Category Archives: Viewpoint

History and Mythology

On my recent trip to north Georgia, I passed through the little town of Ringgold. I’d never given Ringgold much thought, but it turns out a lot happened there in 1863 and 1864. If you know a bit of American Civil War history, you might recall that after Confederate forces were forced to retreat south of Chattanooga, the Union army then set its sights on Atlanta. Ringgold was on the railroad line between the two cities, and as a result, was the scene of a small battle.

The town’s sturdy railroad depot played a part, as it was used by the Union army as a protective barrier when planning their attack. The battle then took place, with the Confederates holding on long enough to evacuate equipment and supplies. But the battle did nothing to stop the tide of the war, and of  Generals Grant, Hooker,  and Sherman’s trek to Atlanta.

General Hooker used the depot as his headquarters for the three or so days he was in Ringgold. When he and his men left, they attempted to blow up the structure, but while it was severely damaged, most of it remained standing. You can clearly see the repaired sections due to the difference in rocks used.

A few hundred yards away stands this house. It was the home of Ringgold merchant William Whitman and his family. The family stood at the windows and watched the battle. Afterwards it was commandeered by General Grant as his headquarters.

The Whitman House is still privately owned, but there is a historical marker in the yard. Erected in 1955, it’s not a reliable historical record. First of all, the house was built in 1857, not 1863 as seen on the marker. But what’s really interesting is the story about Mrs. Whitman and General Grant. She refused his money, he paid her a compliment, and his men cheered her. Or, as the marker reads, “Grant is said to have remarked…”

The problem with this story is there is no proof it ever happened. Much of what is known about the house’s history comes from an account written by the Whitman’s granddaughter many years later. She was not born until years after the Civil War. Written accounts of Union soldiers do not mention the exchange.

But there it is, big as life, on a bronze marker on the lawn of the house. How many Ringgold citizens learned the story as children? How many continue to believe this romanticized account of the proud Southern woman defying the great general?

I’ve met many Northerners who marvel at the long memory of the Confederate South. What they don’t realize is how there are daily reminders of the invasion of the South by the Union forces. Everyone who passes this house on her way to town sees a reminder of how a brave Southern woman defied the great Grant.

I was born in 1955. Jim Crow was still an active force in the South. Southerners were still  being educated in the mythology of the Lost Cause. Is there any wonder some Southerners cling to this mythology?

The way to the truth is education. Unfortunately the way to the mythology of the Lost Cause was also through education – bad education. Only we can set the record straight. This is not rewriting history; it is reclaiming the truth.

 

 

 

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Vintage Miscellany – November 17, 2019

Could the photo above be giving us a glimpse inside an early 1920s sporting event, perhaps at a school for girls? What else could explain the presence of the two women, who could possibly be mothers of some of the girls? There’s no way to know because there’s nothing at all written on the back of the photo to give us a hint. All I can do is speculate.

And here is a bit of news…

  •   Momentum is building in the movement to build a museum devoted to women’s baseball.
  •    Here’s a taste of what we might expect from Ingrid Mida’s new book, Reading Fashion in Art.
  •    Well, along with the corruption of the words vintage and curate, you can now add provenance to the list.
  •    Another Nazi-tainted work of art will be restored to the heirs of the rightful owners.
  •    In an upcoming movie, Lady  Gaga will play Patrizia Reggiani, the ex-wife of Maurizio Gucci who was convicted of plotting his murder in 1996.
  •    Here’s a nice article about textile designer Tammis Keefe.
  •   Bride Lyndsey Raby chose her flower girls wisely, and they even had matching dresses that looked good on them all.
  •    Jane Fonda is giving up clothes shopping, sort of.
  •   “Where there is wool, there is a woman who weaves, if only to pass the time.” Thankfully, that is what many women of the Bauhaus did.
  •   Clothing collector Sandy Schreier is really having her moment.
  •   One of the forces behind Columbia Sportswear, Gert Boyle, has died.

 

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Cultural Exchange

Circa 1928 evening dress from E.L.Mayer, Collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum

Circa 1928 evening dress from E.L.Mayer, Collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum

This past week has brought another example of how using “other” cultures in fashion can be a very slippery slope. Dior perfumes went so far as to consult with Native leaders, and they employed a Native dancer to try and stave off criticism. But no matter, as people did strongly object to Native imagery and narration by non-Native actor Johnny Depp. The problem was the name of the perfume, Sauvage.

I first wrote about cultural appropriation in 2011, and I’ve revisited the subject from time to time, usually after a big internet dustup. Even though Dior went to some lengths to head off the cries of cultural appropriation, what they missed is that the ad is simply racist. And I’ve come to believe that most cases of accused cultural appropriation are, in fact, something else.

Back in June the government of Mexico expressed their displeasure at American clothing company Carolina Herrera whose Resort 2020 collection included items inspired by Mexican handicraft. There were striped dresses made from fabrics that strongly resembled those used in making the serape. There were long, flowy “Mexican” wedding dresses (remember those from the 1970s?). But most problematic were embroidered blouses that were very near copies of the work of Native embroiderers in Tenango de Doria in Hidalgo, Mexico.  So near, in fact, that you might be tempted to say the designs were stolen.

Of course you need to ask yourself about the origins of the embroidered blouses. As indigenous cultures were exposed to European clothing, many garments were adapted to form new types of clothing. A good example of this is what is considered to be traditional Navajo dress for women, with deep velvets being made into tiered shirts with chemise-type blouses. This dress was adapted from the styles the White Victorian women of the nearby forts and trading posts were wearing. And the style comes full circle in the late 1940s when dress manufacturers in the American Southwest developed a similar style for tourists – the patio or “squaw” dress (Don’t yell at me over the word “squaw”. I know that some consider it to be a slur. I am simply using the historic name for the dress.)

So, when you start to look at all the historic exchanges between cultures, it becomes apparent that “cultural appropriation” is seldom a matter of black or white. That does not mean I’m excusing Wes Gordon, the designer at Carolina Herrera. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the company had gone to Tenango de Doria to have the embroiderers there execute the designs so they could profit from a collaboration.

I’ve had these issues on my mind over the past few weeks after seeing Kimono Refashioned at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Looking at all the stunningly beautiful garments it occurred to me that in today’s world there would be an internet mob out to get Paul Poiret and Liberty & Co. I was relieved that the curators took the approach of cultural exchange, rather than that of appropriation.

I think the most insightful words came from Akiko Fukai, curator at the Kyoto Costume Institute.

…the West had moved beyond its initial superficial interest in the kimono’s exoticism to appreciate it at a deeper level. Fashion adapted the kimono in steps and from several different angles. Furthermore, these responses demonstrate that, when borrowing ideas, modern fashion frequently turned to prototypes for inspiration.

So much of what is accused of being cultural appropriation is simply racism or classism. To me, this is a serious problem that clothing companies and consumers need to address.  But claiming “appropriation” for the use of Asian or Latin American textiles is just one more thing in today’s world that is pitting humans against one another. We already have an atmosphere of us against them. We don’t need that attitude when it comes to our clothing.

If a product or ad is racist, it’s time to protest. But the exchange of ideas between cultures can lead to greater understanding between groups. It might be time for us all to look at what we have in common.

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Wearing the Flag

It’s the Fourth of July, and in certain circles, everyone who is gathered at the family cookout will be wearing some version of the American flag on their clothing. in 2019, many people believe that wearing the flag is the ultimate expression of their patriotism. Actually, they may be breaking the US Flag Code.

The Flag Code was written in 1923, and in 1942 it was passed by the US Congress as Public Law 829; Chapter 806, 77th Congress, 2nd session. There were no pentalities attached to the breaking of the Code. Instead, prosecution was left to each state.

Included in the code is a clause of interest to dress historians:

The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

There are several ways to interpret this clause. Does it mean that clothing cannot be made from a flag? Does it mean that clothing cannot depict a flag? Does it mean that one cannot wear jewelry that looks like the US flag?

Prior to the mid 1970s you just don’t see much civilian clothing with actual US flags. My favorite story about this comes from designer Deanna Littel, who in the mid 1960s was one of the young, hip designers at the New York boutique, Paraphernalia.  She designed a shirt made from the little cotton flags that people wave at parades, and found a supplier who could provide the flags by the yard.  The design was ready to go into production when Paraphernalia learned that the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) was looking for flag defilers, and that they were prosecuting offenders.  The design was scraped.

The Supreme Court has since ruled that violations of the Flag Code cannot be prosecuted as it is an infringement of the right of free speech. In 1974 a Massachusetts man challenged the law in his state after he was arrested for wearing an American flag patch on his jeans. He ultimately won, as the Court ruled the law violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

Calhoun Men's USA American Flag T-Shirt (Multi, Small)

The shirt above was found on Amazon, made by a company named Calhoun. There was no information as to whether the shirt was made in the USA or not. I thought the law says country of origin must the displayed in web stores. I guess I was wrong.

In one of fashion’s great ironies, what was once considered to be dishonoring the flag is now completely accepted by the set of people who  once thought it was so wrong.  There are thousands of flag shirts just on Amazon. It’s pretty clear that the law is not going to be enforced, so why do we still have it?

The latest flag kerfuffle does not involve the modern Stars and Stripes. It’s about the so-called Betsy Ross flag, the one with the thirteen stars in a circle. Sneaker maker Nike developed a USA themed Air Max 1 shoe that featured the Betsy Ross flag on the back of the shoe. As the shoe was being released, Colin Kaepernick, who has starred in Nike ads, protested that the flag comes from an era when people were enslaved in the United States, and thus the flag was not appropriate.

I consider myself to be a strong liberal, with an open mind concerning how offensive matter harms groups. I feel that the age of claiming the “Confederate flag” is a matter of heritage is over. I know that symbols are powerful communicators. But I also feel that this latest flag controversy is a step too far.

As Americans, we cannot scrub clean every single idea, symbol, historic place, document, and so on, that occured before slavery was finally abolished in 1865. It just isn’t possible,and frankly, this latest episode has only served to further divide Americans. There are so many problems that need to be worked through here in the US. To me, the Betsy Ross flag isn’t one of them.

I’ve read that in some white supremacists gatherings the Betsy Ross flag has been flown, and that is a reason for banning that flag. Whether or not that is true seems to be beside the point considering that those people also fly the Stars and Stripes at their meetings. Are we going to ban that as well?

So, is there anyone still out there who thinks that clothing is frivolous?

 

 

 

 

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Everyday Clothing

It seems as if “everyday clothing” is having a moment. Several weeks ago I posted a link to the New York Times article about the collection of everyday clothes at Smith College. Then last week there was a conference in the UK on the topic of everyday clothes. And the latest episode of the fashion podcast Bande  à Part  is also about everyday clothes.

One of the first questions that Rebecca and Beatrice of Bande  à Part  discuss is, just what is everyday clothing. It might be pretty obvious to some, but think of the population as a whole; one person’s everyday is another’s special occasion. For discussion here, I’d suggest that everyday clothing means the clothes the 99% of us wear everyday. It does not include couture garments and ballgowns. For the most part, it does not include the avant garde.

In  short, everyday clothes are the things that one does not expect to see in a fashion exhibition at the Met, or any museum that is dedicated to the idea that fashion is art. On the other hand, you would expect to see everyday dress in a history museum. And many museums, such as dedicated fashion museums, will often have both couture and more commonly worn garments in their collections.

Personally, I prefer the historical and cultural (as opposed to artistic) approach. Not to say that I don’t appreciate a stunning Dior gown, because I do. It’s enlightening for an everyday clothing collector like me to occasionally see the work of an artist like Dior. The truth is there are plenty of topics about everyday dress that need to be explored, but do we really need another book on Coco Chanel?

I still find the study of what women wore – and why they wore it – to be the most fascinating part of fashion history.  The choice of a couture ballgown is based on what one’s favorite designer has to offer combined with trying to stand out from the other couture-clad ball goers. But in 1922 the decision to wear a pair of knickerbockers to a fall picnic could be full of gender-bending anxiety.

I can vividly remember the first day I dared to wear jeans to school. It had been stressed to us in the sixties and seventies that young ladies wore dresses and skirts, and so it was hard to ignore the disapproving voices in my head. How much stronger must that message have been to girls in the early 1920s!

It doesn’t get much more “everyday” than the school girl’s middy. My matching set is linen and was worn by a college girl. But even families with few resources could buy cheap cotton middies or make them at home.

This knit sports dress was made by a moderately priced knitwear maker, Sacony.  The silk blouse was most likely made at home, and the California Sports Hat was sold through the Montgomery Ward catalog. Even though this ensemble is far from couture, it is still important as it shows a step in the increasingly casual way people were dressing in the 1920s.

Bathing suits were becoming a necessity, and they were available at many price points, from less than a dollar to more than twenty dollars. A woman needed a cover-up. but that could be borrowed from her own boudoir.

These two garments were probably beyond the budget of many 1920s women, but this would have been everyday wear for a woman who had a bit more to spend on her clothes.

And here is an example of a more aspirational garment. This is from French fashion house Babani, and would have been priced at a level that most American women could only dream of.

I think it is great that historians are giving everyday clothing a closer look. What people wore is important in understanding the times in which they lived. It’s interesting to think of clothes as artifacts, and not just what one wore each day.

 

 

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Dressed to Protest: What Women Wore to the Revolution

Several years ago I read The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. In case you don’t know the book, it’s about developing creativity. From many conversations I’ve had with adults over the years, it seems that most people either think they are creative, or they are not creative. But according to Cameron (and many others) creativity can be developed.

One thing Cameron prescribes is what she calls “morning pages”. This is where first thing every morning you write three pages of just anything, in an effort to clear your head of whatever is happening in your life so you can be more receptive to your creative side. I’m sure this practice helps many people, but I tried it and it just seemed like a chore to me.

But another practice suggested in the book has proven to be more helpful, that of setting aside time every week for an art date. The art date is a special activity that breaks the routine and exposes you to beauty, learning, and new ideas. It can be anything from a tour through local antiques shops to a museum visit to a lecture on birdwatching.

I really do try to schedule an art date each week. Last week I met with Liza to do some vintage shopping, and then to attend a presentation by Cornelia Powell on the dress reform movement. It was the kind of day that everyone needs, with vintage finds and a thoughtful history lesson. Never mind the guy at the shop who had a big box full of 1930s and 40s Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines that he would not sell. That’s another story.

So, here we are after a rough day of the vintage hunt.  We don’t look too frazzled, in light of the fact that just thirty minutes prior we were considering knocking a bookseller over the head and running off with his box of magazines.

I’ll not go into the details of Cornelia’s presentation, because I can’t do justice to it, but I will share some of the images she used.  It’s easy to see why I enjoyed this so much.

If you have read this journal for any time at all, then you  are already aware that sports, and especially bicycling, played a big role in the move toward reform in dress for women. Bicycling also led to many women becoming less dependant on men for transportation. Could this, perhaps, lead to other things? Some men warned that the bicycle was just a gateway to more independence for women.

And the automobile only confirmed those fears.

The wearing of white was a powerful symbol for women protesting and marching for the right to vote. But also note the “revolutionary” tricorn hats!

I really loved this photo of women from the Western states who had already gained the right to vote. Sometimes we in the East forget that many women in the Western states had been voting for many years.

Cornelia reminded us that fashion was a valuable tool in the fight for suffrage. Many of the leaders of the movement learned early on with the failure of the bloomer that looking respectable was key to gaining respect for their cause.

And so my art date was a big success. Thanks to Liza for letting me use her photos, and to Cornelia for all the food for thought.

Remember to always look up. This was the skylight in the library where the event was held.

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Definitions of Pants: Bloomers, Knickers, and Trousers

Several years ago I presented a paper to my regional Costume Society of America on my research on women hikers and their wearing of knickerbockers (knickers). Sometimes when a person (in this case, me) gets too wrapped up in her own topic, she forgets that others might not be as well acquainted with terms that denote a specific item. In this case, I was asked the question, “What’s the difference between knickers and bloomers?”

Later experience has taught me that for some reason, people tend to equate nineteenth and early twentieth century pants for women with bloomers. And the truth is, that most women who were wearing pants of any type before 1920 were wearing bloomers. They were the accepted garment for women’s sports and exercise attire. Some women were wearing them for bicycling. And for a brief moment in the mid nineteenth century, women dress reformers wore long bloomers beneath shorter dresses and coats.

The difference between knickerbockers and bloomers is chiefly in the volume of the fabric making up the legs. Bloomers are very full, while knickers are more fitted. Also, knickers end just below the knee and are finished with a buttoning band. Bloomers can range from above the knee to the ankle, and are often gathered at the hem with elastic.

But what about trousers, pants that fall straight from the hips to the ankles? While not common, yes, women in the nineteenth century did sometimes wear trousers, which was considered to be a male garment. I’ve seen quite a few photos of women on farms and ranches wearing trousers while doing work. The great photo above shows three women hikers wearing trousers.

But what about a woman in the nineteenth century who lived her life in trousers?

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

Yes, there were some. Above is the famous Mary Edwards Walker, physician and fashion rebel. This photo of her sold in February for $9375.  I came across it while reading the latest issue of a well-known magazine for antiques lovers. What made me stop and think was the caption of the photo which twice pointed out that Dr. Walker was wearing bloomers in the photo. I hope you can tell from my descriptions of bloomers, knickers, and trousers that she is actually wearing trousers, not bloomers.

Should the writer of the article known the difference between trousers and bloomers? Does it matter?

The Swann’s auction site describes Walker’s garment as ” pantaloons or bloomers.”  Pantaloons seems to be a fairly accurate term, though many people associate the word with Little Bo Peep.  Personally, I would describe the garment as trousers, though Walker herself referred to them as pants.

Unafraid of controversy, in 1897 she wrote, “I am the original new woman . . . Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am. In the early ’40’s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants . . . I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.” Swanns Catalog

When accused of wearing men’s clothing, Walker famously replied that she was wearing her own clothes, not those of a man.

 

 

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