Field Trip: “Dressing Downton,” Taft Museum, Cincinnati

Readers,

Last month I got to see three dozen costumes from Downton Abbey up close in the show “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times” at the beautiful Taft Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In front of Cincinnati's Taft Museum.

In front of Cincinnati’s Taft Museum.

At the invitation of a friend of my sister Cynthia’s who is a member of the museum, I joined Cynthia and our sister Donna on a day trip for lunch, the show, and a little spin around some of Cincinnati’s  notable neighborhoods.  It was a lot of fun.

Worn by Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. (Sorry, I missed photographing the details of this outfit.)

Worn by Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

As a Downton Abbey devotee I came pretty late to the party. Season 1 began broadcasting in the US  in 2011 just a few weeks before Jack and left the country for two months (in London, it so happened) and I just was not tuned into the excitement.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham: "Light cream linen suit with straw Panama hat.' Season 1, 1913-1914. Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. "Silk day dress and coat with black frogging and large brimmed silk hat with net overlay, flowers, and ribbon detail." Season 1, 1913.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham: “Light cream linen suit with straw Panama hat.’ Season 1, 1913-1914. Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. “Silk day dress and coat with black frogging and large brimmed silk hat with net overlay, flowers, and ribbon detail.” Season 1, 1913.

On that sojourn, even when I was researching “Sewing Destination: London, England” for Threads magazine and saw Downton Abbey costumes at Angels the Costumiers that were headed for filming, I took only a cursory glance.

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. "Riding habit and hat. Worn during Lady Mary and Matthew's first meeting at Crawley House."

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. “Riding habit and hat. Worn during Lady Mary and Matthew’s first meeting at Crawley House.”

It was only in season 4 that I got swept up in the tsunami of Downton Abbey, and that was because watching it became a social occasion.

Lady Mary Crawley. Season 2, 1916-1918. "Two-piece wool ensemble with velvet collar and cuffs, felt hat with silk ribbon, and velvet handbag with metal clasp. First worn on Mary's return trip from London after meeting Sir Richard Charles." Lady Edith Crawley, Seasons 3-4, 1920-1921. "Black grosgrain coat with silk embroidery, original to the period. First worn on a trip to London."

Lady Mary Crawley. Season 2, 1916-1918. “Two-piece wool ensemble with velvet collar and cuffs, felt hat with silk ribbon, and velvet handbag with metal clasp. First worn on Mary’s return trip from London after meeting Sir Richard Charles.” Lady Edith Crawley, Seasons 3-4, 1920-1921. “Black grosgrain coat with silk embroidery, original to the period. First worn on a trip to London.”

By the last season, when I was now Cynthia’s neighbor rather than 764 miles away in Minnesota, I was recording the show for us to watch the following day. An hour’s show could take 90 minutes to watch, as I frequently paused and replayed scenes so we could divine the meanings of each raised eyebrow and turned head.

I like the velvet collar and cuffs and matching them to the hat.

I like the velvet collar and cuffs and matching them to the hat.

I noticed that the buttons and buckle don't match the fabric or each other. I like the rows of top stitching on the belt.

I noticed that the buttons and buckle don’t match the fabric or each other. I like the rows of top stitching on the belt.

Plus, who wouldn’t confess to waiting impatiently every week to hear what Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, would say next?

And who would refuse to admit that the scenery and the cars, the rooms and all their accoutrements, and those costumes weren’t fabulous enticements to keep watching?

Anna Smith, Ethel Parks, Gwen Dawson, and Jane Moorsum, Maids. Season 1, 1912-1919. "Black cotton maid's dress with white lace trim and cotton apron" Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913: "Silk evening dress with net overlay and black and silver starbursts. Worn at dinner for Matthew's dinner at Downton."

Anna Smith, Ethel Parks, Gwen Dawson, and Jane Moorsum, Maids. Season 1, 1912-1919. “Black cotton maid’s dress with white lace trim and cotton apron” Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913: “Silk evening dress with net overlay and black and silver starbursts. Worn at dinner for Matthew’s dinner at Downton.”

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Did anybody really live like that?

Apparently, yes. Some of the garments in this show, or parts of them, are original to the period.

Jack Ross, American jazz musician and singer. Season 4, 1922. "Formal evening suit. Worn during Jack Ross's performance at the Lotus Jazz Club in London." Lady Rose MacClare. Season 4, 1922-1923. "Silk velvet evening dress, original to the period, decorated with glass beads and sequins. Worn at supper and at an 'at home' party in London."

Jack Ross, American jazz musician and singer. Season 4, 1922. “Formal evening suit. Worn during Jack Ross’s performance at the Lotus Jazz Club in London.” Lady Rose MacClare. Season 4, 1922-1923. “Silk velvet evening dress, original to the period, decorated with glass beads and sequins. Worn at supper and at an ‘at home’ party in London.”

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Still, I found it just barely credible that people, if only a relative few, had such amazingly intricate handmade clothes.

Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper. Season 1, 1912-1914. "Black silk and wool dress with cream lace trim. Worn while working at Downton."

Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper. Season 1, 1912-1914. “Black silk and wool dress with cream lace trim. Worn while working at Downton.”

Yes, I know a little about bespoke suits and all, having had a backstage peek at some of Savile Row’s tailoring workrooms. But a hand-stitched custom suit could be worn for many years and even be handed down to an heir.  That clothing seems like a sensible investment, with the cost spread out over many wearings.

Left: (No information--sorry!) Right: Sir Richard Carlisle, Season 2, 1917-1920. "Three-piece wool herringbone suit and wool coat. Worn while walking and during a shooting party at Downton."

Left: (Missed getting the information–sorry!) Right: Sir Richard Carlisle, Season 2, 1917-1920. “Three-piece wool herringbone suit and wool coat. Worn while walking and during a shooting party at Downton.”

Thomas Barrow, William Mason, James "Jimmy" Kent, and Alfred Nugent, Footmen. Season 1-4, 1912-1923. "Wool and cotton footman's livery. Worn while working at Downton."

Thomas Barrow, William Mason, James “Jimmy” Kent, and Alfred Nugent, Footmen. Season 1-4, 1912-1923. “Wool and cotton footman’s livery. Worn while working at Downton.”

But who would dare to be seen in some of these stunning gowns more than once?  Maybe nobody; I don’t know.

Left: Martha Levinson, Season 3, 1920. "Evening dress of devore (burnout) silk velvet in layers. Worn at the indoor picnic, which Mrs. Levinson suggests when disaster strikes the kitchen oven." Center: Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. "Olive salon evening dress with black chiffon overdress, partially original to the period. Worn at the indoor picnic." Right: Lady Edith Crawley. Season 3, 1920. "Silk evening dress. Worn at the indoor picnic."

Left: Martha Levinson, Season 3, 1920. “Evening dress of devore (burnout) silk velvet in layers. Worn at the indoor picnic, which Mrs. Levinson suggests when disaster strikes the kitchen oven.” Center: Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. “Olive salon evening dress with black chiffon overdress, partially original to the period. Worn at the indoor picnic.” Right: Lady Edith Crawley. Season 3, 1920. “Silk evening dress. Worn at the indoor picnic.”

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So, after the stunning gown was worn once, then what?

I’m just curious.

Left: Madeleine Allsopp, Season 4, 1923. "Silk satin gown with attached beaded panels. Worn by Madeleine Allsopp, when she and Rose are presented at Court."

Left: Madeleine Allsopp, Season 4, 1923. “Silk satin gown with attached beaded panels. Worn by Madeleine Allsopp, when she and Rose are presented at Court.”

I’m sure a lot is known–and volumes and volumes have been written–on the whole cycle of creating and wearing fashion over the generations. And I will bet that 95 percent of that writing centers on the designers, models, and the clientele.

Martha Levinson. (Sorry, I missed photographing the museum label.)

Martha Levinson. (Sorry, I missed photographing the museum label.)

Sorry, but as a maker, I want to know much more about the makers of the original garments and of these gorgeous facsimiles.img_0438-264x460

Who was "S. Hawes"?

Who was “S. Hawes”?

Just the other day I started reading Kevin McCloud’s Principles of Home: Making a Place to Live. I really like Kevin McCloud’s books on color and on lighting, which combine concepts and practical applications so beautifully.

In his introduction to Principles of Home McCloud writes,

I think we have lost touch with the made world. We have forgotten how difficult and time-consuming it is to make something; how hard it is to make an elegant table out of a tree or a spoon out of metals dug out of the ground and refined. Our sensibilities to craftsmanship have been eroded by high-quality machine manufacturing; our tactile sense has been debased by artificial materials pretending to be something that they are not. Our attention, meanwhile, has been diverted by the virtual built worlds that exist inside screens. The landscapes of gaming and avatar worlds, for instance, are not complicated by the inconvenient messiness of the real world. In them, stuff, narratives, buildings and people are both perfect and disposable.

The real world is not perfect and it’s not disposable. In the real world, things and people age and decompose. The real, tangible world is much harder to make, more difficult to maintain and unpleasant to recycle. Which may explain why so many people seek solace in virtual worlds, even it it’s just by watching a soap opera on TV.

Uh oh. Could he be referring to Downton Abbey, the greatest soap opera of them all?

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. "Dark red silk evening dress, partially original to the period. Worn at dinner on the night of the hunt with Mr. Napier and the Turkish diplomat."

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. “Dark red silk evening dress, partially original to the period. Worn at dinner on the night of the hunt with Mr. Napier and the Turkish diplomat.”

I am really of two minds about Downton Abbey. It’s fiction, but based on lots of actual practices and set in real places.  The vast wealth, the cultural assumptions and expectations, and the intricate etiquette are so abstract to me. But the material culture–the buildings, the rooms, the furnishings, and the clothes–are quite concrete.

Lady Sybil Crawley, Season 3, 1920. "Velvet maternity dress, with gold embroidered borders original to the period. First worn at dinner when Lady Sybil and Tom Branson return to Downton."

Lady Sybil Crawley, Season 3, 1920. “Velvet maternity dress, with gold embroidered borders original to the period. First worn at dinner when Lady Sybil and Tom Branson return to Downton.”

Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. "Cream dress and coat with embroidered floral borders, made from vintage fabric. Worn at Lady Edith's first wedding."

Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. “Cream dress and coat with embroidered floral borders, made from vintage fabric. Worn at Lady Edith’s first wedding.”

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You would think, then, that I would find the clothes believable. But I walked around the show shaking my head in disbelief. They are so far from what I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never worn a dress weighted with glittering beads, nor have I ever had the ambition to.

Cora Crawley, Season 2, 1916-1917. "Dress with original ivory silk center panel beaded with glass diamonds, pearls, and seed beads; and green velvet jacket. Worn at the charity concert for the hospital."

Cora Crawley, Season 2, 1916-1917. “Dress with original ivory silk center panel beaded with glass diamonds, pearls, and seed beads; and green velvet jacket. Worn at the charity concert for the hospital.”

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However, there was one detail of one costume I found utterly charming: a pocket on a (relatively) utilitarian garment, worn by Edith to do work around the Downton property.

Lady Edith Crawley, Season 2, 1917-1918. "Wool cord breeches, brushed cotton blouse, and linen jacket with contrasting velvet trim. Worn during Lady Edith's work on the farm."

Lady Edith Crawley, Season 2, 1917-1918. “Wool cord breeches, brushed cotton blouse, and linen jacket with contrasting velvet trim. Worn during Lady Edith’s work on the farm.”

(You won’t find me gardening or cleaning out the barn in a linen jacket, with or without velvet trim, but indulge me in this one illusion.)

I love this pocket.

I love this pocket.

I love this pocket, for its utility, and simplicity, and originality.  And comforting familiarity.img_0435-451x460

While I can appreciate elaborate clothing, and I was happy to attend the Downton Abbey show to see it up close, I believe it will be Edith’s linen jacket with those wonderful pockets that will leave the deepest impression on me.

Our visit to the exhibition ended with a visit to the room reserved for members, where we discovered to our delight  life-size cardboard cutouts of Lord and Lady Grantham and the Dowager Countess.

My sister Donna plays Lady Grantham; with me as Violet, the dowager duchess; and my sister Cynthia as Lord Grantham.

My sister Donna plays Lady Grantham; with me as Violet, the dowager duchess; and my sister Cynthia as Lord Grantham.

I’m sure the Dowager would not have been amused.

“Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” is at the Taft Museum through September 25.

A Perfect Vintage Jacket

Readers,

Last week I brought home a very special souvenir of Jack’s and my visit to Portland, Oregon: a vintage jacket with a mysterious past. GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2941 (460x432)It came from a lovely little shop, Living Threads Vintage, on Taylor Street opposite the Multnomah County central library.

I was actually on my way to the Button Emporium next door, which an antique dealer had recommended to me, but I couldn’t resist stopping to examine the dress hanging on a mannequin outside Living Threads. IMG_9753 (345x460)

And the next thing I knew, I was chatting with Christine Taylor,IMG_9752 (345x460) co-owner with her husband, Travis, while browsing a rack of jackets.

In short order I was telling myself there would be no harm in trying on this very interesting jacket made from Pendleton wool.GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2943 (460x307)This jacket intrigued me–and Christine, too–and we both wondered who made it, when, and for whom. It was beautifully made and in perfect condition.

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The seaming and darting are so beautiful.

The front facing is finished so elegantly.

The front facing is finished elegantly.

Was this jacket custom-made by a dressmaker or tailor for a specific customer?

Or could this have been sewn as a sample for a clothing line, never manufactured, instead ending up languishing in an archive for decades? We may never know.GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2894 (313x460)

The buttons were fantastic.  I admired the bold and yet restrained combination of buttons, fabric, and garment style. They seemed to be made for each other.  GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2907 (460x381)

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2955 (460x307) I would love to work out such wonderful combinations using the buttons I’ve bought at vintage fashion fairs and shops in the UK and Europe. It’s so inspiring to learn from real-life examples.

We wondered when this jacket was made. Could it have been the late ’50s, when more patterns were appearing without the cinched waist?

Another great in my pattern pantheon.

From 1959, this has a big collar and an unbelted version. I made the leopard-collar version a couple of years ago.

The fabric suggested 1940s or 1950s to me. This Pendleton wool was the color–no, colors–of stone-ground cornmeal, with beautiful variegations of grays or browns.

My trusty 3 in 1 Color Tool suggests that this yellow has been lightened with white and shaded with gray.

My trusty 3 in 1 Color Tool suggests that this yellow has been lightened with white and shaded with gray.

The tag read “Extra Small.” The fit was nearly perfect on me–a rare occurrence.GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2954 (307x460)

I love a big collar–and this one could be worn a couple of ways: wider and flatter,GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2918 (312x460) or higher and closer to the face. Interesting.GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2891 (303x460)

Christine liked this intriguing Pendleton jacket on me, too. Still, I wanted another opinion, and I knew where to find it: at the Heathman Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk away. That’s where most of Jack’s fellow Peace Corps members and their wives were staying for our biannual reunion.

I told Christine I’d be back shortly with my friend Rosa to make a final decision. At the hotel, I managed to snag not one but three judges–Rosa, Dora, and Kathryn–who eagerly returned with me to see the shop and the mystery jacket.

Even though I modeled the jacket for my review community over a summery white t-shirt and seersucker pants, the vote was a unanimous and enthusiastic YES. Okay, so there was a little extra room in the shoulders; I could live with that, we agreed.

The inside is perfect. This seems never to have been worn.

The inside is perfect. This seems never to have been worn.

Back home, I pondered what garments I could pair with this jacket to create outfits. Tops, skirts and pants should be simple, I thought, to support this jacket in its starring role.

I scooped up some hats, gloves, and an alligator bag and made the two-minute journey to my sister’s photo studio, where I experimented in front of the camera.

First, with a beret in a hard-to-pin-down mushroom brown color that went with the shading in the fabric:

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The sleeves are longer than three-quarters length, but short enough to call for longer gloves. I wouldn’t mind laying in a supply of long vintage gloves. It’s interesting to me that although the collar points down, I perceive the collar as bringing the eye up, which is a big plus. I can’t explain why, but the shape and color of the beret look right to me as part of this ensemble.

Next, a kind of Loden green felt hat, maybe a cousin of a Homburg. (I bought this Eric Javits hat in 1990, I think.)

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Carrying my pretend purse. I will never make a living as a mime.

The color of the hat is nice with the jacket, but the shape is not. There’s no relationship with the jacket.

How about with this burgundy rabbit-felt hat by Ignatius Creegan? I love this hat.

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There’s my purse! Much better!

The combo is promising and worth pursuing. I see burgundy gloves in my future.

Next up: a Harris tweed hat I bought at a vintage stall in East London on a chilly, drizzly Sunday a few years ago. Quite the workhorse, this hat, keeping me warm, dry and moderately fashionable through several winters.

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2986 (238x460)I think this is a nice combination.

That I could wear a plain neutral beret; a luxurious, plush, rich-colored felt cloche; or a rough-textured plaid tweed fedora with this style and color of jacket was quite exciting.

Lastly, I tried a whimsical beret in an eye-popping orange-red.

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Both items had plenty of personality but seemed willing to work together.

A jacket that can deliver on whimsicality, practicality, and beauty, too? That’s something worth celebrating!

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Whee!

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And with this silliness, this photo shoot is now concluded.

After spending decades in storage, it’s time this jacket started doing its job in the world, don’t you think?  I certainly do.

Thanks to Cynthia DeGrand for studio photography.

Book Review: Looking Good…Every Day by Nancy Nix-Rice

Readers,

Have you ever said, “This is the book I wish I had written”?

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I’ve already begun to highlight and flag my copy.

Well, Looking Good…Every Day is the book that addresses just about everything about wardrobe that drove me, in my extreme frustration, to create Getting Things Sewn to identify and solve my many sewing and clothing dilemmas.

I don’t really wish I’d written this book; I just feel as if Nancy Nix-Rice read my mind and then wrote it for me.

I’m skeptic both by nature and by training, having read thousands of critical book reviews when I selected materials for my library system, so it was out of character for me to pre-order this book from Palmer/Pletsch. But when I squinted hard at the contents page reproduced in miniature on the Palmer/Pletsch website to make out the chapter headings and descriptions, I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is what I’m trying to accomplish with that chart I made!”

My chart

My chart

That primitive little chart, composed of scrawled sticky notes arranged in columns to show the elements of wardrobe design and how they drive sewing projects and wardrobe-buying, looked to be the very rough draft of Looking Good…Every Day.

What I wanted my chart to do was help me see both individual elements of wardrobe and their relationships to each other in a way that would help me design garments and outfits I loved that would work for me. I’ve read lots of fashion advice, but not much that fits the pieces into a larger whole. It was exciting to think someone much more knowledgeable and experienced had done this already.

Monday I got home from my latest week of househunting in Ohio to find Looking Good…Every Day waiting for me. And although bleary-eyed from my travels, I could hardly stop turning the pages, seeing answers at last to age-old questions and wardrobe dilemmas in almost every chapter.

Nix-Rice’s orientation to wardrobe design is so intuitive it would be easy to overlook how ingenious it is. With a concept she calls “points of connection” she leads readers to identify their own coloring, figure type, proportions, face shape and more as the basis of their most flattering looks. I find that a lot of fashion advice is imposed from the outside onto us poor lumps of imperfection.  Nancy Nix-Rice seeks to bring out what’s wonderful and interesting within each of us and then to find those styles that best support us. It’s a very positive approach–and also grounded in practicality.

The first “point of connection” Nix-Rice covers, in Chapter 1, is skin, hair, and eye coloring. Most of us are familiar with the concepts of warm and cool coloring and that seasonal  color analysis that was so popular thirty years ago. Some people are textbook examples of a seasonal coloring and can be identified easily, but other people benefit from a professional color analysis. Nix-Rice explains what a color analysis is and what it can do, and walks us readers through a typical session.

In all my "contrasting Autumn" glory, complete with a Thanksgiving apple pie. (From 2003 or 2004)

In all my “contrasting Autumn” glory, complete with a Thanksgiving apple pie. (From 2003 or 2004)

I had a color analysis myself, coincidentally from the stylist for this book, Ethel Harms, back in 2002. Ethel pegged me as a “contrasting Autumn,” which seems obvious now, but wasn’t to me then. When I got home I weeded my wardrobe of cool, medium-intensity colors, saw how warm deep or pale colors work great for me, and have made much better color choices ever since.

Color and image consultant Ethel Harms put together this palette for me. It's been a great help!

Color and image consultant Ethel Harms put together this palette for me in 2002. It’s been a great help ever since.

Chapter 2, “Silhouette Connections,” shows you how to make and interpret a body graph. I’ve done this exercise, which you can see here and here using the instructions in another Palmer/Pletsch book, Fit for Real People. I know I have a triangle figure type, but using this book may help me reap even more information from this exercise.

Doing a body graph

Doing a body graph

Chapters 3-8 discuss other “points of connection” to train readers to understand body scale, vertical and horizontal lines in clothing, figure challenges, face shape, lifestyle and personal style.

Chapters 9-12 explain wardrobe-editing and -building, capsules, and accessories.

Chapters 10-19 cover a multitude of topics: underwear, makeup, strategic shopping, closet-organizing, having a dressmaker or sewing yourself, altering, and travel wardrobes.

What a lot of territory to cover!

Each chapter explains principles, illustrating with a wealth of examples using real women. You may have noticed: this is far from the norm in style advice books.

It is also unusual–okay, unheard of in my experience–for a style book to encourage readers to take everything with a grain of salt. In the foreword Pati Palmer writes,

Along your personal style journey, be a skeptic. There is plenty of misinformation out there:

–“They say…”

–“Everybody should…”

–“This season’s Must-Haves are…”

Don’t believe anything you hear about style–even this book–unless you can see the results with your own two eyes.

I’m doing that! I’m already off to a good start. I have done a body graph and seen the merits in those results. I’ve had a color analysis, and can attest to years of  valuable results from that investment. I’ve had more aha’s along the way, about silhouettes, and accessories, and ready-to-wear that work or don’t work for me. There’s more to learn, I know.

How does this scarf work? Does it have to be so hard?

How does this scarf work? Does accessorizing have to be so hard?

But I also want move to a new level, putting all my learning together and building on it. That may be where this book will really prove itself. I have felt that I’ve gotten a handle on one aspect of wardrobe and style only to feel I’ve lost my grip on another. This book seems to integrate principles and practices in a way I haven’t seen before.  I’m eager to put the rest of this book to the test.

Looking Good…Every Day is a toolkit for wardrobe decision-making and design like I’ve never had before. And that got me thinking. In one of those decluttering books I read recently, Live More, Want Less, Mary Carlomagno describes clutter as “piles of delayed decisions.” Well, often those decisions are delayed because I don’t have a sound basis for deciding!

With this book in hand I can analyze my piles of delayed sewing and wardrobe decisions with a fresh eye–and possibly make most of that clutter disappear–for good.

Much better!

Much better!

Field Trip: The Fashion Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Readers,

One Sunday during my recent trip to London I went to my favorite museum ever: the Victoria & Albert Museum. It calls itself “the world’s greatest museum of art and design.” I call it a gigantic, creative playground. Striding through the tunnel from the South Kensington Underground station I always feel a surge of curiosity and happiness as I approach the V&A through the back entrance.

In February and March 2011, when I was researching “Sewing Destination: London, England” for Threads magazine, Room 40, the Fashion Gallery, was closed for a major remodeling. It reopened in spring 2012, and I got to see it that June. The reopened gallery is a wonderful showcase for temporary exhibitions and for choice pieces from the permanent fashion collection.

What a trio: a tweed suit by Balenciaga, a miniature dress by Jacques Fath, and

What a trio: a tweed suit by Balenciaga, a miniature dress by Jacques Fath, and behind it, a skirt, jacket and belt by Dior.

For a couple of hours on that recent Sunday afternoon I wandered from one glass case to the next, admiring the beauty and ingenuity of many garments. Sometimes the designers and makers’ names are known sometimes, they have been lost, but their work lives on to inspire us.

I switched off my camera flash and was able to take pictures, but the low lighting and reflective glass were problems. However, many of these garments can be seen in the V&A’s database. If you click on the links below, you can see the V&A’s professional photos with descriptions of the garments and historical contexts.

I love the black gloves paired with the bracelet sleeves--and the Schiaparelli bracelet.

I love the black gloves paired with the bracelet sleeves–and the Schiaparelli bracelet.

The first piece I admired was a black and white tweed suit by Balenciaga dated 1954-1955. I could happily wear this today. I love the big collar, the bracelet-length sleeves, and the texture of the tweed. I loved seeing the black gloves, the pumps and the handbag exhibited with the suit to make an outfit. I was reminded of my own chunky tweed vintage jacket from the ’50s, which is just begging for long gloves to complete the look.

The shoes date from 1960; the lizard handbag from 1950.

The shoes date from 1960; the lizard handbag from 1950.

In the same case was this amazing miniature dress by Jacques Fath from about 1950, donated by the designer David Sassoon. The description in the V&A’s database says this was a sample to show what the finished dress would look like. Don’t you wonder if any full-size dresses like this have survived?

I can't imagine the work that went into this little masterpiece.

I can’t imagine the work that went into this little masterpiece.

Completing the trio is Batignolles, a three-piece afternoon dress by Christian Dior from 1952. The V&A description says

Despite its simple appearance, it is assembled with a multiplicity of buttons and tiny snap fasteners, which required the help of a lady’s maid to secure.

The couturier Christóbal Balenciaga was said to have disapproved of the complexity of Dior’s fastenings.

Don’t you wish, as I do, that you could see for yourself how complicated it was to put on this ensemble? I wonder whom I’d side with. Probably Balenciaga. But the dress is gorgeous nonetheless.

As is this coral red beauty, also by Dior, from 1954-’55.

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This dress design, called Zemire,  was commissioned by the wife of a textile company executive; the fabric is a synthetic manufactured by that company. Nice advertisement!

Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Lovely, lovely, lovely.

In a neighboring case, within sight of this sumptuous dress that used extravagant amounts of yardage, are a woman’s utility suit from 1942 and a man’s utility suit from 1941, when fabric use was restricted.

A woman's utility suit designed in accordance with fabric and button restrictions during World War II

A woman’s utility suit designed in accordance with fabric and button restrictions during World War II

I am so struck by how attractive these suits are while working within the limitations. They make me want to learn more about what the design problems were and how many ways designers solved those problems.

I like the contrasting buttons on the woman’s suit. They make me want to comb through my recent button purchases looking to brighten up some staid tweed.

From 1941, a man's utility suit.

From 1941, a man’s utility suit.

After the years of fabric restriction isn’t it easy to imagine how exhilarating it had to be to use yards and yards of fabric as you pleased?

In another case near the Zemire dress is this Foale and Tuffin suit from 1964, and it provides another kind of contrast.

I love the high contrast and the pattern mix.

I love the graphic black and white and the pattern mix.

If the Zemire dress expresses the freedom to use lots of fabric, it also constricts the wearer with a corset and girdle. And the Batignolles dress required a helper! This brash, young, graphic black and white suit feels really free to me–you put it on and you’re done. No cinched waist here.

In trying to describe the feeling of this suit a word came to me that I hadn’t thought of in decades: “kicky.” This is a kicky suit. The Balenciaga suit is not kicky. The utility suits are definitely not kicky. Neither are the red Zemire dress or the deep blue Batignolle dress. But the Foale and Tuffin has a youthful, devil-may-care feel about it. In the Vogue magazine photo the model is striding along outdoors, enjoying the breeze, independent and unstyled.

I admire all the garments here, but the one I can really imagine buying, wearing, and enjoying is this Foale and Tuffin suit. How about you?

Tailoring with Savile Row Tailors: The Hardy Amies Archive

Readers,

Perhaps there’s an extra bedroom in your home stuffed with the paraphernalia of your sewing career: bolts of fabric, an old dress form, a sewing machine you no longer use but would never part with, garments you made that represent old sewing dreams (or nightmares), samples of fancy embroidery designs for  special outfits, boxes of swatches for the important client you used to sew for, those fashion sketches you used to do, a scrapbook…

Hardy Amies Ltd., 14 Savile Row

Hardy Amies Ltd., 14 Savile Row

There’s hardly a square foot of clear floor space to get around, and you keep promising yourself you’ll put all of this in good order someday. But  whenever you do need something, you can put your hand on it. And besides, you’re too busy getting things sewn to play curator, anyway.

What sewer can't relate to the challenges of storing fabric?

What sewer can’t relate to the challenges of storing fabric?

My advice would be to follow the example of Hardy Amies Ltd., call this agglomeration your archive, and consider the job done.

After touring four leading tailoring companies two days earlier, I felt like I’d had a prime rib dinner: traditional, substantial, and long to digest . Our class’s late-morning visit to the Hardy Amies archive felt to me, by contrast, like the Victoria sponge cake we would share at our last lunch together as a class: traditional, too, but lighter, prettier, and prompting smiles.

A Hardy Amies fashion sketch

A Hardy Amies fashion sketch

Playing docent was Antonia, a cutter (if I recall correctly) for the fashion house; she advises and measures customers for men’s bespoke tailoring.  Hardy Amies Ltd. no longer produces women’s wear, which I think a pity. If you don’t know Hardy Amies’ fantastic work of the 1940s and ’50s, check out some boards on Pinterest. But come back here; you’ll want to see this.

As the eight of us distributed ourselves the best we could in the tiny space, Antonia quickly recounted the career of Hardy Amies (1909-2003), which included facts about his famously tailoring his military uniforms in World War II and having financial backing to launch his own business from Cary Grant’s first (ex-) wife, Virginia Cherrill.

Antonia showed us Amies’ treadle sewing machine and motioned toward the rolls of fabric stacked on shelves making a fabulous sewing stash, but moved on quickly to the atlas-sized book with “THE QUEEN” stamped in gold on the cover.

A title that speaks volumes

A title that speaks volumes

When I asked three of my classmates, all British subjects, “When you think of Hardy Amies, what comes to mind?” their answers were

  • the Queen
  • the Queen, and
  • the Queen

    Not just anyone's dress form

    Not just anyone’s dress form

The Queen was Hardy Amies’ most famous client. Those bright-colored outfits (the better to be seen by crowds), with the coordinating hats and handbags–those were his.

Her Majesty the Queen--HMQ for short.

Her Majesty the Queen–HMQ for short.

Now our little group crowded around a scrapbook of photos and sometimes swatches of dresses and suits Amies designed for the Queen for public appearances at home and abroad.

Antonia, our informative and entertaining guide.

Antonia, our informative and entertaining guide.

I'm wondering about the man on the ladder in the background.

Are you wondering, as I am, about the man in the background on the ladder?

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So many occasions to dress for.

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Beautiful, comfortable, and elegant.

The sketch and a swatch

It starts with a sketch and a swatch.

Center: the Queen in the finished dress

I think the sketch at top shows the dress in the center photo.

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Maintaining dignity and elegance in spite of the elements.

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The press was often wowed.

It was especially fun to see swatches with the photo of the garment.

It was especially fun to see swatches with the photo of the garment to see colors and textures accurately.

Sometimes the photos misrepresented the colors. This blue is so vivid.

Sometimes the photos misrepresented the colors. This blue is so vivid.

From the Queen's USA trip in 1983, a departure from clean, simple lines. The press was not kind.

From the Queen’s USA trip in 1983, a departure from clean, simple lines. The press was not wowed this time. Under the bow are the words “The offending bow.”

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When my classmates said Amies designed for the Queen, this kind of outfit came to mind.

I didn’t grow up in the British Commonwealth and was never a royals watcher–well, with one exception. When I was a college student in London in 1978 I got to see the Queen riding in an open carriage through the streets with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu on his state visit.

A very uncomfortable moment for the Queen. Was the color of her jacket a neutral?

A very uncomfortable moment for the Queen. Was the color of her jacket a neutral?

I can’t say I remember what she wore. But in this photo from the Daily Mail the cut of the jacket certainly resembles the purple one in the album. Could it have been a Hardy Amies? Dependably elegant and dignified regardless of the circumstances?

This jacket has a wealth of design details.

This jacket has a wealth of design details.

But back to the archive. Antonia showed us some other womenswear pieces, and I realize now I assumed these were in production, but maybe they were individual commissions.

I love this pocket.

I love this pocket.

In either case, I admired the work in this jacket, which, unfortunately, my photographs don’t adequately convey. The main fabric is a tiny check or houndstooth, but part of the side panel is in a glen plaid. It’s a subtle pattern mix with the confidence to wait for you to discover it. We liked the pocket design, and the box pleating at the cuffs and at the hem of the coordinating skirt that reminded me of the box pleating I’ve done in soft furnishings.

Box pleating distinguishes this skirt.

Box pleating distinguishes this skirt.

We enjoyed the bold burnt-orange of a crisp silk blouse

I think this is from the '80s.

I think this is from the ’80s.

and seeing elegant construction solutions to make a lace evening dress as functional as it is beautiful.

Providing support while maintaining elegance-that's the challenge of constructing evening wear.

Providing support while maintaining elegance-that’s the challenge of constructing evening wear.

And Antonia showed us how comfortable and flattering a Hardy Amies dress is to wear.IMG_4887 (460x345)

Listening to Antonia’s stories of working in the village that is Savile Row, we wondered whether the archive provided a welcome retreat some days from high doses of masculinity. She agreed it did, and although she didn’t admit playing dress-up, she didn’t deny it, either. If she does, who could blame her?

Don't you just want to look into those boxes?

Don’t you just want to look into those boxes?