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.”

img_0441-460x339

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.”

img_0430-228x460

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.”

img_0467-236x460

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.”

img_0402-460x345

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.”

img_0432-223x460

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.

London Miscellany

IMG_9062 (460x171)Readers,

To round off my recent series of London posts, a roundup of news items and observations:

  • I loved The Imperial War Museum’s show “Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style.”
    My souvenir from "Fashion on the Ration:" smart style in London, spring 1941

    My souvenir from “Fashion on the Ration:” smart style in London, spring 1941

    If you’ve wanted to see ingenious examples of making do and mending in Britain during World War II, this is the show for you. Frustratingly, photography was forbidden; otherwise I would have taken dozens of pictures and posted them here.IMG_9067 (460x345) The hour I spent in the show flew by. The companion book is described here.

  • May 31 I went to the Clerkenwell Vintage Fashion Fair.IMG_9073 (258x460) I’d been to this show before; in 2012 I saw at least two vendors with large vintage button selections. This time I didn’t see a single button. Not one! Compare with the Hammersmith Vintage Fashion Fair I attended in January 2014, where I found loads of buttons and bought quite a few. (Well, it’s time I made proper homes for the buttons I have now, anyway.)
  • A couple of the shops I included in my Threads magazine article “Sewing Destination: London, England” (June-July 2012) have experienced changes. Cloth House used to have two addresses on Berwick Street: 47 and 98. The Number 98 location, which had wonderful wools and a big selection of knits, closed in May.
    IMG_8797 (460x345)

    Some buttons at Cloth House that I considered for my 1941 tweed jacket…

    I wondered how all of Number 98’s inventory could possibly fit into Number 47’s space. The answer seems to be that it didn’t.

    ...and some more. I passed them up--but what a wealth of choices!

    …and some more. I passed them up–but what a wealth of choices! Also–a nifty way to store buttons!

    I hope those gorgeous wools reappear someday.

  • The other shop that’s changed is MacCulloch & Wallis, which moved this year from cramped quarters on Dering Street to two spacious floors at 25-26 Poland Street, just one street over from Berwick.
MacCulloch & Wallis, now on Poland Street in Soho.

MacCulloch & Wallis, now on Poland Street in Soho.

MacCulloch & Wallis carries lots of notions. (Just look at its online store to get an idea.) I asked about basting thread for my upcoming tailoring project, and bought two spools of what Gutermann calls “tacking” thread. Is there a difference? IMG_9064 (376x460)

  • If the travel posters in my post about the Fashion and Textile Museum’s “Riviera Style” show interest you,IMG_9070 (345x460) you can see them, and more, here.
  • And if you are in the neighborhood of the Fashion and Textile Museum July 16, you might want to attend a talk and book signing by the Jane Butchart, author of Nautical Chic, “tracing the relationship between maritime dress and the fashionable wardrobe, uncovering stories, tracking the trends, and tracing the evolution of the style back to its roots in our seafaring past.” IMG_9074 (345x460)
  • I visited The Vintage Showroom in Covent Garden. I was very taken by the book Vintage Menswear: A Collection From The Vintage Showroom when it was published in 2012, and ever since wanted to see the store, which was interesting. I thought of The Vintage Showroom when Jack and I visited Cambridge University’s Polar Museum and saw clothing like this:IMG_8739 (208x460)
  •  Another place that was on my list to visit was Pentreath & Hall, in Bloomsbury, a tiny, exquisitely curated shop started by architect and interior designer Ben Pentreath. I got to the shop only minutes before closing, but had time enough to drink in the atmosphere and pick up a couple of promotional postcards as souvenirs.IMG_9071 (460x322)What I most coveted were the silk-covered lampshades, priced at more than £300 apiece.  Perhaps their maker would consent to create a Craftsy class for those of us inspired to make our own? If only.
  • More in my price range was this tote bag recreating Edward Bawden’s delightful cover illustration for John Metcalf’s book London A to Z. I found it in the Victoria & Albert Museum store for £8.50. IMG_9060 (280x460)The illustration appears on both sides of the bag. Would it work to take the bag apart and use the pieces as fronts for a pair of pillows? It’s worth a try.

Field Trip: “Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear Since 1900,” Fashion and Textile Museum, London

Readers,

I am no swimmer.  Growing up, I never advanced beyond the shallow end of the pool. As an adult I summoned the courage–twice!–to take beginner swimming classes but chickened out after the first session both times.

She looks so relaxed on this diving board far above the crowd--and yet it looks like she's dipping her toes in the water.

She looks so relaxed on this diving board far above the crowd–and yet it looks like she’s dipping her toes in the water.

So when I saw that what would be showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum during my recent stay in London would be a century’s worth of swimsuits and resort wear, I can’t say I was very excited. I wouldn’t be going in order  to pick up ideas for sewing a vintage swimsuit and resort wear wardrobe for myself, that was for sure.IMG_8801 (460x376)

But the reason I had steeled myself to try learning to swim was because swimming always looked so natural and fun in a way that other healthful social activities–say, jogging–never could.

And the settings for swimming, whether or not you actually take a dip, can be so glamorous and evocative.IMG_8806 (345x460) A lot of swimwear probably never has been in a pool or the sea. Its main purpose, like all fashion, I suppose, has been to create certain feelings and associations in its wearers and their observers–feelings and associations that have exerted a powerful pull even on a swimming-averse person like me. IMG_8807 (345x460)

Plodding the length of the Portobello Road market in a pouring rain to visit some favorite button vendors (for naught, it turned out) one recent Friday morning decided me to escape overcast and chilly London for the sun and warmth of Riviera Style that afternoon.IMG_8811 (460x354)The exhibit begins by immersing the viewer in the carefree worlds conjured up by travel posters dating from between the wars and the 1950s. Then the swimwear and resort wear are arranged chronologically.

The first section, “Bathing Beauties,” covers 1895 to 1919.IMG_8803 (460x356)

We’ve all seen quaint swimming costumes in still pictures or silent films, but to see them up close was even more  interesting. I wondered,

  • Was this unattractively clingy when wet?IMG_8818 (211x460)
  • This must have been scratchy!

    Wool. Imagine!

    Wool. Imagine!

  • What did they wear underneath? A corset?

    IMG_8816 (297x460)

    This beats even my junior high school gymsuit for unflattering lines.

This is in such great condition. Was it ever used for its intended purpose?IMG_8804 (203x460)This last outfit had such nice details I took some closeups. IMG_8812 (367x460)IMG_8805 (345x460)Minus the bloomers, this looks like a nice dress–although, on second thought at the time it would have been indecent to wear in public.

No, even for strolling on the beach, the proper family circa 1910 would be decked out like this:

Think of the ironing!

Think of the ironing!

If you did venture into the water you might protect your voluminous hairstyle with this rubber swim cap, dated 1900-1920. IMG_8820 (345x460)Next followed “Cling, Bag, Stretch” covering 1920 to 1939. The lights were low and I couldn’t get so close to the clothes, unfortunately. IMG_8826 (460x345)From the brochure for the show, I learned, “Up until the 1930s men were required by law to cover their torsos, but swimsuits with cut-out sections (for men and women) tested the boundaries.” Now I understand this style suit for men.

IMG_8855 (460x363)

IMG_8856 (460x439)

Who would have worn a swimsuit with a motif like this? Someone with a sense of humor, I’m guessing.

As sunbathing grew in popularity among the wealthy in the 1920s, I learned, so did sunglasses.

As sunbathing grew in popularity among the wealthy in the 1920s, I learned, so did sunglasses.

IMG_8859 (315x460)

The wide-legged white linen trousers are from the 1930s, and the outfit emulates Coco Chanel. Not practical, but chic.

In the next section, “Mould & Control,”covering 1940 to 1959, I began recognizing colors and styles I grew up around. IMG_8828 (460x368)Bright colors, happy, naive prints:IMG_8829 (327x460)

My sisters and I grew up with dresses in patterns and colors like this.

The colors and patterns are comfortingly familiar to me.

Swimsuits that look matronly or dowdy today were nevertheless exciting to buy, and possibly wear, in postwar America and Britain.IMG_8827 (460x298) With advances in fabrics suits were getting lighter and were holding their shape better.

This suit bears the logo of the Festival of Britain from 1951.

This suit bears the logo of the Festival of Britain from 1951.

IMG_8841 (388x460)IMG_8837 (311x460)

One consequence of better fitting and performing swimsuits was–swimsuit contests. I had never made the connection before.IMG_8842 (460x316)

A souvenir from your vacation might be a scarf with a resort motif:IMG_8830 (460x421)IMG_8831 (460x375)The next section of the show, entitled “Body Beautiful,” covered 1960 to 1989. IMG_8845 (460x366)I neglected to take a picture of the display as a whole, probably because the only novelties for me were the swimming caps, which reminded me of the one I tried on during my visit to The Alley Vintage and Costume back in March. IMG_8846 (460x323)IMG_8848 (460x403)By now, suffering from swimwear fatigue I gave only a passing glance to the last section of the show, “Second Skin: 1990 Onwards.” IMG_8850 (460x306)“Riviera Style” tells a story of advances in fabrics that stretch and recover beautifully, hold and shape the figure, and even increase speed. These advances responded to–and spurred–new desires, needs, changes, and opportunities in society.

Train travel, air travel, ocean liners, wealthy people’s pastimes, seaside resorts,  government-mandated vacations, movies, television, nylon, lastex, elastane, the Olympics–and much more–have played a bigger role in the existence and looks of swimwear than I had ever imagined before.

But did the show inspire me to give swimming lessons another try?

Come on in--the water's fine!

Come on in–the water’s fine!

‘Fraid not. I’m staying safely poolside.

IMG_8810 (295x460)

“Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear Since 1900” is showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum through August 30, 2015.

Field Trip: The Alley Vintage and Costume, Columbus, Ohio

Readers,

What do you get when a master costumer in the International Costumers’ Guild and her professional makeup artist husband open a store following 30 years in the theater costume business?335The Alley (460x334)

Why, you get The Alley Vintage and Costume, where the motto is “You Are Never Too Old To Play Dress Up.”

With a knowledge of fashion and costume history both broad and deep, Kit and Joseph can guide customers to create outfits fantastical or historically correct (or both).

With a knowledge of fashion and costume history both broad and deep, Kit and Josef can guide customers to create outfits fantastical or historically correct (or both).

I spent a recent morning getting a grand tour of the store from owners Kit and Josef Matulich. They encouraged me to stow my coat and bag and make myself at home.

One moment, it's part of a display...

One moment, this swim cap is part of a display…

I started out with pencil and clipboard determined to capture facts,  but I confess I quickly jettisoned both reportorial gear and demeanor and dove headlong into trying things on.

...and the next moment this swim cap is on my head. Everybody into the pool!

…and the next moment it’s on my head. Everybody into the pool!

How could I not?

The impulse was too strong to resist, especially with Kit egging me on, even drafting store assistant Abbey, of the sewing blog Life in a”Mads” House, to play model for a unique, on the spot trunk show.

Abbey, having a Dorothy Lamour moment.

Abbey, having a Dorothy Lamour moment.

At The Alley, Kit and Josef can never predict what clothing or accessories will come in the door next, which is much of the fun.

Looking for the ultimate alligator purse? Meet Percival.

Looking for the ultimate alligator purse? Meet Percival.

They also can’t predict what customer dreams and expectations will come in the door, which is much of the challenge.

Looking for something green for St. Patrick's Day?

Looking for something to complete that St. Patrick’s Day outfit?

Do you love dressing up for Halloween? The Renaissance Festival? Historical reenactments? There are hundreds of costumes to choose from.

Do you love dressing up for Halloween? The Renaissance Festival? Historical reenactments? There are hundreds of costumes to choose from.

How do they help customers realize those dreams with an ever-changing inventory?

Go ahead--try it on!

Go ahead–try it on!

I like it, and so does Jack. The collar is mouton.

I like it, and so does Jack. The collar is mouton.

A lifetime’s experience in costume design and construction, a grounding in history, and a flair for improvising all come in handy, as does an irrepressible sense of fun.

“I do this out of a sense of history and to make people happy,” Kit says, recounting the story of a teenage customer gleefully twirling in the full-skirted 1950s dress she chose using a gift certificate from her grandmother.

An outfit Kit would like to make--and she's got the skills to do it! My sewing ambitions suddenly seem awfully modest!

An outfit Kit would like to make–and she’s got the skills to do it! My sewing ambitions suddenly seem awfully modest!

This exquisite waistcoat was made for a wedding,

This exquisite waistcoat was made for a wedding…

...in Paris, about 1826.

…in Paris, about 1826.

History can take the shape of the stylish suits of an executive secretary in Buffalo, New York in the 1950s.

These suits were all worn by the same smartly dressed secretary in Buffalo, New York.

These suits were all worn by the same smartly dressed secretary in Buffalo, New York.

This suit dates from a time when the department store or dress shop was local, not a branch of a national chain.

This suit dates from a time when the department store or dress shop was local, not a branch of a national chain.

I would love to design my own label, so I'm always on the lookout for inspiring examples.

I would love to design my own label, so I’m always on the lookout for inspiring examples.

Some suits interest me for a particular detail. I wonder how I might use a pocket design like this.

Some suits interest me for a particular detail. I wonder how I might use a pocket design like this.

Or it can unfold in the heavily beaded visitée jacket made in the atelier of the legendar Charles Frederick Worth.

A heavily beaded jacket: the front...

A heavily beaded jacket: the front…

The back (the mottled appearance of the velvet was produced by the way it lay on the beads)

the back (the mottled appearance of the velvet was produced, alas, by  improper storage of a previous owner),

...and the discreet label, WORTH.

…and the discreet label, “WORTH PARIS.”

Everywhere there’s a story begging to be told–even in the Easter chick-yellow negligee knitted and sewn by the mother of the groom for her new daughter-in-law’s wedding night.

Abbey and Kit can hardly contain themselves as I try on this trousseau item.

Abbey and Kit can hardly contain themselves as I try on this trousseau item.

I feel very...fluffy.

I feel very…fluffy.

"Now I think I know what it's like to be a kitten," I told them.

“Now I think I know what it’s like to be a kitten,” I told them.

Or in a Navy sweetheart hankie and pin.179The Alley (460x351)

And history also takes the form of family pictures on the back wall, with a stylish Aunt Edna from the 1930s gazing down upon us.

A love of clothing and costume has come down the generations in Kit's and Joseph's families.

A love of clothing and costume has come down the generations in Kit’s and Josef’s families.

This riding jacket is incredibly small, even by my standards.

This riding jacket is incredibly small, even by my standards.

The back is every bit as beautiful as the front.

The back is every bit as beautiful as the front.

But everywhere at The Alley there are also new stories waiting to be told, in new combinations of clothes and accessories, worn for new occasions undreamt of in the minds of their designers and former owners.

Were these made to be worn underneath--or on top?

Were these made to be worn underneath–or on top?

The clothes of yesteryear had to have the proper undergarments, like this

The clothes of yesteryear had to have the proper undergarments, like these

...and this,

…and these

and this bullet bra. Don't ask.

and this bullet bra. Don’t ask.

The women who strode triumphantly out of department stores gloating over their new purchases might be amazed at the second lives their hats, dresses, jewelry, and even underpinnings are enjoying.

Resort wear!

Resort wear!

Earrings!

Earrings!

More earrings!

More earrings!

Lovely little evening bags!

Lovely little evening bags!

Gloves galore!

Gloves galore!

Platform shoes from the '40s!

Platform shoes from the ’40s!

How about walking a mile in any of these?

How about walking a mile in any of these?

And likewise, the men who proudly donned their Oddfellows garb, or bowlers, or polyester suits–what might they think about the reincarnation of these items?

Look like no one else on Prom Night.

Look like no one else on Prom Night.

Bowties!

Bow ties!

Bicentennial lining from 1976!

Bicentennial lining from 1976!

Me: "How do you define 'lounge lizard'?" Joseph: "Something '60s, maybe '50s. Something between cool and cheesy."

Me: “How do you define ‘lounge lizard’?”
Josef: “Something ’60s, maybe ’50s. Something between cool and cheesy.”

Hats! (And an astronaut suit!)

Hats! (And an astronaut suit!)

My favorite section of any vintage store is always the hats. And The Alley had lots.

Dozens and dozens of hats.

Dozens and dozens of hats.

I kept Cynthia busy snapping pictures.

1964? '65?

1964? ’65?

A little number to wear to lunch after attending the flower show.

A little something to wear to lunch after attending the flower show.

I'll wear this Mr. John number when I'm in that bandana-Mongol hat mood.

I’ll wear this Mr. John number when I’m in that bandana-Mongol hat mood.

Buy a bunch of violets, Miss?

Buy a bunch of violets, Miss?

A, those were the days, cherie!

Ah, those were the days, cherie!

Whatever role I'm auditioning for, I don't think I want the part after all.

Whatever role I’m auditioning for, I don’t think I want the part after all.

Am I wearing this backwards?

Am I wearing this backwards?

Groovy!

Groovy!

Did the Christian Dior hat designer have  morel mushrooms for lunch?

Did the Christian Dior hat designer have morel mushrooms for lunch? And who is that looking over my shoulder?

The brain coral exhibit at the aquarium was fabulous!

The brain coral exhibit at the aquarium was fabulous!

After two and a half hours at the Alley I had barely scratched the surface of what this store offered. I wanted to look at earrings, study more dressmaker and tailor details in jackets, examine 1970s plaid skirts to harvest for yardage…

And try on more hats!

A return visit is definitely in order.

As I left the shop I bade goodbye to Percival, “See you later, alligator.”

And you know something? I could swear I saw him wink.

Percival says, "See you soon!"

Percival says, “See you soon!”

(Thanks to Cynthia DeGrand for photos!)

 

 

Field Trip: American Craft Council Library, American Fabrics

Readers,

Last summer I discovered the most wonderful old trade journal, and I’ve been wanting to go back and look at it ever since. It’s called American Fabrics. Have you heard of it?

An advertisement from a woolens manufacturer--with real swatches.

An advertisement from a woolens manufacturer–with real swatches.

Well, I hadn’t till I was doing research last year for “Sewing Destination: Twin Cities,” which came out in the February-March 2014 issue of Threads magazine. That article was a roundup of places and events in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota of interest to lovers of sewing and fashion.

Detail of an advertisement for Sunbak: rayon satin backed with wool.

Detail of an advertisement for Sunbak: rayon satin backed with wool.

I had put the American Craft Council library on my list of places to check out because, having been a librarian myself for 22 years, I knew there had to be wonderful resources begging to be better known and used–things that may never, ever get digitized–that sewers and fashion lovers would be thrilled to learn about.

After the movie star glamour of the satin robe...

After the movie star glamour of the satin robe…

When librarian Jessica Shaykett showed me the complete set of American Fabrics (later titled American Fabrics and Fashions), published from 1947 to 1986, I knew my search was over. I was so glad Threads let me include this fascinating time capsule in my article.

...is a style that's as sleek and modern as anything you'll see today.

…is a style that’s as sleek and modern as anything you’ll see today. (Note the fabric swatch at the top.)

Earlier this week I finally made my return visit to this library, which is open to the public, to browse the bound volumes and give readers a taste of American Fabrics that the article’s limited space prevented me from providing.

Penny and Loretta, office dogs and unofficial mascots of the American Craft Council, greeted me.

Penny and Loretta, office dogs and unofficial mascots of the American Craft Council, greeted me.

I naively thought I could look through the set in one morning, take representative photos, and be on my way by lunch. Ha! In an hour and a half I’d gotten through only the first three issues, published quarterly starting in 1946.

I love the graphics of these garment labels. A fabric mill is boasting of the many garment lines using its products.

I love the graphics of these garment labels. A fabric mill is boasting of the many garment lines using its products.

The trade journal continued to 1986 (changing its name along the way to American Fabrics and Fashions), so I have a long way to go.  Judging from issue numbers 1, 2, and 3, that’s good news.

Detail. The wonderful design that used to go into labels!

Detail. The wonderful design that used to go into labels!

Paging through American Fabrics, Number 1 (from which all of these illustrations were taken), I couldn’t help wondering about the state of the textile industry in the U.S. following World War II and what happened to it.

The hope and optimism of postwar America.

The hope and optimism of postwar America.

For a moment I was both tantalized and daunted by the prospect of learning about the history of the US and world post-war economy and globalization in the context of the textile industry…or was it the textile industry in the context of the US and world economic…whatever…American Fabrics, issue 1, Fall 1946

And then I came to my senses.American Fabrics, issue 1, Fall 1946.

I just wanted to page through American Fabrics Number 1 and let the images and words speak for themselves.

When did poodles become fashionable? What is going through that boxer's mind?

When did poodles become fashionable? And what is going through that boxer’s mind?

I wanted to notice word choice and writing styles.

This informative column could be deadly dull...

This informative column could have been deadly dull…

...but it had me at "lamb-chop."

…but it had me at “lamb-chop.”

Detail of contents, American Fabrics, issue 1, Fall, 1946

This table of contents sounds downright literary.

I wanted to notice snapshots in time…IMG_5443 (345x460)

IMG_5436 (460x231)

IMG_5437 (460x345)

…and be surprised by something being around longer than I had realized.

And I thought the word "imagineer" was a recent invention.

And I thought the word “imagineer” was a recent invention.

I wanted to look at graphic styles, too.

Tools of fabric design and production, beautifully rendered

Tools of fabric design and production, beautifully rendered

The lettering!

The lettering!

And of course, I wanted to look at the fashions.

A big, boxy coat of the late '40s.

A big, boxy coat of the late ’40s.

IMG_5430 (460x345)

Yes, those are pineapples on his swimming trunks.

After this first taste of American Fabrics, I’m hooked. My ambition is to page through every volume and fill up my sensory banks with words and graphics, year by year, fabric swatch by fabric swatch. Along the way, who knows what I’ll soak up?

Just you wait and see, lamb-chop.

Loretta says "Thanks for stopping by--come back soon!"

Loretta says “Thanks for stopping by–come back soon!”

(Note: Complete and broken sets of American Fabrics are available in hundreds of libraries in addition to the American Craft Council library in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ask your librarian to help you find them.

(Thanks to humans Jessica Shaykett and Alanna Nissen and corgis Penny and Loretta of the American Craft Council for their help and encouragement.)