Fan Mail for Jhane Barnes

Jhane Barnes's Twitter photo

Jhane Barnes’s Twitter photo

Perhaps you have never heard of Jhane Barnes, born in 1954, but she is one of my very favorite designers. I hunt for her menswear on ebay, primary silk or cotton sweaters, and refashion them to fit me. So far I have remade five of her sweaters for myself, two for my sister, and I have another on my sewing list. I’m not much of a collector, but I make an exception for her intricately woven, colorful knit fabric.

A sampling of my Jhane Barnes sweaters

A sampling of my Jhane Barnes sweaters

Barnes went to FIT and began making menswear right of school in 1976. Only a few years later, in 1980, she won the Coty Fashion Critics Award. She wracked up other prizes for her innovative menswear, which featured simplified designs combined with intricate fabrics. When she first got started, she wove her textiles herself. She then began to work with mills in Japan; when that got too expensive, she moved her production to China.

In 2013, Barnes stopped designing clothes altogether. Here is an excerpt from a blog post from that year. “Making a quality product at a price that retailers and consumers want has become nearly impossible. Competition continues to drive down retail prices, and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t maintain the quality I’ve always offered unless I price myself out of the market.” If the truth be told, I am part of the problem–I’ve only bought her expensive clothes used.

These days Barnes makes textiles for furniture and flooring. She has a few other irons in the fire, like furniture design and a line of eyeglass frames. There must be tens of thousands of her sweaters still out there, but I still feel like they’ve become an endangered species.

Posted in 2000s, 2010s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Carmel Snow Dishes up Some Daring, 1940

Snow40My favorite blog, The Vintage Traveler, recently shared a link to a long appreciation of Carmel Snow, the revolutionary editor of Harper’s Bazaar from 1933 to 1957. Snow was famous for her phrase “Elegance is good taste, plus a dash of daring.” In The World of Carmel Snow, she mentions some of her bold fashion choices, like wearing a red suit to her daughter’s wedding, “a very elegant short red brocade suit with a white ermine hat, and I’ve been happy to see my break with tradition followed by other fashion-conscious mothers since then.”(175) Perhaps you had to be there. In most photos, I think she looks like a tastefully dressed wealthy woman of her time, favoring Balenciaga suits and small hats. I couldn’t find the daring.

That is, until I saw this photo of some kind of evening fashion event. That’s Diana Vreeland next to her with the notepad. (The blog where I found it offers no photo credit, and I couldn’t locate its source on my own.) Look at that boldly striped top, with sequins forming the stripes, and a sharply contrasting animal print bag. Her outfit looks daring for 1940 and quite contemporary for today.

If you are interested in learning more about this influential woman of fashion, take a look at the fascinating biography, A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters by Penelope Rowlands.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged | 3 Comments

Late to the Tri Chem Party

TriChemWhen I first saw this post card offered by a favorite ebay dealer, I thought it was for some kind of home dry cleaning or stain removal service. The company’s motto printed on the back, “Partners in Progress through Chemicals,” reinforced that idea.

How wrong I was! Tri Chem offered a range of fabric paints that simulated embroidery. This explains the instructor’s decorated apron, as well as the many doilies, table cloths, and embroidery hoops in the photo.

I was surprised to learn that the company still exists. Moreover, it still uses the home sales model, with instructors offering classes sponsored in a home. Take a look at their application form here. According to the promotional materials, “Instructors with Tri-Chem have the most fun. They earn money while they enjoy teaching their favorite hobby. The hours of work are absolutely flexible… a great way to add to family income and have fun at the same time.”

This card has no date, but it does include a zipcode on the back, a postal innovation introduced in 1963. The clothes look to be an array of conservative styles from around the mid sixties. Ages vary, but all in all this is a homogeneous group.  The one woman with gray hair might be hovering around fifty, her dark blue dress an island in a sea of pastels. Only the instructor gets to wear red, to match the Tri Chem logo.


Posted in 1960s | Tagged | 2 Comments

Trying on Hats in Bronzeville, 1941

Jack Delano, 1941

Jack Delano, 1941

This evocative photo, captioned “Buying hats in a ten cent store which caters to Negroes,” is included in the volume Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures, 1941-43 (2003). The book matches photos taken by photographers working for the federal government with local writing from the black press.

The two women are wearing winter coats, while many of the hats are summer straw—perhaps one reason why they ended up in a budget store. However, the hats they have on look like they match the season. The older woman wears what looks to be on a conservative felt style, turned up in the front.

If you are interested in what ordinary Americans wore in the 1930s and 1940s, there is probably no better source than the photographs made by the Farm Security Administration, later renamed the Office of War Information. Photographers hired by the federal government fanned out across the United States. Their pictures included people often left out of the photographic record, like the urban and rural poor. Since the effort was funded by the government, they are all part of the public domain. Look for them at the Library of Congress or make use of this innovative search tool, Photogrammar, sponsored by Yale University.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Carolyn Boyd—a Woman of Style and Substance

Photo by Alice Fahs

Photo by Alice Fahs

My dear friend Carolyn died last month at the young age of 71. Diagnosed with a serious form of cancer eight years ago, she only began to slow down in the last months of her life. There is so much to say about the substance of Carolyn’s life. She was a distinguished scholar, a gifted administrator, a beloved friend, a wonderful mother.

I think of all of these accomplishments when I remember Carolyn. However, also I want to remember her sense of style. She was a woman of the West, with roots in Idaho, Texas, and California, but she never dressed in a completely casual way. There was something extra to every outfit—a scarf, a necklace, a jacket—that raised it above the ordinary.

In her youth, Carolyn had been a talented seamstress, a skill she set aside once she had a family. But she had a seamstress’s eye for fabric and had kept many beautiful pieces over the years. When we became close friends, I started sewing for her. We planned simple things together—unstructured jackets, scarves, blouses, cardigans—where the fabric was the main event. Some came from my collection of old kimono; some came from hers, like a swath of fine Irish linen she had kept for decades. Occasionally we went to LA garment district to look for treasures. In the picture above, taken in Paris, she is wearing a sweater I made from a textured cotton knit we found on one of those adventures.

Carolyn and I shared a love of buttons, those tiny works of art. When I made clothes for her, we chose buttons from my stash. Sometimes she would bring me buttons from her travels, found in out-of-the-way shops and flea markets. She made her last trip in early summer, when it was becoming clear that her health was failing. In our last long conversation, she told me that she was sorry she hadn’t felt strong enough to go on a search for buttons. That’s the kind of friend she was. I miss her.

Posted in 2000s, 2010s | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Gracious Woman from Sears, 1971

Sears catalog, Spring 71

Sears catalog, Spring 71

According to the Sears catalog offerings available on, the Gracious Lady line of clothing that had been sold since 1936 died a quiet death in 1967. What happened to bring about this demise? Did the youth cult of the sixties make older women embarrassed to ask for clothing designed their demographic? Was the company sensitive to the word “lady,” a term coming under scrutiny by the burgeoning women’s movement?

Whatever the reason, Sears rebranded its clothing line for the older set one last time in 1971. The time, however, it was called the “Gracious Woman.” The Spring 1971 catalog featured fifteen pages devoted to dresses, suits, and sportswear for this imagined customer.

Sears catalog, Spring 71

Sears catalog, Spring 71

The Gracious Woman wore conservative styles available in larger sizes. While younger customers could choose from a smorgasbord of pants and shorts in many fabrics, the Gracious Woman was offered three polyester slack styles with matching tops and one pair of Bermuda shorts. Younger women got mini, midi, and maxi skirts; the Gracious Woman’s styles hovered around the knee. Fashion forward looks, like long granny dresses, were not part of the Gracious Woman’s wardrobe. She sometimes wore hats, while her daughters never did. On the other hand, the Gracious Lady had many choices in slips and girdles.

Sears catalog, Fall 71

Sears catalog, Fall 71

Perhaps the response was disappointing, since the Fall catalog only offered a small spread for the Gracious Lady, one page of coats and another with some serious looking shape wear. From this point on, the older Sears customer with conservative tastes no longer had her own catalog pages.  She would have to find her clothing on her own.

Posted in 1970s | Tagged | 2 Comments

In Pants and Shorts at the Pool, mid 1960s

poolposecompositeThere are many ways to date photos. In my reading about the history of the snapshots, I’ve discovered that the very shape of the photo is one of them. Although square photographs existed since the early twentieth century, this format became a favorite for amateur photographers when Kodak introduced the Instamatic camera in 1963. Even though the women’s shoes and hairdos look a little dated, I’m guessing these perfectly square photos come from around the mid 1960s. Their cat eye sunglasses have a sixties look as well.

According to the fashion trade magazine California Stylist, pants and shorts were a hot fashion item in 1964. The March issue was entirely devoted to these looks. Nautical styles, like the woman on the left has on, were also quite the thing. Take a look at this ad for the sun ‘n sand brand.

California Stylist, March 1964

California Stylist, March 1964

The same magazine issue gave a helpful explanation for the proper name to apply to different lengths of pants and shorts. Following their chart, the woman on the left wears capris, the on the right/middle wears Bermuda shorts (or perhaps rolled up pedal pushers?), and the one on the right in the second photo might have on slacks.

It looks pretty hot. Why is no one in the pool?

Posted in 1970s | Tagged | 3 Comments

Louise Nevelson’s Chinchilla Lined Coat

From Isaac Scaasi, Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed) in front of one of her sculptures

From Arnold Scaasi, Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed)

Once described as “a cross between Catherine the Great and a bag lady,” the artist Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) was an eccentric dresser. Born in the Russian Empire and raised in Maine, she left for New York as soon as she could. There she studied art and modern dance. By the 1940s, she had established her own original style of sculpture mainly using wood pieces, often salvaged, in elaborate collage structures, all painted black.

Collage describes her approach to dress as well. She combined unusual elements, often with her own hand made jewelry. Unlike her artistic work, her clothes were not all black. There were colorful Chinese robes, Guatemalan textiles, old kimono. As she aged, she added a head covering to the mix.

Nevelson did not become financially successful until she was in late sixties. At that point, she decided to have some clothes custom made by the then stylish designer, Arnold Scaasi. In his book, Women I have Dressed (and Undressed), Scaasi described her as coming to his studio wearing a denim work shirt, khaki pants, a fur covered wizard hat, and three pairs of false eyelashes. “She was well known for wearing these bits and pieces, odd belts, shoes, and strange headgear, also for the way she mixed up items of clothes.  She always wore something on her head, usually a jockey cap or a babushka but sometimes a huge black shiny garden-party straw hat or a cowboy Stetson–whatever the fancy took her.”

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Scaasi’s regular collection bored Nevelson, but together they dreamed up more interesting outfits, like velour lace ponchos and dresses made of heavy brocade. In 1972, Nevelson ordered a chinchilla lined coat from the designer. He decided that a few pieces from her collection of vintage paisley shawls would be a perfect exterior. This coat became a kind of signature piece for Nevelson, and she posed wearing it in front of one of her sculptures on Park Avenue. It is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Haute hippies of today have nothing on Nevelson.

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Mrs. Williams in the Soviet Union, 1959

Mrs. Williams in Arkhangelsk, Life, July 27, 1959

Mrs. Williams in Arkhangelsk, Life, July 27, 1959

When you listen to the self generated propaganda of the baby boomer generation, you might think that we were the first group ever to grow old with our legs still working and our brains more or less intact. But of course it isn’t true. In 1959, Life magazine did a four part series on aging in America.  One article in particular, “Practical Ways to be Old and Happy” (July 27, 1959), might have been plucked from the website Senior Planet. It followed four older men and women who were having the time of their lives. Their secret—they kept active refused to “retire” in conventional ways.

In Red Square

In Red Square

Because of my background as a historian of Soviet Russia, I was particularly drawn to the story of Mrs. Andrew Murray Williams (no first name mentioned), a seventy year old  leading a tour to the Soviet Union. She began working when her husband died as a way to make ends meet. Although many of her friends disapproved, she insisted that it was a way to avoid loneliness while seeing the world.

Almost everyone on the tour, mainly women judging by the photos, was over seventy. Despite the full daytime schedule, they would go out at night as well. “When people get bored, they get tired,” she opined. She was already planning a trip around the world, her third, this time including stops in India.

In GUM, the main department store in Moscow

In GUM, the main department store in Moscow

I would love to have an inventory of her travel clothes. We see her in a Spring-like printed suit, hat, and jewelry on a bus; a dark suit, hat, and sensible shoes in Red Square; and a dark coat and hat in the department store. Her clothes betray no shift to looser styles already underway in 1959. Yet despite her slim skirt, she had no difficulties climbing up on a ledge to take photographs in Red Square. I wonder what the Soviets made of her and her older traveling companions.

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Singer Showcase, Issue 1

Fall-Winter 66

Fall-Winter, 1966

We all know that Singer makes sewing machines. But were you aware the company also ventured into the pattern business? I discovered this by chance (a favorite research method) when I came across the first issue of Singer Showcase from Fall 1966. Here’s a quote from the opening editorial: “Singer Showcase Magazine is excited about sewing. Somehow, slowly but surely in the last few years, sewing has ceased to be a necessity and has emerged as a joyous, creative activity. This magazine begins—not accidentally—at the propitious time.”(11)

Singer2_66The magazine offered something for most people who sewed: an interview with a well known designer, an overview of fabric trends, advice on fitting techniques, sewing projects for the home, and patterns for women, men and children. Most surprising was the “Singer World Designer Collection” of original sewing patterns from Paris, Rome, London, and New York. Most of the featured designers are now obscure–Hilary Huckstepp and Ann Howard of London, and Thomas Haderer of Paris. One, however, lasted in the big way—Calvin Klein of New York.

Singer3_66While Singer patterns only came in sizes 8 to 18, older and wider women were not forgotten. There was a two page spread of half size patterns from Vogue and Butterick offered in sizes 12 ½ to 22 ½, “designed especially for those who wear women’s and half-size patterns. And, all help to prove that ‘fashion’ does not mean a size range—fashion is a point of view.”(32)

I’m guessing that the company’s venture into pattern making wasn’t very lucrative. In the next issue of the magazine I found, Spring 1972, Singer patterns had already disappeared.


Posted in 1960s | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments