I just wanted to let you know that posts will be a little less frequent here until the late fall/early winter.
I’m starting treatment for breast cancer this week, and while I’m hoping to add new and interesting things to Hidden Fashion History every once in a while during this time, my usual weekly schedule isn’t going to be possible for a little while.
With that said, I will be on the lookout for interesting fashion history related videos or old scanned books that I come across online along with scanned magazine articles from my own collection— so there should still be interesting things to explore here on a monthly basis at least, but my written entries will be shorter and less frequent for a few months.
If you’d like to reach me with any questions during this time, please send an email! Thanks! Margaret
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!
The fashion publications of the late 19th century featured colorful and highly detailed illustrations of the latest looks. The details needed to be crisp: affluent women were sharing these pictures with their seamstresses to recreate European designs.
Archive.org is an amazing resource for early fashion illustration and this search will get you started down a fun historical fashion rabbit hole. The website also has the added benefit of being easy to navigate. Perfect viewing for a lazy summer day when you aren’t feeling particularly academic! I’ve spent most of this sunny holiday weekend drinking lemonade on our deck while hiding from academic projects.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture doesn’t open until September, but their online collections search is already up and running as a part of the Smithsonian’s main website. They’ve taken some really great new pictures of a dress that’s been in the Smithsonian’s collection for years. It’s called “American Beauty” and it was a gown for a New York debutante. I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at a few of Ann Lowe’s silk flowers thanks to these new pictures.
And for comparison’s sake, this black and white photo shows the 1928 Gasparilla queen. This gown is the earliest photographed version of Ann Lowe’s silk roses.
Along with Queen Elizabeth’s clothing, the Royal Collection Trust has a wide range of clothing worn by other members of the Royal Family. You can continue to explore these beautiful costume pieces at their online collections website.
When I was in college, some of the bound Vogue magazines in the collection of the UMass Library were originally from (nearby) Smith College and it was THRILLING to be a little English major, flipping through the actual copies of 1950s fashion magazines, with their covers stamped with a Smith College date stamp and think that maybe Sylvia Plath held this, if she ever took a breather in the Nielsen Library and let herself zone out to Vogue for a few minutes…
Browsing through the bound volumes of old magazines is one of my favorite historian hobbies. Life, Look, Time, Ladies Home Journal and of course—–fashion magazines. There’s just something about flipping through the original hardbound copies that gets you closer to the period. I’d like to think that most historians are dorky like that. 😉
And writing about a time period–even if you are just working on a piece of fiction— is a lot easier when you have primary source material in front of you. Microfilm isn’t the same AT ALL.
As one of the leading debutante and wedding gown designers in New York, it’s very possible that Ann Lowe’s work appeared uncredited in Vogue many times between the 1930s and 1960s. It’s also very possible that her designs appeared in the magazine under the name of the designers she worked for, such as Hattie Carnegie.
I’ve seen some uncredited examples of dresses that are definitely Lowe’s work and dresses that are possibly Lowe’s work, once you get familiar with her preferred necklines and sleeve designs, her work starts standing out to your eye!
But here is one of the only credited examples of Lowe’s work that I’ve been able to find in Vogue from that period—this one from August 1, 1955, in an editorial about the year’s leading debutantes. Nina Auchincloss was Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepsister. My own scanned copy of this photo is a bit too blurry to post, so I pulled this copy (if you noticed the tell-tale highlighting around Lowe’s name, this is clearly a Google Books scan) from an article I wrote a few years ago for the National Archives.
In the mail this week? Textile industry trade journals! Maybe that doesn’t sound terribly exciting at first glance, but trade journals are always a great resource if you are looking for period information about industry and manufacturing. Fashion magazines featured full page advertisements for fabric companies and their latest and greatest fabrics until the 1970s or so (the cotton industry was probably the longest holdout, their Cotton advertisements showed up in fashion magazines into the 1990s.)
But industry journals were geared toward garment and automobile manufactures, so their ads are more technical (and for me, that makes them more interesting!)
As a textile historian, the most helpful trade journal I’ve found so far is American Fabrics. This week, I was excited to find some issues in great condition on Ebay.
American Fabrics began publication in the mid 1940s, and they quickly became leaders in the industry because of a new method they developed to add fabric swatches to their pages. While manufacturers regularly added swatches to their production catalogs for use as salesman samples, this was the first time a journal with a significant circulation could do the same. There are around 50 fabric sample swatches in each issue—although that number declines significantly in the 1970s issues I’ve seen. Adding so many swatches was an expensive process. They are SUCH fun to handle though. Vintage clothing (if it isn’t Dead Stock) and household textiles have often lost their crisp original finishes and can be a bit dull in color from years of washing. These swatches are crisp and bright….they’ve been shut away from light for 60 years!
These issues give such interesting play by play coverage of the growth of the synthetic fiber revolution taking place during the middle of the 20th century.
And….because somedays I feel like I run into Ann Lowe information everywhere, this advertisement for the Stehli fabric company (formerly Stehli Silks and they also expanded into synthetics) is from a period when Mrs. Stehli was a partner in one of Ann’s early Madison Avenue dress shops. I’ve tried to figure out if Ann was able to get a better price on silks with this connection, but it was a brief partnership, and I keep running into dead ends. The Stelhi family member I was able to contact a few years ago didn’t know very much about the supply side of Ann Lowe’s business. This advertisement ALSO has me wondering if an Ann Lowe wedding gown ever appeared in a Stehli silk trade ad…more research rabbit holes to explore!
I’m working on an article about Fiberglas (One “S” is the original trade spelling) fabrics for HFH, and there’s some fantastic and in-depth coverage about the topic in one of these issues of American Fabrics, showing the production process and its “exciting new” use in household textiles. I was thrilled to see Fiberglas fabric swatches and filament samples also—-that I am NOT handling of course…want to avoid getting these samples to shed glass splinters into my fingers!!
When you get so close to a topic ( I’ve been researching Ann Lowe’s career since 2011) it can be easy to forget that the subject you are living and breathing is brand new to other people! In last week’s post, I made a quick reference to Ann Lowe’s flower designs and compared them to the work of costume designer Barbara Karinska, but didn’t get the chance to say much more. This week, I looked back on some posts and realized that I actually haven’t talked in detail about Ann Lowe’s flowers!
I’m sorry for leaving this out!! You can’t have much of a discussion about the artistic quality of Lowe’s work without following the trail of her flowers.
Flowers are a universal design element in fashion. Hats, blouses, shoes and dresses were all embellished with three-dimensional imitation flowers for hundreds of years before Ann Lowe came on the scene. I believe that her quality and innovation set her work apart from other designers.
Lowe used her signature fabric flowers as a recurring theme throughout her career. She hand painted flowers on silk and built three-dimensional flowers from fabric. She also taught the technique to her staff and it was rare to see a Lowe debutante, wedding or bridesmaid gown that did not include a beautiful false bouquet.
These decorations were so realistic that in one case (described in Ebony magazine in 1966) a dress was returned to her salon after a debutante ball to repair damage caused when the debutante’s date, “snipped a beautiful silk carnation from the dress as a memento.”
Most of the Ann Lowe gowns I’ve seen in person have not been covered with flowers, but I was able to see Ann’s roses up closes several years before I even knew (or could appreciate) what I was actually viewing. I’d just started graduate school at the Smithsonian, and part of our orientation involved touring all of the museums and libraries in the complex. This included the Anacostia Community Museum. A dress named American Beauty was on display that late August day, and you could walk right up to it—stand inches away from the cascade of beautiful silk roses decorating the front, shoulders and back. That museum was not crowded at all (it’s a bit of a hike to get out to Anacostia and most tourists never visit!) A few years later, in the middle of my thesis research I would have LOVED to have a similar amount of access to her flowers!
When I visited the family of a former Gasparilla queen in Tampa in 2011, a picture of some gowns from 1928 stuck out to me. I’d seen that dress before! Or at least one very similar. This one was the Gasparilla Queen gown of 1928 and as far as I can tell, although newspaper articles describe her fabric flowers as early as 1916, the 1928 Gasparilla Queen gown is the earliest photographed example of Ann’s trailing rose design.
Ann also used a clever method to create pussywillows. Bits of cornflower blue tulle were rolled into pussywillow blooms and placed along a beaded background of leaves and stems. In this gown, the same tulle was used as a pleated accent along the neckline.
There are DOZENS of other examples of flowers in Lowe’s dress designs. Beaded, painted, 3-D. I’ve just gotten you started…and you can keep hunting yourself by checking out the collection search database at the Met Costume Institute.
Along with Ann Lowe’s couture gowns, she’d take on a special project every now and then when it interested her–especially if it was a request from a friend.
In 1957, the Evyan perfume company—the creators of the famous “White Shoulders” perfume— debuted their latest fragrance, “Great Lady.” To promote the new perfume, the company commissioned a set of great ladies dresses that would tour the fine department stores of the United States. The mind behind the project was the “Evyan” of Evyan Perfumes, Evelyn Diane Westall, also known as the Baroness Von Langdorfer. Evelyn was also a steady and devoted client of Ann Lowe’s salon.
Baroness Von Langdorfer’s vision for the exhibit was simple: Each first lady would be represented by a four-foot tall evening gown, fashioned from high quality, imported fabric and materials, using couture techniques. When possible, their inaugural gowns were used and copied, but in some cases, the designers were instructed to rely on period ball gowns for their inspiration.
The first designer hired to work on the collection was the famous ballet costumier, Barbara Karinska. Karinska was best known for her work with George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet (when it was called Ballet Society). She designed 16 of the first 17 dresses, all four foot tall reproductions of dresses worn or inspired by United States first ladies.
The Baroness would eventually ask Ann to continue the series, and this is where the credit for the gowns gets a little muddy. Ann created a number of gowns to add to the original set, and she also reproduced traveling copies of Karinska’s earlier designs.
Some later sources give Ann credit for all of the gowns in the collection, but I think they are confusing Ann’s work on the sets as original designs. The exact number of dresses adapted by Ann for the Evyan first lady exhibit is difficult to determine, but published accounts credit her with the dresses of Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Johnson and a number of historical dolls including Abigail Adams and Jane Pierce. Ann’s family recalls that she worked on a number of the historical gowns, and spent a great deal of her time researching the period costumes.
Six sets of each doll were created for display throughout the country and the dresses toured department stores as late as 1989. By 1966, there were 18 dolls in the set, starting with Mary Todd Lincoln. (This suggests Karinska’s original 16 and Lowe’s Ladybird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy gowns) and they toured under the name “Evyan Collection of 100 Years of Great Lady Fashions.”
There is confusion about the creator of the Ladybird Johnson doll dress. In advertisements for the set in 1966, the dress is listed as the work of the original designer, John Moore. In December of that year, Ann was photographed in her studio with one of the Ladybird mannequins and one of the Kennedy mannequins and given credit for adapting and sewing both designs, along with their five additional copies.
Dresses were added to the collection until the early 1980s (Nancy Reagan’s bright red gown from 1981 was the final gown) and the dresses toured in department stores throughout the United States until late 1989. Other designers would have been involved with any gowns added after 1969 or 1970. Ann Lowe’s health and vision were failing at that point, and she would not have been able to continue this work. Of the six original sets, two have been located.
The Evyan first lady gowns are a fun footnote in Ann Lowe’s career. I’m intrigued by this dress commission, and I’m very glad that I found some information about it, but if you are trying to find out more about Lowe’s work, this isn’t a very helpful group of dresses to help you do that.
Only two dresses (Kennedy and Johnson) can truly be confirmed as Lowe’s work, in my opinion, anyway (because of that photo in Ebony) and Karinska, the designer of the early dresses was an amazing talent, her fabric flowers (as they appear on ballet costumes) were of similar quality to Lowe’s for instance, so studying the gowns one by one wouldn’t really give concrete clues about the maker. It’s a little bit frustrating, but sometimes research leads you to frustrating dead ends! At least this dead end is filled with pretty dresses 🙂
For information about one of the surviving sets of Evyan gowns, check out this article on the website of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio. Another set is in the collection of the Congressional Club in Washington, DC. The club is closed to non members (including researchers, unfortunately) but they do have two photos of their gowns (displayed in “The First Lady Gown Room” on their website.
For more information about the First Lady gowns, there’s an unusual source! The article “First Lady Gowns”on page 8 of the April 1983 edition of a Freemason News Magazine, The Northern Light covers the history of the gowns in solid detail.