Vintage reading: Sally Bowles

As she dialled the number, I noticed that her fingernails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. She was dark enough to be Fritz’s sister. Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows.

I like to read books written in my favourite eras. This is about the temporal goggles again; I like all the small things that tell you something about the author’s time and place. Historical fiction isn’t the same, it’s always coloured by the writer’s own time and place. So I read a lot of older fiction, especially from the first half of the 20th century, and I gravitate towards writers who are women or queer. We are all familiar with the dominant perspective already, that of straight, cis and white men. It’s unavoidable.

Jean Ross, early 1930's.
Jean Ross, early 1930’s.

I have just finished re-reading my favourite Christopher Isherwood novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains. It was published in 1935 and set in early 1930’s Berlin, where Christopher Isherwood, then 25 years old, went in 1929 to visit friend and occasional lover W. H. Auden. He stayed on and lived in Berlin until 1933, writing and working as an English tutor. The volume also contains Goodbye to Berlin, a collection of short stories about people he met in Weimar-era Berlin and the basis for Cabaret, not least the novel these quotes come from, Sally Bowles. The character Sally Bowles is based on a woman Isherwood met in Berlin, Jean Ross, who was British, a politically engaged Communist and worked as a cabaret singer. She herself felt that Sally Bowles was more reflective of some of Isherwood’s flamboyant male friends.

‘Hilloo,’ she cooed, pursing her brilliant cherry lips as though she were going to kiss the mouthpiece: ‘Ist dass Du, mein Liebling?’

As someone who thinks a lot about clothes, style and how people present themselves, I’m always interested in passages about how people look, how they dress and groom themselves, how the author chooses to portray that and what it says about the character, the author, the story and the time and place they are wearing it in. It’s fascinating. I thought I’d share quotes with you when I come across them, and Isherwood was a sharp observer who wrote these wonderful, very visual character studies.

Sally laughed. She was dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head: ‘Do you mind if I use your telephone, sweet?’

A few days later, Isherwood goes to tea in Sally Bowles’ lodgings.

She was wearing the same black dress today, but without the cape. Instead, she had a little white collar and white cuffs. They produced a kind of theatrically chaste effect, like a nun in grand opera. ‘What are you laughing at, Chris?’ she asked.

Sally Bowles is a 19-year-old cabaret singer in Weimar-era Berlin, and not a highly paid one; Christopher Isherwood is a young novelist who makes ends meet by working as an English tutor, as close to openly gay as you could be in those days. It makes perfect sense that Sally has one good day dress that she wears frequently and changes up with different accessories like this, lots of women did, perhaps especially during the Depression. There’s a great article about that over at Witness 2 Fashion. But they both came from solid British middle-class backgrounds; there’s a sense that they are slumming it in Berlin, there’s always a certain assurance that they have someplace to go if things go really wrong. Later in life, Christopher Isherwood was well aware of that distinction between him and the many working-class Germans he met in Berlin. He could leave when the Nazis made Berlin too unsafe to stay in. They couldn’t.

 

On working with old drafting systems

I’ve been making a few 1900’s and 1910’s style garments in the last year and a half, as I mentioned the other day. So far I have produced three fairly casual, sporty daytime outfits, one that aims at around 1895-1905 and two mid- to late 1910’s outfits. Most of my opportunities to wear them are outdoorsy daytime events in the summer season, so the emphasis on sportswear makes sense to me. I also happen to love old-fashioned sportswear; the kind worn while engaging in pleasant activities like crocquet, biking, hiking, picknicking and spectator sports. At some point I will start working on an evening ensemble too, and perhaps some slightly more formal daywear. But I work so much better to deadlines, and at present I don’t have any events on the horizon to which I could reasonably wear a 1910’s evening gown.

So I took the opportunity to try out a few elderly systems of pattern drafting. There were a lot of them on the market in the early 1900’s, it seems. Perhaps the growing importance of ready-to-wear clothing had something to do with that, creating both a whole new range of fit issues and a decline in customers for small-scale businesses. They are aimed both at professionals and home sewers, and many of them are now in the public domain and available for free download if you would like to try it. Archive.org has several. So far I have made garments based on drafts from Professor Saul Schorr’s The American Designer and Cutter, published in 1915, and Professor Isidor Rosenfeld’s The Practical Designer series from 1918. Continue reading “On working with old drafting systems”

Robe à l’Anglaise, quickly

I’ve been dipping my toes in the 18th century lately, starting with with a simple plaid pierrot jacket, petticoat and all the necessary underthings and accessories about a year and a half ago. I have several friends who do 18th century re-enactment, which is, in all honesty, one of the main reasons I started making things for it. I love hanging out in other eras with my friends, and I want to be able to tag along on the 18th century stuff. Also, I love trying out drafting and construction techniques that are new to me. Making historical clothes is even more fun than wearing them.

So when Isis of Isis’ Wardrobe asked if I wanted to come along to an 18th century picnic in the heatwave Sweden is enjoying right now, I did some quick and extremely optimistic mental calculations and decided that I could probably produce a plain 1780’s robe à l’Anglaise in a cooler cotton fabric from my stash in two evenings. I could, as it turns out, mainly thanks to the really excellent patterns Isis gave me and helped me fit the last time around. The jacket pattern fits very well over the 1780’s corset I made for the first ensemble, and I simply used it as it is, attaching the skirt instead of the tails of the jacket. Continue reading “Robe à l’Anglaise, quickly”

On the 8mm films

I will try to produce lighter content that 1000-word posts on World War I too, I promise. More of this, for example; this spring my mother had 14 rolls of 8mm film digitalized, filmed by her father, her maternal grandfather and a friend of his between 1935 and 1952.

Not all the films were dated, but some were, and the rest can be inferred. The Standard 8mm format and the first 8mm film camera was released by Kodak in 1932, so 1935 is early on. My great-grandfather was an electrician and ran a successful electrical appliances store, he was something of an early adopter in his day and may have bought it to try it out for the firm. The guy who digitalized these said that they broke his earlier record twice; the oldest films he had digitalized before these were from 1939, two of these were dated 1935 and 1937.

It was incredibly exciting to watch them for the first time. They had been sitting in a bag in the cellar for years and years, and none of the people who had seen it are alive today. My great-grandmother died in 1953, when my mom was seven, and great-grandfather passed only four years later in 1957, so she doesn’t remember very much of them. We hadn’t the faintest idea of what the films would contain or how they would have held up.

So this was surreal, to say the least. The first one, dated 1935, contains footage of my great-grandparents and friends on a bike vacation in Germany, the Netherlands and possibly France or Belgium. This is the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, an electric suspension railway that opened in 1901. It is still in use.

On zeitgeist, transitional fashion and the 1910’s

I’ve been dabbling in 1910’s fashions the last few years, collecting a ton of images, reading, making some garments and experimenting with a few different systems of drafting patterns from the decade. I really like the styles of the latter half of the decade, especially, the WWI years and what little fashion there was going on between 1918 and 1920, in the wake of both a devastating war and a pandemic. The influenza of 1918-19 is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 millions of people worldwide, 3-5% of the world’s population at the time. WWI resulted in the death of about 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians, in comparison. Clearly, the late 1910’s were a bleak time to live in, why is that so fascinating?

Continue reading “On zeitgeist, transitional fashion and the 1910’s”