Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Exploring the Decades with Disney Princesses: Cinderella

Part 1: Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

As a fashion historian, I find that an interesting aspect of Disney is how the animated features serve as records of the visual culture of their day. The Disney Princesses, a successful sub-franchise launched by Disney in the late 1990s, are everywhere these days. They have not been without controversy, but they are certainly popular. They are also records of changing standards of beauty for women in the 20th century. This post series will discuss selected Disney Princesses, exploring how they embody the ideals of femininity of their time.

Cinderella from Cinderella (1950)


The next Disney Princess to arrive after Snow White was Cinderella, who appeared in a new animated musical released in 1950. Cinderella was Walt Disney studio's most successful animated feature film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and received three Academy Award nominations. The story was adapted from the Charles Perrault version of the fairy tail, first published in 1697. Preparation for the film began in 1948. Helene Stanley served as the live action model for Cinderella and acted out many of the sequences in the film which the animators then studied and translated into drawn animations (Fun Fact: Stanley also served as the live action model for Anastasia, one of Cinderella's ugly stepsisters).

Live action models being filmed and their animated counterparts.
But how does Cinderella's appearance reflect the aesthetics of the late 1940s and early 1950s? Simply look at fashion illustrations of the period and you'll see that Cinderella fits right in with the illustrated fashion models. As I discussed in my Snow White post, fashion illustrations are a great source for looking at ideals of beauty because a drawing can convey ideal aesthetics in a way a real human body cannot. Furthermore, fashion illustration also takes a cue from dominant artistic trends of the period, showing broader visual influences.

Far Left: 1949 Illustration from a pattern insert in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Source.
Far Right: Advertisement from 1949. 

While the setting of the film is ostensibly the late Victorian period, Cinderella is firmly a mid-20th-century beauty. She has a slim figure with a small bust, narrow hips, and a nipped in waist-- the ideal figure of the late 1940s/early 1950s woman. Her various dresses give the sense of a historic look while still fitting in with mid-century aesthetics. Her servant outfit has a form fitting top and narrow A-line skirt which falls to just below the knees, a look that fits right in with fashions of the day. Both of her ballgowns feature a form fitting bodice, slight emphasis on the shoulders, and a full skirt. The emphasis on wide, sculpted shoulders is a hallmark of women's fashion of the 1940s, which embraced more masculine styles. In the 1950s a more feminine silhouette took over, so with Cinderella we see a good illustration of the transition between these two aesthetics. 


Left: "Shades of Picasso" dress by Gilbert Adrian, 1944-45. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Right: Dior "Junon" dress, fall/winter 1949-50. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The full skirts of her ballgowns are also nods to women's fashions of the late 1940s/early 1950s. In America during World War II, restrictions were placed on how much fabric could be used for a woman's evening gown as the government needed to reserve fabric for use by the military. After the war ended in 1945, those restrictions were lifted and women's skirts ballooned out. Compare the two gowns above, one made during WWII (left) and one made during the period when Cinderella was being animated (right). And then compare them to the image of Cinderella's magical ballgown in the middle.

Left: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, 1944.
Right: Advertisement for Catalina Swimsuits in Seventeen Magazine, 1949. Source.

Cinderella's facial features also conform with mid-century ideals. She has shoulder length blonde hair and short, curled bangs, a fashionable hairstyle for the late 1940s. And her oval face, full lips, softly curved eyebrows, and almond-shaped eyes with full eyelashes are mirrored in the fashion illustrations of the period.

With Cinderella we see the very beginning of the 1950s. Our next Disney princess will look at the end of that decade-- stay tuned for Sleeping Beauty!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

La Mode à la Girafe

La mode à la girafe translates to giraffe fashion, that is, fashion inspired by and celebrating giraffes. Or, in the case of late 1820s France, the fashion influence of one very famous giraffe.

Nicolas Hüet, Study of the Giraffe Given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt, 1827. In the collection of the Morgan Library and Museum.

On October 23, 1826 a female giraffe arrived at the port of Marseilles. A gift from Muhammad Ali (1769-1849), the Viceroy of Egypt, to King Charles X of France (r. 1824-1830), this was the first living giraffe ever seen in France. Naturally such a strange and wonderful looking animal caused an enormous sensation. During her six month stay in Marseilles and along her journey to Paris, thousands of people came to view the curious creature. Renown zoologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire wrote that he "had to fight the crowds who rushed tumultuously at the animal." In Lyon, for example, over 30,000 people came to see her.

Jean-Jacques Feuchère, "Encore des Ridicules, No. 1,035: Les Girafes à la mode," c. 1826. In the collection of the Musée Carnavalet.

On June 30, 1827, the giraffe arrived in Paris to much fanfare and took up residence in the Jardin de Plantes, the world's first national menagerie. In the following months she would have an audience with the royal family, several important dignitaries, and be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. On July 12th, 1827 La Pandore reported that "the giraffe occupies all the public's attention; one talks of nothing else in the circles of the capital."

Henri-Daniel Plattel, Les Quartiers de Paris/Jardin des Plantes, c. 1827. In the collection of the Musée Carnavalet.

Naturally everyone wished to cash in on the giraffe craze. This one exotic animal inspired thousands of prints, sheet music, toys, pamphlets, and a play, and was used to sell fashion, textiles, wallpaper, ceramics, and even food. La mode à la girafe swept the nation! It should be noted that this giraffe was not the first exotic animal to inspire fashion. In 1749 there was the mode au rhinocéros [rhinoceros] and in 1786 there was the mode au zèbre [zebra].

Fashion plate from Les Journal des Dames et des Modes, July 8, 1827. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Yellow took on a new popularity. The Petit Courrier reported in September 1827 that "the color 'giraffe,' which is simply a kind of yellowish color, which one would have called café au lait a few years ago, is now often used for belts, workbags, and even for some dresses." And in October of the same year the Journal des Dames reported that the shade known as "belly of giraffe" was an extremely popular color. In general many fashion magazines described numerous items as being giraffe-yellow.


Detail of block-printed furnishing fabric, 1826-30. In the collection of the Musée de l'Impression sur Étoffes, Mulhouse.

It was not only the color of the giraffe that infiltrated fashion. Belt ribbons, bags, and fans were all decorated with images of giraffes and charms, pins, necklaces, cravat pins, bracelets, and cane toppers were all manufactured in the shape of a giraffe. Printed cottons, used for furnishing and dress, also bore the image of the famous animal.

Illustration from L'Art de mettre sa cravate de toutes le manières connues et usitées by Baron Émile de l'Empesé, c. 1827. In the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Types of dress and even hair were inspired by the giraffe as well. Fashion historian Michele Majer describes sleeves à la girafe: "The fullness [of the sleeves] was partialy controlled by a strip of matching fabric wound twice around the arm from just above the elbow to the wrist." The coiffure à la girafe, although not much different than typical hairstyles of the day, was also mentioned in fashion periodicals. La mode à la girafe was not only for women. L'Art de mettre sa cravate de toutes le manières connues et usitées illustrated a cravat à la girafe which featured the knot placed low on the high collar and the ends hanging vertically, invoking the long neck of the giraffe.

An example of another object inspired by the giraffe-- a teapot and heater stand from c. 1827. In the collection of the Musée Carnavalet.

These are just a few of the hundreds of objects and fashion trends attributed to the giraffe. However, the story of this fashionable giraffe has a rather sad ending. As fads do, la mode à la girafe quickly passed away and newer sensations took its place. After the initial excitement of seeing such an exotic animal, most forgot about the giraffe and few came to visit her at the Jardin de Plantes. By 1830 she had completely faded into obscurity. She died in 1845.




Further Reading:

Allin, Michael. Zarafa: A Giraffe's True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris. New York: Walker and Company, 1998.

Majer, Michele. "La Mode à la girafe: Fashion, Culture, and Politics in Bourbon Restoration France." Studies in Decorative Arts 17:1 (Fall-Winter 2009-10): 123-161.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Historic Influence

(As always, click for full size.)
Left: Elizabeth Banks in Elie Saab Fall 2014 Couture
Top Right: Three robes a la francaise from the Kyoto Costume Institute
Bottom Right: Robe a la francaise, 1755-65, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Fashion and New Technology

Fashion has always had a strong relationship with new technology. In the late eighteenth century, looms ran on punch cards to weave complex textile designs-- the very first computing technology. In the nineteenth century, the discovery of synthetic dyes allowed fabrics to take on bright, eye-popping colors. In the twentieth century, an enormous range of textiles made from synthetic materials, each with its own unique benefits, flushed the market. And in the twenty-first century, designers are using 3-D printers to create new and innovative designs.

Fashion has also always had strong ties with the media. New trends need to be disseminated around the world somehow, be it by illustrations, photographs, or film. These days we can log on to youtube and watch the latest runway shows instantly, but the relationship between film and fashion stretches much farther back in time.


Paul Poiret, c. 1913. From the Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-100840.

On October 7, 1913, the Chicago Tribune published an article titled "Poiret Startles Chicago Women." The article begins:

"Seven hundred of the best dressed women of Chicago viewed the oddities of the latest styles of Paul Poiret, 'the high priest of color and the master builder of gowns,' as they strutted across the cinematographic screen at the Blackstone hotel yesterday."

We like to think that videos of fashion shows are a newer invention, yet here were hundreds of women watching one in 1913! Film was still a relatively new technology in the early 1910s, and the movie making industry wouldn't really kick off until the 1920s. Yet it is clear that some were already seeing film's potential. It's fitting that the fashion show on view to the women of Chicago that October day showcased the designs of Paul Poiret, a designer known for his innovation, boldness, and modernity. As the Tribune described Poiret's designs, "The women in the pictures were garbed in raiment wonderful, peculiar, and individual."

A Poiret evening gown, c. 1914. From the Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-85524.

The article continues:
"The spectators gave due attention to each gown, criticizing, studying, praising, wondering. There was ample opportunity for study, for some of the gowns were exhibited several times before the final reel had wound itself up.

"Perhaps the article that brought forth the most exclamations was a huge muff. A circular piece of white ermine ran around the front of it and as the wearer came closer into the camera's focus the comment grew.

"'What is that white circle?' 'Looks like a life preserver.' "No. it's [sic] an automobile tire.' Then the model stood perfectly still and the seven hundred laughed. It was ventured that seven hundred black muffs with white ermine circles will be worn in Chicago this winter.

"There were also a few colored slides showing Poiret's color combinations-- women in blue serge and green trimming, in scarlet and black, in purple and white, in pink with an overdress of white, and in other shades that caused several dressmakers a few gasps of delight."

Some of the restrictions of early film technology are mentioned. The lack of color (later compensated for with colored slides) and low definition left some women slightly confused as to what they were seeing. I love one woman's guess that perhaps Poiret had incorporated a car tire into his design.

I love this article for many reasons. Its description of Poiret's collection is an excellent resource. It highlights how technological advances were used to disseminate fashion information. It reflects the exciting sense of innovation and modernity that colored the twentieth century. But above all it connects us to the people of the past. These women, who lived 101 years ago, are sitting with their friends and commenting on a video of the latest fashions, just as we comment on videos on youtube today. I've written about how I love fashion history because it so closely connects us to the people of the past, and this article is the perfect example.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Past and the Future: Two Court Presentation Gowns from the Chicago History Museum

In my work as curatorial assistant at the Chicago History Museum I was fortunate enough to study two beautiful court presentation gowns from the 1920s. I blogged about those dresses and the ritual of the court presentation on the Chicago History Museum Blog. But I also thought there was a bigger story to be told, and so I continue the story of these two gowns here on The Fashion Historian.

Court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.

Court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.
The first gown was worn by Mary Dudley Kenna when she was presented at the Court of St. James on June 10, 1926. It was designed by Jacques Doucet for the House of Doucet.

Court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
The second gown was worn by Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer, née Helen Hurley, in the spring of 1928. It was designed by Edward Molyneux. To see images of both women in their court gowns, please refer to my post on the Chicago History Museum Blog.

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.
Both of these gowns exhibit an extraordinary technical mastery, as can be seen by the detail images peppered throughout this post. But what I find most fascinating is the contrast these two gowns present-- one representing the romanticism of a bygone age, the other representing the sleek modernity of a new era.

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
Both gowns are well within the aesthetics of their respective designers. But just who were Jacques Doucet and Edward Molyneux?

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.
Mary's gown was designed by Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) for the House of Doucet. The House of Doucet was founded in 1817 by Antoine Doucet (1795-1866), Jacques' grandfather. Originally the house supplied lingerie, lace, and embroideries, a fitting beginning for a house that would come to represent a delicate, feminine aesthetic. In the early 1840s the house was established on the Rue de la Paix, one of the most important couture streets in Paris. Jacques himself was born there in 1853 and officially joined in the house in 1874. The House of Doucet was one of the largest couture houses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and some of the great couturiers of the twentieth century worked for Doucet including Paul Poiret (worked for Doucet from 1896-1900) and Madeleine Vionnet (worked for Doucet from 1907-1912). However, the firm never truly recovered from the ravages of World War I. It merged with a lesser couture house, Doueillet, in 1924, and closed altogether in 1932.

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
Captain Edward Molyneux (1891-1974) was born in London and served as a captain in the British army during World War I. He also worked for couturier Lucile in London before opening his own couture house in Paris in 1919. The House of Molyneux was an enormous success and branches were soon opened in Monte Carlo, Cannes, and London. Twentieth-century couturier Pierre Balmain apprenticed at the House of Molyneux, describing it in his 1964 memoirs, My Years and Seasons, as a "temple of subdued elegance... [where] the world's well-dressed women wore the inimitable two-pieces and tailored suits with pleated skirts, bearing the label of Molyneux."

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.
The aesthetic of Jacques Doucet is colored by delicacy, romanticism, femininity, and a strong historical influence. Doucet himself was a great collector of 18th century art and his designs show the influence of the rococo aesthetic. Floral motifs and lace were particularly popular in his designs. 

Mary's court presentation ensemble is certainly a fitting example of the Doucet aesthetic. The cut of the gown is in the fashionable 1920s style-- loose fitting and with a dropped waist. And yet the full, gathered skirt suggests the styles of a previous era. A sense of romance and whimsey, recalling the light aesthetic of the Edwardian period (1901-1910), is conveyed by the appliqued floral motif on both the gown and train. Soft velvets and satins are expertly stitched and gathered to create soft flowers which rest lightly in an embroidered basket. There is a playful whimsey as a few flowers and buds fall gracefully from the slightly tipped basket. Overall this dress conveys a sense of soft, delicate femininity. Compare it with the Doucet gowns below, from the early 1900s:


Afternoon dress, Jacques Doucet, 1900-1903. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2009.300.579ab.

Ball gown, Jacques Doucet, c. 1902. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2009.300.3309ab.
The same soft femininity of these two gowns from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is adapted to 1920s fashion in Mary's court presentation gown.

Detail of court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
In contrast to the historic romanticism of Doucet's aesthetic, the look of the House of Molyneux was all about modernity. Molyneux designs embodied the elegant and slim aesthetic of the 1920s and 1930s. His designs were restrained and avoided excess decoration, showing the influence of his military background and English heritage. Molyneux loved clean lines, and his designs were streamlined and fluid, taking inspiration from the new Art Deco style of architecture and design.

Helen's court presentation ensemble is the perfect example of this. The design is simple and clean, with lean, extenuated teardrop shapes made from concentric rows of pearls and crystals. All of these design aspects are hallmarks of the Art Deco movement. The dress itself is cut in a simple, narrow tube shape, embracing the most modern style of dress. Compare the design of Helen's dress with the Art Deco architecture below:


The Chrysler Building in Manhattan, NY. Designed by William Van Alen and constructed from 1928-1930.

Ornamental ironwork designed by Edgar Brandt for the Cheney Silk building in Manhattan, NY (now the Madison Belmont Building). Built from 1924-1925. Photo by Daniel E. Russell.
As you can see, Helen's dress fits right in with the sleek and modern style of Art Deco.

Molyneux designer label visible on the underside of the headdress associated with the gown. Court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1962.464a-d. Photo by Katy Werlin.
And so in these two dresses we see both the convergence of the past, the present, and the future. In Mary's dress Doucet adapts the delicate romanticism of the Edwardian aesthetic into the cleaner lines of the 1920s, while still maintaining a youthful, feminine charm. In Helen's dress Molyneux embraces the design of the future, adapting the ultra-modern Art Deco aesthetic into a trim gown that speaks of a new world.

The choice of these two designers most likely speaks to the personality of each woman. Perhaps Mary was more old fashioned and whimsical, while Helen embraced the new modern age. Each of these dresses gives us a glimpse of the women who wore them in an exciting era of change.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Carnivalesque 104

Welcome to Carnivalesque #104! There's been all sorts of fascinating research being posted on the blogosphere, so let's take a look at what my fellow historians have been up to recently!


To start with some fashion history, the always wonderful Two Nerdy History Girls have been exploring just how those giant 1770s hairstyles were created. In Part 1 of this series they discuss a bit of the background of this hairstyle while busting some myths in the process. Part 2 takes a closer look at how Abby Cox and Sarah Woodyard, the mantua-maker's apprentices at the Margaret Hunter shop in Colonial Williamsburg, have been recreating these large styles themselves using period techniques.

Over on The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide to the Eighteenth Century, Heather Carroll tells us all about the fascinating Eglantine, Lady Wallace in her Tart of the Week feature. Eglantine, known as Betty, was a bit of a wild child and had many adventures during her life, including dressing as a man to watch a debate in the House of Commons and at one point being accused of espionage. I suspect Betty was a very fun person to hang out with.

Turning over to some books and manuscripts, guest blogger Julie Park discusses Interiority and Jane Porter's pocket diary at The Collation. Pocket diaries provide a world of information about 18th century life, and in this post Park looks at one from 1796 which belonged to Jane Porter, the first bestselling female author of historical fiction who wrote under her own name. In this fascinating post, Park explores how Jane Porter literally went outside the lines in her use of her diary, concluding that "Porter appropriates and repurposes the spaces of the diary to accommodate the vicissitudes of individual experience."

Earlier personal writing is explored in the post "My Well-Beloved Valentine", as Lucy Allen takes a look at the 15th century love letters of Margery Brews. Fun Fact: These letters contain the first recorded English use of the word Valentine as a synonym for lover. In this romantic post, Allen discusses how Margery Brews created a more personal language than that traditionally used between couples and started a tradition that continues to this day.

And in a final manuscript themed blog post, Jenny Weston at Medieval Fragments discusses Medieval Family Trees, exploring how medieval families documented their history and achievements in beautiful artistic detail.

Taking a break for some fun and games, Mike Rendell at The Georgian Gentleman takes a brief look at the history of the yo-yo and how, in the late 18th century, it had a brief period of popularity as one of the fashion accessories of the day.

And for some more active sports, Mike A. Zuber reports on early modern football at Praeludia Microcosmica. In this post Zuber links to some fascinating research about early modern football, noting that violence within the sport has a long history. Some games even led to death!

If you happen to be an ancient Babylonian suffering from epilepsy, Strahil V. Panayotov discusses how a doctor may have used fumigation to cure you at The Recipes Project. Panayotov writes, "Through fumigation the Babylonian medical practitioner could heal different illnesses: depression, epilepsy, troubles with the ears and the eyes, or even hemorrhoids." As the post goes on to reveal, the ingredients used to create this healing smoke could sometimes be a little odd. For epilepsy, the main ingrediant was parts of the head of a dead young male goat!

For those who enjoy tales of pirates, head over to English Legal History where Rebecca Simon discusses Pirate Executions in Early Modern London. Unlike many tales of the high seas, Simon's post explores the deadly fate of pirates who did not escape with their booty, and were instead taken to the Execution Dock and hung by the neck. In a particularly cruel twist, the nooses used for pirates were shorter than normal, meaning that a pirate's neck would not break as they dropped, causing them to die slowly of asphyxiation.

If all this fascinating reading has gotten you a bit hungry, why not head over to Early British and American Public Gardens and Grounds where Barbara Wells Sarudy looks at hunting, fowling, and shooting in 18th century America and Britain.

After all that meat you'll want a good drink, so head over to The Many-Headed Monster where Mark Hailwood gives his "Marooned on an Island" reading list all about the history of drinking. It is sure to fulfill all of your alcoholic history needs!

If all that food and drink has given you a bit of a stomach ache, then perhaps you should go to Les Leftovers where Jim Chevallier discusses shifts in fasting in medieval France. This detailed post considers what foods were and were not allowed on fasting days, when fasting days took place, and how all of this changed over time.


And that's all for this edition of Carnivalesque. I hope you have enjoyed exploring all of the amazing history that is available online as much as I have. Be sure to join us in September for Carnivalesque 105 at Meshalim/Amthal/Exiemplos: Notes from the Life of a Medievalist.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Carnivalesque

Hello dear readers!

To kick The Fashion Historian back into gear after this rather long hiatus I will be hosting this month's edition of Carnivalesque!

What is Carnivalesque? It's an interdisciplinary blog carnival for history blogs focusing on pre-modern history (to c. 1800). So if you would like to nominate a blog or a particular blog post to be included in this month's Carnivalesque, send me a message using the form here. Remember, the point is to be as interdisciplinary as possible so blogs focused on ANY part of history will be considered!

The carnival itself will be posted on July 26th. Happy nominating!

http://carnivalesque.org/

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ann Lowe’s Early Career

February is Black History Month! To celebrate here on The Fashion Historian, I asked my dear friend and colleague Elizabeth Way if she would pen a couple of guest posts about two incredible African American fashion designers and dressmakers and she kindly agreed. Enjoy!


Ann Lowe pictured in Ebony magazine in 1966.

Ann Lowe was a leading society dressmaker in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. Her designs were so exclusive that she restricted her clients to those found on the Social Register; people with names like Roosevelt, DuPont, and Rockefeller. Her most famous design was for Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, but she also made countless wedding and debutante gowns for American socialites. Anne Lowe made couture-quality gowns on par with the best French designers, true pieces of art that now reside in museums like the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. But before she came to New York, Lowe built her career as artistic and technically skilled fashion designer in Tampa, Florida.

Ann Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama. This was a rural town in the Jim Crow south, where most blacks struggled as sharecroppers, but Ann’s family was better off than even some white families because her grandmother, Georgia Cole, and her mother, Janey Lowe, were excellent dressmakers. Georgia was a former slave who had been bought and freed by her husband, a free black man named General Cole. When Ann was very young the family moved to Montgomery, and established a thriving business, fashioning gowns for the society ladies of the state capitol. Ann grew up picking up scraps from her grandmother and mother’s work and sewing them into beautiful replicas of the flowers she saw in the garden—these floral accents would become a signature of her designs. In 1914 Janey died suddenly, leaving her daughter to complete an important order for the governor’s wife. Sixteen-year-old Ann, not only finished the order, she took over her mother’s business. Her already advanced design and sewing skills made her a capable dressmaker, but when she married and gave birth to her son Arthur, her husband, Lee Cone, compelled her to give up her work and stay home with her family. Yet she never stopped designing—instead of sewing for socialites, she fashioned beautiful clothing for herself.


Gasparilla Court wearing gowns designed by Ann Lowe, 1927. Black Fashion Museum.

One day, Josephine Lee, a wealthy socialite from Florida, spotted a very fashionable young black woman from across an Alabama department store. Mrs. Lee was so impressed by Ann’s chic clothing she had to ask about them and when she found out that Ann made them herself, she hired the young woman on the spot as her live-in dressmaker. Mrs. Lee had four daughters who all needed fashionable clothes for the social season and Ann was to make them. Lee Cone was against the move, but Ann saw an opportunity to continue and expand the career she loved, and so she and Arthur boarded the train to Tampa.

In Florida, Ann’s career flourished. The Lee girls’ friends coveted their fashion-forward clothing and Ann was soon the most popular dressmaker in town. She was known for making original designs and working fast—sometimes a lady would drop by her shop in the morning with fabric for a dress that she could pick up and wear that night. The Lee family adored Ann and supported her growing talent—in 1917 they encouraged her decision to attend design school in New York City. Luckily for Tampa, its finest dressmaker returned after a year—Lowe was so skilled that she completed the course work of her design school in half the time, despite the fact that she was segregated to a separate classroom to work alone because of her race. Ann reopened her business and by the time she turned 21, she employed eighteen dressmakers in her shop.


Gasparilla Court wearing gowns designed by Ann Lowe, 1928. Black Fashion Museum.

Though Lowe made all types of garments, she was best known for exquisite ball gowns. Tampa hosted an annual social event called the Gasparilla festival, which was full of balls for the wealthiest residents. Young girls from the best families were elected to a Gasparilla court—the most popular was crowned the Gasparilla Queen—and they all wanted dresses by Ann. One socialite recalled, “If you didn’t have a Gasparilla gown by Annie, you might as well stay home.”

In interviews given late in her life, Ann Lowe always remembered her Tampa clients fondly and her time there as very happy. But she was destined for a bigger future. She made a permanent move to New York in 1928, again supported by the Lees who appreciated her talent and ambition. Yet, a local newspaper reported, “There is much ‘weeping and wailing and maybe gnashing of teeth’ to use the old expression, among Tampa society maids over the fact that Annie Cone [as she was known then] is going to New York City… feminine society is wondering just how it will be able to survive the future social seasons without her assistance.” Nearly forty years later, her Tampa clients still remembered their incredible designer. A Tampa Tribune article, written in 1965, included several interviews of Lowe’s Tampa clients and reported that, “everyone we spoke to who had an Ann Lowe gown remembers it distinctly and nostalgically.” The 1924 Gasparilla queen, Sarah Keller Hobbs, sentimentally recalled, “There was never anyone like Annie.”

Further Reading

Frye, Alexandria, “Fairy Princess Gowns Created By Tampa Designer for Queen In Gasparilla’s Golden Era”, Tampa Tribune, Feb. 7 1965, pp. 6-E.

Powell, Margaret, “The Life and Work of Ann Lowe: Rediscovering ‘Society’s Best-Kept Secret’”, (master’s thesis for the Smithsonian Associates and the Corcoran College of Art and Design, 2012).

Elizabeth Way, Curatorial Assistant at the Museum at FIT. Elizabeth wrote her master's thesis on the African American dressmakers Elizabeth Keckly and Ann Lowe and continues to research the intersection of African American culture and fashion.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Elizabeth Keckly Before Mary Lincoln

February is Black History Month! To celebrate here on The Fashion Historian, I asked my dear friend and colleague Elizabeth Way if she would pen a couple of guest posts about two incredible African American fashion designers and dressmakers and she kindly agreed. Enjoy!



Elizabeth Keckly in the 1860s. Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Elizabeth Keckly, the talented dressmaker and close friend to Mary Todd Lincoln, is resurfacing as an important historical figure. She appeared as a character in the film Lincoln (2012), played by Gloria Rubin, and her life has been the subject of several fictional and nonfictional books. This attention is well deserved because she was truly a remarkable woman—over the course of her life she bought her freedom from slavery, made a major impact on American fashion by dressing the most famous political wives of Civil War-era Washington DC, created a charity to aid newly freed slaves, and wrote her memoirs, leaving important documentation on both herself and the Lincoln family for future scholars. Though her experiences in Washington DC are fascinating history—she created fashions for every notable lady from Varina Davis, the first lady of the Confederacy, to all of Lincoln’s cabinet member wives—her story as a society dressmaker began on the western frontier.

Elizabeth was born a slave on the Burwell plantation in Dinwiddie County, Virginia in 1818. Her mother was Agnes, also a slave and the head seamstress and dressmaker to the Burwell family. Her father was Armistead Burwell, Agnes’ owner and the master of the plantation. Agnes taught her daughter not only to sew and make dresses, but also to read and write, empowering Elizabeth with valuable skills for her future. Elizabeth moved several times in her enslaved life because her father lent her out as help to her half-siblings. After living in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where she was raped by a white man and gave birth to her son George, and Petersburg, Virginia, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1847 as a slave to her half-sister, Anne Burwell Garland and her husband Hugh Garland.

Keckly designed this silk velvet and satin gown for Mary Lincoln in 1864. National Museum of American History, Political Life Division.

Hugh Garland was a lawyer, and the family was socially well connected, but he suffered from very poor finances. He sent Elizabeth out as a dressmaker to support the family and for two years and five months she worked as the main breadwinner supporting seventeen people! Elizabeth had gained her first experience sewing gowns for her Burwell half-sisters and was quite accomplished by the time she moved to St. Louis. However, the ladies in this city truly prepared her for the success she found in Washington. They demanded the latest French fashions, which they read about in magazines or picked up from visits and friends in New Orleans. These lady patrons, who refused to give up looking fashionable just because they lived in far-flung St. Louis, sharpened Elizabeth’s dressmaking skills and refined sense of style.

Elizabeth was intelligent, talented and an excellent businesswoman; in her own words, “in a short time I had acquired something of a reputation as a seamstress and dress-maker. The best ladies in St. Louis were my patrons, and when my reputation was once established I never lacked for orders.” Therefore, it is no surprise that this black female slave, who could support a family better than a formally-educated white man, would want to move beyond the limitations of slavery. Elizabeth repeatedly asked Hugh Garland to set a price for her and George’s freedom, which he finally did: $1200. This was an enormous amount of money, especially considering that most of her wages went to the Garlands. But the always-enterprising Elizabeth had a plan. She would travel to New York City and seek financial aid from one of the abolitionist organizations that helped slaves purchase their freedom. By this time Hugh Garland had died and Anne Garland agreed to let Elizabeth travel north, but only after acquiring the signatures of six white men who would pay her value to Anne if she never returned. Elizabeth had no problem obtaining these pledges because her clients and their husbands knew her as honest and trustworthy. The sixth man, however, spoiled her plans. This Mr. Farrow would willingly sign for her, but was convinced that she would never come back to St. Louis telling her, “you mean to come back, that is, you mean so now, but you never will. When you reach New York the abolitionists will tell you what savages we are, and they will prevail on you to stay there; and we shall never see you again.” Elizabeth was morally shocked that Mr. Farrow thought she was lying and called off her trip, explaining, “I was beginning to feel sick at heart, for I could not accept the signature of this man when he had no faith in my pledges. No; slavery, eternal slavery rather than be regarded with distrust by those whose respect I esteemed.”


Keckly's Deed of Emancipation and Freedom Bond, 1855. Missouri Historical Society.


In her darkest hour, Elizabeth was saved by the reputation she had earned and the loyalty she inspired, not simply as an excellent dressmaker, but as an admirable and respected person. A client, Mrs. Le Bourgois, came to visit and told Elizabeth that her patrons did not want her to go to New York and beg for money for her freedom. Instead Mrs. Le Bourgois raised the $1200 among Elizabeth’s clients, gifting her with the money. In 1855 Elizabeth bought her and George’s freedom and she started her own business as a free dressmaker in St. Louis. She repaid every penny given to her by her patrons and in 1860 Elizabeth Keckly arrived in Washington DC, beginning her illustrious career as the leading dressmaker in the nation’s capitol.

Further Reading

Keckly, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Fours Years in the White House. New York: G.W. Carlton and Co. Publishers, 1868.

Elizabeth Way, Curatorial Assistant at the Museum at FIT. Elizabeth wrote her master's thesis on the African American dressmakers Elizabeth Keckly and Ann Lowe and continues to research the intersection of African American culture and fashion.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Historic Influence

Right: Image from 13th century Bestiary. British Library, Royal ms 12 F XIII f9r.
 

Sometimes fashion is for the dogs. Just a silly little historic influence post for the weekend! Many thanks to @tudorcook for the manuscript image.