have several bowling ensembles from the 1940s through the 70s, but no bags. I’m always looking for the perfect ones, which do not include the ball. Maybe I should just break down and buy this one, ball and all.

I have been looking at Enid Collins and the later Collins of Texas bags for decades, and I am always happy to see a new-to-me design. This flower carousal was cute.

I like the way this seller used a clothesline to display scarves. This is so much easier than rummaging through a basket of them. Can you spot the Vera?

I really don’t know what to think about this TV. It’s obviously an older set, and maybe the picture tube was already missing. But still…

I love antique sentimental lithographs of children and dogs.

My idea of Nirvana.

Even if antique malls do not have any old clothing, you can usually count on them to have hats.

I know a lot of people associate Stetson with cowboy hats, but they made all sorts of fine headwear.

And speaking of hats, maybe I need this one to help me look taller.

Whenever I see one of these vintage plaid book satchels, I am immediately transported back to first grade. During my first ever school fire drill, I ran to the cloakroom and grabbed my satchel. Waiting outside before the all clear signal, some older girls saw me and made fun of me. I’ve never gotten over it, obviously.

A beautiful Pendleton baby blanket.

Depression era feed sacks are pretty common here in rural America. Can you imagine what the original owner of these would think about someone paying $24 each?

I have all sorts of problems with sellers who disassemble old magazines in order to sell the advertising, but I can understand why they do it. This 1920s ad was priced at what I would expect to pay for the entire magazine.

Here’s a real wounded beauty. I no longer collect any evening wear, but I sure was tempted to turn this inside-out to see if there was a label.

A seller had three of these French prints. They were behind glass and professionally framed, and I just don’t know enough to determine if they were authentic pochoirs. They were beautiful, and priced very low.

Here’s another print that I passed on because I could not tell if it was of the period. It looked right, but I was not willing to take a chance because it was not cheap. Still, what a great image!

After just selling seventy-five patterns, you might think I have had my fill of them. You are right, though I could not resist looking through them.


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Early 1920s Hofflin Middy Suit Catalog

Whenever I get a “new” catalog for the sportswear archive, I try to look at it with fresh eyes, for the purpose of learning something new. I already had several catalogs from companies that made middy blouses for school and college girls, but I just had to add this one anyway.

From the number of ads in women’s and girls’ catalogs of the 1910 and 1920s, it’s obvious that there was money to be made in middy blouses. Many of the companies were in the uniform business, and were already making sailors’ middies. Some were manufacturers of children’s clothing. Others were in the yachting attire business.

According to the catalog, the Marcellus Hofflin Company was established in 1902. The best information I could find hinted that Hofflin started as a maker of naval officers’ uniforms, and then branched out into boys’ play attire and to girls’ school uniforms. When Hofflin began in business in 1902, the ready-to-wear revolution was in full swing. But Hofflin took an old-fashioned approach. His products were made to measure.

This was, ultimately, the company’s undoing. At a time when readymade middies could be purchased for $1.50, Hofflin’s middies started at $4.50. They eventually did offer a few readymade products, but it must have come too late. Mr. Hofflin retired in 1925 and sold the remaining stock to local department stores.

This seems to be an amazing service at a time when consumers were increasingly turning to department stores and mail order catalogs to obtain their clothing.

There are five pages of middy suits in the catalog, but a close examination shows there was pretty much only one style of middy and two choices of skirts. The variety came in the choice of fabric. The fabric also determined the price. Prices ranged from $18 for Irish linen to $35 for the finest wool serge. Using an online inflation calculator spells out the problems with these prices. The 1922 $18 is adjusted to $304 in 2022 dollars. The $35 suit would be equivalent to $591 today.

They did have one style of knickerbockers and a matching shirt made from khaki or white drill cloth. These pieces were readymade and cost $4.

Middy suits were required by many schools and colleges for classroom wear. I like that the catalog shows the girls wearing them for recreation as well.

There was also one page of gym attire, along with the readymade suit.

It’s not surprising that Hofflin did not survive. At a time when their product was in high demand, they simply priced themselves out of the market.


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1920s John Held Pajamas

I have a notebook full of the things I need for my collection, and recently I was happy to cross this one off my long list. The fabric of these 1920s pajamas was either designed by artist John Held, Jr. Held’s work as a magazine illustrator came to epitomize the jazz era 1920s. He designed everything from The New Yorker covers to cartoons to textiles. Much of how we see “flappers” today is influenced by Held’s depiction of them.

There are no labels in this garment but the print is signed, so I know this is a Held fabric. At first I couldn’t find a signature, as it was hidden on the back, but even if it had not been present I would have attributed this to Held. This is a silk, and Held did design silks for Stehli Silks Corporation, but this print is very different from the busy, all-over prints in those works. Regardless, it’s a great print and so evocative of the late 1920s.

The pajamas are in really good condition. There was originally a belt, which is now missing. I added a length of ribbon to the first photo to show how the pajamas would have been worn. The surviving belt loop places the belt very low on the hip, as would be expected from a garment of this era.

It’s possible that the colors were once more vibrant, but I can’t be certain because the black does not seem to be faded at all.

At this point I might need to remind you that in the early 1920s pajamas left the bedroom and became common as beach attire. What might be thought to be lingerie is also sportswear. With this acquisition I think the beach pajamas part of my collection is complete. That is until another treasure makes its way into the vintage marketplace.


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