Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I'll Take Thirty Dresses

 A Note From Nancy *

I've been sewing since I was a little girl.  It's in my blood.  As such I like fashion, and I like to write about dressmaking...

Made-to-order workroom in Stewart's
My novel An Unlikely Suitor begins in a dressmaking shop in New York City in 1895. Off-the-rack clothes were no longer a novelty and could be purchased at a myriad of department stores (Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Stewart’s, Bergdorf-Goodman…) Many stores offered both custom made clothing as well as ready-to-wear, which was often sewn to fit on the premises. Women could also order clothing from catalogs. But with all these options, most high-society ladies still had their wardrobes custom designed and sewn, often in small dress-shops. In my book it’s Madame Moreau’s Fashion Emporium. The “Madame Moreau” in the store’s name is in reaction to a fascination with all things French. Actually, the woman who runs the store is named Mrs. Flynn, who had the uncanny ability to adopt a French accent when dealing with her clientele. These dressmakers often imported Paris fashion—to copy, although in the 1890's they were taking more and more pride in their own developing American fashion.
Bloomingdale's 1888 catalog

Although the complexity of the bustle-era was gone (illustration at left is 1888), dresses in the mid-1890’s were far from simple. The focus moved from the back of the dress to the sleeves—or actually to the waist. For by making the sleeves ridiculously huge, a woman’s waist appeared tiny in comparison. And in the everything-old-is-new-again phenomenon, it should be noted that these sleeves were also popular in the 1830’s. But during that time, skirts were also wide, making women look as if they were swallowed up by their clothes!  Too much.
Fashion is all about silhouettes. To create the hour-glass silhouette of the 1890’s, a wide top and small middle was needed. 

bodice pattern
The over-sized puffy sleeves were called gigots, or leg-o-mutton sleeves. They were often made from four separate pieces of fabric (most sleeves nowadays are cut from one piece), and they could be stuffed so they kept their shape. Skirts were often four or six gores, or had insets of gathers at the thigh-level (as a seamstress myself, I know these insets would be difficult to do.) Even though the patterns to ,make these clothes were still far from simple, it was a big step for women’s fashion to lose the bustle.

Note the inset flared skirts on the right
To herald the new style came the “shirtwaist”. It became the uniform of working women everywhere: a relatively plain skirt with a leg-o-mutton blouse that had a standing band collar and buttons up the back. A simple petticoat was all that was needed—except for the dratted corset, of course. It would still be twenty-five years before women rid themselves of that awful contraption. Wearing this relatively simple ensemble women were able to go to college, work, and enjoy sports such as golf or tennis.

But forget shirtwaists for the rich patronesses of the dress shops. They wanted custom designs that made them stand out from the masses of women wearing the simpler styles.

The dressmaking shops were often staffed by immigrants, first or second generation Americans. They created the intricate patterns for the dresses, cut the fabric (which was purchased in varying non-standardized widths. Now, we basically have 45”, 54”, and 60” widths to choose from), and sewed the garments on machines and by hand (I’ll be blogging about the evolution of the sewing machine next week.) The elite of society kept these shops busy with their need to showcase their family’s successes and wealth through their fashion. To walk the streets of New York City in elegant finery, to take a promenade through Central Park, to go to the opera or Delmonico’s, to attend a ball or dinner at the Astor’s or Vanderbilt’s, demanded fashion that wowed the viewer. Has much changed today? Don’t we also long to be thought of as fashionable?

Now here’s an age old question: did women dress for men or women? Do we dress for men or women now? The fashion of the late nineteenth century tried to emphasize a woman’s figure (even if it was completely covered). But I still think most women dress for the appreciation of other women. For do men really know if something is fashionable or not? Women notice. Women know.

Another reason the dressmaking shops kept busy was the summer season. Many of the members of the Four Hundred of New York society went to Newport, Rhode Island for six to eight weeks at the end of every summer. There, amid the cool ocean breezes, they created another version of society, with as many rules and standards as they had in the city. Each woman needed nearly thirty new outfits for this season.

That’s the starting point in An Unlikely Suitor. A mother and daughter enter Madame Moreau’s in need of an entirely new wardrobe…only the daughter suffers from an infirmity that causes her dresses to hang oddly. Enter the heroine, Lucy Scarpelli to find a sewing solution. And so a friendship between immigrant seamstress and wealthy heiress is born . . . and continues as Lucy gets a chance to join Rowena in Newport. It’s a classic premise of friendship between a poor girl and a rich girl, set amid the lavish opulence of Newport, with the breeze blowing off the Cliff Walk, and handsome young men with time on their hands . . . Trust me, the story is well . . . sewn.//Nancy

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Fickle Fashion


Summer makes me think about the fashion of the past. How at ease we are now. How comfortable.  It wasn't always so...

It’s said that women are slaves to fashion. Unfortunately, it’s a very true statement. Here are a few cases that show how fickle women’s fashion has been through the ages, and how we women have meekly followed the trends:

Ruff-Ruff: It’s said Queen Elizabeth I was often sewn into her clothes (it would be 300 years before the zipper made dressing easy.) But beyond that tidbit, I don’t understand the ruff from this era. In order to get fabric to hold its form it has to be stiff. Perhaps this is where the phrase, “Keep your chin up” came about. At least men were subjected too. Enough ruff.

The Anchor Skirt: That’s not a real term, just my take on the shape of the ridiculous side-contraptions that swept through Europe from Russia to France in the last half of the eighteenth century. I understand women often try to camouflage their hips, but please. Didn’t they get tired of entering a room sideways? See 18th Century Fashion
The Great Reveal: After the American and French Revolutions, fashion said off-with-your-head to any dress that required blueprints to create and to wear. The result was gowns that let the skirt fall free from an “empire” waist. As a result, women were discovered to have legs! It seemed as though a dose of reason had finally taken over fashion. But stupidity was just around the corner …  See Regency Fashion

Idiot Sleeves: I didn’t name this one—it’s the real name of the huge sleeves of the Romantic Era of fashion (1825-35). Skirts were simpler but full again—though sometimes they were short enough to reveal a woman’s ankle. Apparently the cling of the full leg of the previous Regency fashion was too much to bear. Or too tempting?See Vintage Fashion

Frankly My Dear: Hoops. Big ones. A hundred years earlier, women had to walk sideways through doors. Now they had to watch how they sat down or the entire world would get a show. At least this style gave women a pretty bell silhouette. Ding-dong-ding swung the bell as they walked.See 1860's Fashion

Baby Got Back: The 1870’s and 80’s brought about the bustle. Padding and cages and over-draping and flounces, pushing out the back of the dresses. Now women had to sit on the edge of their chairs to leave room for what was behind. Backless bustle-chairs were created to solve this problem. At least when they walked there was a nice sway. See 1870's Fashion  See 1880's Fashion

Baa-Baa: The leg-o-mutton sleeves of the 1890’s made wearing a coat difficult. Supposedly the enormous width of a woman’s top half made her waist look tiny. Maybe I should try it. I can use all the help I can get. See 1890's Fashion

Here’s the Skinny: The second decade of the 20th century brought a skinny silhouette. Finally women could sit comfortably in a chair, walk through doorways, and not fear a high wind. Yet some of the skirts went too far (surprise, surprise) and the “hobble skirt” was born. It’s self-explanatory. See Edwardian Fashion

Dapper Flapper: WWI was over, Europe was free of its oppressors (for the moment) and women took note and freed themselves from corsets, hoops, waistlines, as well as sleeves and long skirts. Bare arms, shoulders, knees, and calves. Yikes! Fabrics were sheer and flowing—great for dancing the Charleston, smoking cigarettes, and drinking a dry martini. See 1920's Fashion

The Pants in the Family: The forties had women taking on men’s jobs while the men were at war. Again. With the responsibilities came the ease of menswear. Finally women were allowed to wear pants! No one wore menswear better than Katherine Hepburn.
See 1940's Fashion

Corsets Again?: From the fabric rationing of WWII came the circle skirts of the fifties. And small waists and pronounced bosoms. Think Deborah Kerr’s wardrobe in “Indiscreet” and "An Affair to Remember." Dreamy. All girl. This would be my choice for fashion. It was fabulously pretty and elegant. Of course, this was also the age of Cary Grant and all his luscious movies, so I can’t be certain he’s not  a big part of my choice. See 1950's Fashion

Hobble Skirts II: Pencil skirts accentuated the bottom half and sweaters and cone-like bras accentuated the top. Girdles were essential. No thanks.

Jackie Oh!: Our first lady was the epitome of class in her tailored suits and sheath dresses. But Mod was also in, and took the sheath to higher heights. Our favorite girl was “That Girl” Marlo Thomas.
See 1960's Fashion
Dippie Hippie: The seventies was all about one thing: anything goes. Mini’s, maxi’s, midi’s. Caftans, bell bottoms, granny dresses, gypsy skirts, polyester knit, and psychedelic tie-dye (I wore them all.) It was grungy and dirty and unkempt, but it was oh-so comfy. But would comfy ever coincide with classy?  See 1970's Fashion

Power Woman: I hate to admit it, but I still have a few suits from the eighties. How do I know they’re from that era? The ridiculous shoulder pads and stupid neck ties—tied in bows. Women were trying too hard to look powerful. Yuck. Yuck. Yuck.  I need to call Goodwill for a pickup.

And now . . . Oddly, it’s hard for me to pinpoint fashion right now. Comfort is in, but pants are skinny and wide, long or capris. I have dresses that are reminiscent of the 20’s, 40’s, and beyond. Fashionable boots have high heels or we wear flip-flops. It’s almost hard to wear something that’s out of style. As I sit here in my jeans, sandals, and corsetless torso I can count myself lucky that fashion is one element of my life that I don’t stress over. Have we women finally—finally—found enough confidence to make our own choices? Perhaps. Until the next fashion show piques our interest. Just no hoops please.//Nancy

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Pioneers and "the Glorious Fourth"

--Summer Greetings from Stephanie Grace Whitson

 How's your summer going? I can hardly believe it's time for back to school sales ... and for me to have not one but TWO grandchildren old enough to start school. Where did the last six year go? But before school starts, we'll be heading to a family reunion "on the beach." While it takes some forethought to manage it, an eight-hour drive for fun isn't really all that unusual for today's families. Back in the 1800s, such a trip would be unthinkable. But that doesn't mean our pioneer foremothers didn't know how to party. July 4 was a huge day for Nebraska'a pioneers. 

“Now, therefore, I, Silas Garber, governor of the state of Nebraska … do declare said county to be temporarily organized … this twenty-seventh day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand either hundred and seventy-seven, and of the independence of the United State the one hundred and first, and of this state, the eleventh.” Thus was Custer County, Nebraska, officially created. It’s interesting that the 2,592 square mile county’s first official document references Independence Day.
             Custer County was a hard place to eke out a living. Houses were built from the prairie sod, and homemakers waged a constant battle against fleas, frogs, and snakes. One early Easter Sunday, neighbors got together with guns, revolvers, rifles, spades, and garden rakes, and killed 133 rattlers. In one day.
            Even in those early days, though, when towns were little more than a few ramshackle buildings squatting on open prairie, celebrating July 4 was an important event. Early photographer Solomon Butcher photographed one such celebration in 1886. You can see the photograph here:
            One pioneer woman remembered a basket dinner on her first Fourth of July—and the singing of patriotic songs by a chorus. She also mentioned “funny stories told to keep up our morale.” A popular song originally titled “The Beautiful Valley of Eden” became “The Beautiful Valley of Clear Creek” in honor of a new settlement.
            Estell Chrisman Laughlin remembered the “hustle and bustle or preparation a week or so beforehand,” as mothers sewed new dresses for their daughters and cotton suits for their sons. Another woman reminisced, “Mothers spent days sewing, washing, ironing, making button holes, and sewing on buttons, starching and ironing petticoats as stiff as sunbonnets. We wore two or three of those petticoats, ruffles and all. We listened for the guns at sunrise on the Fourth of July morning. There were horse races and baseball games, dancing all afternoon and night, speaking, and other entertainments.”
            Families arrived in town early to select a meeting place for dinner, which consisted of “great quantities of fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, sandwiches, brownstone front cake, and gooseberry and raspberry pie—the contents of the pies having been diligently gathered from canyons and creek banks by children … Each housewife wished to impress the others with her culinary proficiency.” Sometimes the lemonade might even be chilled with ice, cut the prior winter and stacked in an ice house or barn, protected from melting for as long as possible by being covered over with straw and gunny sacking.
            Mrs. Laughlin remembered a Judge Matthews who “reeked of tobacco,” but was popular with the children, “for he could write our named in red and blue fancy script on a little card which he decorated with a graceful winging bird holding a scroll in its beak.”

            In the afternoon, the speaker of the day would “discourse in loud, stentorian tones upon patriotism and what our forefathers had done for us. Old Glory floated aloft in the hot summer air. The people sat about on plank seats, patiently listening and fanning themselves. … When the departing fingers of sunlight withdrew through the trees, there was a general roundup of children. We stowed ourselves into carriages, spring wagons, or lumber wagons, where we sat in all dignity on kitchen chairs, as we departed homeward, tired and happy after a glorious Fourth.” 

I hope your summer has had some "happy and glorious" moments.
Here's one of mine (below)