Tag Archives: CSA

Fashion Queens – Southeastern Region Symposium in Charlotte, NC

I joined the Costume Society of America way back in 2005, and for a person like me who loves all aspects of fashion and social history, it has been a super learning experience. Once a year there’s an organization-wide symposium where members present their research, and on a smaller scale, there are yearly regional meetings as well.

I like the large symposiums, but I love the regional ones. There’s an intimate atmosphere where even if you do not know  a single person when you arrive, when you leave you have lots of new friends and contacts.

So I was pretty excited to learn that the Southeastern Region was holding this fall’s symposium in Charlotte, only about two and a half hours from me. The theme was Fashion Queens, which gives a nod to Charlotte, the Queen City, and Queen Charlotte for whom the city was named.

I know that sitting in a room with a bunch of history fanatics is not everyone’s cup of tea, to to me it’s an exciting opportunity to learn from the best.  The images above are from the research of Linda Baumgarten on designs of eighteenth century quilted petticoats. Linda is a Curator Emerita at Colonial Williamsburg. She’s the author of  books on the subject, including my favorite, What Clothes Reveal.

For attendees not familiar with quilting terminology, Linda provided clear photos to make her study easier to understand.

The presentation above was really interesting. Dr. Dina Smith of VA Tech studied “the design process of reenactors who create Regency gowns.” To do this she conducted interviews with reenactors attending the Jane Austin Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.

One of my favorite presentations was about the pearl button industry of Muscatine, Iowa. This research was conducted by Jade Papa of Thomas Jefferson University.  Anyone who studies clothing that predates the emergence of plastics has seen lots of  mother of pearl buttons, but do you know where they were made? Well, neither did I until I was enlightened by Jade.

Mussel and clam shells were harvested from the Mississippi River at Muscatine starting in 1891. By the 1920s the seven button companies in Muscatine were producing 37% of the world’s pearl buttons. Above you can see how discs were stamped out from the shells. This was just the beginning of the process, as each disc was handled thirty times before it became a button.

The beginning of the end of the Muscatine button industry came in the 1930s when the Great Depression hit. At the same time plastics were being made into buttons cheaper and easier. And the shells had been over-harvested which led to several species becoming extinct or endangered.  I hope Jade writes a book.

Jean Druesedow, who recently retired as director of the Kent State University Museum, talked about how Kent acquired the clothing of actress Katherine Hepburn. This was really interesting, partly because I have seen the exhibition using Hepburn’s clothing twice. Jean talked about the relationships that Katherine Hepburn developed with the designers of her screen and stage clothing.

After the presentations there’s the chance for the audience to ask questions. What really made this particular symposium so special was the exchange of ideas between professionals like Baumgarten and Druesedow, plus experienced conservators like Colleen Callahan and Margaret Ordonez. And just so you will not think the attendees were just the elders of the profession, there were quite a few college students and masters candidates who attended, and some who even presented. It was a great mix of ideas and experiences.

Another favorite part of CSA symposia are the trips to local museums. In this case we went to the Mint Museum. I’ve visited the Mint numerous times, but there’s always something new to see. Above you have part of a special exhibition from Studio Drift. The piece is Fragile Future 3.5, and it’s made of dandelion fluff attached to tiny lights. There’s a complete circuit of the metal parts.

And here’s my irregularly scheduled reminder that a museum does not have to have actually clothing on display for visitors to see fashion. So much of what we know about fashion history is learned from period art, like this 1857 painting by James Goodlyn Clonney, Offering Baby a Rose.

I would usually be more interested in the mother’s dress, or the hound observer, but in this case, it’s the father’s robe or banyan that caught my eye.

A big thanks to the Department of Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and especially to Aly Amidei, for hosting the symposium.

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Fashion and Technology – Additional Thoughts

I promise this is the last post from the CSA symposium I attended recently in Cincinnati. And this is really just for me to formalize my thoughts on the two days spent immersed in talk of fashion and technology.

I really like how CSA develops their symposiums around a theme. As a teacher I used to go to conferences on writing or history, and the presentations would be all over the place. With a theme, common threads start to emerge, and one starts to hear multiple opinions on the same topic. It makes for a more thoughtful experience.

One thing that so many of the presenters, especially the college professionals who work in design programs, pointed out, is that the great majority of fashion design students have zero sewing skills. I realize that a person does not HAVE to sew in order to create designs (much like Karl Lagerfeld), but it sure does help to know what can and cannot be accomplished with a sewing machine, the basic tool in making a garment.

So the starting point in most design programs is a basic sewing class. One teacher made the point that it is the attempted making of a welt pocket that separates the sheep from the goats. He estimated that half of his students do not make it past the welt pocket.

Why can’t Suzy and Johnny sew? According to my two new friends from Lipscomb University in Nashville, it is because so few high schools have home economics classes that teach sewing. They were particularly perturbed because Lipscomb Academy, which is closely associated with the university, recently did away with sewing class.  (I looked, and my alma mater does teach sewing in two classes called Apparel Development).

Another common thread came from the people in charge of collections. The big concern is the need for continued digitalization of collections both big and small. This refers to the placing online of searchable databases of an institution’s clothing collection and archives. While everyone who addressed this issue was pretty much in agreement that digital collections are highly useful for researchers and curators planning exhibitions, there are some major problems that prevent institutions from putting their collections online.

The first and the most daunting is that the process is very expensive. You may have read about the financial problems at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some critics claim that a big part of the money drain was due to a huge push to digitalize their collections. That may be so, but the result is that the Met is in possession of a database that is widely used, maybe even over-used. Several presenters pointed out that they were tired of seeing the same old Met garments used in scholarly works.

Another problem is that digital problems quickly become obsolete. Some institutions that were early users of digital programs are now having to replicate their previous work due to low resolution of photographs and outdated computer systems.

These problems aside, if an institution wants their collection to be seen in today’s world, the best way to do it is online. As one presenter pointed out, a digital online presence is no longer a “nice thing”; it’s a near necessity.

It boggles my mind to think of all the great collections, and the holdings within. What if there was a universal database of not just the major museums, but of all clothing collections, even private ones. I’m always reading that an example of this or that major milestone in fashion no longer exists, but I’m betting that somewhere, in some avid collector’s closet, one does exist. I know I’m dreaming but part of the joy of being with people who are thinking about and working on solutions to these problems really opens the mind to the possibilities that the digital universe brings to us.

Several presenters talked about social media and blogging, and how these platforms have proved useful to fashion researchers and scholars. I’ve actually addressed this topic here, as the interactions I have with all of you greatly enrich my own understanding of fashion history. Having an audience for my writing is important, but so is getting feedback from readers. And the same is true of Instagram, where people are quick to point out something missed and to add to what the photo poster knows about an object.

There was also a lot of talk about 3-D printing and other technologies that are being developed. Interesting, but what really caught my attention was this maternity coat, designed by Chanjuan Chen and Kendra Lapolla at Kent State University. The pattern for the coat was developed using a computer program, and the placement of the pattern on the fabric was analyzed by computer which was able to fit the pieces onto the fabric with less than five percent waste. That five percent was then used to make the appliques, so there was essentially no waste in making the coat.

The embroidery was also made using a high tech embroidery machine. I really did think it was hand embroidered.

So, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed coming along with me to Cincinnati.

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2012 Costume Society of America Symposium, Atlanta

I spent the past four days in Atlanta, attending the CSA Symposium and hanging out with my friend Monica Murgia.  On Wednesday I drove down and picked Monica up at the Marta (that’s Atlantaese for Metro) station and we spent the day hunting vintage treasures.  I’ll be writing about what we found later on this week.

The CSA Symposium is a yearly meeting of fashion history people – university professors and fashion school teachers, museum curators and conservators – and me.  Even though I don’t actually fit into any of the categories of scholars in attendance, the group is happy to accept all who have an interest in fashion studies.   I even had a few people tell me how much they enjoy The Vintage Traveler, and I tried very hard not to let my head swell.

Throughout the days of the symposium, people presented papers that were selected by a panel for inclusion in the program.  This year the theme had a multi-cultural slant, and many of the papers presented reflected this.  A favorite in this group was Sarah Scaturro’s presentation on a valuable collection of Vodou artifacts she worked on in Haiti.

Many of the papers were studies of 18th and early 19th century clothing, an area which I love but am woefully under-educated!  It was great to sit there and learn from people who really knew their stuff.

A common theme in many of these presentations was how clothing of the past was often restyled to fit the current mode.   More than one museum professional made the statement that a very large percentage of their 18th and 19th century clothing had led more than one life.  In the case of a 1740’s man’s coat, it was restyled in the late 1780s, and possibly in-between those dates.  Even in wealthy families, fine fabric was prized and often reused.

This got me to thinking about the current fad for remodeling vintage clothes, and how different our motivation for remodeling is from that of people in the past.  Clothing historians who have access to a collection of which they know the family who owned the clothing can research the family and make educated guesses as to who wore the clothing, who altered it and why.  It reveals quite a bit of information about both the clothing and the wearer.

On the other hand, if you find a 1930s silk slip what has been cut to a mini length and dyed with Kool-aid, all that says it that the former owner was clueless about the worth of the object they tried to make look as if it was bought at Forever 21.

But back to the stated topic…  On Friday, we all traipsed over to the Atlanta History Center where we got to tour the facility (report later this week!) and see some more presentations, most notably, a presentation of the Museum at F.I.T’s  exhibition, Eco-Fashion: Going Green and the keynote address, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, by that rock star of the fashion museum world, Andrew Bolton.

On Saturday, there were more papers presented, and there were also juried research exhibits, including an excellent one by Monica on the couturier who took over at the house of Lanvin in 1950, Antonio Canovas del Castillo (see photo at top).  It was a great ending to an excellent conference!

Next year the CSA Symposium is in Las Vegas, so you might think now about your travel plans for May 2013!

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Asheville’s Biggest Attraction Adds *New* Vintage Clothing Collection




As part of the Costume Society Symposium last weekend, we all went to what is generally considered to be Asheville’s largest attraction, the Biltmore Estate.   Ever since the house was opened to the public in 1930 it has been highly publicized as one of the “must sees” of the area.

Built by one of the heirs to the Vanderbilt fortune, George Vanderbilt, the house was completed in 1895.  And it is huge, with over 250 rooms, it was a masterpiece of Gilded Age Show-offery.  And it is still owned by the builder’s descendants, and still has the original furnishings.


One of the reasons the CSA chose to visit Biltmore was because they have recently added clothing  to the room exhibits.  This was part of a larger, over-all effort to make the rooms more lived-in.  I’ve visited this house numerous times, starting with a 6th grade field trip in 1967, and it was true that it was very hard to imagine that people actually lived here.  The effort to make the house look more like a home includes such things as family photos scattered about, paper and pen on a writing desk, professionally made fake food on the tea cart, and clothing props.

I really don’t have a problem with clothing props; I actually think they can add a lot to a museum house.  The problem at Biltmore is that nowhere is it mentioned in the guidebook that the props being used are not original to the house or to the Vanderbilt family.  We were very lucky to have a visit from Biltmore’s curator before we went to the house, and she explained that all of the clothing items on display were new acquisitions.

While there is quite a bit of the Vanderbilt family’s clothing left from the 1920s and later, there is no clothing from the time period that the house interprets.  Thus, when they decided to display clothing, they had to start from scratch and build a collection of 1895-1900 clothing.  And they have done a beautiful job of it.  The displays are well done, and do actually give the house a more homelike feel.

Still, it seems a bit off, perhaps because the average visitor is going to go away thinking they have seen the Vanderbilt’s clothing.  I  say the average visitor, because some people are going to get the information from the tour guides.  And this leads to the second problem I have with Biltmore – the prices.

Believe it or not, the price of an adult ticket is $55.  And to make it even worse, to take a guided tour where you really learn something, you have to pay an additional $17.  It just seems to me that $72 is a bit much to see even the most magnificent home.  And there is also the cost of lunch (lots of great places to eat on site) and drinks (they have a winery) and souvenirs, and this is one pricey day in the mountains.

So the people on the tours might possibly be told that the clothing is not original, but the cheap-skates who try to muddle through with their $55 ticket and small tour booklet are going to tell their friends to be sure to see Mrs. Vanderbilt’s lovely gowns.

Just one more observation:  even though we had paid for a tour, we did not get to see all of the rooms.  There were at least two rooms that were just on a newly make tour, and so we were whisked by those, as were most visitors.  And while the group I was in had a very good guide who answered all questions and pointed out a lot of interesting things, others were not so lucky, and complained that their guides did not even mention the newly installed clothing at all!

But, I will say the the Biltmore Company is constantly working on restoration, and that they do it right.  That is not cheap.  And they are one of the region’s largest employers, with around 1800 people working for them.  Operating costs have to be high.  Still, with all they have going on – the house, the winery, an inn (rooms start at $200 a night), a whole range of licensed home decorative objects for sale, and a new shopping area, seems like the cost of admission could be a bit more in line with that of other private historic structures.

Still, if someone were to ask, I’d have to say that yes, you should see this house at least once.  Go, do the tour, drink the wine and try to imagine that the Vanderbilts are picking up the tab.



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Southeastern Region of the Costume Society of America, Concluded



I was busy all weekend with the Costume Society regional symposium which, lucky for me, was held in Asheville this year. Membership in the Costume Society of America is open to all who have an interest in the history and study of dress. Many of the members are museum and university professionals, but all are welcome to join. Many members are historical re-enactors, and some are collectors and vintage clothing sellers. Many work on theater costumes.


So the range of topics presented at the symposiums is quite far-reaching, and there are always topics that I look forward to hear. But what is really surprising is that I find that there are some that I’m thinking will be a big snooze that turn out to be terribly engrossing! “The Influence of African american Hip Hop Style on the Japanese Youth Culture and Its Influence on African American Style” was one such topic. Here’s a look at some of the presentations, so you can see the wide range of interests of this group. And if you want to know more about CSA, here’s the website.


From a theater costumer who reproduces Worth gowns for her stage presentations.


Revolutionary era military coats in North american collections.  I was surprised at how few there actually are, but the researcher is still looking.


The work of a corsetiere.


The dress above and the one below were made by the dressmakers at Colonial Williamsburg for a special presentation.


We also went to Biltmore House, but I’ll save those thoughts for tomorrow.



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Southeastern Region of the Costume Society of America



This weekend is the regional symposium of the CSA, or Costume Society, so I’ll be in Asheville all day tomorrow and Sunday enjoying the presentations and a visit to Biltmore House to see their very first clothing exhibit.


Things got started this evening with a reception given by the nice people at Waechter’s Fine Fabrics Waechter’s silk shop to us oldtimers!) with Kate Mathews of Folkwear Patterns as the special guest.  It was so nice seeing Kate again, especially since I have just finished sewing a blouse using part of a pattern she had loaned to me.  More about that later.

For now, feast your eyes on the lovliness that is Waechter’s.  If you want to see more, tune into Lifetime TV on October 7,for On the Road with Austin and Santino which was filmed at Waechter’s.





Louise Benner of the NC Museum of History shares a moment with daughter and friends.

Looking through Kate’s Folkwear samples

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