Tag Archives: Fashion

Female Fancy-Dress, 1609-1980

I am so looking forward to Halloween night next Tuesday, not only because our long municipal nightmare will be over here in Salem for another year, but also because I actually do enjoy creative Halloween costumes, and they do appear on this night, glittering like stars in a sky of more generic garb. If an entire family is going to make the trek to Salem to trick-or-treat on Chestnut Street, they will often go all out, and in years past I’ve seen the Swiss Family Robinson, The Jacksons, the Addams Family (actually I think these three were all just last year), the Coneheads, the Jetsons, and a variety of historical characters, en masse and individually. I wish there were more conceptual costumes and less inspired by popular culture but that’s probably asking for too much for a holiday that is supposed to be for and about children. The most creative (and conceptual) costumes I have ever seen were made (or proposed) for masquerades or fancy-dress parties prior to 1920 or so, after which Halloween began to emerge as a major American holiday and the witches and the pumpkin-heads pushed out the nymphs and the sprites and the various ethereal forest creatures. Costumes begin with Queens, who were entitled to prance about in court masques long before actresses were, so I’m going to begin my portfolio with the Queen of the Amazons, one of many costumes designed by Inigo Jones for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masques, which were commissioned by King James I’s (and VI’s) Queen Anne, my vote for bestdressed Queen of all time. Jonson’s The Masque of the Queens was presented at Whitehall Palace in February of 1609, the third masque written for Anne and the first to include an “anti-masque” featuring witches, of course, the opposite of the virtuous ladies played by the Queen and her ladies. Penthesilea, the Amazonian Queen, enters first (after the witches).

Costume Masques

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Costume collage 3Inigo Jones’ Penthesilea costume for the Masque of Queens, 1609, British Library; Thomas Rowland’s Dressing for a Masquerade, British Museum;  Léon Sault’s designs for the House of Worth, 1860s: Eve with a snake and a Sorceress, Victoria & Albert Museum. 


A bit less custom, and a bit more commercialized, costuming commences in the later nineteenth century: more for fancy-dress parties than for Halloween. All sort of costumes can be found in pattern books from this era, such as Jennie Taylor Wandle’s Masquerade and Carnival. Their Customs and Costumes, published by the Butterick Publishing Company in 1892. As you can see, the Halloween archetypes (devil, witch, sorceress, little and big bat) are already popular. Women’s magazine also offer up lots of fancy-dress inspiration: below are some very……naturalistic costumes from the Ladies Home Journal in 1914 and a few more conventional examples from 1920.

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Fancy Party Costumes LHJ Nov 1914

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The transition from fancy-dress to Halloween costumes comes just around this time, 1920: I am marking it with an aptly-titled commercial publication,  Dennison’s Bogie Book, issued by the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts in 1920. This “book of suggestions for decorating and entertaining at Hallowe’en, Harvest Time, and Thanksgiving” contains lots of instructions, indicating that we’re at a moment where traditions are being invented. Of course all you need to have the perfect Halloween are Dennison products, which all seem to be made of orange and black crepe paper. It seems like full-blown commercial Halloween is right around the corner, but yet when I look at the photograph of Batgirl, St. Ann (wow, she’s the outlier here!), and Wonder Woman from New York city photographer Larry Racciopo’s Halloween (1980), it doesn’t seem like we’ve come that far at all.

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Halloween Costumes 1980 Bat Girl, St. Ann, and Wonder Woman photographed by Larry Racioppo, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Flame-Stitch

For antiques aficionados, August is all about Americana auctions (couldn’t resist all the alliteration!) and there are always Salem pieces to discover. Among the lots of Skinner’s upcoming Americana auction, a late eighteenth-century pole fire screen captured my attention immediately, not just because it was made in Salem, but also because of its flame-stitch embroidery. Flame-stitch is one of my favorite perennial patterns, characterized by its durability and adaptability: it spans the ages (from at least the Renaissance) and can be easily adapted by time and place. It’s somewhat obscure origins–according to the curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it is a technique also sometimes known as Irish stitch, Hungarian stitch, Florentine stitch and bargello stitch, the variety of names indicating the uncertainty of its origins–perhaps explains its mutability. It is one of those patterns that can appear both “antique” and “modern”: flame-stitch cushions, in particular, seem timeless.

Flame-stitch Pole Screen Skinner

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Flamestitch garden pillow

Mahogany pole screen, late 18th century, Skinner Auctions/ Flame-stitch pincushion, late 17th century, Victoria and Albert Museum/ Flame-stitch “Jasper” pillow, Jayson Home/ 18th century flame-stitched pillow, 1stdibs/ a faux flame-stitch pillow in my backyard.

In its modern incarnations, flame-stitch doesn’t necessarily need to be a stitch: the zig-zag, chevron pattern seems to be sufficient for the more general identification. No needle required, pattern without technique. The vibrant contrasting colors of flame-stitch fabrics past have also given way to more tone-on-tone variations of the present. I’ve always wanted to upholstery one of my couches in a flame-stitch fabric, and I must admit that both the Federal-era embroidered version (on the left) and the more contemporary variation (on the right) both appeal to me (although I really love the 18th-century embroidery fabric from a Newport-made slip seat–which might have originated as a pocketbook–AND the early 19th-century French and Lee Jofa chartreuse fabrics below).

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Flame-stitch Winterthur

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Flamestitch Lee Jofa

American Country Federal Sofa, Northeast Auctions/ Southwood Mahogany Flame-Stitch Sofa, Chairish/ 18th-century slip seat upholstery, Winterthur Museum Collections/ Woven early 19th century French flame-stitch panel, 1stdibs/ Lee Jofa watersedge fabric.

Two historic flame-stitch items that often pop up at auctions are men’s pocketbooks or “wallets” and stools. An extraordinary example of the former is included in the upcoming Skinner auction: a later eighteenth-century Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American servants, or slaves, well-dressed but definitely in service. This was featured on Antiques Roadshow a while ago, and so I was not surprised to see it come up for auction (with an estimate of $10,000-$15,000). There are so many (somewhat less singular) examples in museum collections and auction archives that I imagine every late eighteenth-century man walking around with a flame-stitch wallet! For women, there were flame-stitch embroidered shoes, from earlier in the century. Obviously there are endless variations of both the historic technique and the modern pattern, but I think the form that captures the cherished quality of flame-stitch best are bible and book covers, which were also produced in great quantity in the eighteenth century.

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Rare flame-stitch Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American figures, Skinner Auctions/ American silver-mounted pocketbook inscribed “Thomas Stubbs”, 1798, Bonhams Auctions/ Flame-stitch pocketbook, late 18th century, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of Mrs. Rollin Stickle/ Flame-stitch Latchet Shoes, c. 1700-1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Early 18th century French fruitwood stool, Bonhams Auctions/ Folk art painted stool with flame-stitch seat, Northeast Auctions/ Pair of mid-century modern flame-stitch benches, 1stdibs/ Bible cover, 18th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art.


18th-century-esque

Next weekend is the first-ever Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall, commemorating Leslie’s Retreat, Salem’s opening act of the American Revolution, as well as the spirit of resistance over time and in our own time. Its organizers are encouraging, but not demanding, period dress so I have to figure out what I’m going to wear. I have a magic closet on the third floor full of evening dresses from the late 50s and early 60s that I rely on for all formal occasions, but I think this event calls for something different. It’s too late to go the custom reproduction route and I detest cheap costumes. About a decade ago, I commissioned a period gown (and stays!!! which were actually more expensive than the gown) for a ball marking the 200th anniversary of the Salem Athenaeum: I just assumed I would wear this regency gown for the Resistance Ball but when I took it out, put it on, and pranced around in it the other night I realized it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Too late, too Jane Austen, not enough Abigail Adams. So now I’m at a loss as to what to wear.

Resistance Ball

If I had realized my mistake sooner I probably would have ordered a dress or a robe à l’Anglaise from one of the amazing seamstresses out there: I have an old silk petticoat that would suffice. I particularly like the silk jacket below, but putting together an outfit around that little number would take time and considerable money, not just for the jacket, but for all the underpinnings: it’s all about the silhouette in historical clothing. With my time constraints, I’m thinking about the basic design elements of late eighteenth-century fashions—corsetry, cinching, embellishment, neckline, silhouette–and seeing if I can come up with something “18th-century-esque” for next week. I don’t think I’m going to go as far as the Versace corset dress from the 90s below, but I definitely want an updated eighteenth-century look.

18th century jacket

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There is lots of inspiration out there because of the combined aesthetic influence of Hamilton and Outlander: polyvore sets abound! American Revolutionary women have never been singled out for their sartorial style, but their near-contemporary across the Atlantic, Marie Antoinette, seems to have a fashion moment every twenty years or so. Now, however, the Schuyler sisters and Clare Fraser rule. There are lessons for updating in the strategies of the costume designers of both productions. Hamilton designer Paul Tazwell seems to focus on color, and notes that “in keeping the overall design as contemporary feeling as possible while still in the silhouette of the 18th century, I kept the detailing as simple as possible so that it didn’t feel too decorative and fussy. I used mostly silk taffeta for the dresses on the women because it stays crisp and light and moves in a way that viscerally feels like the 18th century to me”. Outlander designer Terry Dresbach (who maintains a beautiful blog with many insights into her process) is dealing with a time-traveler, so a bit of adaptation is required: a 1940s Dior jacket that Clare might have worn in her 20th century life is transported to the eighteenth century along with her, and both are altered in the process!

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outlander-christian-dior-exclusive-designHamilton’s Schuyler sisters on stage, dressed by Paul Tazwell; the Dior inspiration for Outlander’s “time-traveling” jacket by Terry Dresbach.

Thinking about both the essentials of eighteenth-century style and their adaptation, I browsed around for hours (what a rabbit hole!) and put together a working digital inspiration board. Pinned mostly from ebay and various designer archives, these are the dresses that seem to represent the look I’m going after best. Moving around the board clockwise, we have a very editorial look by Jean Paul Gaultier, a detail of a really beautiful Prada black taffeta gown, an Azzedine Alaia wedding ensemble (for some reason this screams 18th century to me!), a Zac Posen dress, a Carolina Herrera gown, and Dita von Teese in a Vivienne Westwood toile dress complete with panniers. Even if I could find one of these pieces, I couldn’t afford them, but they got me thinking in different directions about bodices, bows, draping, and toile…….what about a toile dress? Too day/summery? It would have to be the right toile, and the right style–too late for that now.

Resistance collage

Of all the designers above, it is clearly Vivienne Westwood who has been the most immersed in and influenced by the eighteenth century over her long career. She’s amazing at focusing in on the key elements and bringing a new artistic sensibility to them. The poster for the big present/past fashion moment several years ago, Le XVIIIeme au goût du jour (The 18th Century Back In Fashion) exhibition at the Palace of Versailles, features (half of) her bold dress on its poster, and two years ago her eighteenth-century-esque clothes were exhibited in situ at the newly restored Danson House in London (lately seen in the television series Taboo). Westwood’s “Sunday” day dress from a few years back looks to me like the perfect distillation of eighteenth-century style, but it’s really too informal for a ball and I can’t find one anyway.

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18th century Westwood Cut From the Past Danson House 2015 A Vivienne Westwood corset at Danson House.

So that’s where I am now, pretty much nowhere, although I can just raid my third-floor closet and wear classic vintage formal. I’m trying to remember what my now-vintage Laura Ashley dresses, which I think are still at my parents’ house up in Maine, look like, though I seem to recall they are more nineteenth-century-esque than eighteenth-century-esque. And very puffy sleeves: all wrong.


She Wears the Green

I looked back through my posts of St. Patrick’s Days past and found: green cards, green plants, greenbacks, green fairies, and green men. Lots of men, in fact, but very few women, unless they were representing (rather negatively) envy or absinthe! So on this particular St. Patrick’s Day, I’m featuring only women, in more positive (though also rather frivolous) displays. I’ve recently discovered the short-lived and absolutely amazing Gazette du bon ton, a French fashion magazine packed with artistic illustrations which was published from 1912 to 1925. Was there a war in there somewhere? You wouldn’t know it leafing through these whimsical pages. The Gazette features lots of seasonal green, and it was also a favorite color of one of my favorite graphic artists from this same period, Mela Koehler. Perhaps these early twentieth-century representations of lively, festive green are meant to counteract the color’s toxic associations of the previous century? I am opening and closing my portfolio with two more serious real females, both anonymous: a folk art portrait from the mid-nineteenth century (featuring a woman who is hopefully not wearing an arsenic-dyed dress–though I fear for the anonymous artist), and a photograph of a (Salem?) girl taken by a Salem photography studio with which I have taken some liberties: I love her jacket so much I wanted to highlight it by “greening” it up a bit for the holiday.

Green Dress Folk Art MFA 1838

Green dress 19th C MET

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Green Dress Clover Girl Kirchner 1899

Green Dress MK 1910 3 MFA

Green Dress Koehler collage

Green Dress Philip Coles NYPL 1912

Green dress Gazette de BonTon Worth 1912

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Green Dress Gazettedubonton00A_0303 1920 Poiret

Girl in Green

Portrait by unidentified artist, 1838-40, M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Dress and Coat, Costume Institute Collection of Fashion Plates, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Raphael Kirchner and Mela Koehler cards, c. 1910, Lauder Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Coles Phillips, Woman in green dress sitting beside tulips, 1912, New York Public Library Digital Collections; Illustrations from Gazette du Bon Ton, 1913-1920, Smithsonian Libraries; undated Salem, MA photograph.


Winter Dress

Another distraction; it happens to me every time I venture into a digital archive. This time I was looking for Lutheran “cartoons” from the early sixteenth century, and somehow I ended up fixated on a critical caricature of women’s winter dress from a century later: Wie sich ein All’ modo Monsieur im Winter kleiden solle (1629). I’m not sure of the exact translation—how the German gentleman should dress in the winter? (help!)—but I can tell it is a comical critique, as the three women on the right are portrayed as dressing a bit too mannishly (the one in the middle is even wearing pants under her skirt!) and badly-behaving animals are never a good sign. Even though the men look like dashing cavaliers, there is something “off” about them too; I’ve got to dig in and try to translate the accompanying text. Clearly something is rotten in the state of Germany, and it’s not just the Thirty Years’ War. Women are an easy target in early modern print culture because of their dress, in all seasons really, but winter is even easier: one of the more effective satires of flimsy Regency dress is titled Parisian Ladies in their Winter Dress for 1800, reprinted countless times over the next decade.

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winter-dress-1800 Wie sich ein All’ modo Monsieur im Winter kleiden solle (1629), and Parisian Ladies in their Winter Dress for 1800, collection of the British Museum.

The fashion plate dates from the eighteenth century and really thrives in the nineteenth; in these idealistic advertisements there is no judgemental “tone” even though some of the clothing appears almost as impractical as the garb above: light coats or little “mantlets” worn over the dresses of the day. Muffs can never be too big in the eighteenth century, or bustles in the later nineteenth.

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Fashion Plates from 1799 & 1888 in the collection of Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

The dashing, sporty but at the same time elegant “Winter Girl” emerges in the very last decade of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth: cover girls on an array of contemporary magazines and cards. Just as idealistic as fashion plates, really, but more artistic.Two sides of this coin are below: a sporty girl from around 1906 and a very elegant Puck cover from 1911, along with “a slip of girl” cigarette card from 1901, because mockery is always in season.

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Cover and cards, 1901-1911, New York Public Library Digital Collections.


It began with a Fan

The story of my great-grandparents’ courtship could be more accurately titled “it began in East Boston”, but my point of entry into their relationship is a fan given by Joseph W. McIntyre to Katherine G. Wall in 1896. Their daughter, my grandmother, died a few months ago at age 104 and I came into possession of some of her personal effects, including a box labeled “A. Stowell, 24 Winter Street, Boston” containing a silk and ivory fan with gold accents. Written in the very recognizable script of her sister, my great aunt Margaret (the family historian), is a note indicating that the enclosed was a courtship gift from their father to their mother. I’m sure it was packed away years before Margaret wrote this note, and years afterward. And now here it is in the light of day.

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There’s just one tear in the middle–no telling how that happened–otherwise the fan is in perfect, clean condition. I put it right back in its box after I took these photographs. The cursive script on the box is almost abstract, so at first I thought it read A. Powell, but a little digging revealed that the name of the business was in fact A. Stowell, a prominent jeweler in downtown Boston, which issued a series of trade cards in the shape of a fan advertising its stock of an “elegant variety of fans, constantly on hand and arriving by every steamer from Europe”. every steamer: apparently this was the place to buy a fan in Boston in the 1890s.

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It is not noted by Margaret on which exact day my great-grandfather gave my great-grandmother her fan (Valentine’s Day?) but on October 26, 1896 (the date my grandmother chose for her own wedding) they were married at East Boston’s stately Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. At the time of Joseph’s and Katherine’s marriage, the streets on which they grew up (both named for European ports : Liverpool for her, Bremen for him) were home not only to the predominantly Irish families with whom they were raised but also to more recently-arrived Canadians, Italians and Eastern Europeans. Joseph and Katherine were both born in the United States, but their parents, John McIntyre and Anne Harkins, and John Wall and Margaret Murphy, had all emigrated from Ireland individually and married in East Boston in the 1850s. I like to think of them all hobnobbing with the Eastie great-grandparents of John F. Kennedy, Patrick and Bridget, but I’m sure they were all too busy working (and I’m not sure this image would have pleased my Republican grandmother).

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East Boston in 1838, after it was assimilated into Boston, and before its explosive growth in the later nineteenth century.

While his father John was a “laborer”, Joseph McIntyre was a bookkeeper for a wholesale grocery in Boston at the time of his marriage to Katherine in 1896: within the next decade he would own his own wholesale business. Katherine and he made the move out of the old neighborhood slightly north to the coastal town of Winthrop, where they would raise four children: Margaret (at left), Joseph Jr., Katherine Jr., and my grandmother Anne (the baby): all pictured below in 1914.

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The McIntyre Family of Winthrop, Massachusetts, 1914.


Royal Recommendations

As we move into a new era (“reign”?) here in the United States I am quite determined to keep my blog as apolitical as possible but some events and occurrences will no doubt be provocative and/or inspirational. At those times I’ll probably have to delve in, but I will strive for a relatively detached perspective by placing these events and occurrences in as wide an historical and/or cultural context as possible. Here is a first attempt. The other day, our President-elect tweeted his endorsement of L.L. Bean based on a significant contribution on the part of one its family owners, the granddaughter of L.L. Bean himself. I immediately felt and heard the indignation and desire for retribution of seemingly-everyone in my adopted state of Massachusetts focused on one of the largest businesses in my home state of Maine. The employees of this venerable company are probably trembling in their boots: did they ask for this? And are we now entering an era of presidential commercial endorsements akin to the “Royal Warrant of Approval” system in Britain and other European countries which still have monarchies? Imagine the presidential seal of approval where the Royal Arms are below (along with very different entities) provoking an equal measure of purchases and boycotts across the nation.

Royal Warrants of Appointment granted to some of my favorite purveyors: Penhaligon’s (represented by my “Juniper Sling” perfume–which smells a lot like a gin & tonic!), Barbour, and Hatchards Bookshop in London. I’m sure there are a lot more royally-approved goods around the house, including the Twinings tea and Carr’s crackers in my cupboard and the Hunter boots in my closet. Apparently there are approximately 800 Royal Warrant Holders in Great Britain, representing myriad goods and services, everything from movers to jewelers.

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Royal Warrant Holders past and present: Eighteenth-century trade card for Maydwell and Windles, glass manufacturers, British Museum; Carter’s garden seeds, 1897; Pears soap advertisements from 1902 and 1911;  a Daimler ad from the 1930s, and a Colman’s Mustard label from 1887: this company is a particularly proud bearer of the royal arms; Sanderson Fabrics, a warrant holder since 1923, pays homage to Queen Elizabeth II during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

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