Another exhibition I saw on my recent visit to the Kentucky Museum in Bowling Green was a presentation of the museum’s collection of 19th century whitework. I learned that whitework encompasses quite a few techniques – weaving, quilting, tufting, and embroidery. The common factor is that the work is white on white.
Many of the pieces have been recently conserved by Margaret Ordonez, who taught conservation for many years at the University of Rhode Island. She has retired, and is back in her native Tennessee where she has set up her own textile conservation service. Margaret presented her work at the Costume Society Symposium, giving us a good look at the work involved in conserving the pieces.
To visitors passing through an exhibition like this one, it must seem that people of the past sure did take great care of their stuff. What’s not seen are the many hours of cleaning and stabilization it takes in order to be able to display a two hundred year old textile. Part of this exhibition actually addressed the process of conservation, and there were several unconserved bed coverings on display.
This embroidered counterpane was made by Sallie Darrough and is in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society. As you can see, it had not been cleaned. This is closer to the condition textiles of this age are most likely to be found.
So how does one clean a fragile old textile? Because these are cotton and cotton/linen blends, wet cleaning is appropriate. That does not mean Margaret threw them into the washing machine. Conservators use large tables with an edge (like a very shallow tub) for wet cleaning. The textile is spread out on the table and water and cleaning agents are introduced. This is a job for a chemist, as it’s important to use things that will not do any further damage.
Often, artifacts are donated to museums along with long-told family stories. This early 19th century Empire style dress was said to have been worn by Catharine Whitesides on her wedding day. But Margaret was not born until 1824, and by the time she married the dress would have been twenty-five or so years out of fashion. Perhaps it was worn by her mother.
Another presentation that focused on the history of southwestern Kentucky was given by Donna Parker, recently retired from the Western Kentucky University Library. Like most Americans, I knew of the great Mammoth Cave system, but it was a real surprise to learn that for close to a century, women visitors to the cave wore a special costume provided by the owners of the cave.
The cave was well-known by the 1840s. It was just one of many natural wonder destinations that well-off tourists traveled to experience, along with Niagara Falls, the Natural Bridge of Virginia, the Hudson River Valley, and New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Early on it must have been obvious that fashionable dress was dangerous in the cave. The owners developed a woman’s costume, consisting of a shortened dress with bloomers or trousers worn beneath.
The wearing of these costumes is well-documented in photographs, diaries, letters, and personal travel accounts. Many women expressed embarrassment at being forced to wear trousers, others saw it as just part of the experience.
The Kentucky Museum has an exhibition on Mammoth Cave, and in it they included this photograph of a woman visitor. You can barely see the trousers beneath her skirt. One of the best sources of information were the photos taken of visitors to the cave. The WKU Library Special Collections has a nice selection of these, dating from the 1850s to the 1930s when the practice of providing costumes ended.
Kentucky Museum and Library Digital Collection
This photo is from the digital collection of the Kentucky Museum. Though undated, this photo is from around 1905, and maybe as late as 1912 or so. It’s interesting in how the costume has changed. The skirt was abandoned, the bloomers shortened. It could be that these women were accustomed to wearing bathing suits, were at that time were very similar to the cave costume.
Unfortunately, the museum has not been able to locate any extant cave costumes. It’s possible that as things changed and women became more accustomed to wearing bloomers, the oldest costumes were remade into the more abbreviated versions seen above. At any rate, there was a fire in 1916 at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, and it is possible the remaining costumes were destroyed then.
I like to think that somewhere, in an obscure collection, a Mammoth Cave costume still exists. The problem is one of identification. How would one distinguish the cave costume seen in the first photograph from a bloomer outfit worn by a dress reformer? How could the bloomers in the third photograph be distinguished from a 1905 gymnasium suit? I’m not sure it could be done.
I can only hope that somewhere one rests in a box with a note attached, confirming the garment as the elusive cave costume.
Besides presenting my own paper at the Southeastern Region Costume Society of America Symposium, I learned a lot from the other presenters and from the museum exhibitions at the Kentucky Museum where the symposium was held. Much of the content of the first day of the symposium was centered around some artifacts in the museum’s collection – clothing made by the dressmaking business of Mrs. A.H. (Carrie) Taylor. Located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Mrs. Taylor’s was THE fashionable dressmaking establishment in town. In fact, it had clients from not only southwestern Kentucky, but also around the country.
So much of fashion history has been written through the famous designers. If you think of nineteenth century design, Monsieur Worth of Paris comes to mind. But by the 1870s when Carrie opened her business, fashion was still more of a local thing, with the town’s dressmakers reigning supreme. Not that Paris wasn’t important, it was. But fashion magazines and sewing patterns made it possible for women around the country to feel fashionable. This was especially true in a place like Bowling Green where the favored dressmaker, Mrs. Taylor, traveled yearly to Paris and to New York to see the latest styles and to purchase the latest fabrics and trims.
Carrie Burnam was born in Bowling Green in 1855. She attended the local college, and in 1878 after graduation opened a dressmaking business in her parent’s home. Even after she married and had children, the now Mrs. Taylor continued to work, expanding her business along with husband Aaron, to where at its height, they employed 300 women workers. Mrs. Taylor directed the business, advising her clients on the styles, colors, and trims for their new dresses. Trousseaux were a specialty.
What made the experience so great was that not only did Dr. Cox talk about the importance of Mrs. Taylor’s work, we also heard from the conservator, Colleen Callahan, who did a presentation on the work she performed in order to stabilize the garments and to make them safe for display. She had photos of the before, during, and after of the conservation process. And the icing on the cake was that Ms. Callahan was available in the exhibition, pointing out the conservation. It was an enlightening experience to see a gown go from shredded silk to display on a dressform.
This lovely silk gown was in sad condition. The bodice was very shattered, with the sleeves being thoroughly tattered. Colleen removed the off-white insets and replaced them with matching silk. Here was where having an extensive stash of old fabrics came in handy. The patterned silk was also splitting so conservation netting was used to encase the fabric, preventing any further fabric loss. The dress had been made with large facings so some of the fabric from them was used to fill in larger spaces that were missing fabric.
The skirt was in better condition, but there are a few spaces where action had to be taken. What is really amazing is that unless one knew where to look, the conservation would have totally escaped notice.
This stunning blue silk dress looks pristine at first look, but Colleen worked hours to stabilize the fabric, to rework the caps of the sleeves, and to replace shattered places with matching fabric. Fortunately, when the dress was donated to the museum it came with a length of the original fabric.
Best sleeves ever.
Glass cases can be annoying to people like me who want to take good photos to share, but having these encased meant that the visitors could see the dresses from every angle, and could get close up without risking touching the fragile textiles.
Not all the clothing in the exhibition required extensive conservation. These two evening coats are in fairly good condition with just some treated holes on the white, and some adjustments made for a missing lining on the orange.
There were other garments on display, including two bodices, a 1910s dress, and some undergarments. All were finely made. The Kentucky Museum is always looking for Carrie Taylor garments and paper items from the business. The label reads “Mrs. A.H. Taylor, Bowling Green Kentucky.”
In 1905 the Taylor company published a short-lived magazine. There were only two issues published before bank problems formed them out of the magazine business. As part of the exhibition, a facsimile of the Spring 1905 issue was available to visitors to look through.
The exhibition was greatly enhanced through the careful telling of Carrie Taylor’s story. Many photos and quotes from Carrie and those who worked for her really brought her to life. And for those visitors not familiar with the styles of over a hundred years ago, there were explanations of what women wore in Carrie’s day. My thanks to the Kentucky Museum for hosting us, and congratulations on a beautiful exhibition!
There was also a trend toward nautical themes. The short “Oriental” pants were replaced by so-called “Gob” trousers, gob being slang for “sailor”.
A 1930 article in Good Housekeeping reported:
“Beach fashions are distinctly masculine. A marked change has occurred in beach attire, for smart women are forsaking fancy pajama suits for long, wide, sailor-like trousers… In their smartest version these trousers feature a fullness set in at the knee.”
These one-piece beach pajamas remained in fashion through the mid-1930s. In 1931 Good Housekeeping declared, “Pajamas are never smarter. For the beach they are comfortable and feminine in colorful combinations of linen, shantung, or jersey.”
The evolution of beach pajamas was complete, but it’s worth noting that pajamas did not stay on the beach. Brave women like Mrs. Joseph Walton, “[wore] a velveteen jacket, a light crepe overblouse, and dark trousers…” on the streets of Palm Beach in 1929.
By 1930 middle class and wealthy women were already wearing pants in the form of knickers for hiking, breeches for riding, and bloomers for gymnasium. But pajamas wearing on the beach was different in that women of most economic classes could participate. Cotton beach pajamas were cheap to buy and even cheaper to sew at home. Pattern companies like McCall’s, Butterick, and Pictorial Review sold pajama patterns for the home sewer.
Oregon farm girl Cecilia Nordstrom showed off her new pajamas in 1933. She later recalled, “Frivolous is lounging pajamas when you live on a farm. No one has time to lounge.” Nevertheless, she ordered this one from a catalog, and she looks quite pleased with it.
Pajamas-wearing was also different in the public nature of the beach. No longer confined to the school gym or the hiking and riding trails, beach pajamas were women in trousers in view of large crowds of people. Pants for women were here to stay, even though it would be several more decades before women wore pants for more than work or very casual occasions.
1924 saw beach pajamas spreading across European beach resorts, and were even worn by a few brave souls on Florida sands. In her memoir, Jane Fisher, wife of the developer of Miami Beach, recalled an incident that happened in 1924:
Colonel CT Melville, the international polo player, … wrote a book in which he expressed delight over such Miami Beach surprises as “…strawberries for breakfast at Christmas and being driven about by a lady wearing pajamas.” I was the lady in pajamas – as startling in the early ‘twenties, even in freedom-loving Miami Beach, as my form-fitting bathing suit had five years before.”
For the most part, 1924 was a year of debate in the United States fashion press. During that year Women’s Wear began mentioning pajamas not only in their negligee column, but also in the sportswear section.
The question of whether or not American women would wear trousers in public in the form of pajamas was answered by Vogue in January, 1925. “Usually made of gay printed [silk]… they are seen during the sunny hours between bathing and dressing when one loiters on the sand. European beaches have seen them in large numbers, and, now, Newport and Palm Beach are witnessing the beginnings of their success.”
Not that Vogue‘s proclamation was universal. In February, 1925, Women’s Wear printed a report from Palm Beach saying “Palm Beach Visitors Do Not Adopt Beach Pajamas.” The mayor of Atlantic City, NJ went so far as to ban pajamas from the beach before the 1925 season, saying, “…we could not allow anything like that.”
In 1926 beach pajamas went from being an uncertainty to being mentioned favorably in most Women’s Wear articles on the subject. They wrote in March, 1926, “…as the season advances, beach pajamas are seen in greater numbers and variety.” Even shops in Atlantic City were advertising them. Beach pajamas had truly arrived.
Although pajamas were sleepwear first and sportswear second, they did follow the rules of fashion. In the 1920s when the straight garcon look dominated, pajamas had a similar silhouette consisting of short trousers with a sleeveless tunic, often with a matching robe. They were often in bright colors with art deco or Asian designs. They were usually made of silk, but the more practical cotton began appearing as well.
When fashion began to change toward curvier, longer lines in 1927, so did pajamas. A Women’s Wear report in 1927 informed readers that “Both beach and lounging ensembles are characterized by the adoption of long trousers…”
At the same time, bathing suits were getting smaller, with the newest styles featuring a very low scooped back. Some French designers, in particular Mary Nowitzky, developed an abbreviated top for her beach pajamas, much like the tank top of today. This top was not a tunic, but instead was meant to be tucked into the waist of the pants.
It was just a short time until designers realized that making the beach pajamas as a one-piece garment would allow them more easily to include the bare suntan back. This idea developed into a wide-legged one-piece garment that highly resembled a long flowing dress. This one-piece pajama was sleeveless, usually had a bare back with a scooped or V-neck front, and very wide trousers. They were increasingly made of brightly printed cottons.
Tomorrow, the exciting conclusion of Pajamas for Women.
The style did not catch on as outerwear, but increasingly it was marketed as lingerie. When famous actresses began wearing pajamas on stage, manufacturers were alerted to this by Women’s Wear.
By the middle of 1911 a trade report from Cincinnati said, “Manufacturers of shirtwaists and pajamas say the trade is quite good…” And James McCreery & Co. on 34th Street in New York City had “silk pajamas for women” in their shop windows. Copy in the 1912 spring-summer catalog from Greenhut-Seigal Cooper declared, “Pajamas are growing more popular with women every year.
By WWI, pajamas were not just for sleeping. They were advertised as loungewear, and Women’s Wear categorized them as negligee. They were even suggested as “an excellent tea gown”. These early women’s pajamas were two pieces like men’s but were feminized most often by being made of pastel colored silk, elaborately decorated with lace and embroidery.
Around 1914 a new idea in women’s pajamas emerged – the one-piece jumpsuit type. These became very popular after actress Billie Burke wore them in a film in 1916. She became so associated with the style that one-piece pajamas were called Billie Burkes until they fell out of favor around 1920.
Even after pajamas had been made for women for a decade, articles in Women’s Wear show that manufacturers worried they were just a fad. As manufacturer R.F. Raskid said in 1917, “I consider [pajamas] as merely a passing fad, that will have worn itself out in the course of a few months…” But pajamas, along with bifurcated workwear like overalls and coveralls, gained favor during the years of WWI because they were practical. And while overalls for women did decrease in popularity after the war ended, women did not give up their pajamas.
In 1919, Women’s Wear declared, “For lounging and the care-free hours, pajamas are at present favored by the best dressed women. They have freedom, are comfortable, and offer a wide variety of styles.” By 1919 pajamas were mentioned almost daily in the sleepwear section of Women’s Wear. They were no longer a novelty.
In writing about pajamas, Women’s Wear continued to refer to them in “Oriental” terms like Persian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Turkish. Historian Victoria Pass has been conducting research into what Paul Poiret seemed to know in 1911 – that the Orientalist tropes used to market pajamas with trousers to women connected pajamas to “the exotic other”, making the masculine nature of the pants less of an issue.
Until 1922, women for the most part confined their pajamas-wearing to their homes. But in July of that year Women’s Wear published a startling new use for pajamas. “Silk Pajamas on the Beach – A New Use for the Silk Pajamas that have long been Manufactured and Used for Negligee Purposes Is Shown in the Accompanying Photograph. This bather, after her dip, has slipped on the pajamas as a protection from sunburn.” The location was unnamed, but later reports identified it as the Lido in Venice, Italy.
It was not until fall of 1923 that Women’s Wear asked its readers, “Will American Women Adopt Pajamas for the Beach?” A few months later Women’s Wear first used the term, beach pajamas.
I’m back from the Costume Society of America Southeast Region Symposium, and I’m pleased to share here my paper that I read. I’ll post it over the course of four days. I hope you enjoy it.
In the mid-1920s a new fad traveled from Italian beaches to those in the United States – that of pajamas as beach attire. It was not new for women to wear bifurcated garments for sports and as underwear, but pajamas for women were relatively new in the 1920s. So how and why did women take to wearing their newly adopted sleepwear on the beach?
Even men in the US and most parts of Europe did not begin sleeping in pajamas until the 1870s. Most likely the first Westerners to adapt the Indian Pay- jama as night and loungewear were Englishmen living in India. In 1878 Harper’s Bazar reported, “The loose Japanese costume called the Pajamas has been adapted [by men] as a nightgown, for lounging in the daytime and in midsummer it is worn to board yachts.”
(Of course, the garment was Indian, not Japanese, but at least they got the continent right.)
The first reference I have found to American women wearing pajamas was a comment in an 1895 newspaper article that referenced women’s pajamas in fashion plates. Over the next decade there were occasional references to and ads for women’s pajamas in American newspapers, but not until the summer of 1905 does one see any multiple sources advertising pajamas for women. That year a syndicated sewing pattern for women’s pajamas was for sale in many US newspapers, and some department stores advertised readymade pajamas for Christmas gift giving.
A 1905 article that ran in many American newspapers titled “Pajamas Healthful”, had the following to say about women wearing pajamas:
“Women everywhere, the country over, and in city and country alike, do wear nightgowns, as they have long, if not always have done. Do women wear pajamas in these days? Well, some, but not many.
“It was a little fad to wear them, for a time, and there are some women who now wear them; but their number is not large, and the custom is not growing.”
In 1906 Good Housekeeping magazine offered for sale a sewing pattern for “Lady’s Pajamas”. In the description for the pattern was this line: “The upper part of the pajamas is cut in the broad Mandarin style and the sleeve is loose at the bottom, also reminding one of that Eastern garb.” There didn’t seem to be a big demand for women’s pajamas until 1911 judging by the lack of ads for them in Women’s Wear, the forerunner of Women’s Wear Daily, and in their absence in clothing catalogs. So what happened that convinced American women to wear what was considered, in the West anyway, a man’s garment?
For one thing, in 1911 French designer Paul Poiret introduced what he called harem pants, a design based on a pants style worn by Middle Eastern men and some women. By making a reference to the “Oriental” and not to the Western men’s trousers, he made it seem as though the woman was emulating the exotic “Oriental” and not her own husband or father.