21 October 2011

Between the Wars textile symposium - Part 1

Dresses from the 1930's.

On October 15, 2011, I was privileged to attend a day-long symposium, formally titled Fabric, Fashions and Quilts: From the Armistice to Pearl Harbor. That is a rather unwieldy header, so I'm using a short title, Between the Wars, from one of the presentations, for my blog posts. The symposium was co-sponsored by the New England Quilt Museum and the American Textile History Museum. Our activities alternated between the NEQM and ATHM facilities. We made quite a sight - dozens of women shuttling between the buildings on a bright yellow school bus.

One highlight of the symposium was a fortuitously timed exhibit at the ATHM, Grace & Glamour: 1930's Fashion, showcasing, according to curator Karen Herbaugh "...the graceful geometric cuts and streamline modernism of the 1930's." The exhibit, which ran from May 21 to October 16, 2011, confronts two misconceptions about the 30's - first, although a great many people were out of work, many were also relatively unaffected, and still had money to spend on their wardrobes. Second, notions of Depression thrift and economy are somewhat upended by the popularity of the bias cut styling of skirts.
Pattern pieces laid out "on the bias."
Source: http://wkdesigner.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/bias-cut-camisole/

"Cutting on the bias" means placing pattern pieces at a 45 degree angle to the fabric selvedge. Clothes cut on the bias have a very relaxed, elegant drape - see Myrna Loy's gowns in the "Thin Man" movies - but the technique results in a lot of wasted fabric, especially as 1930's cotton fabrics were only 36" wide. Of course, cotton scraps could be thriftily used for children's clothes, doll clothes, and quilts. Not for the first time, though, does consumer preference trump efficient use of resources.

Cotton was still used for even the dressiest of dresses, and would have been comfortable in the era before wide-spread use of air-conditioning. It's not a wash and wear fiber though, and cotton dresses required careful laundering and ironing. The women who could afford these dresses could also hire household help.

The exhibit also highlighted the growing use of rayon, one of the first synthetic fibers, during this decade. Most of the dresses in the exhibit do not have manufacturer or store labels, and it was unclear to me whether the garments were of home apparel manufacture, or made to order by professional seamstresses, or part of the increasing department store ready-to-wear trade.

New England used to be a busy garment manufacturing center. For example, Carl Shapiro, Boston-area philanthropist, founded the Kay Windsor clothing company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1939, and sold it to the Vanity Fair Corporation in 1971. The proceeds of this sale formed the basis for his family foundation, which funded, among other endeavors, the New Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Wherever the garments were made, the dresses on display exemplify the change in silhouette from the 1920's style. Curator Herbaugh thoughtfully included a few garments from the 1920's to make the contrast unmistakable.

1920's dress - no waist, flat bosom, dropped skirt.

1930's dresses - defined and accentuated waist,
bodice and neckline details, pastel colors.

Left, print dress. Right, sample swatch of dress fabric.

Ms. Herbaugh's curatorial "Aha!" moment, related to us in her brief highlight tour, was discovering that the ATHM had a swatch book with fabrics matching the material of one of the dresses. It doesn't take much to get us fabric junkies excited.

Dress with feminine floral print.

One typical characteristic of thirties dresses that can be seen in the dress and skirt detail above is that when lengthwise stripes are cut on the bias, the stripes meet at the center seam to form a chevron. This effect is also striking with plaids.

Last but not least, the accessories
- gloves, hats and shoes.

Although most of the items in the exhibit came from the ATHM's own collection, several of the objects were borrowed from Lasell College, right in my own town of Newton.

The American Textile History Museum website is