The Gothic to Goth Exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, a guest review

 

by Nadine Stewart

What better place to learn about Romanticism than the Wadsworth Atheneum? Founded in 1842 and named for Daniel Wadsworth, the museum is a wonderful example of Gothic Revival architecture. Its turreted towers and narrow windows give the building the effect of a medieval castle. The architecture is a far cry for the ideal of the previous generation—the Grecian or Roman neoclassic temple.

The Wadsworth Atheneum—a monument to Gothic spirit in architecture.

Defining Romanticism is not easy. Yet, the strains of Romanticism still resonate today. Gothic to Goth:Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy (through July 10, 2016) examines how dramatically the different themes affected art and dress from approximately 1815 to the Civil War.

Romanticism was a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment. Instead of glorifying reason, its proponents gloried in nature, explored the darkest depths of the imagination, and harked back to the medieval period, considered the most sublime period in history by critics like John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin. The novels of Sir Walter Scott gave readers dramas of knights and fair maidens set in sweeping landscapes. Ironically, the Industrial Revolution was actually changing the countryside of both Great Britain and the United States. The coal fired industries and cities crowded with a new poor working class were the depressing reality.

The Romantics sought to dress like the figures from the past mixing elements from different periods of history. In the first section we see a 1820s pelisse with a jagged edging on that looks like the architectural edging of a castle. This is combined with slashing inspired by the Renaissance on the collar, a ruff around the neck and sleeves that recall paintings from the Tudor court. The gown is displayed next to an 1852 painting which shows young couple enjoying the sight of an Irish castle glowing in the early evening light. It is this combination of art and cultural items of the period with its dress that make this exhibit so memorable.

A view of the Historicism Section of the exhibit, Note the stove and the dress next to it with similar design motifs! (via Wadsworth Atheneum’s Twitter account)

Curator Lynne Zacek Bassett has chosen five themes to tell the story of the period—historicism, religion, nature, color and “fancy” design, and emotion. The historicism section expands on the information we were given as we entered the gallery. It begins with a gown that shows the evolution from the neoclassical “empire” style. The simple cotton muslin from 1815-20 is embroidered with leaf or “paisley” motifs and features slashing on its tiny puffed sleeves. Much more elaborate is the next pairing, an 1830s silk dress with a lower waist, voluminous puffed sleeves and a fuller skirt covered in gold bullion embroidery with large paisley motifs on the border.  Next to this gown is a parlor stove also embellished with similar fancy motifs.

Two paintings in this section underline the way Romantics used the fashions of the past. An Italian Renaissance work from 1574 shows a noblewoman wearing a robe with sleeves that have a puff at the shoulders and an open neckline edged in a standing ruffled collar, next to her portrait is the portrait of Mrs. John Bliss from around 1826. Mrs. Bliss’ dress could have been lifted by her dressmaker from the 1574 portrait. She is wearing the same style sleeve and collar.

Striking use of color and pattern were another characteristic of the Romantics.  New dyes discovered by scientists of the Industrial Revolution allowed women to decorate themselves and their interiors with layer on layer of pattern. Magazines published patterns that enabled women to make “fancy” items themselves. People consumed turkey red calico, exquisitely embroidered aprons and pelerines, made beaded bags and fanciful caps. The clothing in the section which includes two beautiful embroidered silk aprons and a beaded bag from 1833 give us an idea of how deep this love of embellishment ran.

American silk dress with gorgeous ruching, c. 1840-45 (via the New York Times)

Religion, at least the Protestant version of it, was another major influence. The Second Great Awakening sparked emotional camp meetings across the country.  Believers glorified Gothic architecture believing its arches were from the most perfect period of Christian history. The arch was also a reminder to look to the sky for the Lord’s help and was repeated over and over in the art and fashion of the day. Clothing changed again in the 1840s. The huge sleeves collapsed, the waist lowered still more, and the bodice neckline dipped to the edges of the shoulders. A fine example of the new look is a silk satin dress from the 1840s with a bodice covered in ruching and a wedding dress, pelerine, and reticule commissioned by an American missionary in Burma for her sister. The wedding dress is a sign that even the very devout loved beautiful clothing, perhaps in spite of themselves! The love of the fancy recurs in this gallery a fan edged in Gothic arches, and reticule decorated with canvas work, and a beaded watch chain amply decorated with religious symbols, the gift of a young women to her special beaux.

Closely connected to the religious fervor of the Romantics was their love of nature. There are so many examples of this in literature, the poems of Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth, all poets who claimed their poetry came to them in a rush of divine inspiration which they wrote down without editing or revising. In the United States artists, especially those of the Hudson River School, glorified the nation’s landscape with huge panoramas of the waterways and mountains set against spacious skies. Colors were supposed to combine with nature, not stand out, like the while columns of neoclassical buildings. Clothing followed these rules too. A dress in this section is one many women of the 1840s would have owned—a silk gown in a “drab” color. The olive green color would have blended in perfectly with the surrounding landscape.

Finally, the Romantics were proud of their passionate nature. This passion could delve into sentimentality which was considered a virtue, another change from the careful calculation of the preceding Age of Reason. This was the era the white wedding dress came into vogue. Queen Victoria was married in one, of course, but the color white was a symbol of purity. So a white wedding dress would emphasize the bride’s pure state as she entered matrimony. The dresses in this section are examples from the states of a woman’s life. There is a beautiful wedding dress from 1836, a rare calico maternity dress, an equally rare nursing dress with a gather panel in the front that allowed the breast to be exposed, a housedress, and finally, a mourning dress from the mid=nineteenth century. Mourning was the ultimate expression of emotion and wearing the proper mourning garb was an important part of a woman’s life. However, the ultimate expression of sentimental love and sorrow was the proliferation of hair jewelry. There are some beautiful examples here, including a bracelet of braided hair with a miniature of a young woman with flowing blonde hair festooned with a garland of flowers and a complete set—brooch, earrings, and bracelet—with tiny “acorns” that symbolize the oak tree, considered a protection from evil.

At the end of the exhibit we are reminded that the Romantic influences return even in our technocratic age. The exhibit closes with some examples from the present day, including the Steampunk and Goth movements. There is a stunning gown by Alexander McQueen from 2007. The black velvet dress has silver beading which appears to shoot across the bodice like a bolt of jagged lightning. McQueen was fascinated with the macabre and dark side of history. This dress honors an ancestor who was executed as a witch in Salem. McQueen’s successor, Sarah Burton, used the Goth theme in 2013, with a short coat that references Renaissance priest and boots that recall Puritan fathers of the seventeenth century. One of the most interesting pieces her is a “Vampire Suit” created by Jean Paul Gaultier, but styled by the owner Richard Patrick Anderson to create his own special mood.

“How did granny details become so compelling?” Vogue magazine asked in Fall 2015 as part of feature on the resurgence of Romantic fashions. Gothic to Goth shows us that The Romantic influence never really went away, and that its aesthetic is vital enough to be reinvented by generation after generation. By showing the many strains that fed Romanticism this exhibit carves out a special place in the spring/summer exhibit season. You will think about this one for a long time.


MENadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews

Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »

 

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Canoeing Fashion in 1903 and the United States Postal Service

At the end of March this year, the USPS made an announcement about a forthcoming stamp featuring American author Henry James (1843–1916). What you might not know is that the USPS hired me to consult on the accuracy of the fashion depicted on the stamp.

1904 Boating party (note hats and dress styles)

The stamp features a profile of the author in later life in the foreground, with a scene from his The Ambassadors (1903) in the background. It was the depiction of the two characters in a canoe that were of concern, so I focused my efforts on boating attire in and around 1903 (as the author did not provide very detailed description of their clothing). (Fascinating side note, Boston outlawed kissing in canoes in 1903)

Society in general was much more formal at this time. From what I understand of the female character, ironically named Madame de Vionnet, she was beautiful and somewhat refined.

She would have more likely been wearing a hat – a straw boater or a picture hat (especially as James included a mention of a hat). She would have been wearing wrist-length puffed sleeves, had a defined/corseted waist, and a pigeon or bloused top (yes, much more formal, even for a ride in a boat). She may have been dressed in all white, or she may have had on a dark skirt with a white blouse (aka shirt and waist). Her blouse would more than likely have been high-necked.

Note style of women’s dresses: high necked, long sleeves, bloused shirt over defined waist (also hats):

The man’s attire would also have been more formal – with a stiffened arrow collar and bow-tie, and with the addition of hat. This image of photographer Edward Steichen on his honeymoon in 1903 suggests the style I mean:

Unfortunately, I was contacted to review the stamp fairly late in the process, and so despite the information I provided, no alterations were made to the stamp (pictured below). Nonetheless, it was still an interesting excuse for research and learning more about the connection(s) between fashion and literature. (For those who want more, there is Henry James and the Art of Dress)

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Another Prince Tribute

There is no way I can write a definitive history of Prince’s Fashion a few hours after his shocking death. The scope and depth of his impact both musically and culturally, are far too great. Suffice it to say, stylistically, the man was on par with the likes of David Bowie, Freddy Mercury, or Michael Jackson (and in retrospect seems to me like a mash-up of those three). The Cut (New York Magazine’s blog) has a good slideshow of his style.

His looks were often gender-bending, and that seemed only to bolster his sex appeal. He frequently pushed the envelope – both in the way he dressed on stage and in balking corporate music control.  He frequently used ‘shock value’ in his stage style in a career that spanned four decades.

Prince in Assless Pants at the 1991 MTV VMA’s

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I’m sure in the flood of tributes to come, more memorable outfits will surface. But for my money, nothing was better than the first time I ever heard or saw him, which was in the 1984 film, Purple Rain. Below is his costume from that film, by costume designer Marie France. Following that is a performance of “Purple Rain” that just might make you cry.

Prince's Purple Rain Costume, Accession No.: 1987.124.1-5 Gift of PRN Productions. (Minnesota Historical Society)
Prince’s Purple Rain Costume, Accession No.: 1987.124.1-5 Gift of PRN Productions. (Minnesota Historical Society)

 

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CSA Western Region announces mini-Symposium and tour in Edmonton, Canada

The Costume Society of America Western Region, in conjunction with the University of Alberta, Edmonton presents the international conference: Dressing Global Bodies: Clothing Cultures, Politics and Economics in Globalizing Eras, c. 1600’s-1900s to be held July 7-9, 2016.

ec13ca1c-b605-42e2-a35a-e29581ea1b65On Sunday, July 10, 2016, following the International Conference, CSA Western Region is hosting a morning mini-symposium and an afternoon tour of the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village (transportation is included).

Although the Royal Alberta Museum is closed for renovations, attendees will get a private look at special pieces from their collection. The morning will include a special slide tour of local textile collections by guest speakers, and attendees will hear from the 2014 Jack Handford Intern about her experiences at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, and the benefits of this semi-annual award. After enjoying a box lunch attendees will depart via provided transportation to the Ukranian Culture Heritage Village, a living history museum.

Schedule:

8:45-9:15 Registration

9:15-12 Morning program at the Museum Theatre:

  • Slide tour: Highlights of the Costume Collection of the Western Canadian History program.  The collection houses over 25,000 articles of dress and domestic textiles related to life in Alberta.
  • Paper: Hutterite Samplers and Embroidered Calligraphy, Lucie Heins, assistant curator Western Canadian History.

Coffee break

  • Paper: Costume Storage: Addressing Conservation and Curatorial Interests at the de Young Collection Jack Handford Internship presentation by Christina Frank, MA.
  • Paper: An introduction to Ukrainian textiles in Alberta, Larisa Cheladyn. Slide presentation of costuming and household textiles, with some reference to religious and other unique items will be the preparation for our afternoon tour.

12 – 1:30 Catered lunch at the museum. Have your lunch in the sunny theatre lobby or outdoors in the museum’s park-like setting above the North Saskatchewan River valley.

1:30 Luxury coach to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, a 160-acre living history museum tracing the history of Ukrainian settlement in east central Alberta. Enjoy a one-hour tour by costume curators Joy Schellenberg and Becky Dahl. Participants will have one hour on their own at the Village before traveling back to Edmonton on the bus.

Registration and more information here.

Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village

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On my plate…er lap… Victorian Knitting History

2016-04-08 08.08.58In an effort to get blogging about the fashion history projects on my plate right now, I’m sharing this photo of an in-progress paid project, a knitting history project! It relates to Victorian Knitting, War Comforts, and continues to appear up into the 1920s, 1930s and even up through the 1950s and 1960s. Once completed it will be over 6 feet long and three feet wide (I’ve been working on it –off and on–for almost a year). I’ll reveal more (of course) once the project is completed and published.

Does the textile pattern remind you of anything?

Guesses are welcome in the comments (Unless I’ve already talked to you about it!)

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Fairy Tale Fashion at the Museum at FIT, a guest exhibition review

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It is with great pleasure that I present to you a guest review of Fairy Tale Fashion (on view through April 16, 2016 at the Museum at FIT in NYC) by Nadine Stewart:

We live in a post-modern age, a world in which we constantly hear about the wonders of technology, the stunning array of new sources of information, and the variety of the global marketplace. The world of fairy tales seems banished, its tales too full of old virtues and fears to be relevant to us today. And yet, we long for fantasy, for wonder, for a world of imagination in which many of the answers are hidden or obscure.

This is particularly true of the world of fashion. Though we often dream of clothes that will fulfill our dreams, the language of the fashion world often encourages us to engage with the ever shifting trends of the global marketplace. The world of dreams that fairy tales illuminate is too often discounted.

Yet the fantasy that fairy tales give us has been seeping back into the current fashion world. Perhaps it was there all the time and we simply ignored it. Fairy Tale Fashion shows how rich these influences are by linking garments and accessories to fifteen tales that range from the familiar stories of the Brothers Grimm to The Wizard of Oz, G. Frank Baum’s yarn from the beginning of the 20th century.

The idea for this exhibit had been percolating in the back of Curator Colleen Hill’s mind for some time when she saw pictures of Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall 2014 collection that used fairy tale influences extensively. Now, after researching the subject for over a year, she says she is surprised no one had explored the subject before, especially since the concept of a garment with magic powers is so central to many of the tales. Indeed, Hill feels our obsession with shoes, the accessory that has morphed into an object of dreams for many women, is one of the first examples of the onset of fairy tales in our carefully assembled uniforms for work and play.

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22734337717_8290a63fa4_zOne is reminded of the pervasiveness of fairy tales in the first gallery, whose theme is “Fashion and Story Telling.” The first garment we see is a red hood. The memories of Red Riding Hood come flooding back. One wall is full of illustrations of famous authors like Arthur Rackham and John Tenniel, artists whose work in linked forever with the stories they illuminated. Below these pictures is a case of storybooks, old and new, including and ingenious pop-up book from the 1950s that tells the story of Cinderella. The newest book re-tells the Cinderella tale with characters dressed in David Bowie costumes and a Karl Lagerfeld fairy! Across from the books hang the photographs of Kirsty Mitchell, an artist who creates her own world of dreams. Her elaborate pictures show a wonderland of beauty with swirling butterflies, fields of blue wildflowers, and women in diaphanous gowns.

But it is in the main gallery where enchantment takes effect. Exhibit designer Kim Arkert has created a special space through the use of draped translucent scrims that separate each story section. An enchanted forest is created though simple graphics of dark twisted tree branches.

Hill went back to the old versions of these stories. Many of the plots have a dark side with none of the relentless sunny optimism of Disney. This gives the curator the chance to include film clips of older movies, such as Jean Cocteau’s surreal Beauty and the Beast from 1944 and three lively versions of Cinderella, two by film pioneer Georges Melies from 1899 and 1912 and one by George Nichols made in 1911. The clips remind us that these stories have been a source of inspiration for artists over the centuries long before Walt animated them.

But, it is the clothes that tell the story. Hill has chosen a mix of garments and accessories that show influences from the 18th century to present.  Because this is not a show featuring one designer this exhibit gives us a chance to see a wide range of fashion from the 21st century that utilize stunning techniques. this is apparent in the first section which features a series of red hoods that ranges from a simple wool hooded cape from the 18th century to a version by Comme des Garcons with a huge patent leather hood and a cape of wide strips of red fabric that hang like streamers from the neck.

24404864291_aa9d5fc8c1_zFurther long,  Charles James’ Sirene and Swan gown, dresses that are iconic examples of masterful construction,  stand near a mermaid gown by Jean Louis Sajaji appears to float like seafoam with an astonishing train that bubbles up into space. In the Cinderella section two of the most interesting gowns relate to Cinderella’s life before she was transformed by her fairy godmother. The London designer Giles contributed a white evening gown with a sheer overlaid surface that appears to have been burned. It stands next to another masterpiece of distressed material, a gown by Yoshiki Hishinuma made of sheer fabric covered with film that was torn by hand and heated to crimp the material unevenly. The destruction of the material on both gowns makes them more interesting that some of the sparkling sequined dresses nearby.

In the modern fashion runway show designers strive to create a story for the creations. Thom Browne always has a such a theme. In 2014 his models paraded down the runway wearing surreal animal heads. His tweed suit with raw seams from that collection is  topped by a stunning “bear head,” a frame wrapped with tweed. It is the perfect fashion version of an enchanted fairy tale prince. Next to the “bear” is Browne’s version of “Rose Red,” a woman’s suit notable for the fabric Browne created from graduated circles of wool dripping with red lace.

Mixed in with the gowns are iconic accessories—a “glass” slipper that is actually clear acrylic spun from a 3D printer, a poison apple bag by Judith Leibner that glitters temptingly, and, of course, shoes by the current king of fantasy shoe design, Christian Louboutin. His ruby slippers, red shoes, and glass slippers sparkle with crystals, but his “Lion” stilettos in for the Beast story are the most captivating with their rhinestone claws and embroidered toes that give the effect of dainty lion’s paws.24461063546_c8143f829e_z

Not all the clothing was directly inspired by a fairy tales, but this exhibit shows us how much imagination and fantasy is at work in the world of fashion. We look to that world to recreate and re-establish ourselves. Today, even with a world full of high tech fabrics and materials, we still are drawn to the fantastic. In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will debut its annual exhibit from the Costume Institute. This year’s theme is fashion and technology. A look at the preview pictures shows many garments that could clothe fairy tales figures today. Fairy Tale Fashion reminds us we still hunger to re-invent ourselves in the garments of our dreams. There’s always room for a magic garment or two no matter how modern we are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Fashion Encyclopedia (Vol. 3 edited by yours truly!)

 Clothing and Fashion-19935376

I’m thrilled to share that a project I have been working on since 2012 has finally come to fruition (that is three years people!). Now available, Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe is a four-volume encyclopedia edited by Mary D. Doering, Patricia Hunt-Hurst, and (myself) Heather Vaughan Lee, along with General Editor,  José Blanco F.

I wrote about 10% of volume 3 (1900-1945), and served as the volume editor. I was honored to work with an amazing group of historians, curators, collection managers, writers, and friends and I sincerely thank all of them for their contributions to this project.

While I don’t expect that very many individuals will buy this book, I do hope that it is picked up by libraries and university fashion departments. If you think your library/institution/department might be interested, you can print the flyer or you can now buy it directly from Amazon (at a slightly discounted price).

2015-12-14 16.57.31 12366263_10103698058592813_2693048397538750191_nContributors to Volume 3, 1900-1945 include

Shelley Foote
Katherine Hill Winters
Melinda Webber Kerstein
Brenna Barks
Arianna Funk
Tove Hermanson
Clarissa Esquerra
Priscilla Chung
Nadine Stewart
JoAnn Stabb
Lisa Santandrea
Marcella Millio
Patricia Cunningham
Inez Brooks-Myers
Monica D. Murgia
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Fashion History for the Holidays: Fashion A Timeline in Photographs: 1850 to Today

Milbanks

Recently released from Rizzoli, is a new gigantic visual reference for fashion history from expert Caroline Rennolds Milbank titled Fashion: A Timeline in Photographs: 1850 to Today (October 27, 2015). The forward from Harold Koda is overshadowed by the wealth of images: 1400 images on 320 pages. While the text is minimal, it is informative and interesting. Not your typical fashion history book, it explores a number of trends, types of clothing, and designers in not often seen images (those well versed in fashion history will present the ‘newness’ of this approach).

photoFor example, the spread on page 32 includes 10 photographs of fashions from 1867 with the text noting:

Two views of a Mrs. Bates show her seated in a black silk dress with jet embroidery and also standing dressed for an outing in a short paletot jacked and flat hat worn low on her forehead. A white cotton or linen waist with ribbon and other trimming, worn with a solid or plaid skirt makes an appearance. Christine Nilsson, the blonde and blue-eyed Swedish singing sensation, wears what is being called a suit, a fitted paletot and matching skirt in striped silk.”

The uncluttered design presents beautifully on the page, though historians may find it frustrating to have to flip back and forth to the end notes for citation information for all the photographs. Admittedly, however, the endnotes DO provide a wealth of fascinating information.

I think it would make a wonderful coffee table book – and it makes me wish I had a coffee table!

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#Fashionbooks: The History of Modern Fashion by Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl

Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl are the authors of the new book, The History of Modern Fashion (September 2015), and they were gracious enough to answer a few questions about their new publication from Laurence King, the publishing process, and their vision for the book. Nancy Deihl was my advisor in graduate school at NYU’s program in Visual Culture Costume Studies and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share her work. This new book covers the history of fashion from 1850-2010 and is lavishly illustrated. It’s a must have for fashion historians, students, and enthusiasts (and with the holiday’s approaching would make a great gift!)

How did the book, as a project begin, and develop? How long did it take to research, write and publish?

The publisher, Laurence King, based in London, approached the fashion design department at FIT about the possibility of a fashion history book. Daniel teaches in that department and was definitely interested in the opportunity and asked me to join him.  It took us over six years to research and write and have it brought to print.”

My assumption is that you intend it to be used as a fashion history textbook with some cross over appeal to the general market. How do you see it’s ‘place’ in the world? Especially in comparison to other fashion history survey’s out there (such as Tortora or Mendes/de la Haye)?

The History of Modern Fashion works well for textbook use. We organized the book using a decades approach, knowing that that’s how many (if not most) instructors organize the material for a course on modern fashion.  And we start with 1850 because that’s also a typical marker for a class.  The 1850s and 60s were notable in terms of developments of the designer system and also technologies, both important for laying the groundwork for 20th century fashion.

We also made sure to include subheadings, a glossary, and really explicit captions so every word is an opportunity to inform!  We feel – and the feedback we’ve gotten so far backs this up – that it fills a niche for lots of different levels of instruction.  The general public seems to be enthusiastic as well.  I spoke at an NYU alumni event last week – and as you know Steinhardt alums range from musicians to physical therapists – and there was a fantastic response to the book!”

Six hundred images is a LOT! How did the image selection/research/publication process go?

Yes, 600 images is a lot.  Images are crucial to this project so we are grateful that everyone at LK understood that.  We were very lucky that the picture editor, Heather Vickers, who has done a number of books for LK, was extremely imaginative and just wonderful to work with.  We did lots of sleuthing and had a wish list and although not every picture we wanted was traceable (or affordable) the results are extremely satisfying! And the Special Collections department at FIT was instrumental in helping with images – making many, many available to us.”

Anything in particular you’d like your fellow historians to know about this book, the process, or the research?

This was a big project.  We learned so much along the way – not just about fashion history but about research and collaboration and communication. We certainly got to know each other very well through this collaborative process.  At the beginning we were colleagues who were only slightly acquainted; by the end of the process we could finish each others’ sentences!!

One of our favorite aspects of the writing is the ‘sidebars’ that are part of each chapter – self-contained, fun (we hope!) profiles of memorable characters and fashion ‘stories.’”

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