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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Costume, Apparel, Fashion, and Dress

While some words are inherently obtuse, many are seemingly simple. Most of us, for example, could offer a fairly credible definition of the term shirt. However, one person might describe a shirt as a garment with a collar and cuffs while another described it as a white tee. In museums, deciding on an overarching term for a group of objects can be tricky. There are great pains taken to avoid misleading potential visitors, as well as to keep up with current museum parlance. At the Goldstein, we refer to the portion of the collection that has clothing as apparel and accessories. Historically, GMD referred to this portion of the collection as costume, but somewhere along the way this was considered misleading because of its potential to evoke Halloween disguises or theatrical stage garb. The dictionary definition of costume is actually apropos. Merriam Webster describes it as "the prevailing fashion in coiffure, jewelry, and apparel of a period, country, or class." However, Webster's second definition does allude to masquerade, "an outfit worn to create the appearance characteristic of a particular period, person, place, or thing."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art uses costume as the signifier of this portion of their collection, but then clarifies with the subtext 'fashionable dress, regional costume, and accessories.' Notice the comprehensive use of the term dress in this subtext. Many find dress to be deceptive when used to refer to a whole ensemble (garments, shoes, handbags, hairstyle, comportment, make-up, etc), despite its wide acceptance by researchers.

The Fashion Institute of Technology and the Victoria and Albert Museum place their collections under the umbrella of fashion. While fashion is, in fact, a general term referring to the "make or form of something," its strong cultural association with dress makes their intent clear. For well known museums, word choice becomes so engrained in their identity that they shape future understandings and usages of terms.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project

While looking through our digital database, I was particularly taken with whimsical printed samples. The prints range from more basic patterns, such as a repeating floral motif to more complicated prints, such as a curious scene that appears to be from a fairytale. GMD has around 150 examples of these samples.

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1994.067.001c and 1994.067.008c, WPA Handicraft Project samples, 1935-1943

In 1935 the Works Progress Administration, later renamed the Works Project Administration (WPA) was founded to "provide work for the able-bodied destitute." Skilled workers were assigned to projects that capitalized on their abilities, but it was more difficult to find jobs for women who had never worked outside of the home or who had only done menial labor. In Milwaukee, Elsa Ulbricht addressed this problem by starting a program that was known as the Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project based on the belief that anyone could learn if they were taught properly.

Women were trained to make objects that would be used by tax-supported institutions, such as educational toys for nursery schools, books for inmates, and household articles for families. Many women had to be taught basic skills such as how to use scissors and how to thread a needle. Projects included making toys (including wooden toys, stuffed animals, and dolls with interchangeable outfits) for children in hospitals and wards, bookbinding and block printing.

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1994.067.001d and 1994.067.008d

Initially, the Milwaukee WPA developed block printing to cover books. The workers first learned to block print on paper, and started to print on fabric once they were comfortable with the process. Later, they produced drapery fabrics as well. Block printing was very time consuming and labor intensive, which created challenges as demand for the textiles increased. They developed a faster system that took only three workers to operate and eventually created screenprinted textiles as well.

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1994.067.007e and 1994.067.008a

The Milwaukee WPA hired designers to create designs for the prints, who then taught the workers how to replicate the designs, so the designers were able to create more complicated prints as the workers skills increased. There is a wide range of designs, many of which were created with children in mind.

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1994.067.010p and 1994.067.010q, circus themed samples

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1994.067.010k and 1994.067.006a


Useful Work for Unskilled Women: A Unique Milwaukee WPA Project by Mary Kellogg Rice, published by the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Something old, something new

The image of brides wearing white is burned into the collective psyche, although, for most of Western history, the majority of brides did not wear white and, if they did, it was generally because white was fashionable for women's dress in general during that period. In the sixteenth-century England white was associated with young girls (and virginity) and some brides did wear white, but a girl in white would have been associated with sexual purity, a concept not exclusive to brides. Queen Elizabeth I, who was known as the Virgin Queen, often wore white, although she was never a bride. Mary Queen of Scots wore white to her wedding to the French Crown Prince in 1558, even though white was considered to be a mourning color for French Queens--quelle horreur.

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Source: Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley Portrait') by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c. 1592 (NPG 2561) The National Portrait Gallery, London

Leaping forward in time, Queen Victoria wore a white gown to her wedding in 1840, which set the trend of white wedding dresses. However, many women did not go out of their way to wear white dresses and simply wore their best dress, which they would continue to wear for future formal occasions. Having a dress that was meant to be worn on only one occasion was extravagance outside of the means of ordinary people.

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Cream silk wedding dress, 1877, accession no. 1967.003.027a-d

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Dark brown wedding bodice and skirt, 1887, accession no. 1967.004.005a-b

Colored dresses were common into the twentieth century, although the ideal attire for (Western) brides was a white or off-white gown, except during periods of war when prodigality tended to frowned upon.

Yellow velvet wedding dress, 1918, Accession no. 1991.059.003

Ivory silk bias cut wedding gown, 1931, Accession no. 1996.057.001a

Having a dress that is meant to be worn only once is a modern concept that stems partially from brides having more expendable income and partially from the decreased costs of materials and labor. Some brides do spend a great deal on a carefully constructed gown, while others purchase mass-produced or second-hand dresses at a fraction of the cost. Of course, not all brides chose white, but the image of a bride in a frothy white gown and a veil prevails even today. In addition, White wedding gowns are no longer primarily a Western ideal, as women in countries such as China and Japan have begun to wear white in Western styles. Wealthy women often change several times through the ceremony, so that their dress ranges from traditional costume to a modern white gown.

Wedding gown, 1950-1959, Accession no. 1993.016.001

Wedding gown by Priscilla of Boston, 1973, Accession no. 1993.016.001

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Discovering Lahariya

Part of our upcoming exhibition Beyond Peacocks and Paisleys: Handcrafted Textiles of India and its Neighbors covers resist-dyed textiles. At first glance, the multiple fine straight lines in some of the patterns seemed printed. I was intrigued. Most of the time, tied resists have a telling irregular edge, caused by the fabric gathering at the tied areas. How did the artisans achieve these nearly perfect lines? According to Tie-dyed Textiles of India, by Veronica Murphy and Rosemary Crill , the essential ingredients are very fine cotton fabric, tightly rolled and bound with thread. The fine cloth would absorb dye all the way through so the color would be even all over.

OK, so I rolled and tied, then dyed some muslin and got the very fine lines. Good.

Rolling the fabric

Tied fabric

Then I wanted to make the classic Lahariya "wave" pattern. This chevron pattern seemed easy enough to figure out.

Example of chevron from Dr. Donald Clay Johnson's Paritosh Collection

Recalling an African tie-and-dye workshop, I knew than folding the cloth like an accordion and tying on the diagonal would make a chevron pattern. But how to tie that on a diagonal and retain those crisp lines? I like to use paper to work things out by hand.

Showing how the fabric is folded to create a chevron pattern

Fabric tied on the diagonal

Example of partially untied lahariya from Donald Clay Johnson's collection

Monday, June 6, 2011

Haute Couture

The word "couture" gets tossed around a lot these days, and its overuse has watered down the meaning of haute couture. In French, couture simply means "sewing" or "dressmaking," but in English parlance couture is an abbreviation for haute couture, which translates to "high sewing" (or more commonly "high fashion.")

Schiaparelli, c1938

We may think of haute couture as customized, hand-made garments that are fitted perfectly to the client, but it is also a legal designation sanctioned by La chambre syndicale de la haute couture (trade union of high fashion), the misappropriation of which can lead to arrest. The collections from Spring 2011 can be viewed here.

To confuse matters, most of the designers also produce prĂȘt-a-porter or ready-to-wear collections. Some ready-to-wear is beautifully made by skilled workers, but much of it is not. So why does haute couture cost so much and what is the difference in quality between haute couture and high-end ready-to-wear?

Haute Couture is so costly because of high quality of service, skill, and materials used in creating the garments. Clients make private appointments at an atelier where they are personally looked-after by a designated salesperson. Live models wear the looks in a private showing so that a client can choose a starting design. She would then be measured extensively and a toile, or test garment, is made out of muslin for fitting purposes. There would be at least three fittings to ensure that the garment fits perfectly, and after each fitting the garment is taken apart and resewn. If the client does not live in or near Paris, the fittings can take place somewhere that is convenient for the client.

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Balenciaga toile, 1947-1948

The interior of the toile shows the stitching details that would not be visible in the final garment, which would have been lined.

The garments themselves take many hours to construct. For example, a suit takes between 100 and 150 hours, while an evening gown embellished with hand-sewn beads could take over 1,000 hours.

Chanel couture, c1955

Chanel ready-to-wear, c1990

From far away, the above Chanel suits look similar, but the fabric and construction of the red suit is higher quality, which is apparent when you look at the details.

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Compare the couture label on the left with the label in the ready-to-wear garment, which is machine stitched.

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The couture suit has bound buttonholes and metal buttons, whereas the ready-to-wear suit has machine stitched buttonholes and plastic buttons.

With haute couture, every detail is considered and care is taken to ensure that the construction and fit is flawless. GMD has many examples of high-end ready-to-wear in our collection, but only about twenty-five pieces that are haute couture.

For more information please see:

"Tourjours Couture" by Amy Fine Collins in Vanity Fair

Fashion Design (Understanding Fashion) by Elizabeth Bye