News of the passing of Hubert de Givenchy reminded me that I have a pattern dating from 1960 for a suit he designed, as the envelope proudly proclaims, “exclusively for McCall’s.”
I bought it in an eBay auction about fifteen years ago, and while I don’t remember what I paid, it couldn’t have been more than $10.
I have never sewn this pattern. The waist definition and neckline are flattering for my figure type; the “sleeves in one with jacket,” not so much for my sloping shoulders.
Maybe the right shoulder pads would remedy the problem. (Or is that wishful thinking?)
Whenever I happen upon this illustration, rifling through my pattern stash or leafing through my pattern catalogue, I imagine myself in this chic ensemble. It’s funny–I just realized that when I look at many of my other patterns I look at them more objectively as projects, as construction challenges, as units in outfits and capsules.
But without fail, when I look at this suit by Givenchy I am transported to a smart restaurant that’s worthy of it. I imagine feeling well dressed but not upstaged by what I’m wearing.
Best of all, I always imagine feeling wonderful in this outfit.
I can’t explain why, but this design captured something special for me when I saw the pattern, and it still does.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.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.
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?
This must have been scratchy!
What did they wear underneath? A corset?
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?This last outfit had such nice details I took some closeups. 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!
If you did venture into the water you might protect your voluminous hairstyle with this rubber swim cap, dated 1900-1920. Next followed “Cling, Bag, Stretch” covering 1920 to 1939. The lights were low and I couldn’t get so close to the clothes, unfortunately. 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.
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.
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. Bright colors, happy, naive prints:
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. 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.
One consequence of better fitting and performing swimsuits was–swimsuit contests. I had never made the connection before.
A souvenir from your vacation might be a scarf with a resort motif:The next section of the show, entitled “Body Beautiful,” covered 1960 to 1989. 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. By now, suffering from swimwear fatigue I gave only a passing glance to the last section of the show, “Second Skin: 1990 Onwards.” “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?
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
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?
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
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
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, and
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.
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.
Are you wondering, as I am, about the man in the background on the ladder?
So many occasions to dress for.
Beautiful, comfortable, and elegant.
It starts with a sketch and a swatch.
I think the sketch at top shows the dress in the center photo.
Maintaining dignity and elegance in spite of the elements.
The press was often wowed.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
We enjoyed the bold burnt-orange of a crisp silk blouse
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.
And Antonia showed us how comfortable and flattering a Hardy Amies dress is to wear.
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?
Here is another item from the Goldstein Museum of Design that I came across when I was working on the donor files project. It is one of several hats, all from the 1950s or ’60s, donated by Mrs. John Gill.
(Note to self: find her first name!)
Of all Mrs. Gill’s hats–at least, of all the ones photographed so far for the Goldstein’s image database–only one is of “normal” size. The rest, including this one, are miniature masterpieces.
I’m assuming she chose these for herself and that she wore them. I do hope she wore them.
Of course, at the time of their making, wearing hats was a norm–not something you had to be particularly brave to do.
(That reminds me: in Minneapolis about twenty years ago I was walking through Dayton’s department store wearing a handsome olive-colored felt hat–a Homburg?–by Eric Javits. A woman admired my hat and then told me, “I wish I had the courage to wear a hat.” Gosh.)
Looking at her hats, I wonder what kind of person Mrs. John Gill was.
Judging from this hat in particular, surely she must have had a sense of humor. A humorless person wouldn’t give this a second glance, let alone buy it and wear it.
I also see her having a strong sense of style and fashion confidence. You wouldn’t wear this and expect to melt into the crowd (at least not the crowds I’m around), after all.
I wonder where this hat was on display, waiting for the right wearer to come along. What salesperson in the hat department shared that moment of triumph when Mrs. John Gill perched this confection on her head, arranged the flirty netting over her face, admired her reflection in the mirror and said, “Yes–I’ll take it!”?
I wonder what Mrs. John Gill wore with this. Where did she wear it? And what did people say?
Most of all, I wonder who fashioned this bit of millinery whimsy. The museum record states, sadly, “Artist/Maker: Unknown.”
Dear Unknown Artist/Maker, wherever you may be, thank you for this example of dexterous wit.
And thank you, too, Mrs. John Gill–and Goldstein Museum of Design–for safekeeping it for our enjoyment.
To see other hats donated to the Goldstein by Mrs. John Gill: