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.

1900s fashion, sewing, sewing patterns

We Must, We Must….Support Our Bust

New Idea 4155, ©1906

I came across this pattern in a 1906 issue of New Idea Woman’s Magazine. “For stout figures the bust supporter is almost indispensable, as it gives a trim, firm effect to the figure. It is worn over a corset, and may take the place of a corset cover, though many women prefer to wear a chemise or corset cover with it.”

The front is two sections, a top yoke and a lower boned portion. There are five bones which are eight inches long each. The back buttons at the top of the back, and the tape wraps around from the back to tie in front. I’m not sure the purpose of that tape? It is shown plain but some would also embroider it to make it more dainty, as per the dainty fashions of the era. These were made from coutil (corset fabric) but could also be made from heavy linen or heavy muslin.

Edwardian women wore so many layers, I really don’t know how they could survive in the heat. I am NOT a summer person at all, and never have been, and I think I would’ve been in a swoon all the time. I would like this as a stand alone undergarment if I were not a stout woman though. I think it looks super comfortable if it were made without the boning. God knows it looks more comfy than a bra, yes?

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.

sewing, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Gown of the Year

As the fashion industry began to hit its stride after World War II, new fashions began to be seen. Dior’s New Look, of course, was one. Dresses began to be made with voluminous amounts of fabric that weren’t allowed during wartime rationing. In New York, a contest for “Gown of the Year” was held.

14 designers were asked to submit their designs, and they were worn by socialites at the ball. The jury was all men (!), and included Basil Rathbone, Richard Aldrick (a producer), and singer Morton Downey. The winner? Jean Desses, who had not only never been to the US before, but had never exhibited a dress here.

The ball gowns were worth a total of $7650 and were designed by Sophie, Jo Copeland, Christian Dior (New York), Henri Bendel, Ceil Chapman, Mme. Garnett, Desses, Carrie Munn, Lilly Dache (who I didn’t realize designed dresses, as she was known for hats), Oleg Cassini, Charles James, Omar Kiam, Nettie Rosenstein, and Adrian. Shown here (designers as listed above, from left to right).

The winning gown, with Msr. Desses on the right.:

Photo: Life Magazine.

The Christian Dior, New York dress, constructed 80 yards of lace and tulle just in the skirt:

Photo: Life Magazine

The Carrie Munn design. Is that skirt quilted?

Photo: Life Magazine.

The (fantastic) Adrian dress:

Photo: Life Magazine.

No word on the criteria for design or judging, other than it needed to be considered as Gown of the Year. I don’t know if they continued this contest yearly, or if it was just to jumpstart the fashion industry, but I’d love to see something like this today. I doubt we’d see it, as designing for a contest is probably too cost prohibitive for today’s fashion houses, but it sure would be interesting to see. With some female judges this time, please?

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?

1910s, sewing, sewing patterns

Fashion Intersections with History

McCall 3921, Ladies Waist. ©1911

I was adding pictures to the Vintage Patterns Wiki this morning. I got them from an April, 1911 McCall Magazine. I added this one and then realized — this is the same month that the Titanic went down. These are the subtle kinds of connections that fashion has with history, when we look at a garment and think “wow, someone who died in the Titanic may have been wearing this,” or when we see a pink suit and think of Jacqueline Kennedy on that fateful day in November, or a 1940’s nurse’s uniform and think of Times Square at the end of the war. This is why fashion is so important. It’s an entire sector of understanding culture.

We shall not talk about that celebrity wearing Marilyn’s dress on the red carpet though. That was a desecration beyond desecrations, IF indeed she wore the real thing, which many people are questions.

I leave you with Miranda Priestley’s take on the connections fashion has with our culture.

1920s fashion, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

1926 Laws of Decoration

I listed a series of sewing books from 1926 on Etsy over the past few months, called A Modern Course in Home Sewing and Dressmaking. They are available as downloads, and are a fascinating look into the mid 1920s era of sewing and styling techniques. They incorporate hand and machine sewing, and cover everything from seams, to fabric choices, to trims, to construction. I posted the last one today, and it covers silhouettes and style. I thought I’d share some of the ideas found.

They call them Leonardo’s Five Laws of Decoration.

  1. Decoration exists to make more beautiful the object decorated, and not to exploit itself. (I think Coco Chanel took this concept when she said to look in the mirror before going out the door and remove one thing, so as not to overdo it.)
  2. The first premise of decorative treatment is a crying need for decoration on the part of the thing to be decorated. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)
  3. Decoration should follow the structural lines of the thing decorated and add an appearance of strength. (Don’t weaken the design by trying to go outside the lines.)
  4. Decoration should not interfere with the proper function of the object decorated. (This is especially important in sewing. Don’t try to use chiffon when the pattern calls for cotton, or the garment won’t function as designed.)
  5. Decorations should be consistent in technique, material, scale, color and texture with the object decorated and with each other. (Don’t mix apples and oranges.)

Keep in mind that these principles work just as well for home decor as they do for sewing. I think it’s a great little short course in taste. What would you add to the list?

1900s fashion, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Corsage Skirt

I came across the term “corsage skirt” in my readings. It’s shown here in this 1906 pattern.

3015, 1906.

They were designed to show off the figure. I’m thinking perhaps the corsage term came because they tucked flowers into it, but I could be quite wrong. They were very detailed skirts, embellished with lace, embroidery or both. Here’s an explanation of the skirt that I found: “whether built upon princess or modified Empire lines, corsage skirts require soft separate blouses to wear under the dainty framework waists which are so cool and pretty for the summer. Such blouses are never trimmed with cross-wise lines, but observe the long lines of the garment with which they are worn, by having trimming, frills and tucks, or folds, put on lengthwise lines, from shoulder or neck to waist. The only deviation from this rule is when a girdle is made of a fold, or ribbon of satin or velvet around the top of the corsage skirt. In such cases one or more ribbons or folds are run around the blouse, hanging loose from the lower edges and giving the appearance of continuation of the lines of the skirt or a little bolero worn with it.” (The Washington Times, June 17, 1906)

1910s

What Do You Think of This 1914 Blouse?

I came across this whilst trying to date another pattern for collar, cuffs and vests from the same time period. I find it fascinating.

May Manton 8462, 1914.

I thought at first that the “vest” is a different garment, but it’s not. It’s attached, and only gives a vest effect. A faux-vest, if you will. I like it in theory, and it’s interesting to look at, especially with the contrasting fabrics, but I think in reality it wouldn’t lay right when you sit, and would probably bunch up at the waist. What do you think?

Description in the ad: “Here is a blouse which shows distinctly new features. It is quite simple and severe enough to be made of linen or pique and is well adapted to the various tub silks and to combinations of materials. Since the washable silks launder quite as well as cotton and linen, it is easy to combine them and the combination is extremely handsome. In the illustration, striped tub silk is made with vest, collar and cuffs of pique but in the back view, white linen is combined with colored. The long plain sleeves are exceedingly fashionable but, in spite of that fact, many women prefer the shorter length and these can be cut off as shown in the back view. There is just fullness enough in the blouse to be becoming while the plain stitched vest gives a tailored finish.”

I have so many questions. First, combining linen and silk when laundering would be a nightmare, yes? Add colors and whites together and how in the world did they make this happen? What kind of laundry wizardry was involved here?

sewing

Call the Pelisse

I’m reading some classic books right now, because there are so many I’ve never read. I started Pride and Prejudice, loaned it to my mom (who didn’t like it and returned it without finishing it), started Jane Eyre (which she gave to me – no word on how she liked it), so now I have both going. I find it hard to restart a book once I put it down, so I’m going to finish Jane Eyre before going back to Pride and Prejudice.

I know the story of Pride & Prejudice, having seen the Kiera Knightley version of the movie. I love it, though I know, everyone says to watch the Colin Firth version. I’ll get there eventually, but I’m not much of a TV/movie person, except when hubby and I watch our British TV at night. I can’t get him on board with period dramas, so it’ll be a while. But I digress.

I know nothing of Jane Eyre, except that it’s about an orphan. I’m learning so much though. I’m still in the early part of the book. Jane just left for school, and the book mentions that she went to the gatehouse wearing her pelisse. What the heck is that? I had no idea, but now I have a name for the wonderful garment I’ve always seen and loved (including in Pride & Prejudice). Here it is.

Pelisse, circa 1809. Photo: V & A Museum, London.

Basically, it’s a dress that’s like a coat. It was of the Regency era, and was often worn for walking. See some worn here, in the Colin First Pride & Prejudice version.

I have always been in love with these, but never knew what they were called. Now I really want one, but being a fluffy middle aged woman, I doubt it would be very flattering. But I still want one. And though as a fair redhead, I’m not much for blue, I really want one in a powder blue, like the one on the left.

The thing that makes this funny is that I haven’t worn a coat in over three years. I’m SO warm blooded — probably why I hate summer so much — that it’s very unusual to see me wearing anything more than a light jacket, even when it’s freezing outside. I carry a coat in my car in case I get stuck in the winter, but I never, ever wear it. I’m the one you’ll see driving in gloves with no coat, because my hands get cold, but the rest of me doesn’t. But seriously, I want a pelisse, please.