May 2, 2013
If you want to lose a few hours, head over to the online fashion archive of designer Zandra Rhodes.
Born in 1940 in southeast England, the pink-haired, flamboyantly dressed Rhodes was first exposed to fashion by her mother, a fitter for a Paris fashion house. She immersed herself in sartorial studies, and more specifically textile design, when she enrolled in the Medway College of Art and then the Royal College of Art before opening her own London boutique with Sylvia Ayton in 1967, the Fulham Road Clothes Shop. She got her break in 1969 when Diana Vreeland featured a few of her pieces in Vogue. From there, Rhodes began selling clothes at Henri Bendel, among other well-known boutiques, and she’s been quite prolific ever since.
Over 500 pieces from the designer’s collection and thousands of sketches spanning her almost 50-year career were made available to the public this past March in a project developed by the University for the Creative Arts in England (where she was made the school’s first chancellor in 2010 and where her mother had been a teacher when it was called Medway). While the Zandra Rhodes Digital Study Collection emphasizes Rhodes’ most prolific period, from the 1970s and into the ’80s, it also ventures back to when she began designing in the mid- to late ’60s and covers her career through the present.
She’s not only attracted attention and made a name for herself as a result of her bright shock of hair, but also because she has a keen eye for textiles, silhouette and color, and designs that are chock-full of historical references like hobble skirts of the 1910s, drop-waisted looks from the 1920s and tailored construction of the 1940s. Celebrities, dignitaries and punk luminaries including Freddy Mercury of Queen, Diana, Princess of Wales, Jacqueline Onassis and Debbie Harry all wore or have worn her designs. And she was bestowed the honor of Commander of the British Empire by the Queen in 1997!
While pieces of her collections can be found at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, this new digital collection is a one-stop archive of her work. It’s also meant to serve as a tool for fashion students. Sort through her designs by season (The Cactus Cowboy Collection! The Magic Carpet Collection! The Shell Collection!), objects, techniques, textile designs and fabrics. A series of videos, including tips on screen printing, patternmaking and hem stitching contribute to the richness of this educational resource. And “Ask Zandra” provides insightful facts and historical commentary about her collections.
Click on random collections for the most surprising, and satisfying, way to peruse the online archive. And with other archives from museums and private collections going digital, including the soon-to-be-launched Europeana Fashion, it’s only a matter of time before the fashion studies tool kit is almost entirely virtual.
To see a few Zandra Rhodes originals, check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently opened show, Punk: Chaos to Couture, open May 9 – August 14, 2013 in New York City.
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.
March 22, 2013
If your wardrobe is seriously lacking the next time you have a red carpet event on the horizon, consider taking a trip to The Way We Wore. The vintage boutique, its proprietor Doris Raymond, and her upbeat staff are the subjects of a new series called “L.A. Frock Stars,” which premiered last week on the Smithsonian Channel. Over the course of six episodes, the docu-reality show follows Doris and members of her charismatic team as they travel from California to Texas to New York on the hunt for rare fashions to stock in her Los Angeles shop.
We’re not talking run-of-the-mill thrift store finds. From beaded floor-length gowns to ostrich feather-adorned party dresses to one-of-a-kind Christian Dior jackets, the pristine garments and accessories in the LaBrea Avenue boutique have been purchased by A-list celebrities, stylists, designers, and serious vintage clothing aficionados who trust Doris’ eye. In between traveling alongside Doris on her treasure hunting shopping marathons, the viewer is exposed to educational tidbits from her encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history, a refreshing feature that distinguishes the show from its superficial, “What Not to Wear”-style reality television counterparts. We spoke with Doris to learn more about her passion for vintage.
How did you get into this line of work?
In the 1970s, I had bought a ring in the shape of a triangle with a carnelian stone and on either side of the triangle was marcasite. Someone saw it and commented, “That’s a really great Art Deco ring.” I said, “What’s Art Deco?” I went to the library and researched it, and from that research, I wanted to find out more of the context. When you get a little back story about an object, it amplifies the value and makes you appreciate it much more. So yeah, my career basically started all over a ring.
From watching the show, everything at The Way We Wore seems special – unusual, collectible, rare – and the garments have an attention to detail that we see less and less of these days. With the thousands of incredible objects you handle each year, when do pieces really stand out?
I could tell stories from the ridiculous to the sublime. Not to sound like a fashion snob, but oftentimes, the ones that blow my socks off and stick in my mind are the ones that cross the boundary from fashion into art.
One of my favorite examples is a Sonia Delaunay cloche and scarf that I bought in North Carolina about 20 years ago. Someone who had worked for me went to the State University of New York to become a curator and her first exhibition was about Sonia Delaunay. I had never heard of her until that point. The show, and her work, left quite an impression on me, especially because of Delaunay’s Cubist influences. The way she put things together was so identifiable that wouldn’t you know, six months later I’m in an antique store in North Carolina and I see this cloche and scarf and I think, “This can’t be,” but I bought it. And that began a journey of spending two years and many thousands of dollars meeting with experts on Delaunay. After two years, I received a certificate of authenticity for the cloche and scarf. I would say that was the most sublime experience.
How about something on the more ridiculous end of the spectrum?
Anything that makes me chuckle or laugh out loud is a piece that I want, either for myself or for the store. Several years ago, I was in Chicago and I bought these 1920s earmuffs and the actual ear coverings were composition faces – similar to a kewpie doll – with fur around each muff. It looked like you’re wearing heads around your head. That piece I have kept in my office.
So you’ve held onto the earmuffs, but how do you decide what to keep and what to sell?
I would say that everything from my collection is for sale because I’ve learned through the years that when you let go of something, something better will replace it. If I happen to have a client come in who is a good match for something that’s not visible in the store, I’d rather pass it on. I take on the role of foster parent. There’s nothing I can’t let go of except for my books. I keep my books because I use them for reference.
You come upon clothing that has been worn by historical figures on momentous occasions. How interested are you in the provenance of the garment?
Before I opened my store, I was a collector first. After I opened my store in L.A., I had to change my eye and my criteria for retail because 99 percent of my customers are less interested in provenance.
I recently sold two Native American garments to one of my favorite customers. A week or so after she bought it, I called her to let her know it had come from Rudolph Nureyev. The woman I got the pieces from was an extremely close friend of Nureyev’s and an executor of his estate. I thought she’d want to know. I rarely toot that horn until after it sells because I feel like the value of piece is in the garment itself, not who owned it.
Generally, it’s more widely accepted for people to wear vintage clothing these days. How have you seen the culture of vintage evolve?
There’s a reverence and respect for elements of the past regardless of the form it takes. With clothing, that appreciation has increased in the past decade because of social networks and platforms like eBay, where people began to have more exposure to the vintage clothing culture that exists. People began appreciating what was in their closets and what was in their relatives’ closets rather than just throwing everything into a dumpster, which is the way things were done in the past.
When I started wearing vintage in the late ’60s, early ’70s, my mother said, “Don’t tell people it’s used.” Buying at thrift stores was an indication that you couldn’t afford to buy new clothing. That was the case – I couldn’t afford to buy new clothing. But it wasn’t something I was embarrassed about.
Once you attach value, things change. And I think that has a lot to do with celebrity dressing, with people like Winona Ryder, Julia Roberts, and Renee Zellweger wearing vintage. It has become acceptable to wear vintage without having a stigma attached to it.
The Way We Wore boutique is on the more expensive end of the vintage clothing store spectrum with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to up to $50,000. How do you compare your shop to the thousands of other vintage shops in existence?
Unless you’ve invested time in understanding the different types of vintage, coming into a store like mine can be off-putting because every piece is curated, cleaned, repaired, and the prices reflect that. My business is for more seasoned vintage clothing shoppers who understand the value of what they’re getting.
L.A. Frock Stars airs on the Smithsonian Channel, Thursday nights at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.
March 18, 2013
Last month, Chinese school uniforms made the news. Studies had shown that possibly as many as 25,000 children in Shanghai, China, were wearing mandated uniforms that were essentially poisoning them. The fabric contained toxic aromatic amines, thought to be carcinogens and found in plastics, dyes and pesticides. Ingesting, inhaling or absorbing the chemicals is considered hazardous and some countries have banned them. Students were told to stop wearing the outfits made by Shanghai Ouxia Clothing Company until a complete investigation had taken place.
Horrifying, but not particularly surprising, considering how much China appears in the headlines for tainted products, the incident recalled a moment this past November when big, fast fashion chains were in the news for selling toxic clothes. Greenpeace published a report called Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up, in which it uncovered how retailers including Zara, H & M and Nike had been incorporating harmful dyes into fabrics. More specifically:
A total of 141 items of clothing were purchased in April 2012 in 29 countries and regions worldwide from authorised retailers. The chemicals found included high levels of toxic phthalates in four of the garments, and cancer-causing amines from the use of certain azo dyes in two garments. NPEs [nonylphenol ethoxylates] were found in 89 garments (just under two thirds of those tested), showing little difference from the results of the previous investigation into the presence of these substances in sports clothing that was conducted in 2011. In addition, the presence of many other different types of potentially hazardous industrial chemicals was discovered across a number of the products tested.
According to the Huffington Post, just over a week after Greenpeace released the report, the international clothing chain Zara, committed to changing its ways. It will ”eliminate all discharge of hazardous chemicals” by 2020, the company said.
So how far have we really come from the time when ancient Egyptians used copper and lead in their eye makeup? In the 15th to 17th centuries, Romans used variations of lead and mercury to lighten their skin. When “Irish beauty Marie Gunning (a k a the Countess of Coventry) died in 1760, the press called her a ‘victim of cosmetics.’ ”
Style has trumped safety and comfort for centuries. Even though we now know these chemicals and dyes are bad for us, they keep creeping into our clothes and makeup. Sometimes we make decisions about what to wear based on what we think looks good, and in doing so, we do more damage to ourselves than we knew was possible.
For starters, take women’s shoes. High heels may make our legs look slim and elegant, but they are also known to cause ankle and heel pain, plantar fasciitis, painful swelling of the bottom of the foot, bunions and corns. Thick wooden wedges, five-inch stilettos and the heel-less Lady Gaga variety change our posture and how we arch our posteriors.
This performance offers a stark commentary on the subject, with the model assuming egretlike movements in order to walk in a very nontraditional pair of heels.
Historically speaking, one of the best-known examples of harmful body modification is foot binding. The Chinese practice kept a woman’s feet “dainty” and “lady-like” by tightly wrapping them when she was a child to prevent natural growth. The painful process was done to secure her role in the upper echelons of society.
By grossly deforming and disabling their feet and wearing tiny, delicate shoes, women would be more attractive to their mate, they were told, and would not be expected to work. Thankfully the practice was banned in 1912 (although people continued to bind in secret). On occasion, it’s still possible to encounter a woman from an older generation in China hobbling around on bound feet.
Speaking of hobbling, how about the hobble skirt? This form of restrictive, perilous garment was popularized in the 1910s and is generally attributed to French fashion designer Paul Poiret. Skirts were long and full, and they narrowed at the hem, or even at the calf, to provide a ballooning effect.
But there’s another version of the skirt’s origin that suggests a practical side to the style. The story goes that when Mrs. Hart Berg went on a flight with the Wright brothers, the first woman to do so, she tied a rope around the bottom of her long skirt to keep it from billowing in the air. Soon the Wright brothers’ sister, Katherine Wright, did the same. The trend took off and women attempted to wear these hazardous skirts to perform everyday tasks without falling flat on their faces, as depicted in numerous news stories from the time. The style lost its luster with the advent of the car, which certainly makes sense. Imagine trying to climb into a Ford Model T with the equivalent of an unforgiving elastic band wrapped around your calves.
Finally, no overview of clothing hazards would be complete without acknowledging the corset. For hundreds of years, the corset has been worn to mask or accentuate the natural curves of a woman’s, or man’s, body. With whalebone or metal boning and tight-lacing, the body-binders prompted medical professionals, especially in the 1800s, to try to bring an end to their use, explaining that they hindered muscle development, mobility and, well, the ability to breathe. The doctors were on to something, but, as was the case with bound feet, many women weren’t ready to give up the body-shaper because, they, or society, preferred the corseted shape over their natural one.
What are examples of dangerous or precarious clothes, shoes or underwear you’ve worn, purposefully – or unbeknownst to you? (Take the case of Isadora Duncan, who was strangled by her scarf.) Or, what do you try to stay away from?
Thanks, Laura Jane Kenny!
December 28, 2012
What do Michael Jackson, King Tut and Leonardo da Vinci have in common? A penchant for sequins.
At some point between 1480 and 1482, Leonardo whipped together a sketch for a machine that, using levers and pulleys, would punch small disks out of a metal sheet.
Since the device was never actually made, we don’t know if the Renaissance jack-of-all-trades dreamt it up to glamourize the gamurra, a typical women’s dress of the time, or if it had some greater utilitarian purpose.
Going back centuries before Leonard, there’s Tutankhamun (1341 B.C.-1323 B.C.). When King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922, gold sequinlike disks were found sewn onto the Egyptian royal’s garments. It’s assumed they’d ensure he’d be financially and sartorially prepared for the afterlife.
Sewing precious metals and coins onto clothing wasn’t just prepping for the hereafter. In fact, the origins of the word “sequin” have always referenced wealth. The Arabic word sikka means “coin” or “minting die.” During the 13th century, gold coins produced in Venice were known as zecchino. For centuries, variations of sikka and zecchino were used in Europe and the Middle East. Incidentally, in England, they’re not sequins—they’re spangles.
Sewing gold and other precious metals onto clothing was multifunctional, serving as a status symbol, a theft deterrent or a spiritual guide. Especially for those with more nomadic lifestyles, coins were kept close to the body and attached to clothes (see example above). In addition to safekeeping valuables, sequined clothing doubled as ostentatious displays of wealth in places like Egypt, India and Peru and, with their glaring sheen, they were meant to ward off evil spirits.
An example of how we wear sequins today comes from the Plimoth Plantation women’s waistcoat. The museum website explains, “These fashionable items of dress were popular in the first quarter of the 17th century for women of court, the nobility and those who had achieved a certain level of wealth.” The jacket, a reproduction of a garment at the Victoria and Albert Museum, includes an astonishing 10,000 sequins hand-stitched by volunteers using a historic technique.
The reflective bits of metal—sewn onto the Plimoth jacket and dresses, bonnets and other jackets during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—made the garments and accessories look fancy. And that trend grew exponentially after the discovery of sequins in King Tut’s tomb. The round disks became all the rage on garments in the 1920s and were typically made of metal. (Imagine a flapper dancing in a dress weighed down by thousands of metal sequins.)
In the 1930s, a process to electroplate gelatin (hello, Jell-O…) produced a lighter-weight version of the shiny metal disks. But one major obstacle (besides the color being lead-based) was that the gelatin sequins were finicky; they would melt if they got wet or too warm. So getting caught in a thunderstorm could leave you in a sequinless sheath. Or, as the blog Fashion Preserved mentioned, “missing sequins can tell tales.” For instance, the warmth of a dance partner’s clammy hand on the back of a dress could melt the sequins. While not viable for their longevity on clothing, today they’ve become known for their edibility; it’s easy to find recipes to make palatable (although definitely not vegan) sequins from gelatin to decorate cakes and assorted baked goods.
The guy behind our contemporary understanding of sequins is Herbert Lieberman. After realizing that gelatin sequins wouldn’t do the trick, he worked with Eastman Kodak, a company that had begun using acetate in its film stock in the 1930s (acetate film is a specific type of plastic material called cellulose acetate) to develop acetate sequins. They looked beautiful but were still fragile. As Lieberman told Fanzine magazine:
“The light would penetrate through the color, hit the silver, and reflect back,” he says. “Like you painted a mirror with nail polish.” Brilliant, but brittle. “Acetate will crack like glass. The harder the plastic, the nicer the sequin’s going to be.”
In 1952, DuPont invented Mylar and that changed the sequin game yet again. The largest sequin producer, the Lieberman-owned company Algy Trimmings Co., now based in Hallandale Beach, Florida, adopted the transparent polyester film. Mylar surrounded the plastic colored sequin and protected it from the washing machine. Voila! Or, sort of.
Eventually the Mylar-acetate combination was discarded for vinyl plastic. More durable and cost effective, yes. (Although we now know that eventually the vinyl plastic curls and loses its shape.) Just as sparkly? Not quite, but good enough.
Which brings us to Michael Jackson one night in 1983 when he performed “Billie Jean” and premiered the moonwalk. He wore a black sequin jacket along with his iconic rhinestone glove (see first image in post), a look that made a lasting impression on the 47 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special. But that wasn’t the last time he’d be covered in shiny platelets. How about when he met the president of the United States in 1984 wearing a military-style, sequin jacket? Or on the HIStory world tour when he wore a white sequin number?
Melting, edible disks be damned, sequins are here to stay (and who knows what they’ll be made from 50 years from now). Yes, we expect to see them on a New Year’s Eve dress, but we’ve also grown accustomed to seeing them emblazoned on a basic white T-shirt or pair of flats. With accessibility comes diluted trends and with that comes, well, shapeless Uggs boots covered in what was once a symbol of attention-grabbing glamour.