Cover of Delineator magazine, April 1917. Color illustration by Maud Humphrey.
I am still amazed to the discover full color fashion illustrations in magazines that are 98 years old, or even older.
Look at the unexpected notes of muted red in the embroidery on this blue dress:
Detail, Delineator cover, April 1917.
Hem embroidery, April 1917.
The Past Was Not Dressed in Black and White
Most of the movies and photographs that we have for the early 20th century are in black and white. It’s hard not to think of the nineteen twenties and early thirties in shades of gray, because, in the photos we have, we can’t see that a “black” dress is actually red, or burgundy, or blue, or green; or that a pale dress is not white but peach, yellow, or aqua, etc.
This is how a page from a 1925 copy of Delineator magazine would look on black and white film or microfiche:
A page from Delineator, April 1925, photographed in gray scale.
But this is what those old Delineators really looked like; there were several pages of full-color fashion illustrations in every issue:
The same page as it actually appeared in Delineator, April 1925.
When you see it in black and white, the suit on the lower right seems to actually be black and white — but the blouse is vivid yellow. The hem of the red dress “reads” as black when you can’t see the color. The beading on the black dress is reddish, too.
Bound Periodicals Replaced with Black and White Film
There is a wealth of costume history and color information in old periodicals, but sadly, many libraries got rid of their bound periodical sections and replaced them with microfilm and microfiche about ten years before the digital revolution. Today, it’s possible to make full-color scans of old magazines (if you still have any), but the big, old, heavy, bound volumes of magazines are long gone; often black and white photos of their pages are all that libraries have.
When you can get your hands on a vintage fashion magazine, many of the illustrations look like this:
Delineator, June 1926, p. 29, photographed from a bound periodical in the library.
But this is what they look like when you read them on microfilm:
The same illustration converted to black and white. Would you guess that one dress has green roses on it? That the dress in the lower left is not black?
Why I Became Witness2Fashion
Originally, I thought I would write mostly about the 1950s and 1960s — because I was a “witness” to the fashions of those years. I was just becoming aware of clothing and its social impact then; I can remember exactly when I wore certain outfits, because I was young and had many milestones — first dance, first capri pants, first grown-up suit, first jobs, important interviews, etc. I can also remember which styles from the period looked stodgy and middle-aged to me at twenty, and what occasions called for hats and gloves.
McCall’s pattern 7981, 1965. Classy, but by 1965 a little “mature” for a college senior like me. The models are young, but chic women in their fifties also wore suits like this.
I handle a lot of clothing patterns, not always dated, and I expected to verify the memories they evoked by going to the library and looking through magazines from my youth: Seventeen, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Vogue, etc. I have access to both a major urban library system and a large university library. But . . . .
Information Was Lost in Translation to Black and White
. . . most of those magazines are now only available as microfilm or microfiche! They’re preserved in black and white — color fashion magazines, stripped of their colors. Knowing that half the information that used to be there is missing really takes the pleasure out of a library visit. (Neither library subscribes to Vogue online.) And black and white versions of color fashion photos do lose much of their information. If you need proof that red and green look the same when reduced to black and white :
Cover of Maureen Valdes Marsh’s book 70s Fashion Fiascos. Converted to black and white, the lettering is all the same gray, and the caftan loses most of its impact.
Also, for the benefit of anyone under forty, I’ll explain that it is very uncomfortable for those of us who wear glasses with bi-focal or graded lenses to read a vertical microfilm screen. With all graded lenses, you’re expected to look down to read and straight ahead to focus on things that are far away. This works for driving — but not for reading a vertical screen one foot away! I physically can’t spend hours reading that way.
So I switched my focus — in both senses — to the remaining vintage fashion periodicals that I could find.
Butterick’s Delineator Magazine, 1900 to 1937
Delineator cover, February 1933. The illustrator is probably Dynevor Rhys. Vintage color combinations are sometimes unexpected, like this hat. Makeup styles are also documented in color.
At the main library I discovered a huge treasure trove of really old Delineator magazines still in the form of full-size bound periodicals that had not been converted to microfilm. My library has a complete set of Butterick’s Delineator magazines from 1900 to 1937. They were not converted to microfilm, possibly because The Delineator stopped publication in 1937. The library stores them in a basement off-site, but will bring volumes to the reserve desk with one day’s notice.
I also discovered that, from the early 1920’s to 1937, Butterick put a list of each month’s new pattern numbers at the back of Delineator magazine, which meant that those “undated” Butterick patterns could be dated — something not possible before. I made it my project to collect the numbers and publish my research online. (See Dating Butterick Patterns 1920s to 1937 by clicking here.) The results can be found at witness2fashion.com.
Of course, I couldn’t help reading some of the magazines! At first I intended to photograph a few of the the color pages; then I became fascinated by the ads, and the black and white pattern illustrations; I started taking photos of some of the longer articles to read later . . . .
My project kept growing. Trained to do academic research, I wanted to compare the Butterick patterns illustrated in Delineator with contemporary patterns pictured in other available bound periodicals, like Ladies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Home Companion. My computer is getting very full of images! I’ll share as many as I can.
“Got Anything Valuable?” in Vintage Advertisements
I was taught to regard advertisements as a valuable source of primary research, because they often show occupational dress and stereotypical clothing far removed from high fashion. Here are a few informative ads in color:
“Customs Inspector: ‘Got anything very valuable in this trunk?’ The Traveler: ‘I should say so . . . . A whole carton of Chesterfields.’ ” Cigarette ad, July 1928. The Delineator.
Her big, orange scarf with green accents transforms a quiet camel suit and matching shoes. I expect The Vintage Traveler to covet that travel blanket. Could it be a Pendleton?
Camel Cigarette Ad, July 1928. This ad offers a fantasy of country club life. Ads are aspirational, always implying that using the product will improve your life and possibly raise your social status.
A costumer will note the different shades of blue (not gray or black) on the gentlemen’s jackets, worn with light tan or gray slacks, and a pink pocket square.
Ford was later than other manufacturers to introduce closed cars. This is one of a series of Ford advertisements aimed at women:
April 1924. Ford Ad for a Closed Car. A “Woman in Business,” but not a secretary; this is her office. From Delineator.
“Her habit of measuring time in terms of dollars gives the woman in business keen insight into the true value of a Ford closed car for her personal use. . . . inexpensive operation and upkeep convince her that it is a sound investment value. And it is such a pleasant car to drive. . . .”
Full color ad for Elgin watches, December 1928. Costumers need to know about period accessories.
If you’ve just started reading witness2fashion, it may seem like I hop around from era to era.
I do, on purpose, following whatever trail catches my eye — zippers, corsets, makeup, accessories . . . . I like them all!
I Love the Colors of the Past
There are fashions in color, as well as in styles. Some color combinations or seasonal colors may surprise us.
To end where I started, here are several color illustrations from Delineator, 1917 — almost a century old. Images like these are a reason I treasure (and want to share bits of) those bound periodicals that escaped conversion to microfilm.
February 1917, Delineator, page 51. The dress on the right looks like blue-violet changeable taffeta.
Up close, you can see the pastel print on the black dress, and the pink tassels on the blue one. Orange chiffon dresses with black and white trim are not a common sight nowadays:
Details, February 1917, Delineator, page 51.
The ladies below wear cocoa, tan, brilliant blue-green or reddish brown, no longer “Spring” colors to us, with some rather remarkable hats:
Feb. 1917, Delineator, p. 52.
Up close, you can see the colors in the prints lining the white stole and used in the rust-red dress and hat:
Detail of color illustration, Feb. 1917. Is that a Valkyrie on the right?
These are fashions for January, 1917. It’s nice to know that the blue hat and bag are blue, not black.
January 1917, Delineator, page 40. The vivid red and blue contrast would be lost in a black and white photo.
Detail, Jan. 1917, Delineator. The red and blue outfit has embroidered pockets; so does the pumpkin-brown dress.
“Here’s Looking at You, Kid”
Hats from Delineator, Feb. 1917.