Category Archives: A Costumers’ Bookshelf

Mutton Dressed as Lamb?

Youthful puffed sleeves, McCall’s pattern 4547 circa 1975.

Last month, I received a letter which posed some interesting questions about fashion and age:

“I would like to ask you a question: In which era did the idea develop
that women after a certain age are not supposed to wear very feminine
designs such as puffed sleeves, slim waists, lots of lace, pastel
colours or patterns with flowers? As far as I know, there have almost in
every era been ideas about what women are supposed to wear at which age.
I know designs from the 1930s and 1940s showing dresses for different
ages, with wider waists for elder ladies. But I guess this just
corresponds to larger sizes, and probably a slim lady of 70 years could
then have worn dresses with slim waists.

“Anyway, it must have been an era when feminine designs were considered
attractive and youthful – perhaps the 1950s?

“I am 39 years old and I cannot imagine myself not wanting to wear these
designs anymore, when I will be older….”

Well, I can start by noting that men have been making fun of older women who didn’t dress their age for a long time.

Padded bottoms from Pinterest. 18th c. cartoon.

Historically, and in cartoons and literature (mostly made by men,) older women who dress as if they were sexy young things are ridiculed. The British expression (going back at least 200 years) for such a woman is “Mutton dressed as lamb.”

(A mutton is a fully mature sheep. Mutton chops have a strong, gamy taste and smell that lamb chops do not have. On the day when Lizzie Borden did or did not murder her parents, her breakfast was cold mutton soup….)

I.e., mutton dressed as lamb is not a good thing to be.

The old woman at left is ridiculed for attempting to dress as a young woman. Note the old man with a young beauty at far right….

The blog “Americanagefashion” is devoted to the topic of clothing for American women over 55.

“Dressing your age” is a thorny problem. The goal of using makeup and dressing to express your personality is always to look like your current self at your best. If we cling to the fashions and hair and makeup styles that made us look our best when we were 18 or 25, eventually we will look ridiculous to people who are actually that age.

Do Adjust Your Makeup

The idea is NOT to look like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Maybelline ad, April 1929. My Aunt Dot still had a marcel wave in 1980.

In the 1980s, I used to see women on the bus who were still applying their makeup as they did in 1929.

Maybelline ad, December 1929.

Thinly penciled dark eyebrows (unrelated to hair color,) coal black eyeliner and tons of mascara (often applied badly, because they couldn’t see well without glasses [I now have this problem, myself,] dark red lips in a Cupid’s bow (extending far above their upper lip line) — these were women who were living in the past, and sadly oblivious to the changes in their faces and to the fact that “the fashion in faces” changes, too.

After teaching so many actors how to do an “age makeup” (including one actor in his 60s who was playing a 90 year old man,) I’m all too aware of the changes that come with age.  Cartilage continues to grow, so old people’s noses are often larger than they once were. Our lips tend to turn in with age, making them appear thinner. The space between the nose and upper lip may seem longer, and our eyebrows get closer to our eyes. The flesh above the eyes gets puffy and sometimes sags until it touches our eyelashes. In some cases, it impairs our vision. Some of us get under-eye bags or dark areas. Uneven skin tones and blotches may appear. (And I haven’t even mentioned how hard it is to apply eye makeup to wrinkled skin….) At 75, I currently need a 15X magnifying mirror to see what I’m doing, and that means I won’t see both eyes at the same time until I finish and put on my glasses. Often, I have to do some correcting to make both eyes look symmetrical!)

In short, we have to take a fresh look at ourselves every few years, and learn to apply makeup to the face we have now, not the face we remember.

Do Rethink Your Wardrobe Occasionally

As for dressing at sixty as you dressed at 27, well, if you always preferred classic styles and modest hemlines, you’ll probably be fine. (And I do consider jeans and shirts or knit tops to be as classic as suits and dresses.) However, extreme fashions don’t always age well.

Really wide padded shoulders from Givenchy. Vogue 2303, 1989.

I had some really flattering clothes in the 1980s & early 90s. But I gained 12 lbs one year, and by the time those clothes fit again, their huge shoulder pads were laughable. I could not possibly wear them to work — not when my job was telling other people —  actors — what to wear!

On the Other Hand

We’re probably lucky to be in an almost-anything-goes fashion era now, when hem length is not rigidly fixed, and mixing vintage and new is OK. Also, a woman with confidence and joie de vivre can often break the rules and look fabulous.

Twenty years ago, I was was waiting for a light to change when I saw a man and a woman walking together with their backs to me. She was wearing a black, brimmed hat (maybe crocheted?) with a black mini-dress, black hose, and knee high black suede boots. Her shining platinum blonde hair hung half-way to her waist. She was the embodiment of prosperous Hippie chic, circa 1967 -68. Suddenly she took a few dance steps, flung out her arms and twirled around. When I saw her face, I realized that her hair was not platinum. It was silver-white. She was a happy, smiling woman in her sixties. She was lively, flirtatious, and beautiful. She was breaking some of the “rules:” ‘dress your age, not younger’ and ‘don’t wear the styles that you wore when you were young.’ She was very attractive — because she was confident and joyous. Ari Seth Cohen would have photographed her if he saw her.

When and Why Dress in Black?

But to get back to the “when” part of the question, I have a lot of conjectures, and allowance for different cultural attitudes must be made. (E.g., are widows allowed to remarry in your culture? Is wearing trousers modest or immodest behavior in your country? Etc.) Also, many people are uncomfortable thinking of their parents and grandparents as sexually active….

Discouraging older women from wearing pastel colors or brightly flowered textiles may go back to Victorian/Edwardian mourning customs. By the time a woman was fifty, there was a very good chance that someone in her immediate family had died within the year. Grandparents, parents, aunt & uncles, possibly her husband…. Since wearing plain, black clothing for a year after the death of a close relative was customary, some women never got out of mourning. First a grandparent, then a parent, perhaps a sister or a child, …. Consequently, many older women just wore black all the time. I attended a church-sponsored Greek Picnic in the 1960s, and all the older women were wearing black. So were some teenagers.

[Lavender was the one pastel worn by Victorians and Edwardians while transitioning from black mourning to normal dress. But “lavender and old lace” were associated with age.]

Poor women don’t have a lot of clothing, so once they dyed all their clothes black after a death, they wore them until they wore out.

As for slim waists, I don’t think older women ever padded them! However, our bodies do change, and a thickening of the waist and loss of height are common. Multiple childbirths will also change a woman’s figure. Lynn Mally at Americanagefashion.com has written a lot about “half sizes” for aging female bodies.

When you’re older and you lose weight, it may come off in unexpected places. Even though I dropped many pounds a few years ago, my formerly hourglass waist is now bigger in relation to my hips and bust than it ever was before age 60 — but I had to alter some sagging trousers in back because my butt had disappeared!

Short puffy sleeves from Woman’s Home Companion, March 1936.

As for sleeves, many older women are self-conscious about our “bat wings:” just read a bit of this blog and you’ll know why older women prefer longer sleeves to sleeves that show our upper arms. When I lost 40 pounds at age 13, my skin shrank to fit immediately. Ditto when I lost weight at 40. But after a lifetime of gaining and losing weight, we can’t expect that automatic skin shrinkage in our 60s and 70s.  Now, if I want to fill out the loose skin on my arms, I need to build some muscles! So — short puffy sleeves lose their appeal. And elbow length puffy sleeves just remind me of the 1980s….

Laura Ashley pattern 8432 for McCall’s, dated 1983.  Been there, done that….

Of course, sex appeal comes into this problem. I’m old, now; but I have never consciously dressed with the hope of picking up a stranger and having sex with him that night. In fact, whenever a clearly intoxicated man “hit on me” at a party or in public, I usually wondered what I had done to send the wrong signal. (I usually concluded that he must have been wearing “Beer Goggles,” because I generally wore clothes that were entirely appropriate for office work or teaching school. My rare low-cut dress was strictly for parties at friends’ houses.)  So, how does a woman in her 60s or 70s dress “sexy” without seeming ridiculous? Well, I didn’t try to dress sexy in my 20s, so I’m not qualified to tell you how to do it at 75!  That said, good grooming, a positive attitude, and a sincere interest in the other person are always attractive…. but those qualities attract friends. Sexual attraction may be a different problem.

A book that helped me adjust to my changing role was Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style. I loved the first book he did, although by the time he made the film, some of his favorites (women with plenty of money) became stars who started to overshadow the many women who looked fabulous on a limited budget. Wearing fabulous and massive jewelry isn’t an option for most of us.

But a positive attitude doesn’t cost a cent.

 

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Filed under 1700s, 1800s-1830s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Edwardian fashions, Late Victorian fashions, Makeup & Lipstick, Musings

Birth of the Three Piece Suit: October, 1666

How did men go from wearing suits like this:

Petticoat breeches, British, 1660. Victoria and Albert Museum; image from Boucher, 20,000 Years of Fashion.

… to wearing suits like this?

Man’s three piece suit illustrated in Esquire, Autumn, 1933.

Suit with petticoat breeches, from Boucher; 1666. You couldn’t have too many ribbons….

There aren’t many changes in fashion which can be dated to a specific moment, but the change from petticoat breeches to the trio of coat/jacket, matching breeches, and a matching or coordinating vest was inaugurated in England on Monday, October 15, 1666. It is considered to be the birth of the Three Piece Suit.

When Charles II was restored to the throne of England after years of Puritanical rule, the king brought with him the extravagant styles worn in European courts.

English King Charles II with his queen, 1662. Source: Cunnington: Costume in Pictures.

In October, 1666, Charles declared his intention to start a new fashion for men. Diarist Samuel Pepys held an official position in government and was present at the court of King Charles II on that day. When Pepys went home, he wrote in his diary for October 8:

“The King hath yesterday in Council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how; but it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.”

NOTE: About the word “vest:” The gulf between British and American English may be more confusing than usual, because clothing vocabulary is very subject to change. (For example, a “bodice,” i.e., the top section of a dress, began as “a pair of bodies,” meaning the two sides of a corset.) In 20th c. England, “vest” came to mean a sleeveless undergarment worn by men, while they called the garment which goes over the shirt but under the coat a “weskit” or “waistcoat.” However, in 1666, even in England, although the vest was worn under a coat, a “vest” was meant to be seen, and through the 18th century, a vest might even have sleeves. Perhaps we should think of Charles II’s “Persian vest” as a “vestment” or “clothing” rather than the waist-length garment the “vest” later became, especially in America.

 After a few years in England (and perhaps in a spirit of competition) Charles decided to break with the distinctly un-thrifty French fashions of Louis XIV’s court. (One way Louis kept his nobles from becoming too powerful was by forcing them to live at court and spend lavishly….) Here is King Louis in his petticoat breeches and cropped top:

King Louis XIV receiving Swiss Ambassadors, 1663 painting by Van Meulen. From Boucher’s 20,000 Years of Fashion.

Why a “Persian vest?” The English writer (and courtier) John Evelyn had returned from travels in the East in 1666, filled with enthusiasm for the men’s clothing he saw there. (See Barton’s Historic Costume for the Stage.)

Once King Charles II had declared his intention of starting a new fashion for men, his courtiers literally tried to “follow suit.” On Saturday, October 13, Pepys visited the Duke of York, who had just returned from hunting and was changing his clothes. “So I stood and saw him dress himself, and try on his vest, which is the King’s new fashion, and will be in it for good and all on Monday next, and the whole Court: it is a fashion, the King says; he will never change.”

On Monday, October 15, Pepys recorded “This day the King begins to put on his vest, and I did see several persons of the House of Lords and Commons too, great courtiers, who are in it; being a long cassocke close to the body, of black cloth, and pinked with white silke under it, and a coat over it, and the legs ruffled with black riband like a pigeon’s leg; and, upon the whole, I wish the King may keep it, for it is a very fine and handsome garment.

A gentleman in knee-length coat, long vest, and breeches, 1670. Source: Cunnington.

Fashion — even by royal decree — doesn’t change instantly, but after about 1670, petticoat breeches and short jackets were being replaced by the knee length coat, less voluminous breeches, and a waistcoat or vest that gradually got shorter — in relation to the coat — over the 18th century.

King Louis XIV and Family, painted in 1711. From Boucher: 20,000 Years of Fashion. The King’s vest matches his brown coat and breeches; the man at right wears a brocade vest with a red coat and matching red breeches.

“Attempts have been made to trace to Persia the origin of the coat which about 1670 ousted the short doublet from fashionable wardrobes. It is true that the first coats closely resembled the contemporary Persian garment, which in its turn had not changed much from the ancient Persian coat …. It is true also that Sir John Evelyn returned from Persia in 1666 enthusiastic about the native costume. (Pepys made an entry about it in that year.) Nevertheless it was four years after that date when the new garment actually replaced the short doublet at both French and English courts…. Be that as it may, here was a coat, and the history of masculine dress from that day to this is largely a record of the changes rung up on that essentially unchanged garment.” — Lucy Barton, Historic Costume for the Stage, page 276.

The progress of the three piece suit introduced by Charles II in 1666 is a gradual evolution. The vest gradually got shorter:

The vest or waistcoat of 1735 was still quite long, although not nearly as long as the coat. Cunnington.

This gentleman’s vest is still thigh length in 1785. (Boucher.)

During the French Revolution and the Directory, vests approached the waist. (Kybalova et al: Encyclopedie illustree du Costume and de la Mode.)

In the drawing above, the coat is cut away to show more of the legs — still in knee breeches. But the radical Revolutionaries were called thesans culottes,” because they didn’t wear breeches. They wore long trousers (pantalons.)

A “sans culotte” revolutionary drawn in 1793. Note his wooden shoes, or “sabots.” Source: Kybalovna, et al.

An actor dressed as a revolutionary, dated 1792 by Kybalova.

The coat is cut away to show just a bit of vest (stopping at the waist) and to expose tight, pale-colored breeches. (Cunnington) This is the ancestor of the modern “White Tie and Tails” formal wear.

After the revolution, when there was once again a French court, a gentleman might wear knee breeches for formal occasions and pantalons for more casual dress.

Two gentlemen, circa 1810 1811, from Kybalova’s Enc. illustree du Costume. The vest/waistcoat at right just reaches the waist. The pantalons are very tight.

In this illustration from 1872, Charles Dickens (left) wears a short frock coat with a waistcoat of different fabric and long trousers. Benjamin Disraeli (right) is wearing a suit of “dittoes:” a three piece suit made from one fabric.

Victorian gentlemen. The “suit” could be all one fabric (right) or two or three different fabrics. 1872. Cunnington.

These suits from 1933 came with matching vests. Esquire magazine.

But, for less formal or country occasions, a contrasting vest could be worn:

Gray suit worn with contrasting vest. Esquire, April 1934.

The King of Denmark also wore a contrasting vest — in 1785. (Styles worn at royal courts tended to be slow to change. Knee breeches were still worn at the British court in the 1900s, as this cigarette card from 1911 shows.

Clothing actually worn by King Frederick of Denmark, 1785. From Boucher. (museum photo, Rosenborg Castle.)

There’s a very good article about King Charles II and the introduction of the “Persian vest” here.

Sources for images in this blog post: 

Francois Boucher: 20,000 Years of Fashion

Phyllis Cunnington: Costume in Pictures

Lucy Barton, Historic Costume for the Stage

Ludmila Kybalova et al, Encyclopedie illustree du Costume et de la Mode (1970)

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Filed under 1700s, 1800s-1830s, 1860s -1870s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 17th Century, Costumes for the 18th Century, Costumes for the 19th century, Menswear, Suits for Men

Recommended Reading: Seeing Through Clothes, by Anne Hollander

NOTE: This post is illustrated with many drawings and paintings of nude figures. If you would be offended, Please Stop Reading NOW!

I put off writing about this very influential book (first published in 1978) because I don’t currently have a copy. I kept buying Seeing Through Clothes in paperback and giving it away to friends! (And my public library is currently closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.) (For a range of other opinions and reviews of Seeing Through Clothes, click here.)

Artist drawing a model while using a grid. By Albrecht Durer, via Wikimedia. From a book published in 1538.

For costume (and art) historians, Hollander’s book is fascinating because one of her chief topics is the difficulty of ever “seeing” a person or image without screening what we see through our own cultural bias. To some extent, we automatically “correct” a human face or body as we draw it, to conform to our learned ideas of beauty. We usually realize that “fashion figures” — and especially editorial drawings — are exaggerated. But even “realistic” drawings of human beings can be influenced by current fashions.

About Life Drawing
My own two bits: Remember, we don’t just see with our eyes; we see with our brains. The lens of the eye turns the image upside down; our brains turn the image right side up, and also interpret what we’re looking at. For example, many years ago a small part of my retina was damaged. The eye doctor assured me that my brain would be able to “fill in” the tiny blank near the center of vision in my right eye — and after a few weeks, it did. It’s like a computer program deducing from other clues what “belongs” in the blank spot.
If my brain does something that complex without my being aware of it, imagine how powerfully our learned, cultural conceptions of beauty (or normalcy) may be re-interpreting what we see.

Sketch from a Life Drawing class. I didn’t intend to generalize her face as if I were making a fashion sketch, but that’s what I did.

I have also spent many hours in “life study” art classes, so I do know something about the process of drawing or painting the human body from a live model. David Hockney has pointed out that we are always drawing from memory; we look at the model, and then we have to look at the paper when we make our marks: a few seconds looking, a few seconds drawing; repeat; repeat; repeat…. Yes, artists do practice “blind drawing,” i.e., looking at the model without looking at the drawing they are making. This practice teaches them to match the speed of their pencil moving across the paper to the speed of their eye traveling along the object. It’s hard, especially since our glance normally skips rapidly from place to place. But few artists do all their drawing by this method. In practice, we look; we draw the tiny bit we remember; repeat.

The apparently pregnant belly and wide hips of the woman at left (drawn by Durer, 1493) echoes the fashion silhouette of the 1400s, painted by Van Eyck. (1434.)

Since I can’t share the images from Hollander’s book, I’ll fill in with a few of my own — and “Thank you!” to all the museums now making paintings available online! (For images not in public domain, I linked to them, so please do follow the links.)

Hollander uses many paintings from Western culture to support her thesis. Nudes are especially interesting, because — once she points it out — we can see that artists working from a live model will unconsciously adjust the figure to reflect the silhouette of current fashions. Waists become as narrow as if the model were wearing a corset. This painting from the 1840s reminds me that the full skirt (below a tiny waist) covered big bottoms and hips. (Plumpness was admired, to some extent.)

Tiny waist, wide hips. Fashion plate from Casey Collection, dated May 1840.

Busts sometimes become impossibly high — again reflecting the influence of the corset. (We might quibble that wearing a corset from childhood on will deform the body somewhat, but not in defiance of gravity!) Nude hips may also become wider or narrower as fashion dictates.

Dress dated 1747, from Metropolitan Museum collection. The corset pushes the bust up, flattens the bottom of the breasts, and elongates the waist.

The torso may be lengthened to match an 18th century fashion silhouette, as in this painting. Note the distance between the high breasts and the waist. In the two “Graces” at the sides, the lower body, hidden by 18th century skirts, is not nearly as slender as the upper torso. Also, take a good look at the breast of the woman at left. It might as well be corseted.

Detail of The Three Graces by Carl van Loo, dated 1765. Public domain in US et al, via wikimedia.

Legs may be longer, shoulders may droop, depending on the ideal “beauty” of the era. There are fashions in faces, too. Full, natural eyebrows go in and out of fashion. Mouths are sometimes exaggeratedly full (as now) or tiny and heart shaped, as in the early Victorian period or the 1920s.

Tiny, “Cupid’s Bow” lips, from a Kleenex ad, 1925.

My mother with “Cupid’s Bow” lips. 1920s.

Once wearing makeup became respectable, women could alter their natural lip shape and eyebrows. Even the fashion in faces is subject to change.

All this influence of fashion on drawing is important for costume historians, because we only have about 190 years of photographs for research. Before that, everything we see in historical research was filtered through an artist’s eyes. [And the cost of being painted means we mostly see rich people. There’s a problem with accuracy there, too: if the portrait does not show the sitter as he or she wants to be seen, the consequences for the painter of kings and queens and dictators can be more serious than just not getting paid!]

Contemporary image of the Queen of the Eglinton Tournament, 1839. Click here to see it larger.

One especially obvious era when secondary sources cannot be trusted is the Early Victorian period. There was a great interest in the Middle Ages because of the very popular novels of Sir Walter Scott, especially Ivanhoe, set in the reign of Richard Lionheart. The Eglinton Tournament of 1839 was an excuse for members of the upper classes to commission costumes to wear for the re-enacted Tournament and to many costume balls. Many aristocrats had their portraits painted while wearing fancy dress. (Click here for Victoria and Albert in “medieval” dress.)

Detail of 1839 Tournament of Eglinton. Note the Victorian silhouettes, hairstyles, and ruffles. (Not to mention kilts….)

The Queen of the Tournament and her attendants (behind her) wear gowns with the drooping shoulders of 1839.

Evening dress fashion plate; May 1840.

Many “great houses” now open to the public contain portraits which were painted ( or “restored”) in the Victorian period. This portrait of Louisa Anne Berenson was painted in 1859-1860. It’s a Victorian idea of Renaissance dress — not to be mistaken for a primary source in 16th century costume research!

Some 19th century actors strove for authentic costuming, but they didn’t have access to the research materials we have today. And adaptations were made to keep the actor looking attractive to the audience, as defined by contemporary styles. Here is an evening gown from 1824:

1824 fashion plate from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum.

The high waist and long, relatively narrow skirt with a decorative band around the bottom influenced the following costume illustration for a Tudor queen; in 1828, Sara Siddons (who retired in 1812) was illustrated in the role of  Queen Catherine, wife of Henry VIII, in Shakespeare’s play.

Mrs. Siddons as Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England, divorced by Henry VIII circa 1529.

Portraits of Catherine made during her lifetime do not show a high waistline, even through she was rather portly.

Costumes for the theatre sometimes show bizarre adaptation to fashions: to conform to Victorian notions of modesty, Mrs. Charles Kean wore a hoop or crinoline under her “Roman” costumes! Here she is playing Lady Macbeth in 1858. ( The historic Macbeth died in 1057. No crinolines!) **

Mrs. Charles Kean plays Lady Macbeth opposite her husband, Charles Kean. The Keans were proud of their historic accuracy…. 1858; public domain image.

Click here for a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots painted in her lifetime; this is how she was portrayed in 1885.

If Dover’s Historic Costume in Pictures sometimes looks a little “off” to you, consider that its plates were drawn between 1861 and 1890.

** The subject of costumes for Shakespeare’s plays is long and complex. After all, “Contemporary dress” can mean “contemporary with the date when the play was written, [Macbeth circa 1606]” or “contemporary with the date when the play is set, [Macbeth circa 1050]” or even “contemporary as in ‘right now.’ ”  [modern dress.]”  I gave a lecture on how Shakespeare’s plays were costumed over four centuries for a meeting of the Costume Society in Ashland, Oregon, many years ago. If I am ever able to convert my slides into digital form, I may post it here, someday!

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Filed under 1800s-1830s, 1920s-1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 16th century, Costumes for the 18th Century, Musings, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade

Book Recommendation: Three Books by Ruth Gordon, plus Vanity Fair

I am indulging an old addiction by re-reading all of Ruth Gordon’s non-fiction books. Most people know her from the movie Harold and Maude, (in which she is perfectly cast!) but she was already a well-known stage actress. (She started in 1915, flunked out of drama school, wouldn’t give up; by the 1930s she was a huge hit in London and on Broadway; she gave 1,078 performances as Dolly Gallagher Levi in The Matchmaker, and was nominated for a Tony award in 1956.)
She was a playwright (selling an autobiographical play to MGM for $100,000 in 1952 — it’s called The Actress, and Spencer Tracy plays her father;) a screenwriter (5 Oscar nominations with her husband Garson Kanin, including the Tracy/Hepburn comedies like Adam’s Rib.)
And she won her first Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in Rosemary’s Baby in 1968-69. (She was 72 years old; she’d been acting since 1915.)  Accepting it, she said, “I can’t tell ya how encouragin’ a thing like this is….) See her acceptance speech here:
She published three books in her 70s and 80s; won an Emmy when she was 83 ….  In other words, a good role model for all of us!
I want some of her zest for life to rub off on me. (And her memory for funny stories. Among her many, many friends: Harpo Marx, Thornton Wilder, Charles Laughton, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Dorothy Parker, Walter Matthau …. A lot of laughter!)

Typical story: In the 1910s, Ruth was still a nobody, but she was friends with a Broadway star who asked her to keep her company on the way to a movie audition. The would-be movie actress was asked to improvise a scene. She was shown a movie set which contained a table with a vase of flowers, a letter, and a pistol. As Ruth described the try-out, (I’m paraphrasing:) The actress enters the room. She goes to the table. She sees the letter. She opens the letter. It’s bad news. It’s terrible news! She sees the gun. She picks up the gun. She shoots the letter.

And she didn’t get the part! I guess the studio already had a comedienne.

Another story: When Gordon was a Broadway star herself and a member of the Algonquin Round Table (along with writers and wits  Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker…,) she was also a friend of silent movie and stage star Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy. The Gish sisters were living in an apartment in New York. The apartment was on an upper floor, and the Gish sisters had a pet parrot. Its wings were clipped, so it was free to wander around indoors. One summer day, they forgot that the window was open and let the parrot out of his cage. It hopped on to a chair, then on to the table, and then, to their horror, it hopped up on the windowsill and flew out the window — and immediately realized that it couldn’t fly.

“Oh, dear!” it cried, flapping its wings,
                                                                      “OH dear!,”
                                                                                                 “OOOOH DEAR!” all the way down.

Luckily it landed on a canvas-covered truck, rode to New Jersey, and was returned to the Gish sisters, a sadder but wiser bird.

Top left, Ruth Gordon, with Raymond Massie and Pauline Lord on Broadway in Ethan Frome, 1936. Photo by Steichen from Vanity Fair.

But I don’t read Gordon’s autobiographical books just for the laughs. She writes as if the reader is an old friend, so reading her is like chatting over lunch with a fabulous friend who is wise and shrewd and full of stories, with 80 years of life experience and still interested in everything.
She’s very honest about her life — triumphs and failures, happy memories and regrets. Her first husband died when he was only 36; (she was several years younger.) Later, after an affair with a married man,  she chose to raise her illegitimate son, rather than pretend he was adopted, as other stars did in the same situation. She was often broke, embarrassed by owing money to her more successful friends. When she was successful — as an actor and a writer — she wore couture and loved it. (Of course she wrote about the experience of shopping couture; the pink satin gown she wore while accepting her Oscar was a Givenchy.)
She has total recall of every dress her mother made for her or that she wore early in her career. (And I wonder, exactly what was “tango-colored” in 1913?)
But she also writes about poverty in her teens, when she and her factory-worker father sold everything — including her few childhood books — to pay for her mother’s care after a stroke. Struggling to get a start in her acting career, she was hungry enough to consider the “casting couch” route. If you want to know what it was like to tour with a play that opened in a different city every day, Ruth can tell you. (Some hotels didn’t accept actors, so she claimed to be a traveling saleswoman for Onyx Hosiery.)

Onyx Hosiery ad, 1910.

She made headlines during World War II:
“‘Actress forty-six marries film director thirty.” Her husband said he liked the headline. “If it said ‘Actress forty-five’ a lot of people would say ‘She’s fifty if she’s a day,’ but when an actress says she’s forty-six, you have to believe her.” It was a long, happy, successful marriage and writing collaboration. And the snappy exchange of dialogue in those Spencer Tracy/Kathrine Hepburn movies was the work of Ruth Gordon and her husband, Garson Kanin. (Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, etc.)
Incidentally, the only award she usually mentions was that Oscar in 1969.  In 1915, The American Academy of Dramatic Arts told her “Don’t come back. You don’t show any promise.” In 1968, they asked her to come back to give her an Award for Achievement and to make a speech to the students. Boy, did she!
Here’s Ruth:
“I think what it takes is don’t give up! DON’T GIVE UP! Just don’t give up and that sounds like a put-down, but it isn’t. And it sounds as though it’s easy and it isn’t. DON’T GIVE UP! I learned that at the Academy and it was all I did learn. It wasn’t what my father paid four hundred dollars [tuition] for, but it may be the best lesson I was ever taught. DON’T GIVE UP! …. At the end of the year [Mr. Sargent] said, “Don’t come back. You don’t show any promise….”
I was scared. I was scared I wouldn’t find out how to be an actress because in that year the school hadn’t taught me. I’m smart and I can learn, but the school hadn’t given me a clue. Four hundred dollars and all I got for it was fright, because even to myself I didn’t show any promise….  ‘Don’t come back,’ he said. That’s a terrible thing, you could drop dead…. You could kill yourself…. You could give up….
Or you could learn something. Isn’t that what we came to the Academy for? So I learned something and what I learned here was and is DON’T GIVE UP…. When somebody says to you,”You’re not pretty enough,” “You’re too tall,” You’re too short,” “Your personality’s not what we’re looking for,” DON’T GIVE UP!’ “
I bet she enjoyed saying every word of that! And she said a lot more, too…
“Most every moment along the way takes courage. Courage is like a strain of yoghurt culture, if you have some you can have some more.” (From An Open Book.)
Start by reading My Side, her autobiography. Published in 1976, available in paperback or hardback. Her style is conversational; she skips from topic to topic and memory to memory as if she was chatting with you, but once I decided to go with her flow, it was wonderful! And, if you want to know more about shooting movies, Ruth tells you the details of filming Harold and Maude.
Next, An Open Book,  published in 1980. (It includes that lecture at The Academy.}

Then, if you’re hungry for more,   Myself Among Others , published in 1971. You probably haven’t heard of many of the early 20th century celebrities Gordon knew well and writes about. Luckily for me, I bought an anthology of articles and celebrity photos from Vanity Fair magazine in the 1920s when I was a teenager in 1960 and didn’t own many other books. This photo of Leslie Howard permanently warped my idea of “an attractive man.”

How to wear a top hat, white tie, and tails: Leslie Howard photographed by Steichen for Vanity Fair, 1934.

Not only did this book prepare me for many of the plays I have designed costumes for, it acted as my first door into a different era, with jokes and essays by many writers and critics who were household names in the 1920s and 1930s.  If you love those decades, it’s full of photos and articles — not about the 1920s and 1930s but from the 1920s and 1930s. Many copies are available online, from under $4.

So, in addition to Ruth Gordon’s various memoirs,  I also recommend Vanity Fair: A Cavalcade of the 1920s and 1930s, edited by Cleveland Amory and Frederic Bradlee.

Clara Bow, photographed by Dyer for Vanity Fair in 1928.

And if you haven’t seen Ruth Gordon at work as an actress, forgive Harold and Maude for being so “Seventies” and just watch a genius at work. (It’s on YouTube and on Prime.) A big part of acting is listening — I just watched a brief clip and now I want to watch the whole movie again. Gordon also gave a Golden Globe-winning (and Oscar nominated) performance as Daisy Clover’s mentally ill mother in Inside Daisy Clover. (1966) It is not a good movie, but Gordon is truthful and real in every scene she has.

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Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, 1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Men's Formalwear & Evening, Musings

April 1914: Pygmalion Costumes and Stories

Most people know the play Pygmalion in its musical comedy version, My Fair Lady.

From the jacket of Huggett’s book, The Truth About Pygmalion. Left, Sir Herbert Beerbom Tree as Henry Higgins; Right, Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle.

George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion first opened in London in April, 1914. There are lots of photos of this production and of the original costumes.

1914 photos of Mrs. Pat as Eliza Doolittle. She was wearing the costume on the right (in Act III) when Eliza shocked London by uttering the phrase, “not bloody likely!”

Contemporary cartoons show Eliza wearing a feathered hat more like this one with that printed suit from Act III. Delineator, January 1914

Shaw directed the play himself; the stars were Herbert Beerbohm Tree (a successful actor-producer who owned the theatre where Pygmalion opened,) and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, known as “Mrs. Pat” (or, to Shaw, who was attracted to her, “Stella.”) A very entertaining account of this production is The Truth About Pygmalion, by Richard Huggett. Three massive egos were at work; at 49, the leading lady was much too old to be playing young Eliza Doolittle, which led to insecurity and bad temper; as Henry Higgins, Beerbom Tree hadn’t mastered his lines, so he pinned notes to the backs of furniture all over the set; and since both Shaw and Mrs. Pat were famous wits, the pre-production discussions and rehearsals were rather amusing [if you weren’t involved!] This 2004 article cites some of the backstage details (but does not mention Huggett’s book.) For example, Tree (and audiences ever since) expected a romantic ending for Eliza and Higgins. Shaw, writer and director, was adamant that his play did not end that way.

As Samantha Ellis wrote in The Guardian: ‘…Shaw returned for the play’s 100th performance, but was horrified to find that Tree had changed the ending; Higgins now threw Eliza a bouquet as the curtain fell, presaging their marriage. Now that [Shaw’s] affair with Campbell was over, the romantic ending was particularly galling. “My ending makes money; you ought to be grateful,” scrawled Tree. “Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot,” snarled Shaw.’ ***

At a time when Shaw and Tree were barely speaking, Shaw sent him a long letter filled with directorial suggestions. Tree wrote, “I will not go so far as to say that all people who write letters of more than eight pages are mad, but it is a curious fact that all madmen write letters of more than eight pages.”  Tree was not a bystander in the battle of wits.

Act III, making small-talk: Eliza (carefully pronouncing her ‘aitches’) is telling Mrs. Eynesford-Hill (left) and her daughter (right) about her suspicions that her gin-drinking aunt was “done in.”

In 2014, a century after that first night, the Guardian newspaper ran a 100th anniversary article showing photos from many productions. Click here. This photo is from the original 1914 production; it’s interesting because Shaw specified that Eliza is wearing a Japanese kimono when her father comes to call. (He’s actually hoping to extort money from Professor Higgins.) Her appearance in a kimono leads her father to assume that she is Higgins’ mistress. The shocking, undressed, quality of Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s luxurious  brocade costume is not obvious from the script:

Shaw wrote:

[(Doolittle) hurries to the door, anxious to get away with his booty. When he opens it he is confronted with a dainty and exquisitely clean young Japanese lady in a simple blue cotton kimono printed cunningly with small white jasmine blossoms. Mrs. Pearce is with her. He gets out of her way deferentially and apologizes]. Beg pardon, miss.

THE JAPANESE LADY. Garn! Don’t you know your own daughter?

DOOLITTLE [exclaiming] Bly me! it’s Eliza!

The photo shows that Mrs. Pat’s costume was not quite the prim cotton kimono which Shaw described!

Two original color sketches for Mrs. Pat’s Eliza Doolittle costumes are in the collection of the V&A museum. They were made by/designed by Elizabeth Handley Seymour. Click here for a color sketch of that Act III [yellow] suit, and here for Eliza’s Act V costume, adapted from a design by Poiret.) 

Photographs of Eliza’s first “flower girl” costume could be purchased by fans; this is a costume from later in the play.

Eliza’s evening gown is suggested in this sketch:

Eliza, in evening dress, throws a slipper at Higgins. In rehearsal, Mrs. Pat accidentally hit him. Tree had forgotten she would throw a slipper at him, and burst into tears.

Butterick evening costume made from waist (bodice) 6688 and skirt 6689. Delineator, Feb. 1914.

If you are interested in the long relationship between Shaw and Mrs. Pat, a “two-hander” play called Dear Liar, by Jerome Kilty, is based upon the letters exchanged by George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Pat at the time when he was in love with her, and for decades after.  (She had surprised him painfully by getting married to someone else two nights before Pygmalion opened.)  There is a good review of a 1981 Hallmark TV production here.

There are many anecdotes about Mrs. Pat; when she was young, beautiful, and at the height of her success, a playwright who wanted her to appear in his next production made the mistake of insisting that he read his entire script aloud to her. He had not lost all the traces of his Cockney accent. Mrs Pat listened for over two hours. When he finished and asked her opinion of the play, she said, “It’s very long… even without the ‘aitches.’ ”

When she was old and broke, she was devoted to her pet dogs, which she carried everywhere with her. When one of them left a mess on the floor of a taxi, she assumed her most impressive demeanor and said, in a voice that had once thrilled thousands, “It was me!

Sexually liberated, she is credited with saying (about a notorious divorce case,) “It doesn’t matter what you do [in the bedroom] as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”  When asked why she married George Cornwallis-West in 1914, she said, “He’s six foot four — and everything in proportion.” There is plenty of entertaining reading about Shaw, Beerbom Tree, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

Eliza Doolittle sold bunches of violets, like this one. Delineator, 1914.

Many people only know the musical adaptation of this play, My Fair Lady by Lerner and Lowe, which was made into a movie with famous costume designs by Cecil Beaton. Beaton was inspired by the “black Ascot” of 1910, when all of high society wore black or white in mourning for King Edward VII. (This also allowed Beaton to avoid the wide-hipped gowns of 1914.) In fact, Shaw finished his original script of Pygmalion in 1911, so setting the play (or musical) a few years earlier than 1914 is perfectly logical. In 1914 it had to look fashionably up-to-date. That’s not a problem any more!

In case you are costuming either the straight play or musical version, I’ll share some inspiration from 1914, although you may prefer the styles of 1910…. It’s up to you (and the director….)

Two outfits from January, 1914. Butterick patterns from Delineator.

One of Mrs. Pat’s Pygmalion costumes had a dark mid-section rather like this one:

The dark “sash” at the waist would flatter a portly figure like Mrs. Pat’s. Butterick coat 667 with skirt 6664, February 1914.

A range of styles from March 1914; National Catalog. (The skirt on the green one? Arrrrgh!)

Below are real fashion photos from 1914. They may make you think twice about those 1914 silhouettes….

French couture fashions in Delineator, April 1914.

Dresses from 1910 are curvy — but perhaps a little stodgy…. On the other hand, those 1910 white lingerie dresses would be quite a transformation for Eliza.

Left, a lingerie dress. Butterick princess gowns “appropriate for dressy wear.” Delineator, January 1910.

1910 gowns and a suit from the National Cloak Co. catalog.

The two on the left could be Mrs. Eynesford-Hill and her daughter. Mrs. Higgins also has to show mature elegance. Butterick patterns, 1910.

In the 1992 production at London’s National Theatre (RNT,) Mrs. Higgins wore a marvelous, artsy teagown that epitomized the “Liberty” fashion reform/Arts and Crafts look (– the equivalent of being a “hippie” in the 1880s.) It made perfect sense that she could have accidentally raised a self-centered man-child like Henry Higgins. (Designer: William Dudley.) As Higgins, Alan Howard flew into tantrums like an overgrown 2-year-old. Very funny. Sadly, I can’t find that photo today.

Perhaps it’s just her pose that looks so self-assured. January 1910. Eliza could wear that skirt with a simple blouse in Act II.

This lace-trimmed ensemble is from a fabric ad: Himalaya cloth from Butterfield & Co. February 1910. Is that Eliza’s facial expression — asserting her independence — from Act V?

*** Once a play opens, the director moves on to other jobs and the stage manager is left to make sure every audience sees the same play that opening night critics saw. Probably my favorite story about the propensity of actors to “improve” the production as time goes by is: After a few weeks, the director returned to watch the play, standing quietly behind the audience. The leading man had expanded his role considerably. At intermission he received a telegram from the director: “Am watching the play from the back of the house STOP Wish you were here.”

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Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1910s and WW I era, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Hats, Menswear, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, vintage photographs, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes, World War I

The Interior Belt in Vintage Styles

Janet Arnold’s illustration of the interior of a woman’s dress, circa 1896. From Patterns of Fashion 2. Notice the belt, attached only at the center back seam.

If you are trying to reproduce a vintage garment, you need all the information you can get. Information about how a vintage dress looks on the inside is invaluable, and I don’t know of any source better than the series of Patterns of Fashion books by the late Janet Arnold

… even when you have primary source information, like this photograph.

Fashion Photograph from 1896. Met Museum. We can see from the photo that the skirt at left is probably flat-lined — those tell-tale wrinkles would have been omitted in a drawing.

It’s better than a drawing, but the answer to “how did they do that?” requires inside information.

Cream brocade gown from the House of Worth, 1896. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Museums and books sometimes provide close up photos showing details of construction …

Detail of Worth gown from 1896, showing several rows of cartridge pleating on the sleeve and lace-shaped beading on the brocade bodice. Met Museum.

But to reproduce a vintage garment and have it “behave” properly, we need to know where the seams (and the bones) are, how the garment was lined, where the hidden closures were located, what made those sleeves stand up like that***, etc. Also, sometimes we discover a “trick” that made the garment easier to put on, or made it fit better. For costume purposes, we don’t need to follow the original slavishly (sometimes all those difficult hidden closures are not practical for a costume,) but we can make informed decisions.

One device that I have seen on vintage garments — and used on costumes — is the interior waistband or belt. This turn-of-the-century vintage bodice had one.

Elaborate lace and ribbon trimmed this ToC bodice (with a strangely skimpy skirt.)

Inside, a belt (never meant to be seen) was attached to the seams at center back. It closed at center front, and would be the first thing the wearer fastened when getting dressed.

Interior belt or waistband on a Turn of Century [ToC] bodice.

As Janet Arnold sketched the insides and outsides of museum garments, she drew many bodices that used an interior belt.

Interior waistband or belt, drawn by Janet Arnold.

Notice that the belt is only secured to the center back seams, with characteristic X stitches. It closes with hooks and bars at center front. It anchors the bodice to the wearer’s waist, so the bodice cannot ride up. It also holds the bodice in place while the many concealed hooks, eyes, and tapes are fastened. It takes some of the strain at the tightest spot, so the wearer doesn’t have to exert much pull on the more delicate fabrics to fasten them.

The interior belt works well on corsets.

I have seen and used these belts on the inside of corsets — what a great difference they make!

When you lace your own corset after fastening the front busk, you can’t be sure of getting it the same size every time. (Corsets rarely meet in the back.) Delineator,  April 1914.

First, the interior belt closing gives a constant size for the corset. You can’t accidentally lace it looser by mistake. If your dresses have been made to fit perfectly over your corset, but the corset lacing never actually meets at the waist, there’s always a chance that you will tighten your laces, put on your dress, and find that the dress doesn’t fit properly, because you pulled the laces too tight — or allowed yourself a bit more room than you did at the dress fitting.

Janet Arnold’s illustration of the interior of a woman’s dress, circa 1896. From Patterns of Fashion Vol 2. [***Fun fact: Arnold discovered that those huge leg-o-mutton sleeves were stuffed with paper!]

Secondly, when there is a waist belt inside your corset, the belt contracts your waist to the right size for fastening the front busk. The belt takes the strain (and keeps your corset from falling to the floor), giving you two hands free to hook the busk at the waist. Once the corset is fastened there, hooking it the rest of the way up and down is relatively easy. You may not need to deal with the laces at all.

The interior belt is can be made of a non-stretchable ribbon, like grosgrain.

The belt is also a great help in supporting the weight of the skirt; in many period dresses most of the skirt fullness is at the back, so the skirt of the dress can be quite heavy, and hard to wrestle with when its weight pulls the bodice crooked as you try to deal with dozens of fastenings.

Interior of dress from 1913-14 drawn by Janet Arnold. The skirt is sewn to the bodice only at one side. A row of hooks and bars connects the skirt to the bodice on the other side. (You can see two bars below “CF.” Arnold drew every hook.)

This circa 1913 dress (which combines lace, fur, chiffon and other materials) has an elaborate arrangement of closures, all of which would be hidden when the dress is worn. Notice that the skirt is only sewn to the bodice on its right side. The interior belt holds the bodice in the correct place and helps to support the weight of the skirt, while the left side of the skirt is slowly attached, hook by hook, to the left side of the bodice! [I think this one needed the help of a maid to deal with the skirt back and that big bow.]

Detail of Arnold’s drawing of the dress from 1913-14; no closures are visible, as the built-in sash hides the places where the skirt is only hooked to the bodice. The skirt is fur-trimmed.

The use of an interior belt is not restricted to the Victorian era. It remains part of the interior structure on couture when needed. It might be used, for example, to prevent tight jackets’ buttons straining against buttonholes at the waist, or to prevent too much strain on a zipper.

I can’t swear this famous Christian Dior New Look suit’s interior structure uses a belt, specifically, but something is preventing “pull” on the buttons. Click here for a great essay on “New Look” construction techniques.

You can see an interior belt — sewn in, not hanging free — on the waist of this gray dress from Dior’s fall-winter collection of 1955:

This Dior dress from 1955 is lying open on a table, positioned so you can see one end of the interior waistband; it matches the gray of the dress, which is flat-lined with gray organza.

At the place where the dress fits most tightly, the strain is taken by the belt rather than the zipper, which is visible to the right of the belt.

Christian Dior label, “Automne-Hiver 1955.” Charcoal gray dress with matching bolero jacket. Photographed from a private collection. The owner mentioned that this dress was made during Dior’s lifetime.

Digression: [I can’t not show you other pictures of this ensemble, even though I’m straying from my “interior belt” topic!]

You can see the unusual seam lines and darts on the jacket, which also has an interesting vertical buttonhole treatment.

Bolero jacket from Christian Dior, 1955. The matching dress has a full skirt pleated at the waist.

With the bolero jacket unbuttoned, the use of a separate panel to create “buttonholes” can be seen.

No, this buttonhole construction is not as care-free as it may look:

Inside view of Dior buttonhole in the bolero from 1955. The seams on the front of the jacket are not the same as those on the inside, and the buttonhole is reinforced like this.

Here, the interesting seams of the cap sleeve are visible. The back of the dress, with zipper, is visible at right.

Back to the topic of researching the insides of clothes you need to re-create, and the interior belt….

Arnold studied this dress from 1915-16 inside and out. If you were planning to copy it, you might think the outside tells the whole story — bodice and skirt both gathered at the waist.

A circa 1915 dress in a museum collection, drawn and its construction analyzed by Janet Arnold. Note the way a series of tiny tucks curves the sleeve forward.

Text describing the dress mentions that is would have been worn over a corset like this one.

The interior, drawn by Janet Arnold, shows that the scalloped dress in not as simple as it looks.

It has an under bodice, a hidden closure in front, a skirt that is partially attached to the bodice and partially hung from hooks and bars, and an interior belt that is boned and tightly fitted.

Arnold gives you a scale drawing of every part of the dress. This is what the under bodice of net looks like:

Like many vintage dresses which are bloused, this one has an under bodice. See French Linings. The bodice itself has kimono sleeves without armhole seams.

Arnold’s scale drawing of the interior belt on the scalloped dress. “The Petersham is shrunk in at the top to 26 1/2 inches, the bottom edge measures 27 1/2 “

Petersham ribbon looks much like grosgrain, but grosgrain cannot be stretched with steam and pressure. Petersham is often used in hat bands because it can be shaped into a slight curve with a steam iron.

I cannot praise Arnold’s Pattern of Fashion books too highly. Even if you choose not to duplicate her scaled patterns exactly, you will gain insight into period (and couture) construction that is invaluable.

I used to watch 1950s’ movies and wonder how a slender belt with no practical buckle could dig into an actress’s waist to compress it even more than her “merry widow” corset. Here is Elizabeth Taylor in a dress that really squeezes her waist. Janet Leigh’s wedding dress has a belt that might squeeze her that hard — although eventually the hole in the belt would start to tear…. Unless there was an even tighter belt inside those dresses….  “Ya think?”

 

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Filed under 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1910s and WW I era, 1940s-1950s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Dresses, Musings, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Vintage Couture Designs, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

Binge-Watching The Pallisers: A Guilty Pleasure

From a late episode of The Pallisers, a 26 part TV series available on DVD. Picture copyright of BBC via the International Movie Database.

A Guilty Pleasure ….because I couldn’t watch just one!

I took a hard fall in September and wasn’t able to sit at a desk for several weeks. Fortunately, I had purchased the first six episodes of the 1974 BBC series The Pallisers and finally got around to watching them when I was spending my days in the recliner. After the first six, I definitely wanted more!

Thank heaven I eventually found the entire series on YouTube — all 26 glorious episodes.

If you want better picture quality, the 40th Anniversary reissued edition won’t fit in your Christmas stocking, but ask Santa, anyway. (Under $50 for over 20 hours of entertainment.)

It may take you a few episodes to get addicted to the plot; meanwhile the excellent costumes will keep you intrigued — although I was hooked by an early episode in which two horrible old Victorian ladies explain that, after her forced marriage produces an heir to the dukedom, a married woman is permitted to follow her own inclinations….

The novels on which the series is based cover several decades of fictionalized English history.  Anthony Trollope, who published them between 1864 and 1879, was as cynical about the workings of Parliament as he was about romance.

The costumes, therefore, progress from crinolines to bustles, and (surprisingly) through several pregnancies. Yes, the ladies have zippers down their backs — They are wearing costumes, and costumes are made to be re-used as rentals. But they are lavish and character oriented, as well as befitting a duchess and her circle of acquaintances. (And Susan Hampshire has always worn period costumes  — any period! — with complete naturalness.)  Raymond Hughes is the only costume designer credited. It was a massive undertaking.

Cover of the re-issued DVD series — 26 glorious episodes. Image copyright BBC and Acorn via Amazon.

Will passionate, romantic Cora give up the man she loves to marry the stiff, unemotional heir to a Dukedom, as their families have arranged? If so, will she be faithful? Will her husband survive a career in politics and marriage to Cora with his (and her) honor intact?

Can the son of an Irish country doctor afford to be a Member of Parliament — and how many women will be sacrificed to his ambition? (Money and Politics — still a timely topic! Ditto, Love and Loyalty.)

Will a slimy newspaper editor with political ambitions ruin men and women while paving his own way to power? (Long before the internet!)

Will the next set of costumes be even more lavish than the last?

I started watching for the costumes, and ended up unable to ration myself just one episode per day. (“I’ve been sitting her for three hours? even though I haven’t had dinner? How could I?”

But I regard those 20 hours in the recliner as time well spent. One quibble: not all the actresses were corseted properly. Nevertheless…. I loved it.

(P.S. I am walking normally now.)

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Filed under 1860s -1870s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 19th century, Late Victorian fashions, Maternity clothes, Menswear, Mid-Victorian fashions, Musings, Resources for Costumers

Book Review: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism — Women’s Fight for Change, by Tessa Boase

Note: the accompanying images are not from this book, but much of what I learned, is. Any reflections about parallels with current events are mine, and mine alone. This book made me think.

The millinery and feather trades were a huge international business in 1910. Ad from Delineator.

I’m sorry I took so long to review this book; I loved reading it, and I’ve raved about it to friends, but it is so jam-packed with fascinating information that I was tempted to quote something from every other page — which would not be fair to other readers; it’s too much fun to discover surprising facts for yourself! [Even so, I couldn’t resist sharing a few. My enthusiasm carries me away. A shorter review can be found at The Vintage Traveler 🙂 ]

In her previous book, The Housekeeper’s Tale, Tessa Boase poured through old account books, legal proceedings, letters and diaries, and used her research to unearth the life stories of several women servants over a period of nearly two centuries. I confess that history was the class that bored me the most in high school — although I was a good student, I hated “history.” But history vividly told though the lives of ordinary women — that is fascinating, and suspenseful, reading.

This teenaged girl wears entire bird wings on her hat. Delineator, March 1910. In 1892, 800,000 pairs of wings were imported by one London dealer. [Boase, p. 87]

In Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, the women central to her story are not ordinary — most of them are women who achieved great things: They changed the laws of England in the early twentieth century. And they did it against all odds:

“Right up until the First World War, the idea of bird protection was as laughable to the general population as the concept of female emancipation.” — Boase, p. xiii

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst was the very vocal leader of the movement for women’s suffrage, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU.) Mrs. Etta Lemon was the primary founder of the Society for the Preservation of Birds (SPB,) seeking to prevent the extinction of birds which were being hunted for women’s hat trimmings. Both of them were up against an all-male parliament, male voters, and a public perception that women should stay home and keep their opinions to themselves.

But, surprisingly, the crusading Mrs. Lemon,  — like many of her supporters — was an “Anti:” she was opposed to women getting the vote.

Did you know? In 1913, the Antis had 33,000 members; “the Pankhurst’s WSPU just 2,000.” [Boase, p. 237.]

It’s very hard for a modern woman to identify with Etta Lemon, — and this conflict between two successful, activist women is the paradox that shapes Boase’s book. It twines together two stories about women: the campaign for wildlife conservation and the campaign for voting rights. [The large cast of characters is helpfully listed and described early in the book — a very good idea!]

Wisely, Boase uses the gripping story of working woman Alice Battershall, ” a lowly feather washer,” to plunge us into the very big business of millinery and the feather trade in late Victorian and Edwardian England (and the world.) Alice was tried for the crime of stealing two ostrich plumes from her employer.

The trade in feathers was world wide. Ad for South African ostrich, Delineator, April 1910.

Alice Battershall earned 5 shillings a week — not a living wage even by the sweatshop standards of 1885. Her employer would have sold the feathers for 7 shillings each. Alice sold them to a “fence” for 1 shilling apiece. I had to stop and think about these figures: one ostrich plume was worth more than a week’s wages. Even by selling them to so cheaply, Alice increased her starvation wages by 40% — a powerful temptation.

And ostrich plumes were not the most valuable; ostrich were farmed, and the ostrich didn’t have to be killed for its feathers.

A family of Snowy egrets. Photo By AdA Durden from Jacksonville, USA Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC , via wikipedia.

The bird that faced rapid extinction was the snowy egret. (Milliners called its feathers “Osprey.”) In 1903, a single ounce of Osprey feathers cost almost twice as much as an ounce of gold. [Boase, p.124] But snowy egrets only sported these long, delicate feathers (their nuptial plumage) while mating and raising their young. Egret nestlings need to be fed by both parents over a long period of time; whenever a plume hunter shot and skinned the parent birds, the next generation of snowy egrets died of starvation. When a colony was hunted two or three years in a row, it became extinct.

One famous hunter, David “Egret” Bennett, first wiped out egret colonies in Central America, then moved on to the colonies in Mexico and Baja California. He, too gets a chapter. He was aware that he was driving the species to extinction, but “I have never found any occupation as profitable,” he explained.

[Personally, I see a parallel with the fossil fuel industry today. For me, history — brought to life in Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Hat — keeps informing and illuminating the present.]

Mrs. Lemon and her friends began a campaign against the wearing of osprey; they sent letters to newspapers all over England; they wrote to parish newsletters and to clergymen citing biblical passages in support of their views; they wrote (and spoke) to other women and of course, to members of Parliament. But, while Mrs. Pankhurst was leading demonstrations and being arrested (repeatedly) for advocating votes for women — always while elegantly dressed and wearing hats bedecked with feathers,  the anti-suffrage ladies of the [eventually Royal] Society for the Protection of Birds hired men to carry the placards in their most effective education campaign. And, although Mrs. Lemon actually ran the SPB until she was forced out in 1939, on paper her husband Frank was its “honorary secretary.” She did not assume its leadership — officially — until he died.

Exotic birds, like the bird of paradise, were especially valued. This “Paradise Bird” was sold by Sears.

If you couldn’t afford the real thing, parts of many birds might be combined to make one. Sears catalog, 1910.

The sheer numbers of birds killed and skinned and transported to auction in New York and London boggles the mind. An undercover reporter from the American Ornithologists Union slipped into a plumage sale in London in 1888.

“Here were birds by the shipload,” writes Boase, listing about 7,000 parrots, 1,000 woodpeckers, 14,000 quail, grouse and partridge, 4000 snipes and plovers and other domestic birds like the 7,000 starlings, jays, and magpies. There were 5000 tanagers; hundreds (each) of birds of paradise, gulls, finches, orioles, larks, toucans; and 12,000 hummingbirds from all over the world. [It’s a mercy that my mind simply cannot picture a pile of 12,000 dead hummingbirds.]

Until I read this book I knew very little about Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst; I didn’t realize that she was a widow who had to support herself and her daughters, while trying to maintain the appearance of a respectable and “womanly” woman of the upper classes. Cartoonists often depicted suffragettes as mannish women with ties and cigars or as frustrated spinsters. Mrs. Pankhurst was determined to break that stereotype. As in all things British, social class came into it. She didn’t believe that the exclusively male Members of Parliament, who were middle class by virtue of inheritance and/or wealth, would pay attention to the pleas of working class women. This led to a painful break with her socialist daughter Sylvia, who championed “equal pay for equal work” and an end to the “sweating trades” (e.g., ostrich feather curlers) in 1918. [That was 100 years ago….]

The women who worked in the millinery and feather trades were exploited in wretched, health-destroying working conditions, and often reduced to prostitution during the regularly occurring months when their trades were dormant.

A child might have worked for days to “willow” this plume. Peckham’s ad in Delineator, June 1910.

This is an ostrich plume that has been “willowed.” An ordinary ostrich feather has been made longer, fluffier and more luxurious by having extensions tied to every flue — a job which the small and nimble fingers of children were good at.

“One women and two children might labour for a day and a third on a single ostrich plume — whose preparation required as many as 8,613 knots…. In 1910, this earned them 3 cents….”  — Boase, p. 13.

“Pulmonary tuberculosis was a slow and steady killer of women in the feather trade.” [Boase, p. 13]  Nevertheless, abolishing the trade was a political hot potato: workers often preferred the risk of slow death to unemployment and starvation. (Hunger was already part of their lives.)

[This is another dilemma we face today. Although Boase never mentions these parallels, this book offers plenty of food for thought. Silicosis and  pneumoconiosis kill coal miners, and mesothelioma kills asbestos workers; nevertheless, eliminating these trades means eliminating jobs — a problem in 1910 and in 2018.]

As the new century progressed,  some women — like Etta Lemon; Eliza Phillips; Emily Williamson; Virginia Woolf;  and Winifred, Duchess of Portland — campaigned against the extinction of entire species for hat trimmings.  Mrs Pankhurst, immaculately dressed but debilitated from her frequent protest fasts, saw her supporters’ demonstrations become increasingly violent. Then came World War I, and a great change in women’s lives….

As I have mentioned, Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is history told by a scholar with a novelist’s touch, focusing on the small detail and the personal story to bring its events vividly to life.  And, although the author does not mention their relevance to modern life, I can’t help being stimulated by many of the facts she shares.

Over 100 years ago, American Ornithologist Henry Oldys addressed the U.S. Congress on the topic of wildlife conservation, urging legislation to prevent the extinction of species:

The spirit of the age, was, he said, marked by ignorance, cupidity and supineness — a toxic combination that was steadily exterminating creation. “History will not listen to the plea, ‘It was not my business,’ ” he cried. ‘It will answer: “You were there and could have prevented it; therefore it was your business. You failed to do your duty. The only explanation is that you were corrupt, ignorant, or weak.” ‘ — from Boase, p. 226.

[In the light of my country’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and the U.N.’s recent report that irreversible climate change is happening more rapidly than predicted, someone needs to say that to Congress again.]

Nevertheless, I also found hope from the fact that women, working together, can accomplish the near-impossible. Even the story of the troubling Mrs. Lemon gives me hope:

The RSPB began with a letter writing campaign organized by a few Victorian ladies — bird-lovers excluded from all-male ornithological societies because they were women.

“Within six months… this little ‘bird and bonnet’ society [grew] from 1,000 to 5,000 members.” In two years, it had almost 10,000, “most of them women.” [p. 74.] Today, “The RSPB is a behemoth — a charity with 1.2 million members, 200 nature reserves…, 2000 staff and 14,000 volunteers. It has an annual income of 100 million pounds and it wields great political power. Its business today is international nature conservation.” (p. xi.)

Reading that makes me feel a lot better about our chances.

Summary: By focusing her complex story on the lives of individual women, Tessa Boase has turned an extraordinary mass of scholarly research into a memorable and fascinating book, filled with surprises and startling details. I used to think history was boring. Not this one.

The publishers deserve praise, especially for the footnotes (actually endnotes) which are printed in two-column format. They never intrude, but if you want to check a source, they are easy to read without constant page flipping. Full index and bibliography; color plates; and Ms. Boase herself collected the illustrations for the end papers from period magazines. Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

Mrs. Pankhurst wore a purple feather because the Suffragette colors were purple (for freedom and dignity,) white (for purity,) and green (for hope.) Click here to see the (faded) feather that inspired this book.

Tessa Boase blogs at tessaboase.com/blog, where you can see more Edwardian feathered hats in full color (including eyes and beaks….)

Fashion sketch of a chic Parisienne; Delineator, May 1910. She is wearing a glorified chicken.

Four feathered hats. Delineator, February 1910.

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Patterns of Fashion Book Series Continues!

Cover image from Barnes & Noble website.

Very welcome news to costumers is that the great Patterns of Fashion book series begun by Janet Arnold, who died in 1998,  is being continued. Arnold wrote three gridded pattern books, (Patterns of Fashion 1660 to 1860, Patterns of Fashion 1860 to 1940, and Patterns of Fashion 1560 to 1620, and I just received information from the Costumers’ Alliance about a British source that is continuing her work.

Jenny Tiramani, principal of the School of Historical Dress in London said:

“Please tell people that we have decided not to use a distributor or to put the book for sale on Amazon. They take too much money and we need the funds to keep the school going and to publish Patterns of Fashion 6 & 7 which are both already in the pipeline!

We will be selling the book ourselves from our School of Historical Dress webshop and will try to give a good price for those people buying the book in countries far flung from the UK.

[Patterns of Fashion] 5 is in China being printed next week and published 31st October. …We need all the publicity we can get as the publisher of all future volumes of the series!”
Please support this incredibly rare and precious resource, the School of Historical Dress!! Here is where you can find their web site.

Click here to find out about current and upcoming volumes of Patterns of Fashion, plus other relevant publications.

Mantua, Late 17th century, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Other books include Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns (Vols. 1 & 2), and Waistcoats from the Hopkins Collection c. 1720-1950 “The waistcoats are shown with close-up details of its shape, construction and decoration, alongside images of people wearing similar styles from the same time period.” Janet Arnold’s other books are also available.

(One virtue of the Patterns of Fashion Series — aside from the meticulous research — is their large format: printed on extra wide paper, the scaled patterns are easy to refer to while you are working.)

Patterns of Fashion 4 covers body linens 1540 to 1660 — “the linen clothes that covered the body from the skin outwards. It contains 420 full colour portraits and photographs of details of garments in the explanatory section as well as scale patterns for linen clothing ranging from men’s shirts and women’s smocks, ruffs and bands to boot-hose and children’s stomachers.

 

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Costume Shop Stories: The Muslin

Cartoon by Baumer from The Way to Wear’em. Please do not copy.

It sometimes seems that I am obsessed with styling tricks that help women look more slender than they really are. This is a chronic problem for theatrical designers; it’s true that people sometimes look a few pounds heavier in photos than in real life, and actors have to pay attention to their appearance. It’s a competitive business. In the early 1980’s I worked with a woman who was a costumer at a major motion picture studio. This is one of her stories:

Cartoon (dated 1877) from The Way to Wear’em. Please do not copy.

An actress who had a huge success on Broadway was (very wisely) cast to play the same part in the movie version of the musical. A very famous costume designer was hired. The initial designs were approved, but when the fittings began, they often ended badly.

The actress was nervous, and found fault with every costume. She was convinced they made her look fat. She knew all too well that she was not a conventionally pretty girl by Hollywood’s cookie cutter standards. And she really wanted to be a movie star….

Movie actor paper doll from Delineator, April 1917.

The actress kept rejecting her costumes, and the costume shop was falling behind schedule, while the Academy Award (TM) winning costume designer redesigned and redesigned….

What is a Muslin?

If you’ve never had a custom-made or couturier gown, you may not realize that the first version (called the toile, or muslin) is usually made of unbleached muslin — plain, off-white cotton fabric.
The fit and the design details are easily marked on the muslin — move a seam here, lower the waistline there, make the collar higher or wider, etc. Once the designer is satisfied, the costume shop uses the muslin to make a revised pattern before cutting into the real fabric. Then the white muslin is replaced by the actual costume materials — perhaps in dark blue, or rich brown, or crimson — for the second fitting.

But the nervous star rejected one muslin after another.

“We’re in the Movies Now;” article from Delineator, March 1934.

On stage, an actor is in constant communication with the audience.  The actor is in control of his performance. However, a film actor, unlike a stage actor, has much less control over her performance on screen. The director and the film editor choose what the audience will eventually see.

In the costume shop, however, a star can exercise a little power, and the more anxious he or she is, the more that anxiety sometimes gets displaced to the one area where control seems possible: the costumes. This process is stressful for the shop, but understandable, especially when the actor’s future career may be at stake.

Solution: When the actress left after another unsuccessful fitting, the costume shop supervisor grabbed several rolls of unbleached muslin and had them all dyed dark gray. The shop made a new set of muslins (actually the same designs as the last set) of dark, dark muslin — closer in value to the colors of the actual costumes.

When she saw herself in the mirror, wearing a slenderizing dark color instead of white — the anxious actress approved them all.

Cartoon (1929) from The Way to Wear’em. Please do not copy.

There is no “villain” in this story — just a problem and a solution.

P.S. If you haven’t read Christina Walkley’s wonderful fashion history illustrated by cartoons from Punch, I highly recommend The Way to Wear’em.

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