Before the Catwalk: Early Fashion Shows

Fashion week in NYC wrapped up a couple of weeks ago on Sept. 14, London ended its shows last week, followed by Milan, and Paris Fashion Week ends this Tuesday, Oct. 2. Fashion week has become systematized with a specific calendar of designers showing in different cities at different times so that buyers and influencers can potentially go to the maximum number of shows and prepare for the coming season. Granted, this system has become less centralized in recent years, but for the most part, high-end designers will follow this time-tested formula for showcasing their work. This had me thinking about the origins of the fashion show and how it became such an organized mechanism.

In my research, I concentrate on the first locations used to show designs with live models in the early 1900s-19-teens, both the cities and specific place or event, who was modeling the clothing, and the perception of this evolving business scheme. In the early 1900s, the idea to show clothing on a living person had taken off and was more than just a one-off by a few trailblazing designers. Yet, it was still so new and not yet formulated into the system we recognize today.

 

First Things First

worth

Charles Frederick Worth, 1887, French (English born) silk evening ensemble, MET Museum, 2009.300.1094a–g

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Fashion Unraveled, Exhibit Highlights

The Museum at FIT’s latest history gallery exhibit focuses on unfinished and “imperfect” works of fashion in Fashion Unraveled. This exhibit opened May 25, 2018 and will be open until November 17, 2018.

In this post I highlight some pieces that relate to the Femme Fashion Forward (1880-1930) timeline. The exhibit was broken down into 5 main themes: Mended and Altered, Unfinished, Repurposed, Behind the Seams, and Distressed and Deconstructed. I’ve chosen pieces found in each of these themes, except for Distressed and Deconstructed because most of those objects were from a later date. The exhibit challenges the idea that clothing that has been altered or changed in some way decreases in value, and argues, in many cases, this will add a historic importance to a museum’s collection and can be embraced by modern designers. This blog post does not focus on more recent interpretations of this idea, so you’ll have to head to the Museum to see those particular examples, but I think you’ll enjoy the incredible fashion pieces I’ve selected below from the 1890s and 1920s!

Mended and Altered

These stockings have been darned as the toes and heels became worn, and this was a common practice to preserve the life of such a well worn, luxury item. The Museum notes, however, that this occurred less frequently as the 20th century progressed because ready-made stockings became more available and were inexpensive enough to be treated as a disposable piece of clothing. Soon stockings would be made of a cheaper imitation silk, like rayon and nylon.

1920's Stockings

Blue Silk Knit Stockings, 1920s, USA

Socks and stockings have continued to be viewed as disposable today to the point where it would be highly unusual for someone to darn the holes in the toes of their socks instead of throwing them away. Mending in general is much less common in 2018. Not just for socks, but if a T-shirt or some other clothing item has a hole, many times we’ll toss it before considering repairing the piece ourselves. Some food for thought on how this shift in mind set has changed throughout the 20th century!

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Colette: Fashion through the Eyes of an early 20th Century French Novelist

While many French patriots are familiar with this name, Colette is unfortunately not well-known as an author and icon outside of France. Many attribute this to the difficulty of translating her books into English and other languages, as some of the inherent poetry and meaning is lost or comes across awkwardly in another language.

SidonieGabrielleColette

Colette ca. 1890. Unknown Photographer, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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5 Fearless Flying Females You Need to Know

Flying in the 1900s was not for the faint of heart. It was relatively so new, the Wright brothers having just sustained the first heavier-than-air aircraft in flight in 1903, and required such skill that crashes were commonplace. The cockpits were uncovered in the open air (no seatbelt) so if the plane were to flip upside-down unexpectedly, pilots could fall out. Not surprisingly, because of the risk and skill involved in piloting a plane, this was considered to be a man’s domain although there were still brave women undeterred.

Not likely to be hired as pilots, adventurous women would often initiate their own air shows and stunt flying, called “barnstorming.”[1] As you can imagine, at that time, not only did spectators want to see the death-defying stunts but also to watch them performed by a female pilot, or aviatrix was an added novelty. As the 20th century progressed, female pilots evolved from barnstorming stunts to achieving new records in flight. Throughout the Femme Fashion Forward period (up until 1930) flying was still dangerous in many regards, and it took certain amount of courage that few possessed.

These women were brave and defied the norm, but often did so with an irresistible flare. Pushing the boundaries of what women were believed capable of, and perhaps with an enviable level of confidence and bravery, it’s no wonder many others looked to them as inspiration. Here are 5 women in particular that you may not have heard of, but at that time were widely known for their skills in the air. From a fashion history perspective, I think it is important to note what these women were wearing, which was often a blend of clothing from the “male” flying domain and womenswear.

 

Harriet Quimby

(1875 – 1912)

Harriet Quimby 2

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A Stitch in Time: Clothing and Textiles of the Meadowlands 1890-1915

Exhibit open at the Meadowlands Museum now through September 29, 2018

A Stitch in Time with Date.jpg

As you may have seen from my recent social media photos, I have been involved with this project for the Meadowlands Museum as a volunteer Curator and spoke last week at the Museum. This project was like a dream come true in terms of being able to curate my own exhibit on fashion history! What surprised me the most was that the more I (and the wonderful exhibition team) dug into the textile industry of this region, the more there was to find. And not just in bits and pieces — more like an avalanche of information!

Curator Talk 6.2.2018.jpeg

Me at the Museum for the Curatorial Talk on 6.2.2018. Behind me you can see a silk gown from 1904 (first made in 1888) and a silk plaid jacket from the late 19th century.

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