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.”
Beautiful fashion and Downton Abbey go hand in hand, but most of the costumes worn on the ITV drama were a combination of original elements from vintage garments and new construction.
There’s a good reason for this—the elegant couture fashions of the 1910s and 1920s didn’t hold up very well a hundred years later…colors faded, fabrics weakened and ripped. The weight of thousands of glass beads and the pressure of the thousands of stitches needed to attach them could turn a silk garment to shreds after years and years in storage. To be fair, couture fashions weren’t really intended to last longer than a fashion season, maybe two.
The museum where I work, Winterthur Museum and Garden in Wilmington, Delaware created a blockbuster Downton Abbey costume exhibit a few years ago. It’s safe to say that I visited that exhibit EVERY SINGLE DAY…and not just because I was working in the gallery next door. 🙂
So “recreated” would probably be the best word to describe most of the fashions we see on Downton but from time to time, an original couture piece turns up– in its original state and without any additional modern construction–and when a vintage fashion lover spots one of these gems, it can make them gasp! This happened for me with a completely original, jewel red Fortuny gown worn by Lady Mary. Fortuny was best known for their deeply pleated jewel tones silk gowns. Michelle Dockery is SUCH a lucky actress!
The fashion tradition of Ak-Sar-Ben started with the first coronation in 1895. Ak-Sar-Ben included a parade, horse racing, a ball and a coronation of the festival’s King and Queen. The coronation was the headliner of the multiple day celebration of Nebraska’s vibrant agricultural industry and the Omaha World Herald announced that it would feature “the display of gowns and jewels greater than has ever been seen here before.” The Coronation participants, selected for their family’s contributions to the region in business and community service were dressed in costumes from a Parisian fashion house. These costumes were said to be “beautiful beyond description” at a cost of $7,000. (OWH Sept 5, 1895)
“Beautiful beyond description” could have been a summary of every Ak-Sar-Ben coronation because Court Couturiers brought high fashion to the Omaha event every fall. The leading department stores in the city worked with famous fashion houses in Rome, Paris, London, Beverly Hills and New York City to dress the court. In 1932, four top French designers shared the honor, each designing 1 of the 4 dress designs for the 26 ladies in waiting. Mainbocher and Augusta Bernard each designed a Countess gown while the Houses of Vionett and Lanvin each designed a gown for the Princesses. The World-Herald declined to name the designer of the Queen’s gown that year, but they did announce that all of the gowns were “Paris inspired, but Omaha made” and then continued to describe each dress down to the smallest ruffle or rhinestone.
In 1938, Life magazine sent prized photographer, Margaret Bourke-White to cover the ball. They called it the “Prime event of the corn belt’s social season” and showed the elaborate proceedings of the court including the queen in her $500 gown from Hattie Carnegie. (10/24/38 Life)
The Life Magazine exposure is an interesting side note in Ak-Sar-Ben’s history, but historically, the Omaha World-Herald’s coverage is much more important. This annual newspaper coverage created a robust archive for costume historians in a very surprising location. It is incredible to note that examples of the work of Norman Hartnell, who worked as Queen Elizabeth II’s official couturier, and other designers at the height of their popularity like Oscar de La Renta, Hattie Carnegie or Geoffery Beene have been described in detail in the pages of the Omaha World Herald.
In 1963, the house of Sorelle Fontana, an Italian fashion house, based in Rome was hired for the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns. If you remember the unique designs Ann Lowe created for the 1961 ball, and look carefully at these Fontana dresses, you’ll notice something interesting. Fontana simplified her work by creating two basic silk “shells” and embellishing them with different motifs for the countesses and princesses. Dozens of beautiful dresses were the result, but we can’t deny that a shortcut was used—probably to make this order profitable.
The next year, Norman Hartnell took charge. The young ladies of Ak-Sar-Ben were probably thrilled to find out that their gowns were being designed by Queen Elizabeth’s couturier! And Hartnell did not disappoint. He also followed the cost-cutting tradition of using a small number of dress shell designs and embellishing them with unique motifs for each attendant’s role. The Queen gown was definitely modeled after gowns created for Queen Elizabeth II.
Ak-Sar-Ben was a little mysterious for the designers who were commissioned to dress its court. The coronation took place in a huge hall named the Coliseum, in front of an audience of 10,000. Bold and dramatic gowns were needed to make the court members stand out amongst the grand surroundings. Sometimes a court couturier needed a bit of guidance to deliver gowns with the right sense of scale and tone. “How can a famous high fashion couturier design gowns for the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation” the World-Herald asked, “when he’s never heard of Ak-Sar-Ben? Or for that matter, has never been to Nebraska?” Oscar de la Renta’s early designs for the 1970 ball required this kind of assistance. “When we saw the sketches of the dresses,” the head of the Women’s Ball committee recalled, “I asked that the skirts be made a little fuller. He was still thinking in terms of one dress for a collection rather than a lot of them all together and we wanted it to be more costumey.”
Ak-Sar-Ben gowns were ordered from couture fashion houses until the early 1970s, so it would be difficult to give more than a snapshot of the wide range of gowns created over 75 years. Identifying the designers through each year would be possible through a lengthy review of The Omaha World Herald’s fashion articles. I *wish* I had time to take on a project like this!! And unfortunately, even the Ak-Sar-Ben organization never had a chance to put research time into their event’s fascinating fashion history!! At some point in the late 1960s, the secrecy of the designer information was lifted and profiles of the designer were included in the newspaper’s coverage leading up to the ball.
If you are feeling inspired to find out more and you have time to research these gowns, take a look at the Omaha World Herald every Fall between 1895 and 1975 and please report back 😉 . The Durham Museum is also a helpful source. They have some Ak-Sar-Ben gowns in their collection, and they have created themed Ak-Sar-Ben exhibits from time to time. As a historian who has spent a great deal of my time with Ann Lowe’s work, I’m a bit impartial when it comes to ranking the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns! I agree with something a former countess told me when she recalled that her mother, who had attended many coronations, believed that Ann Lowe’s year “was the best year as to dress and our looking like a fairytale.”
Here are a few other dresses from different eras of Ak-Sar-Ben. : This gown from 1947 is in the collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society. It was designed by Kathryn Kuhn, who also designed dresses for Hollywood stars like Sonja Henie.
This is a portrait of an Ak-Sar-Ben gown worn in the late 1950s. The painting is in the collection of the Museum of Nebraska Art.
Closing with a bonus mystery gown that I just found on pinterest! This dress sold on Etsy and was described as a 1930s gown worn by an Ak-Sar-Ben queen…Intriguing and Glittery!!
The model on the cover of the 1952 Fall/Winter Lane Bryant catalog is all smiles. She is standing with a hand raised to her mouth and shouting to her friends (who are all out of the camera’s range) in a buttoned, full-length camel hair coat:
“Calling All Chubbies!”
The words “Calling All Chubbies” appear in bold script beside her. Inside, each illustrated plus-sized model is introduced as a “Chub.” The text underneath an illustration of a blond high school student in a tweed coat reads, “Let it snow, let it blow, Chub’s snug in her fur-collar storm coat!”
More than sixty years later, it is difficult to imagine that this text was intended for the approving eyes of teenagers and their parents. Why would a business that was created out of a female designer’s respect for women with unique wardrobe needs select advertising copy with derogatory text?
Although a high number of women in the United States wear plus-sized clothing, it may be surprising to know that the ready to wear plus-sized clothing business has only existed since the early 20th century. As a pioneer in this type of women’s clothing, Lane Bryant has produced print advertising for its plus-sized clothing lines since 1917. This early start provides a substantial view of trends in plus-sized advertising. The most notable differences from decade to decade can be observed in the terminology, images and narrative voice used in each advertisement.
Following ninety years of Lane Bryant print advertisements and catalog pages also gives a unique view of the changing climate of the women’s clothing industry and its treatment of the issues faced by women who were struggling with physical conditions that were not socially acceptable. The advertisements touch upon themes of shame, change and concealment while eventually shifting towards acceptance, and the reclaiming of personal power, self-esteem and sensuality.
Lane Bryant opened for business in 1904 as a small dressmaking boutique run by Lena Bryant in Manhattan. Dressmaking was a common career choice for businesswomen in the early 20th century, and Bryant’s boutique offered simple and otherwise unremarkable daywear in traditional sizes.
Bryant’s first attempts at ‘non-traditional’ sized clothing were aimed towards expectant mothers. At some point during that first year, Bryant took a customer order for an outfit that would be “presentable but comfortable to wear on the street” during pregnancy.[i] The dress Bryant created may have been the earliest ready to wear maternity dress available in the United States. The custom order was so successful that Bryant made the design available as a ready to wear piece in her shop. The dress featured, “an elasticized waistband and an accordion-pleated skirt.”[ii] The comparatively modest price of 18 dollars made the garment accessible to the middle class. Lena’s designs sold more than $50,000 of clothing a year by 1910, an especially impressive figure when the state of maternity advertising during this period is considered.[iii]
The most popular designs in Lena Bryant’s shop were the ones that could not be properly advertised because of the modest social climate of the day. Pregnancy was considered to be a condition society preferred to keep private at the time, and the first advertisement for Bryant’s maternity wear line would not appear until 1911 in the New York Herald. The first line of the advertisement read, “Maternity wardrobes that do not attract attention”[iv] The maternity items in Bryant’s shop sold out the day after the first ad appeared.[v]
Around 1917, Bryant returned to her customer’s requests for inspiration for new designs and in response to letters with questions like, “it seems as if some way should be found for us to walk into a store and buy comfortable and also stylish clothes as easily as our slimmer sisters do?” Bryant developed a new clothing line for “stout” women.[vi] Bryant’s second husband and business partner, Albert Malsin researched the market to determine the long-term viability of a “stout” clothing line by comparing the measurements of thousands of previous customers with measurement figures taken from the records of life insurance companies.
Malsin determined that “stout” customers made up at least 40% of the women who would purchase ready made clothing.[vii] Sales of the plus-sized line were successful and once more, Bryant’s ideas were leading the market and serving a wide audience that had never been able to purchase ready to wear clothing.
Advertising clothing in larger sizes was more acceptable than advertising maternity wear, although the shame felt by overweight women became an issue. At the same time Lane Bryant catalogs were “Calling All Chubbies” they were also producing copy inside the store that demonstrated sensitivity to the feelings of their customers. An article in a 1951 advertising journal, Kiplinger Magazine describes a window banner used in Lane Bryant stores that winter. “A window sign at Lane Bryant doesn’t say, “New silk prints for spring, sizes 38 to 60,” but “New silk prints for spring in your very own size.” A lot of difference.”[viii] This delicate text suggests that the terms “chubby,” “chubbies” and “chub” were also acceptable during this period.
After the first 1911 advertisement in the New York Herald, Lane Bryant earned the freedom to advertise their line of maternity wear broadly. A 1912 advertisement in Good Housekeeping features lengthy text about the value of the company’s maternity wear, “unequalled in style and hygienic excellence.” The illustration of a slender young woman in a tightly belted afternoon dress suggests that the public climate for such advertising did have its limits.
A 1913 trade advertisement in Cloak and Suit Review announcing the new fall and winter wholesale line states, “The universal demand for LANE BRYANT garments has prompted the establishment of this exclusive wholesale department.” The notice assured retailers that “the LANE BRYANT MATERNITY MODELS differ outwardly in no way from the most fashionable styles for regular wear and are made in all materials from a simple wash dress to an elaborate evening gown.”
The message advertised directly to the customer that year gave a similar message promising that, “attractive models in fashionable materials,” were “designed to form a well balanced figure and expand as desired. Our assortment for this purpose embraces everything for the smart wardrobe.” This catalog was titled, “W Expectations and Styles.”
In 1914, Lane Bryant worked around the controversial issues created by showing their products in use by simply pairing a pen and ink drawing of their Maternity Skirt with simple text. “Maternity Attire. Simplicity of Attire becomes an absolute necessity for the young mother in anticipation.” They announced, “As originators of this specialty we boast a thorough knowledge of the figure and its needs at this time.”
Their 1917 Maternity Corset advertisement claimed to “assure the health of the infant” while creating “the long waisted effect that makes the change imperceptible.” The photograph is notable because it appears to show a woman in the early stages of pregnancy wearing the product.
In 1919, an advertisement in Mothers Magazine encouraged “expectant mothers” to write for this “beautiful style book” with a cheerful advertising style which would be used again in an advertisement for their 1940 Maternity stylebook. The1 940 advertisement clearly shows pregnant women on the cover of the catalog, along with a small illustration of an actual infant. This may have been one of the earliest advertisements to show both the pregnant woman in her condition and the end result of the condition.
The public’s impression of pregnancy appeared to be shifting by the 1950s. A more open or daring advertising campaign on behalf of Lane Bryant might have been expected. Lucille Ball presented an historic public pregnancy on I Love Lucy in 1953. The tone of a 1954 advertisement however steps away from this progress and continues to broadcast the social delicacy implied by the condition of pregnancy. The ad promises the “Mother to be” that “Nobody-will-know maternity fashions” can be found at Lane Bryant.
Maternity wear was discontinued by Lane Bryant at some point during the late 1960s or early 1970s. Although it was financially successful, new management at decided to focus their company’s resources on the most profitable products, the plus-sized clothing line.[ix]
Plus Sized Clothing
“Designing models for women who require extra sizes is an art in itself” Lane Bryant announced in a 1919 Advertisement in the May 31 Reform Advocate. Bryant promised “Individualized Apparel for Stout Women.” Another advertisement published that year in Good Housekeeping features an illustration of a “stout” woman sitting in what appears to be a somewhat troubled pose and explains, “Your appearance is more a matter of clothes than a matter of actual weight.” Lane Bryant promised that their clothes were, “cleverly designed to reduce the apparent size” making the wearer “appear smaller by pounds” The main goal of this 1919 wardrobe is concealment, not style and not comfort.
An advertisement in the March 1921 Ladies Home Journal features another stylish “stout” woman and states the promise of supplying “New York and Paris fashions” and “Ultra modish clothes with slenderizing lines.”
In 1923, a group of 3 “stout” women with very realistic body shapes are shown around the simple advertising copy, “Dress fashionable. Look Slender.”
Lane Bryant continued to broadcast this message of providing a slenderizing modern wardrobe throughout the 1930s and 1940s, although the women used in these ads appear to be the same size as a modern (21st century) size 12. The 1943 advertisement for the latest “Stout Woman Style Book” shows a woman in a rayon day dress and another in a gabardine twill slack suit. Both have full faces, but average sized bodies.
These new designs are guaranteed to “Outsmart Nature!” and allow the women to “Look slimmer! Lovlier and smarter!” It is possible that the artist was assigned with the task of showing the effect that a Lane Bryant customer could hope to achieve with her new wardrobe, instead of the former approach of illustrating a woman of plus size in a dress from the line.
The first reference to “Chubbies” appears to show up in the early 1950s. The terms seems to be a “fun” term coined by the marketing team at Lane Bryant to refer to their younger line. Another teen line, the “Junior Plenty” line was also available.[x]Surprisingly, the use of the term “chubby” was created to foster a sense of community among the younger customers at Lane Bryant.
This effort was described in Kiplinger Magazine in 1951:
“A big part of the crusade to make Lane Bryant customers feel as if they belong to a large club is a wide-spread public relations program…32,500 children have been enrolled in Chubby Clubs all over the nation. They attend meetings, parties and fashion shows and receive a bi-monthly newspaper called the Chubby Club News. It contains fashions for fat girls and such features as the autobiography of a movie star titled, “I was a Chubby.”[xi]
With this intention in mind, it is possible to see that the advertisement in support of the “Free Chubby Style Book” was intended to be a positive catalog for children who had ‘figure problems’. Although the girls were “too chubby to fit into regular sizes,” they could come to Lane Bryant and get the latest styles and look just like their ‘regular sized’ friends without paying more for their special sizing.
The young women in the “Calling All Chubbies” catalog are presented in the same “fun” way. It is unclear how long the “chubby” campaign lasted in stores, although it became a term used throughout the industry until at least the mid 1970s. Viewing this campaign from a modern perspective, it is surprising to have not found any indication of a backlash from customers requesting a change in terminology. “stout” seems to be more sensitive than “chubby,” and it is interesting to note that “stout” was also dropped at some point, when Lane Bryant and other clothing stores switched to more a more modern approach.
Lane Bryant of the late 20th Century suggested a quest for self-confidence, acceptance and the power of personal style. A 1978 advertisement in Jet Magazine is notable for the use of a new tagline, “You don’t have to be Thin to look terrific.” The model is a stylish and very modern thirty something in a 3-piece suit. She displays a sense of confidence and sensuality that is not present in the earlier examples. The new catalog announces “500 terrific new fashions that feature “size 8” styling in Large and Half Sizes.”
The message at Lane Bryant in 2011 builds upon that 1970s sense of “terrific!” A new confident energy is introduced that is a complete turn away from the 1919 promise of “making the wearer appear smaller in pounds.” In an online banner advertisement a stylish, young and definitely plus-sized woman is dressed in a silk blouse with a low V-neckline and a stylishly cropped black jacket. She glances coyly over her right shoulder. The words printed beside her read, “bold. modern. you.” This woman is no different than a “traditional-sized” woman and Lane Bryant is there to give her the stylish and even sexy clothing choices she is looking for. No sense of shame is being broadcast through this photo. The model is not there to “slenderize her appearance,” she is not even being reminded of a need to lose weight or appear to be “as terrific” as a “thin” woman. She isn’t being called upon to become a member of a special “Chubby Club.” The modern Lane Bryant woman is as confident, as beautiful, as “terrific” as anybody else simply because she is able to select fashionable clothing pieces that allow her to be herself.
The commercial linked below is from 2015 and when you consider where Lane Bryant’s advertising was 100 years earlier? What an amazing step forward.
Historian’s note: Many of the advertisements listed here pop up when searching through Google Books—-that’s why you’ll see the tell-tale bright yellow highlighting over related search terms in each ad. The blue highlighting on some of the other images indicates results from a Google Newspaper search (back in the days when Google was committing resources to an archival newspaper project) The newspaper project was stopped, but Google Books is still a fantastic source for magazine advertising from the early 20th century. A more tech-savvy blogger would know how to remove those colorful (and distracting!) highlights, but since I can’t figure out how to remove them, at least I can explain why they are there.
 Compared to the cost of a custom made dress from a dressmaker. 18 dollars was still an expensive dress for the average American family at this time.
 Upon request, Lane Bryant would ship its packages in plain brown paper wrapping without any kind of company identification. “They Sell to Bashful Customers.” Kiplinger Magazine, May 1951, 16.
 Plus sized girls clothing lines were referred to as “Chubby” and Boys lines were “Husky” in popular department store catalogs like Sears and J.C. Penney throughout the 1970s, and a clothing line named “Chubettes existed in the 1950s and 60s.
[i] Lena Bryant Malasin: Fashion Revolutionary.” http://www.ajhs.org/scholarship/chapters/chapter.cfm?documentID=283
I’m spending a lot of time in 1929 today. March 3rd to be exact. Ann Lowe moved to New York (from Florida) around that time, and taking a look at the New York Times from that period is helping to set the scene a bit. Ann lived in Harlem and operated her business from a small manhattan workroom. Of course her business was not large enough to place ads in the Times, but her work was competing with the stores that were advertising dresses—especially the ones advertising Paris copies:
A little while ago, I blogged about archive.org. The New York Times is a fantastic supplement to that website. You can start with a search, and pick a date range— but once you select an article, you actually have the chance to switch views and see a full pdf of the paper as it originally appeared. You can turn all of the pages, zoom in to get a closer look. A great way to use archival news sources to get a feel for the everyday. And such a great way to find out more about the women’s clothing businesses that were advertising to an affluent audience. Google was creating an amazing newspaper archive around 5 years ago, an international newspaper archive with a search function that was OUTSTANDING for any researcher—but then they stopped developing it, and it slowly faded away.
Are you familiar with Archive.org? The Internet Wayback Machine is a part of it, but there’s also so much more to find there. It is sort of like combining Google Books, the dusty stacks of your favorite old library and youtube– there’s a LOT of information on this website, and searching can get a bit overwhelming and noisy until you learn to narrow down your searches.
The site compiles scans of thousands of books (that are out of copyright and now public domain, I think?So mainly before the late 1920s) along with trade catalogs and magazines.
These are views of Charles Worth’s Paris Salon in the 1920s. Some of Ann Lowe’s clients would have visited these very rooms during their trips to France! Seeing this kind of primary source helps to set scenes:
How do I use these sources? I use this site on days when I’m hoping to find the kinds of articles and illustrations which would have inspired an early 20th century dressmaker (like Ann Lowe), but I’m stuck at home and I don’t have a library to wander through.
And I also use this site when I don’t feel like thinking very hard and I want to find some neat film clips. If I’m writing about 1970’s New York City and I need some real views of the streets and the people? Archive. org to the rescue!! This website is also home to the Prellinger Archive and that makes it such fun research for vintage news clips and other films that are too long to be for news shows—but too short to stand alone. I’m not sure where you would have been able to see this Harper’s Bazaar fashion update originally—but here we go. I’m cheating a bit here because this clip is being shared here through youtube, but I found it first on archive.org:
Advertisements are another truly entertaining part of this site…an early advertisement for an ELECTRIC sewing machine:
And what car demonstrated the height of technology and elegance in the 1920s London?
And how much was a dress length of silk in 1899, anyway? Ann Lowe’s mother would have looked in a dry goods catalog similar to this one:
When you don’t have a library to wander through, archive.org can be the next best thing.
If you need a few links to get you started down a fashion history rabbit hole or two:
If I ever thought about carpet bags before I became interested in textile history, the object in mind was a large satchel. A dusty flower patterned suitcase that gets loaded onto a stage in an episode of Little House on the Prairie or Dr.Quinn: Medicine Woman.
Carpet bags were a smart way for 19th century carpet factories to use up carpet remnants. Some factories sold these remnants to luggage companies while other carpet companies manufactured their own bags.
Carpet bags were designed in a number of styles. Consumers liked them because the carpet pile was very sturdy and worked well when you wanted something soft and colorful but also strong. Carpet remnants were also used to upholster footstools and folding chairs.This bag belongs to me and it is a document bag (another great Ebay find!) sort of a carpet bag briefcase! This style of bag, with a similar clasp and tape binding was probably produced by a number of companies, but two other examples I’ve seen (at the museum where I work) were each produced by a Massachusetts company: Bagley & Carleton from carpet produced by the Bigelow Carpet Company. The company name was stamped on the lining. These were a common type of bag used around the Civil War time period, but this example was probably a later bag, made around the 1870s or so. My bag shares many design similarities with the Bagley & Carleton document bags, but I think that the lining in my bag was replaced (so there isn’t a manufacturer’s mark) and while I’m dying to know if scraps of the original lining remain under the dark brown cotton fabric, I’ll just have to continue to wonder.
Carpets were woven with wool fiber on linen or jute warps. The Bigelow carpet company specialized in Brussels carpet. Brussels bags have this looped style of woven pile. Another style of carpet called Wilton carpet was a plush carpet created when the loops of the Brussels style were cut during the weaving process. Wilton carpet was also used for carpet bags, but that extra cutting step made it a more expensive option. Those Wilton bags have a velvet look and soft feel. Brussels carpet is (wonderfully!) ‘scritchy’ and bumpy when you touch it.
As a new collector, I have a very small collection of textiles and my budget is the main factor to determine what I will collect. You could say that this bag has great bones. The construction is remarkably intact for its age: It is missing a few small brass hook and eyes and there are just a few spots of bare carpet (that is called weft loss because the wool is used as the weft yarn (the rows that run left to right in a woven fabric while the warps run up and down) The construction is truly “Grade A” But honestly? The color scheme is a bit blah—okay, it is A LOT blah. It might even be described as a bit (gasp!) UGLY and that’s one thing that made this affordable.
There’s a teeny tiny splash of red and green, but the bag is mainly brown. I was really excited to see ANY red or bright green on this bag, considering the low price. Brightly colored examples are usually in the highest demand. If you are buying it for decoration instead of an interest in textile history, you can put it in a room that is inspired by that time period if the bags are bright and pretty enough. The examples at my workplace have great colors, but they are owned by a MUSEUM, so you’d expect that.
The replaced lining on my bag may have also contributed to a lower price, but when I look a little bit closer, the lining has some wear from use, and it was carefully hand stitched so this isn’t the original cream colored linen lining, but it may have been a 19th century repair.
The handle is very interesting. It is also an interesting example of how much we can actually learn from damaged objects and why even damaged objects can be valuable to a museum’s study collection. Months before I purchased my bag, I was cataloguing a document carpet bag at work. That bag has a detached handle and many elements of the bag’s construction are visible. My bag’s handle is intact! There is some wear to the carpet pile from the mysterious 19th Century era person (probably a man) who held and carried it, but it is firmly stitched to the bag on both sides. From just staring at my bag, I would not realize that the handle was produced by wrapping a piece of carpet around a length of jute rope.
I think that buying the best examples that you can afford is a good tip when you are collecting. If you want a carpet bag that is colorful because you are a nut for 19th Century dyes, buy the brightest example that makes you the happiest–even if the overall structure has seen better days. The large sections of bright red wool will make you smile and you might learn interesting things from the “broken” areas. I simply wanted a 19th century Brussels carpet bag because I was really interested in learning more about them after I researched one in our collection at work. I was interested in the most “intact” example that I could afford and the tiny splash of color (because I am a nut for 19th Century dyes) was a bonus.
**I post links to other websites and businesses if there is something interesting or helpful at the site, but I just want to let you know that I do not receive any kind of compensation or revenue if you click on them –Margaret
The man in that picture is Wesley Tann. He created maternity dresses for Jacqueline Kennedy! He also dressed Leontyne Price. He sold his daywear designs at Neiman Marcus and other highly regarded Manhattan department stores and he was the first black man to open a fashion salon on Seventh Avenue. Does this surprise you?
One of the most interesting things that I’ve learned about the 20th Century custom clothing business in New York City is that there were dozens and dozens (probably even hundreds) of independent dressmakers. White women, black women and even black men set up shop in small rented workrooms in buildings along important streets in the fashion district like Seventh Avenue and Madison Avenue. They met with their clients, sketched their designs and created custom wardrobes, very often inspired by the latest designs from Paris. They were in business for years, and a number of the designers I’ve come across sewed for some very elite clients, but I’d never heard of their businesses.
You can look through the 1950s or 1960s want ads of the New York Times and see dozens of ads for seamstresses, finishers, drapers, etc. These businesses provided work for hundreds of people.
But back to Tann. He was born in 1928. His mother taught him to sew as he was growing up in North Carolina. When his parents died, he became the ward of Adam Clayton Powell—an old family friend. This introduced Tann to a completely new world in Washington, DC. Tann received an excellent high school education and trained at the Hartford Art School of Fashion. He had a strong business sense (and unlike a number of other independent designers) he managed his business well. His business was profiled, along with some other smaller fashion designers in the New York Times on April 9, 1963. His work was featured in the fashion section of the Times more than a dozen times.
Tann chose to leave the fashion industry in the early 1970s. He’d been one of a small handful of African American designers in business for years, and he was successful–but the difficulties of dealing with the racism of some of the local suppliers was one of the factors Tann mentioned when he told interviewers about closing his business.
Tann began a second career as an etiquette coach in his hometown of Newark, NJ. He taught workshops on home sewing along with etiquette classes for the young people of Newark. Tann died in 2012.
Sometimes you drop the ball as a researcher, unfortunately. I never got the chance to meet Mr. Tann or discuss his work, but this was my own fault. I followed a trail of 1960s fashion breadcrumbs through the pages of the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily while I was knee deep in graduate school and I mailed a letter to Mr. Tann to request an interview but I didn’t get the chance to follow up with a phone call or go the extra mile to connect with him and he passed away about a year later. Going the extra mile is essential when you are reaching people for interview requests. You can’t be shy, you just have to take a step out there and meet people. Missing a chance to meet Mr. Tann taught me that lesson.
I bet he would have been a fascinating man to talk with about the fashion industry! Details about his career and educational background, when held next to Ann Lowe’s are especially interesting. Lowe’s formal dresses sold for around $500 at Henri Bendel , and in a different department at the same store, Tann’s daywear sold for around $100. Tann had the educational background necessary to run the financial side of his business effectively. That was one of Ann Lowe’s weak spots. They worked within blocks of each other and they both left the industry at the same time, although Lowe’s final shop closed in the early 1970s because of financial strain and illness.
One day, I would love to find out how many African American fashion designers were designing clothing at major New York department stores during the 1950s and 1960s. I know of four so far, and I’m planning to tell you about some of the others in later articles, but Tann is the only man in the bunch.
Although I missed my opportunity to meet Wesley Tann, I hope to interview some of his family and acquaintances and focus on Tann’s work with a scholarly article in the future. He really deserves to be known.
The articles listed below are worth reading, although let me warn you that the first article will make you sad that you also missed out on an opportunity to meet Mr. Tann. He must have been quite a character!