Category Archives: Viewpoint

Currently Reading: All the Best Rubbish by Ivor Noël Hume

When I was a freshman in college I discovered history.  I’d always liked reading about the past, but for the first time I became really excited about it.  I was all ready to major in American literature when I was thrown into the core program at my small, public university.  All freshmen were required to take a year of “humanities” classes which consisted of history, sociology, literature and writing.  My teacher of the first term was a history professor, and he approached the curriculum through the study of history, incorporating the literature of the era along with other social studies.  I was hooked.

It wasn’t enough that I was studying history in class, so I went in search of other things to fuel my interest.  I can’t remember how I came to pick up this book by historical archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume, but I suspect it was a happy accident from repeated browsing at the newly opened B. Dalton bookstore in Asheville.  But however I came to own the book, I quickly fell under the spell of the “Pleasures and Perils” of collecting.  For a while my greatest ambition in life was to go mud-larking on the banks of the Thames, as the author made it sound so appealing.

But my life took a different turn, and instead of becoming a mud-larker, I became a teacher.  And I had not picked up this book for thirty-five years.

Recently I was moving furniture around and in doing so was moving books to a new bookcase.  I ran across my much-loved copy of All the Best Rubbish, and was reminded of what it had meant to me all those years ago.  As a result, I put it in the reading queue.

To my surprise, the book seems to have had a lasting influence on my collecting.  Ivor Noël Hume is not only a renowned archaeologist, he is also a collector, and the book, while it tells much about his job at Colonial Williamsburg, is mainly about the things he found over the years and what he learned from them.  The main take-away is this: The most expensive artifacts are not always the most valuable in terms of history.  Simple, everyday objects are most often the ones that can teach us the most about the past.  And while Noël Hume’s examples were often ceramics and glass, the same can be said for clothing.

Collecting only the best and rarest may be satisfying to the egotist or to the person needing aesthetic stimuli to get him through the misery of life in a world of mediocrity, but it does nothing for anyone wanting to know what it was like to live in other centuries.

Another valuable lesson is that value is subjective, and is more often than not, based on opinion.  Something that is thought to be ugly becomes less so when there are lots of dollar signs attached to the item.

Even though this book was published over forty years ago, so much of it will strike a chord with modern collectors:

The collector…has the residue of a lifetime for research and the acquisition of keys to doors beyond which lie journeys, adventures, and dramas that are not uniquely his own.

After all, it it not just the owning of objects, but the history that we can learn from these objects that is important.


I could not resist adding a photo of this 18th century engraving, as the woman on the left and I share a name.  My grandmother was Elizabeth Adams (but was called Lizzie) and I was named for her, being Sharon Elizabeth Adams. I never knew the original Lizzie as she died the year before my birth, but by all accounts she was a kind and generous woman, with not a trace of larceny in her heart!


Filed under Collecting, Currently Viewing, Viewpoint

Helping Fight Bad History

One thing about being a teacher for twenty-eight years is that it helps you develop a very strong bullshit meter.  Not that you would need much of one for this bit of nonsense.  In 1921, women in the US had gotten the vote, so there are no need to be a suffragette.  It may look like the women are eating pizza, but in the early 1920s, pizza was not the easily-obtained food that it is today.  And I’ve never, ever heard of groups of women eating to annoy men.

This photo was taken from Shorpy, where it is plainly labeled that the women are eating pie, something you can see for yourself in an enlarged view of the original.

We are all adults here, so I’m hoping I’ll not be bursting any bubbles when I tell you that you simply cannot believe everything you see – or read – on the WWW.  There are entire websites dedicated to exposing the fake and the falsely captioned.  It seems to be a huge losing battle, as the desire to make a twitter photo or a facebook post go “viral” is so much more important to many users than is the truth.

One of the great values of the internet is the ability to share information.  I’ve talked here many times about merely posting about an object or a clothing company is a fantastic way to collect information about it.  People who know the answers will find you, eventually, through Google.

Many people are using the internet to discover the “lost” stories of defunct fashion companies and to piece together the trends of the past.  Rubbish like the pizza-eating suffragettes only muddies the historical waters.

Of course ClassicPics could have simply repeated the caption from Shorpy, and even credited that site as the origin of the photo.  But what would be the fun in that?

My second beef with this twitter posting is the lack of a source.  The photo itself is quite interesting, and might be just the thing that a researcher needs to illustrate a paper or a presentation.  The problem then becomes finding the original source, something that one of the debunking sites had already done in this case, but would have taken me all day to figure out.

I’ve had that great blog post at Wynken de Worde on my mind, the one I posted a link to in last week’s Vintage Miscellany about the same issues I’m addressing here.  This really struck home yesterday when I spotted two of my photos on Instagram, both of which had been cropped, neither of which was attributed to me or to the copyright holder.  It’s disheartening that people who  profess to love fashion history are posting photos out of their true context, separating objects from their history.

For the most part I don’t mind if people use my images as long as a credit is given (and a link is even better).  That way if someone stumbles across one of my images elsewhere on the internet, they can follow the breadcrumbs back here to read more about the object.  It is a win for everyone concerned.  But images without a way to learn more about them steals a learning opportunity from the viewer and it robs me of a visitor to this blog.

I have gotten to the place where I’ll point out when an image was taken from my site.  I don’t like doing it because I always feel like I’m being a bit passive-aggressive in my approach.  But it is either that or silently fume, which is something I just refuse to do.


Filed under Viewpoint

On Books, Fame, and Other Things


I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, mainly because the summer heat makes it hard to be motivated to do much else.  I’ve reread some old favorites, gotten serious about some new books in my long reading queue, thumbed through some magazines, and have even read a bit on the internet.  I love to read.

When I taught ten- and eleven-year-olds, one of the most common questions I got from parents was, “How do I get him/her to read?”  Then they would go on about how they had read to the child as a baby and toddler and how there was a room full of books at the kid’s disposal, but the kid refused to pick them up.  I’d let them talk, but eventually we’d get around to the subject of role models.  And what would come out ninety percent of the time was that the child never saw an adult in the house reading for pleasure.  The truth is, kids like to copy adult behavior.

Both of my parents were readers, especially my mother.  Even though she had four kids, she kept a very efficient house, and usually had all her work finished by noon.  The afternoons were for reading.  She’d shoo us out of the house and then pick up her book.  On hot summer days I’d take a book of my own, climb my favorite tree, get comfortable on a big limb, and get lost in my reading.

I didn’t mean for this post to turn into a public service announcement for reading, but there is a lesson in the story.  All my siblings are avid readers.

But getting back to original thought, I have been reading a lot, so expect more book reviews in the coming days.  Reader Maya asked if I got compensated by book publishers because I was making her buy lots of books.  I do occasionally get a free book for review, and I get free previews from a review service, but I buy 95% of the books I review.  And, no, I don’t get any money for reviews, nor would I take it.  As photographer Bill Cunningham famously says, “If you don’t take their money they can’t tell you what to say.”

The sad truth is that when someone gets something “free” they tend to feel obligated to the giver, and so the review is tempered somewhat.  A big shift occurred in fashion blogging after businesses started showering bloggers with gifts.  It’s hard to write bad things about a $300 handbag that was given to you.  So, if I’m given a book that I don’t like, I contact the publisher and offer to send it back.  I will do a less than positive review on an free e-book though.  I guess I don’t see the impersonal electronic transfer of a book as being a gift.

Even if I hate a book, I don’t like writing a bad review.  I know how much work goes into writing and how personal criticism can seem.  It is especially hard when I sort of know the writer through online interactions.  Right now I’ve been grappling with a review of a book I really wanted to love, but the truth is that the author just does not fulfill the promise of the topic.  And I have just about decided that editing is a lost art.  The book’s editor really let this author down.

Since I’m rambling on today, I have also had the idea of fame on my mind, and why it is that humans seem to be so obsessed with celebrities.  I usually don’t concern myself with the comings and goings of celebrities, but a post on the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum in London) Instagram irked me to the point that I unfollowed their account.  The offending photo was a picture of an unsmiling Kayne West standing beneath a quote at the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A.

The caption on the photo merely stated that Kanye West and his wife Kim Kardashian paid a special visit to see Savage Beauty.  But a quick leap to Kardashian’s account reveals that it was a #SupriseDateNight in an #AfterHoursVisit in a photo of an exhibition of which the public is not allowed to take photos.  I really have no opinion on the Wests, but this sort of flaunting their privilege is just tacky.  And to think the V&A not only participated, but publicized it shows just how powerful we think one image of a celebrity is.  All I can say is I hope Mr. West richly compensated the museum for his after hours tour, and that the V&A got more out of it than two Instagram photos.

So, what’s your beef this week?  Post away, but remember to be kind (sort of).




Filed under Viewpoint

Of Suntanning and Pantalets

Photo found on Wikipedia

I have a really short attention span.  I can’t blame my age because I’ve always been this way.  I’ll be interested in one thing and then in my pursuit of it notice another, and so off I go in that direction.  I think that is why I like writing this blog.  I can chase whatever rainbow crosses my sky.

I might have mentioned here that I’m working on a program about women’s camp and hiking attire.  Since I was doing the work anyway I decided to expand the research in order to write a paper for possible presentation or publication.  And the topic is so interesting to me that I thought I’d have little trouble staying on track.

Wrong.  Everywhere I turn there I see another route I want to take, another fascinating fact to share, another article to read and think about.  And it is funny how when a topic gets into the consciousness, related topics tend to pop up as well.

Last week I went to the Metrolina Marketplace for a bit of recreational treasure hunting.  A women had her half-grown puppy there, and she was really making a spectacle of herself – the dog, not the owner.  This was a dog who knew how to command a crowd, and she was working the flea market with a very skilled paw.

Turns out the dog is a Coton de Tulear by the name of Coco Chanel.  The Coton de Tulear is a fairly rare breed, and I’m sure the owner chose the name because it symbolized glamour and fashion to her.  Frankly, I’d never name an animal for a notorious Nazi-lover, and it occurred to me that people must either not care that Chanel was such an odious person (her words, not mine), or they don’t actually know much about her.

But the encounter with the sweet dog with the sadly inappropriate name must have put Chanel in the forefront of my thoughts, because I keep finding her in my reading.

One of my finds from the weekend was a 1909 issue of McCall’s Magazine.  I usually don’t buy McCall’s, but this one had an article I knew would be helpful in my research, What Summer Camps Are Doing for Society Girls.  But that’s not the only gem in this issue, as I also noted Fashions for the Seaside, Suggestions for the Fair Traveler, and Packing for the Vacation Trip.  It’s almost as if those editors back in 1909 had me in mind when planning this issue.

One of the things that Chanel is almost always credited with is the popularization of the suntan.  I’ve read that nobody but nobody sported a tan before Chanel.  But here I found in this 1909 magazine a reference to tanning:

Poets have sung the charms of the “nut-brown maid” and it is not to be denied that a good coat of tan is very becoming to many people. If our annual seaside jaunt has no worse effect upon our tender skins than the transforming for a while to one of rich olive tone we should have very little to complain of.

The writer does go on to warn the reader of the burning effects of the sun, but the paragraph makes very clear that intentional suntanning was already being practiced and was considered to be desirable quite a few  years before Chanel supposedly introduced the practice to the world.

And that is one thing that bugs me about Chanel.  The stories told and retold about her border on myth.  I don’t understand why we can’t be content to let the woman’s real accomplishments – and there were many – be enough.

A day later I was reminded of Chanel again.  I was looking through my collection of pre-1930 vintage magazines to see if I could spot any references to pants being worn by women.  I expected to see beach pyjamas and knickers for skiing and breeches for riding, but I was completely surprised to find the image above in a 1924 Vogue.

Chanel makes a suit-dress of light grey Oxford cloth with a slightly fitting coat, a grey crepe bodice, and a skirt that may be worn buttoned or unbuttoned, over the grey crepe pantalets.

By the time this suit was conceived by Chanel, women had been wearing skirts over pants for biking and hiking for several decades.   It was not a new idea, but what was new was that this was not an ensemble that was intended for active sports.  This was a fashion garment, and the pants were meant to be seen.

I found another, similar example in a 1925 Vogue, but this idea must have been too outre for the mid 1920s.  Pants for women were strictly for sports and the boudoir and Chanel’s idea did not catch on.  But it does show us just how modern Chanel was, and how her ideas for women’s wear were on the cutting edge.  It seems a shame that she be remembered more for the little black dress and for suntanning than she is for the ideas that were truly forward-thinking.




Filed under Designers, Viewpoint

Month in Review – May, 2015

If it seems like a long time since you’ve seen a month in review here, that’s because I haven’t made one for several months.  Seems like by the time I got around to doing a post the next month was half over and it was a bit pointless.  Here it is June already, and so here’s a look at how May was in my corner of the world.

If you are ever in Asheville, one place you have to go is Magnolia Beauregards, if for no other reason than to see the owner’s collection of vintage and antique mannequins and heads.  Amazing stuff.

I used to find lots and lots of barkcloth at the Goodwill Outlet Center, but this is the first piece I’ve dug out in a very long time.  The tiny little piece is going to be the center panel of a pillow, but can you just imagine this print as curtains?

I think that by now I’ve Instagramed most of my Scottie collection.  This is another pillow project in waiting.

Yes, I do love dogs, and not just Scotties.  I found these whimsical buttons in New York and finally found a dress for them.  The dress is quite nice in its own right – a 1960s Irish linen shirt dress.  But the buttons were trashed and needed replacing.  Luckily I had the perfect ones.

And speaking of dogs, many weekends I can be found helping at at dog adoptions for one of our local rescue groups.  That’s Ripley, and he is a real charmer.

Spring brought the blooming of the rhododendron and azaleas.  My neighbor used to own a nursery and his yard is a masterpiece.

I made a quick trip to Atlanta to see my great-niece have her first communion and I was able to squeeze in a bit of window shopping.  This was a window at Ralph Lauren.  I’m always amazed at how the brand is more about a perceived lifestyle than it is about the clothes.

I found this amazing book from 1913 at a local antiques store.  The writers were mostly concerned with collecting furniture, but what they had to say about collecting still rings true 102 years later.

It is delightful to look upon a treasure of the past… but it is infinitely more delightful to make the treasure one’s own. And the more that one gathers and loves, the more does there come a deeper enjoyment, a finer satisfaction, a fuller joy. The quest of the antique leads pleasurably from one delightful triumph of acquisition to another.

Hammock days started out slow, but were enabled by the use of a nice Pendleton blanket.

This was another Goodwill find.  It’s a 1950s or early 60s man’s beach jacket.  It was in another shopper’s reject pile.  What was she thinking?

So, how was your May?


Filed under Viewpoint

Ad Campaign: Dueling Textiles, 1969

Synthetic fabrics were nothing new in 1969, but they had been improved to the point that they seemed like a new idea.  Rayon and acetate had been available to consumers on a large scale since the 1920s but there were lots of problems with the fabrics.  They often were prone to shrinking, and there are even stories of women who got caught in the rain in a new rayon frock who then had to give the dress to a much smaller sister.  The dyes used, especially blue, could be unstable, with blue often turning to a pink or dark red.  They wrinkled as badly as natural fibers, and they were bad to retain odors.

The 1950s brought Dacron polyester which was usually blended into cotton.  Polyester had the advantage of being wrinkle-resistant, color fast and it did not shrink.  By the 1960s 100% polyester was being knit into what seemed to be a miracle fabric. It looked to be well on its way to replacing both cotton and wool knits.

The 1950s and 1960s must have been great days for those in chemical research.  People really did buy the famous line from DuPont,  “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry.”

So with all these advantages to Tritessa, why would anyone want to buy silk?

Because as the International Silk Association tells us ten pages later in the same magazine, “Only Silk Is Silk.”

Researchers continue to improve synthetic fabrics.  The polyesters of today are far superior to the hot and heavy double knits of the 1960s and 70s.  Rayon is colorfast, wrinkle-resistant, and it no longer shrinks in the rain. Still, it has to be repeated, only silk is silk.


Filed under Ad Campaign, Viewpoint

Accessibility of Information


It has occurred to me that I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to make history accessible to others, first through efforts to make it relevant to twenty-eight years of pre-teens, and now through blog posts that I hope help make fashion history a little more interesting to anyone who cares to read them.   It has also occurred to me that at no time has information been so accessible as it is today.

When I was in my senior year of college I had to write a thesis on some aspect of American history in order to satisfy the requirements of my history degree.  I chose as my topic “The Effect of the American Civil War on the Moravian Communities in North Carolina.”  I picked this topic because I knew I’d have access to primary sources that would supply the information I needed.  The Moravian were meticulous record keepers, and many volumes of the records had been translated into English from German, and then were published.

Today I’d not have to be so picky when it came to picking a topic.  Many historical organizations, museums, and universities are in the process of making their archives available digitally.  This is a big deal for anyone who is doing historical research of any kind as it eliminates a lot of travel and expense.

It’s not just institutions that are revolutionizing the way research is conducted.  One of the major digitizers is Google.  The Google Books function not only makes available thousands of out of print books and magazines, the content of them is searchable through Google search.

I’ve mentioned a research project I’m currently working on – women’s hiking and camping clothing of the early twentieth century.  Not only have some of you sent great links to information and images, but Google Books has made accessible resources that I’d otherwise not even have known of.  My favorite is The Outing Magazine, with issues from the 1910s and 1920s being made available.

Fashion history can be found in all sorts of books.  Because I have a source that supplies me with cheap books (also known as the Goodwill Clearance Center) I’m always picking up old books that I suspect might contain tidbits of fashion information.  Books that relate to the history of women or to sewing and clothes making often have little insights into what women wore in the past.

I recently found a book published in 1942, as the USA was entering World War II.  Women for Defense, by Margaret Culkin Banning was a call to action for the women of America, and included was how women were already working for the war effort.  It contains all sorts of little details about dress that make primary sources so valuable, and fashion history so interesting.

Any account of American women in defense begins with these workers whose whole day’s labor is for victory.  They are paid for their work, to be sure, but that does not mean they are not filling an emergency.  It does not mean that they are not in uniform, nor out of danger.  They are literally so in some places, as for example in the Frankford Arsenal where the women explosive workers are urged to purchase two simple cotton uniforms, one red and one blue, colors alternated weekly, in an effort to ensure the wearing of a freshly-washed garment at the beginning of each week.  Not for style or becomingness is the color insisted on, and the fabric is lightly starched cotton – because it is somewhat resistant to fire.  


Filed under Viewpoint