Category Archives: Viewpoint

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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Traveling

I’ve never much liked flying, and especially since every ounce of glamour has been squeezed out of the experience. I think the last time I felt special on an airplane was in the early 1990s on a Luthansa flight. I’m glad that flying is not the extravagance that it must have been to these travelers in 1940, but it would be great if people tried a little harder to make the experience tolerable for others. To see the worst of it, check out @passengershaming on Instagram.

I’m always happier when I can drive to an event or destination. Tomorrow I’m headed for Cincinnati where the Midwest Region of the Costume Society of American is holding their annual symposium. Two days of fashion history and museum visits really is my idea of heaven on earth!

 

 

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Warm Up Suit, Tracksuit, Athletic Suit, Gym Suit, or Sweat Suit?

I recently asked on Instagram what this suit would be called.  I got a total of five different answers which are in the title of this post. I was not just being curious. I actually had a reason for asking.

The illustration comes from a 1935 – 36 Lowe & Campbell Athletic Goods catalog. My aim was to see if people consider this to be a tracksuit. Judging from the answers I received, the answer is yes, this would be considered to be a tracksuit. But in my vintage catalog, it was referred to as a warm up suit.  Is there a difference? In my mind, no, there is not a difference. Both are two piece athletic suits designed to be worn over a smaller exercise ensemble, like trunks and a tee or tank top.

What got me onto this topic is an online course I’m taking through Coursesa, Fashion As Design. It was written as an accompaniment to the Items: Is Fashion Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I thought that the course would give me a bit of the museum experience, as it is unlikely that I’ll be in New York before the show closes in January.

For a person who loves thinking about fashion in a garment-based way, I’m really enjoying the experience. Much of the material concerns the origins of garments that we consider modern. But the course does a good job of pointing out that garments don’t just materialize. They have histories.

Which brings me to the tracksuit. According to the course, the tracksuit dates from 1939, but if you consider the suit above to be a tracksuit, then it is clearly at least four years older, and I suspect, even older that that. Maybe it is a case of terminology. Maybe 1939 was the first year the researchers found the term “tracksuit”.

I really hate being picky about this, but I can’t help but think this is how fashion myths get started. In two different places today I’ve encountered the myth that Chanel invented the “little black dress” in 1926. As much as I like preciseness, I’d rather have a vague dating reference than an incorrect one. An example is that the course gives the hoodie a vague date of the 1930s. I’ve been looking to find an earlier example, but so far I have not found any athletic wear with a hood before 1935. Of course, the hood itself goes back centuries.

Are there any names for this suit that we missed?

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I Didn’t Buy… Two 1940s Sewing Pattern Counter Books

I spent Friday at the Liberty Antiques Festival, a show that always seems to produce some amazing things for my collection and “archive”. Fashion books are very high on my radar, and I was feeling especially lucky since finding a 1934 Butterick counter book the evening before at one of my favorite vintage stores, Design Archives. But something about this one looked off.

I moved it and when I did I saw there was another one below it, and I also realized the problem. These two books were much too fat. Realization set in, as I’d seen this unfortunate phenomenon before. These were used as scrapbooks.

Sure enough, these two books contained page after page of miscellaneous newspaper photos from the 1940s. Someone spent a lot of time with the scissors and the paste.

I have nothing at all against scrapbooks. So many of them are charming relics of a person’s life, or a stage in it. That type of scrapbook is an important historical document. But a good look through these revealed nothing about the person who collected all these clippings. It seems to be just a visual compilation of the news of the day, both local and national.

The question came up when I posted these photos on Instagram as to what happens to out of date counter books. I can remember when I was in high school in the 1970s that the local Belk’s store would save them for the home ec classes. I’ve also seen people’s names written across the cover , claiming them when a newer book replaced it. There was one such 1952 counter book in my husband’s grandmother’s stuff.

To a kid in the 1930s and 1940s when resources were tight, getting one of these books must have seemed like a real prize. Can you imagine how many of these books ended being cut up for paper dolls? And this is not the first time I’m seen them used as scrapbooks. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the Simplicity one is the exact same one I spotted in 2008! The scars and scratches all match up.

I did have a moment of insanity when it occurred to me that I might be able to somehow clean these up using a miracle glue remover. But then I thought about how many hours such a project would take. So I left them behind, as I had done nine years ago.

 

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The Gabrielle Chanel Myth

It’s been six years since Hal Vaughan’s scathing assessment of Coco Chanel’s behavior during WWII was published, and yet people still seem to be surprised when confronted with the evidence he uncovered regarding her Nazi connections. It seems like everyone knows she took a Nazi lover and was holed up in the Ritz for the duration of the war. But what about the rest of it?

I belong to a great Facebook group, Fashion Historians Unite! A few days ago someone posted a link to a review of Vaughan’s book that was published on MessyNessyChic back in 2012. Even in a group of fashion historians, the story seemed vague, and several rushed to Coco’s defense.

Why is it that people simply do not want to think the worst of a great designer like Chanel? Is it that we just don’t want to think that a woman capable of such understanding when it came to what a modern woman wanted to wear, could be lacking in human compassion and guilty of unconscionable actions? What makes us so eager to swallow the Chanel company’s own re-written history of the woman, a history that places Chanel in Switzerland during the war?

Things are rarely ever black and white. The people we were taught to admire end up having flaws that are repulsive. No amount of the “he was a man of his time” talk can justify the actions of Thomas Jefferson concerning the people enslaved on his properties. It’s hard to celebrate the life of Andrew Jackson knowing that his actions sent the Cherokee and other Native peoples on a deadly journey west.

The Chanel company has a long and important history – one that deserves to be told honestly. Would knowing Chanel was most likely a Nazi herself change the way people feel about the brand? Maybe, but knowing the story of Nazi Germany doesn’t keep people from traveling to Germany today.  It does not keep us from buying Volkswagens. Knowing about Jefferson and Sally Hemings doesn’t keep us from appreciating his accomplishments.

It does seem to be a very strange time in history for Chanel to be pushing the persona of Gabrielle. Instead of concentrating on the Gabrielle Chanel myth (you know, like in this nonsense ad for Gabrielle perfume), a better approach would be to focus on the high level of craft and skill that is associated with Chanel. To see the value, you must watch Signe Chanel, which is a five part series on the making of a  2005 couture collection.

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Bonnie Cashin and Fashion Issues

It’s been sort of a slow two weeks in fashion stories, and I was worried there would not be enough material to do a Vintage Miscellany post. Turns out I was right, so next week will bring the regular post. But for this week, I want to focus on two items concerning American designer, Bonnie Cashin.  Yes, Bonnie has been in the news, but not in a way that would please her fans.

The first item stems from a post on Jonathan Walford’s blog. Raf Simons, who is now working at Calvin Klein, sent an orange cape down the runway that looked familiar to instagrammer @vrazdorskiy, who posted a side-by-side photo of Cashin’s cape and the one on the Calvin Klein runway. It doesn’t take a fashion expert to see that this is the same design, and if you were to play a “spot the differences” game, my guess is that you’d be stretching it to name three differences, mainly in color.

In response, Stephaine Lake, who wrote the book on Cashin and who owns Cashin’s person collection, started a new Instagram account, @cashincopy. We all know how important  Cashin’s work was, and how she continues to influence designers. But being inspired and issuing blatant copys are two different matters.

And here’s an ironic quote by Simons from this month’s Vanity Fair: “I’m not romantic about the past. Once it’s done it’s done. I’m romantic about the future.”

Well, so much for that.

The second story is one that Lake posted on Instagram, concerning a bag that Cashin designed for Coach in the early 1970s, called the Rural Free Delivery. In this case, the design was not copied, as it is Coach that is re-releasing the bag. What is interesting is how Coach is handling the history of the company, and how it is being misinterpreted by fashion writers.

The story in question is on the Glamour website, and is titled, “Coach Is Rereleasing a Bag From Its Archives.”  The writer states that the bag is from Cashin’s first collection with Coach, in 1972. Actually, Cashin first designed for Coach in 1962, which was when the first Coach items arrived on the market. The 1941 date is misleading, as while the company that eventually gave birth to Coach was started in 1941, Coach was a different division within that company.

So what’s the big deal about the date when a company was established? Coach itself uses 1941 in the name of their collection. But how long will it be before people selling vintage Coach bags on eBay start dating them to the 1940s and 50s?  In a rush to make Coach a “heritage” brand, the real story is diluted, and people are missing out on the authentic, and very interesting story.

The term “Cash and Carry” is an old grocery wholesale phrase, and it was extended in WWII to be a policy of the US selling supplies to countries as long as they paid cash and carried off the goods themselves. Bonnie Cashin adopted a pun on the phrase, Cashin-Carry, to describe her line of totes. I’ve never seen the term referred to as “Cashin Carries” as stated in the article. It completely misses the meaning of the pun.

And finally, Cashin was not a “creative director” at Coach. The term was not even in use at that time, and according to Lake, Cashin worked on a royalty basis. Her contract was not even with Coach; it was with the parent company, Gail Leather Products, a leather goods wholesaler. And besides, Cashin never “directed” any assistant designers, as she alone designed everything that carried her name.

It’s no secret where the writer got the “creative director” phrase, as Coach uses it on a page that introduces the bag.  But on the sales page itself, there is not even a mention of Cashin. There is a big deal made about “artist Keith Haring’s iconic illustrations” which are on a hangtag and the cloth lining. I’d love to have the job of “creative director” at Coach. You just dig into the archive, pay royalties to a deceased artist’s estate, and voilà! A brand new bag, or as Glamour put it, “new and improved”.

Thanks to Stephanie Lake for answering my question and clarifying the story for me.

 

 

 

 

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Women in Pants – The Aftermath of World War I

While my main focus is sportswear, I sometimes have to take a slight detour to see other forces that were at work in the journey toward women wearing pants. One such detour is the influence of World War One. Many articles about women wearing pants will bring up WWII as being a watershed moment in the movement toward females in pants, and that is a true depiction. But we also need to remember the woman workers of WWI, as it was they who were truly the pioneers.

I’ve written a lot about how bloomer gym suits and knickers on the hiking trails helped ease women into pants. But we need to remember that these were mainly women with money. What about the working class woman who had little time for leisure pursuits and no money for college? It’s likely that the first pants experience of most working class women was with a bathing suit, but it was during WWI that so many women took over jobs traditionally done by men. It made sense to adopt the working attire of men as well.

The young workers above are wearing overall suits, and you can tell they have seen some very hard days. But note the shoes on the woman on the right. It looks as if she has pressed into service an old pair of dress shoes. One had to make do with what was available.

WWI ended in 1918, but work overalls continued to be offered to women. The illustration above is from a 1921 Montgomery Ward catalog. I have seen ads for sewing patterns for similar garments into the 1920s.

The wearing of overalls for work during WWI and the years immediately afterward did not directly lead to women taking up trousers for regular wear. It was, however, one of the many steps that allowed women to see the practicality of pants, and which got people used to the idea of women wearing pants.

This is a card advertising a calendar for 1919. It’s most likely that WWI was still going when the card was distributed to the customers of Swift & Company. Women working – and wearing pants while working – was depicted as the patriotic thing for women to do.

In writing about my photo I got to thinking about how history is taught. So often we look at WWI as a time period from 1914 to 1918, with battles from trenches, and poison gas, and No Man’s Land, and then the Armistice on 11/11/18. If individual people are considered at all, it is usually in anecdotes of Christmas Day cease fires or stories of heroic officers leading charges across barbed wire.

But how much more interesting history becomes when people, both men and women, are put into the big picture. By this I mean not just political changes brought about by war, but more importantly, the social changes. When you stop and think about it, your life today is influenced more by the social changes (including the beginnings of working women wearing pants) than by some of the political ones. (The formation of Czechoslovakia comes to mind, that is unless you live in the former country of Czechoslovakia.)

Looked at it this way, the history of clothing takes on a significance that is often overlooked.

 

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