April 16, 2013
A fashion spread, Hollywood movie or advertisement usually doesn’t reflect with accuracy what everyday people actually wore at a given time. Historically speaking, to really get a sense of the fashions of the times, old newsreels, photojournalism and catalogs offer more true-to-life examples of what was in style.
One literary source is the book-length poem I Remember, by writer and artist Joe Brainard. When it was originally published—in three parts between 1970 and 1973 by Angel Hair Books—the small print runs sold out quickly. Most recently it’s been published by Granary Books. The 1,000 entries in this work all begin with “I remember . . .” and each describes a single memory from Brainard—growing up in Oklahoma in the 1940s, arriving in New York in the ’60s, making art, making friends, making a living.
As the poet and his lifelong friend Ron Padgett explains:
…the repetition in I Remember proved to be a springboard that allowed Joe to leap backward and forward in time and to follow one chain of associations for a while, then jump to another, the way one’s memory does. Coupled with Joe’s impulse toward openness, the I Remember form provided a way for him to lay his soul bare in a confession that is personable, moving, perceptive, and often funny.
The book is a time capsule, a beautiful and candid catalog of one person’s memories, however fleeting. Incorporated into those recollections is documentation of how people dressed—some styles are still worn today, while others were passing trends that are relegated to fashion history. They all share Brainard’s funny, insightful and accessible style. Michael Lally of The Village Voice agreed: “Joe Brainard’s memories of growing up in the ’40s and ’50s have universal appeal. He catalogues his past in terms of fashion and fads, public events and private fantasies, with such honesty and accuracy and in such abundance that, sooner or later, his history coincides with ours and we are hooked.” What follows are a selection of favorites:
I remember sack dresses.
I remember pill box hats.
I remember thinking how embarrassing it must be for men in Scotland to have to wear skirts.
I remember old women’s flesh-colored hose you can’t see through.
I remember when girls wore lots of can can slips. It got so bad (so noisy) that the principal had to put a limit on how many could be worn. I believe the limit was three.
I remember when “beehives” got really out of hand.
I remember when those short-sleeved knitted shirts with long tails (to wear “out”) with little embroidered alligators on the pockets were popular.
I remember plain camel hair coats that rich girls in high school wore.
I remember having a crush on a boy in my Spanish class who had a pair of olive green suede shoes with brass buckles just like a pair I had. (“Flagg Brothers.”) I never said one word to him the entire year.
I remember sweaters thrown over shoulders and sunglasses propped on heads.
If, after reading I Remember, you crave more information about the work and life of Joe Brainard, who passed away in 1994, watch filmmaker Matt Wolf’s short documentary I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard. Described on the website as “an elliptical dialog about friendship, nostalgia, and the strange wonders of memory,” the film combines archival images, audio recordings of Brainard, and an interview with poet Ron Padgett. Download the film here or check it out at the following upcoming screenings:
April 18 – 28, 2013
Festival IndieLisboa, Portugal
April 25, 26, 27, 2013
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Screening Times TBA
April 5, 2013
Have a look at the paintings of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and other Cubist painters whose work included hard, geometric forms and visible lines. As these artists were working in their studios, fashion designers, particularly those in France, were taking cues from their paintings. With la garçonne (the flapper, in French) in mind, the designers created fashions with the clean lines and angular forms we now associate with the 1920s-and with Cubism.
The styles we’ve come to connect with Louise Brooks, Norma Talmadge, Colleen Moore and other American actresses on the silver screen in the Jazz Age can be traced back to Europe, and more specifically, a few important designers.
- Jean Patou, known for inventing knit swimwear and women’s tennis clothes, and for promoting sportswear in general (as well as creating the first suntan oil), helped shape the 1920s silhouette. Later in the decade, he revolutionized hemlines once again by dropping them from the knee to the ankle.
- Elsa Schiaparelli’s career built momentum in the ’20s with a focus mostly on knitwear and sportswear (her Surrealism-influenced garments like the lobster dress and shoe hat came later, in the 1930s).
- Coco Chanel and her jersey knits, little back dress and smart suits, all with clean, no-nonsense lines, arrived stateside along with Chanel No. 5 perfume and a desire for a sun-kissed complexion in the early 1920s.
- Madeleine Vionnet made an impression with the bias-cut garment, or a garment made using fabric cut against the grain so that it skimmed the wearer’s body in a way that showed her shape more naturally. Vionnet’s asymmetrical handkerchief dress also became a classic look from that time.
- Jeanne Lanvin, who started off making children’s clothing, made a name for herself when her wealthy patrons began requesting their own versions. Detailed beading and intricate trim became signatures of her designs.
As these designers were breaking new ground (and for some, that began in the 1910s), their looks slowly permeated mainstream culture and made their way across the pond. One of the best ways to see how these couturiers’ pieces translated into clothing with mass appeal is to look at a Sears catalog from the 1920s, which was distributed to millions of families across the United States. As Stella Blum explained in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties:
. . . mail-order fashions began to fall behind those of Paris and by 1930 the lag increased to about two years. Late and somewhat diluted, the style of the period nevertheless touched even the cheapest wearing apparel. The art movements in Paris and the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 managed eventually to make their influence felt on the farms of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, and in the ghettos of the large cities.
Ordinary Parisians were almost completely over wearing the knee-length, dropped-waisted dresses by the mid- to late 1920s, but in the United States, the style was increasing in popularity. In Flapper Jane, an article in the September 9, 1925, issue of the New Republic, Bruce Bliven wrote:
These [styles] which I have described are Jane’s clothes, but they are not merely a flapper uniform. They are The Style, Summer of 1925 Eastern Seaboard. These things and none other are being worn by all of Jane’s sisters and her cousins and her aunts. They are being worn by ladies who are three times Jane’s age, and look ten years older; by those twice her age who look a hundred years older.
The flapper look was ubiquitous enough to make its way into illustrations and comics. The comic strip “Flapper Fanny Says” tracked the trials and tribulations of the eternally young and somewhat androgynously stylish Fanny. The invention of cartoonist Ethel Hays in 1924, the strip remained in print into the 1940s under different artists.
Around that time, John Held Jr.’s drawings of long-legged, slim-necked, bobbed-haired, cigarette-smoking flappers were making the covers of Life and the New Yorker. His vibrant illustrations, along with those of Russell Patterson and Ralph Barton, captured the exuberant lifestyle–and clothing style–of the time.
Looking back, we can now see how art inspired the decade’s fashion trends and how those fashions fueled a lifestyle. That, in turn, came just about full circle to be reflected in yet another form of visual representation—illustrated depictions of the freewheeling flapper culture—that kept the momentum of the decade going.
January 22, 2013
It was 1991: “Roseanne was on TV, Terminator 2 was on the big screen, Color Me Badd was on the radio and Hypercolor t-shirts were on the backs of millions of middle- and high school-age kids across America.
The Hypercolor fad gripped the nation that year, thanks to the Seattle-based sportswear company that created them, Generra. In fact, in a brief three-month span, between February and May 1991, the company sold a whopping $50 million worth of color-changing, heat-sensitive T-shirts, shorts, pants, sweatshirts and tights.
In addition to its color-morphing cool factor, the “mood-ring of the ’90s” also had game-changing potential for a young adult brimming with hormones. Imagine: You could walk up to your crush in the hallway between classes, take note of the shirt he or she was wearing emblazoned with “Hypercolor,” casually place your hand on him or her, and the warmth of your touch would change the shirt’s color before the eyes of both of you. Let the sparks fly!
Besides functioning as a flirtation device, Hypercolor was a mysteriously rad technology you could wear on your back for about $20. But how simple was it?
The “Metamorphic Color System,” as Generra cryptically called the manner in which body heat (or excessive perspiration, for those unfortunately prone to sweaty armpits) changed the fabric’s color using thermochromatic pigments as its special sauce. Mental Floss explains that the shirts were dyed twice: first with a permanent dye and again with a thermochromatic dye. The thermochromic dye is usually a mixture of a leuco dye, a weak acid, and salt. (Leuco dye is also used on the side of a Duracell battery to see if it’s still charged or on food packaging to gauge temperature.)
When the shirt heated up or cooled down, the molecules in the dye changed shape and shifted from absorbing light to releasing it, making the color transform, as if by magic!
Sadly, though, after a handful of washes, or one laundering misstep in too-hot water, the magic powers faded and the shirt froze permanently into a purple-brown mushy color.
But that wasn’t Hypercolor’s only misfortune. As a result of mismanagement and overproduction, Generra couldn’t handle its overnight success and declared bankruptcy only a year later, in 1992. An article in the Seattle Times in 1992, Generra: Hot Start, Then Cold Reality—Company Reflects Industry’s Woes, recounts company principal Steven Miska saying, ”We tried to make too much product available in too short a period of time.” If he could do it again, Miska said, he would have limited distribution, “which would have done a lot to prolong the life of the product.”
Hypercolor went the way of Color Me Badd: from Casey Kasem’s Top 40 to a one-hit wonder.
Attempts to reinvigorate the brand, the concept or the lifestyle—if you were a real Hypercolor fanatic—never quite gained the momentum of the initial early ’90s fad. Around 2008, Puma, American Apparel and other indie designers dipped their toes into the color-changing concept with sneakers, T-shirts and scarves, but the “special effects garments” as Body Faders calls current-day Hypercolor have nowhere near the cachet they had a couple decades ago.
December 14, 2012
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
– A Visit From Saint Nicholas
As far back as 1823, when Clement Clarke Moore (or possibly Henry Livingston Jr.) wrote “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” stockings were hung near the fireplace, awaiting a visit from Santa Claus. At the end of the poem, St. Nick “fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,/And laying his finger aside of his nose/And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.”
Stockings have been an essential part of the Christmas tradition for centuries (except, briefly, in the mid-1800s, when the New York Times wrote that Christmas trees almost completely supplanted them as the tradition of choice).
The most popular legend about why stockings are hung at Christmas goes something like this: A recently widowed man and father of three girls was having a tough time making ends meet. Even though his daughters were beautiful, he worried that their impoverished status would make it impossible for them to marry.
St. Nicholas was wandering through the town where the man lived and heard villagers discussing that family’s plight. He wanted to help but knew the man would refuse any kind of charity directly. Instead, one night, he slid down the chimney of the family’s house and filled the girls’ recently laundered stockings, which happened to be drying by the fire, with gold coins. And then he disappeared.
The girls awoke in the morning, overjoyed upon discovering the bounty. Because of St. Nick’s generosity, the daughters were now eligible to wed and their father could rest easy that they wouldn’t fall into lonely despair. Whew! While obviously far-fetched, this tale of unknown origin and date is most widely referenced when it comes to the history of the Christmas stocking.
For some, the ritual has translated into hanging a nondescript sock (the bigger, the better, of course) pulled from Dad’s drawer.
For others, it has meant a personalized, decorated, maybe even handmade, foot-shaped bag hung year after year.
And sometimes, it means not hanging the stocking by a fireplace at all!
Whichever stocking set-up you prefer, there’s one more related factoid that’ll impress guests during your holiday party. Oranges tend to wind up in Christmas stockings, right? Ever wonder why? Some say it’s from a time when fresh fruit was more difficult to come by and finding an orange in your stocking was a huge treat. But a different version of that beautiful-daughters-distraught-father legend swaps the gold coins left by St. Nick with three gold balls left in each stocking. Understandably, the solid gold balls tradition isn’t so easy to replicate; that’s why their citrus look-alikes have found their way into stockings alongside tchotchkes and baubles, but hopefully not coal!
If you celebrate Christmas, what’s your stocking of choice? A tube sock, a silk stocking, the traditional red and white variety, or something else completely?
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
December 11, 2012
Spending quality time with family, drinking cider by the fire and playing Secret Santa all encourage getting into the festive holiday mood. So, too, is taking out your ugly Christmas sweaters—and, if you’re really lucky, showing off your tackiest at an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. In recent years, ugly Christmas sweaters have emerged with newfound public acceptance: They’re no longer creations made by craft store-obsessed grandmas and foisted upon family members only to wind up at a thrift store. Instead, they’ve become a cultural meme, filled to the brim with an egg nog-sized cup of irony. Even celebrities such as Matt Damon are in on the action. To capitalize on the sweaters’ popularity, a market has sprung up around this wintertime phenomenon, with books, a 5K race and trophies celebrating the Santa face plastered across your chest.
Because of their increasing popularity, the brashly festooned sweaters are harder to come by, especially in thrift stores, where it was typically easy to purchase the best (I mean, worst) option. And who really wants to buy a full-priced light-up snowman sweater that’ll be worn only once a year?
One option is to shop eBay’s dedicated ugly Christmas sweater store, where you may find yourself bidding on a pre-worn gaudy pullover.
Another option is to make a sweater from scratch. A labor of love, true, this DIY approach embraces a time when the off-the-rack, last-minute tactic wasn’t an option.
Men, women and children have been channeling the holiday spirit through sweaters adorned with snowflakes, reindeer and Christmas trees for decades. And while the garishness reached new heights in the ’80s and ’90s, even back in the ’40s and ’50s, a touch of graphic flamboyance was essential to a genuine holiday pullover. With these vintage holiday sweater knitting patterns from Etsy, along with an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party invitation on your fridge, now is just the right time to pull out your knitting needles and make something wonderfully ugly.
Any holiday sweaters catch your eye this season? Submit photos or links in the comments. The uglier the better!
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here