Saturday, July 19, 2014


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!

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.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Spangles, Sequins, and Spangs, Oe My!

"The Robe she ware was lawne (white as the Swanne)
Which silver Oes and Spangles over-ran
That in her motion such reflexion gave,
As fill'd with silver stares, the heav'nly wane."
- John Davies of Hereford, An Extasie, 1603

What better way to return from a long hiatus than with a flurry of sparkles? Today's post is all about sequins, spangles, and oes!

French court suit jacket, 1750-75. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For centuries, the fashionable have decorated their clothing and accessories with small, reflective metal discs. Today we know these as sequins, but in previous centuries they were known as spangles. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of sequin as a name for these sparkly discs was in 1882. A few centuries earlier, a sequin was the name of an Italian gold coin. Perhaps this reference to a small disc of precious metal inspired the later use of the word.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, sequins were known as spangles or spangs. Spangles were made of precious and semi-precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper, and came in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most common was the flat, circular disc we are familiar with today. But by the end of the 18th century, spangles could be cut into multiple shapes like clovers and hearts, and could be tinted colors like pink and blue. In many descriptions, such as the poem at the beginning of this post, spangles are paired with oes. Oes were another form of decorative metal detail, very similar to spangles. According to scholar M. Channing Linthicum, "oes were metal eyelets tacked or clinched to the material in such designs as 'squares,' 'Esses,' 'wheate eares,' etc., or powdered over the whole surface."

Lady Dorothy Cary by William Larkin, c. 1614. English Heritage. The little spots on her embroidered jacket are spangles.

According to records of English parliamentary proceedings, in 1575 "a Patent was first granted to Robert Sharp to make Spangles and Oes of Gold." This suggests that Robert Sharp was perhaps one of the first English manufacturers of spangles and oes, or perhaps an innovator in their production. There were two methods for creating spangles. In the first method, a thin coil of wire was wrapped around a narrow dowel. The resulting spring was then cut and the coils hammered flat to create round discs with a small hole in the middle. The second method was used to create spangles with more elaborate shapes. In this method, a thin sheet of metal was laid out and the spangles were punched out using shaped tools, like when you make cookies with cookie cutters.

Spangles and oes were used to decorate the clothes and accessories of men and women. In the candle light, they would shimmer and lend a magical quality to the wearer. In an essay by Francis Bacon, titled Of Masques and Triumphs, the glittering effect of spangles and oes is described. He writes, "The colors that show best by candle-light are white... and oes, or spangs, as they are of no great cost, so they are of the most glory."

Women's Jacket made in Great Britain, 1600-1625. The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Over the years, spangles and oes have decorated a variety of garments and accessories. One of the most notable uses was in the first decades of the 17th century when they covered women's embroidered jackets, as in the above image. From 2007 to 2009, workers at Plimoth Plantation meticulously reproduced one of these embroidered jackets. To read more about this incredible undertaking, including their manufacturing of spangles, I highly recommend their blog.

Detail of a French court suit embroidered with blue tinted spangles, 1750-75. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, spangles could often be found on decorative embroidery. The above image is a detail of the court suit pictured earlier in this post. Here you can see a variety of spangles, from plain gold circles to blue tinted circles and pointed ovals. As for the tightly coiled wires which surround many of the spangles, could they be oes?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Why I Love History

From Punch Magazine, 1906.

Look at this cartoon from a 1906 issue of Punch Magazine, forecasting the future of wireless technology. It shows two people sitting outdoors, but ignoring their surroundings and each other because they're engrossed in their mobile devices. The woman is sexting. The man is looking up sports scores. This cartoon was published over a hundred years ago, yet it is depicting something we are all extremely familiar with today.

Now take a moment to think of what life was like back in 1906. Compared to what life is like now, 1906 might as well be a different planet. And yet here we are, looking at the same cartoon people looked at in 1906, and thinking exactly the same thing. Of course this cartoon is fantastical, a speculation based on advances in telegraph technology. But the prediction has turned out to be 100% accurate. And just as we roll our eyes today at people engrossed in the latest technology, ignoring everything else, so too did people roll their eyes on that far away planet of 1906.

This is why I love history. Because the people of history lived in a completely different world than we do now, and it can sometimes seem unfathomable to imagine their lives. But they were still people who laughed and cried and had a favorite color and food and best friends and awkward conversations. For so many history is just a list of facts and dates and names and obviously that's really boring. But if you really look closely at history you learn about real people who were just like us even though they lived on another planet. And to be able to connect to some one that lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, in a completely different world, is amazing.

This is one of the many many reasons why I love fashion and textile history in particular. Because I get to work with the very clothes that people lived their lives in and the textiles that they slept under or sat on or that adorned their walls. You may roll your eyes at this, but I've always loved how Stanly Tucci's character in The Devil Wears Prada describes fashion as "greater than art, because you live your life in it." I think that quote so wonderfully sums up why fashion and textile history is so important, and why it means so much to me. Because these are the things that people lived their lives in. And to study that is to connect with these strange people from a distant land in the most intimate way. The first extant garment I ever held was a shoe from the early 1810s. I remember just sitting there and staring at it, because here in my hand was a shoe that was on a woman's foot when Napoleon was conquering the world. And in that moment I had a personal link to that time in history and more importantly the people of history. A woman and I, separated by two hundred years, were able to share a moment.

This is why history is amazing, and historic preservation is so important. We can't hop into a time machine and literally meet the people of the past, but we can make an intimate connection with them through the objects they've left behind. We can understand and 'make friends' (for lack of a better phrase) with people who lived in a different world, but in the end are just like us.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Exploring The Decades With Disney Princesses: Snow White

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.

Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a landmark moment in the history of film. It was the first full length animated feature produced by Walt Disney, and is one of the top ten performers at the North American box office. Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, it tells the story of an evil queen who is jealous of Snow White's superior beauty and orders her murder. After a huntsman, Snow White's would-be murderer, shows mercy, Snow White begins a life of hiding in the woods and befriends seven dwarfs. Furious that Snow White is still alive the evil queen disguises herself and visits Snow White in her woodland cottage giving her a poisoned apple. Snow White takes a bite and seems to die but is ultimately awoken and rescued by the kiss of a handsome prince. And they all lived happily ever after.

Marjorie and her animated counterpart dance.

The rendering of Snow White in Disney's film, with her blue bodiced and yellow skirted dress, dainty red bow, and short black hair, has become iconic, and the character is the earliest of the Disney Princesses. Development for the movie began in early 1934. Snow White was modeled on a young dancer named Marjorie Celeste Belcher, daughter of a Disney animator. Marjorie was filmed performing scenes as Snow White, which Disney animators later used as reference to create a realistic human depiction.

But how does Snow White's appearance reflect the aesthetics of the 1930s? Simply look at fashion illustrations of the period and you'll see that Snow White fits right in with the illustrated fashion models. 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.

Illustration of two women wearing dress coats from Croquis de bal, 1930s. The New York Public Library.

Snow White is a slim figured Art Deco beauty. Her silhouette is sleek and long, with no large curves interrupting the smooth line from head to toe, reflecting the ideal silhouette of the period and the sleek lines of the Art Deco style. Her dress has a close fitting bodice, puffed sleeves, and a narrow skirt, all elements of fashionable dress from the 1930s. Compare her to the figures in the fashion illustration above, which also feature a long, slim figure, and a dress with emphasis on the shoulders and narrow lines.

Hat designs from the 1930s.

Snow White's face also shows ideal features. Her hair is cropped short, and she has cherub-like red lips, circular eyes, and pencil thin eyebrows. Once again, these features are mirrored in the fashion illustration above. Snow White's face gives her a dainty, girlish appearance, reflecting the elegant femininity which characterized 1930s fashion. And once again, her round and simply drawn facial features conform with the Art Deco aesthetic which combined sleek lines, round shapes, and a minimal aesthetic without much embellishment.

As time goes by how do the Disney Princesses evolve? Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Other Things I've Been Doing

Just wanted to link to a few things I've been working on recently!

The wonderful blog Clothes on Film let me write a series of guest posts about the costumes on Game of Thrones! Click the links below to read them all:

Part 1: Sansa Stark
Part 2: Daenerys Targaryen
Part 3: Cersei Lannister

BBC History Magazine is holding a contest to determine who is the Best Dressed Briton in History. I nominated 18th century fashionista Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. You can vote for her here!

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Think Pink from Funny Face (1957)

The color pink has come to represent all that is quintessentially girly. Barbie, the most famous of girl's dolls, frequently wears pink, drives a pink convertable, and lives in a pink house.* In the movie Legally Blonde (2001), Elle Woods, the stereotypical ditzy sorority girl, is often dressed in her signature color- pink. Disney princesses including Cinderella, Ariel, and Aurora, all appear in pink gowns. The logo for breast cancer awareness, a disease associated with women (although men can get breast cancer as well), is a pink ribbon.

Images from Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and The Little Mermaid (1989).

I know some women who love pink because it's girly, and some who hate it for the same reason. For some, pink represents the negative gender stereotype of a shallow and stupid girl. For others, pink represents a vibrant celebration of femininity. I myself like the color pink, not for any gender connotations but because I think it is a pretty color. However, I know my fondness for pink clothes, accessories, and objects to decorate my house with sends a certain message to people, be it positive or negative. I have sometimes been criticized for my fondness of pink, and told that it makes me seem immature, unintelligent, and "girly" (that is, I'm like a little girl, not an adult woman). Strong Independent Modern Women don't wear pink! I think Strong Independent Modern Women can wear whatever they like but that is besides the point. Pink is a highly politicized color. But it hasn't always been that way.

Man's pink suit from the 1780s. At the Swiss National Museum.

The designations of pink and blue as gendered colors that we know today did not come about until the twentieth century, when childrens clothing became gender specific. In previous centuries, young boys and girls wore dresses and skirts (because it was easier to change diapers that way) for the first years of their life. But this began to change in the twentieth century, and with gendered clothing came gendered colors.

Virgin and Child by the Master of Guillaume Lambert, c. 1485. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It may surprise you to know that pink has traditionally been a masculine color. Pink, as a lighter version of red, had associations with blood and fighting, symbols of masculinity. Blue, today the color designated as masculine, has traditionally been the feminine color. In Christian tradition, blue is the iconographic color code of the Virgin Mary, and what is more feminine than the symbol of purity herself, the virgin mother of the son of God. In June 1918, the Infants' Department wrote: "There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl, The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

A feminine pink kitchen advertised in McCalls, April 1951.

So when did the colors switch, with pink becoming feminine? It was during the 1950s that pink became strongly feminized. This was not a sudden change, but the result of a gradual evolution. The designation of pink as feminine was the result of several factors, one of which was changes in the clothing industry. By the 1950s, most families bought clothing from stores, and clothing manufacturers helped to shape the idea of gendered clothing. In her book about the history of gendered childrens clothing, Pink and Blue, Jo Paoletti writes: "The more baby clothing could be designed for an individual child-- and sex was the easiest and most obvious way to distinguish babies-- the harder it would be for parents to hand down clothing from one child to the next, and the more clothing they would have to buy as their families grew."

In recent years, men have somewhat reclaimed the color pink. In conjunction with the release of Baz Luhrmann's new adaptation of The Great Gatsby, Brooks Brothers sold a design based on Jay Gatsby's famous pink suit. Famous hip hop artists such as Jay Z and Kanye West have been pictured wearing pink. And preppy polo shirts and shorts for men come in a variety of shades of pink. So is the pink stigma being lifted? Only time will tell.

*While looking for images of Barbie, I learned that Barbie's Dream House is now a reality. You can visit a life sized version in Berlin, Germany and Florida, USA. I saw some pictures, and everything in the house is, of course, pink.

Quick Note

If anyone has e-mailed me in the last few weeks and I haven't gotten back to you, my sincere apologies! I've been moving so everything has been a little crazy. Just send me another e-mail and I promise I'll respond.