Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Favorite Old Thing of the Week (??)

So I think I started the Favorite Old Thing post and then did maybe two weeks hence the question marks in the title sooo let's try this again, shall we?

One of the greatest tools that I've found on the internet for studying historical objects is the online archives that museums work tirelessly to photograph and publish online for the world to see. I can't wait for the Chicago History Museum to launch their own archive of objects because that collection deserves to be seen on a world wide basis. One of the existing online collections that I continually return to for examples of historical dress, however, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art's. Currently, the Met has 341,940 objects at our disposable to browse through or to conduct a specified search. I was browsing through the collection in research of my last post on the Charles James exhibit when I came across this gorgeous sweater.

The Met dates this sweater at 1895. The clues that point to this date are the leg-o-mutton style sleeves, which came into popularity in 1890, and the intended use of this type of sweater, which would have been for sportswear. It may be hard to believe that a woman would have played tennis in an ensemble like this with our Under Armor and barely there Nike outfits that the Mrs. Williams's play in today, but it is true that this sweater would have been considered "casual wear" in 1895. The state of its condition is really remarkable and makes pieces like this very rare in museum collections because its intended use would have allowed for wear and tear and made it an unsuitable piece to be donated.

Prior to the rise of women playing sports it was considered dangerous for women to participate in rigorous physical activity because her energy needed to be conserved for "childbearing and rearing." As a young woman who played college basketball, it is unfathomable to think that women had to be restricted to "calisthenics, dancing, walking, and horseback riding" for exercise. Thankfully, by 1900, even the fashion world had begun to approve of sports for women:
"But aside from the team spirit there are wonderful physical advantages in basket-ball. Of all the team games that men play, for many long years not one was available for the women's colleges... Basket-ball, however, was available from the first, and it was not many months after its invention in 1892 that it was welcomed in all of the women's gymnasiums...The fascination of the game attracted the girls to the gymnasiums, and they took this exercise willingly and even eagerly when chest-weights, dumbbells, and rowing-machines seemed a drudge. The excitement of play, too, permitted them more exercise with less fatigue, the advantage of which is apparent."
-- J. Parmly Paret, Harper's Bazaar, October 20, 1900

Saturday, November 26, 2011

"Charles James: Genius Deconstructed"

On this grey Saturday afternoon, I had the pleasure of revisiting some old stomping grounds at the Chicago History Museum and the chance to see the Charles James exhibition that has been in place since October. Charles James, a London born fashion designer, first made his stake in the industry in Chicago in the 1930s. The 1940s and 1950s were the wonder years in Charles James career. In 1946, James presented his first (and only) collection in Paris. "The Paris showing was so successful that Christian Dior credited James as an inspiration for his now-famous 1947 New Look collection."* The exhibit, titled "Charles James: Genius Deconstructed," presents James's work through the lens of construction. James approached dressmaking with techniques that he had acquired making his daring style of hats in the late 1920s. Therefore, James's designs were constantly ahead of their time in style and technique, as well as considered masterworks of art and construction.

One of the highlights for me (outside of the gowns themselves) of the exhibit were the CT scans that were taken of several of the gowns at the Field Museum. The scans revealed the very meticulous construction of the gowns which included intricate metal stays and boning in many of the gowns.

CT scan of Charles James's "Tree" gown

Cover of exhibit catalog** featuring a side by side image of the "Tree" gown and the CT scan taken of the gown

Another highlight of the exhibit for me was a little tidbit of fashion history that I learned about one of my favorite James pieces, the Infanta or also known as the Williamsburg. The two different names for this gown refer to the two different time periods in which a similar style of gown was worn. "Infanta" was a name used for women in the royal Spanish court in the seventeenth century whose wide style skirts are infamous in paintings by Diego Velazquez. The name "Williamsburg" refers to the panniers, an undergarment that widened the appearance of the hips, that women wore in the eighteenth century in the United States.

Left to right: Velázquez, Infanta Don Margarita de Austria, 1660;
Charles James, Infanta, 1952; Robe a l'Anglaise, 1784-87.

The illustrations of Antonio Lopez are another interesting and beautiful aspect of the exhibit. James and Lopez collaborated in the mid 1960s when Lopez was beginning to be recognized in the art world. This collaboration has been a vital point to the survival and legacy of James's work. 106 of Lopez's illustrations were donated to the Chicago History Museum during Charles James's visit to the Chicago History Museum in 1974.

Illustration by Antonio Lopez of Charles James design

"The artist, Charley James, who chose silks or furs instead of stone or paint as his media, built sculptures and created paintings around the living flesh." - Franklin Rose, friend of Charles James

Charles James on his visit to Chicago History Museum in 1974,
the purpose of which was to examine the collection of his gowns.

*Quote from exhibit catalog.
**The exhibit catalog for Charles James: Genius Deconstructed can be purchased here.
Images from Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chicago History Museum.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I was perusing the runway images from Paris and Milan's most recent fashion weeks (Spring 2012 Ready-To-Wear) and I came upon this fabulous hat (or visor, really..) in the Balenciaga show. Instantly, the famous Irving Penn photographs of Balenciaga fashions circa 1950 came to mind, but also..and please bear with me on this one..images of trench warfare soldiers from World War I. Something about the almost cape-like brim reminded me of the drawings and cartoons of trench soldiers that were plastered on propaganda posters and war bond posters. Whatch'all think?

Balenciaga Spring 2012 RTW

Lisa Fonssagrive in Balenciaga, taken by Irving Penn, 1950.

Love, love, love.

O and just for fun...Another gem from Spring 2012. Yall know I love some Barbie shoes...Especially some YSL Jack Sparrow meets Marie Antionette Barbie shoes..*sigh*

Runway images property of Style.com

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"We all get dressed for Bill."

Every one who is interested in fashion, especially fashion journalism, needs to watch the documentary on Bill Cunningham. Simply titled "Bill Cunningham New York," this documentary chronicles the life and work, which are one in the same, of the photographer who has captured fabulous, real women in fashion on the streets of New York since the 1960s. Historically speaking, he has seen and captured all the major works and looks of high fashion and "street" fashion of the second half of the 20th century. He continually references historical influences in his weekly columns for the New York Times as well as in the audio for online videos that accompany his "In the Street" column. Bill Cunningham is a staple character in the streets of New York City as well as an icon in fashion journalism. His mission is not to define trends or fashion, but to merely capture and portray beautiful men and women in their clothes or their "armor to survive everyday life" as he puts it. It is because of people like Bill that fashion has become so accessible to everyone across the globe. He dedicates his life to capturing everyday people in the wonderfully fashion forward city of New York for his own pleasure as well as for the pleasure of small-town girls like myself who dream of the day when our photograph is casually snapped by the likes of Bill Cunningham. The documentary is available on instant streaming on Netflix right now so I suggest you all hop to it and check it out.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Unmentionables: Foundations of Fashion"

In the spirit of embracing my move back to Memphis I am seeking outlets of history and fashion history in my dear ole hometown to not only continue my own education of the subjects but also to learn more about the place in which I was born and raised. So it was my delight to learn that The Pink Palace was opening a display of fashion undergarments titled "Unmentionables: Foundations of Fashion." As every other broke post-grad does in this situation, I looked up when the museum offers free admission :) So last Tuesday in between 1-5 I trekked over to check it out. (I will be writing a separate post about the general history of The Pink Palace and the other textile and garment pieces I encountered while on my visit there.)

The emphasis of the display is on silhouette and how fashion's history has been defined greatly by shape and the undergarments that create said shapes. The display includes 12 examples of women's undergarments spanning from the 1880s to the 1960s and 4 examples of men's undergarments. The display also includes 6 women's dresses, including one wedding dress, that exemplify the type of garment that would be worn with their counterpart understructure, all spanning from the 1880s to the 1960s. The study of silhouette has always been an area of interest of mine, especially in relation to corsetry and the women's movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I complain when a belt or a pair of pants is too tight so I can only imagine the discomfort that these women dealt with daily because of tight corsetry. On the other hand, today's woman will walk around in 4 inch heels all day giving herself blisters all for the sake of beauty and fashion, so is there really that big of difference? All I can conclude is that I am thankful that it is no longer considered in vogue to wear those type of garments under my clothes everyday and to thank designers like Chanel, Poiret, and Fortuny for setting the trend on a mainstream level in the 1910s and women like Ameilia Bloomer, Annie Oakley, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for starting the trend among women at the grassroots level in the 19th century.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Working Girl.

Okay, so... I know I've taken a little bit of a hiatus from blogging, a month to be exact, but the "moving back to Memphis, new job, and trying to settle" madness is behind me I promise I will be more diligent. Besides blogging, other things that I need to tend to are studying for the GRE (yuck....) and getting on top of editing my paper that will be submitted with my grad school apps in the fall. I thought bringing the topic of this paper into today's blog post would be a nice way to kick start everything :]

Working girls..
In today's society working women are more than common place. In fact if a woman isn't working it's usually because she married wealthy, is retired, or is under 15. Before the late 1800s, however, a woman's "sphere" was restricted to domestic settings. As the Industrial Revolution took off in America during the late 19th century, work opportunities for women outside of the home also rose. Factories and shops needed cheap labor and there were plenty of single, immigrant women in the urban communities across the east that needed to support themselves.

Most commonly these women are known for the hardships they experienced such as dire working conditions, meager pay, long work hours, and the danger they encountered in the factories, like the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.* Historians like Kathy Peiss and Nan Enstad, however, have presented a different side of the story for these young women.

These young, single women made up a demographic that this country had never encountered before. The garment factories in which they worked were producing ready-to-wear fashions that they could afford to purchase in the department shops popping up in shopping districts across the metropolis's of America. Dance halls in which men and women intermingled were breaking down the Victorian concept of separate spheres for the sexes. In part, these women laid the foundation for the social revolutions of the 1920s and the middle class flapper girls.

The image of young working women in the early 1900s may look very different from my comrades and I running around bringing you your food and drinks in our Blue Monkey shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes, but essentially the ideals of making a living and taking steps toward bettering ourselves are there for the young working woman of 1911 as well as 2011.

*146 women perished in this industrial disaster due to locked doors and no fire exits in the factory.

Images from Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York by Kathy Peiss and Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Nan Enstad.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Gala's, Weddings, and McQueen...O My!

Sorry for the hiatus this past week, folks. It's moving time for me. I am leaving my sweet home Chicago and going back to my other sweet home, Memphis, Tennessee. So with all my stuff packed away and ready for the big haul down south tomorrow morning, I, of course, can't sleep...
What better time to blog :)

A lot has been going on in the world of historic dress in the last week. So I thought I'd give a little synopsis of the main events.

Today was the ever-so-elegant and celebrity-attracting Costume Institute Gala. An event put on every May at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. This event is sponsored by many of fashion's "higher-ups," but most notably Vogue and Anna Wintour. The event draws every notable celebrity, designer, model, etc. etc. from around the globe and the reason they come is to lend support (and by support, I mean $dollars$) for the Met's Costume Institute. This year's gala marks the opening of an exhibition featuring the designs of the late (and great) Alexander McQueen, titled "Savage Beauty." This exhibition chronicles the masterpiece creations of McQueen and includes approximately 100 pieces from throughout his career from 1994 to 2010.
Pieces that are to be included in the exhibition were shown at a press preview.

And, of course, there's the Royal Wedding.

Which, ironically, also brings up the name of Alexander McQueen. The best kept secret of the RW was the designer of Kate's dress. As Kate stepped out of the car at Westminster Abbey, the world learned that it was in fact Sarah Burton, creative director at Alexander McQueen, that Kate collaborated with on the design and aesthetic of the dress. And may I say....flawless. Classic. Elegant. Perfection. Of course, the hype surrounding Kate's dress intrigue's one to look back at royal wedding dresses of the past. Historic Royal Palaces released the video below last week displaying some of the rarest royal wedding dresses, including the infamous "first" ivory gown that Queen Victoria wore when she wed Prince Albert in 1840. With all this wedding buzz, I wish that Chicago History Museum's own exhibition of wedding dresses("I Do: Chicago Ties the Knot"), which ran from May of last year until this past January, was still on display. If you missed it, however, the catalog can still be purchased at chicagohistory.org.

Senior curator, Dr. Joanna Marschner, discusses the six dresses on display at Historic Royal Palaces.

Kate's dress has been rightfully compared to Grace Kelly's wedding dress with it's long lace sleeves, high neck, and sweetheart neckline. The choosing a widely-celebrated, contemporary British design house by Kate is not only another example of why she is truly a modern day princess.

Kate's second dress worn at the festivities after the ceremony was also designed by Alexander McQueen's Sarah Burton. (Stunning!!)

Just one last look at the happy couple...everybody together now...awwwwww!!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fashion is history.

So if you have not seen the NY Times article on fashion's place in museums then don't bother at this point because I'm about to point out why it has a seriously misled point of view.

It really is pointless to argue that fashion is superficial and it has no place in the academic world because it has arrived, folks, and its not going anywhere. Fashion as history has fought the same battles that any other "alternative" history has fought. And by "alternative" I mean, anything that is not the old, rich white man's version of history. Emerging social histories fought for their relevancy back in the 1960s, and fashion has been fighting the same battle in academia since before the 1990s.

Yes, it is true that fashion exhibitions are popular with the public because fashion as a general subject is popular. But who is to argue against something that brings in revenue for museums that are struggling financially more than ever in this downward trending economy? Also, just because museums and academia are finding a place for costume exhibitions doesn't mean that the public in general understands how fashion can be used to tell the stories of the past. Isn't educating one of the basic missions of a museum? Imagine the surprise for those lucky wanderers of New York's Met or Chicago's Chicago History Museum or L.A.'s Los Angeles County Museum of Art when they find themselves face to face with a turn of the century gown that demonstrates how couturiers freed women from rigid corsetry or how garment factory workers used the emerging ready-to-wear industry to uplift their position in life. Conserve, share and educate. That is what museum's are doing with their costume collections just as they are with their paintings and photographs and other forms of "art."

Dresses featured in Chicago History Museum's exhibition Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures from the Chicago History Museum that demonstrate how couture fashion "trickled down" to ready-to-wear fashion. Christian Dior (on right) circa 1953 and Sophie (on left) circa 1954 could both have been purchased at Chicago's Marshall Field's in their different departments of course.*

What it comes down to, honestly, is that dress, in all its different forms, is something we use everyday. And whether or not you are plucking t-shirts out of the half off bin at Express or strolling into Dior on Avenue Montaigne, dress expresses identity. Dress has acted as an expression of identity since before the Etruscans draped their first chiton in the 6th century B.C. and will continue to do so forever. Therefore, it is not hard to connect how fashion can give us a tangible window into the societies of the past, whether it's a gown from the couture house of Gabrielle Chanel from the 1920s or an English red coat from the Revolutionary War.

So, believers in fashion, continue to support the arts, in all its forms, by visiting the exquisitely well thought out fashion exhibitions being featured in museums across this country. Thank you and goodnight.

*Information from the catalog of the exhibition, which can be purchased here. (One example of the scholarly work that goes into a fashion exhibition.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Favorite Old Thing of the Week

"The entire point of the original mod movement was to reject the naff rocker look, to dolly-bird yourself up in the sharpest suit or neatest op-art jacket, and make yourself over into your personal best, regardless of external circumstances." --Vogue, May 2011

Spring is the most appropriate time of year for a makeover in all aspects of life. Here's to adopting mod as a fashion and life philosophy as a young person in 2011. Join me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The History of "Stuff"

You don't have to be a history buff to be obsessed with shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars, or Auction Kings. If you are a history buff, however, and you have not stumbled upon these shows before then I heartily suggest you do. The recent rise in popularity of shows such as these has peaked my interest into why people are fascinated by them. If you do not know, the basic premise of these shows is the buying and reselling of people's old things (sort of the high brow version of garage sales). Of course all of them go about it in their own unique way, but all of them could not exist if there was not a market for what they do.

One of the reasons that I think people are attracted to these types of programs is because people love the history of "stuff." And as someone who wants to eventually pursue a master's degree in material culture/decorative arts, the relevance of these shows has really caught my attention. The greatest thing about these shows is that they include the history of whatever object is being sold/bought, so the viewer actually understands why its worth whatever it is being sold/bought for. I intend to do some further research into this topic and see what others have said about it.

Now the granddaddy of all these shows has got to be Antiques Roadshow. The premise of AR may be very different because there is no buying/selling going on, but the core value of the show is very much the same as the others because people are bringing in their old stuff to learn more about it and find out how much it is worth. While costume items are few and far between on shows such as these, the costume nerd inside of me jumped for joy when I was watching a rerun of AR this past week and saw this:

The appraiser places the date of the portrait between 1805-1825 based on the costume the man is wearing. For the appraiser, J. Michael Flanigan, to have that sort of knowledge of costume, when he is listed as an expert in furniture and folk art, shows that the relevance of costume is becoming more and more significant. Changes in men's fashion are more subtle throughout history, and the presence of the high collared waist-coat and shirt with ruffled necktie, also known as a cravat are seen in both the Empire Period (1790-1820) and the Romantic Period (1820-1850). Stay tuned for more posts on shows such as these! In the mean time, check them out for yourself on the History Channel, the Discover Channel, and PBS!

(picture and video courtesy of pbs.org)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Favorite Old Thing of the Week

Norman Norell: Conservative Elegance

Norman Norell, seen in the picture at the left with models, was an American designer throughout the middle of the 20th century. Norell is among the group of American designers who gained prominence during WWII because of the lack of communication that was available between France and America at the time. French fashion had reigned superior for centuries, but because French designing was cutback significantly due to Nazi occupation, magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar began to feature more American designers.

During the early part of his career, Norell worked with Hattie Carnegie, another prominent American designer. After partnering in the company Traina-Norell for 20 years, Norell finally broke off on his own in 1960.

Norell's aesthetic is known for its precision tailoring, simplicity, and elegant femininity. Some of his signature looks include his sequined mermaid gowns, as seen on Marilyn Monroe in the picture above, his short jersey dresses, his nautical themed looks featuring bows, buttons and belts, and his elegant suits.

Norman Norell remained a prominent figure in the fashion industry until his death in 1972. Norell, Claire McCardell, Pauline Trigere, Charles James, and Gilbert Adrian are some of the American designers that helped resurrect fashion in America and abroad after the world had experienced two decades of depression and war. In the picture to the right, Norell is seen in his signature red tie along with some of his signature looks. He was truly an American classic.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Downton Abbey

On the recommendation from my wonderful boss at the Chicago History Museum, Meghan Smith, I spent the majority of Sunday watching "Downton Abbey," a series put out by PBS as part of their Masterpiece Classic series. It is currently on Netflix Instant Streaming for anyone who wants to check it out for themselves. I was intrigued first and foremost because Meghan said the costumes were fantastic, and secondly because the time period it is set in, the 1910s, pre-WWI, is possibly my favorite period in history for a collection of reasons. As I began to watch the episodes I was delighted by the plot line, along with the costumes, which were designed by Sussanah Buxton. The story of Downton Abbey consists of an old world Victorian family, the Crawley's, and the world that they and their servants live in. The story is filled with scandal, betrayal, love, family duty, and inheritance against a backdrop that consists of a traditional 19th century family and their servants trying to maintain order and propriety in a social atmosphere that is rapidly changing. Needless to say, I was completely enveloped by the aesthetic and the story, and was disappointed to find out that the second season of the series is not due out until next year.

Dress during the Edwardian Period, the first decade of the 20th century, reflected much of the same aesthetic as dress had during the last half of the 19th century. This aesthetic was a highly-corseted, conservative look with a high neckline, long sleeves, and long skirts. The most prominent silhouette at the beginning of the 20th century was a "S-Shape" silhouette. This look had an exaggerated bust and bosom and tiny waist and was created through the use of tight corseting. The costumes of Lady Violet Crawley are reminiscent of this style of dress even though by 1912, the time the series begins in, this silhouette had been largely replaced by a simpler straight silhouette with an empire waist. The fact that Susannah Buxton chose to keep Lady Violet in a more traditional style of dress shows her attention to detail and to the characters themselves, because Lady Violet is and would be in real life if she had existed a very traditional character who is attempting to withstand the radical social changes occurring in the world around her.

The costumes of Lady Mary, the eldest daughter, and her two younger sisters, Edith and Cybil, are much more reflective of pre-WWI dress after 1910. Many women still wore corsets with this style of dress, although they were straight and less restrictive than the corsets required to achieve the "S-shape" of the previous decade. The empire waistline was very prominent as well as oriental influences, as seen in the picture with the chinoiserie style embroidery on Lady Mary's dress.

Just wanted to show one last look at a gorgeous image from the film of the three Crawley sisters. The fashion of the 1910s were changing in ways that had not occurred in the past because changes were happening throughout society for women that had not occurred in the past. Downton Abbey does a wonderful job of capturing the unseen war between the Victorian-minded traditionalists and the social revolutionists that were fighting for change in Europe and America at the time. Look out for my new Favorite Old Thing of the Week coming up in the next couple of days.

Thanks for tuning in,

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Here goes nothin'...

Alright, folks.

Clothes. Costume. Fashion. Dress. Whatever you want to call it, it's what we wear everyday.

And as someone who is attempting to break into the industry that supports the historical side of life, I am here to pay weekly tribute to fashions of the past, the women and men who wore those fashions, and how those fashions influenced the lives of the people in the past and still today.

For centuries, history was told through the lens of the rich, white man, and only in the last half of the 20th century did the untold "social" histories emerge and become relevant. Fashion, still, was a little slow on the uptake in the minds of those who decided what constituted "history." Finally, however, the field of historical dress is on the rise in the world of academia. As a matter of fact, I was watching Jeopardy last week and to my pleasant surprise the Final Jeopardy category was "Garments of the World," and Mr. Trebek himself said that it was the first time they had ever had that category on the show....a small victory for dress historians.

Now, I am merely a student of dress history at this point in my life, and only intend to further my own studies and the presence of dress history with this blog. Part of my mission is to demonstrate how clothes help define a society, imparticularly societies of the past. Another integral part of my mission is to reflect how modern fashion is very much a reflection of something from the past. In fact, I was watching highlights from the most recent fashion week in Paris, and a commentator stated that a modern day fashion show is really a lesson in fashion history, meaning that designers of today use fashions of the past to inspire something modern.

Okay, so enough of history lessons by Jane. I promise future posts will be more fun, and I hope that whoever does stumble upon this blog will share it with others who also have a passion for history/clothes/museums/clothes in museums :)

Thanks folks.

Something I am going to do with every post is include an image, fact, etc. about an historical piece of dress and tag it as....

Jane's Favorite Old Thing of the Week:

So for the first Favorite Old Thing, I'm going with
a garment that holds meaning to me and holds a lot of historical value. The gown the woman in the picture is wearing is by Mariano Fortuny. It is an example of a "Delphos" gown that he made many different versions of throughout his career from 1907 until his death in 1949. The intricate pleating on the "Delphos" gowns has been copied for decades by a variety of designers. Still today, if a designer features an intricately pleated garment on the runway, the garment is said to have "Fortuny pleats." After Paul Poiret, Fortuny was a pioneer for couture garments that did not require wearing a corset. Outside of my History of Dress classes, my first interaction with Fortuny was during my work with the exhibition, Chic Chicago, at the Chicago History Museum. The "Delphos" gowns featured in that exhibit were some of my favorite pieces from the show and I admire what they stand for still today.