Category Archives: Viewpoint

Random Thoughts on History and the Past

Our recent trip to Pennsylvania included a lot of history, which is the top consideration whenever we plan a trip. I’m lucky that my husband is also interested in the past, as it makes for an agreeable itinerary for both of us.  The primary reason for the trip was so I could attend the regional Costume Society of America symposium in Shippensburg, PA, but when we realized how close Philadelphia was, we decided to add a few days to the trip and visit the city.

Much of what is now referred to as the Old City is owned publicly and is administered by the National Park Service. A large part of this is the Independence Hall complex, seen above. In the center is what was the old Pennsylvania State House, and it was there that the Continental Congress met to discuss and sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and where eleven years later the Constitutional Convention was held.

To the right is Congress Hall, where the Congress of the United States met after the government moved to Philadelphia in 1790, and behind the trees on the left is where the Supreme Court met.  In a building to the right of where I took this photo is where the Liberty Bell is now housed.

I always find the juxtaposition of modern buildings and historical ones interesting. Philadelphia is a modern city, and that is left from colonial and early Federal days is scattered  throughout the Old City. The house in which Dolly Madison lived with her first husband survives, but the house that was George Washington’s Presidential residence does not. You can visit Betsy Ross’s house, but not Ben Franklin’s.

Both Washington’s house and Franklin’s are represented as “ghost houses”, where frames made of white pipes show where the houses would be if they had survived. It’s hard to believe that the President’s residence was torn down, but look at the photo above and you can see the big yard in front of Independence Hall. Years ago this lawn was full of homes and businesses. Washington’s house was located on this lawn.

This is the Thomas Bond House, which now houses an inn, and which is where we stayed. To the left is a parking garage, to the right a paved park, and beyond that, an apartment building. The paved park is the site of the home of William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony.

It is useful in such a situation to be able to imagine the missing buildings, and to see this house as part of a street of similar ones.

Thankfully, such a street still exists. It’s Elfreth’s Alley, where the houses all date from 1720 to 1830. It is literally in the shadow of  Interstate 95 and is just off a busy modern street, but all that is forgotten when walking this alley. So how did it survive? It became home to poor immigrants, and was rediscovered in 1934 when preservation efforts began. If you look at cities where a lot of old buildings survive, you’ll see that poverty is often the reason.

And while it’s a shame that so much of historic Philadelphia was lost, the real story might be that it is amazing that so much still exists. For comparison, how many pre-1830 buildings are still standing in New York City. The answer is very few.

I found this visit to Colonial Philadelphia to be oddly comforting in our stressful political climate. It was a great reminder that the figures of the past were not perfect beings, but they were still able to create a democracy that has lasted 230 years. They enslaved people, even Franklin (who later argued against slavery). They gave women no say in the proceedings, and when Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal…” he meant all white men.

In a time when we seem to be going backward in our progress as human beings, this serves as a reminder of how far we have come since 1776. It also helps to remember that history, like fashion, is not linear. I think the best example of this is our recent elections. Total control is no longer in the hands of one political philosophy, but is now shared with those of different views. If you study how our Constitution was written, you’ll see that our country has never agreed on every issue, but it is necessary that all voices be heard.

But enough of that – let’s look at signs of fashion history. We spotted this sign just down from the Betsy Ross House, but it is not a hoop skirt factory, but an apartment building. At one time this was an industrial building, but I’m unsure if hoops were ever made there.

When traveling, don’t forget to look up.  This building on Market Street is no longer a seller of trunks and bags, but one can imagine what it must have been like one hundred years ago.

At the site of an old public house, A Man Full of Trouble must have been referring to the hatbox she is carrying.

On the way home we stopped in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which is most known for the raid of abolitionist John Brown. Again, the National Park Service has a big presence, and it interprets not only the raid, but also the town of Harpers Ferry as it was in the nineteenth century.

I had been wanting to visit Harpers Ferry since college, when one of my professors declared that everyone in the town had one leg a bit shorter than the other from walking on the hilly streets. I actually can’t confirm that is true.

Part of the town is level, and runs along the Shenandoah River. This has been restored to look as the town did in the nineteenth century. Not knowing this, I got all excited when I saw the shop windows full of antique merchandise. As it turned out, it was just an illusion.

Still, it was fun peering into a general mercantile of the time.

The best interpreted store was an actual men’s haberdashery, Philip Frankel & Co.

Due to it being off-season, there were few rangers about to tell about the buildings, but the park has done a decent job of posting information for those willing to take the time to read.

 

 

 

 

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Anne Adams Sewing Patterns, Fall 1938

Anne Adams was the name of a sewing pattern company which sold their products through syndicated content in newspapers across America. I have seen Anne Adams patterns from the 1940s through the 1980s, but this catalog of designs is dated 1938. I added it to my archive because it was published by my hometown paper, the Asheville Citizen.

In looking through this catalog, I was struck by the big variety of lifestyles Anne Adams catered to. As you can see on the cover, there were evening gowns for those who had need of them. And while people might not think that women in a small city in the middle of the southern mountains would need a formal gown, there were plenty of events in Asheville that would make such a dress a necessity for many women.

On the other end of the spectrum was the house dress. A woman working at home during the day might not wear the three inch heels shown in the illustration, but I can remember that as late as the 1960s my grandmother and her three sisters always wore dresses similar to the ones pictured while doing their house cleaning, laundry, and cooking. All of them made these dresses out of cheerful prints in easy to clean cotton.

Here is a grouping of day dresses of a different sort. These were not for housework. They were for shopping or lunching, or perhaps for a club meeting.

In 1938, as it is today, the older woman is encouraged to look younger and thinner. Some things seem to never change.

For the truly young, there were campus fashions, starring the original teenage star, Deanna Durban.

The career woman was advised to make and wear separates which she could mix and match. The idea of separates is more associated with the 1950s, but it actually dates back much earlier, to at least the 1890s.

It’s pretty unlikely that in 1938 there was any skiing going on in the Asheville area, but a good, warm coat was needed. Interestingly, with the exception of pajamas, this was the only pair of pants offered for women. That was to change dramatically in just a few years.

And here are the other pants, in the form of pajamas. I can see where the width of the hems is starting to diminish from the extremely wide legs of the mid 1930s.

When I was coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the chief complaints of the girls in my school was that “fashion” here was two years behind what we saw in the fashion magazines. I’ve come to realize that our own conservatism had more to do with that than what was available to us. Even in 1938, women in the mountains of North Carolina could buy patterns of what was fashionable in other markets.

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On Blogging

After reading some of the comments on my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about blogging and blogs. I really appreciate that so many of you reading this have been loyal readers through the years, I know that opening up a blog to read it is a commitment to time and brain power, something that is not always in large supply.

I follow blogs through a site called bloglovin’ and so I went to it to see how other blogs were doing. What I found was that there are dozens of formerly great blogs that haven’t been updated in months, or even years.

I can understand why someone would give blogging up. It takes a lot of time, energy, and thought. At the height of blogging popularity, I was trying to post every day. Now I ‘m lucky if I manage two posts a week. But that’s okay, because I blog, primarily, for me. I need a place to work out my thoughts on new things I see and acquire. And a big plus is that I also get the well-informed opinions of you readers. Without the comments, I’d be talking to myself, and might as well be just writing private documents.

Some of the bloggers I used to love to follow have now moved to Instagram. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose. But the fleeting nature of Instagram and other social media, while great for immediate engagement, does not lead to an easily accessible record of fashion research findings. To me, the fact that people interested in say, David Crystal, can google his name and find me, just like his great granddaughter did last week.

I’d like to think that what I’m doing is important, and I can definitely say that the few other active fashion history bloggers that I know of are doing important work. It’s worth your time to check them out.

Lynn at Americanagefashion writes about what the older woman in the 20th century wore. But it’s so much more than that. She looks into the advice older women were given and the images that were presented to women over fifty as appropriate.

Susan at Witness2fashion gives the best in depth look at fashion trends of the past that you can find on the WWW. Her experience as a costumer gives her the eye to analyze a 1920s dress as though it was hanging in her own closet.

Jonathan at Kickshawproductions brings a lifetime of fashion history experience to his writing.

For an in-depth look at fashion during WWI, read ClareRoseHistory.

Jen at Pintucks Vintage does not post very often, but when she does, it is always worth reading.

Liza at Better Dresses Vintage writes about fashion exhibitions and her own adventures wearing historical clothing.

And not strictly about fashion history, AllWays in Fashion is written by Michelle, who was a fashion insider during the 1960s through the 1990s, and who gives a great historical perspective to current trends.

Jackie Mallon  is another fashion insider, who brings her years of experience to her blog post that include exhibition reviews and historical references in current fashion shows.

Unfortunately, this is the extent of my list, though I also follow a few vintage travel and lifestyle blogs, and a few that focus on sewing and quilting. If I’m missing any good fashion history blogs, please add them in the comments.

It has also occurred to me that a person who wants a voice on the web today is likely to turn to podcasting rather than to blogging (which is SO 2012). In just the past few months some new fashion history podcasts have appeared.

If you haven’t discovered podcasts, it may be time for you to try them. I keep track of the ones I follow on my phone, where there are dozens of apps that store your favorites and then let you know when a new episode appears. Here’s my list, and again I’d appreciate a link to any I have missed.

Bande  à Part is a weekly conversation between fashion historians Rebecca Arnold and Beatrice Behlen. There is always good food for thought on a variety of fashion related topics.

Dress: Fancy is new, so new that there is only one episode, but I really enjoyed it and I look forward to more from Lucy Clayton and Benjamin Wild.

Dressed: The History of Fashion is from April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary. There is also a website with links and bibliographies.

The Museum at FIT Fashion Culture Podcast is, as promised, from FIT. It’s very new, and for now the podcast is just audio of previous conversations you can also find at youtube. I’m hoping this one will live up to its potential.

Unravel: A Fashion Podcast has been around for a while. The four FIT alums who produce it cover some fascinating topics. I have trouble following the conversation at times, as it feels like one is eavesdropping on a private conversation with references I don’t get. This may be a sign of the age gap between me and the podcasters.

 

 

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Reunited – A 1930s Pajama Set

Two weeks ago I went to a great street market in the nearby town of Hendersonville. They have this little antiques fair every year, but I usually forget about it, and that’s a shame because I do seem to always come up with some interesting old stuff there.

The thing with general antique markets of this sort is that they don’t tend to attract vintage clothing sellers. But that does not mean you can’t find clothes there; it means you have to work a bit harder to find them.

Rule number one is never fail to rummage through a basket of linens. It may look like a basket of white embroidered pillowcases from the top of the pile, but there might be treasures lurking below the pillowcases and faded linen tea towels.

It was in one such basket that I found the above pair of mid 1930s satin pajama pants. A continued search did not produce a matching top, however. I got the vendor’s attention and asked the price. She gave a figure that was well within my budget, so I indicated that I’d take them.

Then she said the words that always make a collector’s blood run cold: “I had the matching top, but have misplaced it.”

She went on to explain that it could be in a box to be taken to Goodwill, or it may have already been donated. She bought the set in a box lot along with two 1920s fancy dresses, and she really had no idea that the pajamas might be of interest to someone. Not that I blame her for that. It’s impossible to know everything about everything, and vintage clothing is not really her thing.

She went so far as to call home to see if her husband could find them in the donate box, but he could not locate them. So I left her my email address and she promised to let me know if the top turned up. Several days went by and I was sure I’d not hear from her, but miracles do happen in the collecting world! She found the top in a box earmarked for eBay sales.

She sent a photo and I agreed to buy it, and several days later it arrived in the mail. It was even better than I’d hoped, but I’m convinced that there was a third piece – a plainer top for actual sleeping, as opposed to this top that is more for lounging. At least I’d not be able to sleep with those big knot buttons!

The satin is a much richer blue (she called it Pepsi blue) than my photos suggest. The fabric is nice and heavy, and I suspect it is a high quality rayon, but it could be silk. I’ll be doing a burn test to find out.

Based on several hints, I’ve dated these at about 1933 – 1935. The sleeves show the unmistakable influence of Letty Lynton with the  fullness. The shape of the pants legs and the dropped crotch also hint to a mid 1930s date of manufacturer. And the pants are closed with a series of snaps instead of a zipper, though zippers are not always used in lounging attire.

I really love the suggestion of a middy collar.

Lingerie is not, for the most part, on my list of things to collect. The exception is pajamas. They played an important role in the pants for women story, and as such, are one of my favorite things.

 

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No, It’s Not Just a Jacket

I can remember when my mother gave up and decided to just let me choose my own clothes. I was probably seven or eight, which by today’s standard is a bit old for this rite of passage, but in the 1960s my peers could not believe Mama let me do the picking. But she wisely knew that sooner or later I’d insist on it, and besides, she had another daughter to dress up in pink.

The truth is, all people in my culture (and probably yours as well) choose their clothes if they are over the age of five or so. Even people who claim to care nothing at all about what they wear, do, in fact, care. My father-in-law was a great example. He was a notoriously sloppy dresser, and he repeatedly reminded us that clothes don’t make the man. The problem was that he had a long list of things he would not wear, and a very short one of what he chose to wear.

He had no jeans, but several pair of identical khakis. He had the same plaid button front shirt in twenty different plaids and colors. He never wore a pair of sneakers. He loved cardigan sweaters, but pullovers were verboten.

One year for Christmas we found what we thought was the perfect gift for him – a red cardigan with a big S applique that came from his alma mater, NC State. He seemed to like it, but we noticed that he never wore it. Some time later the cardigan reappeared, without the big S. He had carefully picked it off.  It then occurred to me that he thought wearing the sweater would look like bragging in a community where college graduates in his age group were rare. He knew that wearing a sweater that he thought advertised his education would make him look as though he was putting on airs.

John may have claimed that clothes do not matter, but he clearly did know that what we wear sends all kinds of messages to others.

Clothes don’t have to have letters, or even words, on them in order to send messages. It’s easy to sit on any park bench and watch people passing by, and make judgments about those people based on their clothes. Sometimes you will be right, and other times you will be wrong, but the message is sent never-the-less.

For centuries clothing has been a sign of social and economic status, a reflection of the position one holds, and even where one resides. When I travel to New York, I plan my clothing carefully, so as not to look so Southern (and out of place). In high school, the girls who had professional dads like doctors and lawyers carried Aigner handbags, while those of us whose fathers worked at the paper plant carried cheap imitations.

We just can’t get away from the fact that in our culture, clothes have meaning. They send messages. And the most obvious messages are those that are in print.

My old Merle Haggard shirt you see above dates from 1983 when Outlaw Country was an interesting alternative to Punk and New Wave. By then I was teaching and pushing thirty, and it seemed that Rock was dead anyway, so we started listening to Haggard and Cash and Nelson. I got the shirt at a concert in Asheville when Haggard was arrested for drinking onstage.

Over the years I’ve worn it when feeling particularly badass, and it never fails to send that message, at least it sends it to the many young folks who comment on it. It never fails to make me feel cool, though the truth is that I was merely lucky enough to have the money to attend a concert and buy the shirt way back in 1983.

But does that even matter? The message is sent, though I suspect that to some people the message is, “Why is that old lady wearing a Merle Haggard shirt?” It may not register with some that I was once a cool concert goer.

Today clothing with writing and logos is so common that one need not pay attention to all the other sartorial clues. At a glance you can tell what team that guy is rooting for, where his wife went on vacation, daughter’s favorite Disney princess, and the attitude of the teenage son. One thing I feel very confident in saying is that these messages are true. A  Red Sox fan does not wear a Yankees hat.

So when a public figure is seen wearing a jacket that says, “I really don’t care, do U?” you can be assured that the message was intended. Whatever she doesn’t care about, the message was sent, and the viewer uses his or her own experiences and perceptions of the wearer to decipher the message.

And who in their right mind wears a jacket in this heat?

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Experience, the Best Teacher

A kind reader asked for a post on caring for old clothes and I referred her/him to a series Maggie at Denisebrain has been writing. There’s no need for me to reinvent the wheel here, as Maggie is in the process of laying it all out, care-wise. But I thought I would share with you some of the mistakes I have made or heard about, and so now you will never have to make them.

1. Never take a sequin for granted. At times in the past, mainly the 1930s and early 40s, sequins were made from gelatin. When exposed to heat or moisture, the gelatin sequins tended to melt. If immersed in water, they turn into a slimy clump of gel. Never put an old sequined dress in water without first testing for melting. Snip off a sequin to sacrifice to the water gods, and if after ten minutes or so you still have a sequin, then it is made of metal or a newer plastic substance and is probably safe for washing.

2.  All white cotton fabrics can’t be bleached with chlorine. For some reason exposure to chlorine will turn some cottons purple. Always do a tiny test spot before using bleach on any fabric, or be smart and stay away from bleach entirely. And if anyone knows the why of this purple phenomenon, I’ve love to know it.

3.  Never put a knit on a hanger. I knew this, but apparently a major fashion collection did not and when they inherited a slew of Rudi Gernreich knits from the 1960s and 70s, all the clothes were neatly hung and promptly forgotten. Several years later a new-to-the-museum worker stumbled across the collection hidden away in a closet or corner, and she was struck by how long all the clothes were. The first thought was that the donor was a very tall woman, but no, these actually came from the Gernreich archive. Over the course of just a few years the clothes had grown over a foot.

4. Keep your nice clothing in the dark. I have been to house sales where a rack of clothing was stored in a room with a window. The dresses on the ends of the rack would be completely trashed – brittle and faded – due to exposure to light. The others would be in pristine condition except for the line of extreme fading at the shoulders where the light could hit the dresses. Adding to the degradation was that these are usually stored on nasty wire hangers.

5.  Back in the 1980s when rayon became fashionable again, my mother warned us not to buy it. She had a friend in school (1940s) who bought a new rayon dress and the first time she wore it she was caught in a downpour. As the dress started to dry the wearer watched as the dress crept up her leg, getting shorter and shorter. She barely made it home with her dignity intact.  Not all rayons will shrink in this way, but rayon crepe is notorious for it.

6.  You cannot save a silk that has started to shatter. Period.

7. Likewise, if a fabric has a dark stain accompanied by little scattered holes, there is no hope for that stain. And even if there was hope, you’d be left with those pesky little holes.

8. Using an iron on any old textile is very risky. Old synthetics are not as stable as the modern fabric we are used to, so unless you like melted nylon or permanent iron prints on the rayon, invest in a steamer. For some reason, old navy dyes love to change to a deep reddish purple.

Since I don’t wear most of the old clothes in my possession, I’m not very aggressive about stains and small amounts of damage. I will do repairs, using only materials that can safely be removed in case a later owner wants to change my method of repair. This pretty much means I repair only with a needle and thread.  I also will restore an object if later alterations have made a big difference in the way the object would need to be displayed. Again, I only do things that could be reversed, and I document the changes in my records.

Does anyone have a good textile disaster story they’d like to share?

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Fashion and Technology – Additional Thoughts

I promise this is the last post from the CSA symposium I attended recently in Cincinnati. And this is really just for me to formalize my thoughts on the two days spent immersed in talk of fashion and technology.

I really like how CSA develops their symposiums around a theme. As a teacher I used to go to conferences on writing or history, and the presentations would be all over the place. With a theme, common threads start to emerge, and one starts to hear multiple opinions on the same topic. It makes for a more thoughtful experience.

One thing that so many of the presenters, especially the college professionals who work in design programs, pointed out, is that the great majority of fashion design students have zero sewing skills. I realize that a person does not HAVE to sew in order to create designs (much like Karl Lagerfeld), but it sure does help to know what can and cannot be accomplished with a sewing machine, the basic tool in making a garment.

So the starting point in most design programs is a basic sewing class. One teacher made the point that it is the attempted making of a welt pocket that separates the sheep from the goats. He estimated that half of his students do not make it past the welt pocket.

Why can’t Suzy and Johnny sew? According to my two new friends from Lipscomb University in Nashville, it is because so few high schools have home economics classes that teach sewing. They were particularly perturbed because Lipscomb Academy, which is closely associated with the university, recently did away with sewing class.  (I looked, and my alma mater does teach sewing in two classes called Apparel Development).

Another common thread came from the people in charge of collections. The big concern is the need for continued digitalization of collections both big and small. This refers to the placing online of searchable databases of an institution’s clothing collection and archives. While everyone who addressed this issue was pretty much in agreement that digital collections are highly useful for researchers and curators planning exhibitions, there are some major problems that prevent institutions from putting their collections online.

The first and the most daunting is that the process is very expensive. You may have read about the financial problems at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some critics claim that a big part of the money drain was due to a huge push to digitalize their collections. That may be so, but the result is that the Met is in possession of a database that is widely used, maybe even over-used. Several presenters pointed out that they were tired of seeing the same old Met garments used in scholarly works.

Another problem is that digital problems quickly become obsolete. Some institutions that were early users of digital programs are now having to replicate their previous work due to low resolution of photographs and outdated computer systems.

These problems aside, if an institution wants their collection to be seen in today’s world, the best way to do it is online. As one presenter pointed out, a digital online presence is no longer a “nice thing”; it’s a near necessity.

It boggles my mind to think of all the great collections, and the holdings within. What if there was a universal database of not just the major museums, but of all clothing collections, even private ones. I’m always reading that an example of this or that major milestone in fashion no longer exists, but I’m betting that somewhere, in some avid collector’s closet, one does exist. I know I’m dreaming but part of the joy of being with people who are thinking about and working on solutions to these problems really opens the mind to the possibilities that the digital universe brings to us.

Several presenters talked about social media and blogging, and how these platforms have proved useful to fashion researchers and scholars. I’ve actually addressed this topic here, as the interactions I have with all of you greatly enrich my own understanding of fashion history. Having an audience for my writing is important, but so is getting feedback from readers. And the same is true of Instagram, where people are quick to point out something missed and to add to what the photo poster knows about an object.

There was also a lot of talk about 3-D printing and other technologies that are being developed. Interesting, but what really caught my attention was this maternity coat, designed by Chanjuan Chen and Kendra Lapolla at Kent State University. The pattern for the coat was developed using a computer program, and the placement of the pattern on the fabric was analyzed by computer which was able to fit the pieces onto the fabric with less than five percent waste. That five percent was then used to make the appliques, so there was essentially no waste in making the coat.

The embroidery was also made using a high tech embroidery machine. I really did think it was hand embroidered.

So, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed coming along with me to Cincinnati.

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