1880s College Crew Set

This post should have a subtitle. Maybe “Sometimes You Just Get Lucky.” Probably though, “It Pays to Be a Bookworm” is more appropriate. The truth is, unless I had read and reread my favorite book on women in sports, When the Girls Came Out to Play, by Patricia Campbell Warner, I would never have had an inkling of the purpose of this garment. As it was, it took me a while to actually figure out the purpose of this set, mainly because spotting it on Instagram was so unexpected.

The set has three pieces, and the seller, @vintageloftny, photographed the set with the blouse over the top of the skirt. That’s understandable, as there is elastic in the bottom of the blouse, and it makes sense that it would be on the outside of the skirt. However, something made me stop and visualize the blouse tucked into the waist of the skirt.

Page from 1889 Butterick pattern catalog, reproduced in When the Girls Came Out to Play

Once I saw the blouse in a different light, it rang a bell. The nautical details and the marine blue color pointed to a garment that was worn on the water. I ruled out sailing or yachting because I have been involved in studying issues of Harper’s Bazar from the 1860s through 1900. All the boating costumes shown (and there were a surprising lot of them) were styled in the current fashion, and were worn over a corset. The top two bodices are good examples.

My blouse does not follow the style of the late 1800s. Its loose fit pointed to a use in sports. I suspected it might be for rowing crew, and as good luck would have it, When the Girls Came Out to Play has a whole chapter on how Wellesley and other women’s colleges formed crew teams in the late 1870s.

Wellesley Class of 1886 crew, from When the Girls Came Out to Play

Warner showed quite a few crew uniforms from the 1880s. Each class at the college had a crew team, all with their own special uniform. You might be surprised that the crew teams were not for racing. They were for performing musical spectacles for the public. This would explain why skirts were used instead of the bloomers the young women were accustomed to in gym class. Bloomers were not for public consumption.

Warner put forth the possibility that bloomers could have been worn underneath the skirts, but that there is no evidence of that. My set tends to say no, because it is complete with blouse, skirt, and belt. I would think that if these three pieces had been kept together for 135 years, if bloomers had existed, they would be present as well.

My set is made of the loveliest blue wool, and it appears to have been made by an expert dressmaker. All the tiny eyelets where the string fastens the blouse were made by hand. The white braid was laid on by hand.

Unmistakably nautical in design.

The skirt is also gathered and attached to the waistband by hand.

And the nicest surprise of all is the presence of a nice, deep pocket.

I have dated this piece as probably 1880 through 1886. After 1885 the crews began to turn from comfort to fashion, and most adapted a stylish corseted bodice. However, it’s not quite as silly at it sounds because these bodices were often made of jersey, which did afford a degree of comfort.

The blouse top did remain, however, and was used for gym class and other outdoor activities. I have read articles from the late 1800s that advised women hikers to wear a sports blouse. The page of Butterick patterns seen above is from 1889, and you can see that the puffed sleeve creeping in. My smooth capped sleeves are prior to that date.

I have long kept a list of older sportswear pieces that I would love to own, but a crew uniform was not on the list. I guess I thought that since they were such a specialized item, used for only a short time and in only a few places, it was doubtful one would ever turn up. But in the world of antique clothing, you just never know. Thanks so much to Mary Caroline of Vintage Loft NY.

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Plain Jane by Danuta Overall Knickers

I don’t look for stuff from the 1970s, but when a really great piece crosses my path, I try to add it to my collection. Having lived through the decade, I have good memories of what was cool, but memories can be deceiving. I remember knickers, but in my mind I can’t really place the fad to a specific year or season. My guess is that they sort of came and went from the late 60s to the 80s. I need to do a deep dive into my 70s Seventeen magazine collection to get a better idea of that trend.

What I love about this garment is its strong nod to the sportswear of the past.  The late 60s and the 70s were influenced by a feeling of nostalgia, if you could call it that. For teens, it wasn’t a longing for our past, but instead, that of our parents and grandparents. We longed for the pop culture of the 20s, 30s, and 40s – without the Great Depression and the horrors of WWII, of course. No, we looked to Charlie Chaplin and Bogart, and Clara Bow and Betty Boop.

So where does my latest acquisition fit in? I’d say it’s part Little Rascals and part Rosie the Riveter.  The tweed fabric is a definite throwback to the knickers that boys, and increasingly, young women, wore in the 1920s. The bib shows the influence of overalls, which women wore for work and recreation in the 30s and into the war years. There might even be a bit of the  pilots’ jumpsuit in there.

But this is so typical of much of fashion and youth culture in the 70s. My mother, who was born in 1931, was always pointing out to me how the latest 70s fashions were so similar to what she wore as a young person.

The label is an interesting one. Plain Jane was the forerunner of Esprit. It was started in 1968 by Susie Tompkins and designer Jane Tise. They produced junior clothing under several labels including Sweet Baby Jane (a riff on the 1970 James Taylor album, perhaps).  The company was renamed Esprit de Corps sometime in the late 70s, and by 1980 the label had been changed to Esprit.

The story of the company is not a nice one, though they did make nice clothing. Susie Tompkins’ husband Doug was involved in a nasty union dispute starting in 1974, mainly because he wanted to break his contract with his workers and move production to Hong Kong. You can see who won by looking at the label.

Danuta was Danuta Ragent who designed Plain Jane from around 1973 to 1978.  Jane Tise continued to design the Sweet Baby Jane line, though her shares of the company were bought by the Tompkinses in 1976. My favorite sewing pattern of the late 70s was a Butterick Young Designer,  Jane Tise for Sweet Baby Jane . The design was straight out of the 1940s.

This is such a great design. I love how the line of the bib pockets extends to form the hip pockets.

All the buckles are metal and are adjustable.

Thanks to Robin for sharing the information about Danuta, and whose Etsy shop is one of my favorites.

 

 

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Vintage Miscellany – September 25, 2020

This photo of three women reminds me of my own good friends. After thirty-five years of friendship, we still have one another’s back. We still travel together and the bravest of us still wears a two-piece swimsuit. She looks just as fabulous as the unidentified style star in this 1940s photo.

It’s been a rough month, both personally and nationally. I’m still trying to mend my broken toes. They will get better. I hope our country is as lucky.

And now the news:

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Linda Morand and Key West Hand Print Fabrics

You may not know the name Linda Morand, but if you are a child of the 1960s like me, you certainly have seen her face.  Starting in 1965 she was a model in New York, appearing in all the top magazines of the period. But what is interesting to me about Linda is how she got her start. I recently received an email from her in which she told her story.

 I worked at Key West Hand Print Fabrics from the summer of 1964 till the beginning of 1965.  Jim Russell discovered me at 18 when I had run away to Key West to become a painter.  I was waiting tables at a Cuban restaurant near the old Key West building (I think they called it Harbor House before)   He hired me on the spot.  I sold the fabric and he gave me several dresses to wear.  Jim and Peter encouraged me to appear as the lead in Under the Yum Yum Tree.  I wish I had the playbill.  They took pictures of me in Lilly’s fabrics and ran an ad in The New Yorker.  It was my first modeling job!  I left Key West with the encouragement of the wonderful artist community and went on to have a successful modeling career as a Ford model.  All thanks to Jim Russell and Peter Pell.

If you are a regular reader, then you read my interview with Jacq where he told the story of Key West Hand Prints.  This information from Linda gives us a bit more of the under-told story of Key West Hand Prints. Thanks so much, Linda!

UPDATE: Here’s even more from Linda.

 I thought it might interest your readers what happened to me when I went to New York with the pictures.  In the pictures I already sent you, Jim Russell took the color one in front of the screen in the shop. Peter Pell arranged the bolts of Hand Print Fabrics for me to lunge through, and Jim took the picture.  No hair and make-up…just Key West casual.  I met Suzie de Poo and Lilly Pulitzer.  I was so young, but I was trying to look like Veruschka.  Here are some of the first pictures taken when I went to New York.  I signed with the Ford agency. They put me in the teen-age category. 

I only worked in New York for a year.  The resemblance to Jackie [Kennedy] was awkward for me, even though the clients were clamoring for the Look, so I fled to Paris and lived in Europe for several years.  I am glad I did.  
1966, Linda in a Betsey Johnson dress in Mademoiselle magazine.

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Tammis Keefe for Marlboro Shirts

It may not be immediately obvious why I recently added this shirt to my collection. All will become clear when you see the closeup of the print.

If you have followed my writings for a while, you already know that I have a fondness for textile designs by Tammis Keefe. Today she is most remembered for her hankies and towels, but she also designed home decorator fabrics, and for a short time starting in 1957, she worked on textile design for the Marlboro Shirt Company.

If you are like me, the greatest association with Marlboro is with the cigarette brand. Marlboro Shirt Company was an entirely different company, though it does appear that at some point the company was acquired by Philip Morris, which also made the cigarettes. But my story dates to 1957 and 1958, long before that acquisition.

Marlboro Shirt Company had a long history, being formed in 1890. It was located in Baltimore, and for years men’s shirts were the only product. By the 1940s Marlboro had expanded into other men’s apparel, like bathing suits, pajamas, and jackets. In 1957 they entered the women’s shirt market with a new brand, Lady Marlboro.

At the same time, it was decided that the traditional man’s shirt could be made in sports styles, or rather, leisure styles to fit the increasingly casual American lifestyle. Tammis Keefe was brought in to design textiles that would fit into a more casual style. According to a paper written by FIT graduate student Suzanne Chee in 1990, many of the prints were (like mine) conversational in nature. She adapted antique motifs like vintage theater playbills and antique playing cards.  And the shirts were made for men and women in matching prints.

To me, the designs do not look as though they were actually drawn by Tammis Keefe. The style of the ones I have seen all have an antique print look. Or maybe I’m not giving Ms. Keefe enough credit. I’m sure she could draw in more than the midcentury style she is most known for.

The closeup views reveal why I had to have this one. There are tennis players…

picnickers…

hikers…

beach croquet…

and fishers.

I bought this even though it is badly faded. It must have been a favorite piece. The color is actually an olive green, but I can’t help but wonder if it was made in other colors as well. And if anyone has the matching man’s shirt, I’d love to add it to keep this one company.

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The Body Beautiful by Annette Kellermann

 

I’ve written about swimmer Annette Kellermann before, and you might know her as the subject of the 1952 film, Million Dollar Mermaid, staring Esther Williams. She was the woman who introduced the one-piece swimsuit for woman. but what she might have been best at was self-promotion.

In 1925 she promoted a health plan which was outlined in this booklet. She capitalized on a study conducted by Dr. Dudley A. Sargent of Harvard University which found her body to be the most perfectly formed female physique. She promised that in just five to fifteen minutes a day, any woman could “enjoy the priceless possessions of glorious health, radiant beauty, and a figure fashioned in Nature’s own wonderful mould.”

There are numerous photos of Kellermann’s perfect body in the booklet, most of which appear to have been altered to make her look thinner than she appears in other photos I’ve seen of her.

It just goes to show that  the pressure on women to strive for unrealistic body ideals have been with us a very long time.

I love that on this page Kellermann assures the reader that attaining world-wide fame for her figure has not in the least made her vain. That’s reassuring.

The 1920s was a time when youth and slimness were fashionable. It’s easy to see how this program might appeal to women who had been told their bodies were old-fashioned. Another part of the appeal might have been that in 1925 Kellermann was thirty-eight years old. Though she didn’t advertise that fact in the booklet, she had been in the public eye for about twenty years by this point. People knew she was approaching middle age.

I’d like to say that we’ve finally gotten to the point where we no longer put this type of “perfect body” pressure on women and on ourselves, but then that would be untruthful. Years of exposure to weight loss ads and magazines articles on losing weight, the “helpful” comments of others and subtle peer pressure are powerful influences.

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Tina Leser

Quite a few years ago I wrote this profile on designer Tina Leser for my now inactive website. I thought I had shared it here, but a search for it turned up empty. I’ve been showing some of myLeser pieces on Instagram, so this is a good time to share an updated version here as well. I apologize for the tiny pictures, and for the poor quality. These were taken years ago. I’ll be replacing them, hopefully soon.

 

A rarely seen photograph of Tina Leser, made in 1950. She appears to be wearing a dress of her own design. The photo was taken at her farm on Long Island, and she is seen here with her Great Dane, Taxi. Photo copyright and courtesy of Andrejs Sinats.

Tina was born Christina Buffington in 1910. She was later adopted and her name changed to Christina Wetherill Shillard-Smith. She was the daughter of an affluent Philadelphia stockbroker and his artist wife. The family traveled widely, and as a young child, Tina visited Asia, Europe and Africa, and for a time, lived in India. When it came time to choose a career, she settled on art school, and attended first the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and then the Sorbonne, in Paris.

In 1931, at the age of 21, Tina married Curtin Leser, and the two of them moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. It was here that Tina Leser began her career in fashion. She opened a shop in 1935, in which she sold clothing that she designed. Leser used native Hawaiian, and imported filipino fabrics to construct sportswear, day wear and gowns. She then worked with a process to hand-block designs onto sailcloth. As an artist, she often handpainted a fabric to order. A customer might order a special skirt with the family pet hand painted on it.

Here is a great example of a 1940s Leser skirt. The fabric is a Guatemala woven design. Courtesy of listitcafe.com

In 1940, Tina Leser went to New York on a buying trip and to try and sell her designs. Partly through the influence of Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, she placed an order with Saks for 500 garments.  She continued to live and work in Honolulu, but in 1941, decided to expand her business to New York. She closed her Honolulu store in 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and moved to New York.  There she ran her company until the next year, when she became the designer at Edwin H. Foreman.  It was at Foreman that Tina Leser developed the international style for which she became famous.

It was wartime, and travel around the world was quite limited for the private citizen.  But Leser looked for, and found interesting cultural influences close to home – Mexico, Guatemala, Hawaii, and the USA countryside.  From Mexico she took the traditional appliqued flannel jackets and added sequins.  From Guatemala she took their handwoven cloth and made skirts and playsuits.  Their blanket fabric was turned into strapless dresses.

She utilized Hawaiian shapes – the sarong and the wrap skirt, and also used Hawaiian fabrics to make an innovative bathing suit that had just one strap.  And she referenced the United States by taking the coveralls adopted by so many American women factory workers, and making attractive versions in flannel and plaid.

photo courtesy of Lin Allen

In the postwar era, India was very much in the news, and in Tina Leser’s mind.  Having spent part of her childhood in that country, it was natural that India’s move toward independence would inspire her to base many of her designs on the country’s ethnic clothing.  She began the first of many designs based on the fabrics, colors and shapes of Indian traditional clothing. In 1947 she did a line of beachwear and sundresses made of traditional Indian madras plaid,

‘In the lines and colors of my beachwear,’ she said, ‘I try to capture the spirit of leisure and play in which it is worn. Successful design always reflects purpose…’

The Honeymoon collection was featured in the November, 1949 issue of Holiday magazine.

One of most remarkable events in Tina Leser’s career was her honeymoon, She was remarried in 1948 to James Howley (she and Leser had divorced in the late 1930s), and for their honeymoon the pair took a trip around the world.  Actually, it was an inspiration-finding expedition, and it led to her Fall 1949 multi-cultural collection.

The influences were gathered from what she would see on every step of her journey – kimonos from Japan, silk pajamas from China, a priest’s coat from Thailand, the colors and embroideries of Indian fabrics, peasant clothing from Italy, antique fashion plates from France and porcelains from England – all influenced her fall line.

In the photograph above, you can see how traditional Indian punjab pants were interpreted by Ms. Leser.  She continued to reinvent this basic ensemble throughout her career.

After 1949, Leser continued to reference a variety of ethnic influences, often mixing them in a single garment or collection. For example, she might take a purely American fabric such as the red and white check commonly used in picnic tablecloths, and sew it into an item with an Oriental-influenced shape such as a sarong or kimono.

Leser also liked to take a “casual” fabric and use it for a “formal” function. An example would be the same gingham tablecloth cotton sewn into a party dress. Or she might take a formal fabric and use it for a casual function, as in the case of her elaborately printed and embroidered bathing suits.

She also liked to take a favorite fabric or trim and use it across her collection. I’ve seen embroidery very similar to what is on this bathing suit made into a hostess gown, trimming the edges of a cashmere sweater, and made into a pair of slacks.

A great example is this wrap dress made from cotton sateen. It was featured in the May 1956 issue of Good Housekeeping, and earned their seal of approval.

But so that you don’t start thinking that all Tina Leser could design was exotic and foreign-inspired, she also used fabrics from some of the very best fabric design firms.  Most notably, she had designs using the “Modern Master” series of fabric from Fuller. This was a series of fabrics commissioned by Fuller Fabrics by some of the world’s most prominent artists, such as Picasso and Miro.  She also used Wesley Simpson prints, Hope Skillman fabrics and Boussac florals. And she loved and used cashmere, both from the American firm Dalton, and the Scottish Pringle.

She designed lots of pretty dresses that today, would be considered to be quite dressy, but in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, were much more casual than what most people were accustomed to wearing.

Tina Leser left Foreman in 1953 to form her own company, Tina Leser Originals. In the 1950s, women needed clothes for an increasingly casual lifestyle, and Leser’s pieces were casual but sophisticated.  People were entertaining at home, and many of Leser’s ads during the 1950s show a relaxed hostess curled up in a pair of her slacks and a comfortable tunic.

She perfected (some references say “invented”) the slim toreador pants of the 1950s, which were often paired with exotic tunics or cashmere sweaters trimmed with embroidered edgings. And in 1957 she showed a cashmere sweater that was dress length, bringing about the inception of the “sweater dress.”

She entered into a design arrangement with Gabar Swimsuits, and she designed for them for many years.  She’s often thought of as a swimsuit designer, mainly because her work for Gabar was so wide-reaching.

But it was not just the swimsuit she was designing – it was a whole new way of wearing it.  The cover-ups and skirts and matching shorts and wraps incorporated the design of the swimsuit beneath into a complete ensemble.  The bathing suit became the foundation for streetwear.

In 1964, Leser closed her business, only to open it again in 1966.  Her first collection after her re-opening was a tribute to India, with the fabrics being made on traditional Indian looms. She continued to make clothing that was oriental in feel, but she concentrated less on sportswear, and more on clothing was was adaptable to many situations, be it evening, day or at home.  Her fabrics were still very much inspired by her travels.

Tina Leser Originals remained open until 1982. Leser died four years later in 1986.

April Calahan, “Tina Leser: Global Vision”, The Hidden History of American Fashion, 2018

Chambers, Bernice G., Fashion Fundamentals. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1947.

Lambert, Eleanor, World of Fashion. New York: R.R.Bowker Company, 1976.

McDowell, Colin, McDowell’s Directory of Twentieth Century Fashion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1985.

Stegemeyer, Anne, Who’s Who in Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1980, 1988.

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