Category Archives: Viewpoint

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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Tennessee State Museum, Nashville

With all the emphasis on country music in Nashville, it is easy to forget that the city is also the state capital.   One thing that can sometimes be found in a state capital is a state museum.

State museums are odd ducks.  They are paid for with tax money, and the workers are employees of the state.  History is often presented in a patriotic manner, with large chunks of what might be uncomfortable to present being glossed over or just omitted altogether.  For instance, one Southern state museum I’ve visited talks all about how cotton mills were important to the economy of that state, and goes so far as to talk about the mill village as a product of mill owner’s charity.  Not a word is written about the struggle of mill workers to gain safe working conditions and decent wages.

I’ve come to expect this carefully edited form of history from both state and municipal museums.  In many cases, they seem to have exhibits based on what they think will attract interest, as in the North Carolina Museum of History and its exhibit on Nascar, or the Atlanta History Center and the room full of golfer Bobby Jones artifacts.  And of course, every Southern history museum has a shrine to that enduring lost cause, the American Civil War.

Which brings me to my recent visit to the Tennessee State Museum.  I’m afraid that we really didn’t do the place justice, as the morning had been spent in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the early afternoon in a place called Honky Tonky Central, which was loud and fun.  But we somehow made our way up the hill (who knew Nashville is so hilly?) and into the museum.

It was not the best conditions for trying to absorb more information, being tired and full of burgers and beer.  But museums are there to be visited, and Tim gamely agreed to a look, though I knew he’d rather be browsing the aisles of the great urban market and bakery we had passed.  As a result, we accidentally missed an entire chunk of the museum.  But because one of the major players in that chunk was Andrew Jackson, I was not concerned.  I’m not a fan of our seventh president.

As one enters the main floor of the museum, there is a large exhibition on the prehistoric story of Tennessee.  We decided to by-pass the fossils and early American artifacts, and headed to a lower level.  In this area we enjoyed the exhibition relating to social movements within Tennessee.  The top photo shows a banner made by members of Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association.

Interestingly, there was also a display of artifacts from the Temperance Movement.  That is a quilt made and signed by the Chattanooga, Tennessee Chapter of the Women’s Temperance Union.

Maybe because we missed part of the early story, I just could not get a sense of time in the museum.  One minute we were looking at items that were important in 1920, and then we rounded a corner to encounter a Civil War scene.

Thrown into the mix was this outfit that belonged to singer Isaac Hayes, who was a Tennessee native.

But there was a quilt room with some fantastic examples of the quilter’s craft.  The one above is the winding blades pattern and was made in Clarksville, TN in the 1870s.  The quilts are mounted on diagonal surfaces which allows for decent viewing without putting too much stress on the textiles.

I loved this idea.  I’ve been to lots of museums and have seen a lot of quilts exhibited, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever seen a quilting frame set up in a museum.

Finally, the museum had what is probably the finest crazy quilt I’ve ever seen.  It was started in 1884 by Elizabeth Cheney Cash, and finished in 1954 by Harold Cash.  Unfortunately, that is all I can tell you.  Was Harold the son or grandson of Elizabeth?  The museum does not share that information with the visitor.

All the photos below can be enlarged by clicking.  In doing so you will be rewarded with glimpses of some very fine needlework.

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Make It Yourself

When I was eleven years old, or somewhere in that preteen time, I realized that by sewing my own clothes I could have more than if we bought them ready made.  My grandmother had always made my clothes, but she was beginning to suffer from arthritis, and so was having to cut back on her own sewing.  The solution was for her to teach me.

Today, people don’t sew in order to save money, unless they are in the custom of buying it all at Bergdorf Goodman.  Clothes have gotten so cheap that in most cases it is cheaper just to buy a garment and be done with it.  But there are plenty of people who sew not because it is cheap, but because they like being able to create their own clothes.   The fit can be better, and you get to choose your own fabrics and colors.

But it is a mistake that by sewing (and knitting…) you are eliminating all social and environmental problems from your wardrobe.  The growing and manufacture of cotton and other textiles is costly in terms of water, dye, and chemical usage.  Slave labor is associated with cotton farms in Asia, and textile factories in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are big polluters.

There is still textile production in the US, though it can be hard to source.  Organic cottons are also available, which at least helps with the problem of pesticides.  If you like wool, made in the USA Pendleton is hard to beat.

If money is not a concern, there are still factories in France and Italy that make stunning silks and woolens.  The UK produces Harris Tweed and other woolens, and the superb Liberty cottons are printed in the UK.  (I could not find where the cloth was actually manufactured, though the cotton is grown in Egypt.)

But the best solution is to try to source fabric secondhand.  Most serious sewers have a fabric stash.  You can see an old photo of mine above.  Most of the pieces I can pick out in the photo were ones I found at my Goodwill Outlet Center.  I have a really hard time leaving behind great fabric, and so I have quite a collection.  To be honest, I could be kept busy for several years sewing up what I already have.  When at the Goodwill bins I also look for garments made of great fabric that I can adapt to something new.  There is also lots of great vintage fabric on ebay and etsy.

As with ready made clothing, you need more than just fabric to make a garment.  There are still thread manufacturers in the US, but most of them produce in bulk for industrial use.  When I bought my new sewing machine (nine years ago!) the consultant advised me to only use a high quality European made thread, like Gütermann, as they are tightly spun and do not produce as much lint.  If you have ever used a cheap thread, you might have noticed how it actually looks furry.

I also buy good vintage thread when I find it.  The sheen of a roll of old Coats & Clark mercerized is hard to beat.  But always do a stress test on any old threads, as if stored in high heat, they can become dry rotted and will be too weak with which to sew.

I love it when I run across the remains of a seamstress’s sewing box at the Goodwill bins.  I always stock up on elastic, snaps, hook and eyes, zippers, and buttons when I find them.  And look at the bottom shelf in my photo to see a bin filled with vintage bias binding and rick-rack.

One thing I would really love to do is learn to knit past a simple knit and purl.  Knitting has become so popular that it has helped sustain many small fiber farms which produce wool from sheep and other animals.  There is an alpaca farm just a few miles from me, and their yarn is in very high demand.  I’m afraid to get anywhere near the front door of a yarn shop, as I know I’d be sucked in.  But it is great that this resource is available to knitters.

Making your own clothing can be one way to  improve your closet, but as with buying ready made clothing, you have to do a little work and research to ensure you are making wise environmental choices.

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Responsible Shopping

When it comes to shopping more responsibly for clothing, there are a few truisms.  First, you generally have to pay more for clothing that pays workers a living wage.  Second, the more responsible a company is, the more information they provide consumers about how they source products.  And finally, smaller companies are doing a better job than the fashion giants at solving the social and environmental problems that clothing production entails.

Fast fashion simply cannot be sustainable.  The cheap prices and fast turnover of styles in the stores encourages over-production.  I’ve looked in a lot of Goodwill bins, and the great majority of clothing to be found in them is cheaply made, fast fashion from Forever 21, Walmart, and Old Navy.  While a high price tag cannot guarantee an ethical garment, an extremely low one almost guarantees that somewhere along the line there have been abuses, usually in the form of  low wages for workers.  I’ve got to wonder how Forever 21 owner Don Chang got to be a billionaire, but the same question can be asked about billionaire Ralph Lauren.  So price of the garment might be a hint as to practices, but it can’t be the only factor.

Many companies are working toward transparency in their supply chain.  I was amazed at the good job several companies I looked at were at telling consumers where their products were made.  Probably the best is Patagonia, who tells not only what country a product is made in, but tells and pictures the factories that provide materials.  The website has information about every supplier to Patagonia.  They also have an innovative repair and recycling program.  Not that you’ll ever need it.  I’m still wearing a pair of Patagonia hiking shorts I bought used about fifteen years ago.

Contrast that with what seems to be the industry standard of only revealing that a product is “imported.”

Another website that gives detailed sourcing information is Zady.  Zady is not so much a brand as it is an online store that sells multiple brands, though there are some Zady branded articles.  I’ve never bought from Zady, but I do have the site bookmarked to consider if any clothing need arises.

Probably the most ambitious company at the present in regards to sustainability is Eileen Fisher.  They have put into action a plan to correct the weaknesses in their supply chain, and they have the plan tied to a timeline.  For each item for sale on the website, there is information about how that garment is eco-friendly.

One thing that these three companies above have in common is size.  They aren’t tiny companies, but they are not the huge corporations that are so often tied to garment production and sales.  One of the most telling stories to come out of the Rana Plaza tragedy was that many of the companies that did business with the factories in Rana Plaza did not know their goods were being made there until the labels were found in the destroyed building.  The system of contracting and sub-contracting has become so huge and involved that the management of many big companies can’t tell who makes their clothes because even they do not know.

So it’s refreshing when mid-sized companies make it their business to know with whom they are working and are not ashamed to publicize their partners on their website.  Last week, after thousands of people began tweeting and instagramming companies asking who made their clothes, many companies began showing workers from all over the world.  What I noticed was that so many of these companies were small.  Topshop was too busy showing off photos of the new Beyonce line to comply, though Forever 21 did post a photo of a plant for Earth Day.  When H&M posted a cute message about their recycling program, they were quickly accused of “green-washing”.

There are lots of smaller companies who are beginning to show the inner workings of their industrial process, and I see that as a great sign.  A video on the Fresh Produce site takes the viewer through several of the manufacturers that work with them here in the US.  Okabashi shoes are made in the USA and their products are 100% recyclable, something you can do by returning the wornout sandals to the factory. These sandals are great for the beach, by the way. And in the UK, Peopletree also gives information on sustainability issues for each garment.

So, there are ways to buy new clothes in a responsible manner, but you do have to make a commitment to investigate companies and their practices.  And that is what the internet is for.

 

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Working Toward a Better Closet

This is a view into my closet.  Hanging here are 87 articles of clothing, about 65% of the clothes I own, the others now being in storage for the warm months.  I did a quick survey and I found:

  • 48 items were bought new
  • 20 items were bought used
  • 8 items were made by me from new materials
  • 11 items were made by me from used materials
  • 33 of the bought new items were made in the USA, Canada, or Europe
  • 21 of the ready made items were changed by me (hemming, repairs, button changes)
  • 8 of the bought new items were bought within the past year
  • 20 of the bought new items are over five years old

By looking at it this way, you get quite a bit of information about my buying habits.  To be honest, I was a bit surprised that over 50% of these items were bought new, as I consider myself to be a diligent thrift shopper and seamstress.  Taking a close look at the newer bought items, I realized that much of what I’ve bought in the past three years happened on trips to New York.  Somehow I can excuse myself for buying souvenirs of the big city.

Several of the new items have been bought this spring, as at 61 I’ve decided that my days of wearing shorts outside my immediate neighborhood or at the beach are over.  I’ve found that shorts with attached skirt (skort?  I hate that word) are a cool and comfortable substitute, and when I found a design I like that is made in the USA, I stocked up.

My closet is not perfect, and I can see what I can do in acquiring new items to make it more to my liking.  I want to make more of my own clothes, using fabrics that I already own.  I want to investigate brands that are making an effort to be more responsible in their practices.  And I want to be satisfied with what I already have, adding new pieces only as they are needed.

But while I can see a lot in my closet, there is much that I can’t see.  I’m good at choosing clothing that I feel is made in safe factories that pay a fair wage, but what about the fabric?  Most of my warm weather closet consists of cotton, which is notoriously bad for the environment.  Much cotton is grown in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan where the crop is picked by forced labor, much of it children.  Very few companies go so far as to tell consumers where their cotton is sourced.

So what is a consumer to do?  How can we do our best to ensure that as little harm as possible is done in the creation of our clothing and other textiles?  Over the next few days I’ll be looking at ways I’m going to make my closet  better.

Shop Secondhand

Probably the most obvious strategy is to buy less new and more secondhand and vintage.  By doing so you are not producing any new waste.  Shopping in vintage or consignment stores supports  local businesses.  And shopping in thrift stores supports charities.  Some people think that the thrift stores no longer produce treasures, but some of my favorite garments were thrifted:  a 1970s Bonnie Cashin coat, a stack full of vintage cashmere sweaters, a plaid Pendleton coat, and my favorite jeans.

If you are going to buy secondhand, it helps if you have basic sewing skills.  I’m always amazed at the number of great things I see in the Goodwill bins that are there simply because a button is missing or the hem is out.  Making basic repairs can greatly extend the life of a garment and prevent waste.  It’s also helpful if you can do a bit of altering.  I’m short, so I usually have to shorten pants, and even shirt sleeves.  I recently found a french-made Breton stripe shirt of hefty cotton, but it was two sizes too big and had wear at the neck.  Cutting it down to my size eliminated the damage, and was a quick and easy fix.

Shopping secondhand takes time and dedication.  One can’t just run down to the local thrift store to buy a size medium polo shirt in light green as one might do on a trip to Target.  But with time and a bit of luck, secondhand clothing can become a big part of your closet.

Next:  Some clothing companies that have got it right, and some others that are working on their social responsibility game.

 

 

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