Preserving a small piece of Hollywood history–1934 Shirley Temple (part 1)

The dress Shirley Temple wore in 1934 film, The Little Colonel (photo by Therieault’s Auction House, 2015)

The most important thing I can do as a costume historian is to help preserve one of a kind, and historically important clothing. Sometimes this means storing your own Ann Lowe dress in archival packing materials in an archival box.  But sometimes it means helping a friend to care for amazing costumes purchased at auction that were worn by a movie star. This can mean everything from suggesting the right archival storage box, to connecting someone to a conservation service that can provide extensive restoration work to save a one of a kind garment.  As you can imagine, that doesn’t happen very often, but it is thrilling when it does.

Two summers ago, Shirley Temple’s carefully preserved collection of costumes, jewelry, dolls and keepsakes went up for auction  at Therialut’s auction house.  From Shirley’s earliest pictures, her mother kept each costume. This continued throughout Shirley’s career and after she passed away in 2014, the archive was delivered to her children and most of the items (to follow Shirley Temple Black’s wishes) including a very large doll collection, fan letters from historically important people, autograph books and dozens and dozens of costumes and personal clothing Shirley wore as a child went up for auction. I believe the proceeds were used for charitable purposes.

A closer look at the entire costume resold after the auction by another seller. Look carefully and condition differences on the bottom of the dress especially, become painfully clear.

I’ve been a nut for Shirley Temple doll clothes from the 1930s  for years, because they were handmade (mostly as piecework by women living near the New York City Ideal doll factory), are made of such fun (non synthetic!) materials (doll outfits made from silk, wool, oilcloth, leather and cotton? Um, yes, please!), and as copies of Shirley’s movie costumes, the number of different designs floating around even 80 years later seems endless.

I’ve collected a bunch of 1930s Ideal Toy Company doll clothes over the years, and that’s also how I met Tonya Bervaldi-Camaratta! Tonya’s the author of a fantastic collectors treasure trove about these dolls. She purchased several truly beautiful costumes at the auction (I still cannot imagine how exciting it would be to have the opportunity to collect things worn in movies!) and I gave her some pointers about the best way to store them. The costumes she purchased were in wonderful condition and I’m hoping that I’ll get the chance to visit at some point and see them in person. 🙂

Fragile enough to fall apart in your hands! This dress was made by the 20th Century Fox costume department with the intention of surviving one shoot during 1934 while looking as authentic as possible. No one at Fox expected it to be a collectors item 80 years later!

A little while later, Tonya wrote to me because she had the chance to pick up one of the costumes that was not in great condition. It was a silk gown styled as a mid 19th century dress worn in The Little Colonel,

Like many films from Hollywood’s golden age—Shirley’s southern civil war- period films have painfully racist segments—you have to see them as a product of their time, but also appreciate that oddly, these films managed to make film history at the same time by showing the first white/black dancing couple( with Bill Bojangles Robinson) who affectionately hold hands, for instance. Their scenes were regularly trimmed from the films for distribution in the south, but they made four pictures together, Robinson coached her dancing on a number of other films, and they were friends off camera. The Robinsons joined Shirley’s family for dinners at the Temple home for instance and stayed friends until Robinson’s death, so the behind the scenes story has a much more contemporary feel than anything you learn while watching their film work together!

ANYWAY, back to textiles: Silk can be problematic at best, and nearly hopeless at worst and this satin gown was in fair but fragile condition when photographed for the above picture by Therieault’s.  It was sold to another collector and by the time Tonya purchased it, the silk had shattered terribly and the dress was on its way to becoming a rag.

a close up look at the shattering silk on The Little Colonel gown before the conservation.

There’s so much to say about this dress, I’m splitting it into two posts! In part 2, I’ll show you the finished product and talk a bit about the extensive conservation treatment that this dress received at Museum Textile Services, a museum-quality conservation studio in Massachusetts.

It’s an important costume with bulletproof provenance, but  unless a donor funded the conservation process? History museums wouldn’t touch a dress like this with a ten foot pole. It was just too damaged.

To preserve the costume for history’s sake, it was painstakingly taken apart by hand and rebuilt over a supportive backing with new satin when needed.  This dress would not have survived without Tonya’s dedication and investment.  (she not only purchased the dress from the secondary seller, she also paid for the conservation!)

I think you’ll be very impressed to see the final product!

As always, the links you see here add interesting information to each Hidden Fashion History post –I do not make any money from them if you click into them–they are for information purposes only!  🙂

 

 

 

 

Ever thought of the zipper as cutting edge technology?

At work (Carnegie Museum of Art) we are getting ready to say goodbye to Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion. It’s been fun and exciting to be a part of this exhibit and I will miss getting the chance to be up close and personal with 45 of her amazing dresses!

While I found Van Herpen’s use of technology a bit intimidating at first, the fashion industry has always taken advantage of technological advancements, and while each step was surprising for consumers at the time, with time, these move into the typical tools used for the job. Van Herpen was the first designer to create and present a garment that was 3-D printed and now that technique is becoming much more common on the runway and there are online stores that sell very basic 3-D printed garments at modest price points. Other examples of breakthrough technologies throughout the history of fashion are interesting to consider, and some of these may look extremely simple to our 21st century eyes.

Yes, once upon a time, even the humble zipper was state of the art technology! And I think it is a perfect example of an impressive advancement that is now in everyday use. The book Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty by Robert Freidel takes a close look at the history of something we use everyday and probably only think about when it gets stuck!

When the zipper was first invented, language in the patent suggested that it would be good for footwear, and maybe for gloves. Goodyear was an early manufacturer to try them out in their line of rain boots during the 1920s and some of the more adventurous fashion designers soon followed with fashion forward designs that presented the zipper in headlining ways. Elsa Schiaparelli was a leader in this effort.

By the early 1930s, she was incorporating color coordinating plastic zippers into her dress designs. It may sound strange now, but in the mid 1930s, zippers created a bit of a sensation. Schiaparelli herself wrote:

“Sciap, catching the mood, showed regal clothes embroidered with pearls or daringly striped, but what upset the poor, breathless reporters most were the zips. Not only did they appear for the first time, but in the most unexpected places, even on evening clothes. The whole collection was full of them . Astounded buyers bought and bought. They had come prepared for every kind of strange button. Indeed these had been the signature of the house. But they were not prepared for zips.”

The first knitting machine…invented in the 16th Century??

I’d never thought of the 16th century as a time of mechanical breakthroughs for the textile industry…wow, I was wrong about this! The earliest knitting machine, a stocking frame knitting machine was invented in England in 1589. It could ACTUALLY knit stockings! Although I believe that the back seam still needed to be sewn by hand. Not bad for the late 16th century!

Absolutely fascinating! An article about Lee’s invention can be found here, here

Come to Pittsburgh and see the Iris Van Herpen Show at CMOA!

As the Curatorial Assistant of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie Museum of Art, I am a LITTLE bit biased about the fabulous Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion exhibit that opened last week. It’s a touring show, co curated by the High Museum in Atlanta and the Groeninger Museum in Amsterdam. And also the first exhibit that I worked with from floorplans to actual installation. SO EXCITING!!! That dress above is 3D printed!

But not all of Iris’ dresses use computer technology. This one is painstakingly handmade with a reflective material.

There are 45 dresses and 8 pairs of shoes

I got to help set up the shoes!

I remember a time when I was a volunteer at the Smithsonian—working at the guest services desk of the Natural History Museum and hoping that someday I could figure out how to work in curatorial in a museum–this was a couple of years before I entered the graduate program at the Smithsonian that would help me to do just that! My 1st job in the field was a cataloguing job at Winterthur Museum, so I was a very lucky girl because I got to handle objects and work directly with objects all day for three years.  Loved it! But I was missing experience with the other aspects of curatorial work, so that was one of the exciting parts of my job at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Anyway, enough about me! Back to Iris. Transforming Fashion is up until May 1st and it’s amazing.

Iris Van Herpen!! What? You’ve never heard of her?

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The depth of Van Herpen’s handwork is astounding. Those sheets of water are actually a part of the dress, and they are plastic manipulated by hand to create the look of splashing water. The rolled leather and metal chains are also created by hand.

I’m learning a lot about Iris Van Herpen right now, in preparation for the incredible fashion exhibit (Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion) opening at my new workplace, the Carnegie Museum of Art, in February.

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Believe it or not, this fabric is made from metal gauze! Van Herpen collaborates with textile manufacturers and other artists to create the materials for her designs.

This is a traveling show, curated by the High Museum in Atlanta and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands so the dresses are already selected and the text is already written, but there are always tasks along the way that require even the curatorial assistant to become knowledgeable about the details of an exhibit.

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Of course glass bubbles, coated in silicone are a perfect dress material 🙂

I’m so excited to get the chance to see a gallery space get prepped from the bottom up and installed with 45 couture dresses and all of the fancy lighting to show them off to their fullest!! January is going to be a dream.

(Source: Showstudio.com)
This is Iris Van Herpen (Source: Showstudio.com)

Iris Van Herpen is a young, dutch fashion designer who has an incredible eye for unusual materials, the use of cutting edge technology (like 3-D printing a dress!) and painstakingly beautiful handwork. She’s dressed Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Bjork!

IRIS VAN HERPEN CATWALK FASHION SHOW FW15
A little more wearable—Van Herpen has created a ready-to-wear line since 2013. This pulls technical elements and materials from her couture collection and uses them in slightly more practical ways.

 

The Manus X Machina at the Met over the summer featured several of Van Herpen’s designs. This post is just an appetizer.  I’m going to write more about Van Herpen here— as I learn about her. We’ll learn about her work together, and I’ll squeeze in as many gorgeous dress pictures as I can find.

HFH has moved to the Western part of the state…

newI’ve moved to Pittsburgh this week! I’m the new curatorial assistant of decorative arts and design at the Carnegie Museum of Art.  There won’t be many textile or costume related duties in this new position, although one of our upcoming exhibits will show the work of Iris Van Herpen  and I’ll be sure to cover the exhibit here later this winter! Pittsburgh is very different from the eastern part of the state and the old factories (in various states of reuse now) are one thing that really stick out to a new resident.

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the women who worked in the textile industry in central and western PA, and this website, created by Lycoming college, has a few wonderful rabbit holes to fall into. This page is especially interesting because it features interviews with former textile workers.

Glenna Montague from Lynn Estomin on Vimeo.

Are you here to learn more about Ann Lowe?

Welcome to Hidden Fashion History! If you found this blog through Sunday’s NY Post article about Ann Lowe, welcome!  I hope you’ll enjoy browsing this site.

I’ve put together a list of links below to send you directly to some fun articles about her impressive career, but you can also go straight to the Ann Lowe link from the side bar to get to all of the posts about her. There are a bunch!

An introduction

An early Ann Lowe dress

Her 1920s work

The Evyan First Lady Gowns

Olivia de Havilland gown

Ann Lowe’s Flowers

A 1960s Lowe Gown Up Close

Ak-Sar-Ben Gowns Part 1

Ak-Sar Ben Gowns Part 2

Ak-Sar-Ben Gowns Part 3

Ak-Sar-Ben Gowns Part 4

Ann’s challenging career problems

And an upcoming children’s project about Ann

If you are ready to explore Ann’s work a bit more, here are two groups of gowns in the collections of the  Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian

Enjoy!

 

Ann Lowe’s Financial and Health Challenges During the 1960s

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Ann Lowe working in her shop workroom on Madison Avenue during the late 1960s. (Ebony Magazine)

Let’s get back to Ann Lowe a bit!

With the financial losses Lowe endured after her large gown order for Ak-Sar-Ben, losing an average of $150  on each dress–if you’ll remember–and there were 33 dresses in the order, Ann entered a period of severe financial stress. Records from her bankruptcy proceedings listed ten creditors and revealed that she owed more than $9,000 to Saks Fifth Avenue—borrowed money to originally cover operating expenses and materials. Saks was the largest claimant.

The financial problems of 1962 were just the beginning of Lowe’s troubles. Lowe left Saks at some point during that year and reopened in a small workspace farther down 53rd street. Unfortunately, the majority of Lowe’s employees chose to continue with Saks because they could pay more than Lowe was able to offer.[i] A few employees attempted to move with Lowe, but returned to Saks when Lowe’s financial problems affected the reliability of their salaries. Only her sister, Sallie, stayed by her side.[ii]

A strong staff was an absolute necessity for Lowe at this point. Although she began her career sketching dress after dress, her increasingly poor eyesight made drawing impossible and severely limited her sewing capability. “I’ve had to work by feel” she admitted, “but people tell be I’ve done better feeling than others do seeing.”[iii] Without a staff to sketch and take up the bulk of the sewing, running a shop would be impossible. Lowe’s sketcher and chief assistant remained at Saks and Lowe was unable to hire new and highly trained workers who could meet the challenge of a high volume couture shop. “I couldn’t fill my orders,” she admitted. “Things went from bad to worse.” When this shop closed, Lowe “ran sobbing into the street…the tears wouldn’t stop.”[iv] Shortly after this, Lowe’s right eye, which had been heavily damaged by Glaucoma, was removed. Lowe had to stop working completely.[v]

After a period of rehabilitation, Lowe became a designer for Madeline Couture, a dress shop in New York City. At Madeline Couture, Lowe was able to have a fashion show where former customers did the modeling.[vi] Shortly after the show, Lowe began to have problems with her other eye. Her attempts to continue working with a severe cataract in her only eye led to embarrassing attempts to cover up her problems:

Terrified to lose her eye, she tried to bluff. “Now here’s a design I think you’ll like.” She would say to a customer, picking up a sketch and brining it close to her eyes. “Oh my goodness,” she would add brightly, “Isn’t that ridiculous! I’m holding this sketch upside down!” The bluff worked through this past spring. She gave up her job at the dress shop in March (1963).[vii]

Lowe was completely unprepared for retirement. She had no savings, and no way of paying her living expenses without working. The surgery she needed to restore sight to her only eye was high risk. It could possibly destroy whatever sight she still had in her left eye and a number of surgeons refused to take the chance. With the help of her previous clients she eventually found a surgeon who would attempt to remove the cataract, “If I can’t design dresses” she told him, “I’d rather fly off the Empire State Building.” The doctor donated his services and covered the costs of the operating room.[viii] The August 1964 operation restored sight to Lowe’s left eye and amazingly, she prepared her business again. She contacted her previous customers through postcards—500 handwritten postcards, according to the Post. The campaign worked and Lowe was back to sewing for a number of her previous customers. She continued to create wholesale designs and maintained her close and personalized working style with her couture clients.

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Lowe with the Johnson and Kennedy mini gowns for the Evyan Great Ladies Collection (Jet 1966)

[i]. Thomas Congdon, Jr. “Ann Lowe: Society’s Best Kept Secret” Saturday Evening Post, December 12, 1964, 76.

 

[ii]. Melissa Sones “Found Exclusively at Ann Lowe Gowns.” American Legacy (Winter 1999), 38.

 

[iii]. Congdon, 75.

 

[iv]. Congdon, 76.

 

[v]. Ibid.

 

[vi]. Ibid.

 

[vii]. Ibid.

 

[viii]. Ibid.