Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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A Study of a 1940s Cocktail Dress by Jack Liebman

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FRC2014.07.024 Black crepe dress with abstracted crinoline print by Jack Liebman (Photographed by Hannah Dobbie)

This post examines a black cocktail dress from the 1940s by Montreal-based manufacturer Jack Liebman. His design is characterized by its sophisticated colour scheme, flattering shape, and unique pattern. Dresses of the 1940s typically fell below the knee, the shoulders were usually squared, and the natural waist was often belted (note 1). This Jack Liebman dress shares many features in common with other wartime garments, and yet also blurs the perception of what a dress from the 1940s should look like.

This dress is made of a fine black crepe. There are bust darts, shoulder darts, two hidden zippers, and large sewn-in shoulder pads. The dress’s skirt is attached to the bodice at the natural waistline. The fullness this creates falls delicately to form a soft and flowing garment. One of this dress’s most interesting details is the addition of two draped panels that hang over the hips. (note 2). This dress is machine stitched with black thread. The tight even stitches have held up in some places, but are beginning to loosen and break in areas such as the waist and side seams. The garment is unlined, thus making all internal seams visible. The unfinished edges of the seam allowances are significantly frayed. Along the dress’s inner neckline is a Jack Liebman label. It reads “Original Fashion Preferred Styled by Jack Liebman”.

In addition to the intermittent seam breakage, this garment shows various signs of wear. There are holes in the side bodice and back skirt seams where the thread tore completely. The Jack Liebman label is significantly discoloured. There are several dark spots, implying untreated stains. Attached to each side seam at the waist is a corded thread suggesting that at one time there may have been a belt to accompany the dress.

This dress is stylish and unique, however it lacks fine details such as lining and high quality thread. Because of the absence of refinement in this garment’s construction, it can be conjectured that this dress was sold at a mid-level price point. Little is known about Jack Liebman Dresses Ltd., aside from its location at 423 Major Street, Place 3008, Montreal.

The impression this dress makes is one of stylish poise. The name of the original owner is unknown; it was purchased from a Salvation Army store in 1965 by collector Alan Suddon (note 3). The unique pattern and interesting details combine to conjure an image of an elegant Canadian woman marching through the cobblestone streets of Montreal in this flowing dress. The fabric would swoosh around her knees as she walked and the hip panels would bounce slightly with each step. This woman would match the crowd with her broadly padded shoulders and cinched natural waist, but she would stand out in it because of the boldness of the black crepe and the swirling, playful print that adorns it. The silhouette is very indicative of the 1940s and suggests femininity, poise, and vitality.

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Detail of dress by Jack Liebman FRC2014.07.024 (Photographed by Hannah Dobbie)

The hip panels on this dress are reminiscent of eighteenth-century panniers. Panniers began as round hoops that attached to skirts. They gradually became flatter from front to back and wider in the hips. These caged apparatuses grew to be very large by the middle of the century; they could span as long as six feet from hip to hip (note 4). An alternative form of panniers was a bag-like structure that tied around the wearer’s waist to enhance the hips. These styles were very popular for most of the eighteenth century, however they began to fade away in the 1780s (note 5). The swooping panels on Jack Liebman’s garment act as a sort of deflated pannier. They draw attention to the hips, just as historic hoops did.

This historic reference is interesting on its own, however, it is enhanced by the choice of textile. The figures depicted on the textile are wearing crinolines; a second nod to the fashions of the past. The cage crinoline developed in the mid-nineteenth century, replacing petticoats and freeing the wearer’s legs beneath her skirt. Jessica Glasscock, a research associate at the Met Museum, describes the expansive silhouette achieved with the cage crinoline; “Made of hoops of whalebone, cane, or steel held together with cloth tapes or encased in fabric, the light, effective support of the cage crinoline allowed dresses to achieve an expanse as great or greater than that provided by the eighteenth-century panniers” (note 6). The crinoline came to replace the pannier, but both were meant to enhance and exaggerate the hips of their wearers.

It is interesting to compare the structure of seventeenth and eighteenth century bodies to the relatively free one of the 1940s. Wartime garments featured natural waists and loose, flowing skirts. Women began wearing pants. The fashions of this period were rooted in utility (note 7). Perhaps this is why Jack Liebman chose to include references to such seemingly whimsical and extravagant periods of fashion history.

An additional detail that is interesting to note is the dating of the dress. This garment came from the same period as the “New Look”. This was Dior’s first collection and it marked a shift from the days of practicality and fabric shortages to a time of prosperity and femininity. The “New Look” was famous for its cinched waist, full skirt, and extreme elegance (note 8). Jack Liebman’s dress features all of these characteristics, while also including unique hip panels that, while comparable to panniers, also resemble a peplum. Many of Dior’s designs featured peplums, as did various other garments throughout the 1950s (note 9). This Jack Liebman design is a good example of how the “New Look” echoed through fashion at different price points. Although Dior is credited with introducing the style, many designers all over the world were migrating towards these silhouettes before 1947.

Jack Liebman was a participant in the growing Canadian garment industry of the twentieth century and his garments contribute to our nation’s rich fashion history (note 10).

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Side view of Black crepe dress by Jack Liebman FRC2014.07.024  (Photographed by H.Dobbie)

Notes:

Note 1: “1940s Women’s Clothing,” University of Vermont Humanities, accessed January 15, 2017,  https://www.uvm.edu/landscape/dating/clothing_and_hair/1940s_clothing_women.php.

Note 2: The hip panels are made of two roughly rectangular panels. The shortest sides of these rectangles are sewn along centre front to the side seam and from the side seam to centre back, thus allowing the length of the panel to hang over the hip. The fabric from these panels are gathered where attached to the waist seam.

Note 3: Alan Suddon was a private collector who amassed the garments in the Suddon-Cleaver Collection. See Will Sloan, “A Stitch from Time,” Ryerson Today, December 12, 2014. http://www.ryerson.ca/news/news/General_Public/20141212-a-stitch-from-time/

Note 4: Yvette Mahe, “History of Women’s Hooped Petticoats”. Fashion In Time. 2013. www.fashionintime.org. January 19, 2017. http://www.fashionintime.org/history-womens-hooped-petticoats/3/

Note 5: To learn more about the history of panniers, visit, “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History – Panniers,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed January 19, 2017, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1973.65.2/

Note 6:  See note 5.

Note 7: See note 1.

Note 8: To learn more about Dior’s “New Look”, visit, “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History – Christian Dior (1905-1957),” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed January 23, 2017, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dior/hd_dior.htm.

Note 9: See note 8.

Note 10: To learn more about the history of Canada’s garment industry, visit, “The Garment Industry and Retailing in Canada”, Berg Fashion Library, accessed February 6, 2017, https://www-bloomsburyfashioncentral-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/products/berg-fashion-library/encyclopedia/berg-encyclopedia-of-world-dress-and-fashion-the-united-states-and-canada/the-garment-industry-and-retailing-in-canada

References:

“Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History – Christian Dior (1905-1957),” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed January 23, 2017 http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dior/hd_dior.htm.

“Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History – Panniers,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed January 19, 2017, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1973.65.2/

Mahe Yvette, “History of Women’s Hooped Petticoats”. Fashion In Time. 2013. www.fashionintime.org. January 19, 2017. http://www.fashionintime.org/history-womens-hooped-petticoats/3/

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

“The Garment Industry and Retailing in Canada”, Berg Fashion Library, accessed February 6, 2017, https://www-bloomsburyfashioncentral-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/products/berg-fashion-library/encyclopedia/berg-encyclopedia-of-world-dress-and-fashion-the-united-states-and-canada/the-garment-industry-and-retailing-in-canada

“1940s Women’s Clothing,” University of Vermont Humanities, accessed January 15, 2017,  https://www.uvm.edu/landscape/dating/clothing_and_hair/1940s_clothing_women.php.


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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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Introducing the Newest Member of the FRC Team

Every year I have the privilege of working with one or two work-study students. I am grateful for their help and still keep in touch with many of them, who have since gone on to other wonderful adventures.

This year I am delighted to introduce Hannah Dobbie, who will be working with me on writing the FRC blog, evaluating our social media sites, and also photographing some of the collection. Initially we will be focussing on photographing our most recent donations, many of which include extensive documentations of family histories.

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Hannah Dobbie

Hannah Dobbie is a second year Fashion Communication student at Ryerson University. In addition to her work-study position in the Fashion Research Collection, she is a representative for the Fashion Union, a member of the StyleCircle team, and the producer of the student run INTRO fashion show. She hopes to bring together her creative eye and love of art to one day pursue a career in graphic design.

Please join me in welcoming Hannah to the FRC team!