Category Archives: Textile History

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!  🙂

 

 

 

 

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

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.

The unexpected Abolitionist Roots of a New England Thread Company

corticelliThe Nonotuck Silk Company holds a fascinating place in textile history. The company began in the 1830s with a failed attempt to breed silkworms in Massachusetts. Silkworms only eat mulberry leaves, and when the health of the imported mulberry trees declined, silkworms had nothing to eat and efforts to raise them for their cocoons failed.


The remnants of the failed silk thread business were later operated by the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an abolitionist commune in Northampton, Massachusetts. The group imported silk cocoons and used the mill to spin thread. They funded their abolitionist work with income generated from this business. Curiously, you may recognize one of their members:

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Yes, this is Sojourner Truth! She was a member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, worked in the silk mill. Silk thread production was the association’s primary source of income.

The association’s community operated like a commune, with shared meals, group housing, education for their children and assigned work duties for every member in the mill or farm. The community fell apart by 1846, but one member, Samuel L. Hill, retained the silk mill and continued to operate the silk thread business. They were operating under the Nonotuck name again, and in 1852,  Corticelli silk was their signature product. They developed a high quality silk thread (known as machine twist) strong enough for use in sewing machines. Elijah Singer (the sewing machine manufacturer) placed a large order for this new product. Sewing machines were just becoming the rage at the time, and machine twist thread business boomed for Nonotuck.

toostrong In 1922, this company merged with another and operated the new business under the Corticelli name. The business records of the association are held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. I had the chance to take a look at a few of their financial books and membership logs when I was in graduate school.

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Source: https://www.masshist.org/blog/1013

Before I was introduced to Ann Lowe, I was hoping to create a thesis from this story. A lot has been written about the New England Silk Industry though, and the amount of information available about the Northampton Association’s work (in direct relation to their textile production—I was a Decorative Arts student and needed to have a solid textile history focus) was pretty light.

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Corticelli had some of the prettiest advertising and labels in the industry at the time.

Getting an informative and innovative thesis out of this would have been quite a process. Looking back, I think things worked out in the best way for my thesis—although I wish I could find time (and a few incredible sources) to pull together an interesting paper about the Northampton Association someday.

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You can read this book now at Archive.org!! https://archive.org/details/CorticelliHomeNeedlework

Archive.org has some related documents: A Color Card, And a fantastic needlework instruction book from 1898. And the youtube video below will show you the location of the Association’s silk mill in Northampton, Mass. I’m visiting Northampton at the end of the month and one of these days, maybe during this trip if the weather is nice, I’m going to hunt for old spools at the banks of the little Mill river!corticellidogssm

19th Century Fashion Plates

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This illustration was prepared for an October 1886 edition of Le Moniteur de la Mode (Source: Archive.org)

The fashion publications of the late 19th century featured colorful and highly detailed illustrations of the latest looks. The details needed to be crisp: affluent women were sharing these pictures with their seamstresses to recreate European designs.


Archive.org is an amazing resource for early fashion illustration and this search will get you started down a fun historical fashion rabbit hole. The website also has the added benefit of being easy to navigate. Perfect viewing for a lazy summer day when you aren’t feeling particularly academic! I’ve spent most of this sunny holiday weekend drinking lemonade on our deck while hiding from academic projects.

Although I did get into this book from 1918 about learning costume design and illustration….and Ann Lowe was just at the beginning of her fashion career in Tampa in 1918…so maybe this counts as background reading? 😉

Historian’s mailbag: American Fabrics

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That brightly colored cotton swatch is glued onto the page.
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British Vogue, October 1949. Many women were still sewing at home (or getting a seamstress to create their clothes—advertising specific fabrics in fashion magazines made a lot of sense.

In the mail this week? Textile industry trade journals! Maybe that doesn’t sound terribly exciting at first glance, but trade journals are always a great resource if you are looking for period information about industry and manufacturing.  Fashion magazines featured full page advertisements for fabric companies and their latest and greatest fabrics until the 1970s or so (the cotton industry was probably the longest holdout, their Cotton advertisements showed up in fashion magazines into the 1990s.)

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Fabrics used in car upholstery…

But industry journals were geared toward garment and automobile manufactures, so their ads are more technical (and for me, that makes them more interesting!)

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…and in fashion…I love following the history of the different trade names. Crinkltex? There isn’t a whole lot of information around about Crinkltex—this suggest that Cranston debuted it and quickly moved along to another wrinkle-free option.

As a textile historian, the most helpful trade journal I’ve found so far is American Fabrics. This week, I was excited to find some issues in great condition on Ebay.

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This is also a real swatch of fabric. The condition is one of the best things about fabric swatches in catalogs, books and journals—these fabric samples have been shut away from sunlight, grime and water and they look almost as vibrant and crisp as they probably did when they were originally glued to the page.

American Fabrics began publication in the mid 1940s, and they quickly became leaders in the industry because of a new method they developed to add fabric swatches to their pages. While manufacturers regularly added swatches to their production catalogs for use as salesman samples, this was the first time a journal with a significant circulation could do the same. There are around 50 fabric sample swatches in each issue—although that number declines significantly in the 1970s issues I’ve seen. Adding so many swatches was an expensive process. They are SUCH fun to handle though. Vintage clothing (if it isn’t Dead Stock)  and household textiles have often lost their crisp original finishes and can be a bit dull in color from years of washing. These swatches are crisp and bright….they’ve been shut away from light for 60 years!IMG_4868

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These are glued along the top edge, so you can lift the swatch and handle the fabric.
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Many of the samples show natural fabrics mixed with new synthetics.

These issues give such interesting play by play coverage of the growth of the synthetic fiber revolution taking place during the middle of the 20th century.

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This two page advertisement discusses the use of Nylon in Vanity Fair lingerie and three generous samples have been “tipped in”
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Winter 1949. “breath of spring” makes me chuckle a bit here. This poor woman was probably overheating in this nylon sateen gown! I’m *pretty certain* that this isn’t a Lowe gown, although she partnered with the Stehli family during this time period and worked with Nylon during the forties, when it was a new and exciting luxury fabric. The earliest Lowe piece in the Met Museum is a 1940s Nylon Sateen gown.

And….because somedays I feel like I run into Ann Lowe information everywhere, this advertisement for the Stehli fabric company (formerly Stehli Silks and they also expanded into synthetics) is from a period when Mrs. Stehli was a partner in one of Ann’s early Madison Avenue dress shops. I’ve tried to figure out if Ann was able to get a better price on silks with this connection, but it was a brief partnership, and I keep running into dead ends. The Stelhi family member I was able to contact a few years ago didn’t know very much about the supply side of Ann Lowe’s business. This advertisement ALSO has me wondering if an Ann Lowe wedding gown ever appeared in a Stehli silk trade ad…more research rabbit holes to explore!


I’m working on an article about Fiberglas (One “S” is the original trade spelling) fabrics for HFH, and there’s some fantastic and in-depth coverage about the topic in one of these issues of American Fabrics, showing the production process and its “exciting new” use in household textiles. I was thrilled to see Fiberglas fabric swatches and filament samples also—-that I am NOT handling of course…want to avoid getting these samples to shed glass splinters into my fingers!!

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