Tag Archives: Victorian fashion

Bathing Suit – Circa 1870

I bet I’m like most collectors in that I greatly prefer to shop in person, rather than online.  With the item right in front of you it is much easier to assess the flaws and feel the textile. But in this world, shopping online is pretty much necessary when looking for rarer items. That’s why I continue to buy stuff I’ve seen only in photos.

Most of the time when the item arrives, it is exactly what I expected. The trick is to buy only from those who know their business, and who truthfully describe their items. I’ve found that most professional vintage dealers do these things.

I recently bought a few things from an auction house that holds the auctions live with the option to bid online. Before even bidding, I knew that the set above was not as the dealer described it. It was listed as a 1900 gym suit. Being made from cotton in in that great indigo blue, I knew this was actually a bathing suit. And from the long pants and sleeves, I knew it was older than 1900.

My starting place was to look through all the books I have that picture Victorian clothing. Most useful was a book from Dover, Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazar – 1867 – 1898. While this book did not have a suit very similar to mine, I quickly saw that long trousers and sleeves were passé  by 1876. I then went to the marvelous online resource, Hearth, in which Cornell has digitized women’s magazines, including Harper’s Bazar.

The closest bathing suit I found was the one I’ve paired above, from 1870. That year all the bathing pants were long trousers, but you can see the edge of a short sleeved version. By 1871, all the bathing suits had short sleeves. By 1875 most had pants that came to the middle of the calf.  The sleeve continued to shrink so that by 1880 they were just a ruffle at the shoulder, and several years later the suits were sleeveless.  The pants continued to shorten as well, to just below the knee.

Someone ought to publish just the bathing suit fashion plates from Victorian and Edwardian publications. Put in chronological order, the shrinkage of the bathing suit over the period would become very obvious.

What else can I say about this piece? First, it was most likely made at home using a sewing machine, though I have found ads for ready-made bathing suits as early as 1870. The sleeves are made in two pieces, as one might expect with a nineteenth century piece.

The buttonholes are hand-stitched. The color of thread used is the same as was in the bobbin of the machine – a light brown.

If you look carefully at this button, you will detect a problem.  This is a plastic button,; a modern replacement. This is an issue commonly seen in items that are this old. The problem is that it was not disclosed in the item description.

The other buttons, the ones on the top piece, are glass. Are they original to the piece? I can’t say for sure, but if they are, they have all been resewn with modern thread. But one of them on the pants retains the light brown thread identical to that of the bobbin, which puts in a good word for the rest of the glass buttons. Thoughts?

The pants are interesting. The waistband is yoked in exactly the same way as pants from the 1930s. These button on both sides, much like the sailor pants of midshipmen.

The white trim is a purchased twill, which also forms the belt loops.

Overall, I’m pleased with this piece. It is a very early bathing suit, the earliest one I’ve ever seen on the market. I do prefer that all parts of an item be original, but a few plastic buttons aren’t worth getting too upset about. I just wish I had known before bidding.

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Filed under Sportswear, Summer Sports

Fashion and Technology at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Because the topic of the symposium was Fashion and Technology, and the Cincinnati Art Museum was a sponsor of the symposium, I’d guess that it’s not a coincidence that the museum had an exhibition also titled Fashion and Technology. I think that we most often think of LED lighting and 3-D printing and smart chips embedded in clothing when confronted with the idea of technology in fashion, but we need to remember that technological advances in clothing date back to the fig leaf.

This small but well-curated exhibition covers roughly one hundred years, starting in 1780. The dress above shows a very old method of making printed fabrics – that of using hand-carved blocks that were used to hand print the design. It was effective, and made beautiful designs, but the process was very slow. Multiple blocks had to be used, one for each color in the design.

A big step forward came around 1800 in the form of roller printing, in which mechanized rollers were used to print onto the fabric. There was a similar process, using cylinders to mechanically apply the dye. The fabric used to make this circa 1830 dress was most likely printed using a combination of the two processes.

This circa 1850 dress helps illustrate the advances made in dye production. Synthetic dyes were developed in the late 1850s, and before that time, dyes were made from natural materials with a mordant added to help set the color. The plaid in this dress was produced by dyeing the threads different colors, and then setting up the loom to produce the pattern.

The creation of mauveine, the first practical synthetic dye, in 1856 brought spectacular colors to fashion. This circa 1863 dress has synthetic purple trimming, and the little flowers in the print are mauveine.

Another technological advance seen in this dress is the use of machine-made lace.

As a side note, like many dresses of this period, this one has two bodices. The second bodice is in storage, and we were able to see it on our tour of the storage area.

Here we have two dresses of roughly the same era, The dress on the left is by Paris couturier Jacques Doucet and dates to around 1888. Even though machine made lace was common by that date, this dress is embellished with handmade lace. Maybe the woman for whom this dress was made wanted to incorporate a piece of heirloom lace, or may she just wanted to show off her wealth.

The dress on the right is from a few years earlier, but here the couturiers, Moret et Moncuit, used machine made lace. Because machine made lace was less expensive than the handmade variety, more of it could be used to embellish a gown.

I’m guilty of looking at a pre-twentieth century garment and only seeing the design. Fashion and Technology shows us there is so much more to see.

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Filed under Museums, Textiles

Young Victorian Croquet Player

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People who are not collectors sometimes think collectors are hoarders. That is simply not true. A collector does not want things simply for the desire of ownership. A collector uses her (or his, if that applies) collecting because of an interest and a desire to learn more. Okay, I am speaking only for myself. I know that some “collectors” are pretty much glorified hoarders, but I am trying to justify the piles of paper everywhere around me as I try to do some cataloging of my print resources.

The image above is a new addition to my collection. It’s from the last half of the nineteenth century (more on that later) and is a chromolithograph, an early type of color reproduction. After the process was invented around 1845, people started collecting these prints. Companies began producing them as a part  of their advertising. These “scraps” of colored images led to the hobby of keeping scrapbooks. It was the Pinterest of the Victorian age.

Keeping a scrapbook remained a popular past time through the 1950s. Scraps were replaced by color illustrations cut from magazines. Some scrapbooks were more personal and contained the ephemera of a person’s life. To see lots of great old examples, check out #vintagescrapbook on Instagram.

My card was at one time glued into a scrapbook, as is evidenced by the traces of old glue and torn paper on the reverse. It’s possible that the rip occurred when the card was removed from the scrapbook.

I bought this card because of the subject matter. Images showing women playing croquet are a bit hard to find, so I was happy when this one materialized in a box of old paper stuff.

Croquet became very popular in the years after the American Civil War and was one of the first outdoor games in which it was socially acceptable for women to participate alongside men. While it may look to us that her ensemble is too fancy for sports, croquet was considered to be a social activity and as such women dressed for mixed company. Who knew but that a potential suitor was in the playing party?

Some of you might be able to look at this image and immediately place an accurate date on it. I’m still learning about pre-1915 clothing, so I’ve had to spend some time analyzing the woman’s attire. The skirt is quite short. It could be a concession to the game, or it could be that the woman is very young and is still in short skirts. The fact that her hair is loose might be another hint that she is a younger teenager. Or it could be that this was made in the early 1870s when women wore the back of her hair down. So many things to consider! No wonder a novice student of Victorian fashion is confused!

The hat is also confusing to me. I found similar ones with a brim turned up at the side in fashion plates from the 1870s, but also spotted this style in the 1880s. The red apron effect over her skirt is seen in the 1870 and into the 1880s. I did see more of that shorter sleeve length in early 1880s plates. And in photographs and plates of the early 1880s, many skirts are trimmed at the hem with a row or ruffles or pleats.

I also have to keep in mind that my card is not strictly a portrayal of fashion. This could have been merely the artist’s idea of what a fashionable young lady would have worn for croquet. Thoughts?

I love that she has her dainty foot on her ball, and is about to knock her unseen opponent’s ball into the bushes just beyond. A true sportswoman!

 

 

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Filed under Collecting, Summer Sports