Category Archives: Viewpoint

Keep Moving Forward

Last week I took some time to visit a local history museum in a nearby town.  I’d been there before, several years ago, and remembered that at that time there was a no photo policy in effect at the museum.  I was hoping the policy had changed, because there is one artifact in particular that I wanted to photograph.

That artifact is a 1947 wedding dress that was made from German parachutes.  The bride’s brother, knowing that his sister was to be married and that fabric was in short supply, liberated the parachute silk near the end of the war.  He sent it home, where his sister had the dress made for her wedding two years later.  What makes this artifact so interesting is that there are photos of the bride wearing the dress, plus photos taken of the couple quite recently.

It’s a great story, one that I wanted to share here.  So many times we remember wars just through the battles, but it is important to know that every person, whether in combat or not, is affected by war.  This wedding dress is a reminder that history is not just dates and facts, but also people’s lives.

I would tell you more about the bride and groom, but unfortunately, the display was stuck in a far corner, and the print on the display so small that it could not be read.  When I was last in the museum, the dress was in a glass case at the front, prominently displayed.  Last week, it was a seeming afterthought in an unrelated exhibit.  Even if photos had been permitted, I could not have gotten decent shots of the dress.

I don’t like being harsh about local history museums.  They are often staffed solely by volunteers, and the budget is usually tiny.  They have important stories to tell, and as a whole this museum does an admirable job.  But it seems to me that they could do a lot better by this important dress.

Because I still have Amanda Grace Sikarskie’s Textile Collections:  Preservation, Access, Curation, and Interpretation in the Digital Age on my mind, I’ve spent some time thinking about what exactly is needed by small museums.  I’m sure that if I were to ask the lovely docent at this particular museum what was needed most, she would say, “Money.”  In fact she mentioned several times about things that were needed but they do not have the money.

But when I got home and read through my Twitter feed, I found these words from Valerie Steele of the Museum at FIT:

A museum is like a shark, it needs to keep moving forward or else it will die.

Of course I don’t know the context of the quote, as it was taken from a talk she made at a recent conference.  But I do think she pointed out what is a big problem – that people have changed the way we interact with the world, and our museums can either capitalize on these changes, or die.

To start, museums really do need to rethink their photography policies.  Like it or not, people are recording their lives through their smartphones. The smart institution uses this to its advantage.  Every time a visitor tweets or Instagrams, or makes a Facebook post from a museum, that museum gets free advertising.  I can’t tell you how often I see a post on Instagram  by someone  visiting a fashion exhibition that has a friend make a comment  and tag a friend with, “We’ve got to see this.”

Smart institutions make it easy for visitors to share a photo opportunity.  This is my friend Linda, trying on a crinoline and reproduction mid 19th century dress at the Charleston Museum.  They have an entire dress-up area as part of the textile gallery.  Linda does not share my passion for fashion history, but she dressed up in the spirit of fun, and shared the photo.

In the fifteen years that I’ve been actively pursuing fashion exhibitions, I’ve seen a lot of changes.  I started out sketching at these exhibitions because of all the no photos rules.  But now I find that rarely  is an exhibition off limits to photographers.  Yes, there should be rules, like no tripods and such, but most visitors are just wanting a photo or two to share on Instagram.

One of the big arguments against photos in museums is that they counteract the introspective examination of the art or the exhibit.  That may be true, but there is not a lot of private contemplation happening at the Met’s Costume Institute blockbusters, or at the Mona Lisa, or in the Impressionist galleries of any museum.  However, you can overcome this problem by going through an exhibition twice – once just to study the artifacts, and then a second time to take photos.

I’m saying this, not to criticize museums, but to point out that while all over the world museums are in financial trouble, not all problems are going to be solved with money.  Maybe the key to survival is to come up with ways to make visitors feel like they are part of the museum.  Having a good photo policy is just one tiny step in that direction.

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Adrian Firebird Dress, 1940s

Don’t get too excited for me, because this is not my dress.  It is in the shop of Guermantes Vintage.  This is a fantastic dress, but it gets even better because there is also a great story attached.

It all started when Guermantes Vintage posted photos of the dress on Instagram.  Jan always has the most incredible stuff, and so she has over 33,000 followers who stay tuned to see what her latest find happens to be.  A day or so ago, one of the persons tuning in was @jupeculotte, who is fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank.  Guermantes posted the photo above, which @jupeculotte recognized as an Adrian dress she has examined in the collection of the Smithsonian.  What makes this so fantastic is that Guermantes’s dress is missing its label, and so she did not know until Caroline commented on the photo that she actually had an Adrian dress.

Caroline then sent to Germantes the documentation on the dress she had photographed at the Smithsonian.  Above you can see the photo of the Smithsonian’s dress, along with the card from the museum catalog.  No doubt that this is the same model dress.

What is really interesting is that another person, Melissa of @meloovintage had this dress years ago, and it too was missing the label.   Could it be that the labels were sewn in a spot that was uncomfortable for the wearer?  Maybe the apprentice sewing in the labels did a poor job and they came loose and were lost?

And this is why I love Instagram.

With all the unpleasantness one encounters on the internet, it’s wonderful knowing that the fashion history and the vintage people seem to be in it for all the right reasons.  Sharing knowledge in this way helps educate us all

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Mount Airy, NC and The Andy Griffith Museum

Last week we found ourselves with a few hours to waste, and we happened to be near the small town of Mount Airy, NC.  Mount Airy is like thousands of other towns across the USA, except they have a big advantage in that an a celebrity, Andy Griffith, was born and reared there.  In the early 1960s Griffith had a hit TV program, The Andy Griffith Show, in which he starred as a sheriff in the small North Carolina town of Mayberry.

In case you aren’t familiar with the program, it is one of those that continues to live on in reruns, but more than that, it seems to symbolize to fans the small town America that so many people feel has been lost.  As such, the show still has many fans, most of whom seem to be of a certain age.

Of course this small town paradise, though actually based on the town of Mount Airy, was complete fiction.  It was the early and mid 1960s in the South, and most of American television showed few Blacks or other racial minorities, and Mayberry was no exception.  There were Black extras on the streets of Mayberry in many episodes, but not until the near of the end of the show’s run was a black actor actually cast in a guest role.

But what is authentic is that in the early 60s in most small towns in the South there would have been very little interaction between blacks and whites.  Andy would not have had a Black deputy and Black children would not have attended the same school as his son.  (I first attended school with Black children in 1966.) So like many other books, movies, and TV programs from the mid twentieth century, The Andy Griffith Show reflects a reality that most people would not find acceptable today.

It seems like I’ve been watching this show all my life.  I’m old enough that I watched the episodes when they first aired, in their original form.  Today when reruns are shown, the shows are cut so badly that much of what made it great has been lost.  Fans like to go on and on about how the program shows “a simpler time” but that isn’t what made the show great.  And it wasn’t the plots.  It was the tiny little interactions between the actors, and unfortunately, it’s those parts than tend to be replaced by ads for the latest miracle drug.

But back to Mount Airy.  It’s as though there is a complete Andy of Mayberry industry.  The downtown is full of businesses that sell souvenirs and memorabilia about the show.  There are the usual tee shirts and coffee mugs and such, but there are quite a few show-specific things that only a real fan of the show would understand.

This is a poster of a portrait that was in an episode about a haunted house.  That’s Old Man Rimshaw.

Another interesting item was this jar of pickles.  Aunt Bee was notorious for her horrible pickles.

Of course there is an Andy Griffith Museum, and I was quite amazed by some of the objects, even if presentation left a bit to be desired.  Especially interesting were the costumes.  The suit above was Barney Fife’s (as portrayed by actor Don Knotts) best suit, “the old salt and pepper” .  The suit has a label from the Cotroneo Costume Shop with Knott’s name typed on the label.

Andy Griffith almost always wore his sheriff’s uniform that included this shirt.  What a surprise to see that the shirt had a Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors label!

Probably the most interesting thing to me, though concerns two dresses worn by Maggie Peterson who played Charlene Darling in the program.  The dresses and matching shoes were not worn on the program, but were worn by Peterson on a variety show special in which she appeared with Griffith.

The museum also has the original sketches from designer Bob Mackie.  Who would have ever thought there would be Bob Mackie costumes in a small town in North Carolina?

A new exhibit at the museum features items from actress Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou, the girlfriend of Barney Fife.  Among the items she had donated to the museum are a USO uniform , trunk, and pistol she used while touring Asia near the end of WWII.  She was only seventeen when she joined the USO.

The museum was quite entertaining, but it really suffers from being in too small a space.  The walls are completely covered in memorabilia, much of which is redundant.  I’m pretty sure I saw the same photograph of Andy with his classmates in front of his school about three times.  Since visiting we learned that the museum will be in a larger space by the spring of 2017.  I sincerely hope so.

 

 

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Shopping with The Vintage Traveler – Hillsville, 2016

Well, it’s happened again.  I wake up to find my Instagram feed filled with photos from vintage friends in New England, showing off the delights of the Brimfield markets.  One of these days I will be there as well, making other people who are not so lucky very jealous.  In the meantime, I had to be content this past week with the big annual market in Hillsville, Virginia.

Hillsville does not pretend to be an antiques market.  It is a true flea, with everything for sale from great vintage items to downright junk.  It started back in the 1970s as a VFW sponsored gun show, and there are still enough guns being carried around to make one feel either very safe, or very uneasy.  I avoid the gun selling area.

Like many flea markets and antique shows, Hillsville has been shrinking.  I first went there at least ten years ago, and since that time one of the fields has closed completely, and I noted the VFW area is also smaller.  But the pleasant side is that it seems like there are just as many sellers who have the types of things I’m looking for.  More vintage photos and fewer tube socks is a big win.

One of my goals when shopping a big market like this one is to try and learn something new, usually in the form of seeing something I’ve never encountered.  There is so much old stuff out there that it always happens that I seen something new to me that I probably should have seen before.  Such was the case with the print above.  Dated 1903, I’m not sure what the Turkish Trophies actually were – a tobacco premium perhaps.  One seller had four of them, all showing young women engaged in sports.  I’d have bought them but the condition and the price did not match.  But I did have to take a photo of the ping pong player.

I see a lot of Daniel Green slippers, as it was a major maker.  But this pair of kid’s slippers embroidered with pups and kitties made me wish for a pair in my size.

On of the things I saw quite a bit of this time was children’s clothing.  One seller had what looked to be an entire wardrobe of a little girl, who would have been about four or five years old, all from the late 1920s or very early 30s.  All were in such wonderful condition that it made me wonder about the fate of the child who had worn them.  These were her slippers.

Another seller had this nice assortment of men’s swimsuits from the 1930s and 1940s.  Note the zipper at the bottom of the red tank.  In the early 30s, bathing suit makers added this zipper in case the wearer got up the nerve to go topless.

Of course there were Scotties.  I really should have brought this one home with me as I have its pink gingham twin.

This lovely illustration of a 1920s golfer decorated the cover of a book of healthy hints from a tonic company.  It made me wonder if there is a whole range of these illustrated booklets.

One seller had five or six tables piled high with a mix of vintage and modern fabrics.  Had I encountered this early in the day, I’d have plowed through the massive piles, but I had been on the hunt for hours, and so I had to pass on the fabrics.  I couldn’t help but think that the seller would have been more successful had she made a better effort to properly display her wares.

Enlarge

Maybe it is just that I’m easily distracted, but when there is this much stuff, I can’t seem to see the forest for the tress, or actually, it is the other way round!  I didn’t notice until I was looking at these photos that I actually own the basket bag near the center.

It was a button lover’s paradise.

These little booties were made of some sort of plastic coated paper.

I love seeing pillows made from pre-stamped and colored kits.  This is one I’d never seen before, from the early 1930s.

So there you have what I passed up, so I know you are wondered what I actually bought.  Photographs – lots and lots of photos of women in pants.  I also found the best 1940s hat ever, which I’ll be showing off later.  I also got a mid 1960s beach bag that may or may not have been a Coppertone suntan lotion item.   A woman sold me her mother’s Catalina swimsuit from the 1930s.  It’s always a treat to know who owned an item. And best of all, I found a late 1930s playsuit complete with matching skirt.

 

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Bad History, and a Bit about Lastex

Beauty Mask using Lastex, filed in 1933 by Ronald Giuliano

When I posted about how “the internet” is changing clothing terminology, I felt like I was a bit of a grump, and thus vowed to not to write about things that irritate me.  But an article on the fashion site, Fashionista sent me over the edge. When I saw a link to “How Today’s Biggest Swimsuit Companies Got their Start Knitting Wool” come up on Twitter , I knew better than to click to it.  I did it anyway.

I appreciate that sites like Fashionista are willing to devote space to fashion history articles.  What I don’t appreciate is the lack of fact checking and the use of freelance fashion writers instead of fashion historians.

The big issue I have with this article is this sentence:

 Starting in the mid ’20s, swimwear companies began to weave elastic, known as Lastex, into the suits, offering a far more flattering fit…

Being a collector of swimsuits, I knew I’d never seen one from the 1920s that contained Lastex, and the earliest ones I remembered being advertised were from around 1935.  Susan at Witness2Fashion wrote about Lastex last year.  The earliest use of Lastex she found was in 1932, in a Sears catalog, on a page of girdles.

So I went in search of the facts, hopefully in a well-researched article that told the history of Lastex.  I didn’t find it, but a series of rabbit holes led to the names of Percy and James Adamson.  After finding the names connected with the development of an elastic thread, the main source of information turned out to be old court documents.  It appears that the Adamsons were in court a lot.

In 1926 the brothers Adamson formed a little company hoping that Percy’s experiments with new yarns would lead to a money-maker.  In 1930 Percy was successful in making a rubber thread, wrapped with cotton or another fiber.  He filed for a patent and then in 1931, refiled as he had made improvements.  He also filed for a trademark for “Lastex”.  He then contacted the United States Rubber Company, who entered into an agreement with Percy.  US Rubber would get the trademark for Lastex, manufacture the yarn and pay the Adamson Company royalties.

There’s a lot more to the story (lawsuits…), but it really does not add to the basic story that Lastex was invented in 1930, and patented and trademarked in 1931. In looking through dozens of patents, mainly for stockings, underwear, and swimsuits, it becomes obvious that Lastex really caught on around 1934 or 35.

All this leads us back to the Fashionsta article with its problematic line.  The mid 1920s date has now been assigned  by a large fashion website to the usage of Lastex in swimsuits.  As of today the article has been shared on social media 514 times, and that does not include all the retweets, and Facebook sharing.  Yes, my blog post sets the record straight, but only a thousand or so people will read this, and I’ll be lucky if it is shared ten times on social media.

I realize the purpose of Fashionsta is to turn out fluff pieces that no one really takes seriously, but there are people who have read the article and will remember that mid 1920s date.  In one article, history is changed.  How long will it be before swimsuits containing Lastex are advertised for sale as being from the 1920s?

The article also relates the story of Annette Kellerman’s arrest on a Boston beach in 1907.  As I posted last week, there is very little documentation to support the story, although years after the fact Kellerman was fond of relating the tale.  The earliest reference that I can find to the incident is a syndicated newspaper article from November, 1932.  The information for that article came from an interview with Kellerman.  I’m not saying the arrest did not happen, but I do believe this would be a great topic for further study.

One last thing and then I’ll shut up.

…women wore swimsuits of fine ribbed wool to the beach. Typically shaped like a knee-length romper, or featuring a vest or short-sleeve top with shorts… They were only available in dark colors, with a minimum of decoration: perhaps some stripes around the knees, buttons on the shoulders or a tie at the waist.

No. Even though the most common suits were black and dark navy, other colors were definitely available.

An early 1920s bathing suit in my collection

 

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Terminology

Our words are important.  This is true in politics and in fashion history.  I love people who have the strength to sell old clothes online because I know how much work it can be, but what I don’t like is how a garment can morph from its original purpose to something entirely different in the interest of selling that garment.

The garment shown above is a gymsuit.  Period.  It is not a playsuit.  It is not a romper. It is, despite what etsy listings would lead one to believe, a gymsuit.

This is a bathing suit by Tina Leser.  Period.  It is not a playsuit.  It is not a romper. It is, despite what etsy listings would lead one to believe, a bathing suit.

 

This is a 1911 bathing suit.  A similar suit is currently listed on etsy as a “1920’s Cotton Playsuit, Beach Romper, Athletic Wear,  Bloomers” but it too, is a bathing suit.  Nowhere in the description, nor in the tags, was the term bathing suit even used.  That would completely  eliminate that suit from the search I regularly do for older bathing suits.

But more importantly, things like this change the terminology of fashion and of clothing.  It’s like calling a short 1920s dress a “mini”, or a long 1930s dress a “maxi”.  These terms did not come into use until decades later, and so using them in an older context is incorrect.  I will agree that it is possible that some people might have referred to the Tina Leser type suit as a playsuit, but rompers were for toddlers, not for grown women.

As of this writing, there are 3125 listings for “playsuit” in the women’s vintage category on etsy.  Most of these are for 1950s and 1960s bathing suits.  Some are for 1980s jumpsuits.  And all are titled and tagged in a manner that a serious collector is never going to find them.

UPDATE: I know better than to make a statement so definite as ” rompers were for toddlers, not for grown women.”  A friend has emailed a photo of a 1920s sewing pattern of a one piece garment with legs for ladies, misses and girls, and the pattern refers to it as a romper.  Let me rephrase that to say that in my experience, rompers were worn by my little sister and cousins in the 1960s, and I wore culotte dresses in the 60s and jumpsuits in the 70s.

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Manus X Machina, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the best things about New York in the summer is that one gets to take in the costume exhibition at the Met.  I’ve been a bit critical of shows at the Met, as I  often feel like I’ve been bludgeoned over the head by the concept of the show, and in some ways, this one is no different.  But it really does not matter, because this exhibition is a delight to behold, concept or no concept.

And the concept is not so much handmade against machine made as it is the use of both in haute couture and in ready-to-wear.  In many of the examples, it was interesting to see how hand and machine are both crucial to the making of the garment.  Still, when all was said and experienced, the hand techniques of traditional couture come out looking ever so fine.

But let’s see what you think.  Because of the over-abundance of photos, I’m dividing this review into three posts.

The show is organized around six traditional garment maker’s crafts: embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework, and leatherwork.  There is also an area that goes into the two types of haute couture workrooms, the tailleur (tailoring) and the flou (dressmaking).  Visitors are also treated to a selection of toiles, or muslins, the couturier’s pattern.

In the center of the exhibition is the dress seen in both photos above.  It’s by Chanel, and was chosen to show the confluence of hand and machine work.  The fabric of the dress is scuba fabric, and the train is silk that is printed,  and is both machine and hand embroidered.  You can barely see it in my photos, but on the dome there was a swirling projecting of the design of the train.  These projections of details were used in various places in the exhibition.

Embroidery

This 1957 dress was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s debut collection at Dior.  The dress is actually white, and though it looks like a free flowing trapeze design, it is actually quite structured as one would expect in a couture dress from the 1950s.

These two gowns are from Christian Dior’s 1949 fall collection, and it seems like the two are always displayed and photographed together.  On the left is “Junon” and on the right, “Venus.”  They were positioned next to an Alexander McQueen dress that I somehow neglected to photograph.  A note, these two gowns along with at least ten others were on display in 1996 in the Met’s Haute Couture exhibition.  I was surprised (and delighted) to see them.

Two designers, fifty years apart, hand embroidered coral on gowns.  On the left is a couture dress by Givenchy, 1963.  The ready-to-wear dress on the right is from Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.

You can see that the Givenchy dress is almost all coral, while the McQueen one also has pearl beads and pieces of shell.

I cannot tell a lie – I adore this dress from Yves Saint Laurent, 1983.  The dress without the sequins was made in the Saint Laurent atelier, and then was sent to Maison Lesage for the application of the sequins so that it looks as if there are no seams at all.  It took 1500 hours to embroider this dress.

The sequins are actually silver instead of the gold in which they appear under the light, and can you tell how tiny they are?  It is an amazing dress.

Here are two of Norman Norell’s famous sequined gowns.  They almost look as if they could have come from the same collection, but this was a Norell standard.  The dress on the left is from 1965, and the one on the right dates to 1953.  Both are a combination of machine and hand work, as is much of upper level ready-to-wear.

In the background you can see three shiny dresses from Louis Vuitton, designed by Nicolas Ghesquiere.  The surface of each is decorated with tiny applied strips of metal.

This set of three dresses really gets to the heart of the concept.  The dress on the left is from Chanel, 1935.  It is hand embroidered with sequins on silk.  The middle dress is from Maison Margiela, 1996.  It is not sequined at all.  The “sequins” are actually printed onto the synthetic fabric.  And the dress on the right is a sort of combination of the two, being embroidered on machine sewn silk, but then over-printed to get the design.

Feathers

This 1966 dress is from Givenchy.  The dress is machine sewn and hand finished, but what I thought was really interesting is that the feathers are glued onto the silk fabric.

How similar, but oh, so different are these two dresses! On the left, is a dress from Yves Saint Laurent, 1969.  I really should have gotten a closeup of the feathers, as the work was exquisite.  On the right, a 2013 dress from Iris van Herpen.  The “feathers” are made from silicone and the three gull skulls are covered with silicone.

Okay, I know the the Van Herpen is not for everyone, and this is where the contrast between hand and machine widens into a deep divide.  You can look at the previous comparisons and think, “I get it.”  But here you might be tempted to think, “This is cool, but is it where we are in fashion right now?”

I think it is super that the Van Herpens and Gareth Pughs of the world are looking beyond conventional materials in fashion, but I think the point of the exhibition could be better made with things that are more in line with fashion.  A good example is the Maison Margiela printed sequin dress above.  We look back in time to Paco Rabanne.  His metal and plastic clothes were creative and interesting, but they were also uncomfortable (according to Audrey Hepburn, at least) and we all did not end up wearing clothing made of metal and plastic bits.

I hate that my photos are so poor, but I had to include the dress on the left anyway.  It’s Raf Simons for Dior, and the surface of the dress is completely covered in rooster feathers, glued to the silk organza base.  On the right is an ensemble from Sarah Burton for McQueen, and is a cape and dress covered in ostrich and goose feathers, hand sewn onto silk.  The design was based on that of a moth’s wing.

This dress is by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel.  It is haute couture, 2014.  The decoration is an interesting mix of cut cellophane, plastic sequins, and black duck feathers.  Machine sewn, hand embroidered, glued, and hand finished.  Manus X Machina.

Next up, artificial flowers and pleating.

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