Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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Elite Syncopations Leotards: Part Two, The Mens Corps Costume

Part two focuses on two unfinished costumes which reveal more about the painting and construction methods of the Elite Syncopations outfits.

Initially I was going to focus only on the Shy Girl costume, however when dress historian and curator Ingrid Mida turned my attention to some other artifacts in the research collection, I found there was more to explore about these costumes.  The National Ballet also donated yardage of uncut fabric which had been prepared for the an Elite Syncopation Corps Man leotard, as well as the same leotard which appears to have been partially sewn.  These two artifacts allow us to see steps of the construction process, giving us a glimpse of behind-the-scenes methods used by the wardrobe department.

EliteSyncMens
Uncut yardage for corps man (2014.08.052).  Drawings by Teresa Adamo.

Beginning with the uncut yardage, faint pencil markings can be seen denoting the outline of the costume and around the checkered pattern.  There is a dotted line around its perimeter which is presumably the cut line.  Seam allowance is not marked, but would likely be ¼” as it was with the Shy Girl costumes.  As Bell states in her article The Art of the Costumes (for the National Ballet’s Elite Syncopations), “The designs are hand – painted onto the tights using pigment mixed with a glue binder” (Note 1).  The brushstrokes can clearly be seen occasionally going outside the lines in several places.  Seeing these individual markings, there is a strong impression left from the painter and reinforces the hand made aspect of costumes.

Bell summarizes how the garments are finished after the paint has been applied.

The painted tights are then carefully removed from the stretcher, wrapped in tissue and carefully folded so that no colour touches the unpainted portions, or no design touches another. The tights are put into a special basket and steamed in a huge steamer for several hours to set the paint. This process may have to be repeated several times when one colour goes over another. The costumes are gently washed in cold water to clean and set the dyes. Finally, the buttons and bows are sewn on as necessary. Each costume takes about 18 hours to complete.  (Note 2)

Compared to making a tutu,which takes at least 120 hours of skilled labour to complete, leotards are a much smaller time commitment for the wardrobe department (Note 3).  However, I think that to regard this number in isolation belittles the skill and confidence it would take to paint the designs considering the permanency of the paint magnified by the number of colours on each costume.  Similarly to the Shy Girl costumes, these incomplete artifacts present some questions of their own.  Could they have possibly just been test samples for the wardrobe department?  Or was there a mistake with the paint that simply could not be approved?  On the uncut yardage, some colour is bleeding out from around each coloured square, and the green checks also have a splotchy, uneven look to them, so it could be assumed that the colour fastness of the paint may have been a problem.

EliteSyncLayout
Right: Cut leotard for corps man (2014.08.053).  Drawings by Teresa Adamo

As for the pattern layout, the garment retains its center front and center back seams, but like the Shy Girl tights, the seams on the legs have been moved to the center back of the leg.  A zipper would have presumably been installed in the center back seam.  The front and back torso is attached as one piece from approximately the about the hip to the ankle, but has a side seam from under the arm to the hip area to account for some shaping around the torso.  It is also important to note that the pattern appears relatively small, but the material’s degree of stretch would have been taken into account when drafting the pattern.

At this point, we have a strong idea of what the Elite Syncopations costumes look like and how they were made.  Through the Shy Girl dresses and tights, we have discovered how we can get much more information about an artifact by looking at similar or even “identical” artifacts and comparing their minute differences.  By looking at the Corps Man costumes, we gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of hand craftsmanship.  When viewed together, these six artifacts reveal much more about the artistry and labour behind the Elite Syncopations costumes than we could hope to gain by looking at one in isolation.   

Notes

Note 1: Karen Bell, “The Art of the Costumes (for the National Ballet’s Elite Syncopations)”. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada 28, no.1 (1993): 19, accessed July 17, 2017,http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/224893640?accountid=13631.

Note 2: Ibid.

Note 3:  For more information about tutu construction, visit “The Composition of a Tutu,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed November 18, 2016, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Virtual-Museum/The-Tutu-Project/The-Composition-of-a-Tutux.aspx

Bibliography

Bell, K. (1993). “The Art of the Costumes (for the National Ballet’s Elite Syncopations)”. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada 28, no.1 (1993): 19. Accessed July 17, 2017.http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/224893640?accountid=13631.

“Alumni Where are They Now?,” The National Ballet of Canada. Accessed July 17 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Meet/Alumni/WATN

“Ian Spurling; Obituary.” Times (London, England), Apr. 15, 1996, p. 21. Academic OneFile,go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=rpu_main&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA115106285&it=r&asid=5d8bbb8ec92dea1882c9c96030f75b2b. Accessed 17 July 2017.

“Elite Syncopations & Song of a Wayfarer & Chroma Ballet Note” (2012) The National Ballet of Canada. Accessed July 17 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Archives

/Ballet-Notes/elite-syncopations-ballet-notes-(2012).aspx

Elite Syncopations ; the Judas Tree ; Concerto. Film. Opus Arte.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. (2015) The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. New York: Bloomsbury.  

“The Composition of a Tutu,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed November 18, 2016, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Virtual-Museum/The-Tutu-Project/The-Composition-of-a-Tutux.aspx

 


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Elite Syncopations Leotards: Part One, The Shy Girl Costumes

Part One provides a detailed observations of two seemingly identical dresses with their accompanying tights.

Within the Ryerson Fashion Research collection, there is a group of quirky outfits that stand apart from the other classical and romantic ballet costumes.  The Elite Syncopation costumes donated by the National Ballet of Canada are colourful, spunky, and appealing.  These garments have a completely different visual language than the costumes from Symphony in C and Sleeping Beauty that I have previously studied, and so sparked my interest in this energetic ‘leotard ballet’.  I have carefully observed two identical dresses and their coordinating tights, as well as a corps men’s costume in various stages of the construction process.  While each of these artifacts are compelling on their own, it is only when viewed together that the artistry and labour behind the Elite Syncopations costumes can be fully appreciated.  Part One recounts observations and comparisons of two Shy Girl costumes and.

Elite Syncopations DressShy Girl Todd costume, front view (2014.08.041) Drawing by Teresa Adamo

The ballet costumes are based on the original designs by Australian designer Ian Spurling (1937-1996) who created them for the Royal Ballet’s premiere of Elite Syncopations in 1974.  The FRC received two of these Shy Girl costumes, and taking a close look at the similarities and subtle differences reveals another layer of their story.  I have confirmed that this design was referred to as the “Shy Girl” costume due to the handwritten label found sewn to the seam allowance on the center back inside the costume.  Furthermore, the dancers’ names found written in permanent marker on off white twill tape sewn on the inside next to the National Ballet label prompted me to refer to 2014.08.040 as the “Salas” costume and 2014.08.041 as the “Todd” costume.  Je-an Salas was a soloist with the company and as of 2014 is the resident dancer with the ballet from (Note 1).  I suspect that the “Todd” being referred to is dancer Deborah “Todd” Thompson, as she was with the company from 1978-1988 and so would fit in the timeline of this costume’s use (Note 2).  

EliteSyncBackShy Girl Salas costume, back view (2014.08.041) Drawing by Teresa Adamo

This design features a long sleeved leotard with a high collar, and short circle skirt with panties underneath.   The silhouette is reminiscent silhouette of a figure skating costume.  The skirt allows for lots of swinging flirtatious movement.  After the silhouette, the next most noticeable aspect of the costumes is the graphic quality of the lines and colors decorating the fabric.  Spurling used vivid magenta, purple, ocean blue, emerald, and even bright scarlet.  There is a beautiful ombre starting as off white at the shoulder and gradually darkening to pink, magenta and finally plum at the wrists.  The Salas costume has much brighter colours when compared to the Todd costume, and the shapes and lines are more crisp.

Another striking feature of the Elite Syncopations  costumes is that they are painted in a trompe l’oeil style.  Black outlines give the impression of the dancer wearing a dress with thin straps over a the long sleeved shirt.  To further the illusion, the “dress” was painted slightly more pink than the “shirt” which was left white.  The sharp graphic quality to the design is also seen in the repeating motif of circles and waves on the body and along the skirt.  The circles on the skirt are consistent and perfectly round, suggesting they may have been applied with a stamp.  The repetition of waves and circles create a rhythm around the body contributing to a sense of movement.

As for the construction of these garments, they are machine stitched with either small zig zag or small overlock stitch about ¼” wide for all seams with the exception of the National Ballet and name tag labels which were sewn by hand.  While on the Todd skirt, zig zag stitching attaching the skirt to the leotard is clearly visible on the outside, the Salas skirt has been set in the seam giving it a cleaner appearance.  The leotards are made with center front, center back, and side seams.  Having multiple seam lines means that the costume will contour to the body better.  They could also potentially be used for adjustability of fit, as each of the original designs were fit specifically for each dancer (Note 3 article).  The hem of the skirts is left unfinished on both dresses, as the knit will not unravel and avoid having a slightly bulkier seam which would weigh the skirt down and change its movement.  On both costumes there is a zipper at center back with a hook and eye set above it.  Salas uses a plastic zipper, whereas Todd has a metal one.  One interesting detail on the Todd costume is the appearance of a slit 3” into the skirt, possibly for a longer zipper to be installed but which was then closed at some point.  

As with many of the National Ballet costumes, these costume endured years of wear and tear during performances.  In general, there are minor tears and small fabric pulls on the costumes but both are in fair condition which suggests that the wardrobe team were knowledgeable and skilled at constructing the leotards.  Signs of wear on both of them are in similar places which is to be expected, as the dancers would be performing the same choreography.  There is pilling on the inside of the arms, and the underarm seams are pulling.  

EliteSyncTightsShy Girl Tights Front and Back, ‘Salas’ Pair (2014.08.040) Drawing by Teresa Adamo

While doing intermediate research about the costumes, I came across a video of the Royal Ballet performing Elite Syncopations recorded in 2010.  I immediately noticed that the Shy Girl costume would have been worn with green tights decorated with hearts. (Note 4)  Luckily, the FRC had both pairs of tights corresponding to the dresses.  Once again, the tights can be differentiated by their name tags.  The name Mawson appears beside Todd but has been crossed crossed off.  

The tights are decorated by rows of painted hearts down the center front and back.  There is a slight stylistic change between the costumes since the Salas tights have 8 hearts while the Todd tights have 9.  The colour and crispness is again different on each of the tights which is consistent with the corresponding leotard.  Though both are turquoise green with bright yellow-green hearts, the Todd tights have faded.  You can clearly see the brushstrokes outlining the faded and blotchy hearts.  They are both constructed with a crotch seam as well as seams along the back of each leg and ending under the toes.  The feet are fully enclosed meaning that they are worn inside the pointe shoes.  They both have elastic waistbands though Todd’s waistband is completely enclosed with a self fabric casing while Salas is simply attached with a zigzag stitch.  

As one would expect, it is easy to see how the tights have worn particularly on the feet and ankles.  The soles are quite dirty and discoloured and appear brown rather than green.  The center back seam on the ankle area appears to have been repaired at some point as one can clearly see this area was reinforced white thread.  Additionally, the Todd tights have some curious orange streaks all over them, which could have transferred from another costume during use or storage.  The elastic on the Salas waistband has lost its elasticity and seems quite loose, while the Todd costume seems quite taught.

In conclusion, having two sets of dresses and their accompanying tights to study allowed for a more complete understanding of the Elite Syncopations costumes.  Being able to study two duplicate costumes was an exercise in spotting small differences.  Even though they appear to be “the same” artifact, they are still individual, which speaks to the nature not just of hand painted costumes such as these, but of all hand made objects.  In turn, the differences between them also raises more questions about the objects.  Given the subtle changes in design and finishing, I speculate that wardrobe department looks critically at their work and adjusts accordingly to make better costumes when they were remade around the year 1998 (Note 6).  Perhaps they were not given complete details from Sperling and the Royal ballet about construction and had to come to their own conclusions, or they simply adapted them to their own particular methods.   

Part two focuses on two unfinished costumes which reveal more about the painting and construction methods of the Elite Syncopations outfits.

Notes

Note 1: “Alumni: Where are They Now?,” The National Ballet of Canada, accessed 17 July 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Meet/Alumni/WATN.  

Note 2: Ibid.

Note 3: Karen Bell, “The Art of the Costumes (for the National Ballet’s Elite Syncopations)”. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada 28, no.1 (1993): 19, accessed July 17, 2017,http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-pr

oquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/224893640?accountid=13631.

Note 4: Elite Syncopations ; the Judas Tree ; Concerto. Film, Directed by Acosta, Carlos, Leanne Benjamin, Yuhui Choe, et al. Opus Arte, 2010.

Note 5: Note 3

Note 6: Ibid.

Bibliography

Bell, K. (1993). “The Art of the Costumes (for the National Ballet’s Elite Syncopations)”. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada 28, no.1 (1993): 19. Accessed July 17, 2017.http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/224893640?accountid=13631.

“Alumni Where are They Now?,” The National Ballet of Canada. Accessed July 17 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Meet/Alumni/WATN

“Ian Spurling; Obituary.” Times (London, England), Apr. 15, 1996, p. 21. Academic OneFile,go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=rpu_main&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA115106285&it=r&asid=5d8bbb8ec92dea1882c9c96030f75b2b. Accessed 17 July 2017.

“Elite Syncopations & Song of a Wayfarer & Chroma Ballet Note” (2012) The National Ballet of Canada. Accessed July 17 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Archives

/Ballet-Notes/elite-syncopations-ballet-notes-(2012).aspx

Elite Syncopations ; the Judas Tree ; Concerto. Film. Opus Arte.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. (2015) The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. New York: Bloomsbury.


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Making History: Inspired by Courrèges Part 2

by Shira Yavor

In Part 1, I outlined my source of inspiration and research for this project. In part 2, I outline my remaking of the Courrèges raincoat seen in the 1993 photograph by William Laxton.

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Courreges-inspired coat by Shira Yavor. Model Alanna Furlong & Photographer Arnold Lan 

In making a technical drawing of the coat, I combined elements that were visible in the photo and inferred what the rest could have looked like. My research in Part 1 helped me understand Courrèges’ aesthetic. He once said: “I made the garments fall away from the body by starting from the shoulders. Darts were no longer necessary” (Guillaume 8). This suggested that there were no shaping darts in the photographed coat; the front and back would drape freely off the shoulder without darts.

I draped the front and back pieces on a Judy with muslin fabric. I later adjusted the pattern, straightened and trued the lines. I drafted the collar according to the technique shown for drafting an inset band in the book Pattern Making for Fashion Design (Armstrong 206). I slashed and spread the collar from the neckline up, so that it sits away from the neck. I used a compass to draft the flowers with 5 petals. The draping and drafting process took approximately 5 hours.

The black & white photograph led me to believe that this dress was made in white vinyl, but I later discovered it was actually made in yellow vinyl. Courrèges space age garments were often made in white, since white represented purity and gave off a futuristic look (Guillaume 13). The fabric I purchased was a white heavyweight vinyl with a shiny surface texture that mimicked leather. The ideal fabric would have been a bit lighter and completely smooth and reflective, however I was not able to source any.

In order to sew this material smoothly, I purchased a Teflon sewing foot and leather needle to help the fabric move along. I also purchased white polyester threads and a thicker thread for topstitching. I purchased a coordinating lining and fusing for the closure part of the jacket. At the end of the sewing process, I had the snaps installed at Leather Sewing Supply Depot.

After I got the desired fit, I transferred the muslin to a pattern and cut the vinyl pieces. This fabric was hard to deal with, because it creased easily, and could not be ironed. I tested out light ironing through another piece of fabric, but the vinyl got sticky. I had to roll out all of the fabric in order to cut it. Pins could not be used at all during the cutting and sewing process because they left holes in the fabric. The fabric was very bulky while sewing. At first I was careful not to crease the fabric and rolled it out of the way while sewing, but it was inevitable that some parts got creased, such as the flowers and sleeves.

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Close up of flower cut out. Photographed by Arnold Lan. Model Alanna Furlong.

I first constructed the front, and then continued to sew the back, the lining, then sewed the collar and sandwiched it between the self-fabric and the lining. I used the guide for sewing circular pocket’s in Carr’s book for reference in order to figure out how to sew the circular cutouts. For the collar, under-stitching helped it curve nicely. Cutting slits in the seam allowance also helped, and I did this in the collar and cutouts.

I tried to flatten the seams using a clapper – a wood tailoring tool, however it made little difference. Only under-stitching and top stitching held the seams open properly, so I did this wherever possible.

Most of the lining was machine stitched. Part of it was left open in order to flip the garment over to the right side. I then closed this part with a slipstitch. Although ideally, the coat would have had a full lining, I left the sleeves unlined.  Instead I serged the armhole opening of the lining to keep it from fraying. This part of the garment construction was not as accurate as it could have been due to time constraints.

The whole process of creating the coat, excluding research and shopping for supplies took approximately 38 hours. I spent 5 hours creating the pattern and muslin, and 33 hours in sewing it.

References

Alekna, Catherine. Sewing the 60s. Blogger, 2009, http://sewingthe60s.blogspot.ca/. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.

Armstrong, Helen Joseph. Patternmaking for Fashion Design. 5th ed. Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.

Carr, Roberta C., Pati Palmer, Ann Hesse. Price, and Barbara Weiland Talbert. Couture: The Art of Fine Sewing. Portland, OR: Palmer/Pletsch, 1993. Print.

Handley, Susannah. Nylon: The Manmade Fashion Revolution: A Celebration of Design from Art Silk to Nylon and Thinking Fibres. London: Bloomsbury, 1999. Print.

This post was edited and posted by Ingrid Mida, Curator, Dress Historian & FRC Collection Co-ordinator. 


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Making History: Inspired by Courrèges Part 1

by Shira Yavor

andres courreges

Courreges Raincoat photographed by William Laxton

My Making History project is inspired by a black and white photograph of a model wearing a dress/raincoat with cutouts and a flower motif designed by André Courrèges (Note 1). This image included the caption: “André Courrèges, Dress, photographed by William Laxton, 1960s.” My research included examining garments from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. I also considered the prominent cultural and social forces of the sixties, since fashion captures shifts in culture, being a fugitive form of applied art (Garner 145). Part 1 will present my research. Part 2 will outline the process of remaking the garment.

André Courrèges was a French designer (1923-2016), and launched his fashion house in Paris in 1961. He has been described as the designer who best captured the space age (Garner 40). DuPont developed textiles which were used for moon suits, and these new materials inspired cosmic silhouettes and a new futuristic style. The space age can be compared to a child exploring parts of the world that are seen for the first time (Topham 156) and this aspect can be linked to Courrèges’ youthful designs.

Courrèges clothes were often made for childlike figures. Chanel compared his designs directly with childrenswear (Guillaume 16). Childrenswear definitely had an impact on womenswear, and the influences went both ways. 1960s costume for girls followed the styles that women were wearing. Girls’ dresses became less fitted, more A-line, and shorter. Pants became suitable for girls to wear at school and not only for play in the late 1960s, when pantsuits became more acceptable for women (Tortora, Eubank 574).

Courrèges designed two lower priced lines directed at a younger market: Couture Future, targeted towards 30-40 year olds for 1/3rd of couture prices and Hyperbole, a less expensive line for 20 year olds, available for approximately 1/5th of couture prices (Lynam 203).

In the 1960s, the younger generation was looking for something new and shocking in fashion, and the miniskirt fulfilled that need (Garner 145-147). While Courrèges took credit for the miniskirt, Mary Quant said “the girls in the street” were the ones who wanted this style, so neither designer can really take full credit for it (Lynam 198). The look Courrèges wanted to create emphasized freedom, from the silhouette to the styling. Courrèges saw the body as “a whole”, and therefore did not want to separate the upper and lower body with a waistline (Guillaume 7). Instead he made clothes that floated over the body. The garments Courrèges created were “easy to wear” (Guillaume 4). He, like his contemporaries, Paco Rabanne and Mary Quant, sometimes incorporated industrial materials such as Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), Velcro ® and various plastics into designs.  Courrèges said: “At first vinyl used to crack” (Guillaume 15). Mary Quant also initially struggled when working with PVC, since the material would stick to the sewing foot and the seams were weak (Handley 106).

To better understand the construction of Courrèges’ garments, I visited the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection and examined two Courrèges Paris pantsuits, both of orange knit to study how these garments were constructed and finished. 

FRC_Pant&Jumpsuits_2013.02.009_A+B_RGT_Web

Courrèges pantsuit FRC2013.02.009 A+B

In the first example, the Courrèges pantsuit consisted of a zippered jacket and matching bell bottom pants with cuffs (FRC2013.02.009 A+B). The seams on this acrylic pantsuit are all sewn and topstitched, except for the pant cuff. Finishing details show that this is high quality garment, for instance the shoulder area is fused from the inside. A small snap closure holds the top of the jacket in place, in addition to the zipper. The garment is highly functional, all of the pockets are real and the garment is lined in a similar orange shade. The polyamide lining is hand stitched with corresponding coloured thread on the pants, and transparent nylon thread on the jacket. Although this garment is from the Hyperbole line, which a cheaper ready to wear lines, functionality, high end finishing and comfort were still considered.

FRC_Pant&Jumpsuits_2013.02.009_A+B_LBL_Web

The second orange pant suit (FRC2014.07.587 A+B) is also from the Hyperbole line. Made of orange knit, the pants are surprisingly unlined since the wool, cotton, acrylic blended material is less comfortable to touch. The jacket is lined with 100% acetate and has fake flap pockets, less functional than the first jacket. The vinyl details are in quite poor condition today, peeling off, and according to dress historian curator Ingrid Mida are reflective of the instability of these early plastics. The pants have a zipper that is stitched in by hand.

Although both pantsuits are from the lower priced Hyperbole line, they both featured the famous white snaps and Courrèges initials logo. As well, they both had many fine finishing details using a combination of hand sewing and machine stitching. In recreating the dress in the photo, I used this information to guide my remaking.

In Part II, I will present my remaking of the Courrèges raincoat/dress.

This post was condensed and edited by Ingrid Mida, Curator and Dress Historian, FRC Collection Co-ordinator. 

Notes

Note 1:  When referencing Courrèges throughout the project I am referring to the designer himself and his wife as spokespeople of the brand. Although the image of Andres Courrèges stands in front of the brand, his wife and creative partner Coqueline was said to have done much of the casting and design work (Lynam 197).

References

Crane, Diana. “Globalization, Organizational Size, and Innovation in the French Luxury Fashion Industry: Production of Culture Theory Revisited.” Poetics, 24, 1997. Pp 393-414. Science Direct. Web. Accessed 9 Nov. 2016.

Guillaume, Valérie. Courrèges (Fashion Memoir). London: Thames & Hudson, 1998. Print.

Lynam, Ruth. Couture: An Illustrated History of the Great Paris Designers and Their Creations. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972. Print.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. Print.

Tortora, Phyllis G, and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume: A History of Western Dress. New York, NY: Fairchild Publications, 2009. Print.

Shira Yavor is a third year Ryerson Fashion Design student. This Making History project was undertaken in Fall 2016 for a Costume History assignment.


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The Top Hat of E.J. Lennox, Architect of Old City Hall

By Amanda Memme

The Ryerson Fashion Research Collection owns five top hats – quite a few, I thought, for this type of accessory. One top hat stood out among the rest (FRC2014.07.091 A-J). This hat was housed in a luxurious hard-shell case of leather and canvas that had been stencilled with the initials E.J.L.T. Not only was this top hat in relatively pristine condition (considering its age), but the case also contained other items: three shirt collar stocks, two well-worn pairs of fine leather gloves, a silk tie and two velvet cushions.

IMG_8576

E.J.L.T. Canvas and leather top hat case 2014.07.091 B, Photo by Amanda Memme

Who would go to such lengths to label this item and what do the letters represent? Also, what is the significance of the additional contents of the box? These questions exemplify individualization of the hat itself.

Individualization of the item describes the “de-commoditization” of a thing according to Igor Kopytoff’s seminal essay “The Cultural Biography of Things.” According to Kopytoff, in capitalist and non-capitalist societies alike, things may be endowed with value; and with value, objects become tradable. If an item’s ability to be traded is what commodifies it, its individualization – through purchase or trade, and hence, ownership – is what changes its status to that of a ‘non-commodity’. He writes: “Such singularization is sometimes extended to things that are normally commodities – in effect, commodities are singularized by being pulled out of their usual commodity sphere” (74). As such, I was curious to uncover who owned this well-kept hat, and forgo its commodity biography in favour of studying its life as a singularized possession.

IMG_8554

Silk plush top hat FRC2014.07.091 A, Photo by Amanda Memme

While I analyzed the hat’s physical attributes using Ingrid Mida’s checklists from her book The Dress Detective, Ingrid told me that E.J.L.T. are initials of Edward James Lennox (1854-1933), an architect of notable Toronto landmarks, including Old City Hall and Casa Loma.

E.J._Lennox_1885

E.J. Lennox courted clients that were elite members of society including Henry Pellatt, for whom he designed Casa Loma, and George Gooderham, for whom he revamped the King Edward Hotel. This information is relevant in discussing the particular biography of my object because, not only does it illuminate an enigmatic physical signifier, but also, ownership of an item gives it different meaning than it had as a homogenized commodity. Kopytoff writes: “In the homogenized world of commodities, an eventful biography of things becomes the story of various singularizations of it” (90). Hence, had this hat been owned by another person, its biography would differ greatly. Perhaps Lennox even wore the top hat and accessories for one of the events related to the opening of these Toronto landmarks. Suddenly, through Ingrid’s revelation, my subject transcended its likely status as a dress artifact – useful for the study of material culture  – and became a “precious Toronto relic,” as Adjunct Professor Janna Eggebeen pointed out.

Aside from the initials stencilled on its carrying case, other notable physical attributes of Lennox’s hat include its relatively good condition. Considering its age, the exterior shows minor deterioration, and mostly along the inside of the brim. This fact, as well as the other formal items included in the box (the collar stocks, leather gloves and tie) suggest the hat was likely reserved for occasions of significance. Folledore notes the emblematic significance of the top hat in formal occasions:

The hat continued, of course, to be a simple, practical way of protecting the head against adverse weather conditions, but it was also used more and more as a way of expressing complex messages heavy with meaning. The [top] hat, like a royal crown, definitely had an emblematic function, since it was a clear statement of virility, and a means of pleasing…respect… (Folledore 25)

The preservation of the hat suggests that it was carefully handled by subsequent owners (see curator’s note below). I believe this reinforces the sentiment that the hat is a precious item with known historical and geographic importance. Adding to this rich significance is the hat’s materiality.

The hat is tall, flat-topped, with an elegant up-turned brim and a flared cylindrical shape. It comprises rigid material covered with different silks – the black exterior, by Ingrid’s assessment, is silk plush. The upturned brim is covered with smooth, black silk and altogether, the exterior is finished with a ribbon.

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Inside of top hat 2014.07.091 A, Photo by Amanda Memme

The interior is covered in cream silk and contains a leather sweatband where the crown meets the interior brim. This is the part which would rest on the head when worn. The natural medium brown of the leather is stained darker by oils from a forehead – leaving a lasting imprint of the legendary wearer. The leather is branded on both sides with a maker’s mark. The overall choices in materials are luxurious, and the format non-utilitarian. These two aspects of its materiality suggest the item is of a ‘special’ type – what Kopytoff would refer to as from “the sphere of prestige items” (71).

Further illuminating this symbol of power is another, singular detail: a third maker’s mark, in the centre of the crown, printed on the cream silk lining. The mark consists of the manufacturer’s name – Henry Heath Limited – surrounded by the British emblem and text which reads “By Warrant to His Majesty the King.” This detail comprises what is known as a Royal Warrant – a distinction granted to tradespeople who supply the British Monarch and whose manufacturing upholds high standards. The warrant gives status to the maker and its products, and in turn to its owner.

At what upon first glance seemed an innocuous men’s top hat, proved to be anything but. The material evidence suggests that it was owned by a wealthy individual of power, was worn for select occasions and subsequently taken care of. Upon deeper research, the signifiers which led to this assessment were illuminated by Ingrid’s revelation of the name of its former owner. Its relative importance is also relevant in the context of Ryerson’s Fashion Research Collection. Although another hat top from the collection is also stored in a very similar leather case, most others were stored in cardboard boxes, not necessarily original to the hat. As shown by the photo below, their conditions starkly contrast with that of the Lennox hat.

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Top Hats in the Ryerson FRC February 2017, Photo by Amanda Memme

What does this reveal? It reveals that, although these items once existed in the same “commodity sphere,” to quote Kopytoff, their post-commodity biographies are vastly different. The signifiers of the other hats say something about their histories, each unique from the others. The hats do share one thing in common, and that is their current biographies, since they have all become further singularized as artifacts belonging to the university.

In every society, there are things that are publicly precluded from being commoditized…This applies to much of what one thinks of as the symbolic inventory of a society: public lands, monuments, state art collections, the paraphernalia of political power, royal residencies, chiefly insignia, ritual objects, and so on. Power often asserts itself symbolically precisely by insisting on the right to singularize an object, or a set or class of objects (Kopytoff 73).

As such, E.J. Lennox’s top hat is totally de-commoditized because, for one thing, it is part of a research collection as an artifact. For another, its viability to return to the commodity sphere has long diminished, as Kopytoff would point out, because it is no longer a fashionable item. Though it will no longer impart status on a wearer, it will, as part of a collection, connote power of the university. As long as it exists, the hat and accesories will provide an educational opportunity and a glimpse of the past. Of course, E.J. Lennox’s legacy of monumental buildings certainly far exceeds his top hat, but his top hat is significant because it humanizes him.

Amanda Memme is a graduate student in the MA Fashion Program at Ryerson University. This post was condensed and edited by Ingrid Mida.

Curator’s Note:

This top hat came into Ryerson University’s possession in 2014 via the donation of the Suddon-Cleaver Collection. Alan Suddon’s records indicated that it was given to him by Mary Gooderham. This fact is interesting since Gooderham was a client of Lennox, but there is no further information on that aspect of its provenance.

Works Cited:

Eggebeen, Janna. Personal Interview. 9 March 2017.

Folledore, Giuliano. Men’s Hats. Modena, Italy, Zanfi Editori, 1989.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things, 1986, pp. 64–92.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. London, Bloomsbury, 2015.

Mida, Ingrid. Personal Interview. 27 February 2017.


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Assembling the Puzzle of Jack Liebman’s Career

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Jack Liebman peau de soie dress c.1950-1960, FRC 1983.06.003

For those knowledgeable on Canada’s sartorial history, the name Jack Leibman may be familiar, invoking images of cocktail dresses from the 1940’s. Leibman contributed to the history of Canadian fashion and left a lasting mark on our culture. In spite of all this, his name is shrouded in mystery. We know very little about the particulars of Leibman’s life and work, a fact which presents us with the challenge of learning as much as we can about this enigmatic figure.

The Ryerson Fashion Research Collection has four Jack Liebman garments, one of which I examined in an earlier post (note 1). These fascinating pieces have no accompanying ephemera or histories, and so naturally invite interest into the questions of who Jack Liebman was and what contexts these garments fit into. This blog post will attempt to assemble information about this Montreal-based fashion line using archival research.

Much of fashion history is pre-internet and in order to discover information about mysterious figures or little-known topics, such as the life of Jack Liebman, it is important to expand the scope of investigation. It took extensive research and persistence to find these references. After the preliminary searches in general search engines and databases proved insufficient, it was necessary to explore new sources. By searching in newspaper databases, government records, and national archives, many more relevant results appeared.

I began my research with Ryerson University Library and Archives’ Search Everything feature. My searches included phrases like “Jack Liebman”, “Jack Liebman Dresses”, and “Jack Liebman Fashion”. By using key words, I hoped to find relevant material, but this was not enough to narrow the results. I continued to sift through the information I came across through RULA’s Search Everything, and other search engines like Google, but the results were not answering the questions I had about Liebman.

In order to dig deeper, I met with Naomi Eichenlaub, the Fashion librarian at Ryerson University. She had searched for additional information and offered many research tips. She suggested searching in more focused databases such as the RULA’s Fashion subject guide, RULA’s Newspapers database, and Government of Canada archives. When exploring the Fashion database, I was able to access Vogue Archives, WGSN, and Berg Fashion Library. Once I broadened my search terms in more narrow databases, I was able to find results pertinent to my research. Eichenlaub also offered helpful tips like using quotation marks around key words you’d like to find together (ie. “Jack Liebman”). She made it clear that it is important to remain determined and keep an open mind when looking for information on under-documented topics.

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Jack Liebman printed silk dress c. 1947-1950, FRC 1991.04.001

Let us now examine the first piece of the Jack Liebman puzzle. We know from various sources (see notes 2-6) that Liebman was the owner of Jack Liebman Dresses Canada Ltd. which was located at 423 Mayor Street, Place 3008, Montreal (note 2), but the exact nature of the business is unclear. The Globe & Mail described Liebman as a designer (note 3), while The Montreal Gazette described him an importer on one occasion (note 4) and a manufacturer on another (note 5). His label was called “Fashion Preferred Styled by Jack Liebman” (note 6). 

The Globe & Mail published articles related to Jack Liebman three times, the first of which was in 1946. In the article “Grecian Influence Sends Skirts Down 3 Inches”, the author suggests that the fashions for fall were to be “longer, simpler, better” – a claim that Jack Liebman supported. He is described as a Montreal designer who was “showing buyers across Canada a collection of fall clothes that are truly in the best couturier tradition” (note 7). Ten years later, Liebman was mentioned again. A 1956 article “Fall Silhouette Is Called Released Sheath” describes fall trends. The accompanying image shows two women in Canadian-made garments. The figure on the right wears a slim fitting wool dress with a bloused back by Jack Liebman. The article presents opinions about fashion trends in Montreal. The slender line was the most common silhouette, knit fabrics were growing in popularity, crepe was making a resurgence, and the ensemble (or jacket dress) was a well-liked garment type (note 8). Finally, in September of 1958, a piece called, “After-Five Fashions Are at Sixes and Sevens” was written to showcase the major trends for fall. A black broadcloth sheath dress by Liebman was featured as a leading silhouette of the season (note 9).

During February of Canada’s Centennial Year, 1967, the Ottawa Journal released an article called, “High Style, High Color in Centennial Collection”. It describes a number of garments that were shown in Montreal. It was a glimpse into what fashion was like during this moment in Canadian history. A Jack Liebman dress is included under the heading “Oriental Influence”. It is described as a “daytime dress in white ribbed fabric… styled with uncluttered lines and a small mandarin collar” (note 10).

With several Liebman garments appearing in major publications as examples of the 1956, 1958, and 1967 trends, it can be inferred that Jack was considered a prominent leader in the Montreal fashion scene throughout this time. But the question remains, what clientele were these garments aimed at? One strategy of gathering information, recommended in step 17 of The Dress Detective’s Reflection Checklist, is to identify whether there are similar garments or related ephemera available for sale on Ebay and/or auction sites. This step revealed two billheads from the brand that were available for purchase on eBay (note 11). At the time of my search, February 21, 2017, these receipts were being sold for $3.00 and $6.00 dollars by seller stillman_82 of Stillman Collectibles. These bills of sale indicated that Liebman’s garments were sold at a mid-level price point. One billhead from 1945 lists two garments that were sold; one for $11.75 and the other for $13.75. The second billhead from 1946 indicates that one dress was sold for $13.75.

The statement that Leibman was a prominent leader on the Montreal fashion scene is reinforced by the 1989 Montreal Gazette. The newspaper published an article called, “Show time!; Fall and spring trends land on runways”. It discusses a trade show that presented fall/winter designs to a consumer audience and spring trends to an audience of retailers. The trade show, which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel, featured Jack Liebman, who was described as a legendary name. It says that Liebman showed designs from brands Tricoville, Parigi, St. Jacques, Bellino and Jacqmar. The article states that Charles Widmer, managing director of Jack Liebman Dresses Canada Ltd., told the audience that the company was purchased by a European trading company called UTC (UTAC in the U.S. and Canada). The article goes on to say that, “from the 1940s to the ‘60s, Liebman was a style leader and manufacturer”. It also states that at the time this article was published (1989), the company was importing collections designed in Europe that were mostly produced in the Orient (note 12).

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Jack Liebman crepe cocktail dress c.1945 FRC 2014.07.024

Interestingly, it seems that Liebman had an international reach and a celebrity clientele. In June of 2004, Christie’s, the historic auction house, was selling four garments owned by Patsy Cline (note 13). One of these was a Jack Liebman dress with the label “Original Fashion Preferred Styled by Jack Liebman Montreal-Canada”. It is a beige silk chiffon ankle-length dress with a rhinestone adorned bodice. The description of the collection states that many of the dresses were worn by Cline while performing in Las Vegas in 1962. This suggests that the purchase of Liebman’s garments extended beyond the realm of the middle class, affecting an even greater influence on fashion than at first imagined.

With the success of his business, it appears that Liebman became not only a business leader but a philanthropist and community leader as well. In 1942 Jack Liebman’s company donated funds to Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and was recognized for his contribution in their Ninth Annual Report (note 14). The Canadian Jewish Review from Toronto recorded the marriage of Louis Liebman and Ruth Betty Wine in December of 1950. The publication describes the wedding in detail. It lists Mr. and Mrs. Jack Liebman of Montreal as out of town guests (note 15). These findings suggest that Jack Liebman was an active member of the Jewish community in both Montreal and Toronto.

Throughout his career, Liebman must have collaborated with various individuals and/or companies. I found an example of this in the Furriers Joint Council of New York’s publication “50 Years of Progress 1912-1962”. Liebman’s name is listed with eleven others under the heading “Golden Anniversary Greetings from the workers of Clay Furs, Incorporated, 224 West 30th Street”. This suggests that Liebman worked with a furrier in New York in the early 1960s (note 16).

The final piece of our puzzle is a description of the scope of Leibman’s garments. The Canadian International Property Office lists Jack Liebman Dresses Canada Ltd. as having filed for the trademarks of four brands; Fashion Life, Saint Jacques & Design, Puccini, and Lambsuede. Fashion Life was filed for in 1975 and sold “Ladies’ dresses, blouses, skirts, pants, coats” (note 17). St Jacques & Design was filed for in 1980 and was listed under “Ladies; coats, dresses, pant suits, shirts, skirts, blouses, slacks, lounge wear” (note 18). Jack Liebman Dresses Canada Ltd. is listed as the “Registrant” and Pollack, Kravitz & Teitelbaum are listed as the “Representative for Service” for both brands. Puccini was filed for in December of 1983 under the description, “Ladies’ dresses, suits, skirts, slacks, blouses, and sweaters” (note 19). Lambsuede was filed for in February of 1983 and was described as, “Knitted imitation suede fabrics in the piece constructed from 100 percent synthetic polyester” (note 20). For both these brands, Jack Liebman Dresses Canada Ltd. is listed as the “Registrant” and Seymour Machlovitch is listed as the “Representative for Service”.

In conclusion, it is apparent that to compile a chronological timeline of Liebman’s life and work would be extremely difficult. However, each of these findings act as pieces in the puzzle that is Jack Liebman. Alone, they may seem insignificant, but once put together, they begin to take shape. Many of the pieces of Jack Liebman’ story remain elusive, but the evidence has helped to create a picture of his influence on Canadian fashion. 

Notes:

Note 1: To read a previous post about a Jack Liebman cocktail dress, visit, https://ryerson-fashion-research-collection.com/2017/02/27/a-study-of-a-1940s-cocktail-dress-by-jack-liebman/

Note 2: Address taken from an ad in the newspaper Canadian Jewish Chronicle on September 16, 1949.

Note 3: Cay Moore, “Grecian Influence Sends Skirts Down 3 Inches,” The Globe and Mail, July 19, 1946. Accessed February 22, 2017.

Note 4: “Jack Liebman Dresses bought: [Final Edition],” The Gazette, August 9, 1989. Accessed February 22, 2017, 

Note 5: Iona Monahan, “Show time!; Fall and spring trends land on runways: [Final Edition], The Gazette, September 5, 1989. Accessed February 24, 2017.

Note 6: “Artefacts Canada – Humanities,” Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2013. Accessed February 22, 2017, http://www.rcip-chin.gc.ca/bd-dl/artefacts-eng.jsp?emu=en.artefacts:/ws/human/user/www/Record;jsessionid=471D8276F42B20AC7360F0995D60A369&w=NATIVE%28%27INSNAME+EQ+%27%27GUELPH+MUSEUMS%27%27%27%29&upp=0&m=30.

Note 7: See note 2.

Note 8: Olive Dickason, “Fall Silhouette Is Called Released Sheath,” The Globe and Mail, June 5, 1956. Accessed February 23, 2017.

Note 9: “After-Five Fashions Are at Sixes and Sevens,” The Globe and Mail, September 20, 1958. Accessed February 22, 2017. 

Note 10: Lorraine Hunter, “High Style, High Colour in Centennial Collection,” The Ottawa Journal, February 11, 1967. Accessed February 25, 2017.

 Note 11: To view the billheads, visit, “1946 Billhead Montreal QC Canada Jack Liebman Dress Limited *Graphic*,” eBay. Accessed February 21, 2017, http://www.cafr.ebay.ca/itm/1946-Billhead-Montreal-QC-Canada-Jack-Liebman-Dress-Limited-Graphic-/272440752760?hash=item3f6ebbfa78:g:uq8AAOSwMVdYH8PI, http://www.cafr.ebay.ca/itm/1946-Billhead-Montreal-QC-Canada-Jack-Liebman-Dress-Limited-No-Graphic-/272440754375?hash=item3f6ebc00c7:g:R~UAAOSwal5YH8RR.

Note 12: See note 5.

Note 13: To view the Liebman dress and the three accompanying ones being sold, visit,  “Patsy Cline Dresses – Entertainment Memorabilia,” Christie’s, June 24, 2004. Accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/patsy-cline-dresses-4302144-details.aspx.

Note 14: “A Tribute Everlasting,” Jewish General Hospital, December 31, 1942. Accessed February 25, 2017.

Note 15: “Marriages – Liebman-Wine,” Canadian Jewish Review, December 1, 1950. p.113. Accessed February 24, 2017.

Note 16: “Fifty Years of Progress 1912/1962,” Furriers Joint Council of New York, December 8, 1962. Accessed February 22, 2017.

Note 17: To view more about the Fashion Life trademark, visit, “Canadian trade-mark data,” Canadian Intellectual Property Office, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2017.

Note 18: To view more about the Saint Jacques & Design trademark, visit, “Canadian trade-mark data,” Canadian Intellectual Property Office, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2017.

Note 19: To view more about the Puccini trademark, visit, “Canadian trade-mark data,” Canadian Intellectual Property Office, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2017.

Note 20: To view more about the Lambsuede trademark, visit , “Canadian trade-mark data,” Canadian Intellectual Property Office, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2017.

Bibliography:

“After-Five Fashions Are at Sixes and Sevens,” The Globe and Mail, September 20, 1958. Accessed February 22, 2017.

“Artefacts Canada – Humanities,” Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2013. Accessed February 22, 2017.

“A Tribute Everlasting,” Jewish General Hospital, December 31, 1942. Accessed February 25, 2017.

Dickason, Olive, “Fall Silhouette Is Called Released Sheath,” The Globe and Mail, June 5, 1956. Accessed February 23, 2017.

 “Fifty Years of Progress 1912/1962,” Furriers Joint Council of New York, December 8, 1962. Accessed February 22, 2017.

 Hunter, Lorraine, “High Style, High Colour in Centennial Collection,” The Ottawa Journal, February 11, 1967. Accessed February 25, 2017.

“Jack Liebman Dresses bought: [Final Edition],” The Gazette, August 9, 1989. Accessed February 22, 2017.

“Marriages – Liebman-Wine,” Canadian Jewish Review, December 1, 1950. Accessed February 24, 2017.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object Based Research, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

Monahan, Iona, “Show time!; Fall and spring trends land on runways: [Final Edition], The Gazette, September 5, 1989. Accessed February 24, 2017.

Moore, Cay, “Grecian Influence Sends Skirts Down 3 Inches,” The Globe and Mail, July 19, 1946. Accessed February 22, 2017.

 

 


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A Weston & Wells Reversible Plated Bustle

by Christine Gow

Much like the clothes that parade down the catwalks of the world’s fashion capitals, the fashionable female body is also subject to the cyclical whims of taste. When we manage to attain the unattainable—that year’s bump, lump, or lack thereof du jour—we tire of it and move on. Take, for example, the statuesque supermodels of the late 80s, who gave way to heroin chic’s Kate Moss in 1993; she, in turn, conceded the crown to a gravity-defying Gisele Bündchen at the end of that decade. While boy-slim silhouettes still dominate the pages of high fashion magazines in 2017, pop culture has permeated the arena of health and beauty and overinflated boobs and butts provide a shapely foil to the tiny waists of a million social media feeds.

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Reversible Player Bustle c.1885

It is with this in mind that I ask Ingrid Mida, curator of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection and author of The Dress Detective, to show me the selection of bustles in her care. The idea of temporarily exaggerating one’s shape with a strap-on 3D form appeals, having once had a costly brush with dermatological fillers (lips, $1600, looked like a platypus for six months). “Bustles,” Ingrid replies, “are so fun. We have a whole variety of them—in different materials, shapes etc. I will bring out the whole box.” She is right—the collection hosts a plethora of styles from the bustle’s hey day in the 1870s and 80s. Here, I must note, that bustles were conceived as a way to support the elaborate and heavy draping and embellishments of the dresses of the time, not as a way to give the impression of a larger-than-average bum. In Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper’s Bazar: 1867-1898, Stella Blum explains that “the knees had been freed by this time, and the trains for day disappeared for easier walking, but the weight of these costumes and the structures needed to support the huge rear extension added little to increase mobility. Many of the fabrics were upholstery like in quality, made heavier by the profuse use of beading, fringes, braids and furs” (1974). When viewed from the side as was intended this rear profile looked like the backend of a horse.

Blum also describes how our perpetual ennui is the primary catalyst of change in fashion, stating how “it often manifests itself as a dissatisfaction with the original shape of the body and seeks expression in a wide variety of anatomical constrictions and distensions.” From her vantage point in the 1970s, she felt that “of these deviations from the natural, none is so difficult for the modern eye to justify in terms of esthetics, comfort or practicality as the form considered fashionable in the mid-1880s.”  Ms. Blum clearly did not anticipate the impact Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj would have on the desired female form in the new millennium at the time of her writing.

The mid-1880s is known as the high bustle period, as in the 1870s a much lower profile was in fashion (Peteu and Gray 2008). Harold Koda, curator of The Met’s Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed exhibition in 2001, explains how “the silhouette of the 1880s was created with corsetry and “dress improvers” such as (the) wire-mesh bustle. Structured foundation garments exaggerated the sexually-dimorphic curves of the female body.” What was then achieved with wire mesh is now the domain of gym squats and implants, but Koda points out that the shape women sought with the bustle was nothing new, even then: it was a “deliberate revival of the “bum rolls” and “half-farthingales” of the Baroque era. The height of this style peaked in 1887 and 1888 and “can be explained by the competition between Thomas P. Taylor and Henry O. Canfield (both of Bridgeport, Connecticut) to invent a viable folding bustle” (Peteu and Gray 2008).

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Label on bustle FRC2013.99.001

The bustle I find the most interesting within Ryerson’s collection is precisely this type, though not because of the wire-mesh, double croissant-like shape, or intriguing combination of straps and laces. This one is the only one with any sort of maker’s mark. “THE REVERSIBLE PLATED BUSTLE”, proclaims the neat red print on the cotton twill tape used to secure the wire form to the wearer, the vestiges of a patent number barely visible in faded ink below. “MADE ONLY BY THE WESTON & WELLS MANUFACTURING CO.” in Philadelphia, P.A., by “AN AMERICAN BRAIDED WIRE CO.”, this bustle speaks of American ingenuity in a newly industrial world, and thus, in a sense, of the American dream. I love the perky sense of optimism this fashion invention projects. Dated to circa 1885, the bustle’s original owner is unknown, having come to Ryerson through the vast Cleaver-Suddon donation, a collection of artifacts amassed by fine arts librarian Alan Suddon and acquired in 2001 by Professor Emeritus Katherine Cleaver on his passing.

As you can well imagine, a rigid metal structure strapped to your behind would make sitting rather awkward, and innovations in bustle making stemmed from inventors looking to solve this problem. Koda explains that these were normally “attached only by a waistband, so that they could shift or lift when the wearer sat. Frequently, they were collapsible, but even in those cases, a woman was required to shift her bustle to the side and perch on the edge of her seat”. It seems ironic that at this time women began to actively participate in sports, even daring to try such masculine pursuits as yachting and fencing. It mattered little what a woman was doing; in order to remain fashionable she still had to wear a corset and bustle—even when running around a tennis court (Blum 1974). This sport, I posit, could well have been the purpose of my ‘reversible plated bustle’, though a little further research tells me that her manufacturer was a purveyor of “torsion braided wire springs for carriage cushions and backs” (Fitz-Gerald 1896).

Perhaps Weston & Wells were only concerned with the comfort of a lady’s backside while seated; of the bustles patented between 1887 and 1888, “when the most extreme protruding bustles were in fashion, 44% were for folding bustles to aid in sitting.” Innovation in this area required engineering adeptness, as these contraptions needed to be robust enough to offer significant support, fold when the lady sat, and spring back into shape when she rose. In an 1888 bustle patent, inventor Alice White described the extreme “mortification of the wearer” should her bustle tangle and not regain its intended shape (Peteu and Gray 2008). Though bustle patents outnumber those of other shaping garments (there were 261 between 1846 and 1920, versus 205 hoop patents in the same period), it is only after 1890 that patent records show a major turn in attention to skirts designed for sports and professional activities. “Shaping devices followed the generally accepted timeline for fashionable silhouettes, indicating market demand as a patent incentive” (Peteu and Gray 2008).

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Did the wearer of this bustle use it in her attempts to chase a ball around a clay court from the confines of a corset and gown? If she did, this lightweight add-on would have been the least of her worries. The light soiling on the straps suggests excessive perspiration did not manage to escape her corset and petticoat, which could mean the sport was played at a more leisurely pace, or that the corset had formidable powers of absorption (the torn loop where the bustle would attach to the corset and missing stainless cap at the end of one lace indicate that perhaps she did engage in athletic pursuits of some kind). A certain level of plainness was mercifully acceptable in sporting ensembles at this time, but it could well have been that this lady’s greatest concern was not how many points she could win but simply how best to sit. Although extreme rear profiles were only favored for a short while within the two decades of the bustle’s prime, the undergarment itself would remain fashionable in much subtler incarnations into the next century. Surprisingly, Peteu and Gray found that four patents were filed between 1921 and 2007, indicating there exists those who still champion its cause. In any case, it is either the masterful engineering or the short time this bustle was on trend that accounts for its relatively well-kept condition.

American anthropologist Igor Kopytoff writes: “commodities must be not only produced materially as things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing. Out of the total range of things available in a society, only some of them are considered appropriate for marking as commodities. Moreover, the same thing may be treated as a commodity at one time and not at another. And finally, the same thing may, at the same time, be seen as a commodity by one person and something else by another.”

From valued undergarment to artifact—practically overnight, in the grand scheme of things—I am thankful that when millions of these bustles were relegated to the scrap heap in 1889 or 90, a lady somewhere tucked this particular one into the farthest reaches of her closet, perhaps hoping that it would one day again come back into fashion.

Works Cited

Blum, Stella. 1974. Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazaar, 1867-1898. Dover Publications.

Fitz-Gerald, William N. The Automotive Manufacturer. Vol. 37. New York City, N.Y.: Trade News Publishing Co., 1896.

Koda, Harold. Extreme Beauty: the Body Transformed (The Costume Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 6, 2001 – March 17, 2002). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.

Kopytoff, I. 1986. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. 2015. The Dress Detective: A practical guide to Object-based research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Peteu, M. C., and S. Helvenston Gray. 2008. “Clothing Invention: Improving the Functionality of Women’s Skirts, 1846-1920.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 27 (1): 45–61.

Sloan, Will. “A Stitch from Time” Ryerson University. December 12, 2014. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://www.ryerson.ca/news/news/General_Public/20141212-a-stitch-from- time/.

Christine Gow is an MA Fashion candidate and communications professional, researching how the fashion industry could actively subvert dominant cultural narratives surrounding female consumers over the age of 40 and this market’s digital engagement within omni-channel fashion retail.

This blog post was part of an object-based research assignment for MA Theory II and has been edited by Collection Co-ordinator Ingrid Mida.