In the Design Workshop

Found photo

As an enthusiastic seamstress, I love this photo of the interior of a professional clothing design workshop.  You can see all the necessary tools of the trade—a dress form, a bodice draped on the form, a worktable in the background with pattern paper and perhaps more muslin fabric.  Finished clothes hang on the rack, and there is even a tin of those ubiquitous Danish sugar cookies for a snack.

For those of you not familiar with the design process, there is a draped bodice in plain muslin on the dress form which might in the future be made into a pattern for a finished garment.  I think this is a posed photo because the garment in process is incredibly simple. It has none of the details that would make for an interesting finished outfit.  Maybe they have just started, but there really needs to be a dart at the bust.  I looked in vain for a photo of the process further along in a professional workshop. However, I mainly found fashion school photos, which almost always showed brighter and more spacious backgrounds.  Here’s one from the 1930s.

Looking closely at my found photo, I’m guessing that the woman in back, standing and wearing a dress, is the one in charge.  That would make the Asian American woman in front the one doing the design work. One clue is her comfortable pants outfit.  Draping can involve time crawling around on the floor with pins in your mouth. 

How to date the photo?  There’s a touch tone phone in the background, so it can’t be earlier than 1963.  Given the look of the Asian American woman’s outfit, I’m guessing sometime in the following decade.  That looks like indestructible seventies polyester to me.

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Dorothy Brett, True to her Style

Taos New Mexico might seem an unusual habitat for an English aristocrat, but the painter Dorothy Brett (1883-1977) was part of a wave of remarkable women who make it their home in the early twentieth century.  She counted Georgie O’Keeffe among her friends and initially made her home at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s guest house when she arrived in 1923.  She became an American citizen and remained in Taos until her death.

Like many who came to Taos, she was fascinated by the life and customs of Native Americans.  They became the central theme of most of her life’s work. 

In the photo above, taken when she was 83, you can Native American inspirations in her dress, like the belt that she wears over an artist’s smock and the boot style moccasins on her feet.

Like many of us, Brett’s body shape changed as she aged.  However elements of her style remained the same.  You can see this in the portrait of the young Brett above, with her loose shirt, pants, and boots.  When you find something you love, why not keep it?

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Catherine in the Catskills, 1924

Found photo

Had it not been for the writing on the back of this photo—Catherine Butle, Stamford NY, 1924—I might have placed this photo in the American Southwest.  The rocks, the artsy embroidered dress and the graduated bead necklace—very much in the style of “Navajo pearls,”–made me suspect she might have been one of those creative women who migrated to New Mexico in teens and twenties. In fact, though, she was on the opposite side of the country. Maybe my guess was a sign of West Coast chauvinism.

Vintage post card

The ebay seller offered additional information about her location.  She stands at the well-known rock arch by Loch Marion in the Catskills.  What looks like empty space in the background of the photo is in fact a lake.

Catherine’s entire outfit identifies her as an older woman with an arty bent—the cropped hair, the embroidered dress, the bell sleeves, the ethnic looking jewelry.  The dress has no waistline at all, fitting in with the smock look long popular in Greenwich Village. 

Like the Greenwich Village artist and gallerist above, Jessie Tarbox Beals, Catherine has created the illusion of a waistline with a sash.  The two tiered dress look was already out of style by 1924, as was the long length.  But that dress involved a lot of handwork and clearly Catherine did not want to give it up.  Don’t you wonder if she did the embroidery herself?

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Liz Claiborne at the White House

At the White House, 1991

What would you wear to a White House reception? In 1991, fashion designer Liz Claiborne (1929-2007) chose a sporty white pantsuit with a striped top. She looks like she might be headed for the yacht club. In contrast, First Lady Nancy Reagan looks ready for the opera in her long dress and pearls.

She might look like a fish out of water in this picture, but Claiborne was only being true to her own design style. When she started her own company in 1976, her focus was on adaptable clothing for women in the work force. She wanted her mix and match clothing to have more fun, color, and flexibility than the “Dressed for Success” look.

Many credit Claiborne for making the American workplace a more casual clothing environment. In a 1986 interview in Vogue, (“Dressing America: The Success of Liz Claiborne,” August 1, 1986) she explained her approach: “Casual clothes can look OK even when they are a little messy or have obviously been worked in.  Casual clothes make a woman look younger.”

I offer the picture above as proof of Claiborne’s statement. Would you guess that the First Lady is only eight years older than the designer?

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Aimée Crocker Gourand–The Queen of Bohemia

Railroad and banking heiress Aimée Crocker (1864-1941) was a famous/infamous figure at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Married five times, she decided to stick with the last name of her third husband, songwriter Jackson Gourand.  They met at a Buddhist temple in New York City and became something of a power couple, known for their elaborate parties and Asian adventures.

The American press both loved and hated Crocker Gourand, with some writers admiring her adventurous spirit while others were scandalized by lack of propriety.  The Philadelphia Inquirer gave her the title of “Queen of Bohemia” in 1921.  Press coverage didn’t alter her free spirited behavior.  For example, she got her first tattoos in 1900 and proudly displayed them in public. You can see them on her arm in the photo above.  She was still getting tattoos into her sixties.

After her third husband died in 1910, she moved to Paris, where she received a warmer reception.  There in 1936 she wrote her memoir And I’d Do it All Again, which chronicled her adventures in Asia, her many love affairs, and her penchant for collecting snakes.  By the end of her life, even the Parisians found her to be a little too wild.

And how did she dress?  The top photo, taken in 1911, shows her in a somewhat conservative but expensive looking suit.  It is beautifully cut with elaborate embroidery and statement buttons.  In an unusual move, she only wears a double strand of pearls.  Her tattoos are covered up.  But apparently she could not hide her real inclinations in her choice of hat.

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Votes for Women, 1912

These Ohio women weren’t shy about advocating for the vote.  The big sign urges men to vote for the amendment to the Ohio state constitution that would have given women state suffrage.  The amendment failed by a wide margin.  By 1912, only eight states—all in the West–had approved women’s suffrage.  Like the majority of women in the country, those in Ohio would have to wait until 1920 to win their right to vote. 

What fascinates me about this photo, in addition to the gigantic sign, is the wide array of clothing on display.  There are older looking women in dresses (or matching skirt and blouse ensembles), several in suits with long jackets, one in the standard white shirtwaist and dark skirt, and another in a mannish outfit complete with tie.  This makes me guess that these women came from a variety of backgrounds—prosperous matrons, working women, and maybe even a college girl.  And note the many hats with feathers!

This is a reminder that gaining the right to vote was the result of long struggles.  I hope we don’t forget that come November. 

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Mother’s Day, Protest Day

When you search for Mother’s Day photos, you usually find expected images—happy families, smiling mothers, and many, many flowers.  However, you also find a surprising number of protest pictures.  A protest on Mother’s Day brings special significance to causes.  If mothers were willing to exchange a day of celebration for protest, it had to be for an issue close to their hearts.

Poster from Chicago                                                 Pin meaning “Mother’s Day for Peace,” Georgia       

Pins, posters, and placards show the importance of the peace movement in Mother’s Day protests.  The woman above is demonstrating against the Reagan era program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) which aimed to expand the US’s defense system against possible nuclear attack. 

The hospital workers’ strike above is notable for its mainly Black constituency, with major participants from the Civil Rights Movement.  Women are prominently featured at the front.  And even though it’s almost twenty years earlier, note the difference in style between the older woman in Minnesota and the striking women in South Carolina.  The top woman is dressed for comfort, in sweats.  The women in South Carolina wear much more formal clothes, including a nurse in her uniform.

In case you are wondering if protests still exist on Mother’s Day, here’s one in Boston you can join.

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A Study in Purple, 1968

Camilo Vergara, via Instagram

Through the miracle making machine of the internet, I’ve just discovered the work of Chilean American photographer Camilo Vergara (1940-)  He has made it his mission to photograph the poorest parts of urban America. This photo, if we are to believe the Instagram tags, was taken in Indiana in 1968 before he began his project in earnest. 

Vergara’s work focuses on the built environment and the people who inhabit and change it.  Older people are not a particular focus, but he doesn’t avoid them.  The woman in this photo looks both old and poor, signaled by her weathered face, skewed glasses, and battered hat held on by a rag.  However, she has obviously taken care to create a coordinated outfit.  The beat up hat matches her purple wool coat.  The lavender scarf echoes the shiny mother of pearl buttons.  I like to think it was the shabby beauty of this outfit that attracted his attention.

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Dodie Rosekrans–Grande Dame of San Francisco

Look up the phrase “grande dame” in a dictionary and the definition you will find is “woman of influence.”  Certainly the word also implies ages–no one would think to call Taylor Swift a grande dame.  In my research the phrase also implies a hint of eccentricity.  Consider this comment in a 1935 Vogue article, “When you get to the age where current fashions bore you and seem to have very little relation to you, do as you please. Be picturesque, dramatic, and eccentric—make the most of your opportunity of being a grande dame.”

Dodie Rosekrans of San Francisco was often called a grande dame in the press.  Born into a wealthy family, she married twice into even more wealth.  She and last husband had a house in San Francisco, an estate outside the city, and villas in Paris and Venice.  The couple distributed their money generously to support San Francisco art institutions and others in New York and France.

Rosekrans had a unique fashion sense.  She wore up-to-the-minute designer creations, often the ones you see on the runway and imagine that no one on earth could wear.  In the words of John Galliano, whose career she helped launch, “She always wants to buy the pieces straight off the runway, so her collection of Dior and Galliano are all one-of-a-kind, show-stopping pieces, whereas most other couture clients go for more discreet pieces.”

Photo left by Gary Sexton; collage right from The Polygot

When she tired of her clothes, she donated them to the de Young Museum. Her unique designer pieces formed the core of the more avant-garde part of the San Francisco exhibit.  She wasn’t afraid to mix and match. The outfit on the left, part of the exhibit, combined a Galliano jacket with a Comme de Garcon skirt—not a combination I would think of.  The collage on the right shows that she actually wore it, along with a giant neck piece and bright red shoes.

Dodie Rosekrans died in 2010, but her style lives on at the de Young museum. Are you inspired?

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Fashioning San Francisco

Photograph by Gary Sexton

On recent a trip to the Bay Area, my cousin and I visited the current fashion exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum called “Fashioning San Francisco.”  It had an interesting organizational premise—all clothes were worn by San Franciscans themselves or purchased by upscale department store to display the latest styles.  They were donated to the museum by the owners or collectors.  It revealed wealthy society women’s love of couture fashion starting in about 1905 and stretching up to the new millennium.

French design houses are the best represented, beginning with Callot Soeurs and working up to Christian Lacroix and Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld.  There are many classics from the mid-century, especially by Dior.  By the end of the century the perspective widens to other Europeans, Asians, and even a few Americans.  Some of the names, like Frederick Gibson Bayh, who used antique Asian textiles and designed for the high end store Gumps, were new to me.

Dress by Yojhi Yamamoto, photos by Gary Sexton

My favorite dress was the one above by Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto.  The beautiful red shibori work (an elaborate tie dye technique) was three dimensional.

The most innovative part of the exhibit was an augmented reality installation that let you “try on” three of the designs digitally.  The software adjusted the dress to your body shape and arm movements.  The thinnest, widest, shortest, and tallest visitors could all see themselves in couture dresses and send copies to their phones.  You see me below in a velvet dress by Valentino.  I don’t think Vogue will be calling soon.

The exhibit lasts until August 11. The museum building itself and the Golden Gate Park setting alone are worth a visit.  If you want a detailed view of many of the dresses, take a look at couture expert Claire Shaeffer’s YouTube video.

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