Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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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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An Ode to Claire McCardell in the object-based analysis of a Red Cotton Dress

By Jenn Bilczuk

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Claire McCardell for Townley red cotton dress c.1940-1949 FRC 2014.07.477

In the 1940’s, Paris was under occupation and designers elsewhere were cut off from their Parisian inspirations. To prevent the demise of the industry, American designers were thrust into a position of fashion authority that had been previously denied to them (Buckland). Key influencers, like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, fueled by economic nationalism promoted homegrown talent in hopes of stimulating American investment in American designers (Buckland). The increased publicity and the changing social landscape of the forties elevated Claire McCardell’s simple yet stylish design into fashion discourse. She emerged as: “refreshing unFrench” (Yohannan).

McCardell designed well cut garments that transitioned into well made mass-produced pieces. Trained in haute couture techniques, McCardell repelled from the frivolity of couture garments – but not without studying every Parisian design she could get her hands on, giving her an impeccable understanding of clothing construction (Robinson, 104). McCardell took inspiration from the needs of the American women that she identified with. During the war, women were interacting with the world in new ways and McCardell was acutely aware of the evolution of the mid-century woman – she aimed to create clothing that was “at once appropriate for the office, cocktail hour and leisure” (Yohannan).

Claire McCardell’s designs were radical in the context of the forties, since they did not feature shoulder pads, back zippers, boning, and the heavily constructed looks of the times (Yohannan). Instead McCardell garments embodied the fundamentals of sportswear as it is known today: offering functionality, quality and practicality, characteristics so entrenched in contemporary fashions that they remain largely “under appreciated and understudied” (Robinson, 100). McCardell created pieces that were fashionable  and durable. Some of her signature elements were derived from the functional characteristics of American working class clothing. For example, her use of cotton, reinforced by classic double stitching from denim work eventually became a design staple (245, Kirkland). Her production of stylish clothing in traditionally non-fashionable fabrics was ground breaking. She preferred wools, jerseys and cottons because of their reasonable price and availability (Kirkland, 252); “effectively ennobling everyday materials by way of thoughtful design and deftly executed construction” (Yohannan).

These design signatures came to be known as “McCardellisms”, distinctive in identifying a garment as her design (Robinson, 110). She made use of techniques from couture production, but only “those that worked within the constraints of mass production and American fashion” (Robinson, 106). Her distinctive use of the bias cut was influenced by the work of Madeleine Vionnet, which she was exposed to during her training years in Paris (Robinson, 105). The McCardellisms were features that integrated functionality into women’s every day wear. She insisted on deep side pockets in every garment, including her evening gowns, as pockets offered “a place to put one’s hands so as not to feel ill at ease or vulnerable’” (Yohannan and Nolf, quoted by Stanfill). As she instructed her models to display her designs with their shoulders leaning back, hips thrust forward, and hands in their pockets, she is credited with creating the modern slouched stance used on the catwalk today (Robinson, 108).

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Front view Claire McCardell for Townley red cotton dress 1940-1949 FRC2014.07.477

The Ryerson Research Fashion Collection has a garment by Claire McCardell : a red cotton below-knee length dress in a white and black trefoil motif, with a shawl collar and short sleeves (FRC2014.07.477). The dress was dated by the donor to the  1940s. In 1940, McCardell began her second chapter with Townley Frocks as the head designer. The label in the dress reads “Claire McCardell Clothes: By Townley”. During her first period designing with the company in the thirties, McCardell’s work was strictly under the Townley label – the company fearing that naming the designer would make McCardell difficult to work with (Kirland. 239). The label change in the forties however only strengthened the relationship between McCardell and Townley, which lasted until her death in 1958.

The dress itself is in remarkable condition – reflecting the designer’s belief that “good fashion somehow earns the right to survive” (Kirkland, 307). Any displays of aging are only visible upon close inspection. Under the collar and inside the pockets, the original darker red colour contrasts the faded red of the exposed fabric, a combination of age and wear. The latter is further displayed in the discolouration visible directly in the underarms and the hem of the skirt which is slightly tattered; seams are starting to separate, the stitches loosening from one another. There are multiple alterations – re-stitching done in red, and eventually in contrasting threads of black and white. The signs of wear and the overall condition signify a beloved dress, one that was worn often but taken care of, supported by the integrity of its production.

The red cotton dress is a modified princess cut, the seams detailed in white contrasting thread – a McCardellism of reimagining classic patterns in modern fashion. The princess cut features continuous vertical panels, shaped to the body through the torso with no waistline seam – rather than a typical bodice and skirt. Alternatively, the red dress has two vertical bust darts that begin near the shoulders and meet the top of the large side pockets, detailed again in white thread; eventually merging into the side seam at the bottom of the pockets. There is a rather large zipper on the left side that was originally red, but has chipped away to reveal silver from use – it’s placement essential to a woman’s ability to dress herself, another McCardellism (Robinson, 125). The center seam mimics the double stitching techniques borrowed from denim work. The dress is cut on a bias with pink tape used selectively along the inner hem, both shoulders, and on the inner right side seam: a signature detail, giving the garment greater movement and elegantly draping on the body.

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Back view of Claire McCardell red cotton dress 1940-1949 FRC2014.07.477 

In 1947, after the war had ended, Dior released the New Look – characterized by its emphasized bust, longer hemline, indented waist and accentuated hips (Charleston). The look contradicted militaristic aesthetics of the period that broadened women’s shoulders and narrowed their hips (McDowell, 70). Comparatively, McCardell’s red cotton dress in the FRC reflects a similar silhouette, leading me to believe that the dress could have been produced in the later years of the 1940s – specifically between the years of 1946-1949. Despite the presence of the aforesaid McCardellisms; the piece conspicuously lacks other specific design details of her pieces in the early forties, such as adjustable waistlines, wraps and spaghetti ties, large belts, and gilt hooks and eyes. While McCardell rarely used zippers after the war, when she did they were a highly visible design detail (Robinson, 125); in this case the red cotton dress features a zipper on the left side, drawing attention with contrasting white thread.

Sally Kirkland, a Vogue fashion editor, recalled a conversation in spring 1946 with McCardell when the designer shared her prediction that the “following spring she thought women were going to want very full and much longer skirts” (271) in response to the silhouettes of the forties and the restrictions enforced during the war. The next spring, McCardell released a collection of dresses with full circle skirts and dropped hemlines – working out “new proportions so that the unaccustomed length and fullness was set off by a snug bias bodice and tiny waist” (Kirkland, 271). The red dress embodies these very features: a narrow fit through the bust, drawing in at the waist, and opening towards the hips; which are further accentuated by the large, rounded pockets on both the left and right side. The back of the dress is embellished with a piercing, almost a gore, and without risking the integrity of waistline, offers additional volume while making the round skirt much fuller. It is also significantly longer than her dresses from earlier in the decade; measuring at 31 inches from the front waist to the hem, and hangs slightly longer at the back measuring 34 inches from waist to hem. The skirt hangs around 10-12 inches longer than previous designs (Kirkland, 271). The dress would fall well below the knee on a wearer between 5’5″ – 5’7″.

All things considered, I believe that McCardell’s 1946 prediction that “fashion would gravitate towards longer lengths, yards of fabric, and rounded narrow shoulders”, manifested itself in the red cotton dress of the FRC, dating it more accurately to the years 1946-1949 (Robinson, 135). While both Dior and McCardell envisioned the emergence of the silhouette, Dior’s dramatic interpretation overshadowed Claire’s much simpler designs. In this one red cotton dress, I see evidence of the difference between the old world of French fashion versus the new American look; the male versus the female designer;  and glamour versus practicality. Her vision developed into a more youthful feminine silhouette “often made more so with a shawl collar”, and produced in practical fabrics as displayed in the red cotton dress (Kirkland, 71); a mainstay in the “wardrobe of college girls, working women and housewives alike” (Yohannan). The red cotton dress of the FRC perfectly embodies Claire McCardell’s approach to dressing the American woman; it harmoniously incorporates function into fashion, moving with the wearer through the day in effortless style.

References

Buckland, Sandra Stansbery. “Promoting American Designers, 1940–44: Building Our Own House.” Twentieth-Century American Fashion. Ed. Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham. Oxford: Berg, 2008. N.p. Dress, Body, Culture. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Claire McCardell Red Cotton Dress. American. 1940-1949. Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, Toronto. Ryerson University. Web.

Charleston, Beth Duncuff. “Christian Dior (1905–1957).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. N.p Web 29 Feb. 2017

Kirkland, Sally. “McCardell.” American Fashion: The Life and Lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell, and Trigére. Ed. Sarah Tomerlin Lee. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book, 1975. 209-316. Print.

McCardell, Claire. What Shall I Wear?: What, Where, When, and How Much of Fashion. N.p.: Simon and Schuster, 1956. Print.

McDowell, Colin. Forties Fashion and the New Look. N.p.: Bloomsbury, 1997. Print.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Mida, Ingrid. Personal Interview. 1 March 2017

Robinson, Rebecca J. “American Sportswear: A Study of the Origins and Women Designers from the 1930’s to the 1960’s.” Thesis. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, n.d. 2003. Web. 7 Mar. 2017

Stanfill, Sonnet. “Curating the Fashion City: New York Fashion at the V&A.” Fashion’s World Cities. Ed. Christopher Breward and David Gilbert. Oxford: Berg, 2006. N.p. Cultures of Consumption Series. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. 28 Feb. 2017

Yohannan, Kohle. “McCardell, Claire.” The Berg Companion to Fashion. Ed. Valerie Steele. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010. N.p Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Jenn Bilczuk is a first-year MA Fashion student at Ryerson University. This post was written for an object-based research assignment in MA Theory II and has been edited for the FRC blog by Collection Co-ordinator Ingrid Mida. 


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Mary Hamilton’s Wedding Dress: A Study of a 1930’s Gown

Wedding dresses are often only worn once and then carefully stored away as a material memory of a significant event” (note 1).

This is true of  a fashionable 1930s satin wedding dress and headpiece that was worn by Mary Hamilton (1908-2000) at her Toronto wedding in 1936. Mary’s dress and headpiece as well as related ephemera were recently donated to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection by her daughter, Mary Walton-Ball.

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Newspaper clippings of Mollie Hamilton from June 6, 1931 and February 1, 1930 (left to right). Publication unknown.

Mary Hamilton, known as Mollie, was born into a prosperous Toronto family in 1908. The Hamiltons were in the steel business and made many contributions to the city’s industry. Mollie studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and sang in Healey Willan’s choir, as well as the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church choir. In 1935, Mollie was offered a position with a stage company and performed live before the main show at the Imperial Theatre. In addition to these endeavours, she sang on a radio show called the “Blue Coal Hour”.

On June 27, 1936, Mollie married Dr. Horace Gifford (Lou) Walton-Ball. The reception was held in the garden of their home at three in the afternoon (note 2). The couple went on to have two children; David in 1939 and Mary in 1945. Mollie contributed to her community as a volunteer at the Toronto Western Hospital gift shop (note 3). Throughout her life, Mollie travelled across Europe and North America. Mollie, in her 92nd year, passed away on July 4, 2000. She was described as “feisty with a quick sense of humour” and “elegant, articulate, and graceful” (note 4).

The words elegant and graceful describe 1930s fashion just as fittingly as they do Mollie’s personality and demeanor. According to the book The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashion, dress styles from this period were, “eclectic, but the strongest trends were slim-fitting draped styles inspired by classic or medieval dress” (note 5). Mollie Hamilton’s wedding dress fulfills all of this criteria, making it an embodiment of a fashionable 1930s bridal gown.

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A photo of Mollie on her wedding day; June 27, 1936.

The dress is made of a creamy white bias cut satin (FRC2015.09.001). It has no labels, so there is no indication of where or by whom it was made. Mollie’s daughter Mary suggested that the garment was likely custom-made by a dressmaker in Toronto (note 6). The bodice features gathers on either side of the point created by the empire waist seam. Those gathers are repeated along the neckline, which is topped by a border of silk rosettes with beaded centers. The sleeves of the dress are adorned with beaded smocking on the shoulders and along the cuffs at the wrists. There are snaps at the base of the wrist to allow the hand of the wearer to pass through this snug closure.
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Sketch of the wedding dress sleeve, rosette, and bodice by Hannah Dobbie, 2016.

The gown’s skirt begins at the empire waist and continues in a gradual flare. The skirt’s already long length is extended by a train of 41 inches (104 cm). The train begins at either side of centre front, growing in size as it reaches the centre back of the garment. The flare created is dramatic; to ensure that the fabric fell with the desired effect when worn, small weights were sewn into each side of the hem.

This dress was machine-stitched, with the beadwork being sewn by hand. The dress is unlined and does not have any pockets. The selvedge of the fabric can be seen in one of the seams between the train and the skirt. There is no form of reinforcement and there has not been any finishing process on the fabric. Four self-covered buttons arranged vertically down centre back with a hook and eye closure above them serve as this garment’s only form of closure.

The dress is in good condition. It shows little to no fading and only very slight signs of wear. Some beads have fallen off and there are some small stains on the under side of the train where it would have dragged on the ground. There do not seem to be any signs of alteration or intentional removal of embellishments.

When worn, this fabric would feel smooth, cool, light, and luxurious on the skin. A faint swooshing of the satin would be heard when parts of the dress rubbed against each other. The garment’s construction is relatively simple, but the intricate details and beadwork create an impression of understated beauty.

According to a study of vintage evening wear by DeLong and Petersen, dresses in the 1930s were characterized “by slim-fitting elegant shapes and vertical lines that created the image of a womanly curvaceous body, with surfaces defined by fluid fabrics and enhanced by fitted shapes” (note 7). Mrs. Walton-Ball’s wedding dress was a very of-the-moment, stylish piece that, 80 years later, still looks fashionable. This garment evokes a sense of glamour, elegance, and femininity — characteristics that Mollie Walton-Ball herself exemplified.

Notes:

Note 1: Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim. 2015. “Case Study of a Lanvin Wedding Gown” in The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury, 160.

Note 2: Handwritten letter written by Mollie Walton-Ball in April, 1968.

Note 3: Funeral program for Mollie Hamilton dated August 8, 2000.

Note 4: Ibid.

Note 5: Edwina Ehrman, The Wedding Dress (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), 117.

Note 6: Email correspondence with Mary Walton-Ball dated October 6, 2016.

Note 7: M. DeLong and K. Petersen, “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection,” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22, no. 3 (2005): 99-112.

References:

Ehrman, Edwina. The Wedding Dress. London: V & A Publishing, 2011.

DeLong, M. R. and K. Petersen. “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22, no. 3 (2004): 99-112.

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


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A Child’s Paisley Dress from the 1850s

The following children’s short story “Frankie’s Party Dress” by Pam Johnston is a creative interpretation of an object analysis exercise.  

This story is based on a child’s paisley dress in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2014.07.196) dated to the 1850s. The dress was donated by Katherine Cleaver in 2014 as part of the Suddon-Cleaver Collection. The dress originally had a matching cape, but at some point before the transfer, the cape was lost.

Pam Johnston was inspired by her object analysis to create a fictional story about a making and initial wearing of a new dress in the mid-19th century. This story is told in the voice of a little girl named Frankie (Frances), only 3.5 years old. Although one might argue that a very young child would not notice such subtle details of cut and construction, I have known a couple very precocious children that noticed everything. And while it is also more likely that the dress was cut down from a larger garment instead of being made from a new bolt of cloth, I think Pam’s charming story serves to show how an object-based analysis might be used to creative ends.

 

Frankie’s Party Dress

by Pam Johnston

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Sketch of Paisley dress back 2014.07.196A by Pam Johnston

Mother is going to make me a new dress! This morning, Mother tied the ribbons of her bonnet beneath her chin, made sure my little straw hat was secure, and took my hand to walk across town to Mr. Whitely’s General Store. Mrs. Whitely had told mother that some new fabrics had just arrived at the shop from Britain.

Yesterday, my flat, black ankle-boots got muddy squishing in the rain-softened road, but today my boots, eyelet-trimmed drawers and white stockings stayed clean. The dirt road was firmly packed, the sun glowed bright and the breeze was fresh this late-summer morning. Soon it would be September, and Aunt Martha, Uncle Peter and Cousin Sarah would be moving West. I would miss my cousin Sarah, one of the only girls close to my age whom I had loved for as long as I could remember.

A brass bell tinkled as Mother swung the door open at Mr. Whitely’s. The leather soles of my boots made a stiff padding sound on the general store’s hardwood floors. Mother was wearing a low heeled boot which announced her presence with staccato-like steps (Severa 1995, 103). Mrs. Whitely greeted us warmly and immediately set to pulling the newest fabrics from their neat stack on the shelf. She smiled from behind the counter as she spread brightly coloured cotton calicos from Lancashire and fine worsted wool plaids and prints from West Yorkshire for us to see.

Even standing on my tip-toes, I could not see the top of the counter, so mother hoisted me up on a bent knee so I could see some fabrics made especially for little girls and boys my age. They were printed with patterns of tiny dots, triangles, stars, toy boats and balls (Severa 1995, 108). While mother rubbed the material between her fingers and thumb, and stretched out lengths to examine the patterns and quality, my eyes wandered to other fabrics still stacked on the shelf behind the counter. One pattern seemed to jump out at me.

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Pattern detail 2014.07.196A Photo by Pam Johnston

The fabric looked very familiar. Its pattern was bit like the swirling tear-drop shapes I had seen so often on the shawls many ladies in town wore. Mother and all the grand ladies wore those big shawls folded in a triangle shape, draped around their shoulders. They think these shawls are very special (Hiner 81-2), though I overheard Mother telling Aunt Martha that Mrs. Field’s shawl is even more special because it is made from soft goat hair, comes all the way from India, and cost Mr. Field a lot of money. I loved to lean on Mother’s shoulder when she wore that shawl. It felt so soft! Sometimes I would gently pull the fringes through my fingers, or pick up a corner in my hand. The fabric was smooth like silk, but slightly downy too, and hung heavily on my hand.

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Paisley Shawl, Wool, ca.1850. Met CI 2009.300.2962 Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Celeste H. Chasmer, 1921.

I had seen those same swirly sprigs and curled teardrops, in various sizes, on fabrics that covered cushioned chairs and dressed windows at Aunt Martha’s house, and our neighbour Rosa’s (Rossbach 10-11). Dresses made up in calicoes or worsted wools, block- or roller printed since well before I was born in 1849, were decorated with those same motifs (Johnston 104).

Despite its familiarity, somehow I knew the pattern was special, as if those who wore it were particularly respectable or rich or worldly (Hiner 82, 86). Though the fabric was not designed especially for little girls, I wanted to be like the grown ladies, and to be seen as special and smart.

I turned to Mother and whispered in her ear that I would like to see the fabric with the red and pink swirly branches on it. Mother searched the shelf with her eyes until she found the fabric and, when she did, a smile spread from her lips to her eyes. She seemed to approve, and accordingly asked Mrs. Whitely for a closer look.

The fabric was creamy white, like freshly shorn sheep, with alternating dense and sparse bands of pattern printed in stripes. A purple-red colour dominated the fabric, but as I looked closely, I saw that dusty rose, marigold, periwinkle blue, maroon, olive green and bright red interlaced the purple-red outlines. The motifs in one band looked like fans of leaves and grasses crawling up over each other in waves, while the other band depicted heads of grain and cut flowers reaching upwards and outwards, vine-like. Mother unrolled a few feet of cloth as I reached my fingers out to touch it. It was thin and smooth with a slight nap that was at the same time mildly scratchy.

“This is a fine worsted wool,” Mrs. Whitely informed us. “It should be good to keep little Frankie warm in the fall. And if you line it with cotton muslin, it will be comfortable.”

Mother agreed. She and Mrs. Whitely discussed the dress Mother was envisioning and Mrs. Whitely offered some pattern-making and construction advice. She then cut two and a half yards each of the Paisley wool and cotton muslin and a length of narrow cord, and found five small metal hooks for closure at the back. Mother had some cream coloured thread left at home from a dress she had made for me at the beginning of the summer, so, having all we needed, Mother paid Mrs. Whitely, and took my hand as we strode out the tinkling door of Mr. Whitely’s General Store.

Frankie dress resized

Paisley Dress front 2014.07.196A                                                              Photo by Pam Johnston

By Friday morning the dress was complete and it was time for the final fitting. Mother slipped the dress over my head, over my cotton bodice, drawers, and starched petticoats, closed the back with hooks and hand-stitched eyes, and spun me around to look in the mirror.

I squealed with delight, jumping and spinning to experience a transformed me in this new dress. I loved how the skirt puffed out over my petticoats, ending at just the right spot below my knees, and how it swished around my thighs when I spun. I could run and jump freely in the full skirt; the cotton lining felt soft on my neck and arms; the puffed sleeves made me feel like a butterfly with wings; and the high belted waist and pleated bodice made me feel like I belonged among the other girls my age (Severa 1995, 128). Then mother surprised me with another part of the outfit she had kept secret. She came from behind me and wrapped a matching collared cape, trimmed with black velvet ribbon, around my shoulders. Oh, how perfect!

dress and cape

Dress and Cape, Suddon-Cleaver Collection File Photo

After what seemed like only moments of dancing and spinning in my new outfit, Mother told me that was enough, and made me change back into my everyday clothes. This dress would be for special occasions and Sunday best only. The good news was there was a special occasion tomorrow night and I could wear my new dress for the first time. I would be transformed into a lovely flowering, butterfly-winged creature, frolicking about with cousins and friends.

Afterward:

Frankie’s mother saved the dress and cape to give Frankie when she was married. Frankie then dressed her first daughter in the dress, and it continued to be passed down from generation to generation until it was finally recognized as an important piece of material culture by the late Alan Suddon, a former fine arts librarian at the Toronto Reference Library, who added it to his collection. When Mr. Suddon passed on, Professor Emeritus Katherine Cleaver acquired his collection, and she later donated some of the collection to Ryerson.

Works Consulted:

Buck, Anne. Clothes and the Child: a handbook of children’s dress in England, 1500-1900. New York, NY: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1996. Print.

Buxton, Alexandra. Discovering 19th Century Fashion: A look at the changes in fashion through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Dress Collection. Cambridge, UK: Hobsons Publishing, 1989. Print.

Hiner, Susan. Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Print.

Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail. London, UK: V & A Publishing, 2009. Print.

Koptytoff, Igor. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process”. The Social Life of Things. By Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge University Press, 1986. Print.

Parry, Linda. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: British Textiles from 1850 to 1900. [London, UK]: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1993. Print.

Rose, Clare. Children’s Clothes Since 1750. New York, NY: Drama Book Publishers, 1989. Print.

Rossbach, Ed. The Art of Paisley. Scarborough, ON: Van Nostrand Reinhold Ltd., 1980. Print.

Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1995. Print.

                          . My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2005. Print.

Sloan, Will. “A stitch from time”. Ryerson University: News & Events. 12 December, 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.

Wass, Ann Buermann and Michelle Webb Fandrich. Clothing through American History: The Federal Era through Antebellum, 1786-1860. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. Print.

Pam Johnston is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts (Fashion) programme at Ryerson University, focusing her research on Biblical references to clothes and dress in comparison with written histories of ecclesiastical influences on dress in the Western world. She has an Bachelor of Fine Art from NSCAD University with a major in Textiles and a minor in Fashion, and lived in Halifax for ten years prior to returning to her home province of Ontario to study at Ryerson.


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A Comparison of 1860s dresses

by Alys Mak-Pilsworth

As the book The Dress Detective makes clear, an important step in reproducing historic dress is studying comparable examples from the same era. This step aids in identifying the typical attributes of the period as well as anomalies of the artifact being studied.This article compares the  white sprigged muslin day dress (FRC2014.07.409) from the Ryerson Fashion Research collection (shown below) with five comparable examples of 1860s dresses. Two dresses from the Fashion History Museum were examined in person and three comparable dresses of the same period were identified from the online collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Kyoto Costume Institute, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

FRC_2014.07.409_rightside_threequarterview_oweb

White sprigged muslin day dress, ca. 1860s, FRC2014.07.409, Suddon-Cleaver Collection, Gift of Katherine Cleaver

The white sprigged muslin day dress from the Ryerson FRC, and the two following examples from the Fashion History Museum came from the Suddon-Cleaver collection, and were gifted to the respective collections by Katherine Cleaver in 2014. Originally collected by Alan Suddon, they have a shared past. From the examination of these three dresses, it appears that they were all homemade.

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Blue silk striped dress with black velvet trim, ca.1860s, Fashion History Museum, FHM15.01.95, Suddon-Cleaver Collection, Gift of Katherine Cleaver

On first glance, this blue silk dress(FHM15.01.95)  from the Fashion History Museum might appear to be distinctly different than the white muslin dress from the Ryerson FRC. The most noticeable differences are the colour, weight of the textile, and the type of surface embellishment. The blue silk textile is a slightly heavier weight, and the woven pattern of two tones of blue, and black and white vertical stripes is very large and vibrant in comparison to the delicate muted pattern on the Ryerson FRC dress. The blue silk dress also has more embellishment with black velvet trim on the bodice and sleeve at the shoulders and cuffs (with lace edging), as well as a row of decorative black velvet buttons along the centre front. 

However, what is similar is that both dresses share a similar silhouette, and have long sleeves, high necklines and long full skirts. The waist sits at the same level,  slightly above the natural smallest part of the female torso. Both skirts have straight waistbands that are constructed in a similar fashion with multiple panels gathering into the waist, and with the excess seam allowance left hanging on the inside of the dress. However, on this blue dress the waistband is only visible on the inside and the skirt seems to be constructed with less fabric, as it is not as closely gathered at the waist. The embellishment of the skirt is very similar with a ruffle along the hem of the skirt.

Dress 1 Fabric

Skirt hem ruffle detail. Fashion History Museum, FHM15.01.95

Both dresses also share similarities in construction of and closures for the bodice. The dresses close with hooks and eyes all the way down the centre front to the waist, and then along the waistband. Though the blue dress does not have a separate inner bodice, its bodice has been boned in the same fashion, having two bones on each front side encased within the darts, as well as having one bone on the left centre front. Instead of including an inner bodice, the bodice has been flat lined. Additionally the sleeves are slightly fuller, with a little more volume at the elbow.

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Detail of bodice interior. Fashion History Museum, FHM15.01.95

The green and brown checked dress from the Fashion History Museum  (FHM15.01.92) shown below is very similar to the blue checked dress. The neckline is of the same design, as is the skirt shape and sleeve length. The waist line is also similar in terms of placement, and construction. The closure along the waist seems to be very similar, again carrying on from the centre front to the left side ending with hooks and eyes, although reaches slightly farther to the side then the previous example. The waistband, like the last example, is similar to the Ryerson FRC dress, but is also only visible on the inside.

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Green and Brown Checked Dress, 1860s, Fashion History Museum, FHM15.01.92, Suddon-Cleaver Collection, Gift of Katherine Cleaver

The skirt creates a similar silhouette, but again does not have as much fabric pleated into the waistband. The skirt has been cut in panels similarly to the Ryerson FRC dress, and is also finished the same way at the waist, leaving the excess seam allowance hanging on the inside of the dress. The sleeves, like the previous example are also fitted at the shoulder and cuff, but again are slightly wider at the elbow.

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Inside bodice detail. Fashion History Museum, FHM15.01.92

The bodice is boned, but the centre front bodice bone is on the right hand side, instead of the left, and there are no bones at the back of the bodice. The front bones have been encased within the two darts on either side of the front of the bodice, like both the Ryerson FRC dress, and the previous dress. The bodice has been flat lined instead of having a separate boned inner bodice, like the last example.

Dress 2 Front

Bodice detail. Fashion History Museum, FHM15.01.92

The most notable visual difference is the surface embellishment, and the fabric choice. This dress is trimmed with black velvet edged with black beading at the bodice and cuff of the sleeve. It also has black beaded decorative buttons down the centre front on the left hand side. The woven cotton in a green and brown medium sized check  is quite unlike the subtle pattern on the Ryerson FRC dress.

Three similar dresses from the 1860s were identified for comparison from online museum collections including the V&A Museum in London, the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan and the Costume Institute at The Met in New York. These dresses exhibit more intricacy in construction and embellishment and are made of finer materials, and for these reasons, were likely owned and worn by persons with access to highly skilled dressmakers.

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Cotton  muslin dress trimmed with bobbin lace and machine embroidered whitework, 1869, V&A Museum, T.12 to B-1943, Gift of Miss Ada B. Cooper

This  cotton muslin dress (T.12 to B-1943) from the Victoria & Albert Museum is similar in season, fabric, and general silhouette to the Ryerson FRC dress. It shares the same high neckline, waistline placement and full skirt, but has a more distinct bustle shape, and appears to have a more substantial train. This dress is highly embellished with contrasting trim, and appears to have a separate waistband. 

Another key distinction is that the V&A dress is described as being three separate pieces, comprised of a blouse, skirt, and polonaise. As well the sleeves also have a slight width added to the elbow area, like the previous two dresses. The description makes no mention of boning or a lining.

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Day dress, late 1860s, The Kyoto Costume Institute Online Collection, AC4324 82-17-43AE. Photo by Taishi Hirokawa , Copyright of The Kyoto Costume Institute

This dress from the Kyoto Costume Institute is labelled as a summer day dress, and is made of a comparable fabric – a white cotton tarlatan with woven stripes. The silhouette of the dress is very similar with fitted long sleeves, a high neckline, a straight waistline sitting slightly above the natural waist, and a full floor length skirt. The skirt has a more defined bustle and a train than the Ryerson FRC dress, and is also distinctive with its use of a bright contrasting red trim, and its construction as it consists of a separate bodice and skirt. The description does not provide any information about the dress closure, nor does it specify  whether the dress has boning or is lined. Nonetheless, given the very transparent look of the top layer of the dress, the garment is likely lined or meant to be worn with an under-dress.

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American Silk Dress, 1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CI.69.33.8a, Gift of Mary Pierrepont Beckwith             

This silk dress dress from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art bears a most striking resemblance to the Ryerson FRC’s white sprigged muslin day dress. Although the textile is silk instead of muslin, it still looks to be a very comparable weight and has a similar small repeating pattern in contrasting colours.

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Detail of textile. Metropolitan Museum of Art, CI.69.33.8a

Both dresses share a similar silhouette, with a full floor length skirt, a straight waistband with the same placement, fitted long sleeves, a high neckline and a small collar. The surface embellishment is very similar, featuring self-fabric ruffles, in a very similar scale and amount. The most noticeable difference is the more defined bustle and train on the skirt.

C.I.69.33.8ab_TQR2

American Silk dress, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CI.69.33.82, 1865.

From what is visible in the photographs, the skirt looks to be cartridge pleated at the waist. Although there is no mention of an inner bodice in the short description, there seems to be a very similar outline of a capped sleeved inner bodice with a low neckline trimmed with lace. The pictures also appear to show an indication that the closure is at the centre front and carries along the waistband to the left side as it does the dress on the Ryerson FRC dress.

Conclusion:

This analysis of dresses from the 1860s has led me to better understand the common and uncommon attributes of 1860s dresses.

What all the dresses share is a common silhouette. Whatever the fabric choice, the dresses were long sleeved, high necklines with small collars, and had full pleated or gathered skirts with more fullness toward the back were the prominent look of the era. All had an element of surface embellishment – with trim and flounces or ruffles placed at the bodice, sleeve cuffs and skirt hems. Additionally these examples also show the variety of sleeve styles available; though they are all full length, they have distinctive differences in shape. Hooks and eyes down the centre front and along the waistband appear to be a typical feature of 1860s dresses. 

In contrast, the inclusion of a separate inner boned bodice does not seem to be a very common occurrence. This could be attributed to the resources available, or perhaps could be unique to dresses constructed from sheer fabrics. In any case, this is an interesting feature showcased in the white sprigged muslin day dress from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection.

References:

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

“Day Dress.” KCI Digital Archive. Accessed March 14, 2016. http://www.kci.or.jp/archives/digital_archives/detail_73_e.html.

“Dress.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum. Accessed March 14, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/108189?rpp=60.

“Dress.” V&A Search the Collections. Accessed March 14, 2016. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O13844/dress-unknown/.

 

This post was edited by the Collection Co-ordinator Ingrid Mida.

 

 


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Portrait of a Little Black Dress

by Gabrielle Trach

There is a garment in many women’s closets that is so ubiquitous that it has a nickname: the “Little Black Dress,” or “LBD” to those who prefer sartorial shorthand. The fashion designer Coco Chanel claimed to have invented the term “little black dress” in the 1920s, though many designers of the time were working on a similar design concept (note 1). The little black dress is an evening or cocktail dress with a simple, yet elegant cut that is both effortless and timeless. Karl Lagerfeld  once said: “One is never over-dressed or under-dressed with a Little Black Dress.”

The LBD is a truly versatile garment that suits any occasion, since it can be dressed up with accessories or worn unadorned. It also does not become dated or out of style after a few years and can become a wardrobe workhorse. This is an apt description for a black crêpe cocktail dress by Pauline Trigère that now belongs to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2015.05.001).

FRC 2015.05.001_left side three quarter view_oweb

Black crepe cocktail dress by Paulene Trigere FRC2015.05.001, Gift of Marian Fowler

Picture a simple yet elegant black cocktail dress. It has a jewel collar, elbow-length sleeves, and a hem that lands just above the knee. The dress fits close to the body through the sleeves and bodice, gradually flowing away from the body into an A-line skirt. This dress sounds like any little black dress, but what makes the Trigère dress memorable is evident in the subtle design elements and tailoring – which include multiple, inch-wide panels that run vertically throughout the dress, gradually widening down the length of the skirt to a width of five inches at the hem. These panels also run the length of the sleeves, starting at two inches wide, tapering to one inch at the cuffs. These meticulous details of design and construction are what make this little black dress classically elegant, just like its former owner.

This LBD is one of several  Trigère pieces that previously belonged to Marian Fowler, a Toronto author and fashion aficionado, before she donated it to the FRC. Fowler earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto, taught at York University, and was the recipient of the Canadian Biography Award (note 2). She wrote seven works of non-fiction, including The Way She Looks Tonight: Five Women of Style; Hope: Adventure of a Diamond; and In a Gilded Cage: From Heiress to Duchess. Fowler has also written for The Globe and Mail, The Beaver, and City and Country Home (note 3).

After discussing her wardrobe and fashion philosophy with me in an oral history interview that took place at her home in Toronto in November 2015, it became clear that this LBD is exemplary of Fowler’s overall taste and appreciation of timeless, expertly tailored, classic pieces. Fowler admitted that she was drawn to Trigère’s garments because of the designer’s attention to tailoring and quality: “… of all the American designers … certainly my favourite was Pauline Trigère, because she knew how to cut.”

Pauline Trigère (1912–2002) was a French-born American designer, known for her ready-to-wear designs, which were always tailored with precision, as well as her personal taste and style. After Trigère’s death in 2002, the New York Times reported that: “she was noted for not only her designing skills, but also her tailoring and such touches as constructing dresses with no obvious seams” (note 4). Trigère also made a clear distinction between fashion and style (note 5): Fashion is what people tell you to wear …… Style is what comes from your own inner thing.”

Fowler has an affinity for garments by Trigère and also donated another Trigère piece to the FRC – a cherry red knit day dress with square neckline, centre front seam, back zipper, raglan sleeves and angular pockets set into side seams lined in red silk with a matching open hip-length flared jacket, partially lined in red silk (FRC2015.05.002 A+B).

FRC 2015.05.002A_left side three quarter view_oweb

Cherry red knit dress with matching jacket (not shown) by Paulene Trigere FRC2015.05.002A Gift of Marian Fowler

The distinction between fashion and style asserted by Trigère is evident in Fowler’s personal wardrobe and her story. Fowler recounted that as a young woman, she was aware of the very prescriptive rules of fashion: matching shoes and handbags; hemline lengths being dictated each season; no wearing white after Labour Day, and only wearing navy-coloured clothing in the spring.

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Study of a Summer Day Dress ca.1860

By Alys Mak-Pilsworth

Sketch of 1860 Day Dress by Alys Mak-Pilsworth

Sketch of 1860 Day Dress by Alys Mak-Pilsworth

The dress I selected for this project is a muslin day dress dated from mid-19th century 2014.07.409, with the catalogue record specifically indicating it to be from the 1860s. The dress is one piece, with a ½-inch waistband sitting at the natural waist line. It features a fitted bodice with 4 inches of small cartridge pleating on both the center front and back at the waist, and a high neck line with a small ½-inch collar. The bodice is constructed from one back panel and two panels in the front. The dress has long one-piece sleeves that are fitted and feature a ruffle with one row of pin tucking in the middle just above each cuff. The skirt portion of the dress is cartridge pleated all along the waist line into the waist band with more concentrated cartridge pleating at both side of the dress. The skirt has been constructed from six panels of fabric, and features a 10 inch opening on the front right side of the dress most likely serving as a pocket slit. The hem of the skirt has also been adorned with two rows of ruffles, each with a row of pin tucking in the middle of the ruffle. The dress has a front closure from neck to waist at the center front, and then continues 4 inches to the right side of the dress to be closed at the waistband with two hooks and eyes vertically placed, closing right over left. The closure above the waistband is missing, apart from one hook remaining at the neck suggesting there were hooks down the front with sewn bars.

Summer Day Dress in white striped muslin FRC2014.07.409

Summer Day Dress in white striped muslin FRC2014.07.409

The fabric used in the construction of the dress is very fine, lightweight, white muslin, with faint horizontal woven stripes. Also visible, on the fabric facing outward, is a delicate two toned brown motif of what appears to be elongated stylized feathers or leaves, in pairs, overlapping in an X shape. The pairs are further organized in vertical stripes creating a pattern on the fabric. In between the motif of the stripes of feather/leaf pairs, equally distributed are very tiny clusters of three brown dots organized in a triangular configuration.

Close up of motif on textile FRC2014.07.409

Close up of motif on textile FRC2014.07.409

The dress appears to be a day dress given the more casual fabric, probably intended for warmer weather as the weight of the fabric is quite light. Looking at the information provided by the record of the previous collection the dress resided in, the dress was purchased in London, UK, and so would most likely be from the UK, or at least Europe. With this in mind; as well as the previous collector, Alan Suddon labeling it as a summer day dress; it seems that the dress would indeed have been intend for wear in the summer, or at least late spring.

Upon inspection of the inside of the dress, a small inner bodice can be seen. The inner bodice is made of what looks like medium weight white cotton and has a front closure, of six hooks and small sewn eyelets also closing right over left. The neckline is much lower than the outer bodice sitting 8 inches lower at the center front, and 6 inches below at the center back. The inner bodice also has small capped sleeves and is trimmed with off white ½ inch lace at both sleeve openings and the neckline. There are also 7 bones in the inner bodice, one on each side seam, two on each front side encased in the dart legs, and the remaining one placed at the center front on the right side.

Sketch of Inner Bodice by Alys Mak-Pilsworth

Sketch of Inner Bodice by Alys Mak-Pilsworth

The overall condition of the garment is very good. Besides the absence of the front closures above the waist, the garment seems complete. The fabric is still quite sturdy, and no major tears in the fabric or signs of wear or discoloration are visible. Given that the dress does not seem to have much sign of wear, it could be surmised that the garment belonged to someone who could afford to take care of their clothing and owned a number of garments. The design of the dress is quite simplistic and suggests that the dress probably would have been worn in the day, in more casual circumstances. It also seems to be a fairly conservative, demure design as the dress covers most of the body, and has a fairly restrictive quality with the fitted, boned bodice. The lightweight sheer fabric used for the dress gives it an airy quality and suggests it was worn in the summer.

Sketch of dress on a woman by Alys Mak-Pilsworth

Sketch of dress on a woman by Alys Mak-Pilsworth

The dress has been constructed well. The close and even stitching makes it look like it was sewn on a sewing machine, even though sewing machines would not have been widely available until later in the decade. The dress has been nicely finished with hand sewn details, such as the eyelets on the inner bodice. The seam allowances visible on the inside of the dress do not appear to be finished now, but they may have been pinked originally. During this time in fashion, dresses were typically worn over a crinoline and given its small size, it seems likely that the dress might have belonged to a younger woman.

 

Edited by Ingrid Mida, Collection Co-ordinator