Tag Archives: fashion history

Currently Reading: The Art of Dress by Jane Ashelford

I have a lot of respect for all the recent fashion historians who have published such richly illustrated, researched, and documented books. Most fashion history books one encounters these days really are heavily documented, and still manage to be readable by mere fashion enthusiasts like me.

The book I’m currently reading, The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914 was published in 1996, but it too has all the features I look for in choosing a book on fashion history. Based on the collections of The British National Trust properties, Ashelford takes the reader on an in depth look at English fashion through the examination of paintings, extant garments, written records, ephemeria, and photographs.

The author begins in 1500, and because so few actual garments from the sixteenth century survive, most of the illustrations are from paintings in The National Trust collection. The details of each ensemble is carefully analyzed and explained to the reader. As you can see, both men’s and women’s clothing is addressed. Above is Richard Sackville, 1613, and Mary Curzon, circa 1610; both paintings are by William Larkin.

One of the earliest garments shown is this embroidered apron from between 1702 and 1714.

This circa 1745 painting of the Trevelyan family of Wallington, Northumberland, is a “conversation piece”, meaning that the people in the painting  were engaged  in conversation in an informal setting. These paintings are important because it makes it possible to see differences in dress worn by people of the same family or group of friends. The hound is a nice touch!

And as we move into the eighteenth century, there are more actual articles of clothing to be found.  Above is a detail of a mid century Spitalfields silk brocade court mantua, with silver gilt threads that showed to best advantage in the candlelight of the palace.

The author does an excellent job of detailing the drastic changes in fashion that occurred in the last part of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Fabrics were lighter, like the cotton muslin above, circa 1812.

Actual garments are shown along with period fashion plates. Here we get a better sense of how this 1820s silk dress would have been worn, with the hair style, jewelry, fan, and shoes.

By the 1850s and 1860s photographs became a valuable form of fashion documentation. Above we can see the fan shaped skirt of 1860s, and how the fullness of the skirt was gradually being pulled to the back.

In 1903 Lady Mary Curzon was painted wearing the famous Peacock Dress, made by the House of Worth of golden cloth with peacock feathers embroidered in gold and silver threads. Remarkably, this dress has survived, and can be seen at Kedleston Hall in a special climate controlled display case. To the left in the photo you get a glimpse of the fabric. What look like jewels in each feather are actually beetle wings.

One of my favorite things about The Art of Dress is that not only does Ashelford tell what people wore, but also how they obtained their clothing. This ends up being a good overview of the rise of ready-to-wear in Britain, and also of the emergence of the department store.  Above we see how mail order was also becoming an important part of shopping.

I do highly recommend The Art of Dress. It can be found on Amazon for a very reasonable price, and I imagine that most fashion school libraries have a copy.  At 303 pages, it can make for a lot of cozy wintertime reading, or if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, a lot of lazy summertime reading.

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Everyday Clothing

It seems as if “everyday clothing” is having a moment. Several weeks ago I posted a link to the New York Times article about the collection of everyday clothes at Smith College. Then last week there was a conference in the UK on the topic of everyday clothes. And the latest episode of the fashion podcast Bande  à Part  is also about everyday clothes.

One of the first questions that Rebecca and Beatrice of Bande  à Part  discuss is, just what is everyday clothing. It might be pretty obvious to some, but think of the population as a whole; one person’s everyday is another’s special occasion. For discussion here, I’d suggest that everyday clothing means the clothes the 99% of us wear everyday. It does not include couture garments and ballgowns. For the most part, it does not include the avant garde.

In  short, everyday clothes are the things that one does not expect to see in a fashion exhibition at the Met, or any museum that is dedicated to the idea that fashion is art. On the other hand, you would expect to see everyday dress in a history museum. And many museums, such as dedicated fashion museums, will often have both couture and more commonly worn garments in their collections.

Personally, I prefer the historical and cultural (as opposed to artistic) approach. Not to say that I don’t appreciate a stunning Dior gown, because I do. It’s enlightening for an everyday clothing collector like me to occasionally see the work of an artist like Dior. The truth is there are plenty of topics about everyday dress that need to be explored, but do we really need another book on Coco Chanel?

I still find the study of what women wore – and why they wore it – to be the most fascinating part of fashion history.  The choice of a couture ballgown is based on what one’s favorite designer has to offer combined with trying to stand out from the other couture-clad ball goers. But in 1922 the decision to wear a pair of knickerbockers to a fall picnic could be full of gender-bending anxiety.

I can vividly remember the first day I dared to wear jeans to school. It had been stressed to us in the sixties and seventies that young ladies wore dresses and skirts, and so it was hard to ignore the disapproving voices in my head. How much stronger must that message have been to girls in the early 1920s!

It doesn’t get much more “everyday” than the school girl’s middy. My matching set is linen and was worn by a college girl. But even families with few resources could buy cheap cotton middies or make them at home.

This knit sports dress was made by a moderately priced knitwear maker, Sacony.  The silk blouse was most likely made at home, and the California Sports Hat was sold through the Montgomery Ward catalog. Even though this ensemble is far from couture, it is still important as it shows a step in the increasingly casual way people were dressing in the 1920s.

Bathing suits were becoming a necessity, and they were available at many price points, from less than a dollar to more than twenty dollars. A woman needed a cover-up. but that could be borrowed from her own boudoir.

These two garments were probably beyond the budget of many 1920s women, but this would have been everyday wear for a woman who had a bit more to spend on her clothes.

And here is an example of a more aspirational garment. This is from French fashion house Babani, and would have been priced at a level that most American women could only dreamof.

I think it is great that historians are giving everyday clothing a closer look. What people wore is important in understanding the times in which they lived. It’s interesting to think of clothes as artifacts, and not just what one wore each day.

 

 

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Dressed to Protest: What Women Wore to the Revolution

Several years ago I read The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. In case you don’t know the book, it’s about developing creativity. From many conversations I’ve had with adults over the years, it seems that most people either think they are creative, or they are not creative. But according to Cameron (and many others) creativity can be developed.

One thing Cameron prescribes is what she calls “morning pages”. This is where first thing every morning you write three pages of just anything, in an effort to clear your head of whatever is happening in your life so you can be more receptive to your creative side. I’m sure this practice helps many people, but I tried it and it just seemed like a chore to me.

But another practice suggested in the book has proven to be more helpful, that of setting aside time every week for an art date. The art date is a special activity that breaks the routine and exposes you to beauty, learning, and new ideas. It can be anything from a tour through local antiques shops to a museum visit to a lecture on birdwatching.

I really do try to schedule an art date each week. Last week I met with Liza to do some vintage shopping, and then to attend a presentation by Cornelia Powell on the dress reform movement. It was the kind of day that everyone needs, with vintage finds and a thoughtful history lesson. Never mind the guy at the shop who had a big box full of 1930s and 40s Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines that he would not sell. That’s another story.

So, here we are after a rough day of the vintage hunt.  We don’t look too frazzled, in light of the fact that just thirty minutes prior we were considering knocking a bookseller over the head and running off with his box of magazines.

I’ll not go into the details of Cornelia’s presentation, because I can’t do justice to it, but I will share some of the images she used.  It’s easy to see why I enjoyed this so much.

If you have read this journal for any time at all, then you  are already aware that sports, and especially bicycling, played a big role in the move toward reform in dress for women. Bicycling also led to many women becoming less dependant on men for transportation. Could this, perhaps, lead to other things? Some men warned that the bicycle was just a gateway to more independence for women.

And the automobile only confirmed those fears.

The wearing of white was a powerful symbol for women protesting and marching for the right to vote. But also note the “revolutionary” tricorn hats!

I really loved this photo of women from the Western states who had already gained the right to vote. Sometimes we in the East forget that many women in the Western states had been voting for many years.

Cornelia reminded us that fashion was a valuable tool in the fight for suffrage. Many of the leaders of the movement learned early on with the failure of the bloomer that looking respectable was key to gaining respect for their cause.

And so my art date was a big success. Thanks to Liza for letting me use her photos, and to Cornelia for all the food for thought.

Remember to always look up. This was the skylight in the library where the event was held.

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Warm Up Suit, Tracksuit, Athletic Suit, Gym Suit, or Sweat Suit?

I recently asked on Instagram what this suit would be called.  I got a total of five different answers which are in the title of this post. I was not just being curious. I actually had a reason for asking.

The illustration comes from a 1935 – 36 Lowe & Campbell Athletic Goods catalog. My aim was to see if people consider this to be a tracksuit. Judging from the answers I received, the answer is yes, this would be considered to be a tracksuit. But in my vintage catalog, it was referred to as a warm up suit.  Is there a difference? In my mind, no, there is not a difference. Both are two piece athletic suits designed to be worn over a smaller exercise ensemble, like trunks and a tee or tank top.

What got me onto this topic is an online course I’m taking through Coursesa, Fashion As Design. It was written as an accompaniment to the Items: Is Fashion Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I thought that the course would give me a bit of the museum experience, as it is unlikely that I’ll be in New York before the show closes in January.

For a person who loves thinking about fashion in a garment-based way, I’m really enjoying the experience. Much of the material concerns the origins of garments that we consider modern. But the course does a good job of pointing out that garments don’t just materialize. They have histories.

Which brings me to the tracksuit. According to the course, the tracksuit dates from 1939, but if you consider the suit above to be a tracksuit, then it is clearly at least four years older, and I suspect, even older that that. Maybe it is a case of terminology. Maybe 1939 was the first year the researchers found the term “tracksuit”.

I really hate being picky about this, but I can’t help but think this is how fashion myths get started. In two different places today I’ve encountered the myth that Chanel invented the “little black dress” in 1926. As much as I like preciseness, I’d rather have a vague dating reference than an incorrect one. An example is that the course gives the hoodie a vague date of the 1930s. I’ve been looking to find an earlier example, but so far I have not found any athletic wear with a hood before 1935. Of course, the hood itself goes back centuries.

Are there any names for this suit that we missed?

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Currently Reading: How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards

Today is a really great time to be interested in fashion history and how people dressed in the past.  When I first “discovered” fashion history, the reading choices were quite limited. What was available before the 1990s was usually in the form of dry chronological fashion studies or fashion encyclopedias.

Contrast that with the present when there are almost too many choices.  Fashion history, it seems, sells, as not just museums, but also book publishers have discovered. Unfortunately, not all the fashion books published in the past twenty-five years are good. Because of this I’ve gotten pretty particular about which books get added to my library.

One thing I look for when deciding whether to order a new book, is the author and his or her credentials. Not that I’m a fashion intellectual snob; my own degree is, after all in Early American history. But I’ve found that the very best books are written by someone who is either a professional in fashion studies, or has considerable experience in studying historic fashion. There are exceptions of course.

Another thing I look for is a new approach.  I don’t need another basic survey of fashion history, nor do I need another book on “vintage fashion.” I’m always looking for a new way of looking at garments, and on this level, How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards, really delivers. Technically, this book might be considered a survey of fashion history, but it is the author’s use of photos of garments that sets this book apart.

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Edwards starts her survey in 1550 and ends in 1970. It is a chronological study, which helps one to see the subtle, and not so subtle changes that occurred in fashion.  Most importantly, Edwards points out what is important in each garment.

For me, this book was especially helpful in showing me the changes made between 1790 and 1918.  I have a pretty good grasp of twentieth century fashion, but I’ll be the first to admit I need to learn more about fashion prior to WWI.

Another plus in this book is the use of garments from museums that are not commonly seen.  Instead of relying solely on garments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert, Edwards uses images from museums in Australia, Canada, Britain, and the USA. It’s a very refreshing change from the same couture garments that are pictured over and over in publications and on websites.

It serves to remind us there are fashion treasures all over the world.  I was especially pleased to see garments from the collection of the North Carolina Museum of History in the book.  I’ve been in their collection rooms, and I know what a great and extensive collection is there, and yet, these clothes are rarely seen.

I’m hoping this book does well, and that a second edition is published.  As much as I love the book, there were several photos of black garments that were incredibly hard to read.  There are also a few editing errors – repeated lines, seemingly mislabeled photos, and a contradiction or two of place of creation.  But I’m nit-picking. This is a beautiful, well written book.  The photos are a joy to study, and I finished it wishing it were twice as long.

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Threads of History at SCAD FASH in Atlanta

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Last week I traveled to Atlanta to see the latest exhibitions at SCAD FASH.  There were two – Embellished: Adornment through the Ages, and Threads of History: Two Hundred Years of Fashion.  Embellished was all about accessories, while Threads was a timeline, starting with clothing from the late eighteenth century.  I was very happy that SCAD FASH was mounting these two exhibitions on historical dress, as their previous shows have featured primarily modern clothes.

The great majority of the clothes on view are from the collection of Italian collector Raffaello Piraino, which means that most of the clothing is European in origin.  I’ll have more to say about that later on.

The earliest works were men’s and women’s clothes from the 1770s.  The man’s coat is called a habit à la française, and the woman’s dress is a robe à la française.  I am going to be completely honest and say this is not my area of expertise, but I absolutely love the richly embroidered men’s coats and vests of the eighteenth century.  It makes me wonder why men today settle for the blandness of their modern attire.

I saw this exhibition with my friend Liza, who is much more knowledgeable about pre-twentieth century fashion than I am.  But we both thought that the woman’s dress looked a bit odd.  The exhibitions notes did not say, but instead of a stomacher to fill in the bodice, they used that rust-colored fabric.  The same color fabric was used for the petticoat, and it led us to think maybe they were reproductions.

Moving into the nineteenth century, we were presented with this lovely cotton muslin dress.  But again, we thought it looked to be mounted in an unusual manner.  From the back it looks like a lovely early Regency dress.

Can anyone help me figure this out?  I’m pretty sure that those triangular pieces would have gone under the breasts.

These two garments seemed like they just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel.  Both are early 1800s.

I really do love the fashion of the 1830s.  It’s a period that tends to get overlooked, coming between the Regency and the larger crinolines to come in the 1850s and 60s.  My photo does not do justice to these beauties.

Continuing along through time, we come to the age of the crinoline – the 1850s and 60s.  There were some stunning examples on display, with this dress and interesting jacket being a favorite.

Those sleeves!

One thing that made this exhibition so interesting was the addition of custom made sets for the mid to late nineteenth century clothing.  Designed and made by some of the faculty of SCAD, I thought they added a lot to the atmosphere of the clothing.  This was almost like being in a mid-Victorian parlor.

I’m not sure how this photo turned out to be so light, as the exhibition itself was quite dark, at times, distractingly so.  I know that light must be carefully managed when dealing with old textiles, but parts of the exhibition hall were so dark it was hard to make out the details.  Add to that the lights coming through the floor, and it made viewing hard at times.

As I’ve said in the past, one of the strengths of how SCAD FASH manages exhibitions is the ability to arrange the clothing so that it can be viewed from more than one side.  You could see these mid nineteenth century dresses from almost every angle.

The next set of dresses was placed in a Victorian cabinet of curiosities.  With bustles galore, the setting evoked a steampunky mood of fashion meets science.  I loved it, and suggest you go back to the top and enlarge the photo of this entire vignette.

I will repeat, I am a poor student of the high fashion of the Victorian era.  Still, some of the bustles looked so large!

By the nineteenth century fashion magazines spread the latest throughout the Western world, but I am sure there must have been huge regional differences.  All of these 1870s and 1880s dresses came from Palermo, Italy.  Would a grouping from Cincinnati look much different?

The next grouping featured dresses from the 1880s and 1890s.  You can see the famous “leg ‘o mutton” sleeve on the circa 1895 dress on the right.  So handy for dating, that sleeve!

One of my favorite looks was the poorly photographed example that is seated.  It was described as a tea dress, and it has a lot of the hallmarks of the Liberty of London historical dress crowd.  And what would a showing of Victorian dress be without a paisley shawl?

The blue and white dress in the center back was a puzzler to me.  From the exhibition brochure, “Sunday dress with a silk skirt, Prussian blue velvet bodice and a lace appliqued collar, 1880.”  The skirt seems to be an odd shape for 1880.

This dress was dated 1885.  You can still see the bustle, which is beautifully cut and pleated.  And the lace was marvelous.

This dress was stunning in person. made of silk with hand embroidered bodice.  The exhibition notes date it as 1915, but I’m thinking it is a bit earlier, maybe 1908 or so.  Opinions?

In the foreground is one of two House of Worth dresses in the exhibition.  Early twentieth century, with all the bells and whistles one would expect to see in a Belle Époque masterpiece.  This dress is part of the SCAD FASH permanent collection.  The white dress is from about the same time.

A stunning early twentieth century trio, starting with an evening wrap made from silver metallic tulle, embroidered and appliqued with satin.   The middle is a Fortuny Delphos dress in the richest blue imaginable (drat that lighting!).  It is in the SCAD collection.

I loved this late nineteen-teens black lace, beaded dress, especially because of the beaded girdle.

What a marvelous use of color!

There was a line of pretty 1920s frocks, but I found this one to be the most interesting with the matching shawl.

The 1930s were well represented as well, with sleek bias cut gowns.  My favorite, though, was this rayon dress with the Letty Lynton inspired sleeves.  In the background you can get a peek at a late 1940s suit, posed on a staircase, surrounded by her luggage.

And finally, another favorite was this incredible 1950s coat from Lanvin-Castillo.  The color, the buttons, the sleeves!

Threads of History will be on display until March 19, 2017.  Thanks to Liza for letting me use some of her photos.  Next up, some accessories from Embellished.

 

 

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Currently Reading: The Dress Detective by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim

If you notice the subtitle of this recently published book, A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion, then you might have correctly guessed that I love this book.  Written by two museum professionals, the book gives an organized method of evaluating any piece of clothing.

One of the old criticisms of dress studies was that professionals often gave the appearance of being concerned with just what can be measured.  The description of an item in a collection might give the dimensions in minute detail, every smudge and tear would be measured and noted, and every bead counted.  But what did all this information tell the researcher?

The answer is quite a lot, as long as you are asking the right questions.  In order to understand a garment, the first step is observation.  The means to note not only the things that can be measured, but also other information contained within the garment itself.  Are there any alterations?  What is the fiber content?  Are there labels?  Mida and Kim give a list of forty questions that help you gather the information in the garment.

The next step is to reflect on the information and what it means.  You also need to take time and reflect on your own reaction to the garment.  Would you wear it?  Does it appeal to the senses?  Are you reminded of other garments by some aspect of it?  Is there any documentation on this garment?  Reflection is time-consuming, but is a necessary step in understanding the garment and where it fits into an area of study.

The last step is interpretation in which you connect all the information and make conclusions.  Your conclusions will depend on what your objectives of study were to begin with.  This is what makes the study of fashion so fascinating.

The authors work through each of the three steps, and then they present seven case studies using their method.  All the right questions are asked as each garment is closely observed.  There are plenty of photographs to show what they are looking at as it is described.

One of the case studies is a Lanvin wedding dress and matching veil. By close observation it was determined that this dress had been altered.

Close-up photographs show that the fabric in the sleeves is a newer, synthetic fabric, and is not original to the dress.  The original trim was reused on the new sleeves.

The label is missing from the dress, but is still present in the veil.  You can see that some material (and awkward stitching) had been added to the veil.

Another case study was of a late Victorian velveteen and wool bodice.  Part of the reflection of the piece involved looking at period fashion plates to find similar styles.  This helps not only with dating but might also provide clues into the social and economic class of the original wearer.

Also of use is the study of period photos.  It is rare (but delightful) to have a photograph of the wearer of the actual garment, but even photos of people wearing similar garments can be of use.

As this garment is close to the era of ready-made clothing, another avenue of study might be into the way companies like Eaton in Canada, and Sears in the US were operating dressmaking services.  Could this bodice have been made in this manner?

These interior shots show the complexity of construction.

The book was written as a guide for students and researchers, but I think many people who deal with clothing could learn a lot from it about how to read a garment.  I especially liked the sections on taking what you see in the garment and looking for external information .  In the world of the internet it is increasingly easy to search museum databases, find newspaper ads and references, and to find similar garments for sale.  Information about labels is readily available on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Label Resource.

The Dress Detective does not give the researcher all the knowledge that one will need in looking at old clothes.  It would take a much larger book to tell things like when the NRA eagle label was used, the invention of the zipper, or the first use of synthetic fabrics.  These are the facts that have to be learned by the researcher, or else researched.  A book of these dating tidbits would make a great companion to The Dress Detective.

 

 

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