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
December 3, 2012
As the sun dips below the ocean’s horizon on a cruise ship, swimsuits and flip-flops give way to the evening’s dictated dress code. Depending on the cruise, that means suits or tuxedos for men and formal gowns or cocktail dresses for women. The dining room code, in contrast to the informality elsewhere on the ship, is a relic of another time.
Ship dining rooms were formal from the start, at the beginning of the 20th century. They reflected the lavish lifestyle that their wealthy transatlantic passengers enjoyed on land and the attire that was typical when high society dined at home. Men wore black tie and women donned floor-length gowns and jewels.
As the cruise industry expanded its reach to the middle class, and vacationing on a boat became accessible to the masses, the practice of formal dining was maintained. No matter that wearing a tux to supper wasn’t a normal way of life on land; on a ship, it was meant to make the vacationer feel transported to the upper echelons of society. Pop culture acknowledged it, too: ”The Love Boat,” a kitschy early -’80s television show from which a generation’s cruise wear assumptions were derived, kept the formal look alive (while keeping bow ties oversized and hair feathered). Season 9 of “Murder, She Wrote” had a Caribbean cruise murder mystery episode in 1993, with Angela Lansbury donning her dinnertime finest.
These days, dress codes on cruise ships have loosened somewhat. Many cruises no longer require formal attire nightly. Dinner attire is often classified as formal, informal or casual (or optional dress, but that’s another story). With our increasingly casual culture (pajamas on a plane?), it’s remarkable that these oversized floating amusement parks for kids and adults alike have retained such a vestige from the past.
In the footnotes of his essay that’s critical of cruise ships, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace implores readers to bring formalwear on a cruise after he did not heed the cruise’s dress code and suffered the consequences:
I … decided in advance that the idea of Formalwear on a tropical vacation was absurd, and I steadfastly refused to buy or rent a tux and go through the hassle of trying to figure out how even to pack it. I was both right and wrong: yes, the Formalwear thing is absurd, but since every Nadirite except me went ahead and dressed up in absurd Formalwear on Formal nights, I—having, of course, ironically enough spurned a tux precisely because of absurdity-considerations—was the one who ends up looking absurd.
If David Foster Wallace or the Simpsons or the shift toward casual dress permeating all other aspects of our lives have anything to do with it, it won’t be long before the only tuxedo jacket worn on a cruise will be one that’s printed on a T-shirt.
November 19, 2012
We can offer our gratitude this Thanksgiving to the English inventor Thomas Hancock for allowing our clothes to give a little as we indulge in a holiday feast. Without Hancock, we might not have elastic. And without elastic, this holiday could be very uncomfortable.
Hancock was a key player in establishing the British rubber industry. While patenting and producing elastic fastenings for gloves, suspenders and stockings in 1820, he was struck by how much rubber he was wasting. An early environmentalist, he invented a machine called the masticator that shreds scraps of rubber and allows those remnants to be recycled. Fun fact: Before patenting the masticator (how aptly named for Thanksgiving!), he called it the “pickling machine” to keep his invention a secret.
Hancock went on to create waterproof fabrics alongside Charles Macintosh, and from that collaboration, the classic mackintosh coat was born. Meanwhile, advances in rubber production moved forward. Decades later, elastic, and the rubber that’s key to its existence, has quietly established itself as an essential ingredient in the upcoming holiday, right alongside cranberries and stuffing.
With Turkey Day only a few days away, what follows are a handful of holiday attire suggestions to make the season of eating more comfortable—inspired by vintage fashion ads all emphasizing a certain stretch factor.
But first, if you absolutely refuse to let your holiday heft win, strap yourself into a girdle to maintain your svelte, girded shape. And good luck.
To those of us who have come to accept that we’ll be consuming more than usual, before you fill up your plate, consider doing a little stretching to ease yourself into the meal.
Speaking of undergarments, make sure yours have a comfortable enough waistband for the meal ahead (cowboy hat optional).
For utmost comfort, sweatpants, with their forgiving waistbands, provide the flexibility you’ll need to go back for seconds and thirds (sweatband optional).
Not feeling the dressed-down look? How about a slinky shift with adjustable lace sides for adding or losing a dress size as needed?
Or, for convenience sake, keep your spandex aerobics gear on throughout the meal. Plan a trip to the gym as soon as the festivities conclude.
And when all else fails, throw on a muu-muu-like robe.
October 29, 2012
It wouldn’t be Halloween without masks. Jokers, scary clowns, gorillas and, when the presidential election converges with Halloween, tricker-or-treaters in presidential candidate masks (the Nixon mask never gets old) come out in all their anonymous glory.
Pop culture aside, masks have been around for thousands of year. In fact, the oldest preserved mask is about 9,000 years old. That said, it’s assumed that masks were made centuries and centuries prior. Used for ceremonies and rituals, decoration, camouflage, entertainment (comedy and tragedy drama masks, of course), sport and protection, they’re handy, multipurpose accessories worn to mourn the dead, celebrate festive occasions and fight in wrestling matches.
But on Halloween, they’re worn to frighten, caricature, mock or disguise. The transformative quality of masks is particularly striking when donned by innocent-looking children. It’s always been that way. In fact, looking at old black-and-white photos of unnamed children in unknown locations posing in their Halloween costumes and masks is creepy.
No matter if Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck is obscuring their faces, the children, and the photos they inhabit, feel ghost-like, removed and haunted. For the most part, that can be attributed to the masks concealing their smiling faces. But for others, their stoicism is puzzling.
What are they thinking? Expressionless and blank in their masks, they are seemingly lacking the childhood joy we associate with the holiday. If they knew just how zombie-like they looked, would they still wear them?
August 31, 2012
As Labor Day approaches and summer sadly draws to a close, Threaded’s Swimsuit Series nears its end. But before we pack up our beach towels and boogie boards, let’s take a dip (I know, I know!) into the Smithsonian’s assorted collections.
Ads, old photos, and even swimsuit competitions can trace the history of bathing suits. But so can depictions of bathing suits in art. In fact, as I mentioned in the first Swimsuit Series post, it was a mosaic found in a cave that first showed women donning bathing suit-like garments in the fourth century A.D.
From the Smithsonian’s vast offerings, we can learn about bathing suit styles and trends by the way they’ve been represented in paintings, drawings, prints, etchings and sculptures. And, in the process, the lives these artists’ led. In the sixth part of this series (links to the other posts can be found below), we’re showcasing works of ladies in wading.
This wood engraving on paper depicts the supine wife of Howard Cook, who is likely wearing a wool swimsuit along with her bathing cap. The Smithsonian provides a biography of Cook, including how he made the move to New York from New Mexico after he received a whopping $500 scholarship to attend the Art Students League. In its collection, the Smithsonian also held onto a letter from Howard and his wife, artist Barbara Latham, to their friends, the painters John Taylor and Andrée Ruellan, dated 1976, a casual, handwritten note that offers a peek into his everyday life.
Does the red sweatband on this carved wood figure indicate that this suited, curvacious gal was, in fact, representing the ’70s? In contrast to Farrah Fawcett and her red suit, the modest bathing suit style and matching beach shoes suggest otherwise.
The painter behind this watercolor portrait of yet another red-suited woman, William Johnson had a long career that ended sadly, but it could have been worse. In fact, there’s a chance that we may never have seen his work at all. Luckily, it was salvaged by friends and acquired by the Smithsonian:
Johnson spent his last twenty-three years in a state hospital on Long Island. By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. After his death, his entire life’s work was almost disposed of to save storage fees, but it was rescued by friends at the last moment. Over a thousand paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum.
This John Wesley in not the 18th century Church of England cleric and founder of the Methodist church that Google may want you to believe. Instead, he’s a Pop painter with surrealist leanings, which, from this undated serigraph of a sleeping/floating/dreaming bikini-clad, heel-wearing figure levitating over a series of rhinos, rings true.
This lithograph, bosomy broads and all, reminds me of family vacations to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Sitting on a shmatte, as my grandmother referred to our old-comforter-turned-beach-blanket, or shirking the sun under the umbrella, every summer of my childhood, my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins would gather together on the sand, amidst the smells of french fries, suntan lotion and the ocean, all the while immersed in our own worlds. Sand shovels, straw hats, a cooler of sandwiches, and beach reading included.
As distressingly mysterious as this painting is (especially with Hurricane Isaac and the seventh anniversary of Katrina on our minds) so too is the story of Ellis Ruley’s life, as recounted in a 1996 New York Times article:
So for the most part, Mr. Ruley’s work went unnoticed during his lifetime. If he sold a painting, it was for $15. Mysteries mounted, however, when he died in 1959. He was found outside, a victim of exposure but with a gash on his head that led his family to wonder if he had been murdered. Shortly after his death, the farmhouse burned to the ground; even before that the paintings had scattered.
What a treat it would be to walk into a gallery and see all of these works exhibited in the same place, red bathing suits and all. That just may be a project I’ll need to dive into.