Guest Review: Paris, Capital of Fashion

By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

The ambitious goal of trying to fit the whole history of Paris fashion into one exhibition was always doomed to fail. Paris, Capital of Fashion (on view to January 4, 2020) at the Museum of FIT isn’t a lazy show by any means, but it’s an uneven one and—much like the boulevards of Paris itself—spirals out in a lot of different directions.

Worth & Bobergh, Blue ribbed silk ball gown, 1866-67, France, Lent by The Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Richard H.L. Sexton and Eric H.L. Sexton, 1962.

There is, as the French say, un embarras de richesses. Standouts include an eighteenth-century corset and panier; a rare Worth & Bobergh crinolined gown; an equally recherché Christian Dior gown designed for Lucien Lelong before launching his own couture house in 1947; a lacy Chanel LBD; and a Madame Grès goddess dress I hadn’t seen before (naturellement, it’s in Hamish Bowles’ collection). The black and white gown Yves Saint Laurent designed for Dior—worn by Dovima in Richard Avedon’s famous 1955 photo with elephants at a Paris circus—is here, as is John Galliano’s hooped Marie-Antoinette gown for Dior, shown on the runway on a model with powdered hair and red slashes on her neck.

18th-century French inspired dress in black velvet with wide border of gold metallic lace; appliqué; sequins and tassels; boned décolleté bodice with flared sleeves; skirt with wide panniers and train; costume for Gladys George in “Marie Antoinette.” Adrian, film costume worn by Gladys George in the MGM film Marie Antoinette, 1938, USA. The Museum at FIT, 70.8.2

But there are just as many missteps and missed opportunities. Christian Lacroix merged the exuberant spirit of the Belle Epoque with ‘80s excess, but the only Lacroix gown in the show is a snooze. An over-the-top film costume from 1938’s Marie-Antoinette feels out of place among all the couture pieces. The French fashion vernacular has been so widely disseminated that it’s fair to assume that visitors will immediately connect Stephen Jones’s corset-inspired top hat for Dior with an historic precedent (like the Mainbocher corset in Horst P. Horst’s 1939 photo) even if no such corset is on display. But other references may be more obscure. There are contemporary embroidered coats for women inspired by eighteenth-century menswear, but the only actual eighteenth-century embroidered coats are upstairs in the Minimalism/Maximalism show.  

Some of the most iconic objects have been exhibited elsewhere in New York in recent memory, including an eighteenth-century doll’s grand habit from the Fashion Museum in Bath that was a centerpiece of last year’s Visitors to Versailles show at the Met, and Charles Frederick Worth’s “Spirit of Electricity” gown, on loan from the Museum of the City of New York. The latter may have been made in Paris, but it tells a quintessential New York story: it was worn to Alva Vanderbilt’s masquerade ball in 1883 and alluded to the recent electrifying of the city’s streets. A red -feathered Chanel evening cape looks like an afterthought from the museum’s Fairy Tale Fashion show. It’s always nice to see old friends, but these re-wears give the show an unwelcome sense of déjà vu, and one can’t help wishing that these fragile if famous objects had been spared in favor of seldom-seen treasures. There’s a lot of Jean-Paul Gaultier and John Galliano but only one Jacques Fath and one Jacques Heim, and there are major gaps in the early twentieth-century timeline. (To fill them in, head uptown to the Bard Graduate Center Gallery’s meaty and meditative French Fashion, Women, and the First World War.)

The show may be centered on Paris but, thematically, it’s all over the place. It’s an unfortunate consequence of the museum’s awkward configuration that the show opens with a parade of largely non-French gowns, illustrating the Parisian influence on international fashion before visitors have actually been to Paris. Here you’ll find a Paris-made Dior dress and its Lord and Taylor knockoff, American gowns modeled in the so-called the Battle of Versailles in 1973, and an authentic Chanel suit displayed alongside its licensed, made-in-the-USA copy, which is not a true copy at all but missing pockets, the quilted lining, and other couture finishing techniques.

Once you get past the disorienting outer gallery, the installation displays the Museum at FIT’s typical visual flair. There’s a platform of voluminous Worth gowns, and an inner room lavishly decorated to evoke the salons and gardens of the Palace of Versailles. A wall of accessories—called articles de Paris in the nineteenth century—includes fin-de-siècle hats, shoes by Christian Louboutin, and Jeff Koons’ Mona Lisa bag for Louis Vuitton. But there are typos in the labels, and a dearth of contextual material like fashion plates, magazines, and photos; for that, you’ll have to turn to the catalogue and the museum’s Fashion Culture podcast series.

In the catalogue, curator Valerie Steele eschews the usual couture-centric “genealogy of genius” narrative—charting the course of couture from Worth through Poiret to Chanel and Dior—and instead sets out to examine the “cultural construction” of Paris fashion through a broader global narrative. She cites Daniel Roche’s definition of a “capital” as a “concentration of power” rather than a physical place; it’s why outsiders often mistake New York for the capital of the U.S., and Los Angeles or San Francisco for the capital of California. Louis XIV recognized that fashion is a potent form of soft power and lent state support to France’s fledgling fashion and textile industries in the seventeenth century, virtually willing them into existence. As fashion journalist Grazia d’Annunzio, a contributor to the catalogue, points out, the Italian fashion industry only enjoyed this kind of official patronage under Fascism.

The court of Versailles—a concentration of political, economic, and aesthetic power if ever there was one—makes a problematic origin story for Paris fashion, however. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was considered the antithesis of Paris; there was a tense fashion standoff between the court and the city. It wasn’t until the château was amalgamated into the greater metropolis, both physically and figuratively, in the twentieth century that it became synonymous with “Paris” in designers’ minds. Pierre Balmain and Dior gave their gowns French names referencing the ancien règime; Elsa Schiaparelli created a blingy black velvet and gold evening cape inspired by the château’s Apollo fountain, included in the exhibition. Versailles has been used in fashion advertising and photoshoots, along with other Parisian landmarks like Eiffel Tower and the Place Vendome. It’s easy to forget that the Battle of Versailles was, first and foremost, a fundraiser to finance the restoration of the palace to its former glory; the Americans may have “won,” but the French got the prize in the form of a refurbished cultural showpiece.

Along with the Sun King and his royal descendants, the prevailing French fashion archetype was (and is) the Parisienne. “The innate taste of Parisian women was often cited as an important reason for the success of Parisian fashion,” Steele writes. If London was grudgingly acknowledged as the capital of menswear, French fashion was synonymous with femininity. This distinction became especially important after World War II, when several rival “fashion capitals” emerged, stepping into the void created by the Nazi occupation of Paris. Meanwhile, in France, foreign-born designers like Mainbocher, Galliano, Azzedine Alaïa, and Guo Pei were acclaimed according to their perceived “French” traits.

The catalogue essays largely focus on the reception and interpretation of Paris fashion in these new centers of soft power, including London, Shanghai, Milan, New York, and Melbourne. It has become a cliché to call a city “the Paris of the East/Midwest/Arabian Peninsula,” but these cities consciously defined or positioned themselves in relation to Paris. While the essays—by an international lineup of scholars including Christopher Breward, Antonia Finnane, and Sophie Kurkdjian—are thought-provoking, they don’t necessarily relate to each other or to the exhibition, and they’re no substitute for a much-needed illustrated checklist of the exhibition pieces.

Paris, Capital of Fashion is on display through January 4, 2020 at the Museum of FIT.


Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. She is the author of several fashion history books, including Fashion Victims and the new book Worn on This Day.

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Flannel Shirt.

By Heather Vaughan Lee

1950s wool flannel blue plaid shirt by Pendleton Woolen Mills of Oregon. Shaun Turpin wore this shirt in the United Kingdom between 1988 and 1990 as a part of a grunge outfit. He donated it to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1994 for their fashion exhibition, Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads & Skaters: Subcultural Style from the Forties to the Nineties. (V&A T.134-1994).

Popular in the Fall and Winter, wool plaid flannel shirts have long been associated with the rugged outdoors of the Pacific Northwest, and in the 1990s came to represent the Grunge music scene that originated in that area. Developed by Pendleton Wollen Mills (in Oregon) in the 1920s, colorful flannel shirts started out represent blue-collar work such as logging, along with outdoor recreation such as hunting and fishing.

The Beach Boys in Pendleton Shirts in the 1960s (via Pendleton).

The Beach Boys, (whose original name had been “The Pendletones”) helped to popularize the Pendelton flannel more widely, especially the Umatilla wool shirt, among California surfers in the 1960s (Pendleton 2019).

The shirt took on new meaning during the 1990s when Grunge music, and vintage, retro, and thrift-store fashions took center stage, thanks in large part to bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Hole. The style was especially popular with members of Generation X, who were young adults and teenagers at the time.

With the 1991 release of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Pearl Jam’s “Ten” album, Grunge (and the requisite flannel shirts) hit the mainstream. Grunge music, Gen Xers, and the flannel shirt took center stage in popular films such as Singles (1992), directed by Cameron Crowe and Reality Bites (1994) directed by Ben Stiller. The films depicted Gen-Xers and band members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney wearing flannel in the Pacific Northwest.

Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon in the 1992 Cameron Crowe film, Singles.
Costume Design by Jane Ruhm .

Fashion designers such as Marc Jacobs (b. 1963), Calvin Klein (b. 1942), and Anna Sui (b. 1964) picked up on the trend and incorporated grunge into their collections in the early 1990s. Grunge style one of the prime examples of the workings of the bottom-up fashion trends of the late-twentieth-century whereby street styles were adopted by designers and clothing manufacturers and then copied massively by the mainstream market.

Marc Jacobs grunge collection for Perry Ellis from Spring 1993.

Among the most newsworthy grunge collection was the Spring 1993 Perry Ellis collection designed by Marc Jacobs. The collection earned Jacobs the nickname “guru of grunge.” He even sent a sample of the collection to Kurt Cobain (of Nirvana) and Courtney Love (of Hole). Love has said,  “Do you know what we did with it? . . .  We burned it..” (Madsen 2013)

By the late 1990s, the grunge era of music had ended, though Grunge-inspired styles returned to runways and streetwear several times during the two decades following the early 1990s. Ironically, twenty-five years later, Grunge fashions have returned as a new ‘retro’ fashion. Marc Jacobs reissued his original 1993 Grunge Collection in November of 2018, complete with a Dr. Martins boots collaboration (Yotka 2018).

This post is one in a series that gives readers a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. It covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

Sources:

Madsen, Susanne. 2013. “The story of Marc Jacobs’ controversial 90s grunge
collection.” Dazed & Confused. August. Accessed August 19, 2019.
https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/16706/1/marc-jacobs-for-perry-ellis.

Yotka, Steff. 2018. “Marc Jacob’s Grunge Collection for Perry Ellis Is Back! See Every Look.” Vogue. November 7. Accessed January 7, 2018. https://www.vogue.com/article/marc-jacobs-perry-ellis-grunge-collection-reissue-lookbook.

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Eisenhower Jacket

By Heather Vaughan Lee

This post is one in a series that gives readers a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. It covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.


Olive drab “Eisenhower” U.S. Army Field jacket, worn by Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II and was made sometime between 1944 and 1947. Kansas Historical Society, 1983.3975.1.1

The Eisenhower jacket (also known as the M-44, the “Ike” Jacket, ETO jacket (European Theater of Operations) and officially, the “Wool Field Jacket M-1944”) was first issued by the Army in November 1944 . It had been developed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and his tailor, Sgt. Michael Popp (1905-1968) during World War II (1939-1945). The Jacket became standard issue and along with other military clothing, inspired civilian clothing and uniform styles.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives (63-92) https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2014/11/11/the-ike-jacket/

Eisenhower and his tailor, Sgt. Michael Popp (1905-1968), redesigned the standard field jacket into something more practical and attractive. Lacking proper pattern paper, Sgt. Popp had used bedsheets to make the early drafts of the jacket (“A Blouse for Ike.” 1951, 3). It was completed in March of 1943. It would become “a coveted jacket popularized by one of the war’s most-photographed personalities” (Blount 2001). Eisenhower was so pleased with the job Sgt. Popp had done that he awarded him a bronze star (“A Blouse for Ike.” 1951, 3). Popp remained on Eisenhower’s staff until he was discharged in December 1945.

“A Blouse for Ike.”1951. Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) 24 Jun, 3. https://www.newspapers.com/image/402234982/?terms=Popp%2BEisenhower

In June 1951, Popp noticed that Eisenhower was still wearing his old uniforms and designed him a Summer new one (using measurements from memory). The jacket was to be hand-delivered by Popp’s wife.

About a month later, Ike’s gratitude for the gift was reported in the local newspaper, with an additional note that “Sgt. Popp doesn’t know it, but I’m a little bigger around the waist than I was during World War II. I may have to reduce a little.” (“Ike to Reduce to Fit Suit.” 1951)

The Army continued to issue the Ike jacket until 1956, when they began phasing it out, and was completely gone from inventory by October 1960 (Parkinson 2014). After President Dwight D. Eisenhower died in 1969, he was buried in an M-44 jacket in Abilene, Kansas (Parkinson 2014).

You can learn more about the Ike jacket, military uniforms, and how military dress influenced both mens and women’s fashion during wartime, in Artifacts from American Fashion, now available for pre-order.

Sources:

“A Blouse for Ike.” 1951. Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) 24 Jun, 3. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.newspapers.com/image/402234982/?terms=Popp%2BEisenhower

“Ike to Reduce to Fit Suit.” 1951. Dayton Daily News. July 1. Pg 78. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.newspapers.com/image/402227463/?terms=Popp%2BEisenhower

“Jacket Uniform.” N.d. Kansas Historical Society. Accessed October 30, 2018. http://www.kshs.org/museum/musobjs/view/307342

Blount, Jim. 2001. “Michael Popp, Hamilton tailor, created popular Eisenhower jacket.” Journal-News (Ohio) Wednesday, July 4. Accessed October 29, 2018. http://www.20thcenturygi.com/index.php?topic=145.0;wap2.

Parkinson, Hilary. 2014. “The Ike Jacket.” National Archives Pieces of History Blog. November 11. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2014/11/11/the-ike-jacket/


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Great War

By Heather Vaughan Lee

In the coming weeks and months, I’m planning to give you a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. Some of you might recognize some of the research and topics from my #52weeksoffashion tag on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. The book covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.

World War I, originally known as the Great War, was the defining event of the early twentieth century. Primarily a European conflict, it was fought between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied forces (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, and Japan). United States President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) did his best to keep America out of the war until 1917.

The end of this War to end all Wars” falls on November 11, 1918 (originally known as Armistice Day) and it is why we have Veterans Day as a Federal Holiday on November 11 each year.

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.
“Brodie” style World War I combat helmet, 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, active between 1917-1918. (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture).

In Artifacts from American Fashion, several of the entries discuss the impact of WWI on the daily lives of Americans. The World War I Combat Helmet (see above) not only explores the development of the “Brodie” style helmet, American wartime economy and culture, but also highlights what returning soldiers experienced at the end of the war. By the time the war ended in 1918, the United States had solidified its role as a world power. Many citizens wanted to return to the peaceful years of isolation before the war, but that was not to be. The returning soldiers had seen parts of the world that most Americans had never visited. Women who had taken on traditionally male tasks and jobs during the war were not interested in returning to a role that limited them to the kitchen and soon would gain the right to vote.

More significantly, the entry takes a deep dive into the experiences of the 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, a segregated African American Division comprised of four infantry regiments active between 1917-1918. Despite Jim Crow segregation, and their initial assignment to menial labor duties, the 369th Division of the 93rd earned the nickname, “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were awarded medals by the French, but their own American government failed to acknowledge their sacrifices. The 93rd Division began the journey home in late January 1919, arriving back to the United States in mid-February. The 369th Infantry had the honor of marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City before being demobilized on February 28 at Camp Upton, New York.

Another entry focuses on women’s experiences of World War I by taking a closer look at an American Red Cross Uniform. Although the early war years in Europe affected the United States and its industries, its own declaration of war began a major shift in women’s daily lives. Filling jobs left vacant by men serving on the front lines, many women began working outside the home for the first time. The idea of patriotism also grew tremendously, and women’s humanitarian efforts increased dramatically in support of the boys ‘over there’ (Benton 1994, 56-57).

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.

Recognizing that patriotism was high, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) asked his fellow Americans to contribute their time and energy to the Red Cross relief effort. Millions responded by offering their voluntary support.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American Red Cross had 8,000 trained nurses ready for duty. Its Nursing Program had produced 20,000 registered nurses by 1918. World War I and its demands helped the fledgling organization grow. After the United States declared war demands flooded the still-small organization.

If a woman wasn’t out working, it was her duty to economize in her household. Excess expenditure was considered unpatriotic. Patriotism was even exhibited in the details of women’s clothing: more obviously through military-inspired styles and more subtly through the lens of economy via wool conservation and home sewing. The growing responsibilities women had during World War I directly influenced their desire for greater rights and freedoms in the post-war era. It emboldened them to fight for their right of representation, and they had gained the right to vote by 1920.

For more on how Americans’ daily lives were affected by World War I, see Artifacts from American Fashion (available November 30, 2019).

Sources:

“The American National Red Cross.” 1917. The Ladies Home Journal. September.

“Combat helmet from World War I used by the 93rd Infantry.” N.d. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Division. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2011.155.298

Doering, Mary D. 1979. “American Red Cross Uniforms”. Dress. 5 (1): 33-48.

King. Gilbert. 2011. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called ‘Black Death.’ Smithsonian Magazine. October 25. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/#jDBb4mevkKsQHLE5.99

Patton, James. 2018. “The Brodie Helmet.” Kansas WW1. February 28. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.kansasww1.org/the-brodie-helmet/


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

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New in Print: A mysterious set of silver knitting needles

By Heather Vaughan Lee

While working as part of the curatorial staff on the 2017 exhibition Material Culture: Form, Function & Fashion at Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum, I became fascinated with a small silver case containing six steel double-pointed knitting needles.

Mrs. Hepsibeth Gardner Edwards, wife of David N. Edwards, 1860s (Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association)

The set of six size-two needles is kept in a Nantucket-made silver case engraved with a name and date, “Hepsibeth A. Edwards, 1840.” A fascinating history revealed itself as I researched the needles. The stories that surround the set reveal a complex web of politics, religion, industry, handcraft, and creativity in our ancestors’ daily lives. Discovering how these knitting needles and others like them were used, by whom, and why provided insights into our collective cultural history as well as inspiration for some fun knitting projects.

I’m thrilled to share that my research on these needles, along with a complimentary pattern for my adaptation of a vintage Sunflower pincushion, have just been published in the Winter issue of Piecework Magazine (Long Thread Media).


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

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Iconic Career Fashion of the 1980s at Turtle Bay (Redding, CA)

By Heather Vaughan Lee

A rare opportunity to curate a fashion exhibition of objects held and worn by local collector presented itself to me back in April, and I jumped at it. Now an exhibit at Turtle Bay Exploration Park and Museum, and in collaboration with the Redding Fashion Alliance, the exhibition explores the 1980s high fashion career-wear of local Redding resident Aleta Carpenter.

Carpenter’s private collection includes iconic examples from the 1980s and early 1990s by major designers such as Valentino, Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, and Judith Leiber. It includes a ball gown, a dinner dress, finely tailored suits, as well as hats, shoes, and beautiful handbags. On view through January 12, 2020, this Iconic Fashion exhibit focuses on the excesses of the 1980s, women’s growing role in the workforce, and how couture and high fashion responded to the growing American career woman. Presenting new research, the exhibit also explores the popularity of the Southern California couture boutique Amen Wardy. Overall, the pieces reflect the culture and economy of that time, and also have stories to tell about California politics and fashion history.

Aleta Carpenter, at the opening of Iconic Fashion Exhibit at Turtle Bay, September 2019.

Aleta Carpenter (B. 1946) was a Sacramento lobbyist at a time when there were only a handful of female lobbyists in California (in the mid-1970s). Her career developed along with her wardrobe of professional attire. And she grew to understand that clothing could communicate ideas and change perceptions, including how women were viewed in the workplace. Her professional wardrobe evolved into an iconic collection of demi-couture and ready-to-wear. By wearing these fashions in the California State Capitol, to important political events, and to social functions, she gained a reputation as one of the best-dressed women in the Capitol.

The American economy was strong in the 1980s, and more women were entering the workforce. Fashion designers recognized their need for appropriate professional, yet stylish, attire that displayed their economic power and status. Those who could afford it spent extravagantly on luxury goods. Chanel suits, Rolex watches, Gucci shoes, Judith Leiber bags, and designer denim have since become iconic symbols of 1980s prosperity.

Power Suits and Chanel in the 1980s

The United States became increasingly status-conscious during this time. Fashion insiders and designers had discovered the professional woman. Clothing became ostentatious as Americans began “dressing for success.” The baby boom generation flourished during the economic growth of Ronald Reagan’s conservative presidency. The new business wear standard for working women became the man-tailored power suit, reflecting her economic and professional power. The 1980s silhouette featured the strong shoulders and narrow waistline that defined the power suit.

The classic Chanel suit would become an icon of modernity, with a weighted chain in the jacket hemline, perfect tailoring, and luxurious finishings and fabrics. It became a symbol of status and power in American popular culture.

Chanel Boutique, 1989, France
Aleta Carpenter Collection
Vogue, May 1989, “Fashion: The New Summer Standard.”

Beginning in 1983, Karl Lagerfeld (German, 1935-2019) took over as head designer for Chanel, bringing a youthful flare to the traditions of the brand. Included in the exhibit is a Lagerfeld-designed Chanel suit that was featured in a Vogue fashion editorial in May 1989, “Fashion: The New Summer Standard.” The article drew connections between class, power dressing for women in business, as well as the tradition of wearing white cotton in the summer heat. The following year, actress Julia Roberts appeared in a remarkably similar costume in the film Pretty Woman (1990), custom-made in the style of Chanel, by costume designer Marilyn Vance (watch for it in the clip below at the 45-second mark).

Another 1980s Lagerfeld for Chanel suit, made of denim, reflects the creation and rising popularity of designer denim, which transformed the traditional workwear into an exclusive luxury fashion. In the mid-1980s, high fashion designers including Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jean-Paul Gaultier included denim skirts and jean jackets on the runway. Lagerfeld got much attention for his use of denim beginning in 1984 as a part of his strategy to appeal to a more youthful customer. Women’s Wear Daily put this suit by Lagerfeld on the cover of its September 26, 1986 issue to preview for Chanel’s Spring 1987 ready-to-wear show in France.

Chanel Boutique Suit, Spring 1987, France
Purchased at Amen Wardy
Aleta Carpenter Collection
Women’s Wear Daily cover, September 26, 1986 (preview of Chanel’s Spring 1987 ready-to-wear show in France).

High Fashion in California: Amen Wardy and Fashion Island

Sajbel, Maureen. “Amen Wardy: Couture in California,” WWD, March 3, 1987, 28.

Due to many social and political events and commitments, a revamp of my wardrobe was in order. I fell in love with a Bob Mackie dress I saw in Vogue, and my daughter-in-law suggested that Amen Wardy was probably the only place in Orange County I might find it. I didn’t, but Amen and I struck up a lovely friendship because I wore his clothes so well (and was such a good customer!). Visits to his shop became an afternoon’s entertainment as Amen served us champagne in his private dressing room and brought out racks of clothes for me to try.”– Aleta Carpenter

The Amen Wardy Boutique at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, CA was a glamorous mecca for haute couture shoppers seeking exclusive labels. Oscar de La Renta, Chanel, Valentino, Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, James Galanos, Bill Blass, and Bob Mackie designs were shown during weekly fashion shows in his 2,300 square-foot mini-ballroom.

Sajbel, Maureen O. “The Wonder World of Amen Wardy,” WWD, February 4, 1985., 11.

After opening his first boutique in 1977, he moved to Fashion Island in 1982. Socialites and celebrities such as Joan Collins, Joan Rivers and, even the famous accessories designer Judith Leiber, all flocked to his boutique. He featured a Chanel Boutique in 1984, quickly expanded to a 31,000 square foot space, and had a steady Valentino ready-to-wear clientele by 1987. By 1988, his customers regularly traveled from across the country to frequent his shop.

One client noted, “You’re treated like a queen, and he remembers what you have in your closet.” According to the Los Angeles Times, “the bulk of Wardy’s best customers, are mature, social women of a certain age and an advanced level of financial security; women accustomed to service, at home and elsewhere.”

I absolutely adored working on this project, and hope to build on my initial research. If you happen to find yourself in the far Northern California area, please visit the show, and let me know what you think!


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »


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The Motorcycle Jacket: From Mussolini to knitwear and biker gangs to toddler styles?

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“Sportswear Knitted Fashions: Ski Coats Copy Mussolini’s Motorcycle Jacket Or Fan-Shaped Yokes.” 1933. Women’s Wear Daily, Sep 01, 12.

Sometimes I come across the strangest things while doing research. Many are aware of the more traditional elements of the history of the Motorcycle jacket, and its association with twentieth-century rebellion, youth, and masculinity.

Its history lies in World War I and aviation attire, but the standard asymmetrical motorcycle jacket style was defined in the late 1920s with a Schott Brothers design called the “Perfecto” (Schott 2019). They were the first to put a zipper on a jacket, and the look took hold. Hollywood films of the 1950s, combined with rock-and-roll style solidified the image of the tough, rebellious biker with slicked-back hair, spawning the greaser trend. By the 1970s the black leather jacket was being used by New York City Punk musicians and gay subcultures who added studs, chains, safety pins and other personalization’s. It is an iconic representation of twentieth-century American culture.

However, I recently unearthed two odd tidbits about the motorcycle jacket’s trajectory:

Did you know that Mussolini’s Motorcycle Jacket impacted knitwear styles in 1933? Or that you could clothe your 2-year-old in a Marlon-Brando-Perfecto-Style leather motorcycle jacket as early as 1955?

Apparently, after Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (1883- 1945), Italy’s Fascist leader, appeared in American newspapers and newsreels inspecting and leading 10,000 of his troops in a celebratory parade from a motorcycle in late May of 1933, Bradley Knitting Company (of Delavan, Wisconsin) began producing skiwear inspired by his look. Mussolini motorcycle coats were made of beige and brown wool with metal buttons with a matching knit cap.

And then there’s this square-looking six-year-old in a tie-wearing the more recognizable version of an ‘authentic’ motorcycle jacket in 1955 by Los Angeles-based, California Sportswear. . .

“Children’s Wear —Toddlers through Teens: Motorcycle Jacket.” 1955. Women’s Wear Daily, Jul 20, 50.

Schott, Perfecto jacket, black leather, circa 1980, USA. Museum purchase, P89.29.1. (Museum at FIT)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Mussolini is warmly applauded when he leads a rally at Rome driving his own motorcycle Date: May 1933

Further Information:

“Children’s Wear —Toddlers through Teens: Motorcycle Jacket.” 1955. Women’s Wear Daily, Jul 20, 50. Accessed April 1, 2019. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/1523286761?accountid=12536.

DeLong, Marilyn, and Juyeon Park. 2008. “From Cool to Hot to Cool: The Case for the Black Leather Jacket.” In The Men’s Fashion Reader, edited by Andrew Reilly and Sarah Cosbey, 166–179. New York: Fairchild Books.

Duffy, Keanan. 2009. Rebel, Rebel: Anti-Style. New York: Universe Publishing.

Podolsky, Jeffrey. 2014. “Cruising the History of Biker Jackets.” New York Times Magazine. March 4. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/…/on-view-cruising-the-history-of-biker-jackets/

Schott. 2019. “The Classic American Success Story.” Accessed April 1, 2019. https://www.schottnyc.com/about.cfm


Heather Vaughan Lee  is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is forthcoming in 2020 from ABC-CLIO.  More posts by the Author »

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Revisiting a “mini history of the maxi dress”

Jezebel is re-promoting a maxi dress article they published in 2015 that mentions something I’d written on the subject from 2008.  The 1,000+ comments (and counting) on that post are a gold-mine in terms of how attitudes have changed in just four short years.) In the nearly 11 years since I wrote on the maxi, the dress has maintained its perennial prominence in the summer zeitgeist. In my article for Monica Sklar’s former Worn Through blog, I said

Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya in “Dr. Zhivago”. Phyllis Dalton received an Oscar in 1965 for best costume designer.

“One of the earliest appearances of the “Maxi-Dress” was in 1968. The New York Times highlighted a cotton lace version by Oscar de La Renta he created for Elizabeth Arden Salon. More notable designers such as YSL, Dior, Cardin, Biba, Halston, and others would latch on to the style as well. Maxi-lengthed skirts had begun to outdo the mini skirt in 1967, and the dress (as well as the maxi coat) soon followed. Maxi styles quickly grabbed hold in London. Doctor Zhivago (1965) is often credited with igniting the craze for the Maxi style (along with the tandem trend for ‘Midi’ style skirts) due to its use of large flared coats over suit trousers. However, it was not until the 1970s that the maxi dress lodged itself firmly in the American mind (in all its polyester splendor), along with similar caftan and boho styles. By the late 1970s, it had become associated with the unfashionable and out of date (such as Mrs. Roper on Three’s Company)”

But there is more to this story than that, as I recently found out.

As I noted in 2008, the maxi style in general, got its start in popular culture with Doctor Zhivago in 1965. Set in pre-revolutionary Russia, costume designer Phyllis Dalton created  “Cossack blouses with neckband collars and wide billowy sleeves, and coats trimmed with fur from head to toe; and the maxi, or ankle-length, skirt” (Halsey 1986, 595). The film was released theatrically on Dec 22, 1965.

A short seven days later, on December 29, 1965, a little-known Parisian couturier named Jacques Syma photographed what might be considered an early version of a maxi dress as a part of his forthcoming spring collection.

Geraldine Chaplin in “Doctor Zhivago” 1965 MGM Cinema Publishers Collection

Dec. 29, 1965 – Noticing her youth and charm, Jacques Syma chose Laura Ulmer, daughter of the famous author and composer Georges Ulmer, as his inspiration for his Spring collection. ”Merida”, a long toile sleeveless dress with a large stripe along the hemline and a smaller stripe higher up, is low-cut in the back. (Credit Image: Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS)

In March 1966, the Paris Spring collections appeared in Vogue magazine, and the cover showed Barbra Streisand in a floral print maxi. Inside, Paris showed off its Spring couture in a fashion feature photographed by Richard Avedon, and including many long dresses worn by models and actresses Jean Shrimpton, Marisa Berenson, Minnie Cushing, Françoise Rubartelli and Geraldine Chaplain (one of the stars of Doctor Zhivago) designed by Balmain, Lanvin, and Ricci. (“Fashion: THE YUM-YUM TREE IN PARIS.” 1966. and Delvin 1966). These dresses were in stark contrast to the mini-skirts and micro-mini’s popular at the time.

Lanvin and Ricci designed long dresses from Vogue, March 1966.

One of the first time the word ‘maxi’ appeared in American newspapers was a July 1966 syndicated report from Paris focused on Jacques Syma‘s collection that included the micro-mini skirt and its counterpart the maxi skirt. It appeared in newspapers across the United States (De la Fontaine 1966), helping to spread the style(s) further. Laura Ulmer, Syma’s counter-part was a model, singer, and YeYe Girl (Young, camp-y, French Pop icons of the 1960s)  (Deluxe 2013).

The New York Times later explained that the maxi began “gaining ground” alongside the mini on the streets of New York and Paris beginning in 1966 (Emerson 1968, E4). It became a part of the 1960s Youthquake and had been established in the mainstream by the 1970s. Some might argue that it’s trajectory and popularity coincided with the feminist movement of the era. It would make sense then, to see it re-emerge (and have staying power) in the current cultural climate.


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her new book, Artifacts from American Fashion is forthcoming in 2020 from ABC-CLIO.  More posts by the Author »

 

 

Further Information:

Halsey, William Darrach and Emanuel Friedman. 1986. Collier’s Encyclopedia, with Bibliography and Index, Volume 9. Macmillan Educational Company. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://books.google.com/books?id=KMUJAAAAIAAJ&q=Dr.+zhivago+maxi+dress&dq=Dr.+zhivago+maxi+dress&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiA9pGj9a_hAhUTO30KHX_tDlcQ6AEIPjAE.

“Fashion: THE YUM-YUM TREE IN PARIS.” 1966. Vogue, Mar 15, 78-78, 79, 80, 81. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/897870673?accountid=12536.

Devlin, Polly. 1966. “Fashion & Features: INSTANT BARBRA.” Vogue, Mar 15, 68-68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 152, 154. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/897870648?accountid=12536.

de la Fontaine, Yvette. 1966. “Hemlines are Long-long, Short-short.” Women’s News Service. July 22. https://www.newspapers.com/image/144995582/?terms=%22Maxi%2Bskirt%22

de la Fontaine, Yvette.1966. “‘Ye-Ye’ Modes Favorites in Paris.” Women’s News Service. Jan. 16. https://www.newspapers.com/image/144160376/?terms=%22Jacques%2BSyma%22

Emerson, Gloria. 1968. “Fashion: Alas! The Poor Mini.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Feb 04, 1. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/118326156?accountid=12536.

Deluxe, Jean-Emmanuel. 2013. Yé-yé!: the girls of ’60s & ’70s French pop music. Los Angeles, California: Feral House.

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Survey says: A 1907-1908 Callot Soeurs Thought Experiment

There is always an ongoing debate as to weather fashion is art. Because it serves a function, many would argue that it does not fall into the art category. I disagree. I decided to do an experiment with a select group of fashion scholars who would be asked to look at a gown, be given minimal information about it, and asked to report what ‘art and social’ movements they saw represented.

The results were fascinating.

The Experiment:

I wanted to not only see if there would be consensus, but also to get a ‘snapshot’ of current thinking and assumptions among academics in the field. The dress I choose was this Callot Soeurs from 1907-1908, owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the American “Dollar Princesses” and at one time the richest Woman in America. The dress is held in the Hillwood Museum  collection.

The dress seemed to have a lot going on, and served my purpose well. I provided three images of the dress, the designer, the date: That was all. The survey was supplied to the Costume Society of America members-only listserve and an online academic Facebook group dedicated to the study of fashion history. These were people I considered my colleauges: knowledgable and honest. I wanted their own understanding of early 20th Century fashion and history to dictate their responses. I had my own thoughts and conclusions about the dress, but I was eager for a ‘group think.’

 

First, I asked:

And then I asked, “Why?” I provided no definition of terms, on purpose. I didn’t want my bias to interrupt their own understanding and perception. As responses began to come in, I added a place for people to include their names, as well as any comments they had.

The Response

The responses came in slowly over about a 24 hour period. 25 people responded, and some supplied comments in an extra ‘comment’ field to ask questions. The online debate started almost immediately, which was thrilling.

The response confirmed most of my assumptions about the style of the dress, but many new and interesting points were brought to my attention, via the “Why.” Some seemed far fetched, or stretching. Some seemed bang on. Here are a few of the arguments:

The lily-shape of the skirt and the curves of the bodice are emblematic of the “organic” shapes of Art Nouveau, and the colors and embroidery seem like classic Aesthetic dress.”

Some of the forms seem to reflect the curvilinear/flora forms of art nouveau. On the other hand there is a geometry to some of it that suggests the arts/crafts influence. The suggestion of hand work details around the top also seem to connect to arts/craft”

The feather-image embroidery, and some of the few geometric details are reminiscent of native american inspired motifs. The panel across the breast seems vaguely suggestive of a thunder-bird image.”

While this does look like it is embracing the more relaxed style of artistic/aesthetic dress and the more movement-friendly designs championed by dress reformers, I wonder usually associate those both with specific ideology and something that is hard to pin down without more information (who owned it, how it is constructed). I think the surface design does reflect art nouveau aesthetics, which seems to be more of a style and easily identifiable from just looking at images.”

It [Rococo revival] was a very prevalent trend. Look in Les Modes and other magazines at the time and you will see portraits from the 1770s and 80s reproduced, such as Antoinette, and Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. Also not the hair and the hat size, and compact that with the 1780s.”

Artistic is a guess, but how else does one explain such over-the-top decoration. The light blue embroidery looks more like Rococo than Art Nouveau. URI has a collection of fabrics with some Rococo Revival designs.”

The wheat shelves are often used in banners and flags, coats of arms, etc. The wheat sheif is often held in the talons of an eagle or held in the arms of the goddess. The wheat can also symbolize the workers. That is the political. Some of the elements make reference to military dress. The breast plate, the stripes, the two embroidered pendants at the front of the skirt. The ribbonwork on the bodice.”

 

Click here for the full results of the survey (as a spreadsheet).

I’m eager to hear what others think of this little thought experiment, and am hopeful this post generate additional debate and conversation. What did you see in the dress? What did you agree with or disagree with? The responses were so varied, and people saw so many different elements within the dress, it seems it must be art.

Art is in the eye of the beholder, no?

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Knitting Water

Song of the Sea (2014)

Triple spiral visible on entrance stone at Newgrange, a prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland (built during the Neolithic period, around 3200 BC, “making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.”)

My current obsession — at least knitting-wise — has to do with fabrics and textiles whose stitch patterns seem to suggest water (spirals and waves) and those that resemble scales (as in mermaids and other water creatures).

I’m in the early stages of researching this kind of stitch patterning in the history of knitting – and while my initial instinct was to assume Celtic and Nordic traditions, Japanese and Chinese influences are quickly (and clearly) showing their relevance.

My interest and inspiration derives from an odd confluence of things: The current exhibit at Turtle Bay Exploration Park, “Mythic Creatures” from the American Museum of Natural History (which includes Mermaids, and other sea creatures); the animated Irish film, “Song of the Sea” (which tells a story of Celtic Selkies or seal-people, and which includes beautiful examples of Celtic spirals); and a knitting tradition in my brother-in-laws family, which includes a stitch pattern resembling waves. So far, my knitting has only ventured into the depiction of waves/scales (by spirals may be next).

My reworked version of “Song of the Sea” pattern by Louise Zass-Bangham.

Early stages of a project reproducing a baby bootie pattern first published in 1907.

It’s a fascination that I may not be able to fully satisfy, though seeking out different variations of wave patterns (over time ) and in different ountries has proven interesting and eye-opening. Asian countries such as China and Japan also rely on water for their livelihood, and even more clear representations come in the form of modern shadow-puppets (in China), historic Kimono designs in Japan (notably the Seigaiha Symbol).

Do you have an example to share that I’ve not considered? Please share in the comments below!

Beijing, China, (2009), Oxhide, iron, cotton, Wood, dye, tung Oil (American Museum of Natural History) currently on view at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, CA

Tsuba with design of seigaiha and other small paterns, Japanese Edo period Late 18th–early 19th century, MFA Boston

 

 

 

 

 

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