Tuesday, December 27, 2011

For Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

 I’m such a sentimentalist I get all chocked up and teary every time I hear Auld Lang Syne. It never fails to remind me of old times, of friends I’m no longer in touch with, and of loved ones departed. But on the stroke of midnight on December 31 as we sing the familiar words, how many of us will remember they were written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song that has become the New Year’s Eve song? How many of us even know that auld lang syne means “old long since” (old times)?

Fourteen years after Robert Burns wrote Auld Lang Syne, Maria Nugent, the wife of General George Nugent, Governor of Jamaica, wrote an entry in her *journal, which was the inspiration for this blog.

December 30th, 1802

Dress at 7, for the ball given to me to-night, by the Assembly, dear little George at my toilet. For the benefit of posterity I will describe my dress on this grand occasion. A crape dress, embroidered in silver spangles, also sent me by Madame Le Clerk, but much richer than that which I wore at the last ball. Scarcely any sleeves to my dress, but a broad silver spangled border to the shoulder straps. The body made very like a child’s frock, tying behind, and the skirt round, with not much train. A turban of spangled crape, like the dress, looped with pearls, and a paradise feather; altogether looking like a Sultana. Diamond bandeau, cross, &c.; and pearl necklace and bracelets, with diamond clasps. This dress, the admiration of the world over, will perhaps, fifty years hence, be laughed at and considered as ridiculous as our grandmother’s hoops and tissues appear to us now. 

 There is no painting of Lady Nugent’s gown, so we’ll have to make do with the picture of the two ladies on the left and leave the rest to our imagination. Aside from the gown being virtually sleeveless, what struck me as I read the journal entry was not even war seemed to prevent true-blue fashionistas from acquiring the latest fashions from abroad. Only in the case of Lady Nugent’s purchase, abroad was France, a country at continuous war with England from 1793 to 1815, except for a brief period of peace during which the gown was made. The dressmaker was the sister of England’s enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte. The client was the wife of the governor of one of England’s prized colonies. In some circles, this might be viewed as sleeping with the enemy, though admittedly we buy clothes and shoes by the container-load from China, the so-called enemy of capitalism.

Lady Nugent also mentions “hoops and tissues.” A search for these undergarment essentials took me further back in time to the mid-eighteenth century and the elaborate Rococo period with its frills and bows. Sure enough, this is when hoops were taken to their extreme in hoop petticoats called panniers (a French term for wicker basket). Often made of whalebone, panniers extended skirts to a width of several feet on either side as shown in the painting at top right. If Lady Nugent could have seen into the future, she would have been surprised to find a renaissance of those outrageously wide skirts in Oscar de la Renta’s Spring/Summer 2012 Ready-to-Wear Collection. And how surprised she would be to discover the neoclassic style of her ball gown is as in vogue today as it was on that December night two hundred years ago.


                                           1902                                                                                   2002

 * Lady Nugent’s Journal of her residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805

Image sources:
Wikimedia Commons



Monday, November 28, 2011


Oh baby! Out you come! You’ve been hiding in that closet for waaay too long! Metallics are out and about, showing up any time of day or night in tops, bottoms, shoes, accessories, you name it! Aren’t you glad I let you hang around since… remind me, when was it padded shoulders like yours were in? But what’s old is new again, babe, so off that hanger with you! You and I are about to hit the town.

Yes, what’s old is new again, but isn’t that always the case? Here's 30s Hollywood vamp, Jean Harlow, in a gown of gold lamé that clings to every curve. The style could be hot off this season's runways, but the photo was taken in the 1930s when metallic lamé emerged as a designer favorite among evening wear fabrics.

Metallic fabric has a long and illustrious history, one that goes back a few thousand years. The Biblical book of Exodus records, “And they did beat the gold into thin plates, and cut [it into] wires, to work [it] in the blue, and in the purple, and in the scarlet, and in the fine linen, [with] cunning work.” The reference is to cloth of gold, the predecessor to synthetic metallic fabrics. Woven from silk yarn wrapped with a band or strip of genuine gold, this was the real thing. It is said Genghis Kahn (1162-1227) had in his possession "a piece of cloth beautiful beyond description, which he claimed was of pure gold, containing 130 shades of color."
Perhaps the great Mongolian emperor’s cloth was similar to the magnificent songket fabric of Indonesia and Malaysia shown here. It certainly existed in his time (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songket). Such sumptuousness also brings to mind the Field of Cloth of Gold. It is the year 1520 - June 1520 to be precise - when Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France meet in a valley midway between Guisnes and Arde in France. This excerpt from Hall’s Chronicle describes the historic meeting. “Thursday 8 June being Corpus Christi day, Henry and the French king Francis I, met in a valley called the Golden Dale which lay midway between Guisnes and Arde where the French king had been staying. In this valley Henry pitched his marquee made of cloth of gold near where a banquet had been prepared. His Grace was accompanied by 500 horsemen and 3,000 foot soldiers, and the French King had a similar number of each.”

It’s now nearly 500 years since then and shine hasn't lost its allure. Heads still turn when the glimmer of gold or the sheen of silver makes an entrance.


Gianfranco Ferré - Fall Winter 2011/2012
Jean-Paul Gaultier - Paris Fall Winter 2011
Giorgio Armani - Fall Winter 2011/2012

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe

It's interesting to learn how people dressed long ago, but that
subject sometimes can’t be separated from history in general. And so before talking about what the Pilgrims wore for the three-day feast that eventually became known as Thanksgiving, let me set the stage by sharing an account of the event by Edward Winslow.
Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others."
The famous painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe, shown above, depicts the first Thanksgiving, but it was painted in 1914 and is therefore an artist’s rendering that can’t be taken literally. So, how do we know what the Pilgrims were decked out in when they celebrated their first successful harvest? Few items the Pilgrims wore still exist, but they would have dressed in the same fashion as people in England at that time. Obviously there were different cloaks for different folks, but we have very few visual records to guide us. Virtually all paintings of that era are of the aristocracy to which the Pilgrims did not belong.
We are, however, able to paint a fairly accurate picture of the Plymouth feast where attire is concerned. Pilgrim wills and inventories describing articles of clothing are a start. In addition, The Mayflower passenger list shows several of the Pilgrims came to America with servants. This points to some of them having been of the Middle Class - skilled tradesmen and merchants. Fortunately for the fashion researcher, there is enough from that period in museum collections to give an idea of how the English Middle Class dressed.
An article by Duane A. Cline at http://rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mosmd/index.htm also gives us insight into the social status of the Pilgrims. “The Pilgrims were certainly knowledgeable of fabrics and clothing construction. In looking at the occupations of the Pilgrims we find that Isaac Allerton and James Chilton were tailors, William Bradford was a fustian-maker, Edward Tilley was a cloth-maker, John Tilley was a silk worker, Francis Cooke and William White were wool combers or carders, and Digory Priest had been a hatter in London. In addition to those clothing-related trades we know that William Mullins was a boot and shoe merchant, and Thomas Rogers was a camlet merchant.”
Putting the pieces together, we realize Pilgrim clothes were not as drab as myth would have us think. 1621 was the early Baroque period when the Cavalier style was all the rage. Although the flamboyant colors and extravagant details of high society fashion would have been somewhat toned down by Middle Class and Puritan conservatism, Pilgrim attire would have conformed to the style of the day by and large. Women’s dresses would have had shaped bodices and flowing skirts over petticoats. Men would have worn short, fitted jackets called doublets and breeches or pantaloons which ended below the knee. The rest of the leg would have been covered only by hose, except when the knee-high bucket top boots of the day were worn. Both men and women wore the popular falling ruff, a wide circular collar that fell on the shoulders and opened in a V.
As I imagine the assembly of Pilgrims for that first Thanksgiving, I see men in beaver hats with cocked brims sitting around a long table. There is a man wearing a red waistcoat, which stands out in contrast to the otherwise subdued colors worn by the group. Another has a violet velvet cloak lined with taffeta draped over his shoulders. Peeking out from beneath the skirt of the woman sitting next to him is a pair of lace-trimmed, pointed slippers that match her embroidered cap. Across the table from her, another woman wears a dress with a white ruff and sleeves with wide cuffs. She, like many women in the group, wears an apron. Although they are hidden from view, her stockings are held with garters, which unlike ours today, are long, wide ribbons wrapped several times around her upper calves before being tied securely in a bow.
What did Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag and his entourage of ninety men wear for the occasion, I wonder? Having not read the full texts of the Pilgrims' journals for their first year at Plymouth, I can only surmise. One account describes Massasoit when the Pilgrims first saw him in March, 1621. “The great chief first appeared at the head of 60 warriors, face painted red and wearing a thick necklace of white beads, the sign of his authority.” This account makes no mention of clothes, but it’s safe to assume the Wampanoag were wearing suits of deerskin for their visit to the Pilgrims in March and again for the feast that would become one of America's most loved traditions.

Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag and his entourage are greeted by a Pilgrim.

Image of "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe
courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth.

If you are interested in 17th century clothing, you might be interested in the museum's current temporary exhibition “What’s Under things? Hidden Colonial Clothing featuring a number of rare survivors of 17th century undergarments. For information, visit http://www.pilgrimhall.org/f_thanks.htm

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Putting on a False Face

How this year has flown. Halloween is almost here and the stores are filled with costumes, candies and all the usual paraphernalia. Houses are being decorated and jack-o-lanterns are being carved. There will be trick-or-treating and costume parties as usual. For me, the ultimate Halloween party would be a grand masquerade ball, or bal masqué as the French call it. If I had zillions and were inclined to such conspicuous frivolity, I’d be tempted to throw one of those, though it would likely be nothing in the class of the masquerade balls the French royalty threw in the late 1300s and early 1400s. Those were strictly A-list affairs, as you can imagine.
But the B-list (the upper class) was soon to have its shot at la dolce vita during the 16th century Italian Renaissance. It is those elaborate public dances of Venice that come to mind when I think of a masquerade ball. The costumes were to die for, of course, but it’s the masks that made those affairs so fantastic. Alas, the Venetian Republic fell to decadence and the grand parties came to an end. A Swiss count introduced the masquerade ball to London in 1708, but it wasn’t exactly the real Venetian deal from which Carnival and Mardi Gras are descended.
I don’t think there are any of us who have never worn a mask. But what is the appeal that masks hold for us? It could simply be that masks are in our blood. They’ve been worn by cultures around the world since time immemorial and have been made from every material from corn husks to gold.
This stone mask on exhibition at Musée de la Bible et de la Terre Sainte in Paris is from the pre-ceramic neolithic period. It dates back to 7000 BCE and is probably the oldest mask in the world. In Africa, masks were worn from as early as the Paleolithic age (Stone Age) for ritual ceremonies and celebrations. Native Americans have also used masks such as the sacred "false face" masks of the Iroquois in their traditional ceremonies since ancient times.

“False Face.” Now, there’s food for thought. I’m thinking about Venice again. At one time, the Venetians wore masks as a matter of course. They were not reserved strictly for festive occasions. This served to put all Venetian citizens on equal footing as true identities were concealed. A peasant could pose as a prince and vice versa. An equitable arrangement, to be sure, but there were hidden dangers. In 1792, King Gustav III of Sweden was murdered at a masquerade ball by a masked assassin.
I confess to have once hidden behind a mask – from my ex-husband at a Halloween party a few years ago. If you’re wondering how come he didn’t recognize me, just look at those Venetian masks below. As much as I would have loved to, I wasn’t wearing one of those. But maybe I will one day…at a masked ball where everyone will be tripping the light fantastic in grand style.

African-Bambara Mask
Bolivian Owl Mask
Indian Goddess Mask from Nepal
Native American Corn Husk Mask
Nuo Mask from Southwest China

Images courtesy of Robert Ibold of Masks From Around The World. To see the entire collection, visit http://www.masksoftheworld.com/

Image of mask on exhibition at Musée de la Bible et de la Terre Sainte courtesy of Institut Catholique de Paris. Copyright Philippe Houssin.

If you have a blog, please post your link when you make a comment, so readers and I can visit you.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


As sweater season approaches three designers who transformed knits into runway hits come to mind. Every fashionista is familiar with Missoni’s knock-em-dead zigzags and Ralph Lauren’s floor-length turtleneck dresses. Those of you who have been following fashion trends from the 60s will remember Sonia Rykiel of the snazzy striped sweaters and clingy dresses. Also designer of the Poor Boy Sweater, Rykiel was the first to put seams on the outside of garments. Love that look. Rykiel was dubbed the “queen of knits,” but it was Coco Chanel (above left) who created the turning point for knitwear when she used jersey to create suits for women way back in 1916. Prior to Mademoiselle Chanel’s stroke of genius, jersey was designated to the pedestrian role of men’s underwear.

As I delved into where and when knits originated, I realized I was diving in deep. Knits are a lot of ground to cover in one post. Knits existed as early as 300 BCE when the Paracas and Nazca cultures of Peru were knitting hats and shawls. Also among the oldest samples of single-needle knitting are the patterned sandal socks of the Coptic Christians of Egypt in the 4th century CE. The earliest knitted items in Europe we know of were made by Muslim knitters employed by Spanish Christian royal families. Among them is a pair of knitted gloves, which were found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerda, who died in 1275. Archaeological finds and tax lists from medieval cities in Europe and England show the spread of the popularity of knitted goods from the 14th century onwards. By the 1400s, there were knitting guilds all over Europe and by the mid-16th century, stockings had become somewhat of an undercover fashion statement for women. Eleanora de Toledo, wife of Cosimo de Medici, was buried in a pair of lacy, red silk stockings. Queen Elizabeth 1 of England (1533-1603) also favored silk stockings. Needless to say, Her Majesty’s were custom knitted for her.

I won’t linger on stockings, which were, incidentally, worn by both men and women during those times. So, let’s move onto the sweater, that garment we take so much for granted. The first information I found on sweaters was in the 17th and 18th centuries when knitting had become such a huge cottage industry in the Scottish Isles that entire families were involved in making sweaters among other forms of knitwear. It is the Scots to whom we owe the colorful and elaborately patterned Fair Isle sweater, which was a staple garment of Scottish fishermen. Off the west coast of Ireland, the wives of the fishermen of the Aran Islands were also knitting away to keep their men warm while at sea. If you own a genuine hand-knitted Aran sweater you know you paid considerably more than you would have for the manufactured version, because machines can’t reproduce many of the complex patterns found in the hand-knitted Aran sweaters. But did you know many of the traditional stitch patterns have a special meaning? For example, the honeycomb pattern is the symbol of the hard-working bee; the cable pattern is for safety and good luck and the diamond pattern is a wish for success and wealth. Nice to know if you’re planning on giving someone a sweater.

I have a navy blue cardigan, which I never gave more than a minute’s thought until writing this post. Next time I slip it on, I’ll think of James Thomas Brudenell 7th Earl of Cardigan who is remembered for two things, the first being his incompetence as a military officer. History buffs are no doubt aware it was Brudenell who led the doomed cavalry assault in the Crimean War, which Tennyson eulogized in his poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” During the Crimean campaign, Brudenell and his officers wore a buttoned-up sweater coat that became known as a cardigan. It's true the cardigan was around before then. During the 17th century, it was popular with fishermen of the British Isles and also in France. But it was the 7th Earl of Cardigan to whom we owe its lasting popularity. We can forgive old Tom a military blunder or two can’t we?

Hollywood stars Lana Turner “The Sweater Girl” and Jane Russell transformed the sweater into a sizzling hot fashion look in the 1940s and 50s.

Under it all, the bullet bra.

Check out Missoni's 2011 Fall Winter Collection plus a fashion show from the 50s.


Will be back mid month with the next post, so please drop by again.
And please share or Google+1 if you like my blog.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why They Called Me Imelda

There was a time when I had what you might call a shoe fetish, though mine paled in comparison to Imelda Marcos’ addiction. Accounts vary, but the former first lady of the Philippines is reputed to have owned more than 5,000 pairs of shoes. Certainly it is a fact 2,700 pairs of her shoes were left behind in Malacanang Palace when the Marcos couple fled their country. While under attack for such mind-boggling excess, Mrs. Marcos claimed in defense, “I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty.” Okay then.

I admit to once having around one hundred pairs of shoes. Miniscule though my collection was compared to Mrs. Marcos’, it was large enough for friends to fondly bestow the nickname of Imelda upon me. In lieu of the real thing, they gifted me with scores of shoe collectibles, ranging from exquisite ceramic replicas to a pair of salt and pepper shakers. Shoe cards, shoe calendars, shoe soaps, shoe tee shirts and shoe everything else you can imagine were added to the collection over the years. Now safely stored in my garage (because I no longer have shelf space for them) they’ve become as much of my past as my shoe shopping binges. Also tucked away in a safe place, is the farewell card from my last place of employment. Dominating the front of the card is a life-size painting of a sandal. As you might guess, there’s a story there….and here it is: the shoe addict will stop at nothing to find a shoe they want, need, AND MUST HAVE in their size. The dear friend who indulged me by accompanying me on this quest will remember the search that took us from one end of Miami to the other, desperately seeking the pair of shocking pink sandals, now immortalized on a goodbye card.

But back to Imelda Marcos. Having once been a shoe addict, I have a sense of what drove her to such extremes. For the shoe addict, shoes are more than attire for your feet, more than the component of an outfit. Shoes are Cinderella’s glass slippers. They are Dorothy’s ruby slippers, one pair of which sold for $15,000 in an MGM auction and are now on permanent exhibition at Washington’s Smithsonian Institute. Another pair was originally owned by Roberta Bauman from Tennessee. This pair was sold by Christie’s for $150,000 in 1998. A third pair of the ruby slippers were auctioned, again by Christie’s, for $666,000 on May 24, 2000.

No shoe collector would be surprised at such a sum being laid out for the pair of shoes that are among the most treasured and valuable of all film memorabilia. I confess I would die to own the ruby slippers. But more precious by far are the shoes my mother wore when I was a young child. I remember a pair of bottle green suede pumps in particular. Perhaps my lust for shoes began on the day I sneaked my four-year-old feet into them and wobbled precariously across the floor. I've come back full circle to that day. Walking in high heels has become a precarious undertaking. And yet, I confess to recently yielding to the temptation of a pair of black patent leather pumps with impossibly high heels. I knew I’d never wear them, but I couldn’t bring myself to return them. One day, I removed them from their box and placed them on the top shelf of my desk. After a few months, someone asked what on earth they were doing there. How would I have explained what only a shoe addict would have understood?
Platform shoes made yet another comeback in 2011, but did you know they date back to the 16th century when the courtesans of Venice wore them to protect their feet from dirty streets? The style was called the "Chopine" back then and they were sometimes as high as 20.” Ouch. Think even Lady Gaga couldn’t walk a block in those babies.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Who wears the pants around here?

This morning, I got out of bed and mindlessly pulled on a pair of jeans. Since I live in the country and am semi- retired, a pair of jeans usually covers any situation a country girl might encounter during a humdrum day. I have a few famous women to thank for my no-brainer decision on what to wear - Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn being the first that come to mind.

But before I talk about some of the women to whom we owe the wonderful freedom of pants, let me tell you how my day started. My first task (after downing a cup of coffee) was to go on a hunt for my cat, Sam, who is sick and on a medication avoidance vigil. I found the king of my little jungle positioned safely under a shrub, which he knows I couldn’t crawl under, not even on a wish. As I write this, he is still in his safe place, waiting patiently for me to forget the whole nasty business of shoving a vial of antibiotics between his feline fangs. You’ll soon see who wears the pants around here, Sam.

Medicating Sam is nothing short of an Amazonian feat,which brings me to something I discovered about the Amazons that has some bearing on the subject of pants. There’s an Ancient Greek vase in the British Museum upon which is painted an Amazon wearing…you guessed it…pants. This vase is dated 470 BC. Whether the Amazons existed is a subject of debate, however, here’s food for thought. According to Wikipedia, “Trousers first enter recorded history in the 6th century BCE, with the appearance of horse-riding Iranian peoples in Greek ethnography. At this time, not only the Persians, but also allied Central Asian peoples such as the Bactrians, Armenians, and the Tigraxauda Scythians are known to have worn them. Trousers are believed to have been worn by both sexes among these early users.”

Moving fast-forward into the 20th century AD,we see the emergence of pants as popular female attire. Although I couldn’t find a photo of Bette Davis in pants, she was among the vanguard of Hollywood stars who transformed what had been the exclusive domain of men into a fashion statement for women during the 1930s. However, showing up at functions in menswear wasn’t the only way in which Davis was a pioneer. She was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and the first person of either sex to receive ten Academy Award nominations for acting. Other women who dared to wear pants at a time when such a thing was sure to raise eyebrows were Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich who appeared in her signature men's suits on and off screen.
But were these famous movie stars the first modern women to break through the barrier that divided men and women’s clothing? I think not as I recall a story my grandmother once told me. She was invited to a dance and could not afford a gown. Determined not to miss the event, she borrowed a suit from a friend’s brother and went dressed as a man. This took place before Grandpa started courting her. I don’t remember the exact year they married (after a long courtship), but my mother, their first child, was born in 1922. I can therefore safely say Grandma arrived at that dance dressed in men’s clothing quite some time before the dawn of the year 1920, considerably more than a decade before Dietrich set the stage for men’s-style suits.

It would be remiss of me to omit the pit brow girls who scandalized mid 19th century English society by wearing pants for their work at the Wigan coal mines. The pit brow girls weren’t the only 19th century women to break the rules where fashion was concerned. Here on the other side of the Atlantic, the cowgirls were also wearing trousers as they rode the ranches of the American West. Thanks to these women who paved the way for us, we have our pick of pants, from the flowing harem style to skin-tight jeans. They’re available in every imaginable fabric from linen to metallic lycra. And what about shorts, you ask? Well, that’s another story. I’ll save that one until summer.

Do you know how much Dorothy's ruby slippers sold for at a Christie's auction in 2000? I'll be writing about that and more in my mid-month post, so please come back and visit.

Elle Magazine’s pants line-up for Fall:

The new men’s look trend at Net a Porter: