Tag Archives: couture

A.E. Lelong, 18 Place de la Madeleine, Paris, Circa 1910

One of the great things about collecting old clothes is that the internet has made it so easy to find like-minded people with whom you can talk fashion history. It was through longtime on-line friend Jonathan that I met vintage sellers Melinda and Jeff, who live in my own community. Seriously, it took a guy from Canada to connect me with people in my own extended backyard.

For obvious reasons, I love visiting Mel and Jeff. They always have something “new” that I’ve never seen. And while museum exhibitions are so useful in learning about old stuff, having access to lovely things and actually getting to examine them is an education apart.

Last fall I was at their place of business when I passed by a blue linen suit waiting for its turn to be photographed.  I’m such a sucker for blue anyway, but this suit was just the loveliest thing I’d seen. I pulled it off the rack and saw the label, A.E. Lelong, Paris. I was familiar with Lucien Lelong whose couture house existed from the early 1920s to the late 1940s, but this suit predated that label. Still, I was sure there had to be a connection.

But even without the label I could tell this was an exceptional garment. The two colors of blue linen were perfectly matched, and the details showed expert construction. Between the label and the superb craftsmanship of the piece, I was intrigued. I took a few photos and when I returned home, began a search for A.E. Lelong.

As it turns out, A. was Arthur, Lucien Lelong’s father and E. was his wife Éléonore . Details are a bit sketchy, but Arthur and
Éléonore owned a textile and dressmaking establishment at 18 Place de la Madeleine in Paris. Their son Lucien studied business, but joined his parent’s business when he finished school. In 1914 he was set to take over with the first collection made under his direction when World War One erupted.

When the war was over, Lucien returned to Paris and resumed his work at A.E. Lelong. Several years later the company was renamed Lucien Lelong.  Lucien was not so much the designer of the company as he was the director. Designers were employed, and with  input from Lelong, the collections were designed and made.

This suit pre-dates Lucien’s time at Lelong, though from what I’ve read he was influencing the activities at A.E. Lelong even before he formally joined the company. What does matter about the suit is the fact that it is a wonderful example of French couture in the early days of the twentieth century. Linen suits from this era are quite common, but most of the ones I’ve seen are white or off white. The blue color is just extra special.

Like so much fine dressmaking from the twentieth century, this set has a combination of machine and handwork. The construction is machine sewn, with the embellishments being applied by hand.

A word about the length, the mannequin is a bit tall for the dress. It is actually to the ankle.

The dress makes a statement even without the jacket. What could be lovelier on a lazy summer afternoon.

The braid was laid on and stitched by hand.

The lace looks to be hand crocheted, but I’m no expert on lace, and machines were making incredible look-alikes buy this era.

The dress buttons up the back with the tiniest buttons.

Instead of buttonholes, the maker made a string of loops out of a continuous thread. This dress definitely required the help of a lady’s maid.

The closure on the jacket is that elaborately knotted braid. The buttons are purely decorative.

When I saw this set, my first thought was, “I want that.” But soon common sense took over. As much as I love this, I have to be reasonable and limit myself to buying sportier items that fit within the context of my bigger picture. So, I did what any friend would do – I sent photos to Jonathan at the Fashion History Museum. He was coming to North Carolina to get the Poiret coat, and I wanted to make sure he saw this as well.

As it turns out, the suit is now at the Fashion History Museum, on display in one of their current exhibitions, Made in France. I love happy endings!

An online search for examples of clothing with the A.E. Lelong label have shown the label to be quite rare. The Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris has four examples.

Thanks to Melinda and Jeff for the use of their photos.

And here’s a photo of the suit as shown at the Fashion History Museum. Thanks to Jonathan for the photo.


Filed under Designers, Vintage Clothing

Currently Reading – Christian Dior: History and Modernity, 1947 – 1957

I am sure that all of you know I do not collect haute couture clothing. Well, actually, I do have three couture ensembles. One was a lucky and cheap flea market find, one was an eBay bargain, and the other was a splurge that I bought for myself to wear. But while I don’t seek out couture pieces to collect, I will on occasion, enjoy a good book on haute couture.

I bought Christian Dior: History & Modernity, 1947 – 1957 because a person whose opinion I respect recommended it on Instagram.  And she was right. This is a great book.

There was a time, not so long ago that books on historic fashion were all about the pretty pictures of beautiful clothes. And while I love looking at these books as much as anyone can, they always leave me wanting more. I want to know the historic context, the construction details, the fabrics used. In this new Dior book, that’s what Alexandra Palmer gives us.

This is not so much a book about Dior as it is about the Dior garments in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. A year ago many of the dresses were on exhibition in the museum. I recently read a complaint of sorts that maybe the subject of Dior was being overexposed, with there being five major exhibitions within the past two years. All I can say is that if the exhibitions lead to the type of scholarship shown in this book, then overexposure is fine with me.

The bulk of the book consists of garment “biographies” in which each dress is looked at in detail. We are treated to the inner workings of construction, told who made the fabrics (and ribbons, as in the case of Soiree Romantique, above), shown the original press photo and any magazine features.

To a person who loves the construction aspect of fashion, this is a real treat.

There is so much information about each garment that I’ll be rereading each biography, taking my time to absorb the wealth of detail.

We also get a really good look at how haute couture designers and workshops work with clients to individualize each design especially for the owner of the dress. In many cases, there are vintage photographs of the original owner wearing her Dior. The gown above is Palmyre, and it was owned by Dorothy Boylen of Toronto.

The left photo shows the reverse of the embroidery, which was made with the use of a tambour hook. These embroideries were actually worked on the reverse. On the right is a finished front panel for this gown.

Clients often chose to have a design made in a different color than was originally envisioned by Dior. In this case, Caracas was designed as a black dress, but I think it works quite well in this icy blue.

And here is the dress in black, worn by Sophia Loren.

Both dresses were made in a special silk developed by the textile firm Staron, a frequent supplier to Dior. Staron would offer as many as 300 colors in a collection. You can see some of them in the top photo.

Click to enlarge

Probably my favorite part of this book was the six technical sketches of patterns developed by Berta Pavlov. Seeing a simple black dress with a pleated skirt all laid out that way makes it more than obvious that Dior did not do simple. This skirt was constructed by sewing thirty-three two-piece godets into slits cut into the one-piece skirt. That means this skirt has a total of ninety-nine seams.

Unfortunately, this leads to what I disliked about this book. Many of the garments were black, and they were photographed on a black background. As you can see, the dress just melts into the black. At first I thought it was just my very poor eyesight playing evil tricks, but as this lightened photo shows, there simply is not enough contrast for one to be able to see the dress.

I find this a bit puzzling, seeing as how we are treated to all kinds of details and close-ups throughout the book, but then can’t see the finished product in many cases. Still, it’s not enough to keep me from really loving this book.

If you want a biography of Christian Dior, this is not the book. If you want to learn more about how haute couture as practiced by Dior led to some very remarkable clothes, then this is the book for you.





Filed under Currently Reading, Designers

Fashion Independent: The Original Style of Ann Bonfoey Taylor

Ann Bonfoey Taylor wearing a Balenciaga evening coat (1962–63) at a personal photo shoot in 1971. Photo by Toni Frissell/Courtesy of the Taylor family.

Several weeks ago I mentioned that there was to be an exhibition of clothes belonging to Ann Bonfoey Taylor at the Georgia Museum of Art.  I’d planned on making the trip, and yesterday I made it down to Athens, GA to check it out.  The collection belongs to the Phoenix  Art Museum, which also organized the exhibition which first was shown there in 2011.

Having read the museum’s description of the exhibition, I knew that it included items from Charles James, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Madame Grès and Hermès.  That sounds pretty nice, but it’s been my experience that many times exhibitors tend to highlight the most famous names in press releases.  I was completely caught off guard when I walked into a room that contained not one, but  fourteen Charles James ensembles.

Charles James (American, b. England, 1906–1978) Ball gown, 1949 Silk taffeta and duchess satin Photo by Ken Howie

There were James suits and coats and evening gowns and the stunning ball gown shown above.  It’s is actually a dress and a jacket, and in the exhibition the two pieces are displayed separately with an explanation of how the two fit together.  She also had special foundation garments from Charles James, and the La Sirine gown in black and in eggplant.

Astounding as that was, I entered the next room and was met by Ann Bonfoey Taylor’s sportswear.  In this case, it was all pretty much from Hermès.  Yes, this woman went hunting and skiing wearing Hermès.

Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish 1895–1972) Evening dress and coat, 1962–63 Abraham silk Photo by Ken Howie

In the 1960s, Taylor turned to Balenciaga and Givenchy.  The gown and coat above was used as the introduction to the exhibition, and it is a real beauty.  But it was only one of thirteen Balenciaga ensembles in the show, and there were another twelve by Givenchy.  Mrs. Taylor was a serious couture shopper!

Hubert de Givenchy (French, b. 1927) Cocktail coat and dress, 1960s Silk Photo by Ken Howie

Most of the daywear was in dark colors – greys and black and dark blue. But her evening wardrobe was colorful and bright.  With the exception of wool plaids from  Hermès, there was a complete lack of patterned fabrics.  This woman knew what she liked and what looked good on her and she stuck with these things throughout her life.

Ann Bonfoey was born in 1910 to the family that manufactured Putnam Dyes.  She married early, at eighteen, and moved to Vermont where she took up the latest sports craze, snow skiing.  She discovered that she was quite good at it, and earned a spot on the 1940 Olympic team.  Unfortunately, WWII happened and the Olympics were never held.  After the US became involved in the war, Ann signed up as a flight instructor and she spent the war years training US Army air cadets.  By this time she was divorced from her first husband and needed to work to support her two children.  When the war ended, she turned to skiing and fashion in order to make a living.

She came up with the idea to make ski clothing, which her friend Diana Vreeland was able to get featured in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar.  She ran a shop in Stowe, Vermont, and the New York store Lord and Taylor carried her line, Ann Cooke.  The line was short-lived, as she remarried in 1946 and soon moved with her new husband, Moose Taylor, first to Texas, and then to Colorado.

Ann Bonfoey Taylor skiing. Photo by Toni Frissell/Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division, Toni Frissell Collection.

This new husband had the means for Ann to have her clothing custom made by the best in the business.  She continued to pursue skiing, and she had incredible costumes made to her specifications.  At one point she went for a military look, and collected vintage and antique military hats and bags to go with her bright red jackets, which were decorated with brass military buttons.  In 1965 photographer Toni Frissell shot photos of Taylor for Life magazine and the pictures ran in an article titled “An Inventive Skier’s Worldly Wardrobe.”  Over the next decade, she became known as one of the most stylish women in the world.  Interesting, because all this fashion attention came after she had reached the age of 55.

Note cards, available at the Georgia Museum of Art

The last grouping of clothes in the exhibition were by Madame Grès and were from the 1960s and 70s.  To me one of the big surprises of the show were the Grès day dresses (seen in left note card).  For someone so associated with draping and evening gowns, she sure knew how to put together a lovely dress for day.

The two coats on the right are by Charles James, early 1950s.

  As I entered the exhibition area I was given the card above which contains a listing of terms that non-fashion people might not be familiar with.  I thought it was a nice touch.  Click it if you want to read the list.

I was disappointed to see that photos were not allowed, but I soon forgot to care, and I realized that not being able to use the camera forced me to focus on and remember the details of the garments.  Most museums that do not allow photos are very gracious about letting writers have access to press photos, and the Georgia Museum of Art even has them available for download right on the website.

I loved how the clothing was arranged.  The mannequins were placed so that the visitors can get really close to look at the fabrics and the details.  Many are situated so that both the front and the back can be seen.  There were actual photos of Mrs. Taylor wearing the garments that were on display.  In short, it was a very effective, entertaining show.

There were quite a few visitors, but the space was large, and the exhibition was spread over six galleries.  I loved watching the other visitors.  One group was a pre-teen girl, her mother and grandmother.  They were having the best time, the grandmother explaining the fashions of the 1960s to the little girl.

If you are going to be anywhere near Athens, Georgia before September 16th, you must see this incredible show.  The video below was shot at the Phoenix Museum of Art in 2011, but the show is pretty much the same.  Note all the Hermès sportswear behind the news reporter and the curator, Dennita Sewell.

All photographs are courtesy of the Georgia Museum of Art.  Do not post to other sites, please, including pinterest and tumblr.


Filed under Museums

The Charleston Museum – Charleston Couture

While in Charleston my sister and I were able to pay a visit to the excellent Charleston Museum.  I’ve written about the Charleston Museum before, and to read more about the museum you can visit that earlier entry.  On this visit, there were four exhibitions in the Historic Textiles Gallery.  The museum has a varied collection of textiles, and now that they have a gallery devoted solely to textiles, there is always something of interest to people like me.

This year they have dedicated the first display cases to the four seasons.   For summer, the curator put together a range of swimwear, accompanied by appropriate ephemera and accessories.   The Charleston Museum collection is made up mainly of things that do have a connection to the city and to the surrounding area, and most of their exhibits are historical in nature.  Oftentimes, the items chosen are not only interesting fashion, but they also add to the story of the city.

Such is the case with the blue eyelet swimsuit and cover-up in the top photo.  Vintage fashion people will be interested to know that the set dates to 1959 and is by Rose Marie Reid.  History buffs will be interested to know that the original owner was the daughter of the man who developed the Isle of Palms, and that the owner and her husband developed Kiawah Island.  Today both are famous beach resorts in the Charleston area.

The Charleston Museum has been collecting clothing for a long time the red striped suit was donated to the museum by its original owner, May Snowden, in 1925.

The tan checked suit in this photo belonged to Charles Hume Haig of Charleston, who wore it as a young man in the late 19th century.

Note the Jantzen diving girl on the two piece suit from the 1950s.  The blue knit suit in the top photo is also a Jantzen, and has a Charleston store label.

Much of the Historic Textile Gallery is now housing an exhibit called Charleston Couture.  The exhibit is a chronology of fashionable clothing that was worn by Charlestonians, though not all of it is, strictly speaking, haute couture.   It is a good opportunity if you, like me, need more exposure to items before 1920.

All the 18th and 19th century dresses above came from Charleston estates, but in all cases, it cannot be determined with certainty who the original wearers were.  The museum has good educated guesses for them though, using what they know about the age of the dress, the women in the household and other historical clues.

The Charleston Museum is really good about showing not just dresses, but also menswear and accessories.

The ivory dress is by Charles Frederick Worth and it is a true beauty, but the pink and black dress has the more interesting history.  It was made by Pauline Seba in 1890 for the trousseau of a prominent Charleston woman.  Seba, a Black woman,  was probably born into slavery in 1862, and rose to become one of the few Charleston dressmakers of the late 19th century who labeled their work.  Mme. Seba, Robes, Charleston, SC.

Another piece from Worth, this evening coat is made from black net, covered with glass beads.  The sleeves are cut-work lace, covered with black chiffon.

Mariano Fortuny, of course.   The two Delphos dresses belonged to the same woman who owned the Worth coat.  Can you just imagine what her closet was like?

The black stenciled coat is also by Fortuny, and it belonged to Charleston artist Elizabeth O’ Neill Varner.  Several years ago the coat was in an exhibit at the museum, and due to the lack of space, was shown flat.  What a difference it makes seeing it on a form!

So much prettiness!  The black 1920s was made by Francois Bacus, in Luneville, France.  The firm employed embroiderers in the art of broderie de Luneville.  The pink robe de style was inspired by the work of Jeanne Lanvin.  As for the stunning one shouldered black number with the train, no label was mentioned in the exhibition notes, but it was owned by Gertrude Sanford Legendre, a wealthy South Carolina/New York  socialite and woman after my own heart, so it is possible the label was removed.

The green gown was worn by Eleanor Rutledge Hanson in 1932 for a court visit at Buckingham Palace.  Note the matching jacket.  The little sequined jacket is from Hattie Carnegie, but there were no details given for the black dress with the spectacular sleeves.  Oddly, the coral dress is from Lee Clair, a line of “better” cocktail wear for juniors.

The black and white ensemble is from Bill Blass, and the red dress is by Estevez.

There was also a quilt exhibit, and one on Lowcountry embroidery.  I’ll be showing a spectacular piece from it later on.


Filed under Museums

Currently Viewing – Signe Chanel

Signe Chanel is one of those programs that I have watched five or six times, and I still find it amusing and intriguing.   Made to show the development of the 2004 Fall Winter Couture, it starts with the Chanel seamstresses, or petite mains, waiting for Karl Lagerfeld to show up at the Chanel atelier with the sketches for the new collection.

This is not so much Lagerfeld’s story, but the story of all the many people who make the collection possible.  Watching how the sketch becomes a reality is a marvel, even with all the missteps, and there are plenty of those.  I always sympathize with poor Laurence as she remakes one particular dress for the third (or is it fourth) time.  And dear Massaro, as he takes the shoe prototype back and forth and back and forth between his shoemaking establishment and Chanel until it is perfect, never loses his sense of humor.

Other highlights are the visits to Madame Pouzieux, the only maker of Chanel braid, on her horse farm in the French countryside.   She’s grumpy, and getting grumpier.  And in one episode, the mains talk about all the superstitions of their trade.  Just don’t drop the scissors…

Of all the documentaries showing the inside workings of a design house, Signe Chanel is my favorite.  I think I love it so much because it shows that there is still a level of clothes-making where the skill of the makers is just unequaled, and that luxury does still exist in the fashion world.  No, I can’t afford it, but that does not mean I can’t appreciate it.

But even people who do not like Lagerfeld should enjoy Signe Chanel.  He really is just one of many players.  I do wish he’d stop clicking all those rings as that did get to be quite annoying.

This film was produced by Sundance, and it is not currently showing, but the entirety of it is on Youtube.   You can watch the clip  at the top of this post for a short taste, but when you are ready to devote  two or so hours, the entire series of episodes can be accessed through the first clip, below.  Enjoy!


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Filed under Currently Viewing, Designers

Currently Reading: Couture Sewing Techniques

I don’t often just sit around reading sewing instructional books for fun, but this book is just so much more than just a sewing manual.  I first encountered Claire Shaeffer several years ago at the Costume Society of America Symposium.  She gave a presentation on the topic of identifying Chanel couture, even if the label was missing.  I was just blown away at her research on the topic, and her study extends far beyond Chanel.

I’ve long lamented the way online sellers sling around the C word – Couture.  But I honestly think that most of these people do not know the difference between couture and designer ready-to-wear.   Those sellers need this book.  Claire has a great chart that compares and contrasts couture and RTW.  It’s all spelled out, and made perfectly clear.

I’m not going to go into a true review here because I’m writing one for the Vintage Fashion Guild.  It will be in the public newsletter next month, which can be accessed through the VFG homepage.  The book I’m showing is the recently published up-dated and revised edition.  You can also buy the original. 

While Claire shows the reader how to do each technique, she also explains how couture houses apply the technique in the construction of a garment.  A few examples from a late 1960s Chanel dress:

A Chanel buttonhole:  hand-worked on the outside…

bound in the lining, and then sewn to the hand-worked hole.

Zipper is inserted by hand, and notice that the actual closure extend to the shoulder seam:

Even the backs of pocket flaps are beautifully finished and lined in silk:


Filed under Currently Reading

The Adaptation Label

Earlier this week I happened on a little antique mall in an unpromising location, but I threw on the brakes, did a U-turn and entered hopefully. I was immediately rewarded by the presence of hats – many vintage hats stacked, hung and perched throughout the store. One of the most promising turned out to have a Dior label, and, a $250 price tag! But as I went through the inventory, I noticed that most of them were much more modestly priced, in the under $10 range.

And that’s when I came across this pretty green satin beret. I turned it over, and all I saw was Pierre Balmain. But my thumb caught on a turned under corner, and the words “Adaptation of” were exposed.

So what exactly is an adaptation? These labels go back at least to the 1920s when Paris fashion ruled supreme.  A couture house like Chanel or Lanvin did only made-to-order clothing; there was no ready-to-wear.  However, couture houses would sell styles to American businesses like Bergdorf Goodman and Hattie Carnegie, who would then make high quality reproductions of the styles they had purchased.  But they were not the only purchasers.  Even a mass merchandiser like Sears would buy a style or a “toile” which was basically a muslin pattern of a style.

This gave the makers the right to use an adaptation label.  Sometimes the styles were adapted to meet the needs of American buyers, and sometimes they were faithfully reproduced.  I’ve seen adaptation labels in dresses, and also in hats.

Why would a couturier agree to such an arrangement?  Because then – as now – copying was a major problem.  The great lengths that the copy houses would go to in order to steal the most popular designs is well chronicled in designer Elizabeth Hawes’ 1938 book, Fashion is Spinach.  I suppose the designers realized it was better to sell the styles rather than to have them all stolen anyway.  That way they did get partial compensation.

The latest adaptation labels I’ve seen are from the late 1950s, or early 60s. By then, the labels often read “Reproduction of”.  So why did the system of selling toiles and styles to reproduce end?  My guess is that it was the realization by couturiers that  they could manufacture their own ready-to-wear and make more profits that way.  By the 1960s, most couturiers were producing a boutique line of ready-to-wear.  They might have licensing agreements in the manner of Pierre Cardin, but these were not in any way related to the designs produced by the couturier.

Here is another adaptation label.  It is from the house of Mad Carpentier and was made in the late 1940s by American mass producer Puritan.  The dress it came from is totally trashed, but I paid $5 for it anyway because in six years of collecting labels for the VFG Label Resource, it is the only label of any kind from Mad Carpentier that I’ve ever seen.


Filed under Collecting, Designers, Vintage Clothing