A Curved Needle Sewing Machine

The Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum exhibit, “Staff Picks” (Through April 30, 2017) is a grouping of objects from the permanent collection, chosen by staff members from all backgrounds and positions within the organization. It includes a wide variety of objects including fashion: a fur coat, a flapper dress, a Victorian hat, ski’s and boots, ballet slippers. Not surprisingly, my ‘pick’ was clothing related. Since so many staff members choose garments, I decided to try something a little more technology related: a curved needle sewing machine.

Curved Needle Sewing Machine. c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum)
Curved Needle Sewing Machine. c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum)
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Wheeler and Wilson Ad from “California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences,” San Francisco, February 28, 1862.

Thomas Saint is credited with inventing the first sewing machine in England in 1790. Some years later, it was refined by Barthelemy Thimonnier in France, who patented a new version used by the Army in France in 1831. In the 1830s, a New York-based Quaker named Walter Hunt, continued to refine the sewing machine. He began selling machines in New York around 1832-1834.

Many manufacturers and inventors began to innovate and patent various mechanisms and sewing machine parts after this time, including the now-well-known Singer.

Ad from "Pacific Rural Press", Volume 8, Number 3, 18 July 1874.
Ad from “Pacific Rural Press,” Volume 8, Number 3, 18 July 1874.

The example at Turtle Bay is by Wheeler and Wilson, a direct competitor to Singer. Wheeler and Wilson’s first patent was registered on November 12, 1850, and they began selling machines in 1851 in Connecticut, producing machines up until about 1909. The curved needle sewing machine was favored over the straight needle machine as some thought it worked better for light fabrics, and was popular for shirt-making.

By 1864 Wheeler-Wilson’s had “Bridgeport factory was producing 40,000 machines a year, almost double that of Singer. Wheeler and Wilson would continue to lead or  match Singer in the rapidly growing sewing machine market for another five years, until the Singer marketing steamroller ran over them.” (Buckman, 67-68). Singer eventually took over the company in in 1905.

In Northern California, Wheeler-Wilson sewing machines were commonly used. Pioneer family Wills at Old Shasta had a beautiful, highly decorated Number 8 from 1872 (now on view at Old Shasta Historic Park). Advertisements appeared in the Pacific Rural Press and California Farmer, common resources for innovative farm and agricultural products, during this era as well.

Detail of Curved Needle Sewing Machine, c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum) Photo by Julia Cronin.
Detail of Curved Needle Sewing Machine, c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum) Photo by Julia Cronin.

It is challenging to date this rusty machine in Turtle Bay’s Collection: no serial number or model number are present. A serial number would help determine the date, and the model number would tell us what it might have been used for.[i] For example, a model number 8 was intended for light family use, while a number 5 was intended for shirt-making and sewing sleeves.

The circular logo, however, provides clues. Logos were used on Wheeler & Wilson machines beginning in 1870. The address the label references is its sales center at 44 Union Square, in New York, suggesting a late 1870s to 1880s date. The base, a ‘slab’ style, was used between the 1860s and 1870s. Two illegible dates printed on the seal add to the mystery. These may be patent dates, international award dates, or office opening dates: 1867 or 1851 or 1862 (Londres[2]) and 1867 or 1887 (Paris).

Further Reading:

Buckman, Jack. Unraveling the Threads: The Life, Death and Resurrection of the Singer Company, America’s First Multi-National Corporation. Dog Ear Publishing: Indianapolis, IN. 2016.

Frederick Lewis Lewton. The Servant in the House: A Brief History of the Sewing Machine. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1930. Originally published in The Smithsonian Report for 1929: Publication 3056. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1930. pp. 559

Porter, William A. , Artist. Factories of the Wheeler & Wilson M’F’G. Co., Bridgeport, Conn. / Wils. Porter, del., 81. [1881] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004662453/. (Accessed December 18, 2016.)
Notes:

[1] Model number http://www.sewmuse.co.uk/w&w.htm “No. 5 machine. Specially designed for shirt making or other work involving sewing sleeves.  It was available with double motion at extra cost and only one style of table was available in either Black Walnut or Mahogany.” “No. 4 machine. Referred to as ‘Large’ it was only available in a standard table of either Black Walnut or Mahogany.”

[2] Londres, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and Filipino language name for London.

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Mermaids and Silkworms: A Review of Akihiko Izukura: The Way of Natural Textiles

2017-01-28 10.59.51-1wtmk

A recent vacation to Maui afforded me the opportunity to visit the Maui Arts & Cultural Center to see their current (and staggeringly beautiful) exhibit “Akihiko Izukura: The Way of Natural Textiles” (on view through March 19, 2017).

Stepping into the exhibit we were greeted with a large installation of hand-made silk orbs suspended in a large silk tube (“Eternal”). The desire to step inside the tubes and explore was strong, and we quickly learned that if we removed our shoes we could do exactly that.

2017-01-28 10.49.01wtmkIt was a magical experience to be in, and surrounded by silk made by tens of thousands of silkworms and hand-spun on an Edo period (1603-1868) spinning wheel by master craftsman Akihiko Izukura in only three months. Not surprisingly, “Eternal” was created to reflect the artists inspiration from the natural world, employing natural shapes, dyes, and materials. By contrast, the suspended panels of fabric surrounding the tube, 24 in all, took the artist three years. These panels show a variety of textures and patterns, but all created natural feeling permeable membranes.

2017-01-28 10.56.07wtmkThe reality of his work was informed by a small case containing the spinning wheel, dyes, silk-worm cocoons and other materials used with information on the craftsman’s history and process.

“Akihiko Izukura was born in 1942 to a family with a long history as Obi weavers in Nishijin, Kyoto, Japan. After formal studies at university and working in the family textile business he began his own personal journey into Ito-Shirabe (research on thread) learning complex ancient structures of weaving and braiding, mastering techniques of the Edo period that were nearly lost. His experience took him further into the ancient complicated techniques of ‘Ra’ (gossamer) and “Kara Kumi’ (braiding).”

2017-01-28 10.51.33wtmk“Years of research and hard work led him to his current philosophy of creating fabric or garments honoring sustainability and symbiosis with nature and the silkworm. His elaborated dialog within weaving, netting, braiding, entwining and dyeing led him to discover relationships between nature and man. his current work Senshoku-do includes eight methods: dyeing, reeling, spinning, plying, with four textile methods of weaving, braiding, netting and entwining.”

No wonder I was drawn to this work! Ancient techniques, research, and deep study of the history of thread certainly explained the amazing pieces on display. Quiet contemplative music filled the galleries, and as we left the larger objects behind we came to objects with more obvious purposes and more commercial appeal. Beautiful wall hangings, scarves, Kimono, obi, dresses, and jackets created using the same techniques (some of which were for sale).

2017-01-28 11.05.04wtmk2017-01-28 11.03.11wtmkTextures, colors, and woven shapes all seemed to reflect the experience we had been having in Maui – reminiscent of water, fish, seaweed and even mermaids.  Mariano Fortuny and Issey Miyake both felt referenced in the creation of the garments and textiles, especially the mermaid-like dresses that hung suspended between large swaths of fabric. A jacket in yellows and oranges at once reminded me of Fortuny, Miyake, and the way light filters through the ocean.

I left the exhibition feeling as if I’d been in an ethereal underwater world with shapes that reminded me of some of the more challenging knitted pieces I’d attempted to create myself. If you happen to be so lucky as to be in Maui – run don’t walk to see this marvelous show. (The exhibition catalog sold you in less than 3 weeks).

For an arm-chair tour, visit the gallery below:

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Fashion Encyclopedia wins at American Library Association

I’m thrilled to share that the Fashion Encyclopedia I helped create has just won a prestigious award at the American Library Association! I continually find myself grateful to all the wonderful contributors for their hard work and diligence!

“The most noteworthy reference titles published in 2016 have been named to the 2017 Outstanding References Sources List, an annual list selected by experts of the Collection Development and Evaluation Section (CODES) of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). The list was announced January 22, at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta.

The Outstanding Reference Sources Committee was established in 1958 to recommend the most outstanding reference publications published the previous year for small and medium-sized public and academic libraries. The selected titles are valuable reference resources and are highly recommended for inclusion in any library’s reference collections.”

Included on this list is Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe.” by Jose Blanco F., Mary D. Doering, Patricia Hunt-Hurst, and Heather Vaughan Lee, editors. ABC-CLIO.

For a full list  of award winners please follow the link:
http://rusa.ala.org/update/2017/01/outstanding-reference-sources-announced/

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Exhibition Review: Proust’s Muse

House of Worth, “Lily Dress,” evening gown, 1896; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.
House of Worth, “Lily Dress,” evening gown, 1896; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

Proust’s Muse:

The Countess Greffulhe

Museum @ FIT

Closes January 7, 2017

By Nadine Stewart

The term “Fashion Icon” gets flung around in our times. Celebrities whose images flood social media are deemed “iconic” even though their style is derivative, achieved only through the help of a well-paid stylist. We are now in a time of transition. Our national fashion icon, Michelle Obama, is stepping out of the spotlight and the nation is wondering who can replace her.

With those thoughts in mind, a visit to Proust’s Muse: The Countess Greffulhe  reminds us what a real fashion leader can be. Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay was indeed a beauty with auburn hair a fine figure, and the money to engage the best couturiers to design for her, but what made her memorable was her personal style. She was determined that her gowns would be distinctive, so participated in the creation of her dresses to insure her dress would be memorable. It was said that she would rather appear “bizarre,” instead of “banal.” Proust wrote, “Each of her dresses seemed like. . .. the projection of a particular aspect of her soul.” She inspired this intensely sensitive author, who based several of his characters on her persona. For both of them fashion “was a mark of individuality, an emotional language, and a form of art.”

The first galley of this exhibit, originally on display at the Palais Galliera, Musee de la Mode, establishes who the Countess was through photographs and rare film clips. There are pictures of the Countess herself posing for the photographer Paul Nader and of Proust, but we are also reminded that she was a leader of her time in more than fashion. There are pictures of Serge Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes, the composer Gabriel Fauré, the scientist Marie Curie, and, the most controversial of all, Captain Alfred Dreyfuss, focus of an anti-Semitic political scandal that roiled France for more than a decade. The Countess supported him too—a stand that placed her against many leaders of French society.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

De Greffulhe’s unique taste over the decades of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth is on view in the main gallery. Elisabeth married Count Henry Greffulhe on 1878 when she was 18. Even then her taste was elegant, as can be seen by an exquisite black lace bodice from 1884-5. It was worn over a colored dress, so the intricacy of the lace and jet bead trim would stand out. Color was obviously important to the new bride as can be seen by a pink silk satin day dress embroidered with brown floral motifs from the late 1880s and an 1894 garden party dress from Worth, a confection of pink silk crepe Mousseline over silk satin printed with orchids. Next to this gown is a pleated silk taffeta dressing gown in another favorite, green, a color that highlighted her auburn hair.

House of Worth, tea gown, circa 1897; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.
House of Worth, tea gown, circa 1897; from the collection of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

This was a demanding customer. She insisted designers showed her their best and then, often ordered them to make something different. The result could be the green tea gown with a large navy cut velvet print reminiscent of the pomegranate figured fabrics of the Renaissance.

This was also a figure who managed to lead fashion through changing times as can be seen on the next platform which shows the new silhouette of the early twentieth century. One standout is a long column of a gown covered with the metallic embroidery inspired by the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen.

The Countess loved “the gaze of others.” Nowhere else in the exhibit is this more evident than an evening cloak made from a Russian court robe and the dress she wore to her daughter’s wedding. The cloak or khalat from present-day Uzbekistan, encrusted with gold embroidery, was presented to the Countess by Czar Nicholas II. Jean-Philippe Worth converted the robe to a long opera cloak which she wore to great acclaim at the state visit by the Russians.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

There has probably never been a mother-of-the-bride dress like 1904’s “Byzantine Gown” of bronze colored silk taffeta covered with silver and gold embroidered and sparking with sequins. At the bottom is a wide band of fur, originally sable. We are told the Countess timed her entrance perfectly, pausing just long enough at the top of the church stairs to give the crowd a full view. Apparently, the strategy worked. The press barely mentioned the bride, lavishing praise on the mother’s dress!

nstallation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

The 1930s were a period when couturieres flourished in Paris. Designers like louiseboulanger, Jeanne Lanvin, and Maggy Rouff emerged and contributed to the Countess’ wardrobe. By this time, she was older, but still exercised her great sense of what in the new decade would complement her. By this time, the Countess had abandoned pink, feeling it was too youthful. Most of the garments from the 1930s are black, including an amusing coat with a Surrealist influence. The fabric looks like black bricks, trimmed with a lush black fur pockets and cuffs.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT.  Photograph :copyright: 2016 The Museum at FIT.

But, the Countess still loved green. This love shows up in flowing robes inspired by the Ballet Russes covered with Orientalist embroidery.

The gowns are stunning, but the accessories wall shows the Countess’ attention to detail. For a sense of mystery, there are fans replete with delicate paintings, lace, and sticks of mother-of-pearl and stockings embroidered with silk flowers. A proper lady in society had to have gloves. The Countess inherited a long pair from the Age of Napoleon, delicate ivory trimmed with gold sequins, but she had the latest as well. Her black satin evening gloves from the 1930s came from Caroline Reboux. They have remarkable puffs that extend from the wrist to the elbows. She was never without a hat, a list for a trip specifically laid out the need for at least 6 hats in different colors. Most moving, is a small hat from the 1940s when France was at war. It is an “Occupation Hat,” made of braided cellophane straw and ribbon worn when her townhouse had no heat and she lived in her servants’ quarters. Style under adversity.

Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.
Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT.  Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT. More images available here.

The most famous, enduring example of Countess’ style is Worth’s “Lily Dress,” which occupies center stage. Black velvet covered with appliques of ivory silk lilies and leaves that run the length of the dress and train, it is a gown whose pearls and sequins would sparkle in the lights of a Belle Époque ball. It is cut with a long princess line which flattered the Countess’ figure. A wide ivory silk berth collar would have drawn attention to her face. The Countess clearly knew the power of this dress. She was photographed twice in it by Paul Nader in front of a full-length mirror. She was clearly aware of her uncle, the dandy Robert de Montesquiou’s words— “A photography is a mirror that remembers.”

In one of his novels, her admirer Proust wrote the words that sum up this unique woman. A character based on the countess says, “I shall know I’ve lost my beauty when people stop turning to stare at me.” Another character answers, “Never fear, my dear, so long as you dress as you do, people will always turn and stare.” Sixty-four years after her death in 1952, we’re still staring in awe.


MENadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews

Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »

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The Silhouette: From the 18th Century to the Present Day

Released in September, “The Silhouette: From the 18th Century to the Present Day” is a beautiful, full-color coffee table style work from French sociologist Georges Vigarello. Though not a fashion historian, Vigarello is an historian, and research director at the The School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, a leading French institution for research and higher education in the social sciences.

Published in English for the first time, the book is a scholarly look at the cultural implications of the human form, as a “symbol of status, sexuality and the aspirational quest for physical and moral ‘perfection’.”

The shape of both mens’ and womens’ bodies are explored and illustrated through paintings, silhouette portraiture, sketches and line drawings, as well as caricatures and cartoons. What is unexpected is the true focus on the history of silhouettes as an art form, and how their creation changed over time. The book primarily focuses on the 18th century, with the invention of the word “silhouette,” and runs up through 2012 (though modern chapters are quiet brief). An interesting, though densely worded, coffee table book it’s likely something I will dip into slowly over time.

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New Book in the CSA Series: “Knock It Off,” a history of design piracy…

If you’re a member of the Costume Society of America, you know from their most recent (October) newsletter that the CSA Series has changed hands, and is now being published through Kent State University Press and managed by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Prior to this, the CSA Series was published by Texas Tech University Press,  managed by Phyllis Spect. Phyllis is still managing the tail end of that relationship, and to that end a new book in the series from Texas Tech has been released:

Knock It Off: A History of Design Piracy in the US Women’s Ready-to-Wear Apparel Industry by Sara B. Marcketti and Jean L. Parsons is a 240 page volume of extensive research, with photos to match, exploring a fascinating and incredibly relevant subject.

From the back cover:

The authors analyze legal and apparel industry documents; governmental reports; and their own primary research conducted in museums, archives, and special collections to shed light on arguments both for and against design piracy.”

Much of the book also appears to focus on the Fashion Originators Guild of America (FOGA), which attempts to protect original design. I’ve waded into a few of its pages, and hope to have a chance to learn more from these esteemed authors. Add it to your reading list!

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Best Laid Plans: What I hope to read this summer (continuing series)

In my continuing series of recently released books (that I want to read, or have started to read), I present this weeks book:Dress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice, Edited by Charlotte Nicklas and Annabella Pollen [ Bloomsbury, Oct 2015]. For more in this series, see previously reviewed books here.

If one were to judge a book by it’s cover, after reading blurbs by the likes of Nancy Deihl (NYU); Clare Sauro (Drexel); Jean L Druesedow (Kent State); and Abby Lillethun (Montclair State), one might reasonably expect to see some US-based scholarship here. Unfortunately, the series of essays include only scholarship from the UK and Canada (though the dust jacket says “international case studies.”)

That said, it does look to be a fascinating collection of essays by a good mix of early-career and established scholars. With an introduction by THE Lou Taylor (Establishing Dress History, and The Study of Dress History), it’s got some impressive clout.

Topics include gloves in the 18th Century; 19th Century Afro-Brazilian dress; African dress in the V & A; Aesthetic dress in 19th Century Britain; gender identity and Norman Hartnell; and even sari revival in Tamilnadu, India (among many others). Collections explored include the V&A; Narryna Heritage Museum; Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum; Royal Ontario Museum; and The Hartnell-Mitchison Archive.

It really does appear to be an outstanding contribution to the field, and aims to move Taylor’s work forward. I’m looking forward to continuing my reading!*

 

*I’m also looking forward to a book of similar impact that includes US-based collections and scholars.

 

 

 

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MANUS X MACHINE Review by Nadine Stewart

By Nadine Stewart

Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) for House of Chanel (French, founded 1913) Wedding ensemble (back view), autumn/winter 2014–15 haute couture Courtesy of CHANEL Patrimoine Collection Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope

The first thing one sees at the end of the pristine white entrance to Manus x Machina (MET, Costume Institute, New York through August 14th) is the extremely long train of a Chanel wedding gown. It’s a stunner and sets the tone for the entire exhibit which explores the intersection between hand and machine work in fashion through time. In the case of this piece, the gown was hand formed of a new material called “scuba knit,” sewn by machine, and finished by hand. The work on the train, a combination of silk and scuba knit, was even more intensive. The gilded design was digitally transferred from a sketch by the designer, Karl Lagerfeld. Rhinestones were added via a heat press. Gold pigment was added by hand. Then it was embroidered with pearls and gems, again by hand. This gown is our introduction to the intricacies of design today.

Though the exhibit is full of gorgeous gowns like this one, the exhibit is not about the clothes. Curator Andrew Bolton in his first show as head of the Costume Institute, makes it clear that the exhibit is about the techniques used to produce fashion—work done by hand (manus) and work done by machine (machina). Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, these techniques have been viewed as opposed to each other with handwork viewed as finer work connected with haute couture while machine work is associated with prêt-a-porter. Bolton wants this exhibit to change that view. He feels the increase in new technology has made the distinction meaningless. As Bolton puts it,“Through the marriage of the handmade and the machine-made, a new aesthetic is emerging—one of exacting beauty and unfettered imaginings.” The 170 garments on view in the Robert Lehman Galleries certainly prove his point. The definition of embroidery is “needlework that adorns woven or knitted textiles,” which is a good technical description, but does not do justice to the the directions centuries of artisians have developed these stitches that really can be placed in three categories–looped, flat, and knotted. A trapeze dress from 1958 by Yves St Laurent that gains its shape from 5 layers of machine sewn tulle hand embroidered with crystals is set alone. Across from it are displayed a gown by Dior from the 1950s that shimmers with silver petals of tulle. On the same platform is the work of contemporary designer Iris Herpen which used iron fillings and polyester resin to build up a sculpted surface on the huge sleeves of a short evening dress. For many of us whose experience with embroidered garments might only include a peasant blouse, the sight of these pieces is a revelation.

Yves Saint Laurent (French, 1936–2008) Evening dress, autumn/winter 1969–70 haute couture French Silk, bird-of-paradise feathers The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, 1983 (1983.619.1a, b) Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope

Featherwork is a another skill often overlooked by the public since the conservation laws of the early 20th Century restricted the hunting of birds that adorned the huge hats of the Edwardian era. But featherwork is still an important component in the creation of fashion. The plumes have to be washed, dried, sorted, and, possibly, dyed. Then, they must be shaped and grouped to build the plume up. Often, the feathers will be curled and shaped. This work can produce garments that have an otherworldly quality. Technology has made it possible for modern designers to use “feathers” of manmade materials like silicone. One dress in this section was especially interesting to me. It is a YSL dress from 1969-70 covered in bird of paradise feathers, a now extinct bird who was hunted to death for fashion. One can certainly see how the bird’s beautiful light gold feathers made it so desirable.

Flowers are another old embellishment. The molds that shape them are stamped by machine now. The possibilities are endless from the delicacy of a Lanvin robe de style to bold contemporary garments with layers of built-up petals.

The upstairs galleries also include a section on draping of toiles, which also gives a brief history of the development of the mannequin. Display of half toiles and full ones give an insight into the designing process.

Issey Miyake (Japanese, born 1938) for Miyake Design Studio (Japanese, founded 1970) “Flying Saucer” dress, spring/summer 1994 Courtesy of The Miyake Issey Foundation Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope

Downstairs there are sections on lacework, leatherwork, tailoring and, my favorite, pleating. I thought it was a brilliant stroke to display the pieces by Issey Miyake spread out flat one side to the gallery and mounted on a mannequins on the other side. I could really see how the body shaped the pieces and how the pleating formed an outer shell around the body. These garments were designed with the aid of a computer, another example of the increasing combination of the machine.

This exhibit was a pleasure to walk through, which made it quite different from year’s China: Through the Looking Glass, which was set in the Asian galleries. It was a sprawling exhibit with the garments mounted amid the artwork. There was many, many themes as befit the huge topic—blue and white china, Mao, court robes, Anna May Wong—and that is only a few! It was gorgeous, but could be exhausting to view. This exhibit was more pristine. The Lehman galleries were covered in while scrim which made the garment stand out like jewels. The galleries have plenty of space too, so I didn’t feel crowded. There’s plenty of room to walk around and enjoy. When I first saw the exhibit, I wished there were videos that showed how the work was done.

Then, I remembered how the visitors tend to crowded around the videos and clog up the show. Videos that were in this exhibit were small and spare. This presentation made it possible to focus on the clothes. It was easy to see the work itself. One could contemplate the words of Andrew Bolton, “Through the marriage of the handmade and the machine-made, a new aesthetic is emerging—one of exacting beauty and unfettered imaginings.” It’s exciting to dream about what’s next.


MENadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews

Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »

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Best Laid Plans: What I hope to read this summer (continuing series)

In my continuing series of recently released books (that I want to read, or have started to read), I present this weeks book: Couture Confessions: Fashion Legends in Their Own Words, by Pamela Golbin (Rizzoli, June 2016). For more in this series, see previously reviewed books here.

In contrast to last weeks book, which was the heavily illustrated Fashion and the Art of Pochoir, this weeks selection is all about the words.  Couture Confessions: Fashion Legends in Their Own Words, by Pamela Golbin (Chief Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris) is a compilation of words, opinions and thoughts written or spoken by a number of high profile (and deceased) 20th century fashion designers jig sawed together so that they appear to have been interviewed by the author. It is a clever way to bring a fresh perspective to these long-gone artists. This particular construct places greater emphasis on the designers’ personalities, as well as their design sense and communication styles.

I’ve read the introduction and part of the first ‘interview’ and really do want to read more. I’m learning about designers I thought I knew pretty well (like Poiret, Chanel, Balmain, and McQueen, among others) and it feels like pleasure reading, rather than academic’s ‘versions’ of designers. That said, the academic information is more readily available than in some other texts (yeah for chapter endnotes!)

The introduction is similarly constructed as an interview between the author, Pamela Golbin and Hamish Bowles. In it, she draws parallels between issues faced by the fashion industry now, and those that have been faced historically. One particularly timely point is the perennial problem of the speed of Fashion. Prior to his relatively recent departure from Dior, Raf Simons spoke to Cathy Horyn about it. Here, Golbin notes that historically designers “all had issues with time management, if I can put it that way. Whether it’s Poiret or Lanvin or McQueen, they all speak about that fact that they don’t have enough time to design their collections; that they have to keep producing in order to satisfy the demand.” (12)

Designer ‘interviews’ included in this nifty resource are: Paul Poiret, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Madame Grès, Pierre Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen. They are all represented in their own words, with the exception of Balenciaga: “Quite simply because he never gave an interview during his entire career, except or the one he agreed to at the end of is life. I couldn’t think of publishing this book without having Balenciaga in it, so I chose to have his peers speak about him. It says a lot about how respected he was within the fashion community…” (13)

To give an example of what these chapters are like, here is a brief section of the ‘interview’ with Paul Poiret:

What is your contribution to the vocabulary of couture?

Some have been good enough to say that I exercised a powerful influence over my age, and inspired an entire generation. it would be presumptuous of me to agree, and I must say it makes me feel uncomfortable; though if memory serves, when I started out all color was absent from fashion.”

Could you elaborate on that, please?

The faintest of pinks, lilac, swooning mauve, light hydrangea blue, watery green, pastel yellow, and the barest beige — all that was pale soft, and insipid was held in high esteem. So I decided to let a few wolves into the sheep’s pen — reds, greens, violets, bleu de France that raised the voices of the rest.”

I’m eager to read the other chapters to see what new subtle nuances can be learned of these already well-documented designers. The book ends with a very brief round-table style group discussion with all the designers statements that answer the question, “What is Fashion?.” Ultimately, this book is an insightful, useful, and inspiring resource for both the novice and established fashion historian (especially one looking for designer’s in their own words).

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Best Laid Plans: What I hope to read this summer

As a part of my need to play catch up (I took on too many projects recently), I’m starting a summer series to share the giant stack of new books that have come through my front door. And you’ll be happy to know that I’m focusing on the good ones! I (and a few contributors), will be covering everything from the fashion illustration history, some major new works cover 20th century fashion history, new works on the field of dress, Hair (and more as the books roll in!) Stay tuned !

First on my list of ‘must read’s’ this summer is the giant, beautiful and highly informative Fashion and the Art of Pochoir: The Golden Age of Illustration in Paris by April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary (Thames & Hudson, November 2015). The fact that the book is dedicated to Dr. Lourdes Font (“whose passion and vast knowledge have inspired an entire generation of fashion historians”), tells me that these authors are on point and know their stuff (#FontFan over here!)

Highly illustrated and beautifully designed, the book appears to be a happy marriage of style and substance, full of interesting looking, well-documented essays (yeah for footnotes in a legible size!). The book covers 1908-1925, and focuses on the “centuries-old hand-stenciling technique known as pochoir,” though it does include a good many photographs for garment comparison. I love this time period, and love that this book is an easy reference to the well-loved and such famous illustrations and artists. I can’t wait to dig in !

“Collectively, the ten publications featured in this book document a fashion revolution, in terms of both the clothing depicted and the practice of fashion illustration itself. The groundbreaking illustration styles seen in the pages of these albums and magazines were born out of the need to represent the rapid modernization of fashionable dress that occurred in the first two decades of the century.”

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Heather (Vaughan) Lee is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America. More on Heather’s career can be found here.

Founded in 2011, Fashion Historia explores the history of fashion (and related events and exhibitions) with a focus on California and the West Coast. It includes book reviews, historical research, theoretical discussion and invites feedback from other scholars in the field. Contact Me Here.

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