Books in Brief: “Unravel: Knitwear in Fashion”

Bathing suit by Elsa Schiaparelli, c. 1928 (c) Condé Nast Archive / CORBIS

Lannoo Publishers recently released a new book on the history of knitwear titled, Unravel: Knitwear in Fashion by Emmanuelle Dirix. Dirix teaches costume history at the fashion department of the Antwerp Academy and the book was published to coincide with an exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp (on view through August 14). Articles on the exhibition have already come out from A Shaded View and Dazed Digital. For more on the exhibit, check out this interview with MoMu’s curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven.

The catalog, however, is a hidden gem that could easily slip under the radar of many a fashion historian. It is printed in both English and Dutch, and includes a dozen essays covering various aspects of knitwear history as well as interviews with current knitwear designers and artists (including Sandra Backlund) . I am particular fond of the essays “Drop One, Pick Up Two, Drop One” by Emmanuelle Dirix ,  “Knitting for Victory” by Jane Tynan and “Twinset and Match” by Alistair O’Neill.

Swimsuits on exhibit from 1910-1955 (including McCardell, Gernreich) See below for close ups of these suits.

Dirix’s essay traces the history of knitwear from home knitting and ‘hobby culture’ in the arts and crafts movement through Chanel and Schiaparelli and Patou’s use of knitwear for sportswear and into the use of surrealism and trompe le’oeil sweaters of the 1930s. Her research continues through WWII, post-war era of refinement and into the youth rebellion designers of Mary Quant, Rudi Gernreich and Biba (among others). Her essay leaves off suggesting that the 1980s and 1990s held the “most shocking and subversive knitwear chapter in history” due to the ad campaigns by Italian knitwear label Benetton and its use of racial politics, the Aids epidemic and child labor to shock viewers.

Jane Tynan‘s essay “Kniting for Victory: Military Chic in Fashion Knitwear” tackles one of my favorite topics – knitting ‘comforts’ during wartime. Of particular interest is a booklet discussed in her essay titled “Women & War: How to Knit and Crochet Articles necessary to the Health and Comfort of our Soldiers and Sailors” (1914-1918). “In Twinset and Match: The Culture of the Twinset” by Alistair O’Neill, addresses the development of the iconic image of the woman in a twinset – including the work of Pringle of Scotland, hollywood starlets and the pre-war and post-war context of the sweatergirl. I should also mention the essays by Lydia Kamitsis (“Knitwear in French Fashion: From Gabrielle Chanel to Sonia Rykiel” and Joanne Turney: (“Dressing Like Grandad: Geek Chic and the Significance of the Cardigan in Contemporary Menswear.”)

This book is a gem, and features excellent writing by a number of authorities from an amazing array of viewpoints. If like me, you can’t make it to exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp before August 14, the catalog makes up for it in spades:









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Janet Gaynor and Gilbert Adrian Dancing (1939)

1939: "Janet Gaynor and Adrian Married. Hollywood, California: Pictured as they recently danced here are film star Janet Gaynor and Gilbert Adrian, Hollywood fashion expert. The couple are Mr. and Mrs. now for they motored to Yuma, Arizona and were married there August 14th. The couple are en route to Mexico for a honeymoon." (Corbis)



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Guest Post: Monica Murgia on California Playclothes

Today, I’m sharing with you a guest post by former California resident Monica Murgia. Murgia is a fellow fashion studies blogger, college fashion design teacher and a graduate of the FIT program, Fashion & Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice. This short article is based on a research presentation Murgia gave in May 2011 to the California American Studies Association annual conference.

Los Angeles-based fashion designers have a distinct style, much different than their New York counterparts.  This April, Reuters noted:The City of Angels has carved out a niche for itself as a host for casual brands like American Apparel and as a manufacturer of quick-turnaround ‘fast fashion’ and small orders for emerging designers.  Fashion is the city’s largest manufacturing industry, and employs more people here than in New York.[1] (1)

This might be a surprising statement for those not familiar with the fashion world.  Most would identify New York as the American fashion capital.  But the fact is, California has long been a fashion leader, and this isn’t the first time the Golden State has eclipsed New York.

Two cataclysmic events, the Great Depression and World War II, created a change in the needs of American women.  The active California lifestyle and the Hollywood film industry both affected the demand for a different style of women’s clothing.  It was during this time that California established itself as a fashion capital.

American film played a large part in showcasing the California fashions in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  The theaters were public places of congregation.  Women would go after work to watch the news and see a feature film.  Hollywood was providing entertainment to help citizens escape their glum realities of economic depression and war. Historically, this was a time when the entire film production took place in California.  Actresses like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West captivated audiences with their style and glamour.  The movie industry, and its costume designers, exerted a direct influence on fashions that were available in stores.

Much like today, when actresses were seen on film, women clamored to imitate their styles. Independent fashion designers and manufacturers began sprouting up throught the Golden State.  Vogue noted the growing power of California on the horizon: “Throughout the 1930s Vogue juggled issues of innovation and ideas with Paris on the one hand and Hollywood on the other, giving equal credence to both camps . . . Paris was working on a seasonal time scale, Hollywood was years in advance.”[2]

It is noteworthy that New York was not mentioned as an innovative fashion capital at the time.  The popularity of the fashions seen in film spurred major department stores to feature pop-up California departments.  However, the California departments were not permanent fixtures of the stores.[3]

California Fashions from 1941 Exude Fun and Youth. Pope, Virginia. California. New York Times: June 22, 1941, D6.

What made California fashion appealing was that it exuded fun, relaxation, and youthfulness.  American women idolized youth, a much different ideal than that of Europe: “How we Americans rebel against looking our age.  The French will trade adolescence for sophistication any day.”[4] The youthful look was achieved by using non-traditional fabrics, like unbleached muslin, and appliqués of flowers and horses.  Youthfulness was, and still is, the most coveted quality of the American look.  Hollywood films had created a young, attractive woman as the national ideal and symbol of patriotism.

The biggest California export during the 1930s was Play Clothes.  Play clothes, or sports togs, originated in California.  As the name suggests, play clothes allowed women freedom of movement while enjoying in activities the outdoors.  They were appealing because they allowed for a lifestyle full of sports, gardening, and sunbathing – all popular activities in the Golden State. Virginia Pope of the New York Times makes it abundantly clear that Californians created and reigned supreme in this casual style:

“It began, if memory does not fail us, when women on the other side of the continent began to wear smocks of muslin in glorious hand-dyed shades over their beach togs or in their gardens.  Some bright mind spied the styles and brought them back to Broadway.  Since then, fashion scouts have been increasingly on the alert and have trekked westward in growing numbers.”[5]

Play clothes were durable, informal, and inexpensive.  They were also easy to wear and wash: “The big idea is to play in togs that are comfortable and at the same time good looking; that are of smart fabrics which will stand hard wear, won’t crush easily, and will bear the rigors of the wash tub or manipulations of the cleaner.”[6]

California Slacks. Vogue: 15 April 1939, 54.

Aside from play clothes, California next biggest export were pants for women.   Pants, or slacks, were much more important for the women of California than the rest of the country.  Travelers to the West came back reporting having seen slack-clad women, well dressed ones, too, on the streets and in the shops of California cities. Clothing manufactures based in California carefully and strategically crafted and advanced the cut and fit of pants.

Pants, or slacks, for women were becoming an accepted wardrobe staple.  However, certain regions were more open-minded to this change.  California was a whole-hearted pioneer.  Other vacation destinations including the Riviera and Palm Beach allowed women to wear pants.  Slacks were not as accepted in northern East Coast cities, like New York and Boston.  Slowly, the traditional dress codes were erodes to allow women to wear pants, although this took decades to be accepted across America.

Each year, American consumers accepted and purchased more California garments.  Designers based in the Golden State brought a youthful elegance to the American Look. The women that flooded the workplace during WWII could also be smartly, and appropriately dressed. Women adopted a more functional wardrobe for work and now indulged in active pastimes.

Although the California may still have to defend its position as a fashion leader, the evidence is quite clear.  Every time a woman wears pants or active wear, it is a legacy of the Golden State.

[2] Watson, Linda.  Vogue Fashion. New York: Firefly Books, 2008, 52.

[3] Pope, Virginia.  “From California”, New York Times. 22 June 1941, D6.

[4] Mulvague, Jane.  Vogue: History of 20th Century Fashion.  London:  Viking, 1988, 151-2.

[5] Pope, Virginia.  California Sports Togs.  New York Times: 18 December 1938, 58.

[6] Pope, Virginia.  Outdoor Frocks Ready for Playtime. New York Times: 17 April 1938, 78.

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Tuesday Teaser: Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Born and educated in San Francisco, Louise Dahl-Wolfe would later work as a staff photographer for Harper’s Bazaar from 1936 through 1958. I recently came upon an extremely detailed account of her life and San Francisco beginnings on from this website (originally published in April 2010):

“Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895 – 1989) was born in San Francisco. Aspiring to a career as a painter, she attended the California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute). . . . After completing her studies, Dahl-Wolfe designed electric signs from 1921 to 1923; in 1924 she began working for a leading decorator. In 1921 she was invited to the studio of photographer Anne Brigman; this meeting prompted her to buy her first camera, an Eastman bellows camera with a reflector made from a Ghirardelli chocolate box. She used her mother as the subject of her first pictures. Early photographic adventures included taking shots of herself and some friends nude on a beach, using the soft-focus style of her mentor. After Dahl-Wolfe befriended another San Francisco photographer, Consuela Kanaga, who taught her to use a 314-by-414-inch Thorn-ton-Pickard English reflex camera with a Verito soft-focus lens, the two traveled together to Europe in 1927. . . .

Dahl-Wolfe returned to San Francisco in 1928 and began taking commercial black-and-white photographs. . . . After moving with her husband to New York, Dahl-Wolfe was introduced to Frank Crowninshield, then editor of Vanity Fair, who decided to publish her work. . . . This success led to the publication of her first black-and-white fashion work in Harper’s Bazaar in 1936 and her first color work a year later.”

Read the full article here.

Those interested in researching Dahl-Wolfe’s work should check the Louise Dahl-Wolfe Collection at the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona in Tucson and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Harper's Bazaar, June 1950. (Via Sighs & Whispers)
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Mary Lynn Stewart on Russian Embroidery in Interwar France

"Romanian" (but Russian) embroidered dress - Vogue, 1922

“During the war, when rich fabrics were scarce, embroidery was the principal form of ornamentation on dresses. For a few years after the war, couture houses were starved of fine fabrics. Most available textiles were plain, but couturiers compensated by embellishing them with rich embroidery. Chanel made tunics in black and other dark colors adorned with vividly coloured, ‘exotic’ – meaning in this case, Russian – embroidery. After the White Russians arrived in Paris, Russian women, including aristocrats, supported their families by embroidering Slavic motifs. …” (Stewart, Mary Lynn.“Marketing Fabrics & Femininity in Interwar France,” Textile History. 35(1), 90-111, 2004. 98).


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Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (the Book)

While most people, by now, will have heard much about the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty currently on view (through August 7) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – not much attention has been paid to the text of the exhibition catalog from Yale University Press. As readers may remember, I wrote the tribute to McQueen for Worn Through in February 2010.

The book itself is a beautiful object, printed in Italy, with a now-familiar hologram of McQueen’s face juxtaposed with a skull. The catalog is visually stunning, and the unique nature of the photographs by Solve Sundsbo have already been discussed at length by others. Individual pieces in the exhibition are not examined in depth here – but two essays do eliminate much of Mr.  McQueen’s inspiration and points of reference.

McQueen's Girl Who Lived In a Tree Collection, Autumn/Winter 2008/09 (Via Fashion Muse)

Certainly, any student of fashion will have known of McQueens interest in the gothic and the grotesque, his experimentation with unusual materials -from human hair to seashells, as well as British and Military history and above all Romanticism.

I had heard of his interest in iconic women from history. As the book notes, McQueen once said “I don’t really get inspired [by specific women] . . . It’s more in the mids of the women in the past, like Catherine the Great, or Marie Antoinette. People who were doomed. Joan of Art or Colette. Iconic women.”(115)

What I had not previously been aware of was his use of literary reference. It became obvious from the image on the cover – his own face transformed into a skull immediately brings to mind the tortured character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Alexander McQueen and the Smoking Skull (click for more info)

Curator Andrew Bolton addresses this point first in the preface to the book, highlighting the fact that McQueen had a tattoo from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on his arm, “Love Looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.” Bolton explains how this notion of love transforming something ugly into something beautiful was “critical to his creativity.” Continuing to explore McQueens work through the lens of literary criticism, Bolton compares McQueen’s use of Romantic exoticism with the work of Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Overall, the catalog has a very light touch in terms of reading – only Bolton’s esssay, an introduction by Susannah Frankel, and an Interview with Sarah Burton by Tim Blanks provide context to the stunning images. I would have loved a deeper analysis of the objects themselves – something I’ve felt has been lacking in several recent exhibition catalogs. However – this catalog is a beautiful object, and represents the most important of McQueens designs. It is a beautiful tribute to a one-of-a-kind designer.

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Historic Photos: 1923 Dance Pageant held in Benicia

My small hometown of Benicia, CA has a historical museum whose website includes several groups of ‘mystery’ vintage photographs. Though places, dates, and people aren’t always known. These photographs provide a remarkably clear record of what people were wearing in times gone by. I’d guess that the majority of the photographs on this website come from the interwar years, specifically the teens and twenties. There are pictures of the Benicia High sports teams, old cars, the fire department, and something called the “John Laurence Molfino Biography.”

My personal favorite though, is the selection of photos of a pageant dance held in an open field in 1923, that was VERY well attended.

The Pageant grounds, Benicia Historical Museum

1923 Solano Historical Pageant

According to the Oakland Tribune, the 1923 Solano County Historical Pageant was attended by 10,000 people. It seems that this Pageant was put on by a federation of several different women’s social clubs. Held in Benicia on May 11, 1923, the pageant included nine different episodes and required nearly five hours to watch the entire show.

Both the Solano Republican and the Oakland Tribune indicated that the dance director was Mrs. A. G. Bailey of Suisun. Though not all of the costumes are of this style, the photos I’ve included here SO strongly resemble the costumes and dance styles of Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller  – I can’t help wonder if either of them were involved somehow.  Both women were in the Eastern Bay Area in the teens and twenties. At the very least, I suspect Mrs. Bailey had seen them perform. Interestingly, the composer of the music for the pageant, Dr. Douglas Wright, was from Berkeley – where much Bohemian artist activity was centered.

Via Benicia Historical Museum
Via Benicia Historical Museum
Via Benicia Historical Museum
Via Benicia Historical Museum
Via Benicia Historical Museum
Via Benicia Historical Museum

The Solano Republican goes on to explain that “The cunning little costume drawn by Miss Doddson is simple, but altogether charming.”  Emma Doddson of Suisun was, in fact, the Artistic Director, for the entire show. I would guess that it was her vision that created these designs. Interestingly, the publicity manager – Miss E.C. Stove, arranged for rotating exhibits (including dresses) to travel to all the different towns involved to attract attendees.

Sabine Goerke-Shrode*, did a good bit of research on this event, and found in her 2004 article that a good portion of the remaining design, writing, organizing and construction work was done at Armijo High School. Other photos in this collection show young girls in traditional ballet costumes, as well as in period costume (as well as performers dressed as military, spanish and native american costumes).

Those interested in reading more about the Pageant itself can download this coverage of the event from the Oakland Tribune in 1923 (Click here to download the PDF). I’d love to hear from anyone who might have additional information on these photographs and as always, anyone with ideas is welcome to comment. For more of the photos, please visit the Benicia Historical Museum.

*Additional photos on Pageant can be found here.


1. Goerke-Shrode, Sabine. “Helping to make their Communities Better,” Historical Articles of Solano County, September 19, 2004.

2. Goerke-Shrode, Sabine. “Pageant showed panorama of early Solano” Historical Articles of Solano County, October 3, 2004.

3. Goerke-Shrode, Sabine. Images of Fairfield. Arcadia Publishers, 2005.

4. Henry, Rideout and Wadell. Berkeley Boehia: Artists and Visionaries of the Early 20th Century. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2008.

5. “10,000 see pageant at Benicia,” Oakland Tribune, May 20, 1923, pg. A.




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Tuesday Teaser: Gernreich in North Beach

“SAN FRANCISCO, June 16 [1964]–THE ‘NEW’ SUIT–Model Evelyn Fry wears the last word in swim suits, a creation by designer Rudi Gernreich of Los Angeles which could be classed as a one-piece bathing suit. Orders for the suit are being taken a Nasimo’s North Beach Hi-Fashion shop prior to arrival of a suitable number of the garments. They are not expected to appear on public beaches in the immediate future.” Via the SF Public Library Historic Photos Collection


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