Tag Archives: book review

Currently Reading: Women in Pants

Dear Readers, I am having some problems with my computer, and so I’m not able to make any new posts. While we are waiting for a miracle cure for my old HP Touchsmart, here is a post from five years ago.

I’ve been reading this book, Women in Pants, for the past day or so, and I’ve got to say how much I really loved it.   Ironically, I almost didn’t buy it; in fact had passed on it several times.  You see, I was prejudiced against it for several reasons.  First, there are more photos than there is print.  That is usually a bad sign for me, as I love great old vintage photos, but I like a  little information served up with them.  It’s been my experince that books full of vintage photos usually are just about what you see.  And that leads me to former objection number two, which was this book is pretty much the collection of one person, author Catherine Smith.  Again, I’ve really come to suspect books of this type as being long on images, short on info.

I’m happy to say that I did take a chance on the book, and I was terribly wrong about it.  Smith and Greig present a well researched, beautifully illustrated book on the subject of women who literally wore the pants in an era when it was almost completely socially unacceptable to do so.  The photos Smith and others have collected are accompanied with insights gleaned from many primary sources, which are quoted liberally throughout the book.

While the book shows women wearing pants in the expected ways – college girls in bloomers playing basketball, stage actresses dressed as men during performances – there are some really interesting and off-beat photos of women dressed as men lovers and even all female weddings with half the women dressed as men.  And then there are the women adventurers dressed as men as they flew aeroplanes and scaled mountains.  Fantastic stuff!

As a collector of old photos of women in sportswear, I’ve looked through thousands of vintage photos.  Usually the older ones just get a quick glance from me, but now I’ll be looking for the crooked mustache and the too large suit coat!

And here are some of my favorite women in pants:

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Currently Reading: Hollywood Diet and Fitness

If you are looking for new diet ideas, this is not the book for you.  But if you are interested in the pressures put on actresses from the 1920s through the 1960s, this book, Hollywood Diet and Fitness, gives a good but disturbing look at the lengths the studios went to in order to ensure their stars remained slim.

The 1920s silhouette was slim and boyish, and few women, including actresses, typified the ideal.  In order to appear as thin as possible, diets were concocted, including the popular lamb chop and pineapple diet.  A day’s diet would be three grilled chops, five slices of canned pineapple, three cups of coffee and one cup of tea.

Besides extreme dieting, actresses in the 1920s and 1930s turned to fitness “experts” like Sylvia Ullback, who was a masseuse who claimed she could squeeze and beat the pounds off the body.  According to articles in magazines like Photoplay, Madame Sylvia worked miracles with stars such as Carole Lombard.

There were some actresses of the 1920s and 1930s who were naturally athletic, and so the struggle was a bit easier for them.  Women like Greta Garbo followed the dictates of early personal trainers like Gayelord Hauser.  Some of the advice was surprisingly accurate.  Doctor Henry Bieler taught that eating the wrong foods could lead to disease, like allergies, heart disease, and obesity.

Unfortunately, there was plenty of incorrect and dangerous advice and there were even procedures like an early form of liposuction.  Because of weight clauses in contracts where an actress had to keep her weight below a certain level or face dismissal, some women were ready to try almost anything to keep the weight off.  Some actresses turned to pills and to smoking to curb the appetite.

By the 1940s curves were once again fashionable, but that did not mean plump curves.  Women stars were expected to fill out a bathing suit in all the right places, but in none of the wrong ones.   Actresses turned to calisthenics to help tone the body and control weight.  Only the dancers who were getting plenty of exercise just from their work seemed not to have to be constantly worrying about their weight.

The 1950s brought a new idea, that of counting calories.  Magazines published the diets of the stars, and advocated exercise like that of TV fitness leader, Jack LaLanne.

Even a naturally thin woman like Audrey Hepburn watched what she ate.  However, her approach seems to be a bit different.  Audrey grew up in the Netherlands during World War II, and as a teen often did not get enough to eat.  This left her with a more healthy respect for food, and with a small appetite.

There is a lot written today about how celebrities have such a huge influence when it comes to fashion, diet, and appearance.  Author Laura Slater gets the point across that this is nothing new.  Through the medium of magazines it was easy for the average woman to know how the stars dressed and dieted.

Hollywood Diet and Fitness is a fun and quick read, but there is an extensive bibliography and the book is well researched.  I appreciated the inclusion of period magazine articles, even though I did have to get out the magnifying glass in order to read them.  I also loved that I had never seen many of the photos before.  So many times we see the same old famous celebrity photographs over and over.  Slater did a great job in locating pictures that are not so often seen.

My thanks to the publisher, Plexus Books, for providing me with a review copy.

Correction:  An earlier version of this post incorrectly placed Audrey in Belgium during WWII.  She was actually in the Netherlands for most of the war years.

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Currently Reading: Slacks and Calluses

Slacks and Calluses was the result of two high school teachers who decided to spend their summer vacation in 1943 helping out the war effort by working in an aircraft factory.   Constance Bowman Reid was an English teacher, and her friend Clara Maris Allen taught art, and in their spare time that summer they worked together to produce this delightful little book.

When I found this book, I assumed it was a  memoir, written by the pair many years later, but instead they  put the finishing touches on their work after they returned to school that fall, and they were lucky enough to get the book published the next year.  As a result, the book has a freshness and humor that goes with the very recent retelling of a story.

Along with the amazing descriptions of how a giant airplane assembly line actually worked, Slacks and Calluses has a lot of insights as to the fashions of the day.  Most interesting are the attitudes toward women wearing what was still considered in most situations, men’s clothing.

It was bad enough being tired all the time and dirty most of the time, but worst of all the first week was having to go to work in slacks – down Fourth Street where people who knew us acted as if they didn’t, or down Third Street where people who didn’t know us whistled as if they did.

The two friends found that clerks in stores ignored them, other women on the street scorned them  and men on buses would not surrender their seats to them like they did to women wearing skirts.

It was a great shock to C.M. and me to find that being a lady depended more on our clothes than upon ourselves… This summer we found out that it was not out innate dignity that protected us from unwelcome attentions, but our trim suits, big hats, white gloves, and spectator shoes.  Clothes, we reflected sadly, make the woman – and some clothes make the man think he can make the woman.

Some women in the factories, the “women’s counselors” and nurses, were allowed to wear skirts. Constance and C.M. “hated” those women.

On the positive side, the two did not have to worry about their figures that year, as all the walking just getting to their spot on the assembly line was sufficient exercise, and then the job itself was quite physical.

Slacks and Calluses is a light, fun read that gives a view of WWII that is rather hard to come by.  In the updated version, Reid wrote an epilogue, in which she says she was a bit embarrassed by the book.  That is because she went on to write books about math and number theory and became quite renowned for this work.  She died in 2010 at the age of 92.

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Currently Reading – Boutique by Marnie Fogg

Boutique explores the boutique phenomenon of the 1960s and 70s, with an emphasis on the boutiques of London.  It’s a book I’d been meaning to buy for a while now, so I was pretty delighted when Mod Betty of Retro Roadmap emailed saying she’d found a copy and did I want it.  Well, yes, I’d be happy to take it off MB’s hands.

Most people who know a bit of fashion history know the big names of the London boutique movement:  Mary Quant, Biba, Ossie Clark.  What makes a book like Boutique valuable is that it also fills us in on some lesser known people who played a big role in the movement –  people like Gerald McCann, Bernard Neville, and Georgina Linhart.

Boutique starts the story where most historians start this tale – with Mary Quant.  Quant is so associated with the look of the mid 1960s that one tends to forget that she and partners Alexander Plunket Greene and Archie McNair opened Bazaar, their King’s Road boutique, in 1955.   The above photo shows a Bazaar shop window, from the late 1950s or early 1960s.  Unfortunately, and this is a real weakness of the book, so many of the photos are not dated.  But it does clearly show that the Mod look did not spring forth with the birth of Quant’s design career.

Fogg even addresses the age-old question:  Who invented the mini-skirt, Quant or Courreges?  According to her it was neither.  It was John Bates who designed as Jean Varon and who was responsible for the look of Mrs. Peel in the 1960s television series, The Avengers.

But there is no denying Quant’s influence on the fashions of the 1960s.  Because of her success many other young designers, like Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin were inspired to “do their own thing” in fashion.  Fashion for the young, by the young, was here to stay.

By 1967 Mod was mainstream, and so the fashionable London set was off to the next thing.  A softer, more androgynous look began appearing – a look that began to reference historical dress.

This photo is of The Fool, a group of hippie designers from Holland, who were somehow put in charge of the Beatles’ Apple Boutique in 1967.  You can see the historical references and the beginnings of psychedelic design.  In the book, Fogg mistakenly refers to the boutique as The Fool.

And that leads me to something that has to be said; this book was in need of a good editor, one that knew the subject and could help fact check.  It wasn’t until I was over half way through the book, in a chapter about Youthquake in the US that I began noticing problems.  I’m not sure if that is where the problems begin, or if it is just that I’m so much more familiar with the history of American fashion.

In talking about J.C. Penney, she referred to him as making decisions about developing a more modern image in 1963, when in fact at that time he was 88 years old and was merely an honorary member of the board of directors of the company that bore his name.  Then she explained that the Puritan Fashion Corporation was not, in fact in the fashion business, but was a maker of overalls.   But Puritan was a fashion company which had been making dresses since 1909, and was known for its low cost adaptations of European couture.  The New York store, Henri Bendel was misspelled as Bendell two times in the text.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

And it is a real shame, because these types of small errors cast doubt on the entire text.  I’m assuming that Fogg, being British, is more familiar with the London part of the story, but unless one actually knows that story, how are you to know whether or not the inaccuracies extend to that part of the book?  I’ve learned that “facts” on the internet ought to always be double-checked, and this is a good reminder that books have errors as well.

I guess this is why I’ve been so reluctant to write a book.  Here on the blog I can make an error, get pretty swift feedback and correction, and it’s no big deal.  But somehow a book is so permanent, and unless there are additional editions, errors go uncorrected. And often books have honest mistakes which subsequent research reveals.  These types of errors are simply unavoidable.

Just one more, and then I’ll cut Fogg some slack.  She refers to this skirt by Yves Saint Laurent as a maxi skirt.  Actually, I’d call this a midi.

But even with all the little problems, this is a good book to have, especially if you are really interested in the clothes of the 1960s and the early 70s.  There are lots of photos that I’ve never before seen, not even on the internet.  And as the icing, there are several pages of designer sketches that are just marvelous.

From Celia Birtwell

From Bob Manning

I’d be interested to hear what British readers think of this book.  Have you noticed little errors in the text in reference to the UK boutique scene, or does Fogg get it right?

 

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Currently Reading: Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations

One of my souvenirs of my NYC trip was this book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The book is the companion to the exhibition of the same name that was held last summer at the Met’s Costume Institute.  Impossible Conversations was about the similarities and the differences of the two Italian designers, and by most accounts, the show was not a roaring success.   There were a series of themes, and for each a film was shown. An actress portraying Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada herself sat on opposite ends of a table “discussing” each topic.  I did not see the show, but many reviewers found it to be a bit weird, and definitely contrived.  I have watched Youtube bits, and they do come off as a bit awkward.

At any rate, after the Alexander McQueen blockbuster of 2011, it must have been a great disappointment for the Costume Institute.  The attendance was much less than expected, with hardly a line at most times, which was great for people who love to go and think about what is being presented.  When I was there last week, the museum store had huge stacks of the companion book which had been reduced to $10.   Oddly enough, the book is priced at $40.50 on the Met website, so if you are in the New York City area, I suggest you drop in to pick up a copy.

The book is also divided into the themes of the show, but instead of the impossible conversations, there are appropriate passages from Schiaparelli’s Shocking Life and from interviews with Miuccia Prada.  You really don’t get the feel of an actual conversation, which eliminates some of the criticism of the exhibition.  The book is well laid out, with the words of the designers being printed on little inserted pages.  The photographs are stunning, especially of the Prada clothing.  One thing that bothered me is that most of the Schiaparelli garments are shown in vintage black and white photos.  I would have preferred more colored modern photos of the clothes, but I can see that the purpose was to let the reader see the garments as they were actually worn.

You were often shown a detail in color, along with a vintage photo of the same garment.

It was the detail shots that really brought the clothes to life.  I’ve seen dozens of photos of the Prada dress on the left, but a close up shot shows the richness of the fabric and the embroidery.

To me, one the most interesting parts of the book was a discussion about Surrealism.  Schiaparelli, of course, embraced the label, but Prada insisted that she was not influenced by it, nor by Schiaparelli’s work.  Even her 2000 spring collection which included prints of lips and hearts was, she said, referencing Yves Saint Laurent.  The print on the cover of the book was actually from that collection, but it sure looks Schiap-inspired to me.

So, who says you can’t find a bargain in the city?

I also want to say a few words about the Met and the Costume Institute.  Am I the only person who thinks it is ridiculous that they have only one fashion exhibition a year, and that it is on display for a few short months?  The website says that it is due to the sensitive nature of textiles that items from the collection are rarely on view, but with over 35,000 objects, each could be on display only once every 50 years or so!  And now that the Costume Institute has possession of the fashion collection from the Brooklyn Museum, most of it will never again be on view.

It is great that so much of the collection of the Costume Institute is available to view online, but it just is not the same as seeing the object in person.  It really makes me appreciate the efforts of Kent State, The Mint Museum in Charlotte, and The Charleston Museum, who always have fashions and textiles on view.

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Currently Reading : In My Own Fashion by Oleg Cassini

I’m a real fan of autobiographies.  It’s almost like the joy of knowing that one has the opportunity to tell history their way comes out in the reading of the storyteller’s words.  This book by Oleg Cassini is no different.  It’s a fun read, even if the self-proclaimed jetsetter gets a little over-confident in the telling.

Today, Cassini is pretty much remembered for two things:  the wardrobe he made for Jackie Kennedy, and the myriad of licensed products that carried his name starting in the 1960s.  His story is so much richer than those two aspects, which made for some pretty entertaining hours curled up with this one.

Cassini was, more than anything, a Hollywood designer.  He made clothes for the movies, and he dressed stars including his wife, Gene Tierney.  He eventually ended up owning his own design firm in New York, where he continued to make dresses that would have been right at home in Hollywood.  In other words, he believed that a woman needed to dress in a slightly sexy manner.  During his time in New York, Cassini became involved with Grace Kelly, whom he pursued, and he eventually convinced her to marry him.  It never happened, due partly to the strong objections of her family and to her growing fame in Hollywood.  And then before he knew it, she was swept off her feet by another.

In the 1950s, Oleg and his brother, Igor Cassini, became friends with Joe Kennedy.  According to the book, Oleg and Igor spent evenings on the town with Joe in the company of young women they brought along.  By the time John Kennedy was elected president, there were years of history between the Cassinis and the Kennedys.

By all accounts, the selection of Oleg Cassini to be the new First Lady’s unofficial fashion designer was an odd one.  His own vision of how a woman should look was very much at odds at how Jackie herself liked to dress.  According to Cassini, he began to think of the new First Lady as a character, with her clothing accentuating the role she would be playing.  Into this vision he wisely incorporated the clean Parisian couture look that so appealed to Jackie.  He then took his plans for her wardrobe to her hospital room in December 1960, as she had just given birth to John Junior.   All around her were sketches from other designers such as Norell and Sarmi.  But it was he who won out, having created a look just for her, totally unrelated to his regular design work.

As he put it,  “The clothes I designed for her – simple, elegant, classic – fit perfectly into her program.  From my knowledge of her taste, I had been able to predict her intentions.”

Unfortunately, Jackie had already put in an order at Bergdorf Goodman for her inaugural wardrobe, and according to most sources I’ve read, had asked them to provide the bulk of her wardrobe for the next four years.  The dress for the Inaugural Ball was already completed.  In the end she wore it, but Cassini insisted in his book that she always favored the dress he provided to her for the gala that was put on the night before the Inauguration.   This is probably true, as the dress he designed is one of the most famous of her time in the White House, and is pictured on the cover of Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, the companion volume to the 2001 Met exhibition of the same name.

For the next almost three years, Oleg continued to make the bulk of the First Lady’s wardrobe.  Jackie, a dedicated reader of fashion magazines, would tear out photos of dresses she loved, and Oleg would  work up a version, using the ideas she favored.  His studio had three fitting mannequins with the same figure as Jackie along with a live model who was Jackie’s size, so most of the fitting was done in New York.  Then the almost finished garments were taken to Washington by Oleg’s assistant, Kay McGowan, for the final fitting and the approval of Jackie.

One of  the biggest question marks of In My Own Fashion is the strange insistence by Cassini that the pillbox hat worn by Mrs. Kennedy for the Inauguration was not made by Halston.  He insisted that the idea was his, and that he and Diana Vreeland discussed how the hat would have to sit on the back of her head in order to not interfere with her hair style.

“Eventually we agreed that a pillbox would work; the actual execution of the hat was done by Marita at Bergdorf Goodman, Mrs. Kennedy’s preferred hatmaker.  And so it was rather surprising, many years later, to read in the New York Times that Halston had created the pillbox.  An outright lie, and an attempted revision of fashion history.”

So I turned to my fashion library to see what was written about it at the time.   According to John Fairchild, writing in his Fashionable Savages in 1965,  “Her (Mrs. Kennedy) inauguration pillbox from Bergdorf Goodman’s Halston is still selling.”

As it turns out, the Marita to whom Cassini was referring was Marita O’Connor, who was not even a milliner.  She was Jackie Kennedy’s millinery salesperson at Bergdorf Goodman.  She was well aware that Jackie favored the pillbox shape, as she had been wearing it all through the presidential campaign. It just seems natural that she would wear a pillbox, and since it was ordered from Bergdorf Goodman, that it would be made by Halston.

At any rate, it seems such a shame that Cassini seemed to have his nose so firmly out of joint in regards to the hat.  I can remember that soon before his death in 2005, he again reasserted his claim that he designed the pillbox.  It just seems to me that the accomplishment of helping create the fashion icon that is Jackie Kennedy would be enough to satisfy anyone’s ego.

Tomorrow, more on Cassini’s ready-to-wear business and his licensing empire.

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Currently Reading: Harriet Love’s Guide to Vintage Chic

In 1982, I’d been buying vintage clothing for five years or so, haunting the old Salvation Army store on Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville, and spending hours in a delightful little hole-in-the-wall shop on Broadway called Rags.  The owner, Ann, was a true original.  She knew clothes, and she was generous with her knowledge.  Her enthusiasm for old clothes was infectious, and I’d caught the bug from her.

I had also found a book called Cheap Chic, by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy.  It had a section called “Antiques: Shopping the Thrift Stores” and it was enough to really fuel the vintage fire. Then in 1982, something momentous happened:  Harriet Love published her book, Vintage Chic.

As far as I know, it was the very first book written about the buying and collecting of vintage clothing.  I was browsing the “fashion” section of my local B. Dalton Books when I spotted it.  The $12.50 price tag was not a deterrent to my having that book.  I bought it and devoured every word.

It’s really hard for me to grasp the fact that 1982 was 30 years ago!  And yet, so much has changed.  In the book, Love had to explain what vintage clothing was, and why anyone might be interested in wearing other people’s old clothing.  She had opened a shop in New York in 1966, and was by 1982 trying to move beyond the store’s roots as a supplier to hippies and oddballs.

Today, the book is more valuable to me as a look back  at the emerging vintage fashion scene than as a book about how to buy old clothes.  And yet, some of the advice in the book is still valid.  She wrote sections on vintage shopping that still have relevance.  For example, she warns people who are traveling to a new market to keep an open mind and to double-check dates before a long trip.  She explains how sizing has changed over the years and she gives good advice about how to judge the size of a garment without trying it on.  And she explains some of the different places where one might actually find vintage clothing.

There are a lot of photos in the book of models (including Geena Davis and Madonna before they were famous) wearing vintage clothing styled by Love.  It really points out how trends happen, even with vintage clothing.  She shows a dozen ways to wear Victorian white petticoats and nightgowns.  They were very popular at the time, echoing the gathered skirts and romantic looks of designers like Ralph Lauren.  And the book is full of 1940s blouses and jackets, showing the emerging 1980s broad shouldered styles.  In this way, the book is as much about 1980s fashion as it is about vintage.

It is interesting to see the types of things that Love saw as important – men’s deco print rayon scarves from the 1930s, 1950s beaded sweaters, Hawaiian and cowboy shirts.  And looking at it now, I can see how this influenced my buying preferences both during the 1980s and later.  I still have a hard time passing up a good 1930s fringed rayon scarf.

Because Love’s store was in New York, at the time I first read the book I thought the prices she mentioned were ridiculously high.  Even today, some of them are exactly what I might expect to pay for certain items, but then others are what makes us all want to climb into a time machine and go shopping.  A sampling:

White Edwardian blouse:  $40 – 175

Edwardian petticoat – $50 – $250

Victorian camisole: $55 – $150

1940s blouse, plain:  $50, with beads or sequins:  $100 plus

Printed cotton dirndl skirt:  $35 – $50

1940s print day dress: $40 – $60

Dior 1950s ball gown:  $75 – $100

1920s beaded dress:  $200 – $800

Today, it would have to be a very special camisole (or corset cover) in order to justify a $150 price tag, but I’ll take a dozen of those $100 Diors.

About a year ago I found that I had misplaced some of my clothing books, and this one was among the missing.  After a through search, I concluded that they must have gotten mixed up with some books I’d boxed up for charity, and that I’d given them away.  I missed my old copy of Vintage Chic, so I found one online and ordered it.  Several months later, I found my original, in the basement where *someone* had stored some of our books.

So today, in honor of my new status of having 300 blog subscribers, I’m giving the extra copy away.  This is open to all readers, worldwide.  All you have to do is leave a comment letting me know that you are in.  You might tell us how YOU first became interested in vintage clothing or fashion history.  I’d love some good stories.

Contest will end at noon, December 26, 2012.

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