I am always looking for accessories to complete my sporting ensembles. One thing I never pass up in an antique store is a rack of hats. Ninety-nine percent of the time the rack will be full of hats from the 1960s. I have a theory, that when hats began to lose favor in the late 60s women stored their old hats instead of investing in new ones. What else could account for the abundance of 60s hats at estate sales and antique stores?
But this post is about that rarest of hat finds – the pre-1960s sports hat. I gave a little happy dance when I spotted this little red tam among all the faux turbans and pillbox hats.
Items like this hat that were worn for decades with little change in the style, so they can be hard to date from that alone. Fortunately there were a couple of things that let me know this tam dated from around 1910 to the 1920s. First, the seams were finished using a Merrow overlock machine. The stitch is similar to a modern serger, but it is easy to see the difference. I see it a lot in pre-1930 knit bathing suits.
Second, the band of the tam is in a type of machine knit that is commonly seen on knit items from this era. I have a pair of navy blue mittens in the same type knit.
In looking at catalogs and other illustrated sources from the 1910s and 20s, the tam is the hat worn by most women for winter sports. The illustration above is from a 1921 Bradley catalog.
This illustration is on a late Edwardian postcard.
And this one is from the mid to late 1920s. It fits a bit closer to the head, and might even be called a toboggan.
Another factor that contributes to the scarcity of early knits is that so many of them were consumed by moth larvae. Thankfully, this one somehow escaped the hungry little buggers.
When searching for items to add to my collection, I focus primarily on things made and worn in the USA. But by the time this Lillywhites catalog was published in London in 1935, Western fashion was becoming less regional. Anyway, that’s how I justified adding this catalog to my print resources.
In 1935 skiing was a relatively new sport, in the States at least. This catalog from the UK references skiing in Norway, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, so it must have really caught on as a sport on the Continent. And I can see a bit of Tyrolian influence in the clothes, especially in the accessories. Could there be a connection to the fashion for Germanic styles that started to appear in Western dress around this time?
Note the strong asymmetrical jacket closures. This was a big feature of mid-1930s fashion and it extended to sportswear. Also, the knickers of 1920s women skiers are gone, replaced by warmer long trousers.
Ski trips to the Alps or to Scandinavia were so new that Lillywhites felt it necessary to give some instructions to the novice. There are also lists of clothing and gear needed for a holiday in the snow.
This novel skiing motif was available in both wool and cashmere, and in white with blue, navy with white, and white with red.
This is probably my favorite.
Skating costumes (along with skates of all types) were included. The style on the right is actually “skorts”, and was recommended for practice wear.
Another exhibition I saw on my recent visit to the Kentucky Museum in Bowling Green was a presentation of the museum’s collection of 19th century whitework. I learned that whitework encompasses quite a few techniques – weaving, quilting, tufting, and embroidery. The common factor is that the work is white on white.
Many of the pieces have been recently conserved by Margaret Ordonez, who taught conservation for many years at the University of Rhode Island. She has retired, and is back in her native Tennessee where she has set up her own textile conservation service. Margaret presented her work at the Costume Society Symposium, giving us a good look at the work involved in conserving the pieces.
To visitors passing through an exhibition like this one, it must seem that people of the past sure did take great care of their stuff. What’s not seen are the many hours of cleaning and stabilization it takes in order to be able to display a two hundred year old textile. Part of this exhibition actually addressed the process of conservation, and there were several unconserved bed coverings on display.
This embroidered counterpane was made by Sallie Darrough and is in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society. As you can see, it had not been cleaned. This is closer to the condition textiles of this age are most likely to be found.
So how does one clean a fragile old textile? Because these are cotton and cotton/linen blends, wet cleaning is appropriate. That does not mean Margaret threw them into the washing machine. Conservators use large tables with an edge (like a very shallow tub) for wet cleaning. The textile is spread out on the table and water and cleaning agents are introduced. This is a job for a chemist, as it’s important to use things that will not do any further damage.
Often, artifacts are donated to museums along with long-told family stories. This early 19th century Empire style dress was said to have been worn by Catharine Whitesides on her wedding day. But Margaret was not born until 1824, and by the time she married the dress would have been twenty-five or so years out of fashion. Perhaps it was worn by her mother.
Another presentation that focused on the history of southwestern Kentucky was given by Donna Parker, recently retired from the Western Kentucky University Library. Like most Americans, I knew of the great Mammoth Cave system, but it was a real surprise to learn that for close to a century, women visitors to the cave wore a special costume provided by the owners of the cave.
The cave was well-known by the 1840s. It was just one of many natural wonder destinations that well-off tourists traveled to experience, along with Niagara Falls, the Natural Bridge of Virginia, the Hudson River Valley, and New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Early on it must have been obvious that fashionable dress was dangerous in the cave. The owners developed a woman’s costume, consisting of a shortened dress with bloomers or trousers worn beneath.
The wearing of these costumes is well-documented in photographs, diaries, letters, and personal travel accounts. Many women expressed embarrassment at being forced to wear trousers, others saw it as just part of the experience.
The Kentucky Museum has an exhibition on Mammoth Cave, and in it they included this photograph of a woman visitor. You can barely see the trousers beneath her skirt. One of the best sources of information were the photos taken of visitors to the cave. The WKU Library Special Collections has a nice selection of these, dating from the 1850s to the 1930s when the practice of providing costumes ended.
Kentucky Museum and Library Digital Collection
This photo is from the digital collection of the Kentucky Museum. Though undated, this photo is from around 1905, and maybe as late as 1912 or so. It’s interesting in how the costume has changed. The skirt was abandoned, the bloomers shortened. It could be that these women were accustomed to wearing bathing suits, were at that time were very similar to the cave costume.
Unfortunately, the museum has not been able to locate any extant cave costumes. It’s possible that as things changed and women became more accustomed to wearing bloomers, the oldest costumes were remade into the more abbreviated versions seen above. At any rate, there was a fire in 1916 at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, and it is possible the remaining costumes were destroyed then.
I like to think that somewhere, in an obscure collection, a Mammoth Cave costume still exists. The problem is one of identification. How would one distinguish the cave costume seen in the first photograph from a bloomer outfit worn by a dress reformer? How could the bloomers in the third photograph be distinguished from a 1905 gymnasium suit? I’m not sure it could be done.
I can only hope that somewhere one rests in a box with a note attached, confirming the garment as the elusive cave costume.
Besides presenting my own paper at the Southeastern Region Costume Society of America Symposium, I learned a lot from the other presenters and from the museum exhibitions at the Kentucky Museum where the symposium was held. Much of the content of the first day of the symposium was centered around some artifacts in the museum’s collection – clothing made by the dressmaking business of Mrs. A.H. (Carrie) Taylor. Located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Mrs. Taylor’s was THE fashionable dressmaking establishment in town. In fact, it had clients from not only southwestern Kentucky, but also around the country.
So much of fashion history has been written through the famous designers. If you think of nineteenth century design, Monsieur Worth of Paris comes to mind. But by the 1870s when Carrie opened her business, fashion was still more of a local thing, with the town’s dressmakers reigning supreme. Not that Paris wasn’t important, it was. But fashion magazines and sewing patterns made it possible for women around the country to feel fashionable. This was especially true in a place like Bowling Green where the favored dressmaker, Mrs. Taylor, traveled yearly to Paris and to New York to see the latest styles and to purchase the latest fabrics and trims.
Carrie Burnam was born in Bowling Green in 1855. She attended the local college, and in 1878 after graduation opened a dressmaking business in her parent’s home. Even after she married and had children, the now Mrs. Taylor continued to work, expanding her business along with husband Aaron, to where at its height, they employed 300 women workers. Mrs. Taylor directed the business, advising her clients on the styles, colors, and trims for their new dresses. Trousseaux were a specialty.
What made the experience so great was that not only did Dr. Cox talk about the importance of Mrs. Taylor’s work, we also heard from the conservator, Colleen Callahan, who did a presentation on the work she performed in order to stabilize the garments and to make them safe for display. She had photos of the before, during, and after of the conservation process. And the icing on the cake was that Ms. Callahan was available in the exhibition, pointing out the conservation. It was an enlightening experience to see a gown go from shredded silk to display on a dressform.
This lovely silk gown was in sad condition. The bodice was very shattered, with the sleeves being thoroughly tattered. Colleen removed the off-white insets and replaced them with matching silk. Here was where having an extensive stash of old fabrics came in handy. The patterned silk was also splitting so conservation netting was used to encase the fabric, preventing any further fabric loss. The dress had been made with large facings so some of the fabric from them was used to fill in larger spaces that were missing fabric.
The skirt was in better condition, but there are a few spaces where action had to be taken. What is really amazing is that unless one knew where to look, the conservation would have totally escaped notice.
This stunning blue silk dress looks pristine at first look, but Colleen worked hours to stabilize the fabric, to rework the caps of the sleeves, and to replace shattered places with matching fabric. Fortunately, when the dress was donated to the museum it came with a length of the original fabric.
Best sleeves ever.
Glass cases can be annoying to people like me who want to take good photos to share, but having these encased meant that the visitors could see the dresses from every angle, and could get close up without risking touching the fragile textiles.
Not all the clothing in the exhibition required extensive conservation. These two evening coats are in fairly good condition with just some treated holes on the white, and some adjustments made for a missing lining on the orange.
There were other garments on display, including two bodices, a 1910s dress, and some undergarments. All were finely made. The Kentucky Museum is always looking for Carrie Taylor garments and paper items from the business. The label reads “Mrs. A.H. Taylor, Bowling Green Kentucky.”
In 1905 the Taylor company published a short-lived magazine. There were only two issues published before bank problems formed them out of the magazine business. As part of the exhibition, a facsimile of the Spring 1905 issue was available to visitors to look through.
The exhibition was greatly enhanced through the careful telling of Carrie Taylor’s story. Many photos and quotes from Carrie and those who worked for her really brought her to life. And for those visitors not familiar with the styles of over a hundred years ago, there were explanations of what women wore in Carrie’s day. My thanks to the Kentucky Museum for hosting us, and congratulations on a beautiful exhibition!
There was also a trend toward nautical themes. The short “Oriental” pants were replaced by so-called “Gob” trousers, gob being slang for “sailor”.
A 1930 article in Good Housekeeping reported:
“Beach fashions are distinctly masculine. A marked change has occurred in beach attire, for smart women are forsaking fancy pajama suits for long, wide, sailor-like trousers… In their smartest version these trousers feature a fullness set in at the knee.”
These one-piece beach pajamas remained in fashion through the mid-1930s. In 1931 Good Housekeeping declared, “Pajamas are never smarter. For the beach they are comfortable and feminine in colorful combinations of linen, shantung, or jersey.”
The evolution of beach pajamas was complete, but it’s worth noting that pajamas did not stay on the beach. Brave women like Mrs. Joseph Walton, “[wore] a velveteen jacket, a light crepe overblouse, and dark trousers…” on the streets of Palm Beach in 1929.
By 1930 middle class and wealthy women were already wearing pants in the form of knickers for hiking, breeches for riding, and bloomers for gymnasium. But pajamas wearing on the beach was different in that women of most economic classes could participate. Cotton beach pajamas were cheap to buy and even cheaper to sew at home. Pattern companies like McCall’s, Butterick, and Pictorial Review sold pajama patterns for the home sewer.
Oregon farm girl Cecilia Nordstrom showed off her new pajamas in 1933. She later recalled, “Frivolous is lounging pajamas when you live on a farm. No one has time to lounge.” Nevertheless, she ordered this one from a catalog, and she looks quite pleased with it.
Pajamas-wearing was also different in the public nature of the beach. No longer confined to the school gym or the hiking and riding trails, beach pajamas were women in trousers in view of large crowds of people. Pants for women were here to stay, even though it would be several more decades before women wore pants for more than work or very casual occasions.
1924 saw beach pajamas spreading across European beach resorts, and were even worn by a few brave souls on Florida sands. In her memoir, Jane Fisher, wife of the developer of Miami Beach, recalled an incident that happened in 1924:
Colonel CT Melville, the international polo player, … wrote a book in which he expressed delight over such Miami Beach surprises as “…strawberries for breakfast at Christmas and being driven about by a lady wearing pajamas.” I was the lady in pajamas – as startling in the early ‘twenties, even in freedom-loving Miami Beach, as my form-fitting bathing suit had five years before.”
For the most part, 1924 was a year of debate in the United States fashion press. During that year Women’s Wear began mentioning pajamas not only in their negligee column, but also in the sportswear section.
The question of whether or not American women would wear trousers in public in the form of pajamas was answered by Vogue in January, 1925. “Usually made of gay printed [silk]… they are seen during the sunny hours between bathing and dressing when one loiters on the sand. European beaches have seen them in large numbers, and, now, Newport and Palm Beach are witnessing the beginnings of their success.”
Not that Vogue‘s proclamation was universal. In February, 1925, Women’s Wear printed a report from Palm Beach saying “Palm Beach Visitors Do Not Adopt Beach Pajamas.” The mayor of Atlantic City, NJ went so far as to ban pajamas from the beach before the 1925 season, saying, “…we could not allow anything like that.”
In 1926 beach pajamas went from being an uncertainty to being mentioned favorably in most Women’s Wear articles on the subject. They wrote in March, 1926, “…as the season advances, beach pajamas are seen in greater numbers and variety.” Even shops in Atlantic City were advertising them. Beach pajamas had truly arrived.
Although pajamas were sleepwear first and sportswear second, they did follow the rules of fashion. In the 1920s when the straight garcon look dominated, pajamas had a similar silhouette consisting of short trousers with a sleeveless tunic, often with a matching robe. They were often in bright colors with art deco or Asian designs. They were usually made of silk, but the more practical cotton began appearing as well.
When fashion began to change toward curvier, longer lines in 1927, so did pajamas. A Women’s Wear report in 1927 informed readers that “Both beach and lounging ensembles are characterized by the adoption of long trousers…”
At the same time, bathing suits were getting smaller, with the newest styles featuring a very low scooped back. Some French designers, in particular Mary Nowitzky, developed an abbreviated top for her beach pajamas, much like the tank top of today. This top was not a tunic, but instead was meant to be tucked into the waist of the pants.
It was just a short time until designers realized that making the beach pajamas as a one-piece garment would allow them more easily to include the bare suntan back. This idea developed into a wide-legged one-piece garment that highly resembled a long flowing dress. This one-piece pajama was sleeveless, usually had a bare back with a scooped or V-neck front, and very wide trousers. They were increasingly made of brightly printed cottons.
Tomorrow, the exciting conclusion of Pajamas for Women.