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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
The 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
…when you are searching for pristine vintage clothes or household textiles.
If you are interested in building up a collection of vintage clothes, but you’ve outgrown wearing used clothes (Boy, have I been there: that 1960s lambswool Saks Fifth Avenue “Young Generation” sweater dress I found at goodwill for five dollars sure was cute to wear as a college kid, but once you are out of school and working full-time, you can only wear so many vintage rhinestone brooches at one time to cover a group of moth holes before your coworkers catch on! Trust me on this one!)
So if you absolutely love adding vintage pieces to your wardrobe, but “Shabby Chic” has lost its charming allure? You, my friend are ready to make the jump from USED to VINTAGE and there are some helpful time saving search terms that you should know:
New Old Stock (often abbreviated NOS)
Old Store Inventory
Three different terms, but they all mean the same thing: Unsold store stock.
Add these terms to a google search or a vintage clothing search on eBay and you will turn up amazing, and completely unworn clothing—from as early as the 1920s and very often with the original store tags! Ebay has a great info page about New Old Stock with some helpful pointers.
There are some important things to keep in mind:
SIZE: When you have the chance to try things on in a vintage store, the size tag is a general guideline. I usually ignore size tags, eyeball the garment for fit while I’m picking out things to try on and make my final decisions in the dressing room. Online, you’ll want to go by the seller’s MEASUREMENTS of the garment, NOT the number size. A size 8 in 2016 will not fit in a size 8 from the 1940s.
MATERIAL: My favorite example to illustrate this tip is a hip household textile that you can find online, very often still in the original packaging: Fiberglass curtains were an invention of the 1950s and early 1960s. They were available in bright, space-aged patterns and were advertised as an easy care option for the modern home. You can find dozens of them on Ebay and Etsy right now. They are mid-century modern to a T. They are amazingly cute!! What could possibly go wrong here?
Well, when you handled these to hang them up and especially if you washed these in the household washing machine, the curtains actually SHED FIBERGLASS into your hands, face, lungs, washing machine, dryer– spreading it to everything else you washed and getting splinters (of FIBERGLASS) all over your house when you moved the curtain from the washer to the dryer. Fiberglass curtains were quickly taken off of the market when the severity of this problem was discovered. And that’s why so many pristine examples turn up on the vintage market.
This is one of the more extreme examples, and you won’t run into a similar problem with clothing. But there are a few other things to consider:
Allergies: you may run into sensitivities to dyes used in clothing or jewelry from the 1920s-1950s. If you have sensitive skin, you might want to wear an extra layer underneath. Mixed metals in early costume jewelry can also be a problem if you are allergic to Nickel.
Running Dyes: Some dyes may transfer their colors to other clothing: that bright red blouse from the 1930s might rub color all over the white pants you are wearing it with.
THERE’S A SOLUTION TO THIS: You can always take an extra step with your first wash and soak the garment in a water/vinegar mix to help set a running dye.
Fragile fabrics: Consider the material before you buy. A silk dress from the 1920s may LOOK beautiful, but older silk can be problematic and even unworn silk clothes can begin to “shatter” or fall apart.
I hand wash and line dry all of my vintage clothes. Old elastic can stretch, bakelite buttons can chip or break if they are knocked around a lot in a spin cycle. Colors will also stay brighter longer with gentle washing. If you have vintage suits, take them to a trusted dry cleaner (please oh please not a 1.99 a piece dry cleaning chain) Takes a few extra minutes, but you worked hard to find these gorgeous clothes, and they’ve waited for 50, 60 or maybe even 70 years to find their way to your closet! So shouldn’t you take a little extra time to keep them pretty?
Shopping for dead Stock clothes and accessories can be so much fun, and they can make your wardrobe unique and authentically classic. If you keep a few guidelines in mind, you’ll be happy with your purchases for years to come.
When my Ann Lowe research led me to a hunt for very detailed recaps of Paris fashion shows she attended, my usual sources covered the topics in a frustrating and broad way. American newspapers gave the shows drive-by coverage.
American Vogue was OKAY, but their focus was more on the styles that were being translated into Paris copies. British Vogue was MUCH better—although a bit hard to get your hands on—and French Vogue would have been an outstanding source, if I understood French.
I’m not quite sure why an Australian Newspaper Archive is such a fabulous source for detailed recaps of couture fashion shows in London, Paris and New York. But a newspaper search on the TROVE website brings back amazing results–mostly from “Australian Women’s Weekly.”Play with the date ranges and the keywords, and you’ll have hours worth of browsing ahead of you! Along with the amazing search functions, it is very easy to download pdfs and jpgs. I’m sure this would be helpful for topics outside of fashion too, so TROVE might be worth checking out whenever you are on a source hunt!
The first time I held a shoe from the 18th century, it was a little silk slipper being passed around my costume history class. Yes, my amazing costumer instructor regularly brought dozens of objects from her personal collection to the Smithsonian Castle (home base for my grad program) and we handled them and viewed them up close during lectures.
The little silk slipper was a “straight” which means that it was not shaped especially for a left or right foot and the fabric was a creamy silk damask with a colorful floral design—-probably made from Spitalfields silk. I was actually amazed to see that it was designed to match a dress, and not just a white kid leather slipper, but matching fabric shoes were actually very common.
I’ve never known very much about shoes, but I’m cataloguing some at work right now, I picked them as a plan B one day because the room large enough to lay out full length garments for photography was being used by someone else, so I needed to work with something small.
I’ve been working with silk and leather ankle boots, children’s boots, silk slippers with very low heels, silk heeled shoes and something kind of amazing. A heeled shoe that fits and ties into a flat leather base. The base is called a patten and it looks sort of like a sandal when it is empty. Add a shoe and you’ve got a high heel shoe that operates more like a flat.
Wouldn’t that be a great idea when you are in heels and it is raining and you are trying to get to the metro or catch a bus or something? 🙂
Women only wore pattens outside, and some were even raised to help navigate through muddy streets—or to at least get you from your carriage to the front door of the opera house, I think.
Our pair has a patten that doesn’t exactly fit the shoe. Not knowing a whole lot about shoes from this period, I didn’t realize this until I dug into some books and looked for some other examples. That’s one really interesting thing about my line of work. You can think you know SO much about something, and then you can turn a page or two and and realize that you, my dear, are just at the tip of the iceberg and thank goodness you didn’t finish writing this object’s description before you actually did some more digging to see what experts already thought about this design. These two objects are in our collection together to show their function—but they weren’t worn together and now I know that.
Imagine what Nike could have done with this concept! Too bad it fell out of favor before the 1800s.
Ellen Stewart. It can be a bit daunting to think of what people could have accomplished during the 20th century if the world had been a bit more like it is right now. Let’s take Ellen Stewart, for instance.
Five years ago, when I was looking for information about Ann Lowe’s work at Saks Fifth Avenue for my Master’s thesis, another black designer’s name began to pop up: Ellen Stewart. You may find some writers crediting Ann Lowe as the first African American designer to head a department at Saks Fifth Avenue—I’d proudly written something like that in an early draft of my thesis and had to cross it all out after finding out about Ellen Stewart. She was a dress designer with her own department at Saks in the 1950s—instead of ball gowns, she designed daywear and cocktail dresses and she sold them in her own department at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store. She also sold dresses to other high-end New York department stores—Just like Ann Lowe and Wesley Tann, Ellen sold dress designs to Neiman Marcus, I. Magnin and Bergdorf Goodman.
This detail is especially interesting to me, because it suggests that there were a number of designers of color during this period who were quietly breaking the color line at the major department stores of the time. The history of this work has not been well documented–and unfortunately, the records kept by department stores–especially independent department stores from the 1950s and 1960s that have shut down, or were folded into other monster stores—I’m looking at you, Macy’s–were not preserved either.)
In 2006, Jerry Talmer of the Villager interviewed Ellen about her two careers: Starting as a fashion designer and then opening her own experimental theater group La Mama The entire interview is worth reading, but this is the section about her Saks Fifth Avenue time. Ellen arrived in New York to take fashion school classes—because she could not attend fashion school in Chicago (Even with Mrs. Adlai Stevenson offering to pay her tuition!) without agreeing to some demeaning guidelines to keep her from coming into contact with the white students. So, she came to New York and found a career in fashion:
“Monday morning the man on the elevator told me I could ride all the way downtown on a bus. Went downtown, looking for a job, didn’t get it, saw this big church across the street from a big store. Went into the church, which was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, said a prayer, came out and went into the store, which was Saks Fifth Avenue. I didn’t know what Saks Fifth Avenue was.
“The salesgirls wouldn’t tell me anything. An elevator girl told me to go up to Personnel, on the 8th floor. While I was there, Edith Lances, who had a whole department for custom-made brassieres and corsets, came looking for a trimmer to cut the threads off the brassieres. I could do that. She took me down to the 4th floor and put me to work.
“In those days, in Saks Fifth Avenue, the coloreds had to wear a blue smock, but at lunchtime you could take the smock off. Rumors were flying all over Saks that an exotic colored model was going around the store wearing Balenciaga clothes. We were all trying to figure out who this model was. Turned out it was me. Then all these white women started to ask what I was wearing. I was afraid of them …
“Edith Lances thought I should have a better job and took me to Sophie Gimbel, who owned the store. Sophie Gilbert (sic) said: ‘No niggers in my department.’ Yes, she really said that. So Edith Lances decided I was going to be her executive designer … [She] said: ‘You take off the smock, and from this day on you are Miss Ellen.’ At that time in Saks, Negroes were not allowed to be called Miss or Mister either. Well, they set me up in a workshop, a floor of my own, my own department, staffed by 15 concentration-camp survivors from Eastern Europe … [but] the coloreds demanded that I put the smock back on and not be called Miss.”
Ms. Stewart died in 2011 and again, someone (and by someone, I mean… well… me) has missed out on an amazing history project. Imagine interviewing and writing about the fashion careers of Ellen Stewart and Wesley Tann. It would have been an incredible article, and would have added a great deal of depth to my understanding of the black experience in the New York fashion industry.
Sometimes a historian misses out. There may be archival materials worth looking into for a future project, though.
And fortunately, there are a number of articles around the internet about Ellen’s theater work—and her fashion career is mentioned a bit too. I hope this brief profile has encouraged you to take a minute to explore a few of these articles:
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
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!
“In this day of high prices I wonder if the average homemaker realizes the possibilities of the homely flour and sugar sacks?” Minnie L. Church, home economist, 1921.
The term “Gunny Sack Dress” may bring to mind a droopy and ill fitting garment of coarse cloth worn by poverty stricken children on a prairie, this image is reinforced by a Time magazine interview with
a manager from Pillsbury Flour in 1946, “They used to say that when the wind blew across the South you could see our trade name on all the girls’ underpants.” Indeed, during fabric shortages brought on by World War II, a number of United States families turned to an unusual material, the cotton commodity bag. This replaced heavily rationed cotton yard goods for the home sewing needs of their families. Cotton bag sewing was both a frugal move and a patriotic one. A newspaper column from May 1944 explained, “ Best of all is the patriotic spirit you show when you salvage fabrics. The housewife who converts cotton bags into the many useful items they are capable of becoming under the magic of willing hands and minds not only serves herself, but conserves essential fabrics for her country.” The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association proclaimed, “A yard saved, was a yard gained for victory!”
A traditional discussion of commodity bag sewing begins with the Great Depression and ends around World War II, but the origins of this sewing custom are more than 100 years old. As early as the 19th century, fabric was used in the production of commodity bags for the grain industry as improvements in sewing machine technology allowed for more efficient production of fabric bags with strong seams. Women were sewing common household items from the fine bleached muslin and coarse burlap gunny sacks of the 1890s, the yarn dyed striped and gingham checked sacks of the 1920s, and the colorful dress print and brightly dyed solid percale bags which were popular from the mid 1930s to the early 1960s.
After this time, paper replaced cotton throughout the bag manufacturing industry. The National Cotton Council’s Cotton Bag Sewing Queen Contests of the late fifties and early sixties were intended to slow this crossover to paper and maintain a certain amount of nationwide demand for the cotton bag at a time when bag manufacturers were eager to move to the use of a less expensive alternative. The bottom eventually fell out of the artificial demand for cotton commodity bags during the early 1960s and bag manufacturers switched in large numbers to the paper commodity bag.
The earliest bags were made from burlap (jute) and osnaburg, a coarse cotton fabric. A 1933 booklet from the US Department of Agriculture describes the benefits of using cotton:
“Cotton bags make attractive packages; they supply a suitable surface for brand names and make possible effective advertising; they are durable and little affected by moisture; they represent minimum tare weight; and they have a high salvage value.”
These cotton bags also provided a strong boost to the American Cotton industry. At its peak, 1,283 million yards of cotton fabric were used in commodity bags, “and accounted for 8.0% of the cotton goods production and 4.5% of total cotton consumption in the U.S. in 1946.”
A 1921 issue of American Cookery presented the value of commodity bag sewing in this way:
“In homes where little folks are growing up, not a scrap of sacking need be wasted, for each sack takes the place of an equal quantity of muslin, since there are so many necessary little garments to be made. The sacking, while not fine in quality, is most serviceable for drawers, petticoats, underwaists, etc. These garments may be made plain or have a touch of crochet or torchon lace for the trimming.”
In 1927, three yards of dress print cotton percale (the typical amount of fabric needed for an average size adult dress) could cost sixty cents when purchased from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Three yards of gingham dress goods could cost forty cents. In comparison, three yards of dress quality gingham used in Gingham Girl Flour sacks from the George P. Plant Milling Company could be salvaged after the use of two or three one hundred pound bags of flour. The Plant Milling Company from St. Louis, Missouri began to offer their baking flour in red and white yarn dyed gingham sacks around 1925. Label information was printed on each bag with water-soluble vegetable inks, to simplify the removal of the logo.
Throughout the years, women improved upon methods of removing company logos and related text from each sack. Before commodity bag manufactures were aware of the widespread repurposing of their products, logos were printed with strong inks and the removal process could be time consuming:
“After ripping the sacks apart, she washed and bleached and washed, and it generally had to be done several times before they were thoroughly clean, but when she obtained that result she added to the rinsing water a very little starch…”
By the time the Textile Bag Manufactures Association published Sewing with Cotton Bags in 1933, preparing a textile bag for reuse had been simplified. “The ease with which printing ink may be removed from cotton bags” they explained, “depends on the kind of ink that has been used. Under ordinary circumstances, it is sufficient to cover the inked places with lard or soak them in kerosene overnight. Then wash out in lukewarm water.” The use of kerosene as a cleaning product is hazardous, and could create a deadly explosion from the smallest spark. Therefore, it was a noticeable development in the late 1930s when removing the logo became as quick and easy as soaking the cloth in warm water to remove a paper label.
Once the printing was removed, the chain stitching was pulled away from the side of the bag and the fabric was starched and ironed. A one hundred pound bag of chicken feed became a 36” X 44” piece of cloth, a little more than one yard of fabric. A Life Magazine profile of the Martin family from rural Maryland described their homemade sack clothing in the early 1930s:
“Around this time feed sacks were beginning to come in print patterns as well as in white and when they were empty of chicken mash they were filled up with Martins. One feed sack made a dress for a small Martin, two or more for a larger Martin.”
A typical rural family with a handful of chickens might take a month or so to collect enough cotton bags for a garment, but families that raised chickens on a larger scale could have a full supply of yard goods at their fingertips at all times. A farmer’s wife described their family’s commodity bag usage in the book, Feedsack Fashion:
“We had two big chicken houses and used fourteen sacks of feed every week. My husband got most of the sacks. He always tried to get two or three of the same pattern so we would have enough to make something. He did a pretty good job of picking them out.”
During the middle of the 1930s, feedsacks became colorful and filled with bright patterns. Although several companies seem to take credit for this phenomenon, the Percy Kent Bag Company’s Ken-Print collection may have been the earliest.
Feed companies began to notice that while a husband may have little preference in the brand of egg mash fed to his chickens, if his wife needed a specific pattern to match a feedback that she already owned, her husband began to demonstrate a preference. Suddenly, feed companies were being encouraged to use the latest dress print bags and feed supply stores were turned into fabric stores, to the disdain of one feed salesman interviewed in 1948 who said, “Years ago, they used to ask for all sorts of feeds, special brands you know. Now they come over and ask me if I have an egg mash in a flowered percale. It ain’t natural.”
Feed sacks may have looked like dress fabric, but they were stacked in store piles with little fanfare and employees were surprised by requests to move several hundred pound bags of chicken feed to get to the perfect dress print pattern. One man remembered trips to the feed store as a teenager when it was important to run this errand with several friends because, “his mother’s preferred patterns would always be on the bottom, so he and his “buddies” would have to hoist sacks until they secured the patterns his mother wanted.”Once the fabric was prepared, there was very little difference between a length of feedsack dress percale and a length of dress percale purchased in a store as a new yard good. The Percy Kent Bag Company hired top textile designers from Europe and New York City to create stylish prints with colorfast dyes.
When the country went to war in the 1940s, domestic fabric production was put on hold while textile companies created goods for the use of the military. Textile rationing during World War II did not originally apply to feed sacks, which were classified as “industrial” textile products. During the height of war production restrictions, hundreds of colorful dress prints were available at the rural feed store, providing a wider variety of patterns than any store carrying traditional yard goods at that time.
In 1943, the United States War Production Board standardized bag sizes into six types ranging from 2 to 100 pounds in an effort to reduce waste. The production board approved pattern books for release to the home front. One mother made her young daughter’s entire wardrobe from feed sacks during the war, “the war effort took all of the fabric on the market.” She told an interviewer, “you could buy very little printed fabric.”
The availability of yard goods began to improve for rural shoppers during the spring of 1945. After the war, the child accompanied her mother to a department store that was fully stocked to pre-war levels and pointed to bolts of traditional yard goods in the window,” Oh mom, look at those pretty feed sacks!”
By the early 1950s, popularity of the dress print bag began to fade. Traditional yard goods were becoming more accessible all over the country and the rural lifestyle that enabled families to use dozens of one hundred pound chicken feed sacks in a year began to disappear. The cotton industry began to lose some of their most lucrative customers as bag companies began to make the switch to the multiwall paper sack. This new method was less expensive for them to produce, and more effective in protecting the contents inside. To slow this changeover, the National Cotton Council began to sponsor exciting contests in every state in the country to encourage women to become the “National Cotton Bag Sewing Queen.”
Contests took place at state fairs and were advertised along with pattern booklet giveaways in rural magazines like Farm Journal. Regionally, the prizes included expensive sewing machines and even automobiles, with the chance to move on to the national competition and win trips to Hollywood complete with movie studio tours and shopping sprees.
The Cotton Council partnered with some of the leading pattern companies of the time and released a final wave of pattern books encouraging the use of cotton bags to create dresses styled in the latest fashions. Dozens of categories were established (children’s wear, women’s wear, household curtains and table linens, etc.) and the main fabric in each entry needed to be a cotton commodity bag. Any kind of trimming could be used as decoration.
The feed sack dress in the collection of the National Museum of American History (object ID: 1992.0102.04) created by Mrs. Dorothy Overall for a 1956 sewing contest sponsored by the National Cotton Council is completely different. It is fashionably designed with a cinched waist and a full pleated skirt in the style of the mid-fifties. It features an organdy lining and “machine quilting with a synthetic silver sewing thread.” This dress earned second place in a regional tier of the “Cotton Bag Sewing Queen” contest (Figure 3) and may not resemble anything that comes to mind when discussing clothing made from chicken feed sacks.
In an attempt to get their entries noticed in the Sewing Queen competitions and duplicate high fashion garments, the contestants added flashy trimmings whenever possible. The Dorothy Overall dress is lined in black organdy, a luxury fabric at that time which would never be used to line a traditional feed sack dress. If a farmer’s wife had a dress length of organdy lying around to line a dress, they would have made the dress from that organdy and lined it (if they needed a lining) with the feed sack. The silver thread used in this dress is also a clue to its status as a showpiece. The dress is a showpiece, but as an example of the commodity bag sewing tradition, it only tells a small part of the story.
A resourceful spirit was the key to a comfortable American household filled with food, clothing and home decorations during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Looking back with a modern eye, where a finished garment (most likely produced in a developing nation by poorly paid workers) can be purchased from a store at a fraction of the price of its cloth, it is a challenge to put yourself in the place of that rural woman with several family members to clothe, but no budget for store bought clothing or new yard goods to sew these garments at home. For a large portion of lower income families throughout the United States, assistance to expand the family wardrobe came from the commodity cotton bag.
A closing paragraph in a short story from Arthurs Home Magazine from July 1892 explains the phenomenon well, “So, that is the secret of how baby looked so lovely in her flour sack: just a little care, patience and ingenuity on the mother’s part.”
A previous version of this article was published in the Digital Commons@University of Nebraska–Lincoln, as a part of the Textile Society of America’s proceedings from their 2012 conference.
Banning, Jennifer Lynn. Feed Sack Fashions in South Louisiana, 1948-1968: The Use of Commodity Bags in Garment Construction. Ph.D. Dissertation, Louisiana State University, August 2005.
Brandes, Kendra. “Feed Sack Fashion in Rural America: A Reflection of Culture.” The Online Journal of Rural Research and Policy 4 no. 1 (2009): 1-23.
Brinkley, William. “Degrees by the Dozen on $40.00 a Week.” Life Magazine, September 19, 1955, 108-204.
Cheatham, R.J.. Cotton Bags as Consumer Packages for Farm Products. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1933.
Church, Minnie L.. “What To Do With the Sacks.” American Cookery, May 1921, 206- 207.
Cook, Anna Lue. Identification and Value Guide to Textile Bags. Florence, Alabama: Books Americana, Inc., 1990.
Hancock, Angela and Paula Wilson, “Chicken Linen and Other Cloth Sacks.” Bittersweet 4 no. 4 (1977):
“History Wired: a Few of Our Favorite Things.” Si.edu. Available from http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=391. Internet; accessed 29 March 2010.
Miller, Susan. Vintage Feed Sacks. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2007. “National Museum of American History Collection: Feed Sack Dress.”
 Minnie Church, “What To Do With the Sacks.” American Cookery, May 1921, 207.
 These prices were taken from the Sears and Roebuck Fall Catalog of 1927 (See illustration attached).
 Anna Lue Cook, Identification and Value Guide to Textile Bags, 73. Families that did not use such high volumes of dry goods could purchase empty bags for five to fifteen cents each from their local baker. Bakers were usually happy to get rid of their extra packaging in this way.
 Several companies claim to have introduced the Dress Print Commodity bag. The Bemis Brothers Bag Manufacturing company takes credit on its historical website www.bemis150.com for introducing printed bags to the United States while the article “Chicken Linen and Other Cloth Sacks” by Angela Hancock and Paul Wilson from the Summer 1977 edition of Bittersweet gives credit to the Werthan Bag corporation in Nashville, Tennesee. The Percy Kent bag company has a significant amount of surviving primary sources from the mid thirties to back up its claims of being the first company to print patterns on their bags. A selection of Percy Kent advertisements can be found in Gloria Nixon’s Feedsack Secrets: Fashion from Hard Times.
 “History Wired: a Few of Our Favorite Things.” Si.edu. Available from http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=391. Rules from the 1960 Cotton Bag Sewing Contest stated “Articles must be made entirely of cotton bags except for trimmings; they must have been made after January 1, 1960; and the same items may not be entered at more than one participating fair
 National Museum of American History Collection: Feedsack Dress.” Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Image used with permission Available from http:americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object.cfm?key=35&objkey=197.
 Several terms are commonly used in the sources collected for this paper when discussing cloth bags. These bags will be referred to as “textile bags, commodity bags, feedsacks and flour sacks,” but will always describe a cotton bag of varying size, sewn together with a machine made chain stitch originally used to store household goods such as flour, sugar, salt, and chicken feed. Sources from the last ten years discussing these bags in a scholarly context tend to use the term, “commodity bag.”