On padding and a new suit

I’ve been thinking about Schiaparelli jackets because I’ve been working on a new suit, heavily inspired by those elegant late 1930’s Schiaparelli jackets with interesting buttons. My old favourite jacket, a taupe wool blend twill affair with oak leaf leather appliqués, made about four years ago, has been getting an awful lot of use, needs a new lining and is beginning to look and feel rather well-loved by now. It’s not anywhere near worn out, but I wanted a new one, in a rougher, tweedier fabric with less showy details. Continue reading “On padding and a new suit”

Vintage reading: Nancy Mitford and Schiaparelli

I remember that my mother, during one of her rare visits to England, brought me a little jacket in scarlet cloth from Schiaparelli. It seemed to me quite plain and uninteresting except for the label in its lining, and I longed to put this on the outside so that people would know where it came from. I was wearing it, instead of a cardigan, in my house when Cedric happened to call, and the first thing he said was,
‘Aha! So now we dress at Schiaparelli, I see! Whatever next?’
‘Cedric! How can you tell?’
‘My dear, one can always tell. Things have a signature, if you use your eyes, and mine seem to be trained over a greater range of objects than yours, Schiaparelli – Reboux – Fabergé – Viollet-le-Duc – I can tell at a glance, literally a glance. So your wicked mother the Bolter has been here since last I saw you?’
‘Might I not have bought it for myself?’
‘No, no my love, you are saving up to educate your twelve brilliant sons, how could you possibly afford twenty-five pounds for a little jacket?’
‘Don’t tell me!’ I said. ‘Twenty-five pounds for this?’
‘Quite that, I should guess.’
‘Simply silly. Why, I could have made it myself.’
‘But could you? And if you had would I have come into the room and said Schiaparelli?’

That’s Nancy Mitford, in the partly autobiographical Love in a Cold Climate, published in 1945. Continue reading “Vintage reading: Nancy Mitford and Schiaparelli”

Dress clips!

I’ve been looking for a good pair of vintage dress clips for a while. These are a good start; 1930’s, silver and marcasite, a fairly conservative, but elegant Art Deco design. Dress clips really are the quintessential 1930’s accessory, infinitely adaptable, easy to wear in different ways on different types of garments, often cheap and cheerful in paste, bakelite, wood and pot metal, although there are expensive dress clips in gold and platinum with real stones as well, of course. They are an oddly sensible bit of frivolousness, which makes perfect sense in the hard economic times of the decade. This pair made me long for some playful plastic, wood and pot metal ones, too.

I mean, Elsa Schiaparelli wore them. Tamara de Lempicka wore them. Diana Vreeland wore them, fabulously, in a turban. Those are three of the most stylish women of the 20th century right there. What better endorsement could you wish for?

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”