Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book Review: Nautical Chic by Amber Jane Butchart

Nautical Chic
by Amber Jane Butchart
Abrams (USA); Thames & Hudson Ltd. (UK)

"It is France, the United States, and Britain whose naval uniforms and maritime clothing have had a lasting legacy around the globe. From tailoring to sportswear, and from haute couture to the high street, these countries are the key producers and exporters of nautical style. Intertwined with politics, imperialism, war, leisure, trade and sport, marine passions and seafaring endeavours have made the journey from lifeblood to lifestyle."
~ Amber Jane Butchart

Nautical Chic is the second book by fashion historian Amber Jane Butchart and well worth looking at. Featuring nearly 200 large images and plenty of interesting historical tidbits, the book tracks the history of the influence of nautical trends on fashion. From the coiffure à la Belle Poule to Captain Hook to all your favorite designers such as Coco Chanel, Vivienne Westwood, and Alexander McQueen, this book covers everything you ever wanted to know about how the seafaring have permeated our fashion vocabulary. As the press release states, "Nautical style has been an enduring mainstay of the fashion world, and Nautical Chic is a lavish celebration of its iconic looks and perennial popularity, tracing the history of its trends and impact on the clothes we love."

The book is divided into five chapters, each focusing on a different element of nautical heritage: "The Officer", "The Sailor", "The Fisherman", "The Sportsman," and "The Pirate". Each chapter is accompanied by several full page images of contemporary fashion as well as historic garments and illustrations, allowing the reader to closely examine the details of each. The images are a great strength of this text, creating a vibrant and eye-catching display. As one who is often frustrated with minimal, small images in fashion history texts, I was very pleased to be able truly see what the author was discussing and immerse myself in the subject. The text is equally informative, condensing an enormous amount of information into easily digestible sections that provide a rich overview of nautical style throughout history. Nautical Chic is not plagued by academic-speak and could be easily enjoyed by both experts and those with a passing interest in fashion history. My only criticism is that I want more! More text! More images! Give me 200 more pages please!

As a lifelong fan of pirates, the chapter on styles derived from the swashbuckling antiheros was particularly enjoyable. As the chapter title page says,

"Romance and adventure on the high seas are embodied by the Pirate. Designers with a penchant for historical detail and the spirit of rebellion, from McLaren and Westwood to Galliano and de Castelbajac, are drawn to his excess. Embodying aristocratic 17th-century opulence, as well as shipwrecked stripes and rags, the Pirate's style is drawn as much from fiction as from fact: a theatrical villain recast as a swashbuckling hero."

The chapter covers a large variety of styles and ideas associated with the pirate, from a brief history of the real-life Golden Age of Piracy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to the influence of popular pirate films on fashion to the postmodern reinterpretations of pirates from designers Malcom McClaren and Vivienne Westwood. Archetypal pirate accouterments such as tattoos, peg legs, and the Jolly Roger are also explored. For instance, the short section titled "Eye Patches and Parrots" discusses the historical basis for such accessories before mentioning how they have made their way to the high fashion runway in the collections of Gaultier and de Castelbajac.

There are not many books on nautical style, so this book is definitely a must-have for those with a love of stripes, epaulettes, fashion, and history!

With thanks to Abrams for the review copy of this book.

We're Back!

After spending some quality time with tech support The Fashion Historian is back in business! We will be finishing up the last few posts from Textile Month, as well as bringing you some more Disney Princesses and book reviews! Stay tuned for lots of exciting content!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Technical Difficulties

We are currently experiencing a few technical difficulties and all your new Textile Month articles are not posting. We're looking into it and hope to be back in working order soon!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Art Deco Textiles in America Part 1: Africana Prints and Non-Western Influences

It's Textile Month here on The Fashion Historian! Each week this month we'll be bringing you a textile themed post. This week, in Part 1 of a two-part series, learn about how the art of non-Western cultures influenced the explosion of American textile design in the 1920s!

Safari silk titled "Kando" or "Samburu" by Belding-Heminway Co., 1930. Newark Museum, New Jersey. This print depicts African warriors standing behind shields.

In the early twentieth century America had grown a strong industrial business but it had no design aesthetic it could truly call it's own. That would all change in the 1920s when American textile design came into it's own, reflecting an exciting new era of modernism in the country. The search for a uniquely American style began during World War I. American textile designers had traditionally looked towards France for all things fashion, but with France embroiled in a war those European sources of inspiration were cut off. American designers thus began to look for a new, uniquely American aesthetic. As Susan L. Hannel writes, "World War I made the American people realize how dependent they were on Europe for the arts, but jazz music and skyscrapers were the beginning of America's recognition of its own potential for artistic contributions."

Printed silk by the Stehli Silks Corp. titled "Americana Print: Mayan", designed by Charles B. Falls, 1925. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.150.7. Photo by Katy Werlin. This textile pattern was inspired by ancient Mayan art.

One of the major leaders in this search for an American style was Morris De Camp Crawford, a design editor of Women's Wear and an honorary research assistant in textiles for the American Museum of Natural History. Along with Women's Wear editor E. W. Fairchild and Albert Blum, treasurer of the United Piece Dye Works, Crawford began to explore new sources of inspiration for American textile designers. The goal was to end the dependence on French designs and create a new, American aesthetic. To that end, Crawford turned to the ethnographic collections in museums. He approached several museums who were thrilled at the idea of opening up their collections to textile designers for inspiration, and this movement produced a flood of textiles with designed inspired by the art of non-Western cultures. Crawford himself was particularly enamored with the "primitive art" of the New World, and many designers were inspired by artifacts from ancient South American cultures and Native Americans.

Stela Fragment with Glyphs, made in Mexico by the Maya culture, 4th-9th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978.412.75.

Seated Figure, made in the Federated States of Micronesia, Caroline Islands by the Satawan culture, late 19th-early 20th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.8.

Tunic, made in Peru by the Moche-Wari culture, 7th-9th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.394.706.

Frog Pendant, made in Costa Rica by the Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991.419.1.

Prestige Panel from the Kuba culture in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sankuru River region, 20th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.271.1.

The art of non-Western cultures was well suited to the Art Deco aesthetic popular in the 1920s and 1930s. The Art Deco style is a pared down aesthetic, featuring simple and clean lines with repeating shapes and gradations. Consider this highly graphic design style and compare it to the objects above. Although these all come from non-Western cultures and many are hundreds of years old, they could all easily fit in with early twentieth-century American aesthetic ideals.

Textile patterns by Mallison and Co. published in American Silk Journal, 1931. The patterns are, from top, left to right: Temple of Angkor, Togo, Madagar, Marrakech, Timbuktu, New Caledonia, and Ubanghi.

Another major figure in the search for an American aesthetic was Ethel Traphagan, head of Ethel Traphagan's School of Design. In March 1929 the American Silk Journal praised her innovation:
"[She was] forever doing notable things to gain for the textile and other industries of her own country, independence int he art of fashioning women's wear and other articles of domestic use, ahd more in mind than merely creating the African silk motif, which has recently taken such a substantial hod upon our people. She saw in this major fashion movement the beginning of the end in our habitual search for adequate dress design abroad. To Miss Traphagen, a slavish dependence upon Europe for dress and other design was the most senseless and intolerable condition in current American art. To her it seemed to be as undesirable. She believed that so long as we depend upon Europe for our art designs, art objects and the pictorial, plastic and manual arts, the great body of American artists would never attain the position in the world to which its impressive talents entitle it- have long ago entitled it."

Congo Cloth, published in Women's Wear, 1923. Brooklyn Museum of Art, Culin Archival Collection.
Series of Patterns in Congo Cloth Representing Modern Adaptations of Designs From Sleeping Mats Used in the Huts of African Negroes.
Designed and Manufactures by Blank & Co., Inc."

As textile designers looked to Non-Western sources for inspiration, the art and design of Africa became one of the most strong influences. By 1930 the American Silk Journal even declared that African prints would bring in "a new era in American fashions." African art had already begun influencing fine art, with Cubism taking direct influence from the style. But it was in the late 1910s and through the 1920s that "Africana" prints would begin to filter through to textile design. In 1923 the Brooklyn Museum of Art held an exhibition titled "Primitive Negro Art". Curated by Stewart Culin, the exhibition showcased art from the Bushongo tribe in what was then the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). To help market the exhibition, Culin commissioned artists to create designs based on the artifacts on display. Feliz Meyer, working with the Blank & Co silk company, designed "Congo Cloth", an extremely popular textile based on patterns from raffia sleeping mats and burial masks.

An advertisement for dresses at Bonwit Teller (a department store) made from Congo Cloth. Women's Wear, April 14, 1923.

The Africana trend continued throughout the decade and into the 1930s. Ethel Traphagan had students design textiles inspired by artifacts she brought home from a trip to Africa in 1928 and C. K. Eagle Co chose some of the student designs for a line of printed silks called "Zanbraza." In 1930 the Beldings-Heminway company released a series of printed silks titled "Safari" designed by Fredeirck Suhr. Inspired by Safari; A Saga of the African Blue by Martin Johnson, the silk patterns were named by Martin's wife Osa and included "Samburu, African war gear; Utunda, circlets made of wild animal teeth; Kando, jungle hunt for leopard; and Tinga-Tinga, fronds of the palm tree." In an advertisment for the silks, Vogue wrote: "Africa, country of amazing contrast, savage and sophisticate, this is the theme of Safari... silks patterned in the keener color, the bolder rhythm of a new adventure." Continuing into the 1930s, in 1931 Malinson and Co produced a series of printed silks with "Barbaric Themes"; the silks were given names such as "Togo", "Marrakech", and "Timbuktu".

A Safari silk fabric titled "Punda" by Belding-Heminway Co., 1930. Newark Museum, New Jersey.

As can be seen by the continued use of the words barbaric, primitive, and savage, the Africana textile trend was heavily influenced by colonialism and racism. It is a prime example of cultural appropriation, with American designers taking artistic influences from the diverse cultures of Africa without awareness of the significance or context of the designs and their place in African culture. Many Africana textiles are based on racist generalizations and stereotypes and the titles of many of the designs accentuate this idea of Western (i.e. white) superiority. The idea of cultural appropriation is new, but it can still be used to understand the past. While these textiles produced in the 1920s were beautiful, it is extremely important to view them through the lens of Western imperialism.

In the second and final post in this series, learn how textile designers took inspiration from modern life and the American experience to contribute to this new American aesthetic! Coming soon!

Further Reading

Hannel, Susan. "'Africana' Textiles: Imitation, Adaptation, and Transformation During the Jazz Age" Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, Spring 2006, 68-103.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Printed Textiles in Eighteenth-Century America

It's Textile Month here on The Fashion Historian! Each week this month we'll be bringing you a textile themed post. This week, learn about printed textiles in eighteenth-century America!

Printed cotton celebrating American Independence, ca. 1785. Designed by Henry Gardiner and made in Southeast England. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 46.106.1

Printed textiles were extremely popular for both clothing and home furnishing throughout the eighteenth century. The most commonly used fabric for printed patterns was cotton, although linen and silk could be printed as well. Printed textiles were first imported to Europe from India in the early seventeenth century and quickly became an important luxury item. By the eighteenth century, printed textiles were accessible to all classes of society. In America, printed cottons were especially popular because the cotton fabric was well suited for the warmer climate and could withstand multiple washings, making it ideal for the working classes.

Printed cotton ensemble, c. 1770s-1780s. Mode Museum, Antwerp.

North America, in particular the British colonies, was an extremely important market for the printed textile trade. Cotton was a major crop in the American south and the exportation and production of cotton materials became an important factor of in the growth and development of American industry and the economy. Fashionable printed cottons were also readily available to Americans because of European politics. Due to their popularity printed cottons were seen as a threat to the domestic textile industries of France and England. From 1686-1759, the production and wearing of cotton was banned in France to promote the silk industry. And from 1721-1774 the importation and domestic production of printed cottons was banned in England to promote the wool industry. However, exportation of printed cottons in England was not banned, and so the British continued to produce printed cottons to send to America.

Un atelier de couturières en Arles, by Antoine Raspal, c. 1785. Musée Réattu. Note that each seamstress is wearing an outfit made of printed cotton.

An enormous variety of patterns were available for purchase, from simple shapes such as stripes or scallops to detailed renderings of scenes from the latest opera. The earliest printed textiles, used for home furnishing, featured colorful and stylized renderings of exotic flora and fauna. These floral motifs fed into the Western craze for Orientalism, a fascination with the cultures of the East which influenced popular culture and the decorative arts. As printed cottons became big business, designers in India adapted traditional Eastern motifs to be appealing to European tastes. European designers similarly adapted Eastern motifs in their own designs, creating a global exchange of aesthetic ideas. As the eighteenth century progressed these floral printed cottons were often used for fashionable informal dress. As pictured in the images above, women often mixed and matched differently patterned bodices, skirts, and fichus (shawls) to create a vibrant outfit.

Les Travaux de la Manufacture (The Factory in Operation), 1783-84. Printed cotton designed by Jean Baptiste Huet and manufactured at the Oberkampf Manufactory in Jouy, France. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1953.306. This is a printed cotton depicting the manufacture of printed cottons!

Figural patterns, often with a topical subject matter, rose to prominence in the second half of the eighteenth century and were often used for home furnishing. These large textiles often featured multiple vignettes on one piece, all corresponding to one overarching theme. The inspiration for figural printed textiles came from a wide variety of subject matter. Ancient mythology, pastoral fantasies, politics, and contemporary popular culture such as operas and novels all inspired printed textiles. The wide range of prints allowed the consumer to express their cultural and political acumen, as well as their personal tastes and interests. Prints depicting important political figures and events demonstrated allegiance to specific political ideals or governments. Prints depicting scenes from the newest opera demonstrated the consumer’s taste and engagement in high culture. Prints also reflected the different aesthetics of the age. Scenes of contemporary life were popular mid-century at the height of the rococo, while classical themes became very popular at the end of the century with the rise of neoclassicism.

Quilt Center, ca. 1790. Printed cotton, designed by John Hewson and made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.284.

One of the most famous American printed cotton designers was John Hewson (1744-1821). Hewson was born in England and worked for Talwin and Foster, a leading English textile print works. In 1774 he immigrated to America and opened a printed textile factory in Pennsylvania near the Delaware River. His work became celebrated throughout the new country and the quality rivaled textiles produced in Europe. On July 4, 1788 a parade was held in Philadelphia to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the procession was a large carriage celebrating the American textile industry, with Hewson and his family representing printed cottons. A newspaper reported:
“Behind the looms, was fixed the apparatus of Mr. Hewson, printing muslins of an elegant chintz pattern, and Mr. Lang designing and cutting prints for shawls; on the right were seated Mrs. Hewson and her four daughters, penciling a piece of very neat sprigg’d chintz of Mr. Hewson’s printing; all dressed in cottons of their own manufacture; on the back part of the carriage, on a lofty staff, was displayed the calico printers’ flag; in the centre, thirteen stars in a blue field, and thirteen red stripes in a white field; round the edges of the flag were printed thirty-seven different prints of various colours (one of them a very elegant bed furniture chintz of six colours) as specimens of printing done at Philadelphia.”
As you can see, printed textiles are much more than simple fabric. They are an important symbol of global trade and cultural exchange in the early modern period and they are intimately connected to the politics in Europe and America. Thus they make a perfect lens through which to view the eighteenth-century Western world.

For more information on printed textiles in America, keep an eye out for Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, available in November. I penned the entry on printed textiles in Volume 1 (17th and 18th centuries)!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Interview with Fashion Victims Author Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell recently published her first book, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. After looking through this lavish text, I wanted to know a bit more about how this book came together. What is the story behind the story? Find out in my exclusive interview below!

Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing this book. How did you first come up with the idea for the content? Were there any interesting places that your research took you?

There have been a lot of good books on eighteenth-century fashion, but most of them cover just that: the whole eighteenth century, from 1700 to 1799, as if fashion followed a linear progression with a beginning, middle, and end. The Louis XVI period--from 1774 to 1793--was so different from everything that came before and after, socially and sartorially. I felt like it deserved a book of its own. Partly because of the French Revolution and partly because of the nature of fashion and collecting, objects from the period have ended up all over the place. My research took me to France, of course, but it also took me to museums and archives in Sweden, Canada, England, Scotland, and Austria. If I'd had the time and funding, I would have added Russia and Portugal to that list. The strangest place I found myself was the ornithology department of the Royal Ontario Museum, where a specialist helped me identify the feathers embroidered on a robe parée supposedly made for Marie-Antoinette with the help of a vast collection of dead birds.

One of the joys of looking through museum collections and archives is discovering hidden treasure that you didn’t know of which really help your research. Were there any of those moments?

So many of those moments! The hardest part is knowing when to stop, because there's always going to be another amazing portrait or document or garment lurking somewhere if you just keep looking. One that stands out is the Revolutionary waistcoat in LACMA's collection; I came across it very late in my research and now I can't imagine the book without it. There's a Figaro costume at FIDM that I wish I'd included, but I didn't know about it until too late. Sometimes you have to publish first in order to find these things; there's an alms purse in the book that I was able to have photographed at the last minute because a curator friend read my article on alms purses in PieceWork and realized she had one in her collection! It's the only one I've ever seen that has a solid provenance; they're usually cataloged as gambling purses, because they're identical except in how they were used. 

What were some of the challenges and rewards of publishing a book?

I loved every minute of the research and writing process, but the road to publication was slow and frustrating. Something I've learned is to start with the images and work backwards. You don't want to get to the end of writing a book or an article and then discover you can't use the images you need, because the publisher is only going to let you have three illustrations or because the rights are unavailable or unaffordable. I learned a lot, however, and I could not be happier with the way the book turned out in the end.

(For more information on Dr. Chrisman-Campbell's publishing journey, click here!)

There are many books written about this period in history, including a wide range of fashion history texts. What do you think makes your book stand out?

I'm a stickler for primary sources. There are a lot of fun myths about Marie-Antoinette floating around, but the truth is far more interesting, and you have to go back to eyewitness accounts to find it. Anything written in aftermath of the Revolution tends to be revisionist history. Also, I think I'm the first person to look at the French émigré fashion industry, which was hugely important to the development of European fashion in the 1790s and early 1800s. Finally, my book has 220 illustrations! I made a conscious effort to include a balance of paintings, prints, fashion plates, and objects, including textiles and decorative arts as well as garments and accessories. Many of them have never been published before.

What is the biggest myth about Marie Antoinette that you’d like dispelled?

She probably never wore a ship on her head, but if she had, it would not have been controversial at all! Personally, I don't think she was as much of an innovator as she's been given credit for. Although I'm generally sympathetic to her, I find her a bit boring; women like Rose Bertin and the stylish Duchesse de Chartes were the true trendsetters. Marie-Antoinette was a little like Princess Diana: young, pretty, rich, and extremely famous, but not exactly cutting-edge in her fashion choices. As queen, she couldn't afford to be. Even her riskiest fashion statement, a chemise gown with a straw hat, had been worn by Madame Du Barry two years earlier.

When people ask me why I love the eighteenth century so much I never know where to start. So I’ve ended up just saying “The wand chooses the wizard” to avoid a five hour speech on why the eighteenth century is my great passion in life. So, with the knowledge that this is an impossible question to answer, why do you love the eighteenth century?

I love your answer! I could name a hundred reasons, but I think it all boils down to the irresistible allure of big hair and puffy shirts and skirts. It's the most extreme, inventive, over-the-top period in fashion history; it's the Formula One of fashion.

If you lived in the late eighteenth century, what fashion trend would you embrace with relish? For me, it’s putting ships on my head!

I've done that, and I don't even live in the late eighteenth century! The coiffure à la Belle Poule is practically a character in my book; I'm obsessed with it. And I'd have the biggest hoop petticoat in town. I love how women took up so much more space back then. It made them impossible to ignore.

Do you have any pet periods of history?

For the past few years I've been working on American fashion of the 1960s and 70s, and it's a whole different kind of research, with entirely new types of source material--including oral histories, sketches, photographs, and even film--as well as new challenges. It's a fascinating period that has a lot in common with the eighteenth century in terms of massive political and social upheaval reflected in fashion.

What’s next for you? Can you write a million more books please?

I'd love to! I have a couple of books in progress, with no publication date in sight: one on a subject closely related to Fashion Victims and one not related at all. I will never get tired of the eighteenth century, but it's nice to visit other time periods once in a while. I also wrote an essay on Marie Antoinette's shoes for the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition catalog Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, which will be published in June. I'm an occasional contributor to,, and Ornament Magazine, and I just started writing the FIDM Museum blog.

Do you have any advice for aspiring fashion historians?

Join the Costume Society of America! It's a great way to keep up with new research, make connections, and make friends.

Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Book Review: Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
Yale University Press

"Fashion, which its detractors have called slight, inconstant, fickle, and frivolous, is, however, fixed in its principles... We see how constant it is in seizing all remarkable events, adapting them, recording them in its annals, IMMORTALIZING them in memory."
~ Cabinet des modes, ou Les Modes nouvelles, 1786

"The dissemination of fashions follows the dissemination of ideas, and sometimes drives it."
~ Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette is the first book by fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Lavishly illustrated and filled with fascinating information, this book is definitely a worthwhile investment for anyone who is interested in fashion history or the eighteenth century. Fashion Victims explores one of the most infamous periods in fashion history, the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the end of the eighteenth century. Chrisman-Campbell discusses the extravagant and inventive fashions which reigned supreme in the decades before the French Revolution, as well as the important role fashion took during the turbulent Revolutionary years. As the press release truthfully states, "The absorbing narrative demonstrates fashion’s crucial role as a visible and versatile medium for social commentary, and shows the glittering surface of 18th-century high society as well as its seedy underbelly."

Fashion Victims is divided into four main sections, "Court and City", "New and Novel", "Fashion and Fantasy", and "Revolution and Recovery". Within these sections is a comprehensive look at the French fashion industry, with all of it's quirks and inventiveness. We learn about the politics of fashion, the influence of the court, the rising domination of women within the fashion industry, and the myriad of popular fads which swept fashion and popular culture. This wealth of information is accompanied by large, full-color images of paintings, fashion plates and illustrations, and extant garments from the period. Fashion is by it's nature a visual medium, so the addition of so many images is particularly helpful in fully understanding all of the information presented.

It's difficult to pick a favorite part of this book, but I particularly enjoyed Part III: Fashion and Fantasy. This section starts with an excellent quote from the Magasin des modes nouvelles
"We have prepared, almost without thinking about it, materials for the historian who is bored with reading newspapers. She will find, in a hat, a monument to the conqueror of Grenada, a single ribbon will teach her that the nephew of Tipoo-Saïb crossed the seas to become acquainted with this France which kings visit." 
This quote not only perfectly summarizes what a rich historical source fashion can be, but also the importance and prevalence of topical trends in fashion. To the untrained eye much of fashion history seems like a lot of the same. But through little details such as the style of a hat or design on a ribbon, we can see that, just like today, fashion was constantly changing in response to what was happening in politics, the arts, the economy, technology, philosophy, and popular culture. This section of Fashion Victims decodes some of those small details, revealing a few of the myriad of trends which influenced style. The subsection "Fashions a l'Américaine" explores fashions influenced by the politics of the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s and famous Americans who visited France such as Benjamin Franklin. Another subsection, "Figaro and Fashion" looks at the extraordinary impact the 1784 play, Le Mariage de Figaro, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais had on fashion.

There are many books on this period in history, and Fashion Victims stands up as a worthy addition to the canon. It is an excellent addition to the bookshelf for both the scholar and those with a more casual interest in history.

Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with author Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, coming next week!!

With many thanks to Yale University Press for the review copy of this book.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

MythBusters: Fashion History Edition

Myth: Fashionable eighteenth-century ladies shaved off their eyebrows and used false eyebrows made of mouse fur.

Grace Dalrymple Elliot by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1778. Private Collection. Are those eyebrows made of mice?
This is a common myth about eighteenth-century beauty that I have read in many books, some reliable sources of fashion history information and some not. But, when doing historical research, it's always best to go back to the primary sources. Primary sources are sources of information produced in the actual time period, such as a letter, newspaper article, or painting. As this excellent article from The British Library shows, the primary source evidence for mouse-skin eyebrows is thin. The following are all the sources which mention mouse-skin eyebrows, arranged in chronological order.

A section from The Tender Husband, a comedic play by Richard Steele, 1707:

Mrs. Clerimont: The Ladies abroad used to call me Mrs. Titian, I was so famous for my colouring; but prithee. Wench, bring me my black eye-brows out of the next room.

Jenny: Madam, I have them in my hand.

Fainlove: It would be happy for all that are to see you today, if you could change your eyes too.

Mrs. Clerimont: Gallant enough -- no hang it, I'll wear these I have on...
A satirical poem by Matthew Prior, 1718:
HELEN was just dipt into bed
Her eye-brows on the toilet lay
Away the kitten with them fled
As fees belonging to her prey

For this misfortune careless Jane,
Assure yourself, was loudly rated
And madam, getting up again,
With her own hand the mouse-trap baited.

On little things, as sages write,
Depends our human joy or sorrows
If we don't catch a mouse to-night
Alas! no eyebrows for to-morrow.

A section from A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed by noted satirist Jonathan Swift, 1734:
Her eyebrows from a mouse's hide
Stuck on with art on either side,
Pulls off with care, and first displays 'em
Then in a play-books smoothly lays 'em.

A short section of an anonymous poem published in the London Daily Post in June 1736:
Or Nightly Traps insidious lay,
To catch new Eye-brows for the Day
The next primary source example mentioning mouse-skin eyebrows doesn't appear until 1782.

Satirical print dated June 18, 1782. In the collection of the British Museum.
This print shows two ladies arriving at a cosmetics shop. The sign on the door advertises the products within, including "Italian washes, Ivory teeth, Mouse Eye Brows, and the Best French Roush."

And that's it. Many beauty treatises were published in the eighteenth century with tips on hair care and recipes for cosmetics. One of the most famous today is The Toilet of Flora by Pierre-Joseph Buc'hoz, published in 1779. There were also several works written about wigmaking, cosmetics, and beauty. Finally, throughout the century satirists and critics lampooned women and their beauty practices. None of these sources (at least the ones we can access today) mention mouse-skin eyebrows. There are no tips for the application and storage of mouse-skin eyebrows in beauty manuals. There are no mentions of mouse-skin eyebrows in informational texts about the cosmetic industry. And, perhaps most tellingly, there are no accounts of women using mouse-skin eyebrows in satirical texts beyond the ones listed above. The satire industry was large and booming during the eighteenth century and it seems strange that, in all the texts and images poking fun at women and their artificiality, there are no mentions of mouse-skin eyebrows (once again, apart from what is listed above). That would seem to be an item ripe for satirizing.

How then to explain the few mentions of mouse-skin eyebrows listed above? The earliest mention is the scene from the play by Richard Steele where Mrs. Clerimont prepares herself for the day. It should be noted that this play is a comedy, meaning the characters are heightened for comedic effect. Mrs. Clerimont is insecure, stating just before the exchange quoted above:

"... Oh bless me Jenny, I am so plane [sic], I am afraid of myself -- I have not laid on half red [rouge- blush and lipstick] enough -- what a dogh-baked [sic] thing I was before I improved myself, and travelled for beauty -- however my face is prettily designed to day [sic]."

In this quote Mrs. Clerimont complains that she is, in reality, very ugly, and it is only through the improvements of cosmetics that she becomes a beauty. The character of Fainlove agrees, replying:

"Indeed, madam you begin to have so fine an hand, that you are younger every day than the other."

Here Fainlove compliments Mrs. Clerimont, telling her that she has become so talented at applying make up that she seems younger every day. In this context, Mrs. Clerimont is an object of ridicule and her use of mouse-skin eyebrows may just be one of her ridiculous methods of beautifying herself. They might just be unique eccentricities created for comedic value on the stage.

The other sources, such as the poem by Matthew Prior, have a similar purpose as Steele's play. They are meant to poke fun at the ridiculous methods women use to make themselves beautiful, and eyebrows made of mouse fur fit right in with that context. In Jonathan Swift's poem, his titular nymph is lampooned for a series of beauty failings. She has a "crystal eye", false teeth, and a flea-infested wig. She is clearly a caricature. After all, we don't use this poem as evidence that all women had false eyes and teeth.

However, just because there is no concrete evidence of mouse-skin eyebrows doesn't mean it wasn't a trend. Perhaps these satirical texts truly were referring to a fashion trend popular in the first decades of the century, which then faded from popularity. But the overwhelming lack of evidence places doubt on this conclusion.

Where does that leave this myth?

A Woman in Blue by Thomas Gainsborough, late 1770s-early 1780s. In the collection of The State Hermitage Museum. With some clipart additions of my own.

I have no definite conclusion. The evidence is thin, and I personally think that the use of mouse-skin eyebrows is unlikely, but with no definitive evidence I can't make a conclusion either way. Was Steele's play an influence on subsequent mentions of mouse-skin eyebrows? Was this some sort of recurring joke? I end with this Very Academic Statement: Clearly much more research needs to be done!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Embroidery Samples at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Any visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City should stop by Gallery 599 on their tour of the museum. It's a small gallery, to get there you simply descend a small flight of stairs tucked away in the back corner of one of the large medieval galleries. Gallery 599 is located by the door to the Ratti Textile Center, which houses all of the textiles in The Met's collections. A rotating exhibition showcasing small samplings of The Met's textiles is featured in the display cases surrounding the door to the Ratti Textile Center. It's a quick pitstop on your tour of the museum and always well worth a visit as you get to see some rarely viewed textile treasures.

Embroidery sample for a man's suit, 1800–1815. French. Silk embroidery on silk velvet; L. 13 1/4 x W. 11 1/8 in. (33.7 x 28.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of The United Piece Dye Works, 1936 (36.90.15)

Currently on view in Gallery 599, from now until July 17th, is Elaborate Embroidery: Fabrics for Menswear Before 1815. As explained in the press release, "This installation features lengths of fabric for an unmade man's suit and waistcoat, as well as a selection of embroidery samples for fashionable menswear made between about 1760 and 1815."

While I was in graduate school I was lucky enough to intern in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Met, where I worked with a number of textiles housed in the Ratti Textile Center. This included about 99% of the embroidery samples in The Met's collection. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, and most are quite small and are rarely exhibited. So I was quite pleased to see that some are getting their moment in the spotlight in this small exhibition. Including the sample pictured above, which dates to 1800-1815 (Fun Fact: A picture I took of this sample is currently the background on my phone).

Just from this picture alone, you can see that this is a truly spectacular piece of craftsmanship. The detailed embroidery renders exquisitely detailed flowers as the main motif, and the white border features tiny and meticulous stitches which resemble lace. But just a picture doesn't tell the full story of this textile.

Embroidery sample for a man's suit, 1800–1815. French. Silk embroidery on silk velvet; L. 13 1/4 x W. 11 1/8 in. (33.7 x 28.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of The United Piece Dye Works, 1936 (36.90.15). Photo by Katy Werlin.

Look closely at the textile on which the embroidery is done (click the image for a bigger size if you need to). The pattern is made from three colors: a deep purple background surrounding flowers of orange and a lighter purple. What's difficult to see in the picture is that the deep purple background is actually a rich silk velvet. The flowers have been created while the textile was still on the loom. As it was being woven, small sections were woven without any pile (pile is what makes velvet fuzzy), revealing the base fabric underneath. This type of velvet is called voided velvet. The weave of this textile is incredibly complex, and clearly took a great deal of skill to manufacture. And on top of what is already an extraordinary piece of work, the detailed embroidery is added.

Note the dimensionality this mix of textures adds. The lustrous silk embroidery seems to float over the matte velvet. And the soft texture of the velvet contrasts with the slightly ridged pattern of the weave underneath, making the small orange and purple flower shapes pop. I have never run my fingers over this textile, but I imagine the mix of textures would be interesting to the touch as well.

I don't know if a full suit was ever created based on the design featured in this sample (If it had it would have been extremely expensive and luxurious!). Fortunately for all of us, at least this small sample has survived. It, and others like it, show us not only the luxury of menswear in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but also the extraordinary talent, creativity, and ingenuity of textile manufacturers in history. Many of their names are not known today, but their work lives on and is honored through the study and exhibiting of textiles such as these.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Coiffure à la [Fill in the Blank]

One of the most famous and persistent images of the eighteenth century is a woman with an enormous tall wig decorated with ribbons, feathers, and all manner of figurines. Known as the pouf, this tall hairstyle is often cited as a visual representation of the excess of the 18th century. But these tall hairstyles were not just an example of extreme elite fashion. Often times these hairstyles were an expression of patriotism, politics, and the latest trends in culture. Today we may express our personalities and taste by wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of our favorite band, sports team, or the flag of our country. In the late 18th century, aristocratic women did the same thing using their hair.

Anonymous, Coëffure à l’Indépendance ou le Triomphe de la liberté, c. 1778. In the collection of the Musée franco-américain du château de Blérancourt.

Probably the most famous of these coiffures [hairstyles] is the hairstyle featuring a model ship. These ship headdresses appear in numerous illustrations of the period and continue to influence contemporary fashion. I even donned one of them myself. In late 18th century France, these nautical headdresses were expressions of patriotism and political engagement. The first was the coiffure à la Belle Poule and celebrated a famous French naval victory against the British during the American Revolution. During the Battle of Ushant on July 27, 1778, the French ship Belle Poule badly damaged the British frigate Arethusa. To celebrate this victory for the cause of American independence and express French patriotism, women adorned their hair with small models of the Belle Poule. Other famous naval battles were similarly memorialized. The coiffure à la Frégate la Junon celebrated another famous French frigate, and the chapeaux [hat] à la Grenade and à la d'Estaing celebrated the French victory at the Battle of Granada led by Admiral d'Estaing.

Another politically inspired coiffure was the coiffure à l'inoculation which was commissioned by Marie Antoinette to celebrate the successful inoculation of Louis XVI against smallpox. While smallpox inoculations were common in Austria (Marie Antoinette's birthplace), they were less popular in France and Louis XV died of smallpox. Louis XVI was inoculated against the disease at the urging of Marie Antoinette but it was a risky move. Many were suspicious of the procedure, labeling it "dangerous", and urged the king not to go through with it. When Louis XVI was successfully inoculated and given a clean bill of health it was a major political victory for Marie Antoinette, and she celebrated her victory with a coiffure featuring the serpent belonging to Aesculapius, the Ancient Greek god of medicine, wrapped around an olive tree (symbolizing wisdom).

A coiffure au sentiment.

Other coiffures celebrated topical cultural themes or personal events. A coiffure au sentiment expressed a feeling while a coiffure à la circonstance celebrated an important event. The coiffure à l'Iphigénie celebrated the popular opera Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) by Christoph Willibald Gluck. In an age of global exploration and trade, the theme of the different ares of the globe was often represented in fashion and textiles. The coiffure à la Mappemonde was a hairstyle showing the five parts of the globe. The pastoral was also another extremely popular theme throughout the eighteenth century and many coiffures were commissioned with this theme in mind. A coiffure au jardiniere worn by Marie Antoinette featured a vegetable garden with carrots, radishes, artichokes, and even a head of cabbage. And the Duchesse de Choiseul once wore "a three-foot-high pouf that replicated a verdant garden, replete with flowers, grass, a bubbling stream, and a tiny windmill edged with jewels and powered by a clockwork mechanism that Louis XVI himself might have admired." Other coiffures were more personal. To celebrate the birth of her son, the Duchesse de Chartres wore a coiffure featuring her African page and pet parrot as well as a nursemaid nursing a newborn baby.

Satirical print showing a coiffure au jardiniere complete with the tiny figure of a man going for a stroll. "The Flower Garden" by Matthew Darly, May 1, 1777. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course these hairstyles were ripe for satirizing and many prints were published poking fun at these elaborate coiffures.

Satire of the chapeaux à la d'Estaing showing Admiral d'Estaing himself perched on a lady's head. Anonymous, La Nimphe … parée d’une Frisure à la Grenade sur laquelle elle porte son fameux marin au milieu de ses Triomphe, 1779. In the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

What would you don on your own coiffure?

Further Reading

Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly. "When Fashion Set Sail." Published on Worn Through, March 20, 2013.

Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.