June 4, 2013
Frenchman René Lacoste was a superstar tennis player. In 1926 and 1927, he was ranked number one in the world, and during his tennis career, he won seven Grand Slam championship tournaments. But he found the attire associated with the sport restrictive. Tennis whites, as they were called, consisted of a white, long-sleeved button-down shirt, long pants and a tie. It was a lot of clothing to wear when racing to the net to make an overhead shot.
Lacoste was seeking a shirt that was more accommodating to movement. In a 1979 article from People magazine, he elaborated:
“One day I noticed my friend the Marquis of Cholmondeley wearing his polo shirt on the court,” remembers René. ” ‘A practical idea,’ I thought to myself.” It was so practical, in fact, that René commissioned an English tailor to whip up a few shirts in both cotton and wool. “Soon everyone was wearing them,” he smiles.
One school of thought attributes the shirt’s invention to meeting the needs of British polo players in India in the 19th century. The style was emulated in the U.S. by John Brooks, grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers, after he saw polo players wearing the shirts in England in the late 1800s–hence, the reason we still call it a polo shirt today. It was also referred to as a tennis shirt—piqué knit cotton, short-sleeved, unstarched collar, a placket opening with buttons at the neck, and a “tennis tail” to help keep the shirt tucked in. (That tail even made an impression on artist-poet Joe Brainard, who, in his book-length poem I Remember includes the line: “I remember when those short-sleeved knitted shirts with long tails (to wear ‘out’) with little embroidered alligators on the pockets were popular.”) In 1926, Lacoste first sported the shirt when he played in the U.S. Open in New York City.
The American press dubbed him the Alligator in ’27, after he wagered for an alligator-skin suitcase with the captain of the French Davis Cup team. When he returned to France, “alligator” became “crocodile,” and Lacoste was known forever after as the Crocodile.
Not only did he embrace the nickname, but he went all out and had a logo of the reptile embroidered onto his blazer. It became his personal brand before there was such a thing.
Once he retired from tennis in the early 1930s, he started the company La Chemise Lacoste with his pal André Gillier, president of the largest French knitwear company at the time, to produce and sell crocodile-emblazoned shirts. The Lacoste tennis shirt made its way to the United States in 1952 and was carefully branded as “the status symbol of the competent sportsman,” an attempt to establish Lacoste in the upper echelons of society.
But, you’re confused, right? Isn’t the crocodile logo associated with Izod? That’s where things get complicated. Lacoste wound up in the United States because it had licensed its brand to Izod (then called Izod of London), which had been seeking out an upscale product.
Izod Lacoste, as the brand became known, initially looked like a flop; there weren’t many customers in the early ’50s for a pricey polo shirt (about $8 then) with a small crocodile sewn onto the chest. But Vincent De Paul Draddy, who originally licensed the Lacoste name for Izod, had a brilliant idea. He provided Izod Lacoste swag to some of his famous buddies, including JFK, President Eisenhower and Bing Crosby, and from there, the shirts caught on, and became easy to find in department stores. People were happy to wear them, especially if the rich and famous were already fans.
In the 1970s and ’80s, sporting an Izod, as the shirts became known, spanned across generations. Teenagers, and particularly those who wanted to assume a preppy look, embraced the style, even popping the collar to assume the full Biff and Muffy look. (See the 1980 book The Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach, for more on how the Izod shirt was a key ingredient to achieving that look, or listen to Three 6 Mafia’s Poppin’ My Collar from 2006 for a more contemporary interpretation.)
By the early 1990s, the trend was fading. Lacoste and Izod parted ways in 1993 (Lacoste went further upscale; Izod became more moderately priced and abandoned the crocodile.)
Over the years, the shirt and its iconic logo spawned many imitators and admirers. Designers and brands from diverse price points have taken to embroidering animals onto polo shirts: ponies (Ralph Lauren), marlins (Tommy Bahama), eagles (American Eagle), and even the crocodile itself! The Chinese-based company, Crocodile Garments, was locked in a legal battle with Lacoste over the rights to the crocodile for over a decade until, in 2003, Crocodile Garments conceded to changing its logo. According to CNN, the settlement stated that Crocodile Garments would “have a croc with a tail which rises more or less vertically and it has skin which is much more scaly. It also has bigger eyes.”
Not only was Lacoste, who passed away in 1996, around to see multiple animal-emblazoned polo shirt imitators, but he also was privy to the fashion evolution that took place on the courts–from the whitest of full-coverage tennis whites to the shortest of itty-bitty tennis shorts (thanks, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors).
May 16, 2013
In modern slang, a “creeper” is that odd, socially awkward guy you know from the office, dorm, neighborhood, local restaurant. You can also call him a creep. A couple of years ago, Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island crew premiered the digital short called “The Creep,” with filmmaker and creeper John Waters, on “Saturday Night Live,” spawning a series of YouTube imitators mimicking the stilted, zombielike dance.
Going back 50 years, another dance spawned a different sort of “creeper.” The dance was done to the 1953 hit ”The Creep,” from big-band leader Ken Mackintosh. A slow shuffle movement, it was embraced by a subculture called the Teddy Boys, who became known as creepers.
The Teddy Boys first appeared after World War II, with roots dating back to the Edwardian era. In addition to distinguishing themselves by their musical preferences, Teddy Boys made themselves known through their dandy-like sartorial choices that referenced the early 20th century. A popular look included drainpipe pants with exposed socks, tailored drapey jackets, button-down shirts, brogues, Oxfords or crepe-soled shoes. Those ridged, thick-crepe-soled shoes with suede or leather uppers became known as “creepers” because of their association with the Creep dance (and maybe because if you misspelled crepe, you got creep?).
When British soldiers returned from World War II battlefields, they were ready to let off a little steam. Still wearing their crepe-soled, military-issued boots, they hit the London nightclubs. The shoe soon gained the moniker “brothel creepers.”
In 1949, when the U.K.-based company George Cox Footwear began designing sturdy, crepe-soled shoes, the style took off, particularly among the Teddy Boy set. With its combination of sturdy construction and “flair for originality,” the creeper became the company’s signature shoe.
In fact, this “Behind the Scenes” blog post about a current collaboration between Cox and the brand Fred Perry describes how making creepers at Cox entails meticulous handiwork that stands out among mass-manufactured goods of today. ”The company, famed for its creeper styles, utilises a production process known as Goodyear welting. The hands-on nature of this construction means that the shoes take much longer to produce than those made using wholly mechanised techniques. Whilst many modern manufactured shoes have their soles simply glued on, the Goodyear welting process involves several stages of sealing with each shoe individually finished by a skilled craftsman,” says the blog post.
After a lull in popularity, creepers re-emerged in the 1970s. We can thank Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and the punk scene for reviving the distinctively soled style, as well as cyclical fashion trends in general. The Teddy Boy was back in fashion subcultures, although it remained far from the mainstream. McLaren and Westwood’s Let It Rock shop in London, which was renamed Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, and then renamed Sex, kept the shoes in stock.
In addition to George Cox Footwear, brands like Underground and T.U.K. make creepers. They have been a mainstay in ska, punk, goth and glam for decades.
Just like punk itself, creepers have found their way onto runways, and they’ve gone more mainstream since the days of hunting them down at punk boutiques like Trash and Vaudeville on St. Marks Place in New York’s East Village. Even Rihanna is sporting them, albeit with her own rebellious take.
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 24, 2013
Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in 1818 in Virginia. Although she encountered one hardship after another, with sheer determination, a network of supporters and valuable dressmaking skills, she eventually bought her freedom from her St. Louis owners for $1,200. She made her way to Washington, D.C. in 1860 to establish her own dressmaking business and met first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
Just after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, in 1861, the FLOTUS hired Keckley (also spelled Keckly) as her personal modiste. Keckley took on the role of dressmaker, personal dresser and confidante, and the two women formed a special bond. Mary T. and Lizzy K., a new play written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, explores their relationship.
Much has been researched, written and analyzed about Keckley’s life as a result of the unusual friendship. In 1868, Keckley published a detailed account of her life in the autobiography Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. A thorough study of her dressmaking legacy is still being uncovered, though, explained Elizabeth Way, a former Smithsonian researcher and New York University costume studies graduate student who worked for the Smithsonian last summer researching Keckley.
Prompted by Mary T. and Lizzy K., which runs through May 5, 2013, at the Mead Center for American Theater at Arena Stage in Washington, Threaded spoke with Way about Keckley’s dressmaking handiwork.
Are Elizabeth Keckley designs plentiful today?
Not that many still exist actually. And even with those pieces that do exist, there’s a question as to whether they can be attributed to Keckley. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a Mary Lincoln gown, a purple velvet dress with two bodices, that the first lady wore during the second presidential inauguration. There’s a buffalo plaid green and white day dress with a cape at the Chicago History Museum. At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, you’ll find a black silk dress with a strawberry motif that you’d wear to a strawberry party, which was a 19th-century Midwestern picnic tradition, but it’s disputed as to whether or not it’s a Keckley. Penn State has a quilt that Keckley made from dress fabrics, and other items are floating around in collections. For example, Howard University has a pincushion with her name on it.
You mentioned it’s difficult to attribute clothes to Keckley. Why is that?
At the time, no labels or tags were used. And because fabric was so expensive, dresses were often taken apart and reconstructed as a completely different dress using the same material. She made clothes for many official women in Washington, so one way to determine a Keckley dress is if any of those women kept a journal and noted that kind of detail within it.
I assume she followed fashion conventions of the mid- to late 19th century, but did she have a specific style?
Her style was very pared down and sophisticated, which a lot of people don’t imagine when they think of the Victorian era. Her designs tended to be very streamlined. Not a lot of lace or ribbon. A very clean design.
How did she build such a thriving business as an African-American woman in the mid-1800s?
She was very skilled at building a client network, which was very notable considering she was a black woman and previously enslaved. She consistently made friends with the right people and got them to help her, which was not only a testament to those people, but also to her. She had incredible business savvy.
Would she sew the entire dress?
When she started out, she would do the complete dress, sew it up, add the trim, everything. As she became more successful, she was able to hire seamstresses to do some of the sewing and she trained people to help with the construction. Generally, she would work on the fit of the dresses.
Was Mary Lincoln wearing only Keckley while she was the first lady?
Mary Lincoln liked to shop. She would go to New York to shop at the department stores, which were just emerging at that time. You could buy ribbon and trim and anything unfitted, like a cape. It was just the beginning of mass production. But any kind of dress had to be made by a dressmaker because the fit was so specific that it had to be customized. Mary Lincoln was said to order 15, 16 dresses each season, which took about three months to make.
While Mary Lincoln was known, and criticized, for an overly youthful style that embraced bright colors and floral patterns, the dresses made for her by Keckley that have survived are the opposite of that style—Keckley really designed with very clean lines.
Where did Mary Lincoln, or other women for that matter, find out about fashion trends?
Fashion at this time copied France line for line. Whatever was happening at the French court was what women in D.C. wanted.
Elizabeth Keckley was an incredible businesswoman and was also known for her beauty.
In her memoir, she recalls that people thought she was beautiful. The Washington Bee, the African American newspaper, treated her like a black socialite within the African-American community. She dressed well—she was not gaudy or showy, but more pared down and refined. She was known for being elegant, upright and appropriate—the Victorian ideal.
How did that Victorian approach play into Keckley’s designs?
The Victorian ideals permeated all levels of American culture and determined what it meant to be an appropriate woman no matter who you were. There were so many social rules about what you had to wear in the daytime and nighttime, and Keckley’s garments all followed those rules, especially for Mary Lincoln, who was in the public eye so frequently.
How long would it take for Keckley to make one dress?
I’m not exactly sure. Maybe two, three weeks. To drape the fabric, cut the fabric, use a sewing machine on some parts and hand-stitch others. Also, remember—she was making multiple dresses at a time, and by the time she was a successful dressmaker in Washington, she also had seamstresses working with her.
What was Keckley most known for amongst women in Washington who wanted a dress from her?
Her fit and her adeptness when it came to draping fabric on the body. She was known to be the dressmaker in D.C. because her garments had extraordinary fit.
What were the dressmaking tools she would have been using at the time?
A rudimentary sewing machine, which is at the Chicago History Museum, pins, needles. She may have measured with inches but because that system was so new, she could have used another marking system for measurement. And she may have used a drafting system that came out in the 1820s for patternmaking.
How much was Keckley earning at the time when she was making dresses for Mary Lincoln?
When Keckley first moved to D.C. and worked as a seamstress for a dressmaker, she made $2.50 a day.
She recalls in her memoir that when she became a dressmaker, she made a dress for Anna Mason Lee who was attending a reception with the Prince of Wales in 1860, which was a very high society event in D.C. Captain Lee gave Keckley $100 to purchase lace and trim for his wife’s dress. So while that doesn’t quite speak to how much she was earning, it does put things in perspective and speak to the level of cost and the timeline of moving from a seamstress to a dressmaker. In fact, when she bought the trim from Harper Mitchell, the trim store, for Lee’s dress, the shop gave her a $25 commission for the purchase. That $25 was already ten times what she was making as a seamstress when she first came to Washington. Working as a dressmaker was the highest-paying opportunity women had during that time period, and Keckley’s dresses were known to be very expensive, the envy of women in Washington.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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