Category Archives: Let’s talk about segregation

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!  🙂

 

 

 

 

Gasparilla

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Telling Ann Lowe’s story is interesting from a contemporary perspective because her narrative isn’t one that 21st century Americans are always comfortable hearing.  Very often, over her more than 50 year career, she was commissioned to create dresses for events that were “white only.”

Segregated social interactions are  a very real part of our country’s social fabric–and in many parts of the country, this has only begun to break down in the last 30 years. Lowe did have some African American clients, and I’ve found  examples of custom Ann Lowe dresses for black women from as early as the 1940s, but most of the dresses created in her salons were worn by upper class white women for events Ann Lowe would not have been able to attend because of her race.

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Yes, this is a typical Ann Lowe client. Upper class, from the East Coast (probably lives on Park Avenue for part of the year) and white. My own photo of a (privately held) Lowe fashion show program from the mid 1960s.

An average price for an Ann Lowe Original in the mid 1950s was $500.  Ann Lowe was a business woman, and while most people wouldn’t even notice that white designers (and Lowe’s competitors)  like Mainbocher or Hattie Carnegie were also dressing white women to attend “white only” events, for some reason, a modern audience expects a black designer from that era to use her work to show a certain amount of civil disobedience and publicly fight against racial injustice.  An easy thing for a 21st century American to want to have happened, but unrealistic when you consider the time period of Lowe’s work (1916 -1970).

From my perspective as an historian? I welcome that bit of discomfort because it pushes the conversation forward.  Let’s look at it. We’re not sugar coating the issue and we’re also not stepping away from or stepping around it. We’re presenting it realistically: Like thousands of other people of color, Ann Lowe fought against social injustice quietly and in her own way by excelling at her work, knocking down doors that were usually closed to black fashion designers, hiring and training women of color to follow in her footsteps and reaching out to her community along the way.


So, with that said—-let’s move into GASPARILLA:


 

Some of Ann’s earliest work was for Tampa’s Gasparilla court and ball.

Gasparilla?

An annual festival held in Tampa every winter when a pirate ship invades Tampa Bay at the end of January. Gasparilla has a controversial history that is important to know about up front,  related to racism—and the racist nature of Gasparilla was only confronted publicly when the 1991 Superbowl brought a national spotlight on the event’s restrictive history. More than twenty years later and the event has gone through waves of becoming slightly more representative of the Tampa community.

 From the New York Times article in the 2nd link, “One critic, a lawyer named Warren Dawson, said: ”It was a bunch of white guys dressed up as pirates, swigging joy-juice and throwing coins, and this time they were going to televise it before the whole world.”

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The Court in 1924: Egyptian themed Source: Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla
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Unfortunately, no full court picture appears to exist from the 1926 coronation. But this dress was worn by a court member. I was so excited to see this gown in person and take detailed photos of the beadwork that I forgot to take a full picture of the entire dress. Thankfully, the Plant museum’s curator was very kind to take a picture when I was back home and realized my mistake! Source: Henry B Plant Museum

The event began in 1904 and all related events were white only. The main event was the coronation ball where a King and Queen were selected (from Tampa high society) and a court of attendants. In the very grand days of the 1920s, Ann Lowe was the go to designer for dresses that would stand out and sparkle. She dressed 5 courts between the years 1924 and 1929. But she also created dresses for the women who attended the ball for dozens of years.

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A closer look at the beading on a court member’s gown from 1926. My own photo from 2012.
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Another detailed photo from my 2012 visit.
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Just throwing in this photo because of the fun behind the scenes look it gives: That gold lame fabric from 1926 actually held up pretty well! My own photo from 2012 at the Plant Museum.

Gasparilla gowns have amazingly detailed bead work. This red and gold example is covered in a blanket of beads on gold lame and silk taffeta, and each bead is set individually on the fabric. If you broke a thread, you’d only lose a bead or maybe two. If a thread on a competitor’s dress ripped, you could lose dozens of beads at once.

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This dress was made for a Gasparilla court member by Lowe in the late 1950s: ordered from her New York salon. Source: Henry B. Plant Museum, Tampa

Ann Lowe’s dresses were legendary in the Tampa Yacht Club social set that attended the ball and even when I visited Tampa a few years ago, I was amazed to see how warmly the granddaughters of 1920s Gasparilla court members talked about Ann’s dresses.

These were loved and worn to shreds by little girls all over Tampa while they were busy playing dress up years after their grandmothers originally wore these beautiful gowns at the Gasparilla ball. A number of these probably still exist privately, in cedar chests and closets and they do turn up as donations to local museums from time to time.

The beading on the 1950s dress is worth a closer look: Pussy willows are created with bits of rolled tulle on a heavily beaded background. The Henry B. Plant Museum, on the campus of the University of Tampa is an excellent source for information about Tampa history and Ann Lowe. It’s also a neat place to visit because the main building on the University of Tampa campus was originally the Tampa Bay Hotel, a high end hotel that hosted events where Ann Lowe’s dresses were worn throughout the teens and twenties.

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Alot of shadows in this picture, but you get an idea of the gorgeous bead work.

 

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My own picture taken at the Plant Museum in 2012. I had to get some close ups of these pussywillows!

 

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Probably my favorite court year: 1928. The Queen’s gown shows the amazing silk rose flower design that Lowe would revisit throughout her career, but this is the earliest photographed example.

 Hiheadshotstorian’s Note: Most of the Ann Lowe dresses I’ll bring up on Hidden Fashion History were created for events that were white only, so rather than revisit the topic of segregation each time, I thought it would be helpful to confront it in depth once.

-Margaret