Tag Archives: Dynevor Rhys illustrator

Watching But Not Enjoying: Downton Abbey & Mercy Street

I’m still watching one of these shows because of the costumes; I stopped watching the other because of the costumes. Prepare for nits to be picked.

Dinner party, Jan. 1924 Delneator.

Informal dinner party, Jan. 1924, Delineator. We know it’s informal, because the men are wearing tuxedos — aka “black tie.”

I’ve mentioned before that I watch Downton Abbey more from a sense of duty than with enthusiasm. There are many fine actors, and some beautiful clothes. But the more recent scripts make me empathize with the TV critic who said he’d watch the final season only to be sure they nailed the coffin shut.

Illustration by Dynevor Rhys, Feb. 1932. Delineator. Dinner.

Illustration by Dynevor Rhys, Feb. 1932. Delineator. Dining in emeralds.

I even watched a “making of” program in which the actors mentioned the instruction they get about period manners, posture, etc. — including the instruction that ladies wore opera-length gloves while eating dinner. I found that hard to swallow.

Dinner party, Woman's Home Companion, Nov. 1936.

Formal dinner party, Woman’s Home Companion, Nov. 1936. White tie on male guests, black vest on the butler.

Imagine my delight when I read “Miss Manners” in the SF Chronicle on Monday, January 25! (The article first appeared in the Washington Post in 2013.)
After explaining the proper use of British titles as applied to Diana, Princess of Wales (incorrectly called “Princess Diana,”) Miss Manners went on to explain that the daughters of the Earl of Grantham, on Downton Abbey, are given the courtesy title of “Lady,” but they are commoners and “could, if the series lasts long enough, stand for election to the House of Commons.”  Miss Manners added:

“No, that is not a spoiler. Miss Manners has no idea what is happening to these characters. She tuned out when she saw them wearing their gloves to dinner in their own house.”

Hostess with maids, Dec. 1937, Woman's Home Companion.

Hostess with maids, Dec. 1937, Woman’s Home Companion. The dinner is formal; the hostess is in evening dress and the young man is wearing white tie and tails.

If you don’t read Miss Manners, author of many delightful etiquette  books, I should explain that she won my heart decades ago, when a reader inquired, “What do you say when introduced to a gay couple?” Miss Manners replied that [as with all introductions] you say “How do you do?”

There’s a long interview with Miss Manners (the pen name of Judith Martin) at Smithsonian.com. It’s worth putting up with all the ads to see her response to claims of rudeness in Washington, D.C.

“I was born in Washington, and I’m not rude. You’re talking about people that you sent here. You’re talking about people you voted for and you sent to Washington. So if you have complaints, and when people do, they often say to me, well what can we do about it? I said the answer there is something called an election. That’s something you can do about it.”

Why Mercy Street Is Not My Cup of Costume Tea

Young ladies in a fashion plate from the Casey Collection, dated 1862.

Young women in a fashion plate from the Casey Collection, dated 1862. Frilly or simple, the clothes are supposed to fit like this. (Costumers often insert a gusset under the arms so a modern actor can do whatever the director asks….)

I stopped watching mid-way through episode two of Mercy Street. There was only one character I cared about, and the writing seemed almost as formulaic as Downton Abbey’s. But I might have stuck with it, if the women’s costumes fit better. I found them really distracting. [Notes in brackets like this mean I’m trying to be more reasonable….]

Mercy Street women's costumes, from an article in Alexandria Times.

Mercy Street women’s costumes, from an article in Alexandria Times.

I seriously wondered if the actress playing the nurse from the north (left, above) was a last-minute cast replacement, because some of her clothes were so obviously too big for her. (The solid grayish bodice she wears about 1 minute into this clip distracted me every time it came on screen.) Her real vintage jacket was baggy in back, too. I searched a bit online, and found the costume designer saying that her best source of research was a book of Civil War era photographs that had been colorized. Colorized? Ahem: why turn a primary source  into a secondary source? [Thinking that over, I realize it may have been the photo collection itself — which one could try to imagine without the color — that was the attraction. I hope.]

I also found an interview with a woman who had been hired to make a corset for the series — the original plan was for a spoon-busk corset, so it’s a good thing she noticed that an 1870’s corset would not be quite “the thing” for the early 1860’s.

Considering the really good, carefully researched corset patterns — and built corsets — that have been available for a very long time and are now easy to find online, what were the TV people thinking?

An elegant young woman in a dress that is very tight over the corset.

An elegant young woman in a dress that is very tight over the corset and bust. The shoulders and neckline fit perfectly. (Sorry: I can’t find the link to this photo marked Sharlot Hall Museum Archives.)

I am not a Civil War era historian or specialist, but I’ve seen enough period photographs (like Joan Severa’s books ) and real dresses to know that they were more often too tight than too loose.   This woman’s dress fits. Most of her bodice wrinkles are at the armscye. True, many poorer people were forced to wear second-hand clothing, which would excuse a poor fit, as would going without a corset [or food] or wearing the wrong corset, but the Mercy Street characters whose dresses wrinkled in the wrong places were middle class. (Unless, of course, that widowed baroness has a very interesting backstory of poverty which will be slowly revealed….)

I do like the suggestion of a soldier’s hashmarks on this authoritative woman’s dress [good design choice!], but the dress doesn’t quite fit the actress. [Perhaps it means the character has lost weight, which would be reasonable. I am trying to be sympathetic.]

Too loose in back (the dress), too low in front (the corseted bust, not the dress. Mercy Street. Photo fron Alexandria Times

The dress is too loose in back; the bust is too low in front. A British nurse on Mercy Street. Photo from Alexandria Times.

Here’s the thing about bust darts: in general, they are not supposed to continue up over the point of the bust. (Princess seams excepted.) These costumes look poorly fitted to me. Click here to get an enlarged view. I admit that some dresses on mannequins at the Metropolitan Museum do seem to have very long, over the bust, darts. Click here.

[EDIT added 2/2/16: I admit I was working from memory, because I long ago de-accessioned my copies of Norah Waugh and Janet Arnold, et al. I have seen more photos of 1860’s bodices with very long bust darts this week –but the bodices still fit smoothly over the bust.]

1863 dress in collection of Metropolitan Museum.

1863 dress in collection of Metropolitan Museum. It appears that some of the trim has been lost.

It may have something to do with the mannequin’s bust not bulging high above a corset as a woman’s bust often does. The shoulders and neck of this particular mannequin are not the same as those of the original wearer, either. Some wrinkles would have been hidden by her detachable lace collar, now lost.

As a costumer, I really do know what it’s like to struggle with an inadequate budget, and time constraints. I, too, have been forced to use a stiff, poly-blend modern fabric because we couldn’t afford real handkerchief linen or cotton lawn or pure wool or silk. But good cutting and some adjustment of your design can minimize the disaster. I’m thinking of the way-too-puffy yoke on this cream-colored costume. [OK, I do acknowledge the “Good? Fast? Cheap?” problem we always have.]

I realize I’m being hyper-critical; was I constantly thinking about how to make the dresses fit better because the script didn’t hold my interest? Or did I really get so distracted by the fit of costumes on important characters that I couldn’t “lose myself” in the show? Maybe someone who has extensively researched the 1860’s, and built more civil war era dresses than I have, can change my mind. I do love links to research. [This “whine train” has pulled into the station and I’m stepping off. Will go back to watching the 1971 Elizabeth I TV series starring Glenda Jackson to refresh my palate. ]


Filed under 1860s -1870s fashions, Corsets, Costumes for the 19th century, Musings, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Uniforms and Work Clothes

A Lament for Bound Periodicals

Cover of Delineator magazine, April 1917. Color illustration by Maud Humphrey.

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.

Detail, Delineator cover, April 1917.

Hem embroidery, 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:

Delineator, April 1925, photographed in gray scale.

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:

A color page from Delineator, April 1925.

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.

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 way it would look 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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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 Closed Car.  Delineator. A "Woman in Business."

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. . . .”

Ad for Elgin watches, December 1928.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

January 1917, Delineator, page 40. The vivid red and blue contrast would be lost in a black and white photo.

Detail, Jan. 1917, Ddelineator. The red and blue dress has embroidered pockets.

Detail, Jan. 1917, Delineator. The red and blue outfit has embroidered pockets; so does the pumpkin-brown dress.

“Here’s Looking at You, Kid”

Delineator, Feb. 1917.

Hats from Delineator, Feb. 1917.




Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, bags, Dating Butterick Patterns, handbags, Hats, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Purses, Vintage Accessories