designers, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Van Martin and Being a Creator

McCalls 7575, ©1981,

A new listing in the Etsy shop: this track suit style jacket by McCall’s, labelled Van Martin. It’s from 1981, when track suits were starting to become a bit more stylish. The pattern is only for the jacket though. It looks comfortable, because it has an inverted pleat down the back, to give you room to move, and you can make it with anything from poplin and linen to double knits and velour. It’s pretty versatile (and this one is a bust 40, which is nice for today’s ladies).

Van Martin was a sportswear designer. I like what he had to say in this article from the White Plains Journal-News. He said [sewing] “is a means of expressing my creativity. When you cook a meal, you create something that’s never before existed, and that’s what you do with sewing.” Isn’t that cool? You may buy a pattern, even a pattern that’s existed and been owned by various people for a hundred years, but you still are creating something that’s never existed before, because you are choosing the fabric, buttons, zippers, trims all yourself and making it your own. You are a creator. I love the existentialistic idea of that.

Deep thought for a Monday, isn’t it?

designers, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage fashion

Leona Rocha

Simplicity 6433, ©1984

I listed this pattern in the Etsy shop this week and thought who in the world is Leona Rocha. Well, first and foremost, she is apparently not related to Coco Rocha, who is the first person who came to mind. I went looking, and here is what I found.

Leona Rocha was a fit expert. Born in Hawaii, she originally enlisted in the Army’s dental technician course. She used her GI bill benefits to train as a designer at the FIT, she was a past president of the American Home Sewing Association, and even wrote a book about fitting with simplicity. She was a founder of a sewing notions company called Fashionetics, and was the inventor of The Fashion Ruler while still a student, and it is still sold today. In the early 80’s, she partnered with Simplicity to do seminars about fit. At that time, she also hosted a TV show called The Sewing Show on cable four days a week, twice a day. It was a thirteen week series about how to sew at home and properly fit home sewn clothing. She later became an executive at Vogue-Butterick patterns — and married one of their executives. She ran for office on Maui, where she still lives today.

Seems like with all of these accomplishments, I would have known something about her, so I’m glad that now I do. She has left a great legacy to the sewing community.

designers, embroidery, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

France During World War II

I read the vintage book Fashion Fundamentals, by Bernice Chambers recently, and wow, is it fascinating. The setting is 1947, which puts it post World War II, but before the New Look dominated the scene, so the world was fresh out of not only a war, but fabric rationing and the huge impact of the war on the fashion industry. It includes everything from bios of designers to descriptions of different fabrics and fur. Cool stuff.

What I found most interesting though, was the stories it told of France’s couture industry during the war, and how they were able not only to keep it going, but keep it in France. The Germans wanted to move the couture industry to Berlin. Lucien Lelong, the president of the Haute Couture Chambre Syndical De La Haute Couture, and though he made a couple of trips to Berlin, he pulled off the absolute miracle of defying the Germans and refusing to move. Can you imagine the absolute bravery of going against the Germans, who wanted to take occupied France’s biggest industry away from them?

Think of the impact this could have had. Christian Dior had not shown a collection yet. The entire Berlin fashion scene — iconic in its own way — might not exist as we know it. Moving couture to Germany would have completely turned fashion history on its head. I am amazed.

Add to this that the German officers and their lives liked to shop in the couture industry, and what the designers did to sabotage it, and you will laugh. They purposely made horribly awful, huge hats for the Germans, refusing to offer them top designs. This shows that everyone can be a defiant cog in the wheel of the opposition if they think it through. I just love the visual on this — imagine godawful hats in the windows where the beautiful tiny sculptural hats of the 40s should be, and German women walking out thinking they look amazing whilst the French laugh at them behind their backs.

The other thing that they did was so united. The couture industry was rationed 2/1000 of the normal amount of cloth they normally were used to. A tiny amount. OK, so they can’t make as many clothes, and marketing would be hard if not impossible, but think of how many jobs this affected. This put an entire industry under threat of unemployment during the occupation. What did the designers do? They had limited fabric to work with, weren’t allowed or able to do fabric embellishments like ruffles or pockets, so they did embroidery and beading. LOTS of it. Doing huge intricate designs kept the embroiders employed and families from going hungry.

The pivots that the French couture industry accomplished during the war amaze me. American industry faced its own restrictions, but we were not occupied, and the restrictions weren’t as suffocating. We could still get good cotton, even if we couldn’t get Asian silks or Italian wools. The French had to completely think outside the box, and did it whilst making life difficult for their oppressors. I love it.

The book will be listed in the Etsy shop in the next day or two.

1950s fashion, designers, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Fira Benenson

Spadea 1158, ©1958.

I’m reading a 1940s book about the fashion industry, and am learning all kinds of things about lesser known (now) designers. Case in point: Fira Benenson. I’ve seen Fira Benenson patterns before. They are generally 1950s Spadeas, sometimes very early 1960s, but I’ve never heard of her name outside of this. Turns out she’s an interesting person.

I always thought, given her first name, that she had to be Italian, but she was actually Russian. She was a driving force for Bonwit Teller and got her start as the director of imports there before World War II. During the war years, she was the one who designed Bonwit Teller’s collections. She was one of the first retail buyers to return to Paris after the war.

She was very much a team player, saying that no designer designs in a vacuum. “A designer works with the assistance of many people — the fitters, operators, fabric people and her other workers. I would be helpless without my staff.” This is so true, as you’d be surprised how many designers can’t draw, sew or make patterns. Many of them, of course, would never admit it publicly.

Fira Benenson evening dress with jacket in silk shantung, 1942. Photo: New York Daily News.

Ms. Benenson was noted for elegance. She used rich fabrics and embellished with embroidery, shirring, tucking and intricate seams. In 1941, she used a rounded shoulder technique she terms the “hug shoulder” to accentuate women’s curves. That same season, she showed a “soupcatcher” waist, with horizontal looped draping below the waist that created a shelf -hence the soupcatcher name. It was basically a front pannier and based on a Victorian fashion, and created a beautiful, draped effect that accentuated a tiny waist.

Fira Benenson evening dress, 1957. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

“Miss B”, as her staff called her, was soft spoke and gracious, always wearing black, and generally a shirred dress of her own creation. She always wore a huge black pearl left to her by her mother, surrounded by ribbons of diamonds. She was born in Russia in 1898, the child of the Czar Nicolas’ banker, and came to the United States in 1921, after the death of her mother. She opened her own dress shop and was recruited by Bonwit Teller in 1934 to head up their Salon de Couture. This required frequent trips to Paris to view the collections, as she did not design at this point. She only began designing again in 1940 when the war made it necessary. She opened her own shop again in 1948, going into the wholesale business. She maintained both couture and ready to wear collections, as she felt that women wanted clothes that looked “made to measure” to be widely available.

In private life, Ms. Benenson was the Countess Fira Ilinska, married to a Polish nobleman. She spoke seven languages, collected Belgian blown glass, and was known for her dinner parties, where she did much of the prep and cooking herself. The count and countess celebrated 30 years of marriage in March 1961 with a posh dinner party at their apartment that included many of the same guests who originally attended their wedding, including diplomats, artists, writers and businessman. Four months later, the count died in Paris from heart disease. He was 64. Ms. Beneson died in 1977 in the New York apartment she had called home for many years.

designers, Hollywood, sewing, vintage fashion

Jacques Fath & Rita

Photo: Life Magazine

Rita Hayworth was something of a muse to Jacques Fath, who designed her blue wedding dress to the Prince Aly Khan, as well as her trousseau of 15 gowns to get her through the wedding week. Her wedding dress, designed in a powder blue Fath called “Rita Blue”, was copied almost immediately, and made available to the American public whilst the happy couple was still on their honeymoon. It was only available in America in navy and black. He then designed her maternity wardrobe shortly afterward. The sale of her wedding dress design caused an on again off again feud between the two, and Fath reportedly didn’t even send congratulations to Rita at her next wedding only four years later. There is no word whether they reconciled before his very untimely death from leukemia in 1954.

This dress, shown in Life Magazine was also designed for Rita, and was also seen in her namesake blue.

Celebrity, designers, Hollywood, sewing patterns, vintage fashion

The Whole (?) List

Simplicity 2849, ©1938

After the discussion about unknown designer patterns yesterday, I went to look for as many of the Doublemint Gum designer patterns as I could find. Here is the list. There may be more, but these are all I could find at the moment.

Simplicity 2849, above, is attributed to Sonya Henie as the designer. Now, Sonya was a prolific skater, but did she actually design this, or were they just using her name? We will never know for certain.

Simplicity 2718, ©1938

This cute number was modeled by Joan Bennett in the ads, and is attributed to designer Elizabeth Hawes.

Simplicity 2902, ©1938

This beautiful suit was modeled by Claudette Colbert and designed by Travis Banton.

Simplicity 2951, ©1938.

This ad featured Deanna Durbin, with the pattern being attributed to Vera West, “Universal Pictures’ Fashion Creator.”

Simplicity 2978, ©1939

This one is different. Though it mentions the movie The Last Frontier/aka The Real Glory, the ad does not mention a designer. If it was designed by the costumer of the movie, it would be Jeanne Beakhurst, but there’s not a way to confirm this attribution.

That is the only one I can find for 1939 that mentions an actress. It may be the only one, and perhaps the movie/designer/actress/pattern/gum collaboration was confined to 1939, but considering they snagged Schiaparelli and Valentina, I’d say it was pretty successful, wouldn’t you?

Celebrity, designers, Hollywood, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Again With the Valentina

I’ve posted about Valentina before, but I was listening to an episode of the Dressed podcast today that was about all things Valentina, and it led me to a rabbit hole of sorts. I’m impressionable that way.

They mentioned in passing two things: that Valentina never had commercial paper patterns made of her designs, but also that she was featured in a Doublemint gum ad that featured a paper pattern of the design. A bit of confusion ensued, but I took them at their word and went searching for the pattern. I found out some interesting stuff.

First, the Valentina pattern, as shown in the 1938 ad.

This dress is being modeled by Gloria Swanson, was designed by Valentina, and was produced by Simplicity as #2784. I haven’t found a copy of it, but I don’t think that it is attributed to Valentina on the pattern envelope, if the other information I’ve found is accurate. The ad itself attributes the design to her, and if you really dig deep, you can find that 1938-1939 is full of similar Doublemint ads with other designers as well.

Case in point: Schiaparelli.

Simplicity 2740, ©1938

This beautiful dress is modelled by Anita Louise, and was designed by none other than Elsa Schiaparelli herself. It’s beautiful, yes? There are other designers and actresses in this ad campaign, like Joan Fontain, Sonya Henie and a few more. I find it fascinating, because they were taking patterns in the same vein as Hollywood Patterns, by featuring the actress and movie title, but the Simplicity ones actually added the designer names in the ad, if not on the pattern envelope. It’s also advertising in triplicate, which is so smart: the gum, the pattern and the movie the actress is in. Add in the designer – many of whom did not need advertising — and it’s four ads in one! Now that’s smart marketing!

I know that Hollywood has some famous patterns from movies, like the ones based on Gone With the Wind, but I’ve never considered that perhaps those patterns were designed by Adrian or Schiaparelli. I’m not even sure that there is a way to prove if they were, which is what makes this Simplicity series so unique. It’d be a great way for thirties pattern collectors to ad to their collections if they can match designers up with the patterns in their stash. It’s just the kind of sleuthery (is that a word?) that I love, because it’s much harder to match pattern with designer than if you look at a 70s Vogue with the designer’s name emblazoned across the front.

I will not go down this rabbit hole, I will not go down this rabbit hole, I will not……….gotta go!

designers, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Bringing the Extra to Extra

I’ve had this sheet music for a while and have always said that it would look great framed. It’s from the 1944 movie “Lady in the Dark,” and features Ginger Rogers in all her glory. That costume is fantastic.

I saw this post on the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Instagram the other day and it explained why this dress is simply iconic. This costume was designed by Edith Head. She, of course, went on to win eight Academy Awards for costume design. At the time the beauty was designed, it cost $35,000 to make ($15,000 of that was the mink). That equates to about $571,000 today. For ONE dress. It is said to be the most expensive costume in movie history. Ms. Head was right when she said that it simply couldn’t be made today unless a studio gave the costume designer an open wallet. Funny thing is that Ms. Head wasn’t even supposed to be the costume designer for this movie. Valentina was, but Ginger Rogers didn’t like her designs, so they brought in Ms. Head. Serendipitous.

Photo: V & A Museum, Instagram.

What makes it even more amazing is that this was done in 1944 — smack in the middle of wartime. So much for fabric rationing, though the actual amount of fabric is pretty small, but those sequins. WOW. And mink trim and train? Yep. Couldn’t be done today.

Original movie dress and jacket, embellished with faux stones and mink. Photo: Edith Head, by Jay Jorgensen.

Pretty fantastic, huh? It appears that this dress is the sequined version. Two versions were made, according to the book Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, by Jay Jorgensen. The original dress and matching mink jacket had faux jewels applied to create the shimmering effect, but when Ms. Rogers tried it on, it was too heavy to wear during the dance scenes. They created a second, sequined dress. That dress was worn during the dance scenes, and Ms Head later took it to the fashion shows she would host. The original dress with the stones was shown in two scenes of the movie, then was donated to the Smithsonian, though I haven’t been able to verify that it is still there.

Sequined version of the dress. Photo: Edith Head, by Jay Jorgensen.
1950s fashion, designers, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Friday Fun Stuff

Butterick 6655, 1950s.

I came across this pattern in my stash yesterday and thought “wow, what a cute dress.” Except, it’s not. It’s an apron and a coverall. Very stylish, isn’t it? It does a back wrap, then comes around and buttons in the front. I’m not sure that those huge triangular pockets would be helpful, because everything would fall out of them, but isn’t this a chic look?

The coverall is designed to wear over your frock whilst you clean, so your day dress stays fresh. It’s basically designed in the same vein as a Claire McCardell popover dress, which was meant for the same task. The earliest ones came with a matching potholder, and the popover was a staple in Claire McCardell collections.

Photo Credit: Michaelzee.com

Claire McCardell is one of my favorites, because she basically birthed American sportswear. She created comfortable fashion that was also stylish. Her use of plaids was also really beautiful. Not red carpet glam stuff, most of it, but comfortable day wear. She died at 52 of cancer, which was far, far too young. I would’ve loved to see what she would’ve done had she lived longer.

I came across this interview with Claire’s brother, which I found super interesting. Given the fact that she skiied so much, and that she was on the first board of Sports Illustrated, I always thought she must’ve been a talented athlete. Not so. Who’da thunk?

Enjoy your weekend.

Celebrity, designers, Hollywood

The Red Carpet Conundrum

Anya Taylor-Joy at the Emmys, wearing Dior Couture. Photo Credit: Francis Specker/CBS, Rich Fury/Getty Images

This has been a big week in the US. My husband loves (American) football, and all I’ve been hearing is commentators falling over themselves, happy that the stadiums are full of (COVID and) fans again. Like having stadiums full of thousands of (unmasked) people is a good thing right now. But I digress.

For those of us with finer tastes, we got not only the Met Gala, but also the Emmys red carpet this week, and it was fun to watch. Though the trend of naked dresses has me yawning (ok, you have a nice body, cover it up cause it’s boring), and the trend of yellow (which, as a very fair redhead, is not in my wheelhouse, or a lot of other people’s either), there is a bigger thing that has me thinking. It’s the current fashion conundrum.

Fashion has been taking a big hit in the past few years, for how un-environmentally friendly it is. They are putting out more and more collections to fewer and fewer buyers, and the environment is paying the price with the manufacturing impact, as well as the overall waste. Designers are talking about using renewable sources, and manufacturing with less impact, but these red carpets had me wondering, do they really get it?

Billie Eilish at the Met Gala, in Oscar de la Renta. Photo Credit: ABACA USA/INSTARimages.com, Janet Mayer/Startraksphoto.com, Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

Take these dresses in point. They are beautiful, of course. Gorgeous, in fact. Though Anya Taylor-Joy’s dress is very minimal, that coat was made with that huge train, just to be dragged along for photos? And Billie Eilish’s dress is gorgeous, but you can see it from space. Add to that that she changed to another beautiful, less over-the-top dress for dinner. Anya literally wore her knickers to the Emmys afterparty. So is all of this really necessary? It’s gorgeous, but this is the kind of thing that makes the criticism rain down on the fashion industry.

I don’t know the answer. I love, love, love to look at all kinds of fashion, but I think if we are going to talk about caring for our planet, we need to walk the walk, not just give it lip service. ::end rant::

Oh, and this week, I found out that my cancer is, indeed, in remission. YAY!