Category Archives: Viewpoint

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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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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