Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Real Versus Repro: A Study of Hobby Hats

After my somewhat guilt-ridden recent post (which, thank you everyone for the support! I'm feeling much less guilty about buying corsets now), I thought it would be a good opportunity to drag this out of the draft pile and say something positive about buying items!

In particular, I'm jumping forward in time to the 1940s.

members of the Women's Army Corps in England, 1944
I really enjoy participating in WWII events as a War Correspondent, but recently I've also become more interested in adding a Women's Army Corps (WAC)* impression, because I love being able to talk about (and demonstrate) the ways in which women were actively involved in the war part of the "war effort." This is somewhat out WWII was a barrier-breaking era for women who were fighting to create a space for female participation in traditionally male domains, and there is so much there to research, interpret, and share.

ok, this is actually a Hoover vacuum ad from 1944, but the ad focuses on how "women today" have to be stronger than ever...so I'll take it
I've been lucky enough to meet (in person and virtually) some fantastic women who represent WACs and other military branches (and other nations!), and I'm excited to get back to events! To help with that, I've been working on expanding my warco wardrobe to include the pieces of a proper enlisted WAC uniform. I already have a lot of them, as warcos wore WAC uniforms after the US joined the war, but there are some key pieces I was missing. One of those items is a WAC cap (known as the "Hobby hat," Olveta Hobby, first WAC director), which was the original hat issued to WACs for wear with their service uniform. The WAC cap was worn until 1945, but was notoriously uncomfortable (it's entirely round, which heads are not) and difficult to keep in form (it's not very stiff).

WAACs in Hobby hats, 1942 (posing for Life Magazine)
Garrison caps were approved for WAC wear in 1944, so wearing a garrison cap is totally reasonable (and I actually already have one, which is nice). But there's a couple of things I really like about the WAC cap: it was designed to be "distinctly military" in style, to align the WACs with the rest of the US Army, and it was intended to make WACs distinct from other women's service groups that wore garrison caps.

WAC recruitment poster, with Hobby hat on the bed
enlisted WACs, 1943
Although it's pretty common among WWII reenactors, wearing original items still weirds me out, so if at all possible I try to find reproduction items for my collection. Unfortunately, reproduction WAC caps aren't common...but originals are also scarce, and can be well outside my budget. Luckily this project doesn't really have a deadline, so I could afford to wait and hope.

And it paid off! A manufacturer has started making reproduction WAC caps, and several sellers listing them on eBay. I ordered one in "olive drab serge" from kleiderkasse, because they had free shipping and good reviews. It came in time for my friend to borrow for the Collings WWII weekend in the fall, so I was able to see how it looked with the rest of my uniform (there are some pictures of her wearing it at the link). It doesn't match exactly, but it looks pretty good!

Then over the winter another friend sent an original WAC cap my way. I didn't worry about the size, because I don't plan to wear it for events (as it turns out, it's really close--just a hair too small), but I wanted to see what an original Hobby hat was like, and to compare it to my repro.  

So here is a tale of two hats! A couple of notes to keep in mind:

-I haven't done anything to re-shape the original, but some steaming/shaping was done by Quinn when she wore the repro (it was badly crushed during shipping)

-Both hats are sporting original enlisted insignia (I purchased an insignia on eBay for the repro)

-The hats have different buttons (original-Bakelite, repro-brass), but both are correct to different periods of the war

-Neither is stuffed in these images, so they're both a little floppy

-I didn't take measurements, as the hats are different sizes

Now on to the hats:

my original Hobby hat (left) and reproduction (right)--you can see there are some differences, but they're pretty similar overall

a close up to show the fabric and color differences--the colors are more different in person, but I think this is mostly due to the white threads in the serge the reproduction is made out of. I believe the original is wool (same material as the rest of the uniform)
in profile, the original is a bit taller but other wise the shapes are similar

close-up of the original band and button--the Bakelite eagle button indicates this was an earlier issue

the reproduction band and button--the brass eagle button is still accurate, just for later in the war. the white topstitching on the band (and elsewhere) less so
an above brim comparison--the original (top) appears to have a rounder/curvierbrim shape than the reproduction (bottom), but again they're decently close
insides--both lined in something shiny, with a twill band. the original (right) has some serious staining on the inside, as well as a plastic piece sewn to the lining at the crown (to help hold its shape?)
name tag in the original cap from its owner--I googled her and couldn't find much, but there was one Army record of a Mabel Adams from Baton Rouge, LA, who enlisted August 1943 and is listed in the 26-30 age range

size tag on the original, and you can see more of the plastic piece on the crown
wearing the original (please ignore the post-gym attire...)

wearing the reproduction--the color difference is much more notable here. I did make an effort to order my hat size, but this was somewhat larger than expected--I'm not sure if that's because these run large, or because I rounded up on my measurement (I was worried about fitting styled hair underneath). I haven't tried it on with my hair done yet, but it's possible I need to order a size down.
I hope that this comparison is useful to anyone considering buying a reproduction WAC cap! Overall, I have to say that mine is pretty good, and if you're not too picky about matching pieces, it's a great addition a WAC impression. I'm excited to wear mine in the field!

16th company, 3rd regiment, 1944 at the WAC training center in Fort Des Moines, IA
*I'm using WAC in this post because that's what I'll be doing, but the WACs were initially founded as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), and much of what I'm discussing deals with WAC history when it was still the WAACs. I'm sticking to WAC for simplicity, but throwing that out there.

For more on WAC uniforms:

Blitzkrieg Baby (if you're a reenactor, I also recommend her forum!)

Dressed for Duty (volumes 1 and 2), Jill Halcomb Smith

US Army Women's Museum (Ft Lee, VA)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Buyer's Guilt

For the last 6 months my sewing has been divided into two categories: 18th century sewing, and post-France sewing. Now that I find myself with a complete francaise, I can finally turn my attention to all the other projects I've been putting off--and I'm finding myself excited to make new things!

I'm not rushing into anything, as work has been in a crunch and my summer class just started, but I did start a list to determine where I stood on supplies for each project.  Some of them are "stash busters" (a Regency pelisse I bought fabric for years ago), which is great, and others came about because I happened to find the perfect fabric, and there are also a few that I don't have fabric for (yet).

this early 19th century portrait by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet is the inspiration for one such upcoming project
But one thing kept popping up as I went through my wishlist: I need new underwear. This is not a new problem, but it's certainly an unavoidable one. I wear my clothes hard--I re-wear, I set up furniture, I carry trays, I wash dishes, I tramp on boats, through fields, I dance every dance at the ball. Beyond underpinnings being the key to a good fit, I really need the support and security that solid corsets (and other foundation garments) provide. The stopgap measures I took the last time I went through this have now worn out, and I have finally faced the facts that I need new, well-made, well-fitted underpinnings that will last a while (hopefully until I finish grad school!).

corset pattern patent, 1868 (via)
Of course, the real problem here is that I really don't like making corsets. I find it tedious, and frustrating, and disappointing. The last two there would probably be solved by practice, as I'd get better at it, but the first one means I'm not motivated enough to get over the hurtle and I go through the same cycle of misery every time I need a new one. So then I put off making a new one, until it becomes so desperate I can't make the part I do actually enjoy (the dresses) because I can't fit bodices without a corset. 

lacing stays (from The Progress of the Toilette), 1810 (via)
And so I found myself contemplating this cycle of dread and ill-fitted cleavage when I read Kitty Calash's post about what the clothes she makes are worth. Her point is that with labor factored in as a cost (she uses $25/hour), these items are incredibly expensive and should be treated and worn with respect. I don't disagree, but it also got me thinking about my current underpinnings predicament. What are good underpinnings worth to me? I have so little hours I can use to sew, and making corsets so I can make new dresses would eat most of my sewing time for the summer. Is it worth it to me? What would not having to spend the time (and potentially end up with a better-fitting, better-made final product) be worth to me?

I am rather amused by this advertisement for the "L.R. Corset"!
  I think, in the end, it's worth a great deal to me. Corsets (and other underpinnings like cage crinolines) could be purchased from dry goods stores in the second half of the 19th century, so it isn't even entirely wrong to buy my undergarments. In fact, the Worcester Corset Company began as the Worcester Skirt Company in Worcester, MA, in 1861 making cage crinolines (it shifted to corsets sometime before 1872). Buying new corsets will ensure I have lasting undergarments that will get me through the next couple of years of events, provide a foundation for the new dresses on my wish list, and keep me from spending the summer in a miserable cycle of tedium and anger. 

I still feel guilty about it--it feels like cheating--but I've talking myself into it. Not making this round of corsets is ok. Sometimes alleviating the misery is worth a lot more than being able to stubbornly say I made everything myself.

another inspiration image for an upcoming project: tea gown, 1858-62 (The Met)
On to new clothes!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

200: A Tartan Timeline

This is my 200th blog post! Goodness!

the first outfit from my first post in 2011 (taken on campus at Sarah Lawrence)--and yep, it's plaid!
What better way to mark a milestone than by creating a post culminating all the research I've done over the last five years (good lord, it's 2016...I don't know how that happened) on the history of plaid in women's fashion?

So here I present a brief overview of the trials and trends of tartan (and other plaids) in women's fashion from 1816-2016. For more detail on any of these eras, you can click through the links to check out my individual posts on those topics...and there's more to come!

The vibrant tartans of the Scottish units bring plaid into fashion, from Britain to Paris. For those less affected by Waterloo, tartan's popularity still breaks in with accessories.

Parisian fashion plate depicting a Scottish soldier and a French girl in plaid, 1815
Romanticism takes off, including romantic views of the Scottish Highlands by Sir Walter Scott, and readers near and far are enchanted by bagpipes, heather-covered hills, haggis, and plaid. King George IV forever solidifies this as the "true" impression of Scotland with his visit in 1822, where he's greeted by the exact be-tartan-ed bagpipers he expected--a spectacle arranged in his honor. With Scotland's place as a truely romantic country, tartan by extension is a romantic pattern.

tartan dress (under cloak) and matching bonnet, Le Journal des Modes 1826:
tartan dress and bonnet, Le Journal des Modes 1826

Romanticism in high form! The popularization of the idea of clans and special tartan meanings leads to a rise in publication of tartan swatch books, such as The Scottish Gael by James Logan in 1831--the first known publication of the Royal Stewart tartan (although it almost certainly existed long before that). A young Victoria foreshadows her own enchantment with the Highlands and all things tartan by adopting the trend for plaid.

silk tartan dress worn by HRM Victoria, 1835-7
Queen Victoria is on the throne, and is in love with all things Scottish and tartan. In 1848, the Queen and her consort, Prince Albert, purchased their own estate in the Scottish Highlands and set about manufacturing a romantic setting. Meanwhile, ongoing conflicts over land rights between large estates and crofters (beginning in the 18th century) place the Highlands at the center of a national debate on land reform. The Highland Clearances saw a huge migration of Highlanders seeking better fortunes, taking their traditions (including weaving plaid) with them. Scottish populations in Canada and America help to increase plaid's popularity across the Atlantic as those forced from their homes strive to preserve their culture.

A Highlander emigrating to Canada, R.R. Mclan, 1845
Victoria's beloved Balmoral castle is completed in 1853. To complete their vision, Albert designs a variety of tartans for use by the royal family and at the estate--the palace is decorated in multiple tartans--and the pair begin traditions of tartan-wearing in the British royal family that continue to the present day.

portrait of Queen Victoria in tartan sash, c.1850s

Balmorality (the popularity of tartan and "scottishness") is in full swing. Plaids are popular across America and Europe. The rise of chemical dyes during the mid-century further contributes to the craze by supplying endless combinations of insane colors that effectively display the magic of modern science.

plaid gown with day and evening bodices (day pictured), Germany 1866
Plaid is still highly popular, even as silhouettes change. Bright colors are especially popular, as well as the Queen's tartan, Royal Stewart. However, while plaid's popularity remains incredibly high in the fashionable scene, Highland immigrants to Canada and America begin to stop wearing tartan and the kilt as part of their daily ensembles.

plaid silk and silk velvet dress, 1878
A pattern well suited to draping, tailoring, and layering, plaid stays relatively popular in bustle fashions. It's notoriety has dropped from the mid-century peak, however.

Parisian fashion plate, 1881
Women's sports grow in popularity, and with them come smart sporting clothes. Plaid's association with menswear during this period and its traditional woolen composition makes tartan an ideal fit for sporting attire. Tartan ensembles for golf, skating, bicycling, and hiking take the stage.

bicycling ensemble in the Ladies Standard Magazine, June 1897
Plaid roots itself in tailored garments--especially woolens--in both menswear and womenswear, moving it towards a more masculine association than it had during its previous popularity in the mid-19th century. This is an important transitional period, setting the stage for tartan's use to represent the "new woman" from the 1890s through the 1910s.

street photograph capturing a woman in a plaid suit, London 1906

Plaid's use in sportswear and more "masculine" fashions leads to its use by satirists to represent the "new woman" and all that she represents, from greater independence, the battle for the right to vote, and work outside the home. Flora Drummond, known as "the General," a leader of the British women's suffrage movement and the WSPU, brought their militant form to Edinburgh in 1909. Her military march featured bagpipes and women dressed as famous Scottish women from history.

Flora Drummond, 1908
While plaid remains common for sports woolens, it is less popular in the delicate haute couture dresses frequented by flappers and vamps. One French designer, Jean Patou, seemed to favor it though. Their fashion plates and extant garments from the mid-20s bring a sporty and fun feeling to fashionable daywear.

plaid dress by Jean Patou, 1926
Tartan works equally well cut straight on the grain or on the bias, and playing with draping and changes in angle were in vogue. While not a particular trend, tartan is by now a staple of the fashionable wardrobe and appears in cottons, silks, and woolens in traditional and bias-cut designs.

a mix of plaids cut straight and on the bias
The fabric rationing of the war era leads to change in fashions for narrower garments. Now a classic print, tartan is perfect for closely tailored clothes that don't use much fabric. Additionally, knitting (both for the home front and the war effort) was quite popular during this period, and plaid patterns were just as lovely knitted into homemade sweaters and vests!

a tailored summer suit in "dress stewart" variation, Charm Magazine 1945
While Dior's "new look" opened the gates to a resurgence of full-skirted silhouettes, floral prints, and airy chiffons, plaid continues to pop up on fitted pencil dresses and circle skirts alike. Tartan is particularly prevalent on chic, mature dresses in darker, richer colors that emphasize a fashion-forward attitude--a departure from the better-remembered floral confections in baby shades with layers of petticoats.

plaid dress, 1950s
Pleated plaid goes back to its origins in the kilts and arisaids of the Scottish highlands, and pleating a length of tartan wool becomes a perfect mode for the new miniskirt. As rising hemlines raise eyebrows from the likes of Dior and Chanel, designer Mary Quant's short designs (which she named "mini" after her favorite car) help launch mini-skirts into fashion orbit. Initially a rebellious style, representing physical liberation, the miniskirt as a fashion trend took an incredibly traditional women's garment and reinvented it. And from the beginning, plaid was part of it, worn in mini-form by models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, controversy and all.
plaid skirts and button-downs for Seventeen Magazine, c.1960s
Building on the youth and sub cultures begun in the 1950s-60s, the 1970s bring the birth of the punk scene, which uses music and fashion to challenge history, authority, and social attitudes. In the mid-70s, two members of the London punk scene open a record shop in Chelsea that becames a gathering place for British punk rockers. While it began life as a record shop the store went on to sell a variety of other items, including clothes that twisted British traditions and institutions to challenge and rebel. What better way then by including a very traditional symbol of rebellion against the English monarchy? (not to mention, they often used the royal family's personal sett.) Plaid is a popular, bold statement in many of these designs by the shop's co-owner, Vivienne Westwood. (Westwood's co-owner, Malcom McLaren, managed the Sex Pistols after the band formed out of the shop's clientele.)
Vivienne Westwood in plaid in London, 1970s
In perhaps a reclaiming of the pattern, "preppier" styles bring plaid back as the pattern of golfers, yacht owners, and royalty. In particular, Princess Diana wears several quite distinctive plaid ensembles throughout her marriage to Prince Charles. Her status as a fashion icon in Britain and America makes plaid a popular choice for girls in pearls.

Princess Diana disembarking the royal yacht in Aberdeen, 1985
Designers like Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, and Ellen von Unwerth bring bold, high-contrast plaids back to widespread popularity, including a return to setts based in reds, yellows, and blacks. Plus, the plaid mini! The movie "Clueless" premiers in 1995, introducing Cher Horowitz and her iconic yellow plaid mini-suit, which is amazing.

plaid suits in Clueless
Alexander McQueen, a designer and Scotsman, uses the traditional McQueen sett in many designs throughout his career--especially to call attention to and discuss Scotland's history as an occupied and disputed territory of England. His 2006-2007 fall/winter collection "Widows of Culloden" focuses on loss and what is left behind in conflict (the title references the Battle of Culloden, a key loss for the Jacobites), through an examination of how the victors (England) have adopted and commodified tartan throughout the decades. McQueen also wore a kilted ensemble in the McQueen tartan with Sarah Jessica Parker (in an outfit modified from the collection) to the Met Gala in 2006, causing quite a commotion.

McQueen with Parker at the Met, 2006
Which brings us to today. Plaid is back on the runways at New York Fashion Week from diverse designers. In their coverage, the New York Times declared that "gone are the days when plaid is just for grunge and rock and roll styles." But it has always been much more than that. A symbol of rebellion, of the fight for individual identity, a romantic idea, a classic style of the establishment. The fact that it can be--and has been--all of these things is why people (including me) are still writing about it. Plus, it creates pretty fantastic clothes.

Fall/Winter 2016 runway trends
For more plaid by yours truly:

How Tartan Became Your Favorite Plaid, at Pictorial

To Tweed or Not To Tweed: A Crash Course in Scottish Woolens

tartan in the wild
Excellent tartan sources:

Scottish Register of Tartans
From Tartan to Tartantry: Scottish Culture, History, and Myth. Ian Brown
Tartan: Romancing the Plaid. Jeffrey Banks
Tartan. Hugh Cheape
Costume of Scotland. John Dunbar
Tartan (Textiles That Changed the World). Jonathan Faiers

men's tartan tailcoat, 1820-1830

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Living the Dream: Vogue-ing at Versailles

I'm a big fan of Annie Leibovitz's dramatic portraits, so it should come as no surprise that I've been in love with her shoot of the Marie Antoinette cast at Versailles since it was published in Vogue since 2006. 
Annie Leibovitz for Vogue Magazine (you can see the rest of the shoot here)
When thinking about my own trip to Versailles, I had a particular image in mind as inspiration:

Annie Leibovitz for Vogue Magazine
I'm incredibly lucky to have friends that are always game for photography experiments, and when I said "I really want a picture based on the Vogue shoot of you all looking bored" they obliged. I am also very lucky to meet lovely people who offer to take my picture--so after setting up the shot, I handed off the camera and jumped in. Thank you, A! 

the shot
I worked off of that theme to get a few more group shots and a couple of solo self-portraits, and I love how they came out. Hooray for indulging all my favorite things at once!