Tag Archives: ethnic clothing

1920s Embroidered and Smocked Frock

Any vintage seller who has been in the business more than a few years will tell you that vintage clothing is subject to fads.  One year vintage wearers want 1950s full-skirted dresses, and the next they might move on to 1970s disco attire.  If the comments on Instagram can be believed, one of the hottest items right now is the “ethnic-inspired” smocked and embroidered dress from the 1920s.

This type dress fits in well with the 1920s fascination with the exotic, something I’ve written about in the past. While there were sewing patterns for the dresses, they were also made abroad. I’ve seen them with labels from Czechoslovakia and the Philippines.

To be honest, I’ve never been able to determine exactly when these dresses were made, but the general consensus seems to be from the mid 1920s and into the early 1930s.  If you look at the placement of the waistline on my dress above, you can see that it’s not exactly the stereotypical 1920s silhouette, as the bodice is shorter than expected.

I spent a pleasurable morning looking through 1920s magazines, and the closest I found was this illustration for a 1926 Vogue sewing pattern.  Witness2Fashion posted several examples, also from 1926.  Fashion illustrations did tend to exaggerate the silhouette somewhat, but even so, my example has a longer skirt as well as the short bodice.  By the late 1920s the waistline was inching upward, and the hemline downward.

Another hint that my dress is later 20s or even 1930 is the little bit of shaping in the waist. There is even an opening in the side to allow for easier dressing.

Quite unbelievably, I found this dress at my local Goodwill bins.  It’s not in perfect condition, but the design of the dress lessens the impact of the problems.  Here you can see that some of the red threads have come loose at the neck. That was a very easy fix.

Not so easy to deal with was a small rip on the upper back. To stabilize the tear, I encased it in organdy and then basted the three layers together. While the tear makes the dress unwearable, it would not detract from the garment if it were to be displayed.

You can see some staining in this photo, which a few gentle handwashings removed.  I also had to do a bit of smock repair.

One of favorite things about this dress is how the dots vary in size, and how the pattern of them on the skirt is the reverse or that of the bodice.  And all the dots are hand embroidered.

Today we think of smocked dresses as being just for little girls.  What a shame!


Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Proper Clothing, Vintage Clothing

Currently Reading – An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design 1915 – 1928

We all hear about the big fashion shows at the Metropolitan and the Fashion Museum in Bath, UK, but there are lots of smaller institutions which work hard to present fashion and design history, often from a very narrow focus.  One such institution is the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.  Last year they presented a show based on the research of Ann Marguerite Tartsinis.

Tartsinis had been researching how starting in 1915 the American Museum of Natural History worked toward developing a distinctively American style, which would be based on Native American artifacts. World War I had broken out, and New York was deprived somewhat of the Parisian influences that were so much a part of American fashion.  Leaders at the museum saw this as a good time to interest designers in developing a uniquely American design language.

A design center was set up at the museum where designers could go and study artifacts, everything from Peruvian textiles to Navajo basketry, Inuit fur work to Arapaho beadwork.  The idea was not to copy the designs, nor to simply reproduce depictions of the objects.  Instead designers were to come up with their own interpretation of the original work.

The museum curators were successful in getting some designers to develop both fabric and garment designs.  In 1919 the museum put on the Exhibition of Industrial Art in Textiles and Costumes, which showcased these designs, along with the original artifacts which had inspired their making.

But by 1919 the war was over, and designers were casting a more global eye.  The design program lasted until 1928, but in a greatly reduced capacity. And while the program did not have the huge effect the curators had envisioned, it did show how museums and designers could work together to promote good design.

The 2013 exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center centered on the 1919 exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History.  One of the resources for the new exhibition were photos that had been taken of the original.  You can see these photographs and read more about the exhibition in an excellent feature on the Bard website.

I missed seeing the exhibition, so I was glad when Lynn of AmericanAgeFashion suggested this book to me.  She knew that I’d like the book because of my interest in the cultural influences of fashion.  It also gives a look at how appropriation was viewed one hundred years ago.  As you might imagine, the attitudes of 1915 are very different from our twentieth-first century ones.

A very important issue was brought up by Tartsinis in discussing the difficulty in locating artifacts for the 2013 exhibition.  While they were able to locate quite a bit of archival material, the artifacts themselves were extremely hard to locate.  As Tartsinis put it, “The scarcity of surviving examples from this period reflects not only the institutional preference for collecting couture and upmarket garments and textile samples, but also underscores the anonymity of individual designers in textile manufacturing and department stores at this time and the fleeting nature of this movement.”

I like a good label as much as the next collector, but what a shame that in some institutions a design is not deemed worthy unless it has that all-important designer label.  And as for the anonymity of the designers, I suspect that some of this material is actually in collections, but that it has not been identified as being part of the 1919 exhibition.  Hopefully as more and more small museums get their collections photographed and online, things of this manner will start to be identified.



Filed under Currently Reading

Early 20th Century Ethnic Inspirations Part II, the 1920s

Several weeks ago I posted about how in the early decades of the 20th century, designers were very much influenced by the Orient.   When the decade of the 1920s started, the world had just been through some very rough times.  Europe had been left devastated by WWI, and soon after, the world was in the grip of a horrible flu epidemic.  Fashion was understandably somber through this period. But when the world started to return to a more normal existence, exotic fashion blossomed.

Although Egyptian themes had already been popular due to an Egyptian exhibit at the Louvre in 1911, the biggest craze for Egyptian-inspired fashion began in 1922.  That was when Howard Carter unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt’s Valley of the kings. The photographs of artifacts found in the tomb had a vast impact on fashion and popular culture as hieroglyphics and designs such as scarabs and lotus flowers became common motifs for clothing, accessories and jewelry.

These motifs were a great fit with the Art Deco style, which placed an emphasis on geometric shapes and stylized shapes from nature.

There were lots of other ethnic influences in the 1920s, perhaps brought about by a world becoming “smaller” due to improvements in transportation and mass communication.   Middle and upper class people were traveling to Europe and Asia, and bringing home folk costumes as souvenirs.

These became so popular that they were imported for sale into the United States, and needlecraft companies published how-to books so women could make their own “authentic” European needlework.  There was also a continuing fascination with the Ballet Russes and other performing groups that dressed in European folk fashion.

It’s also likely that world events played a role, with the ending of the Russian Revolution and the death of Lenin drawing attention to Russia, the rise of Ghandi and the Indian independence movement drawing attention to India, and the Turkish War of Independence drawing attention to Turkey and Eastern Europe.  China was often in the news, with the death of Sun Yat-sen and the rise to power of Chiang Kai-shek.

Orientalism could be seen throughout the decade in both fabric design and in the shape of garments. A craze for kimonos led not only to the shape being used in women’s coats and loungewear, but also determined the motifs used in fabric design, especially that of chrysanthemum flowers.   Lightweight kimono-shaped dressing robes became the robe of the 1920s, as seen in magazine photos and silent movies as well as in mass marketing catalogues.

Firms such as Liberty of London and Babani of Paris led the way with Oriental-styled textiles. There were also companies such as the Pohoomull Brothers of India who exported Oriental textiles to the West, and even set up shops in areas where tourists would be shopping. The coat above was bought in Egypt by a tourist from Pennsylvania.  But it isn’t Egyptian in origin; it’s Indian Shisha mirror work. The world had indeed become a multiculturally fashionable place!


Filed under Vintage Clothing

Early 20th Century Ethnic Inspirations

I’ve written in the past that one of my biggest problems with the idea of cultural appropriation is that it is the mix of cultural influences that makes fashion (and music and art and  …) so interesting.  Take away all the cultural aspects of fashion there is not a lot to build upon.

20th century fashion had an on-again, off-again love affair with ethnic looks from around the world.  From the Oriental craze of the early years of the century to the re-emergence of Bohemian looks at the end of it, the ethnic influences of the 20th century add lots of spice to our fashion history.

Women had been flirting with Orientalism in the form of fabrics for several centuries.   Shawls of Eastern design were in high favor for many years, along with paisley and other Oriental prints.  But it was in the designs of Paul Poiret that  Oriental motifs came to the forefront of fashion.

Illustration: Closeup of Victorian Paisley Shawl

Poiret opened his salon in 1903, and he was soon designing dresses that did not require the wearing of a corset.  He began experimenting with bolder colors, perhaps influenced by the art of Matisse and other Fauve artists.  He was soon traveling to the East in search of fabrics to use in his designs.

In 1909, Sergei Diaghlev and his Ballet Russes debuted in Paris.  The costumes of designer Leon Bakst became a major source of design inspiration from 1909 into the 1920s when the ballet disbanded.  Many of the ballets were based on Oriental subjects, such as Scheherazade, but even  European topics such as The Sleeping Princess  had costumes that were based on various folk costumes from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Illustration: Costume from the 1921 production of the Ballet Russes’ The Sleeping Princess. This costume is in the collection of  the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

And while Poiret claimed not to have been influenced by the Ballet Russes, the current rage for all things Oriental, as inspired by the Ballet, made the work he was already involved in all the more popular.

In 1911 Poiret staged a party – “A Thousand and Second Night” – where his wife Denise stunned the gathering with her Arabian themed costume:  tunic with full pantaloons, topped with a turban.  Poiret himself wore a caftan and turban, and was seated upon a throne.  And for a time he was the Sultan of Paris Fashion, as his Oriental collections continued to be successful up to the beginning of World War I.

Illustration: 1922 Poiret design as pictured in Harper’s Bazar. In the 1920s Poiret’s clothes continued to be exotic in design.

Another designer of this period who is known for his culturally inspired designs is Mariano Fortuny.  In 1907, Fortuny made the first of his Delphos dresses, a design inspired by the costume of Ancient Greece.  Fortuny continued making various forms of this dress into the 1920s and beyond.  He also printed textiles, using Japanese and Islamic inspired motifs, and often borrowing design ideas directly from antique Oriental textiles.

The dress above is a full length Delphos dress. The fabric is finely pleated, using a process that was known only to Fortuny. The resulting dress is very Greek goddess-like.

Illustration:  Photo courtesy of and copyright of Pinky-a-gogo

Next week: The 1920s


Filed under Vintage Clothing