Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Invention of the Fashion Label

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post about re-evaluating the many claims made about Charles Frederick Worth's innovations in the couture industry. It included a paragraph on how there aren't any labels in dresses that predate Worth's career (or, technically, the existence of Worth & Bobergh, 1858-1871) and on the existence of labels in other items of clothing from the late 18th century, but ultimately didn't come to a conclusion on the matter. A recent discussion on a fashion history board brought the issue to mind again.

Lacking documentary evidence for sewing brand labels inside gowns - even Ingrid Mida says in The Dress Detective that Worth is only "said to have been the first", and The Opulent Era: Fashions of Worth, Doucet, and Pingat, which might be one of the best sources on late 19th century haute couture, says that "whether this house was the first dressmaking establishment to identify its creations is not known ..." - I thought to go looking into extant garments with labels. We have a fairly solid baseline to look earlier from, given that the labeled Pingat evening gown in the Albany Institute of History and Art was purchased on an 1867 trip to Paris.

The earliest I thought that I'd found was this wedding dress from the Chicago History Museum, dated to 1861. However, reading the description made it clear that there's no label inside - the gown is only attributed to Worth & Bobergh (perhaps because of family lore or historic correspondence). There is also a dress that appeared in the Worth and Mainbocher exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York which looks to date to the very early years of Worth & Bobergh (39.26a-b; it's placed at about 1896 in the timeline for some reason), but it likewise is not labeled, per correspondence with the museum. So, one moves on.

The earliest Worth & Bobergh piece with a label, according to museum dating, seems to be this gown with evening and day bodice from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Day and evening dress, Worth et Bobergh; MMA 2009.300.1372a–d
It is there dated to 1862-1865. However, with apologies to the team that catalogued the Brooklyn Museum collection, this just doesn't feel right to me. Sleeves this narrow came into fashion in late 1864; the skirt also seems to fit over the more elliptical hoop of the middle of the decade. I cannot find any fashion plates to compare the skirt trim to, but the overall size and direction of the ruffles is somewhat reminiscent of a style of overskirt fashionable in 1865. The evening bodice is also cut straight across at the waistline (and adorned with long, narrow tabs) rather than being pointed, which inclines the date to 1865.

Day and evening dress, Marguerite; MMA C.I.69.33.9a–e
This robe à transformation from a dressmaker known as Marguerite bears the hallmarks of the same time period, and I would be reluctant to say that either was definitely made before the other.

Evening dress, Pingat et cie; MMA C.I.69.33.12a–c
This evening dress by Pingat & Co. is also likely from 1864-1865. These seem to be the last years in which an evening waist with a pointed lower edge was worn (for a while), and we also start to see long vertical skirt trims in 1864 turning up more frequently in early-to-mid 1865.

One last example dated early:

Evening dress, Pingat et cie; MMA C.I.69.33.1a-b
This Pingat gown is a little tricky to date. The label reads "Pingat & Cie", which puts it after 1863 or 1864 and, since labels from the late 1860s and beyond usually just have "Pingat", probably before 1867 or so. With the elliptical skirt and peplum/overskirt emphasizing the back, it appears to be from the very late 1860s or early 1870s, and the pointed waistline is an infrequent but actual design element in the early 1870s. However, the pointed waistline is also a design element very common to the early 1860s, as described above. The museum dates it to ca. 1860, but the skirt simply seems too long in the back to be worn over a round hoop; The Opulent Era dates it to 1864, but also dresses the skirt over more fluff, and it really looks ca. 1872 there. So I'm not sure what to make of this one, but I think it does not represent the earliest known labeled gown.

Anyway, what's the verdict? To me, lacking the smoking gun of a noticeably early labeled gown or a document of the period mentioning the labels, it seems very uncertain that Worth was necessarily the first to use a dress label - or at least, if he was, it was not the case that he was the only one doing it for very long. Perhaps it's time to insert some doubt into the usually definite statement that the House of Worth invented the fashion label.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Magasin des Modes, 2e Cahier, Plate III

November 30, 1786

May young people not follow the fashion of the cramped and stiff attitude of the young Englishman shown in this Plate; may they feel that this young man lacks the liberty, the ease which makes grace, that the French possess more than any other Nation, and which must be recherchée at least by all the Votaries of Fashion. We only give English Fashions in order that those who will desire it will adopt the costume, which does not allow being piquant, but never in order for them to adopt the discomfort, the contortion, which would give, it is true, a foreign air, but not an agreeable and seductive one.

We will never argue here whether English dress is preferable to French dress, which differed so much hardly twelve years ago; whether it makes the body better, pronounce accents better, and give it more grace: we have not yet produced enough Prints of this to establish this comparison, and we lack the space in this Book to give this discussion a fair expanse. It will find its place in the course of our work.

The young Man shown in this Plate wears a coat of dead leaf colored wool, with green stripes. This coat has a very short waist, and very long basques. It is trimmed with nine square white medium buttons, on the front, four on the pockets, under the flaps, cut in points, and two on the sleeves à la Marinière. It is lined in green wool. His collar, mounted very high, is of natural green silk velvet.

Under this coat, he wears a white gilet with wide vertical and horizontal stripes in dark unbleached-linen color, forming large squares. From the bottom of the chest to the top, this gilet has revers, lined with the same fabric. This gilet isn't cut at the bottom of the revers; it only gets larger from this point to the top.

His breeches are of dark unbleached-linen colored satin. They have a very big fall-front, and come up very high, over the hips. They are slit on the sides to the middle of the thighs, and button with seven white buttons. His garters are attached with long and wide oval buckles.

His stockings are silk, with white and unbleached-linen stripes.

His shoes are open over the instep, and bear silver buckles in perfect ovals.

His shirt is trimmed with a very wide jabot, and with long, scalloped ruffles.

His hat à la Jockei is very high in the crown, in a half square, and has a very wide brim, trimmed with a black silk ribbon. The crown is wrapped with a wide ribbon, which passes in front through a very long silver buckle, flat and rectangular.

He holds in his hand a large bamboo cane, surmounted by an ivory knob, turned in a mushroom shape.

The hats à l'Androsmane are still fashionable in Paris, and M. DONNET, Merchant Hatmaker, rue St. Honoré, near the rue de l'Echelle, still continues to sell a great quantity.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Review: Stays and Corsets, by Mandy Barrington

I feel terrible that it took me so long to write a review of this book, seeing as I was sent a copy by Focal Press - but I promise it was only because I intended to use it to make a set of stays and/or corset first! And then, unfortunately, I did next to no sewing since receiving it, and so I'm reviewing from a more theoretical basis.

Stays and Corsets: Historical Patterns Translated for the Modern Body is by Mandy Barrington, a senior lecturer in costume at Arts University Bournemouth. (She hasn't posted to Tumblr in a while, but you can see some great images of her work there!)

The book consists of thorough instructions on drafting corset patterns based on patterns of extant pieces and modern bodice slopers, similar to the system used in Creating Historical Clothes. (And, incidentally, it teaches you how to draft your own slopers from scratch.)

The patterns it contains are as follows:

- 1735-1750 sleeved stays (with stomacher; sleeves not included)

- 1776 half-boned stays (ie, the Didierot stays)

- 1785-1788 half-boned stays (I would probably date these later, ca. 1795 - they're pretty short and light)

- 1793 short stays (from Waugh's Corsets & Crinolines)

- 1820 white cotton corset

- 1860 solid-busk, corded corset (the red and black striped one from Jill Salen's Corsets)

- 1875 corded and quilted corset (black and yellow, also in Corsets)

- 1890 underbust riding corset

- 1890 corset

These cover the basic costuming epochs: Revolutionary War, Regency, American Civil War, and bustle periods (right? These seem like the most common genres to me), with a few extras to fill in the holes. So that is very satisfactory! Just in terms of being a kind of corsetry bible, I would like to see strapless 18th century stays, an 1840 corset, an Edwardian corset, early 1910s corset, and a solid 1920s brassiere - but it says on Ms. Barrington's bio page that she's working on a second book, which I suspect will contain most if not all of these.

Photo of one of the corsets made for the book, from Mandy Barrington's Tumblr
I take issue with some of the more interpretive text regarding historical corsetry, and it's important to take Cathy Hay's findings about the importance of hip and upper back ease in corsetmaking into consideration when you scale up these patterns: the book tells you to expect reduction across the board, but you'll be more comfortable and achieve more waist reduction if you plan to get bigger in the other places.

However, the system of drafting itself is very well explained and appears potentially adaptable to other patterns, such as those in Corsets and Corsets & Crinolines that don't appear here. This manual is probably best suited for people used to modern pattern drafting who need help shifting to historical silhouettes, and I'd also recommend it for people who don't know any way to make use of patterns from extant garments. If you fall into either of these categories, put this on your wish list!

Saturday, February 25, 2017


My latest project is a proposal for a book written specifically to help out costume designers and writers of historical fiction - a fashion history manual for 1700-1940 that focuses on visuals and on how the clothing works. The first chapter, on the early 18th century (1700-1739), is my sample, and it's making me realize how brushily we tend to deal with the period before the changes of the 1770s, and especially before the 1750s. I'm pinning down a lot of stylistic changes to at least halves of decades, but I'm finding stays surprisingly difficult.

Like a lot of other aspects of fashion I've had to work out, the issue's complicated by museum dates that seem overly broad or just plain wrong. And for stays, there are considerably fewer artistic representations than there are for gowns, caps, etc.!

I think I've been able to identify the differences between early-century and 1775-1795 stays - which was tricky, because a lot of earlier stays were dated later. Which is understandable, because they share some characteristics!

Stays, ca. 1730-140?; LACMA M.57.24.1

Stays, 1780-1795; Museum of London 49.91/1
These stays are characteristic of opposite ends of the century, but as you can see, they both have straps, come to a narrow point in front, curve out for a rounded chest, and use decorative front faux-lacing. The key differences:

- The point on the earlier stays stands out, with tabs placed on the sides, while the later stays have a plain, smooth point.

- The later stays' decorative lacing is narrow and placed only on the upper half of the center front; the earlier stays are trimmed like a stomacher.

- The earlier stays' boning is densely packed together, while the later stays make use of splayed boning channels in front.

- The tabs of the earlier stays are essentially cut into the body and bound, where the later stays' tabs have more shaping.

In very early cases, the neckline of the stays can be quite high and the straps angled out to the sides - in the 1680s-1700s, the neckline of the gown was wide and not very deep.

Of course, there are some stays that challenge categorization - for instance, these stays in the Boston MFA have the very long and narrow profile, parallel bones, and point-tabs of the earlier period, but the upper-center-front lacing of the 1780s. And what's happening with the thread eyes and eyelets near the bottom of the front? Mysterious.

Detail from Plate 3 of A Rake's Progress, William Hogarth, 1732-1735; Sir John Soames Museum
The next question is - what about the middle of the century? Strapless stays are overwhelmingly dated to this period (causing me to question the popular belief that they were mainly worn by working women for better arm movement), but there doesn't seem to be a system of dating based on stylistic elements. Broadly speaking, there are two types, although there is occasionally some crossover:

Linen stays, 1730-1750; National Museum of Scotland A.1905.983
One type of stays has the front pieces boned at an angle, running down to a point at the bottom.

Stays, 1725-1750; Philadelphia Museum of Art 1903-136
The other has vertical (or very nearly vertical) channels in front, and has a broad curve at the bottom. (This particular example does seem to lean earlier as it has a decorative front which might have been expected to be seen, but this one has family provenance via an early 19th century note to 1779.)

I suppose it's not too loosey-goosey to date both types to 1740-1770, considering how broadly the early and late ones are dated, but it feels wrong. There are enough that conform to one type or the other that sequencing makes more sense to me than simply the wearer's/maker's preference.

 Does anyone else have more information on the subject? Or on interpreting the high number of "working" strapless stays vs. other "ordinary clothing?

Reminder - especially if you live in the east or midwest US, please take the Midwest Historic Costume Conference survey! You can keep up with us on Facebook or Tumblr at this time.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Midwest Historic Costume Conference

Big news! Following Julie's success at managing the Ohio Regimental Military Ball, we've decided to attempt holding a Midwest Historic Costume Conference in 2018.

I'm so important, I got to sit at the President's Table! (Mrs. Lincoln, far left.)
To that end, we've put up a survey to gauge interest. We do have a bunch of plans, we just want to see what others think of various options before we solidify anything.

Follow the MHCC page on Facebook to keep up with the con, and please tell your friends!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Not moving, but not standing still

I've been in a reading/writing/sewing slump for a good handful of months now, due to a number of factors:

- The last dress I tried to make for myself ended up looking terrible, due to the fabric being too polyestery and stiff for the design, and to the fact that the cut of the bodice is really bad for someone this short-waisted.

- I've been gaining weight, slowly enough that I didn't really notice until suddenly it hit me that I was dissatisfied with all my clothes because they were just too tight to be comfortable or look good. I'm working on the weight issue, but I just can't gather the will to sew any new clothes for work.

- Cameo is deceptively difficult, at least in the Made to Fit custom sizing module. My pattern files keep becoming uneditable, which is obviously a problem if you're still in the working-draft stages!

- For a while, I was being really active in a few historical fashion Facebook groups, and the neverending fight to get good contributions taken seriously or to have a real discussion burned me out on historical fashion things online in general.

- I proposed a few projects to my editors, but due to the poor sales of Regency Women's Dress, they declined and gave me permission to take them to other publishers. The trouble is that I'm not really sure where to take 18th Century Women's Dress (pending better title) since I never found a publisher in the first round of queries. I also realize that I need more patterns - I would want to include more items of clothing outside gowns, petticoats, and jackets - and now live much, much farther away from all the museums with 18th century clothing. And it's clear that I need to figure out what to do about illustrations, because those in RWD were unsatisfactory to the public, and yet, as an independent researcher rather than an employee, I don't have the ability to set up a photo studio and dress mannequins as in Costume Close-up and 17th Century Women's Dress Patterns.

- Something I can't talk about yet, but just believe me, it's stressful and I'm breaking out over it.

So all together, I don't feel like sewing anything modern (by which I mean mid-20th century) to wear to work, I don't feel like sewing anything historical, and I can't think of any interesting topics to explore on my blog.

However, lately I have forced myself to start working on a new old project. A lavish reprinting of the Galerie des Modes, translated by moi, was one of the things that I proposed as a follow-up to Regency Women's Dress - but it's very expensive to license images from museums, and there are several hundred of them in the whole magazine. so it was turned down. Now I've decided to go directly to the museums. There are only two that own the plates from GdM, and I've inquired to see if either is interested in publishing it in-house. If not, I'm planning to edit the translation, improve my annotations, and run a Kickstarter to enable me to license the plates (they literally cost more than is in my bank account, even to publish only those first two volumes that have the original text extant). Hopefully I'll have more information on this soon!