Paris Spring Toilette, 1896, from Stella Blum’s Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazar 1867 – 1898
Once, during a difficult day in the costume shop, I wondered aloud, “Who is the patron saint of costume technicians?”
Instantly the woman at the sewing machine behind me quipped, “Saint Bernina.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about nominating Stella Blum — or Saint Stella, as I’m starting to think of her. Not only did she pioneer the “Everyday Fashions” series of books based on Sears and other catalogs, Stella Blum compiled one of the first paperback costume history books available from Dover: Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazar, 1867-1898. (First published in 1974.) When I was teaching high school and beginning to get interested in costuming for the theatre, this massive book was an education in the progressive changes in Victorian clothing — all through primary sources. Her text was as helpful as her picture selection.
Ladies’ House and Street Dresses, 1884. Blum included as much of the original information as possible with each fashion plate. She also wrote marvellous introductory chapters in each of her books, summarizing each era in detail.
She followed it in 1978 with Ackermann’s Costume Plates: Women’s Fashions in England 1818-1828. Where would Regency Balls be today without a few hints from Ackermann via Stella Blum?
In 1981, Blum compiled and edited the first volume of a series that’s still being produced, Everyday Fashions of the Twenties as Pictured in Sears and Other Catalogs — a massive project, and Dover Books deserves great credit for undertaking a book that was going to be expensive to produce — printed on glossy paper so the details remain clear. Luckily, there was a market hungry for books of this type.
From Everyday Fashions of the Twenties…. Blum showed clothing in its socio-economic context, giving prices and other catalog information.
In 1982, Blum — and Dover — gave us Eighteenth Century Fashion Plates in Full Color: 64 engravings from the “Galerie des Modes,” 1778-1787. This book showed clothing for women and men, and included a few servants, a corset maker, and a woman delivering panniers. Designing Liasons Dangereuses? The Marriage of Figaro? The Scarlet Pimpernel? A Tale of Two Cities? This is the first book you need.
In 1984, Paris Fashions of the 1890s: a picture source book with 350 designs, including 24 in full color was printed, to the delight of anyone who loves Gigi, The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, Charlie’s Aunt, or Remembrance of Things Past — the Nineties, gay or otherwise, are the setting for a lot of fiction and drama.
Another virtue of Stella Blum: She didn’t neglect period underwear, hats, shoes & accessories, mourning wear, children’s clothes….
In 1985 Blum edited & selected the plates for the Dover book Fashions and Costumes from Godey’s Lady’s Book, filling in some of the Early Victorian styles that weren’t covered in her Harper’s Bazar collection. Useful for works by Dickens, the Brontes, La Traviata, Victoria and Albert, etc.
1986 brought Everyday Fashions of the Thirties, a quick guide to clothes for ordinary men, women and children from the Great Depression to the start of World War II. (Published posthumously.)
From Everyday Fashions of the Thirties…. Blum collected information generally ignored by fashion historians. Instead of concentrating on the well-preserved clothing of the wealthy, she shows us what average Americans wore.
From Everyday Fashions of the Thirties…. Although surrounded by couture at the Met, in her books she shared research about work clothes, which rarely survive. She put the catalog year on the top of every page, for complete accuracy.
In addition to compiling and sharing all these invaluable primary source materials (and working with a publisher who made them affordable to costumers) Stella Blum was the first Director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, from 1970 until two years before her death in 1985. You can read her obituary in the New York Times here. She is honored with an annual Grant for Costume research by the Costume Society of America.
I’m happy to say that many of her books are still in print, and, because they were so popular, you can find them either new or secondhand (Most of the links above are to used book sellers, because I don’t know many costumers who can afford all the books they want. However, if you can buy them new, her heirs will get her well earned-royalties.) In addition to this list, Stella Blum wrote introductions to, or otherwise contributed to, many other publications. In case you don’t have these books already, here is a wish list you can suggest for holidays and birthdays:
Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazar, 1867-1898.
Ackermann’s Costume Plates: Women’s Fashions in England 1818-1828
Everyday Fashions of the Twenties as Pictured in Sears and Other Catalogs
Eighteenth Century Fashion Plates in Full Color: 64 engravings from the “Galerie des Modes,” 1778-1787
Paris Fashions of the 1890s: a picture source book with 350 designs
Fashions and Costumes from Godey’s Ladies Book
Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears and Other Catalogs
A gown by Worth, 1894, from Blum’s Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper’s Bazar.
Incredibly, having seen this illustration so often in Stella Blum’s book, I once found an 1890s ball gown — black moire silk, trimmed with black and metallic gold lace on the lace-up bodice, with a floral design in metallic thread, beads, and artificial pearls running up the center front of the skirt — on the Halloween rack at a Goodwill store. It was not a Worth, just an authentic period gown possibly inspired in 1894 by this illustration. I rescued it for $55 and gave it to my friend, the vintage collector, who didn’t mind that it needed re-beading. She and I had spent many happy hours pouring over Stella Blum’s books together.
So, I raise a toast to the patron saint of Everyday (and not so everyday) Fashion: Stella Blum.
For other suggestions for a Costumer’s Library, click on A Costumer’s Bookshelf in Categories.