Fashion History Posts

“I am at first a charlatan, but full of dash; secondly, a great charmer; thirdly, cheeky; fourthly, a very reasonable man with few scruples; fifthly, someone afflicted, it seems with a complete absence of talent.  And yet I think I have found my true vocation: to be a patron of the arts.  For that I have everything I need, except money, but that will come.” Serge Diaghilev, 1895



Minimalist Fashion | Every term, I get to meet lots of new students.  One of the things I enjoy about teaching is the exchange of ideas.  Many of my students have an enthusiasm for learning and sharing their views.  Clemence, one of my students, is writing her thesis on minimalism and fashion.

As a blogger, I love interviewing other people.  Gaining a new perspective on a favorite topic excites me.  But this time, I’m the interviewee.  Clemence interviewed me for part of her primary source research.   I thought the results were worthy of sharing.  (And feel free to leave commentary, it will help with her research!)

 Clemence: Could you define in 3 words what represents minimalism?

Me: Removing the superfluous.

(To continue reading this post, please click here.)



Diaghilev & The Ballet Russe | Under Diaghilev’s vision, the Ballet Russe grew to be one of the greatest artistic collectives the world has ever seen.  Russian-born Diaghilev (1872-1929) has worked as an art curator and journalist in St. Petersburg.  He had even worked as a creative director of the Imperial Theater.  Diaghilev helped promote Russian culture in France as part of this government position, and organized exhibitions of Russian fine art in Paris.  This initiative was cut short by the demise of the tsarist government.  When it became clear that the revolution was only a matter of time, Diaghilev left for Paris.  Eager to continue his career in the arts, Diaghilev saw the potential in ballet.  It was a relatively inexpensive operation, compared to opera.  He also had connections to some of the best Russian dancers.  He urged ballerinas from the Imperial Theater to spend summers in Paris dancing in his productions.  The public was spellbound by the aesthetics of the show.  Diaghilev saw the ballet not only as a way to promote Russian culture, but as a way to pioneer the careers of creative, avant-garde artists and designers.  He carefully selected dancers, composers, fashion designers, and artists to stage a self-contained world of innovation.  (To continue reading this post, please click here.)

Grace Kelly & Fashion Illustration | World War II impacted the fashion industry in many ways, including the duel between illustration and photography.  The most common materials were rationed for the war effort, including textiles, cosmetics, and the chemicals used to develop film.  Illustrations continued through the war.  Editorials that used photographs focused on showing patriotic fashions and how to “make do and mend” existing items.  Staged studio photography was deemed inappropriate and unpatriotic during this time.  (To continue reading this post, please click here.)

Frances Louise Ward | Ward was a beauty, and graced the cover of Glamour Magazine in 1944, below.  Dubbed “The Career Issue”, landing this cover must have been quite the honor.  The image was taken at the height of World War II, a time during which many women flooded the workforce.  Men were fighting the war, leaving many vacancies across various industries.  For the first time, women from every socioeconomic status could earn their own money in any industry of their choosing, without shame, discouragement, or contempt.  Prior to the war, women were not encouraged to work.   Gender roles were much more ridged.  There were only a few types of careers that a woman could pursue, such as teaching, nursing, or fashion-related work.  Other choices were frowned upon or impossible to obtain.  During the war, this perception began to shift.  Women were encouraged to join the workforce, primarily in male-dominated industries, as a form of patriotism.  The need to replace the workforce was critical to win the war and keep the economy intact.  (To continue reading this post, please click here.)


Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced | There was a great biography on Burrows.  It explained how his grandmother taught him to sew as a child.  He explained: “I was fascinated by the zigzag stitch.  I put it on everything.”  He liked to use this to finish the edges on jersey dresses, because hems would weigh the fabric down.  The zigzag finish makes the fabric light, and curl and wave at the edges.  This design signature started to be referred to as the lettuce edge, because it looks like the undulating wavy edges of lettuce.  (To continue reading this post, please click here.)

Kazimir Malevich | It was fun to learn about Malevich, particularly because his venture into costume design preceded most of his major paintings.  His first costuming job was for the Russian Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun.  Malevich was also responsible for the set design.  As you can see, the costumes are very geometric, making the performers look like chess pieces.  (To continue reading the original post, please click here.)



Triadic Ballet Costumes | Bauhaus (or Staatliches Bauhaus) was a German design school that operated from 1919-1933.  Founded by Walter Gropius, the school’s mission was to promote a synthesis of the arts.  Importance was placed on considering how to unify all aspects of design, from typography, fashion, architecture, interior design and so on.  (Gesamkunstwerk is the precise term in German) The school attracted many fantastic designers.  A recognizable Bauhaus style emerged because many that attended the school were interested in functionality and minimalism.  Geometric forms, balanced compositions, and a sort of futuristic looks are all telltale signs of Bauhaus design.  Shlemmer’s first international success as a costume designer was with the Triadic Ballet.  It premiered in Stuttgart in 1922.  This avant-garde ballet explores how modern technology and design literally transform the human body.  (To continue reading the original post, please click here.)



Fashion, Impressionism, & Modernity? |Hopefully, institutions everywhere will adopt and clearly explain photography policies that encourage socially sharing images.    The Scientific American recently published an article explaining the importance of posting on sites such as Facebook.  Sharing images via social media are influential.  Here is why:One of the big ways that the people around us exert these influences is through the use of norms, those messages that we send out about what’s acceptable, appropriate, and, well, normal. Descriptive norms simply describe the way that things are, whereas prescriptive norms offer a mandate about how things should be. . . .Quite possibly the most important takeaway point from all of the research that’s been done on norms is just how powerful descriptive norms can be. When people try to change behavior, they often focus on prescriptive norms, telling people what they should do. We often underestimate just how strongly we respond to what other people actually do.”  (Quotation from The Scientific American(To continue reading the original post, please click here.)



Madame de Pompadour | Her dress demonstrate her taste and surroundings always subtly communicated her intellectual curiosity.  Through her various portraits, you can start to identify Pompadour’s signature style:

  • a low, square neckline
  • a stomacher (see below) decorated with a series of descending bows
  • pastel colors
  • floral motifs, especial with chine: flower patterns printed on the warp only, making the print very subtle
  • engageants: ruffles sewn to the sleeves that end below the elbow
  • eschelles: masses of artificial flowers

(To continue reading the original post, please click here.)



Fred Braun: A Family History | Today’s post is courtesy of my reader, KC.  My previous writing on Fred Braun has developed a coterie, commenting on their fond memories of the iconic footwear.  Everyone is mystified as to what happened to Fred Braun and why the brand disappeared.  Several readers are even interested in reviving the brand themselves, and don’t know where to start.  KC, a relative of Fred Braun, stumbled on my blog and shared the following information in the comment section:

I found this article looking for more information about Fred Braun the man and his history. There is very little online. I found a newspaper article about his and his shoe company from 1961 among my grandmother’s old pictures. Based on the information in the article and other pictures we have, I believe Fred Braun is an Americanized name and that he was originally Frederick Braunschweig, my grandfather’s brother. The family was all in the leather business (tanners, hide salesmen, shoe distributors) in Germany before fleeing the Nazis. I’d be happy to share the article and pictures I have of him and if you find any more information about him or the company, I’d be interested.  (To continue reading this post, please click here.)



Find of the Week: Toile de Joey by Wesley Simpson | Wesley Simpson scarves are one of my favorite things to collect.  Simpson (1903-1975) was an American textile manufacturer who was responsible for bringing many artist-designed textiles to the market after World War II.  World War II had an enormous impact on both the fashion industry and art market in America.  First, it liberated American designers from simply making copies of Parisian couture.  But it also allowed a new genre of artist to emerge, most of whom were in New York.  Abstract expressionism was very popular right after the war.  People had a renewed interest in the arts and the economic means to purchase.  Artists hoped to capitalize on this, and teamed with textile producers to make fabrics and accessories.  The marketing strategy was to bring art to everyday life.




Find of the Week: Castillo for Elizabeth Arden Coat | Sometimes, good things find you.  That certainly was the case last week.  Every step forward bought surprise and delight.  Good news just poured in like bright yellow sunlight on the morning that you want to sleep in.  It just kept inching its way toward me, making me pay attention.  So things only got better when I was able to purchase this coat. (To continue reading about this coat, please click here.)


Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor & Charles James | Elizabeth Arden built an empire on cosmetics.  A Canadian by birth, Arden (1884-1966) started by giving manicures and making creams in New York around 1905.  She was determined to build a fortune, and was often motivated by competition from Helena Rubinstein.

Today, Elizabeth Arden is still a well-known name for cosmetics.  Yet many may not associate her name with clothing.  Arden installed a Fashion Floor to her business in the 1940s and employed some extremely important designers over the years.  There were so many talented designers that worked for Arden, that it merits a special series here on my blog.  This first post will talk about the beginning, and Arden’s first collaboration with Charles James. (To continue reading this post, please click here)




 Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor: Antonio Castillo |Last week, you read about Elizabeth Arden’s theatrical dismissal of Charles James. Now, the cosmetics mogul was pinned against the wall: a Fashion Floor with no designer.   Arden attempted designing and styling the next season’s collection, but failed miserably.  It was a failure because there was little interest from the press and minimal sales.Arden needed talent to continue, and she needed it quickly to compete with Hattie Carnegie. The nation was intrigued by this competition.  Life Magazine covered a story on Carnegie noting:

“Also at 711 Fifth is the wholesale headquarters for Hattie’s line of cosmetics, with which she quite frankly hopes to challenge Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein.  To add interest to this contest, there is the fact that Arden has turned couturiere.” (Source: Hattie Carnegie. Life Magazine, November 12, 1945, 63.)

Eager to continue with the made-to-measure Fashion Floor, Arden had been putting feelers out for new talent.  Arden’s sister Gladys had been running the Paris salon during the war.  After the liberation, Gladys suggested hiring a Paris based designer. (To continue reading this post, please click here)




When Did Smart People Take an Interest in Fashion? |Very early.  Plato was one of the first.  He started talking about beauty in his work Hippias Major (aka What is Beauty), which was written around 390 BCE.  So what did Plato figure out about beauty?  Well Hippias Major is a conversation between Socrates and Hippias.  They start debating on the definition of beauty.  The whole dialogue doesn’t really go anywhere, since neither candidate can formulate an answer that encompasses the entire concept.  So the question becomes, did Plato determine anything relevant about fashion?  (To continue reading this post, please click here.)



“Smart” People on Fashion Part II |The increase in the size of a group increases individual freedom.  This is because the group gets larger and the unity is diluted.  There is a no way to enforce ridged codes of conduct or dress.  The Metropolis is the location where the greatest individual freedom is experienced.  Yet the individual can have difficulty asserting his or her own personality.

Why?  Well, here are a few reasons:

  • Increasing number of people in the city
  • Brevity of interactions with others
  • Scarcity of human contact

In short, the increased population and level of activity reduces the amount of time spent with other people.  The individual is fragmented from a group identity.  This is both good and bad.  There is such an increased level of personal freedom, that everyone is able to express themselves without ridicule.  The downside?  That developing and maintaining an identity as a group member, and identifying with other like minded people becomes challenging.  (To continue reading this post, please click here.)



Smart People on Fashion: Part III |  Walter Benjamin believed that fashion is actually filled with secret resistance to love.

A definitive perspective on fashion follows solely from the consideration that to each generation the one immediately preceding it seems the most radical anti-aphrodisiac (aka not inspiring sexual desire, repulsive) imaginable.  This judgment is not so far wrong as might be supposed.  Every fashion is to some extent a bitter satire on love; all sexual perversities are suggested in every fashion by the most ruthless means; every fashion is filled with secret resistances to love. p65

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Fabric Labels from The Stieg Collection | Labels provide a wealth of information about a garment.  They are the signature of a brand or designer.  They provide fiber content, instructions on how to care for the garment, the company of manufacture, and more.  These small little tags on the inside of garments also record information about the era in which they were made.  The Stieg Collection has some really interesting labels.

Aside from the beautiful “Custom Original – Utah Tailoring Mills” label in each of the garments, there are so many others.  Many of these labels tell the story of fabric.  Textile mills also used to produce their own labels, and provided them to designers and manufacturers to include in the finished garment.  Today, I wanted to take a closer look at a few from The Stieg Collection.

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