Category Archives: 1950s-1960s

The Pantyhose Revolution and Supermarket Stockings

Pantyhose from Sears, Roebuck. 1960.

The Pantyhose Revolution and Supermarket Stockings

Further reading: I am indebted to this excellent article about the history of L’Eggs and pantyhose in general by Jake Rossen at Mentalfloss. For the story of how pantyhose were invented, see this article in Smithsonian.

1959: McCall 4936, maternity pattern. According to Smithsonian, panty hose were invented because pregnant women found the garter belt or girdle too uncomfortable.

Pantyhose (sheer, stretch tights) were available in 1959, but not in all markets, and not in all sizes. There wasn’t much demand for them, because skirt hems were still mid-calf in the late fifties, so the thick stocking tops and garters we wore were not likely to show.

Dresses this long hid the tops of our stockings and “garter bumps” quite adequately. No need for pantyhose.

Also, really stretchy stockings didn’t exist yet.

Seamless stretch nylon stockings from Sears; Spring 1958.

Opaque tights from Sears, Fall 1959 catalog.

Opaque tights from Sears, Fall 1959 catalog. Popular for winter sports and dance classes.

Opaque tights were available before 1959, but for most women of my generation (and those before) wearing sheer stockings with seams up the back marked the beginning of adulthood. In 1958, I was in eighth grade, and “dress up” clothing suddenly included seamed stockings (held up by a garter belt) and shoes with “high” heels.

If you were born in the 1960s or later, you may not believe how hard it was to buy stockings in the 1950s (and earlier.)

1) Most stores were not open on Sundays. In a country where most citizens were nominally Christian, Sunday was the official Sabbath, and most businesses (except for essential services like hospitals) did not buy or sell products or require employees to work on the Sabbath. Buying or selling on the Sabbath was generally against the law. Saturday had been the “market” day for centuries; weekdays were also shopping days, but not as they are now because….

2) Even in big cities, stores were not open after 5:30 or 6 p.m. “Designated shopping nite” was a very Big Deal in my childhood circa 1950 when all the major department and clothing stores in downtown San Francisco agreed to stay open until 8 p.m. — every Thursday night. (That’s right, they were open late once a week.)

Working women might have a chance to shop during their lunch break, if they worked near the stores. But a run in your last pair of stockings was a small crisis: When and where could you buy new ones?

“It was 1968, and the recently-appointed president of Hanes Hosiery Mill Co. observed a growing number of pantyhose customers were grabbing cheap stockings at grocery stores for the sake of convenience. While a woman might shop for food multiple times a week, she would likely only head to a department store once every month or two. Rather than wait, she would purchase undergarments when it was most convenient.” — Jake Rossen

When grocery stores and supermarkets began staying open at night, and they began to sell hosiery, the lives of working women took a turn for the better. This was mostly possible because improved technology gave us really stretchy stockings and tights.

Cling-alon seamless stretch pantyhose from Sears really were stretchy: only three women’s sizes were needed.

Cling-alon size chart, Sears, 1968. The women’s sizes are Petite, Average, and Tall. (The sizes at top are for girls.)

Improved stretch meant that stores no longer had to carry stockings in eighteen sizes.

Companies like Hanes made L’Eggs pantyhose specifically packaged to be sold in supermarkets. The improved stretch meant you no longer needed to sell stockings in seven sizes and four lengths. Basic L’Eggs came in just four sizes, but they fit a really big range of heights and weights. Stores were happy that a display of the full range of L’Eggs colors and sizes took up less shelf space than a display of canned olives or jelly. And working women like me could pick them up any night on the way home from work! No more Saturday trips to a department store. No more panicky mornings when I got a run in my last pair of hose.

Cotton Crotch Introduced

One problem: women who adopted the new stretch-nylon pantyhose soon began advising their friends that the nylon did not let moisture evaporate as silk or cotton underwear did. We advised each other to wear cotton briefs under nylon pantyhose to avoid unpleasant rashes and worse. Soon the manufacturers figured it out, and began making pantyhose with “cotton crotch” proudly specified on the package labels.

Thigh Bulge and Garter Bumps Eliminated

Pantyhose did eliminate a problem for women whose legs were not slim and muscular: with the old stocking suspended from one garter in front and one in back, the stocking top would sag, leaving an unpleasant bulge of flesh at the top.

Stocking tops sag at the sides in this illustration from 1930.

This model has lovely legs, but you can see how the stocking top is curving downward at the inside of the thigh. For women who didn’t have slim, firm thighs, the flesh bulged out over the stocking tops. In hot weather the bulges rubbed together, which was especially unpleasant.

Also, the garters themselves had a rubbery part that went inside the stocking, and a metal part that went outside the stocking.

When you sat, the metal dug into your leg at the back, and the rubber part created a bump in front that was visible through light-weight dress fabrics.

Garters could be purchased separately and attached to elastic loops on the girdle.

The metal garter was detachable and inserted through these loops.

With pantyhose: Bliss! — no more garter belts or panty-girdles.  And no bulges.

 

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Filed under 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Hosiery, Hosiery, Hosiery & Stockings, Maternity clothes, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc

Skirt Lengths in the 1960s

I do intend to write about the way pantyhose changed our lives, but first I want to lead a brief tour through the 1960s’ skirt revolution that made pantyhose necessary.

Mary Quant was the quintessential “Youthquake” designer of the 1960s. You really could not wear traditional stockings with the skirt on the right.

In fashion there are very few absolutes, but I’ll share a group of images I’ve collected. Keep in mind that not all women follow fashion slavishly, and that even within one country, some areas will be more conservative than others.

Early Sixties:

Many people think that all the “short skirts” of the Sixties were mini-skirts. Not true. The skirts we wore in the early 1960s came in for some criticism because they were short in relation to the skirts of the 1950s. It was only near the end of the 1960s that skirt lengths exposed more leg (and thigh) than was ever before shown by fully dressed adult women.

Left: We sometimes forget how long skirts were in the late Fifties. Right: three years later.

It’s surprising to see how long the post-war “New Look” remained main-stream fashion. From 1947 to 1956, Dior’s influence dominated.

1956. This Butterick suit pattern is still long and tight-waisted, like Dior’s 1947 collection.

1956. These hems are several inches below the knee.

1957. Simplicity 2311 is four or five inches below the knee.

Then hems began to rise.

Left to right: 1957, 1958, 1959.

We can understand that the skirts of 1959 did look shockingly short after ten years of mid-calf fashions.

I started high school in 1958. Our school uniforms had brown wool skirts with stitched-down pleats, and came well below the knee. Skirts continued to rise in the early 60s, but in my school the line was drawn at the bottom of the kneecap. By 1961, if a teacher or hall monitor thought your skirt was too short, you would be asked to kneel on the floor. If the hem didn’t touch the floor while you were kneeling, you would be sent to the principal’s office where a seam ripper was waiting. (I mention this because it tells us that by 1961 girls were trying to wear mid-knee skirts.)

The skirts of Butterick 9082 would easily have passed the “kneeling test.”

1959. Butterick 9082.

1960. These women’s dresses (Butterick) cover the knee and then some.

However, in the same year other designs just covered the kneecap.

1960. A McCall’s dress that just covers the knee.

1958 to 1960: Skirts are getting shorter. It’s the Sixties, but they’re not mini-skirts yet.

In fact, hems that just covered the knee were the norm for a while:

1961. Vogue 5251 covers the knee — but may not when the wearer is walking….

Keep your eyes on this spot, where the curve of the calf bends in.

From now on, we’ll have to look for the spot where the curve of the calf indicates the bottom of the knee.

1963. Empire styes were an option. Kneecaps were hidden until you sat down.

1963. This Marian Martin pattern was aimed at conservative dressers. But it’s the same length as the Butterick pattern above.

Marian Martin pattern 9495 from 1963.

It’s good to look at patterns sold through newspapers, since they were aimed at rural and small town women — women who did not have access to department stores. I was surprised to see that the lengths are in step with fashion.

[My husband grew up in small-town Texas, while I grew up near fashionable San Francisco, California. We’re the same age. He and I kept disagreeing on what teenaged girls wore in the Sixties — until we realized that the girls he remembered lived in North Texas, which is still quite conservative.]

Later Sixties:

1964 was the year the Beatles came to America. British fashion, at least for young people, suddenly went from notoriously dowdy to trend-setting. Young women began to dress differently from their elders — and from sophisticated adult fashion models.

1964 fashions for women — hems rising slightly.

1964. Notice the “calf curve” point on the red one. The knee cap is appearing.

1964: Designer Mary Quant, Carnaby Street, Mods, a “Youthquake” in British-inspired fashion. This dress is girlish, not aspiring to womanly sophistication.

In 1964, teens no longer aspired to become sophisticated women. Youth was the new ideal.

1964. Coat and dress by Mary Quant for Butterick. It’s illustrated in two different lengths — one exposing the knee.

People waiting for the mini skirt to appear may feel that “now we’re getting somewhere!” However, this model’s Vogue pattern partially covers her knees even when she’s sitting. (I had a hat like that and those gloves designed for 3/4 sleeved coats, circa 1965.)

1964. Vogue pattern photographed for Elegance.

1965. Littell was another featured designer. These hems are mid-knee.

Those outfits by Deanna Littell are suitable for business or travel, but the ones below (not by Littell) are definitely for the young.

1965. These outfits are for teens and Junior sizes (“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!”)

1965. Butterick Fashion News. These are not teen dresses; they are suitable for office work or church. The one on the right would have struck my younger self as middle-aged!

By 1965, knees were bared.

1966. An entire wardrobe from Simplicity, No. 6882. Bare knees.

1966. Vogue patterns for adults. All  have bare knees.

1966. Vogue Designer patterns. Definitely not for teens, but they all show hems that bare the entire knee.

It appears that by 1966, a woman who did not bare her knees was out of fashion. (As a senior in college, I often wore these short skirts with opaque tights.)

1967. These basic Simplicity dresses were worn to school and to offices. This pattern is in teen/Junior sizes, but grown women wore the same clothes.

1967. I had a store-bought dress very like the one on the right, but not quite so short: it was light blue paisley linen blend, with a bow at the white collar. Notice the low-heeled shoes.

1967. The classic shirtdress was mini-length, too.

1967. Mary Quant continued to go shorter and shorter.

1967 was also famous for the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. It was getting hard to find dresses the weren’t this short! These were the years when I took every new dress straight to the fabric store and bought matching 2 inch hem tape so I could let the dress down before wearing it. Sitting on a cold cable car’s wooden seat in one of these was unpleasant…. Panty-hose or tights were a blessing.

1968. Mary Quant again. I wore drop-waisted dresses like the one on the right (without that scarf) to my job in a bank.

1968. A McCall’s dress that is definitely not aimed at teens, but at women. A good look for the office or for church; it’s rather dressy.

1968. Again, dress patterns sold through newspapers echo the short hems of the major pattern companies.

1969. Very short skirts that bare the knees and several inches above the knee (mini-skirts) are mainstream fashion.

But the very shortest skirts were yet to come…

1970. Butterick dress patterns expose knees and several inches of the thigh. These are true mini-skirts.

1970. A chart of all the possible skirt lengths being worn. From Butterick Fashion News, July 1970.

Even that chart didn’t include the shortest of the short skirts:

1970. A “micro-mini” with matching bikini briefs. Butterick Fashion News, July 1970.

It makes the mini-skirts of the 1960s seem tame by comparison.

Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that in 1970 the bank I was working for announced that female employees would finally be allowed to wear pant suits (or trousers with a matching top) to work. In the fall of 1970, I returned to teaching high school. I was glad that trouser suits were soon permitted in the classroom, too. It was a conservative (“men wear the pants in this family”) Central California community, but around 1970 we had reached the point where trousers were often less shocking than dresses.

It’s often hard for young teachers to maintain discipline in high school classes. I knew some young male teachers who grew beards or wore jackets and neckties just to look older. Here’s a piece of advice about classroom discipline and those very short 1960s’ and 70s’ dresses: turning your back to a class full of adolescent boys when you reach high to write on the chalkboard while wearing a mini dress is not conducive to the ideal learning environment…. Better to be a little out of fashion!

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Stocking Memories, 1958 to 1960

Stockings and a girdle from Sears catalog for Fall 1958.

When I started high school around 1958, we wore stockings for dress-up occasions. Usually, those stockings had a seam up the back.

Seamed stockings from Sears, Spring 1960.

(Pantyhose became available in 1959, or so the internet tells me. Seamless nylon or rayon stockings were available — briefly — in the 1940s, but in 1958, seams were the norm for me and the adult women I knew.)

Seamless stockings advertised in Vogue, Aug. 15, 1943.

Of course, stockings are still available and worn by many women, but pantyhose have dominated the market for about 50 years now.

So, for those who never had the dubious pleasure of buying stockings in the 1950s….

A run in her stocking; Lux soap ad from October 1937. Runs looked the same in 1960: a hole with unraveled knit stocking above and below it.

At the Stocking Counter

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about stockings circa 1958 was how many choices you had to make. Faced with the stocking counter — at a department store or even a “five and dime store” — you would see rows and rows of distinctive shallow boxes, each originally holding 6 pairs of stockings. The pairs were separated by layers of tissue; you could buy one pair, incurring the barely concealed scorn of the clerk who waited on you, or two or three pairs of matching stockings (if you could afford them.) Buying the whole box was a wonderful extravagance. Stockings were so fragile that the clerks sometimes wore gloves.

For a young teen, it was a confusing process. You needed to know your size, your “proportion,” the denier, the color, “seam or no-seam,” reinforced heel and toe or sandal foot, knit or “run stop”mesh….

1958 stocking size chart from the Sears catalog.

“What size?” Stockings came in seven sizes. Your stocking size was related to your shoe size, but it wasn’t the same as your shoe size. [Shoes used to come in many sizes and widths, from AAAA (very narrow) to EEE (very wide.)  I wore a shoe size 7 1/2, B width, with a (double) AA heel [Yes, you could buy a wide shoe size with a narrow heel, or many other variations.] As you can imagine, shoe stores had to carry almost as much stock as stocking counters.]

In 1958, your stocking size depended on your shoe size and your shoe width: shoe size 7, width B = stocking size 10.

However, stockings were usually held up by garters (aka suspenders) attached to a garter belt or girdle.

Garter belts, Sears 1958. Also (more accurately) called suspender belts in England.

Top left is a girdle; all the others are panty-girdles. Notice that your stocking top would need to come quite high on the thigh to attach to these garters.

Stockings attach high on the leg, with one garter in front and one in back on this panty-girdle. Sears, 1958.

The suspender part was somewhat adjustable in length, but you had to buy stockings that were long enough to reach the garter comfortably.

Proportioned Stockings for tall women; Sears, 1958. “The extra length reduces garter pull and strain…”

Finding the right proportioned stocking for your height and weight. Sears chart, 1958.  At Sears, your four proportion choices were “petite, shapely, classic, or tall.” (7 sizes x 4 lengths = 28 choices!)

There were so many size variations because 1950s’ stockings did not have much “stretch.” To answer the question “What size?” you needed to know your stocking size and your “pattern” or proportion. (Or you could tell the clerk your height and weight.)

If you wanted long enough stockings, you might have to pay more.

Sears, 1958. The cheaper stockings came in 15 or 30 denier weight, but only one length.

College memory: A friend named Mary was standing in the doorway when my roommate said, “Mary, your stockings are all wrinkled around your ankles.” Mary said, “I’m not wearing stockings. My ankles are sagging.”

Before modern stretch knits, stockings might bag or sag. Worse, if the reinforced top wasn’t high enough, when you knelt down the pull of the suspender could put too much strain on the knee, and your stocking would run or “pop.” Cheap stockings didn’t come in a full range of lengths, so I sometimes came out of church with one or both knees bulging out of big holes in my stockings. All those sizes were necessary because stockings were not very stretchy.

Stocking runs: a tiny hole would unravel the stocking both up and down your leg. This was still true in the 1960s. Lux soap claimed to improve stockings’ elasticity. Ad from 1936.

The stocking clerk might ask, “What weight?” This meant, not your own weight, but the amount of sheerness or strength you needed in the stocking. Light weight 15 denier was very sheer. 30 denier was more durable for everyday wear, and even thicker stockings were available.

“Seams or seamless?” My first stockings had seams, but the seams on the soles of my feet sometimes gave me blisters, so once I discovered seamless stockings, I always bought those. Seamless stockings were available in 1958, but I didn’t discover them for a couple of years. (A vertical seam up the back would have been more flattering to my sturdy legs, but limping on blisters didn’t improve my looks or disposition, so I chose comfort over vanity.) Besides, it’s maddening to be down to your last two intact stockings when you’re dressing for work and find that one of them has a seam and the other doesn’t.

Seamed stockings with reinforced heel and toe (and a seam under the ball of your foot.) Sears, Spring of 1958.

“Reinforced toe and heel? Sandal heel? Sheer foot?” If you wore pumps, then you could buy longer-lasting stockings with reinforced heels and toes. (Toenails or rough heels were hard on stockings.) However, by the 1940s many women wore open-toed or strap-heeled shoes, making the less durable options necessary.

Nude heel or reinforced heel in seamless stockings, Sears, 1958.

“Run stop or regular?” Runs were always a problem. A tiny snag from a chair or a fingernail would start a run racing up and down your leg. Many women kept a bottle of clear nail polish in their purse or desk drawers, because it was the only thing that could stop a run from progressing. If you dabbed a bit on the run before it passed the hem of your skirt, then the stocking might be salvaged enough for future wear. Otherwise, sheer stockings couldn’t be mended. One reason for always buying several identical pairs at the same time: as long as you had two stockings that matched, you could wear them. Once you were down to one stocking, you would probably never find a matching color or knit again, (too many brands, too many choices) so the final stocking might as well be tossed out.

Rayon mesh stockings from Sears, 1944. “Lockstitch resists runs, snags.”

Run-proof stockings were usually a mesh knit. They did get holes, but they didn’t get runs. The holes, however,  kept getting bigger….

Mesh stockings did not run, but they did get holes. And the weave was rather coarse and noticeable. Sears’ seamless mesh stockings from 1942.

“What color?” Stocking manufacturers and fashion magazines urged women to buy stockings to match every outfit. However, the woman on a budget often stuck to one or two shades. We all had drawers full of not-qute-matching stockings (usually kept in a padded box within the drawer.) Sticking to just one color matching your skin tone (or the healthy tan color you wished your legs were) was the economical choice. However, those black or dark stockings for evening were so temptingly glamourous….

Stockings from Sears to match your skin tone or your dress. 1959 catalog.

If you bought the last pairs of stockings in the box, or the whole box (six pairs,) you would be given the box itself, and therefore you would know the brand and color when you needed to buy more stockings a few weeks later.  Otherwise, stockings were simply wrapped in tissue. It was easy to forget where you bought them, the brand, and the name of the color, so your supply of single, unmatched, surviving stockings continued to grow. (One maker’s “nude” or “taupe” was rarely the same as another’s, and “suntan” could mean anything from light golden brown (in expensive brands) to orange (cheaper brands) ….

One Christmas in the Sixties, my father gave me a nightgown set that I didn’t need, so I took it back to Macy’s and exchanged it for a dozen pairs of stockings — two whole boxes! I had several blissful months of not worrying whether I had a pair of stockings that matched. Such luxury!

Next: The Pantyhose Revolution and Supermarket Stockings.

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Filed under 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Girdles, Hosiery, Hosiery, Hosiery & Stockings, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc

Seamless Stockings in 1930

Seamed stockings from Sears, Roebuck catalog, 1939.

Every costume design job is an opportunity to do more research, but there are some things that are just part of your general knowledge. For example, when I was hired to costume a college production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, which takes place in 1937, I automatically put the adult female characters in seamed stockings.

I was surprised recently when I came across this image from 1930:

Seamless stockings could be purchased at department stores in 1930! This image is from Delineator, May 1930.

I simply hadn’t come across this information before, so I checked another source: the Sears, Roebuck catalogs. There they were:

“No-Seam” hosiery for women, Sears Roebuck catalog, Fall 1930, p. 171.

No-Seam stockings text, Sears catalog, Fall 1930.

And another source….

From a fashion editorial about accessories, Delineator, September 1930.

There are some typos in the original text, as you can see, but corrected, it says, “I made a new discovery a few days ago — stockings needn’t have seams in order to fit. You may remember the old seamless stockings … which went into Grecian drapery at the ankles after their first contact with soap and water. The new Guildmode hose is knitted in a special way so that it fits just as snugly as a full fashioned stocking. It is dull [matte] and very sheer.”

“Full-fashioned” meant stockings which were shaped like the outline of a leg, curving in at the ankle, and gradually curving out over the calf area.

Before stretchier knits became available, the seam at the back was necessary for a good fit. Full-fashioned stocking illustration from Sears, 1958.

A short history: Knitted stockings have been around for hundreds of years. The simple knitted tube naturally stretched — somewhat — to the shape of the leg, but a seam up the back permitted a closer fit.  As stockings became more sheer (and more visible under short skirts) in the Nineteen Twenties, women became aware of the way the vertical seam up the back created a slenderizing line on their legs.

https://witness2fashion.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/hosiery-nov-1928-mar-1929-apr-1929-may-1929.jpg

Gordon Hosiery ads from Delineator, Nov. 1928 through May 1929.

Seams and pointed heels made these stockings flattering. Sears, Fall of 1939.

“Notice how they follow the natural shadows of the ankle — to give you slenderness and grace.”

Skirt hems went down and then up again in the Nineteen Thirties, but seamed stockings were so much a part of normal dress that women couldn’t give up that seam line even when silk or nylon stockings became unavailable during World War II.

There were no nylon or silk stockings available from Sears in 1944 because nylon and silk were needed for the war. Sears catalog index, Spring 1944.

In Spring of 1945, before the War ended,  Sears offered these un-glamourous cotton stockings. Three pairs were guaranteed to last you three months. (I.e., you would have two wearable stockings left.)

But, back to the Thirties:

Chiffon [sheer] and Service Weight stockings from Sears, Fall 1930.

Seamed rayon stockings from Sears, Fall 1930. Rayon, a synthetic fabric based on cellulose, was cheaper than silk.

At the first dress rehearsal of Brighton Beach Memoirs, the director knelt down beside my chair and whispered, “Are those seams on their stockings?” He was clearly delighted. I whispered back, “Well, stockings with seams are too expensive for our budget,** so I taught the actresses to do it the 1940s’ way: we drew ‘seams’ up the backs of their hose with an eyebrow pencil.” (The lines didn’t come out completely when we washed their sheer tights, so they just had to retrace the previous line for the next performance.)

At first, I thought the director was impressed by the seamed stockings because I was much more detail-oriented than my predecessor. Later I realized that anyone who was a teen-aged boy in the 1950s probably feels a certain nostalgia for seamed stockings, which, along with high heels and garter belts, were often seen on pin-up girls.

This 1950s’ stocking ad, shared by Sally Edelstein at Envisioning the American Dream, shows the sex appeal of seamed stockings.

Being allowed to wear high heels (or even kitten heels,) and sheer stockings held up by a garter belt was a rite of passage for girls of my generation. (I think that my first heels and stockings were required for a school field trip to the ballet [or opera?] circa 1958, when I was in 8th or 9th grade.)

Garter belts, seamed stockings, high heels, and a bouffant “crinoline” petticoat in 1958: “Today I am a woman!”

At thirteen, I was finally old enough to ask, “Are my seams straight?”

To return to my costume design for Brighton Beach Memoirs, would this new (to me) information about the existence of seamless stockings*** in 1930 have made any difference? No, because the characters in the play are struggling financially, and because they are not fashionable women. They would have worn inexpensive stockings — probably cotton, rayon, or “service weight.”

Service weight silk stockings were not as sheer as “chiffon” ones. Sears, Fall 1930.

I settled for using sheer tights with added seams because at the time of the production that was the most affordable option. Also, in college productions, most of the actors are younger than the characters they play. The two “mothers” were actually about twenty years old, and the teenaged daughters were also played by twenty year old actresses. Putting the mothers in seamed stockings and the daughters in bobby socks helped to establish an age difference.

More of my own “Garter Belt and Seamed Stockings” Memoirs to come….

** Some very good costume shop supervisors have told me that a seam can be added to inexpensive modern hosiery with an overlock sewing machine, but I haven’t tried it myself.

*** If you need a research topic, note that some of the images make reference to seamless stockings earlier than 1930.

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Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, Hosiery, Hosiery, Hosiery & Stockings, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Vintage Accessories

Learning from Browsing at CoPA

One of 64,000 pattern images you can find online at the Commercial Pattern Archive.

I know I recommend the online Commercial Pattern Archive at University of Rhode Island too often, but it just keeps revealing new reasons to visit. (Online Inventory last time I checked: 64,681 sewing patterns; mostly 1840s through 1970s.)
I can’t link to CoPA images anymore, because users now need to create a login, but you just create a user ID name and a password, and log in to use a totally free website! I never get email from them.

Two Butterick patterns from February, 1922. Delineator.

I’ve been sorting through my Delineator photos from 1922, and happened to log in to CoPA to check construction details — not really expecting to find much. However, I found a surprisingly large number of Butterick patterns from 1922 archived — and that means images of both back and front of the pattern envelope. You can see the shape of the pattern pieces!

“Armistice” blouse 1922 pattern The Commercial Pattern Archive (CoPA) has put over 60,000 vintage patterns online.

If you are trying to replicate a vintage pattern, whether you use drafting or draping, seeing the shape of the original pieces is very helpful.  And if, like me, you have no intention of re-creating the pattern, (that used to be part of my job) you can still learn a lot about vintage clothing construction.

NOTE: The images from CoPA that I show here do not reflect the quality of CoPA images online.  Because I couldn’t download them directly, I printed them, scanned them, and put them into a “500 dpi on the longest side” format. Unfortunately, I scanned the prints at the “black & white” resolution instead of at the “photograph” resolution. Image quality was lost on my scanner, not CoPA’s.

This bad image is not what Butterick 4025 looks like at the CoPA site. (https://copa.apps.uri.edu/index.php)

Elastic in 1920’s garments

There was a time when I was suspicious of any so-called vintage 1920s’ garments that depended on elastic. That was just my ignorance, based on “book learning” and classroom generalizations. Once I started really paying attention to vintage pattern magazines and pattern envelopes, my mind opened a bit!

All of these 1922 patterns include casing for elastic at the (usually lowered) waist.

Tunic Blouse 3462

Butterick tunic blouse 3462 from Delineator, January 1922.

If you sew, you know that there is a lot of information on the pattern envelope that you won’t find in the pattern’s catalog description.

CoPA shows images from the front and back of the pattern envelope whenever possible. The version at top right shows the tunic with “cascades” at the sides.

Pattern 3462 included a variation with “cascade” panels on each side, and the information that the waist could have elastic.

I’m surprised that there is no elastic casing pattern included, but it was mentioned in Delineator magazine’s pattern description (January 1922, p. 26.)

Dress 3460

Butterick 3460, Delineator, January 1922, keeps its shape with elastic at the slightly dropped waist. (Left, a Spanish comb in her hair.)

The front of the pattern envelope, from the Commercial Pattern Archive.

“Ladies’ and Misses’ One-Piece Dress, “Closed at the Back, with or without Elastic in Casing at Low Waistline or Blouse Body Lining.”

The pattern pieces for Butterick 3460, from CoPA.

This detail shows an inside belt and length of elastic. It also reminds us that the 1920s’ blouson effect was sometimes achieved with an optional inner bodice lining. (With bust dart!)

Pattern description from Delineator, January 1922.

This simple dress was also illustrated with a matching cape:

Butterick dress 3460 with matching cape, Butterick 3589. Delineator, March 1922.

Coat 3594:  This coat, which I find bulky but oddly appealing, could be controlled with elastic at the waist:

Butterick coat 3594 is gigantic, but beautifully trimmed…. Delineator, March 1922.

Butterick coat 3594 in Delineator magazine illustrations.

The front of the pattern envelope. In the online CoPA archive, the image is much clearer (and they have several copies of this pattern!)

Pattern pieces from the envelope. CoPA will tell you how to print a larger image (See CoPA Help)

Rubber elastic tends to degrade faster than the other components of the garment, so the elastic itself may not be present in a vintage dress (or underwear.) But these patterns confirm its use.

I was surprised to see this “Armistice” blouse [Not what they were originally called] issued in 1922. It can have elastic in a casing at the waist:

The “Armistice blouse” was still available as a pattern in the 1920s. The center panel is the “vestee.”

Pattern pieces for Butterick 3672 from CoPA.

Searching CoPA for a specific pattern: “Search by Pattern Number”

After you create a log-in at CoPA, you can search for any pattern by number (e.g., type in “3672” and select “Butterick” from the pattern company pull-down list. Chose “Any” collection. Results will show you images and links to further information — including the date for every pattern they have!   Say you own Vogue 1556, by Yves St. Laurent? CoPA’s archive number will tell you it was issued in 1966. (If you have an approximate date, you can also date patterns which are not in the archive by finding where they would be in the company’s number sequence and checking their resemblance to other styles and envelopes from the same year….)

Browsing through a year or group of years: use “Complete Search”

Or you can click on “Complete Search” and search by year (or a period of several years, e.g. 1920 through 1926 — just hold down the shift key while selecting.) You can limit your search in many ways (e.g., “male” + “adult;” or  “1945” + “hat” +”McCall;” or “1877 + “Any”….)

One of hundreds of McCall patterns from the 1920s you can find at the Commercial Pattern Archive. McCall 5315 from 1928.

Trying CoPA: If you love a specific decade, start with one year (e.g., “1928” + “McCall”  + Collection: “Any”) By the mid-1920s, McCall pattern envelopes had beautiful, full color illustrations. New to CoPA? Start with McCall in the 1920s, or try McCall in 1958! Less well-known pattern companies are also well-represented. Scroll though the “Pattern Company” pull-down for Hollywood, Advance, La Moda, Pictorial Review, DuBarry, & dozens more.

TIP: Be sure you set the final category (Collection) to “Any” if you want to search the complete archive. Otherwise, you’ll miss some good stuff! Also, search more than one way. “Medical uniform” (Category: Garment) got 20 results; “Nurse uniform” (Category: Keyword) got 38. It’s not a complaint; just what happens when many people try to describe things for a spreadsheet.

Next: Pattern pieces for side drapes (“cascades”.)

The dress at right has a cascade at each side.

 

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Costume Communicates

College students, Woman’s Home Companion, October 1936.

Many years ago, I finally had time to take a life drawing class. During a break, the woman next to me introduced herself. She was a psychologist. When I told her I was a costume designer, she shared this story — one that taught her the importance of dress, and how much it communicates.

When she was completing her post-graduate degree, starting to look for jobs, she was also asked to do group counseling with high school students who were having behavior problems.

As it happened, on the day of her first group session with the students she also had a very important job interview. She dressed in her best (and only) suit, with high heels she would never have worn on campus for a usual day; she got up early to do makeup and style her hair (instead of pulling it back into her usual “no-time-to-do-my hair” ponytail,) and she carried a briefcase instead of her backpack. She wanted to look as grown-up and professional as possible for the job interview.

Two dressy suits made from Butterick 7928, October 1956, Butterick Fashion News.

She went straight from the interview to her first session with the high school students. It went really well. She felt that they were glad to participate and have a chance to get help with their problems.

A week later, she went straight from attending her own university classes to the high school. That session did not go so well. The students didn’t volunteer or participate as they had. They became quiet, sullen, obviously bored. Every week, every session felt worse. The students who had been so eager were almost hostile now. The young psychologist stayed up nights trying to figure out how to get the group sessions back to that promising first day.

Finally she realized she had to deal with the problem openly; she asked, “What changed?” One girl was willing to answer:

“That first day you came, you seemed to really be interested in us; you listened to us, and we thought maybe you could help make things better. You were all dressed up, and we thought ‘Somebody important cares about us!‘ But then you saw that we was just poor kids, and the next time you came here looking just any-old-way because we didn’t matter.”

“Oh, dear god,” thought the young psychologist. It hadn’t occurred to her that dressing as what she really was — a graduate student in college — would send that signal to them. She realized that being dressed formally had given her extra authority, and built confidence that she was really a doctor. But she hadn’t considered the reverse. She had never thought to carefully explain her real status:  she was a student, like them; poor, like them.  And being honest months later — “I really needed that job, so I tried to look professional and grown-up for the interview” — didn’t help, because it still meant she hadn’t thought it was equally important to dress professionally for them — clients who didn’t pay.

It’s a sad story that has stuck with me all these years. The shaman’s feathers and paint, the doctor’s white coat, the banker’s suit: clothes establish our identity. Whatever we wear tells other people something about who we are, what they can expect from us, and how we expect to be treated. Like it or not, costume communicates.

Doctor, nurse, and baby in an ad from 1937. Delineator.

We know at a glance that this is not a family; and we know these people are trying to help the baby — because we can “read” their clothes, without any conscious thought about what is going on here. We read each other all the time.

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Balenciaga at the V & A : Museum Exhibitions Online

Design by Cristobal Balenciaga, 1965. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.

The Vintage Traveler recently shared an FIT symposium on museum exhibitions of fashion.
That reminded me of some extraordinary videos that were part of “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion” at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The exhibition closed in February, 2018, but the V&A has generously posted the videos made for the exhibit online, so we can all enjoy them. [Note to other museums: Go, thou, and do likewise! Once the exhibition closes, put the videos online!] Unfortunately, the still photos from the exhibition are under copyright, as are most other museum pictures of Balenciagas — so please click on the links.

I didn’t see the exhibition in London, but it appears to have used technology to very good purpose. I’ve whiled away hours watching the V&A’s exemplary videos.
This link will take you to the V&A website, where you can read about Balenciaga and watch three marvelous videos illustrating exactly how his minimalist but extraordinary patterns come together into “Balenciagas.” Click here for Secrets of Balenciaga’s Construction

The museum took X-Ray photos of some of the Balenciagas on exhibit. This link includes another fascinating video. You can see hidden weights controlling the drape, and, occasionally, a straight pin!

A V&A video about the custom beading on a glittering evening coat is found here.

In “Learning from the Master: Deconstructing Balenciaga,” the Museum invited a group of advanced design students from the London College of Fashion to create patterns and toiles from Balenciaga gowns in the museum’s collection. If you sew or drape, this is for you! ( I’m thinking of you, Fifty Dresses….)

“Shaping Fashion: Balenciaga” is another well-done video from the V&A. You can watch designs by Balenciaga morph into designs by other famous couturiers. (I just wish all the V&A’s videos were together in one place online!)

A preview of the entire exhibit can be found in the AP Archives: click here.

Until I started searching museum collections for Balenciaga designs, I hadn’t appreciated how much he influenced my wardrobe in the late 1950s/60s. Not that I ever wore couture (ha!) but because the inexpensive clothes I did wear and saw worn everywhere were inspired by his work. My first wool suit (home-made) was a distant echo of this one. Party and prom dresses worn by my friends owed a debt to this simple & elegant flowered dress. (Note the shape of the skirt.) The shape of this coat was everywhere, and I bought a long formal in green brocade with soft pleats at the waist (circa 1964,) reminiscent of the dress under it.

More Online About this Exhibition

Many who visited the exhibition posted images or videos on YouTube; here are a few blogs or videos about it.

At 12 minutes long, this video from Stitchless TV gives a good idea of how well-thought-out this exhibition apparently was. Click here for a “walk through” that includes much besides the videos posted more clearly at the V&A site. It shows the “upstairs” part of the exhibit, which features designers who trained with or were inspired by “The Master.”

This video by Natalie (at Time with Natalie) gives a good “walk through” (starting at one minute in.)

Betty Raen at The London List captures some photos that show more of the exhibit.

For a quick taste, try Fashion Expedition’s report.

The Arcadia online blog previews the exhibit (with illustrations, of course.) Many designs by students of “the Master” are shown.

This link includes a photo of the pink “Tulip Dress” which is magically reconstructed in a V&A video.

As the late Anthony Bourdain said, “I’m still hungry for more.”

More Balenciaga exhibitions:

“Balenciaga and His Legacy:” was presented at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, Texas on February 3, 2007 by the Texas Fashion Collection. Click here. This video is not too dark, unlike others; but it’s not really in focus, either…. However — you won’t see the same creations featured elsewhere. Worth a taste.

When you have had your fill of evening gowns, this video from the Museo Cristobal Balenciaga shows superb construction on wool suits and other daytime clothing. Some of the images are too dark, but other close-ups are superb.

If you still want more Balenciaga, this 2011 exhibition, “Balenciaga and Spain,” from The DeYoung museum in San Francisco is 17 minutes long and traces Balenciaga’s development and early influences  …. sadly, the lighting and photo quality are not good. Films of his showroom are good.

This short video of “Balenciaga: Spanish Master” exhibition from New York is different and definitely worth watching.

Also creative and interesting: this video from ICONIC.

When you have time to relax, pour yourself a cup of your favorite beverage, put your feet up, and enjoy these videos and blogs.

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Filed under 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Capes, Coats, Exhibitions & Museums, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Vintage Couture Designs, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing