Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mostly Disney and a Little Bit of History...

Aggghhhh...the WEST WING! 
So, this weekend I'm headed to Walt Disney World for the Princess Half-Marathon and to totally geek out on the new Fantasyland...and yes, I will most likely cry when I sit down to eat at the Be Our Guest restaurant. Oh, and by the way feel free to text me encouraging words as I huff and puff my way through 13.1 miles...just go here to track my progress or lack thereof and cheer me to the finish line. Now, what does my upcoming trip have to do with historical fashions...or really any kind of history at all...well, not much.  I really can't justify this post except that I'm rrrreally anxious to be on my way to the "Happy Place" right now!  So if you're looking for some serious history...keep moving cause you won't find it in this installment, but serious scholarship (wink, wink) will return at the regular scheduled time next blog post.  We all know that in Disney films, historical accuracy in regards to fashion...and pretty much everything else is...well, just a fantasyland.  Case in point...every Disney princess...

And of course, the history presented in the park is as white-washed as Tom Sawyer's fence, but if you take some time to interact with park characters (like the citizens of Main Street U.S.A.) you might be surprised at the fun details in their costumes and the artistry that goes into matching a character's personality with the proper ensemble.  In the meantime, you'll have great fun chatting with them and looking beyond the polyester, zippers and Velcro to the imagineering skills reflected in those outrageous dresses and hats. Yes, the costumes are theatrical...and of course not historically accurate...but, gosh-darn-it they are fun!
Frances Fermata - Main Street matchmaker and Miss Hildegard Olivia Harding - socialite and suffragette
Photo by Tonya Staggs
Victoria Trumpetto in orange and reds and an unknown citizen of Main Street U.S.A
Photo by Tonya Staggs

An unknown citizen captivated by my "fancy" camera
Photo by Tonya Staggs
Miss DaPointe showing off her fashionable ensemble!
Photo by Tonya Staggs
Miss DaPointe with a budding fashionista deconstructing her look!
Photo by Tonya Staggs

Now I ask...what lover of historical fashion wouldn't want to indulge in those hats, those feathers, those stripes! And because I couldn't leave you without at least an itty-bitty history nerd fest...just take a look at the dresses below, they are extant examples from the MET collection that reminded me of the Main Street USA ladies. Of course, I'm not suggesting you trade in your historically accurate, painstakingly rendered creations for a Disney costume...but, maybe let a little fun and whimsy creep ever-so-slightly into your next project.  
1885-88, American, cotton & silk - MET

ca.1885 - Walking Dress - House of Worth (French) - MET
1886 American, silk - MET
1884, wedding dress, silk, American - MET
1891-93, American - MET
1878, Madame Dellac (American) - MET

1898, American,  silk dress - MET
1893, American - MET
1880-85, Darlingtion, Runk & Co. (American) - MET
1882-83, American -MET
ca.1905, American, silk - MET
1900-1905, American - MET
1902-1903, American - MET

Guess that's enough about historical dresses and totally unrelated Disney stuff since I better quit blogging and get to packing my bags!  All aboard for Disney World...woo-hoo!

Magic Kingdom - Photo by Tonya Staggs
Disney fashionistas Cruella DeVille and Edna Mode (played by my Mom)
approve this blog post!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Vinegar Valentines & Space Rock

Well, we've made it through another Valentine's Day and a meteor so what better way to celebrate than with a belated blog post on Valentine's Day...after all, nothing like a hurtling mass of space rock coming at you to truly appreciate your valentine!  A couple of years ago I designed and introduced an education program about Valentine's Day for the historic site where I work.  In the research, I found valentine cards and their history quite a bit more interesting then the difficult to pin down origins of the holiday itself. Now, if you want the history of Valentine's Day, which is seriously sketchy then perhaps watching this video with a somewhat disturbing screen shot will help...or scar you.

Now back to those valentine cards and their interesting history.  Well, valentines in some form have been around for quite awhile.  Historians have identified the first valentines as love letters which use the term valentine to identify themselves or the recipient...such as, "your beloved valentine". 
ca.1415 - Letter from Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife
while imprisoned in the Tower of London , British Museum

In England, the celebration of love during February via the fancy-schmancy written word really didn't get going until the 17th and 18th centuries.  At that time a valentine might be  just a fancy love letter with designs and drawings decorating the paper or an actual printed note of verse. Later on, silhouette-cut cards, puzzle cards and rebuses seemingly became more common as there are some extant examples.  

Silhouette Valentine's Day Card - c. 1790 - The British Postal Museum & Archive
Through Flora's gayest, freshest bowers
The bees, that hover over the flowers
From the brightest, loveliest neatest
Know wisely where to choose the sweetest
No wonder then that instinct true
Conducted them to-night to you.

Often cited as the "oldest" valentine card (not quite true as the one above illustrates) is this puzzle purse valentine c. 1790.  Puzzle purses were not only used for Valentine's Day cards, but also to decoratively fold baptismal papers and as a past time for refined young ladies. Much like origami, these folded tokens of love were real works of art and geometry.  One of these days soon I'd like to make my own puzzle purse...but reading the instructions sort of hurts my brain.  If you'd like to make a true puzzle purse, visit Nancy Rosin's page...she's actually put together a tutorial based on extant examples in her own collection.  If you'd like to try it with a more modern...and less mathematical approach, our favorite crafty tycoon Martha Stewart got all late 18th century on Valentine's Day here.  Here's the not-so-oldest valentine, which is part of the British Postal Museum & Archive's collection.

Not to be outdone by the British, here's a super sweet example (below) from the United States, Pennsylvania to be exact.  This one was sent to Barbara Hoffman from Peter Shirk and surely must have melted her heart since the two married on Valentine's Day in 1832.  All together now...awww, that's so sweet!
Lancaster Historical Society - Puzzle Valentine, ca. 1831

If that's not enough sappiness American-style for you, then check out Lancaster County Historical Society's virtual exhibit entitled "Love Letters"...those Quakers were quaking with LUV!  But, the puzzle purses don't end there...below is another example from Pennsylvania although little is known 
about the sender or recipient.  A couple of interns at the Historic Bethlehem Partnership wrote a blog post about this charming valentine and decided to name the author Mr. Drama because of his...well, dramatic approach to love.  Elizabeth Fry, the recipient was either a very lucky girl to have such a romantically minded beau or she was being stalked by her own Mr. Collins.   
"If you refuse to be my wife it will deprive me of my LIFE/ Pale death at last must stand my friend and bring my sorrow to an end/ Thou art the girl and only maid that hath my tender heart BETRA'D/ Nor never shall my heart have ease until our heart are joind like these." 
It was the year 1821, when Mr. Drama made his desperate plea for Elizabeth Fry to be his valentine. Below, is another American example of a puzzle purse valentine...this one sold for $4,370.00 at a Christie's auction back in 1999.

19th Century Puzzle Valentine,
American School - Christie's

Not all valentines were as sweet as Mr. Drama's or Mr. Shirk's...there was an entire trade in venomous valentines and you were quite as likely to get a "humorous" one as a sweet one. In this case, I'd say "humorous" applied mostly to the sender and not the recipient. These not-so-sweet valentines were often known as "vinegar valentines" and are found among both store bought and handmade cards.  In the Houghton Library collection at Harvard University there are some amazing hand-drawn vinegar valentines right alongside the sappy ones. Here's a particularly catchy one!  This sweetly illustrated verse reads...
ca.1850 -1860, UK - Houghton Library, Harvard University

"You nasty and ugly and crabbed old scold/ I shall pity your husband, poor man!/ If e'er you inveigle one into your snare/ which doubtless will if you can./ But I will not marry a vixen like you/ So do not hope me, to ensnare/ Who know if I wed you we should not/  Be a very affectionate pair."
Below is a particularly gruesome and rare example of a vinegar valentine circa the 1860's.  Created during the American Civil War this piece of ephemera seems callous and cold to our modern eyes.  Could you imagine sending this one to your valentine? See this fascinating article in Collectors Weekly for more vinegar valentines and their history.

Now for the intellectually minded romantic there was the rebus...basically a pictogram puzzle, they were often used to represent surnames during the Middle Ages.  Rebuses were commonly utilized in the celebration of Valentine's Day and these romantic missives were usually handmade.  Take a look at the examples below and see if you can decipher the messages!  I'm terrible at decoding rebuses so all I can do is wish you luck! 

Chetam's Library - early 19th century rebus

Valentine's Day Rebus dated February 14th, 1820
Photograph - Mike Welton

Well, that's about it for this post...hope you had better luck with the rebus puzzles than I did! Here's to surviving another Valentine's Day and a big ol' hurtling space rock!  With that I leave you with this riveting meteor the way, anyone notice how Russians are so used to crashing meteors that no one even pulls over to watch or turns down the crazy techno dance mix! 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Flapper Era Frou-Frou

Edward Steichen ca.1920, The Flapper Girl 
Lately, my passion for historic fashion has been torn between two decades...the 1820's and the 1920's.  They really have nothing to do with each other, except the 20's part.  The 1820's was awash with romanticism, frilliness and general pouffy-ness while the 1920's favored the geometric lines of neoclassicism associated today with Art Deco. One could argue that in terms of fashion and cultural upheaval the 1920's and the first French Empire (1804-15) had much in embracing of neoclassicism and the relaxing of certain traditional mores. However, the 1820's was in large part a reaction to that earlier time and marked the beginning of a shift toward the repression of the Victorians and so has little in common with the roaring 1920's.  I think I've mentioned before that I'm not the biggest fan of Victoria and her stifling influence on the western world.  No offense, Victoria fans...but, in real life I highly doubt she was ever as cool as she is in episodes of  Doctor Who.  Now, off my soapbox and onto what we started two current obsessions...the 1820's and the 1920's.  As I said, these two decades have little in common, but we all know material culture is not a monolith...we can point out the over-riding trends in fashion for a particular era, but it's never a good idea to rely on absolutes.  For example, in blah, blah decade they never wore blah, blah print in blah, blah color...blah, blah.  These trends and patterns can be helpful in understanding history, but they can also blind us to some really cool stuff. Case in point...a label by the name of Boué Soeurs that was very popular in the 1920's despite an aesthetic that seemingly clashes with the idea of neoclassicism and clean lines as the "bees knees" for this lawless decade.  In fact, Boué Soeurs made its name with over the top romanticism...they were shabby chic before it was cool (if it ever was cool that is). Their line along with a handful of other designers, such as Callot Soeurs, Lucile and Jeanne Lanvin rebelled against the androgynous and cubist lines of the day to achieve a truly feminine and graceful silhouette.

MET Museum
The Boué Soeurs line was created by two sisters, Madame Sylvie Montégut and Baroness Jeanne d'Etreillis, who titled the label after their maiden name of Boué.  According to Jeanne in an article from Arts and Decoration (Vol. 16-17, 1922) the sisters began their career by dressing dolls in the fashionable modes of the day and eventually opened their flagship store at 9 Rue de la Paix.  Jeanne stated that "we were content only when we had originated a dress that was novel in design and at the same time expressed our own individuality." Little in the way of extant examples exist of their early seems they really hit it big around World War I as their fashions found a place among the courts of Europe and their influence spread far beyond France.  They owned "artistic houses" of fashion in Cairo, Egypt, Bucharest, Romania  and London and in 1914 opened their New York branch .

Staff of the Boué Soeurs Headquarter Store in Paris, 1908
Read more about the sisters at A Most Beguiling Accomplishment
The sisters gained inspiration from spending hours upon hours in the great museums of Europe studying every detail of clothing in the artwork of the great painting masters. From this was born an aesthetic that favored the feminine and incorporated the elements of fine handmade lace, embroidery and ribbon flowers.  It was said that Sylvie Montégut was the creative force behind the designs and Jeanne opened and ran the stores.  Sylvie's husband, Philippe Montégut, an opera singer, served as the financial manager, often curbing the extravagant taste of his "darling wife". The company employed their own lacemakers - young girls in the hills of France, as Jeanne recounted in the 1922 article from Arts and Decoration, "Each peasant girl is trained in proficiency in one particular thing. This is in keeping with our belief that only concentration and an unfettered enthusiasm for the thing to be accomplished can give it the breath of life and the form of beauty."  The brand's lacemakers developed a floral patterned lace, worked on a mesh ground and known as Filet Boué that was the signature of the house.

MET Museum
MET Museum

Girl's Dress - 1924-25
FIDM Museum

In New York, the label flourished despite some setbacks. In 1916, the sisters ran into some trouble with U.S. Customs & Immigration after importing a large  number of dresses without paying the required taxes and attempting to bring French workers into the United States without proper identification.  By July of that same year the charges were dropped after the sisters agreed to pay a $2500 fine and spend 24 hours in jail.  Officials decided that an empty office was sufficiently jail-like for the sisters to spend their brief incarceration.

Immigration records for Ellis Island show both Sylvie and
Jeanne travelling to America on more than one occasion in
1916 aboard the SS Rochambeau -
here's an article about a jewel heist aboard the ship in 1915. 
                                                                                                                              Later that year the sisters brought suit against a rival dress shop, Hickson, Inc. for copying and counterfeiting the Boué Soeurs brand.  According to court records the Plaintiffs alleged that their rival hired a young lady to represent herself as a private customer, buying gowns for her own personal use.  The lady purchased gowns and a cape and then transferred them to the Defendant who removed the labels and then exhibited the Boué Soeurs dresses and copies of them as his own.  They sought $25,000 in damages and requested that the court force Hickson to stop copying and selling their dresses, however the court found that once the dresses were purchased legally the court could not exert control on the outcome of the purchase (Montegut v. Hickson, Inc.).  Perhaps this incident is what Jeanne alluded to in her comment to Arts and Decoration, "Many competitors have striven to imitate the Boué Soeurs productions but they have invariably failed and for a very simple reason- they have lacked the brains, the experience and artistic intuition which have made this house unique as an institution of supreme originality and superb artistry in dress."

Portrait of Baronne Jeanne d'Etreillis and her
children, published in Les Modes in 1913
Model Helen Lyons wearing a dress and cape by
Boué Soeurs, photo by Baron Adolf de Meyer

Patent for a jacket, Boué Soeurs, 1923

The sisters were able to achieve a lightness and drape in textiles that became their signature and influenced many later designers.  Jeanne bragged that their "artistic house" had created an organdy of the most "exquisite beauty" and linen "in which its texture and transparency a miracle", along with their infamous embroideries that often depicted whimsical scenes and even historical characters. 

Boué Soeurs Muff
1915-1925   MET Museum

1925 - MET Museum
1927 Wedding Dress - MET Museum

The Boué Souers New York store was the first French haute couture store in the city and besides reaping the benefits of their unique design aesthetic, the sisters also took advantage of a particular niche in the U.S. market - lingerie.  The New York branch made it easy for wealthy American women to purchase the much coveted styles of French lingerie.  Only recently had stiff corsets been banished for the soft lines and comfort of brassieres (patented by an American woman), silk slips and knickers.  Lingerie was just another one of the new fashion experiments of the roaring 20's and the Boué sisters were determined to bring their aesthetic to underclothes as well as evening gowns.

Camisole - early 1920's - MET museum
Below, left to right: pajamas - 1928, lingerie - 1927, negligée - 1929, MET

Tap Pants and Brassiere by Boué Soeurs, 1920's, Vintage Textiles
Read about "tap pants"courtesy of The Dreamstress 

As the 1920's passed by, Boué Soeurs altered styles to fit the prevailing modes while still maintaining their signature romantic aesthetic   It seems as they moved into the 1930's the heyday of the brand remained in the previous decade.  During the years of World War II the sisters closed the Paris branch, but kept the New York shop open.  By this time their branch stores in other cities across the globe had closed or were on the brink of quitting business. In 1948, the sisters made a valiant effort to reopen the flagship Paris store, but it never regained its former glory and when the creative genius of Sylvie Montégut passed away in 1953, the gold shop letters were taken down for good.  Jeanne maintained the New York store for another three years until illness forced her to close down for good, three months later she died at the age of 81 of congestive heart failure.  Those last fading years of the Boué Soeurs label saw their clientele aging just as the brand's creators...the last dying embers of the New York shop was kept alive by a handful of loyal customers who couldn't let go of their beloved couture brand.  The "breath of life and form of beauty" created by Sylvie and Jeanne in their unique designs could not live without them and with the death of the Boué sisters came the death of the beautifully artistic, romantic and ethereal label that shared their name and their life. 
Advertisements from Theatre Magazine 1921
Court Presentation Dress (Robe de Style- check out a FIDM blog post about this unique 1920's style here)  - 1932 to 34 - MET Museum
Court Presentation Ensemble (Robe de Style) - 1928 - MET Museum
Detail of train - Court Presentation Ensemble - 1928 - MET Museum