Category Archives: Viewpoint

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!

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Road Trip, Travel, Viewpoint

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?

12 Comments

Filed under Viewpoint

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.

 

12 Comments

Filed under Curiosities, I Didn't Buy..., Viewpoint

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.

22 Comments

Filed under Designers, Viewpoint

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.

 

 

 

 

13 Comments

Filed under Fashion Issues, Viewpoint

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.

 

8 Comments

Filed under Proper Clothing, Viewpoint

Patagonia’s Worn Wear Project

Yesterday the Patagonia Worn Wear rig made a stop at Warren Wilson College, which is located in nearby Swannanoa, NC, and I was able to drop in to see it in action.  The rig, seen above, is actually a mobile clothing repair shop, which is currently touring the country with stops at selected college campuses.  Tiny Warren Wilson was lucky to be chosen, as most of the schools on the tour are large universities.

The purpose of the tour is to raise awareness of how clothing repair is an important part of making the production of clothing more sustainable.  It seems like an oxymoron for a company like Patagonia, which is in the business of making and selling clothes, to advocate for people keeping their clothing longer.  But Patagonia is not the average clothing company.

Patagonia is a producer of outdoor clothing and supplies, and is not a “fashion” company.  But all clothing reflects to some degree what is in fashion, either through color, or the length of shorts, or the fit of a tee shirt.  As a maker of fleece jackets and down jackets, Patagonia does not rely so much on changing styles in order to sell their products.  Instead, they sell garments that are actually needed.  Even so, they are working toward educating people that need can be reduced through repairs.

I’ve written about Patagonia before as an example of a company that makes it easy for the consumer to know where and how its products are made.  If you go to their website, on the sales page of each product it shows the factories where the product was made, along with a description of the responsible practices of each.  It’s about as transparent as it gets in the clothing industry.

The Worn Wear team did on the spot repairs, but even more importantly, they wanted to talk with students (and even non-students like me) about the importance of taking care of one’s clothing to make it last longer.  They encouraged visitors to learn the skills necessary to make repairs to damaged clothes to extend their life.  And of course, behind the message is the starting point of buying good stuff to start with.

The rig itself is really interesting.  It’s made of completely recycled materials and it runs on biodiesel.  It’s beautifully constructed, and I imagine they get lots of attention on the highway.

This is Rudy, who guards the thread and keeps the staff on track.

There was even free swag.  Besides the organic fruit bar and a small guide to making repairs, there was a shelf of free books, all titles pertaining to environmental and human rights issues.  I picked up a copy of Patagonia’s latest report on these initiatives, and spent much of the evening reading about the many things that Patagonia is working toward.

Most interestingly, the book did not back away from the mistakes they have made in the past few years, and gave honest reports on two controversies, the use of down from force-fed geese, and the use of wool from a farm which PETA exposed as being inhumane.  In both cases Patagonia did their own investigations, and found they were in the wrong, and then took the necessary steps to correct the abuses.

It’s really refreshing when a group just owns its mistakes.   I can’t help but think that this would be a great policy for all.

Currently, a big issue is the discovery that microfibres that get into the water by way of laundry has become a major source of pollution in our oceans.  In order to better understand what effect Patagonia fleeces and other products have on this problem, the company conducted a research project in which all their projects were tested for microfibre shedding.  They are also funding continuing research in the area.

Cute dog mascots are always a plus!

The issue of sustainability is a tricky one.  Most of the programs by clothing companies I have read about are just green-washing, meant to look to be more environmentally friendly than they truly are.  Most, like turning in old clothes for a store credit, are just ways of getting one to shop more.  And as pointed out in an excellent article at Vestoj,  even the way sustainability issues are presented by the fashion press usually misses the point.

Thanks to Patagonia for hosting this tour of the traveling repair workshop.  If it happens to roll into a college near you, go and check it out.

 

 

12 Comments

Filed under Fashion Issues, Viewpoint