Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Night Life

A while ago now I took a long weekend and ventured down to Winchelsea to Barwon Park Mansion to view the National Trust's Night Life exhibition of formal wear from the 1920s and 1930s. It was certainly well worth the trip and a good excuse for a short break.

The mansion was built by Thomas Austin in 1867 when he learned he was to host the Prince of Wales during the next Royal visit. He was too embarrassed to entertain royalty at his modest homestead, so built the mansion. He died six months after it was completed. Austin is also credited, or rather blamed, for introducing the rabbit to Australia so they had something to hunt besides kangaroos.

Barwon Park Mansion
It provided a fitting setting for the National Trust exhibition. The lighting was necessarily dim to conserve the garments, so please excuse the lack of light in the photos.

The 1920s garments were divine. There were, of course, the elaborately beaded flapper dresses but in some ways I found the other garments more interesting, probably because I've seen so many photos of beaded dresses. This dress is one of my favourites - earlier than 1920s, about 1919 I think. I have discovered a passion for tassels.

Beaded Cocoon Coat

This dress of pearl and silver beads is so heavy that the weight of the beads has torn the fine netting to which they are stitched. These heavily beaded garments are displayed flat in cases to minimise stress to the already stressed pieces. It must have been a challenge to dance the Charleston in some of these dresses. This garment is described as an evening gown but wouldn't it have made a lovely wedding dress!

My other favourite piece in the exhibition is this Assuit shawl. In the wake of Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 everything Egyptian was the rage. This fabric, named after the place in Egypt where it was made, combines net fabric with metal strips in an ornate design.

Assuit Shawl

The 1930s moved away from beading and ornamentation. Dresses were longer, and cut on the cross of the fabric (or bias) to cling to the body's curves. There were several beautiful silk florals on display.

 One of the problems I had at the exhibition was not touching the fabrics. These fabrics are so foreign to what we are familiar with these days. When a fabric is described as glazed silk I want to touch it, but I did manage to refrain.

This interesting 1940s cotton lace dress was the youngest dress in the exhibition.

There were many other beautiful and interesting pieces that I just couldn't photograph properly in the dark, such as a fabulous piano shawl, and a cape with an amazing Art Deco lining.

An interesting section of home made garments made a detour, and visitors could  practise doing tambour embroidery in a hoop if the volunteers were there to instruct.

One day I hope to go back just to look at the mansion as much of it could not be seen due to the special exhibition. I was most fascinated by the servants' areas.

And by the nursery.

The doll's house furniture was fascinating, made with such care in amazing detail. I was reminded of Beatrix Potter's book "The Tale of Two Bad Mice".

Little wood burning stove. I put my bag there for perspective.
Tiny little ironing board and spinning wheel.
The Night Life exhibition dates  were extended but it was moved to Rippon Lea mansion in Elsternwick, Melbourne, where it is a bit more accessible to most visitors. It finishes on July 30, so be quick. There are also a series of spin off events, including a fashion parade and ball.

Night Life at Rippon Lea

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

National Trust - I'm Your Fan

A few weeks ago I attended the National Trust vintage clothing sale at Como House in Melbourne. Como is an historic mansion dating back to 1847 and is a popular venue for weddings, functions and exhibitions. Once a year it hosts a vintage clothing sale. Many people donate vintage clothing to the National Trust but it can only keep the best and most significant pieces in its collection. Much of the clothing and accessories are sold off in their annual sale, with the proceeds going to the upkeep of Como.

This was my first time to the sale, and I'll certainly be going back again next year. After walking through  rooms filled with hats, accessories and even patterns and magazines, I entered the ballroom, which was cram packed with racks of clothing. Volunteers were there to help, and they had also soaked, washed and ironed a lot of the clothing as necessary and where possible.

Just one little corner of the ballroom.

It was Sunday afternoon, and everything was half price. So what did I find?

 This was only the beginning. Luckily, I had brought a trolley and a very big bag with me.
Amongst the highlights for me were  the lingerie items. There were beautiful little bras from the 1930s and 40s, many were unworn and still displaying shop tags.

Berlei longline bra, very early 1930s

Never boil your bra. Our grandmas had to slave over the copper, boiling their underwear and linen.

The other little bras also look new, or have seen very little wear.

This little gem is silk. For a very small but busty lady.
And this bra seems impossibly tiny.

Not only bras, ladies, but knickers. I snapped up a few pair of the ever popular French Knickers, or tap pants as our American friends call them. My mother insists that in Australia, in the 1950s, they were called scanties. I was interested to hear the volunteer lady who served me also called them scanties. Mum must be right, as usual.

Unusual and lovely floral print, and silk.
Look at the beautiful insertion work on this pink pair.

And a teddy.

Another find that was exciting for me is this 1930s silk wedding dress.

This gown came complete with a copy of the wedding in which it starred in 1934, and the names of the bride and groom. How lovely to know a bit of the story behind the dress. This dress has gold lame trim at the shoulders and on the delightful Art Deco belt.

I was also delighted to find quite a few men's items. I couldn't help thinking Downton Abbey - tail coat, stiff white waistcoat front and stiff collars. 

And of course, some lovely dresses.

And for some more modern vintage, two Kenzo smocks from about 1980.

My friend Hannah has already bought this one. It looks fabulous on her.

I was so busy sorting out these gems that I didn't even have time to check out the hats, bags, shoes etc.
Items were reasonably priced to sell ASAP. Gems cost a little more, but of course. Some fixer uppers were also found, so we'll see how we go.

Thank you to the National Trust, and also to the wonderful volunteers who helped before, during and after the day. See you there next year. Make sure you say hello.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Snapshot 1947

Today I was delighted to receive this magazine in the post.

The Australian Home Budget magazine for May, 1947. Only one and a half years after the end of the war, Australians, like the British, still had rationing for many of life's necessities, and foremost amongst them, for clothing. This little gem shows a country of women just starting to dare that maybe they can start to think about having nice things again, within reason.

The editorial points out:
"Many of today's B.G.'s [Business Girls] passed from their teens to their twenties during the war years. Many went straight from school uniforms to Service uniforms. All of them moved out into a world of stringent shortages and coupons which denied them the quality clothes of pre-war years.
Clothes are still rationed, but fabrics and style this winter are better.  For the first time in seven years the business-girl has the chance to have some of the lovely clothes for which her heart has yearned. If she plans carefully, and buys with her limited income - and coupons - clothes of basic simplicity which depend on accessories (no coupons) to bring a dash of romance to style , she can be the new girl in our lives - feminine above all - the one who brings a light to someone's eyes." (p.6)

Two months after Christian Dior launched his New Look for women's fashion, the look was taking off. The fitted peplum jacket and straight skirt shown here look forward to the 50s, while the turban to me still looks very 40s. The caption reads "Pull in your belt this winter with a long-torso suit made from uncouponed jersey. Basque peplum swishes above the blade skirt." (p.5)

There is no mention of Dior, but it is certainly his influence which calls for "a renewed avowal of femininity. Lines are subtle and fluent, with willow-wand waistlines, rounded - almost Rubens-rounded - hips, jackets bustled, flared or layered with tucks. Bodices are skin tight and smooth as cream. Shoulders generally remain wide, with odds in favor of the rounded line. Sleeves have become the big issue. Bishop, dolman, and push-up are the key-note of the uncluttered silhouette. Daytime skirts are narrowing as they lengthen and most are blade thin. The classic suit is still the B.G.'s best bet. With long or short jackets, teamed with pin-slim skirts in line with the leg, they are notable for their clean lines and lack of ornate trimming."

And for the evening? A jade and white striped silk dress, or "shirtmaker blouse and graceful velvet skirt". The fashion editor suggests that one "interchange the blouse with a sequined midriff, a lace tunic with exaggerated peplum, or a classic evening sweater." (p.7) I would love to see these!

What can I say? Such fabulous shoes. On Saturday, I went to see the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of "Born Yesterday", set just after the war. The highlight for me was the heroine's final costume, an amazing fur trimmed burgundy velvet coat with matching hat, and especially, the matching  40s platform peep toe shoes! But that's another story.

The editorial insists that "Hats this winter should go everywhere with you from dawn to dusk. They are back on the head and never, never, carried in the hand. Some sweep abruptly off the brow, others up one side. All hug the head. Adjustable padded berets and cloches are the best all-purpose styles for the B.G." The classic beret is for "sauntering through winter". (p.9)

Love the chunky bracelets, and the plastic pansy brooch and earrings. I always love a pansy.

The ads are always delightful in these old magazines and these are no disappointment.

How gorgeous is this ingenue in her conical stitched bra? And of course the modern woman needs comfort and convenience in all personal matters.

And no less interesting than the fashion are the photos from the royal tour of South Africa and Botswana, or Natal and Bechuanaland as they were then. Top is Princess Margaret, bottom is Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth. This was the first time the entire royal family had toured together, and the first time the princesses had been "abroad". (p.39)

Finally, a reminder that times are still difficult and it is not yet time to throw caution to the wind. The "Make do and mend" ethos is still encouraged, and garments with slight damage are not be discarded, but renovated.
The final word goes to Princess Dyes.

Best of all, those old fabrics could be dyed. No rank polyester. New life could be given to silk, cotton, rayon, and wool. And you could perspire on it without making it run! Just as well, because deodorants were not very effective then. Having spent an hour the other day standing over a hot tub dying a silk dress hideously greyed, oxidised and perspired upon, I can relate to this. To see that ugly rag come out of the tub a glorious and unflawed black was the highlight of the week!

Reference: The Australian Home Budget; May 1947; Consolidated Press; Sydney

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

50s Frocks on Stage - Ladies In Black

Last week my partner and I gritted out teeth and fronted up to the first play of the Melbourne Theatre Company's 2016 season, Ladies In Black. Why gritting our teeth, I hear you ask. Because we both dislike musicals, especially my partner. Then, why were we going, I hear you asking again. Because this show is set in the dress section of a department store in the 1950s. How could I not go? It was bound to be a frock fiesta. Would they go vintage or costume? Yes, we had to go for the frocks. Geoff was very gracious and promised not to complain, although he reserved the right to sleep.

 Ladies In Black is based on a novel "The Women in Black", by Madeleine St John. Director Simon Phillips has brought Carolyn Burns' play and kiwi Tim Finn's (Split Enz) music and lyrics alive for Melbourne audiences. It is a quintessentially Australian play. Finn and Burns did an excellent job of capturing the Australian idiom, and they certainly appealed to the Australian sense of humour.

As our seats were very close to the front, you'll be relieved to hear that Geoff neither snored nor slept. In fact, I think he quite enjoyed the show "for a musical". I enjoyed it very much. The performances were all excellent, and every single cast member could really sing.

Opening scene

The story follows 16 year old Lesley on her first holiday job after completing high school. The first thing she does is tell everyone at work that her name is Lisa, because she wants "a girl's name". As someone whose middle name is Lesley, I wholeheartedly agree with her. There are lots of funny, witty lines in this show - in both the dialogue and the song lyrics.

Christen O'Leary as Magda

So what about the frocks? The store scenes are either in the cocktail dress department, where Lisa (Sarah Morrison) works with Faye (Naomi Price) and Patty (Lucy Maunder), or in "Model gowns", the couture dress department, with sophisticated continental Magda (Christen O'Leary). Young Lisa falls in love with one of the couture dresses, coincidentally named "Lisette".

Lisa (Sarah Morrison) and Magda (Christen O'Leary) admiring Lisette.

I did enjoy looking at the frocks, and I greedily eyed the rack of vintage cocktail gowns on the set, which I guessed were authentic vintage gowns. Surely they wouldn't pay for elaborate costumes just to form the setting. I'm guessing that most of the gowns worn by the cast would have been costumes made for the play, certainly the matched colour numbers with hats in the opening scene were.

My favourite garment in the play was not one of the couture gowns or cocktail frocks, but an amazing red and white halter neck swimsuit worn by Magda in one scene, sadly no photos. I also liked the ordinary cotton house dresses worn in the home scenes, they were probably vintage too. None of the "model gowns" thrilled me.

And Rudi could really dance (Christen O'Leary and Bobby Fox)

Tim Finn's debut performance as a musical playwright is a very successful one. And the band were fabulous.

The highlight of the play for us was a song called "He's a bastard", performed by Patty (Lucy Maunder) with her mother and sisters, after her husband leaves her. How many words can you rhyme with bastard? (Remember, this is Australia. It's "Barsted", not "Bassted"). Try, in familial sequence, "He's always getting plastered" (extremely drunk, for our international readers), "He couldn't cut the mustard", "He simply can't be trusted", and on and on. Very funny.

Magda (Christen O'Leary) and Lisa (Sarah Morrison) with a Model Gown.
So, I whispered to Geoff, "nope, not vintage", "nope, not vintage", "hmmm...maybe vintage", or "probably vintage". "How can you tell?" he asked. "Zip in the back, costume." I whispered. He looked at me quizzically. Yes, I was prepared to admit later, they may have been vintage if it was set after 1957. Before then, zips were in the side. "Why?" he wanted to know. I explained that a costume needed to be got into and out of very quickly and a zip in the back is much better for this. Have you ever worn a fitted dress with a zip in the side? It goes over your head and then it's a slow progress towards your feet as you wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. So why were they ever in the side in the first place, Geoff wanted to know. Because it looks better, I replied, fabulous at the front and fabulous at the back, closure hidden in the side. He looked at me in disgust, only women, he thought, would suffer inconvenience and discomfort to look good.

Ladies in Black is highly entertaining. It's on stage at the Sumner Theatre in Melbourne until 27th February.

Melbourne Theatre Company:

Friday, 29 January 2016

Lost in the '30s

Today I started a job I'd been putting off for ages and dreading, clearing out the hall cupboard. This is a big cupboard and by the time I'd taken everything out I couldn't move in the hall and had thrown piles into the adjacent bedroom and living room. In particular, I was determined to find my childhood nursery rhyme book to read to my almost two year old grandson. I knew it was in there somewhere!

Well, thank goodness I did a proper clear out because I was delighted to find not only my nursery rhyme book, but also a box of women's magazines from the 1930s and 1950s which had come to me from my grandfather in the 1980s. At that time, I thought they were great, but I hadn't begun  collecting either knitting books or vintage fashion at that time, I was too busy with a young family for a start. I did contact the State Library of Victoria to ask whether or not they were interested in them, and donated some. I was thrilled to find them today because I hadn't seen them for years and assumed I must have donated them all.

The most interesting of the pile are the four oldest - Everylady's Journal (1933), The Australian Home Journal (1934) and two copies of The New Idea (1933 and 1935). What a treasure trove!

Here is a gorgeous photo from Everylady's Journal:

L-R: Maggy Rouff's white satin evening gown, Lucien Lelong's black satin dress and Lelong's crepe dress studded with steel nail heads.

These magazines have proved to be quite illuminating. Only last week I was discussing this 1930s dress I was about to photograph with my mother, and we both agreed that women in the 1930s must have been not only exceedingly slim (The dress is an Australian size 4-6) but also extremely tall because the dress is so long!

I read with interest this article about the dress worn by British actress Miriam Jordan:

"The frock is fashioned of palest grey woollen material in basket weave. The lines are simple, and the skirt very long, falling at least two inches on the floor in front, and going into a tiny train at the back. Beadings, about an inch wide, formed from crystal beads and costume emeralds, make the belt, and are also carried from shoulder to hem, where a more elaborate pattern is worked out.What would be a very low decolletage in front is raised to the height of a simple dinner dress by band of silver bugles, which are also used in loops over the right arm. The gown is backless and is fastened at the waist with a crystal and emerald clasp." (p.297) How I was wishing for modern photography. What a stunner this would be on the red carpet at the Oscars.

So that's why the dresses are so long! They weren't taller, they wore their evening gowns so much longer than floor length. I hate to think about the number of twisted ankles or worse (not to mention shoes put through the hems of dresses) that were probably caused by such dresses.

As well as knitting, crochet and tatting patterns the magazines are full of illustrations showing patterns that one could send away for.

The Australian Home Journal provided free paper patterns with every issue as well.
Magazines from the '30s and '40s are full of ideas for accessorising and how to make your one plain dress look like four different outfits. After all, they were in the grip of the Great Depression, closely followed by war, so they had to make the most of what they had. Clothes were expensive in those days, or you made your own.

Change collars and cuffs, add a trim or a little bolero, and hey presto! New outfit.

As always with these old magazines, the advertisements are an entertainment by themselves. This goes to show that women were just as worried about their shape as they are today, although the model presents a more realistic image than is often seen today.

Youth-O-Form reducing pills.

Everyone wants to lose weight without diet or exercise, but I suspect the fat burning pills were laxatives.

The New Idea magazine is still going strong today, although quite different in appearance and content.  This is how those '30s gals got those gorgeous waves - setting lotion of course.

Demonstrating how to set the "finger waves".

Coincidentally, Miriam Jordan is also modelling the latest fashions in this magazine. Clearly she was quite a celebrity in 1933.

"Miriam Jordan is seen here in a Spring gown of organdie, with a gored skirt flared to fashionable fullness.  A three-tiered cape collar forms short sleeves, and cornflower blue velvet ribbon is used as a belt. A blue velvet ribbon, matching that used on the frock, trims the hat. Miss Jordan wears this frock in the new Fox film, 'I Loved You Wednesday'." (p.24) This was apparently Miss Jordan's best film as her career was short and a bit lacklustre (except for the frocks). Here she is in a still from the film, wearing that organdie dress:

She seems to have been better known for her frocks than for her acting.

More fascinating ads. Yes, it's not something I've previously given any thought to, but how did they manage to conceal sanitary napkins under those clingy bias cut dresses?

Of course, they had the Equaliser! (?) "A radical innovation! Ends must be phantomised . Kotex only- offers this special shaping making it possible to wear the closest fitting gown without the slightest revealing line." (p.31)

Deodorant ads are often amusing. I love this little sponge on applicator. I used Odorono when I was a teenager back in the '70s, but it was a roll-on then. Gone now.

How lovely is this lingerie advertisement from The Australian Home Journal:

I'm always a sucker for the undies.

The New Idea ran an article for expectant mothers, including instructions on how to lace their corset, although it suggested that a supporting band was more comfortable.
And while we're on the subject of motherhood, if your little girl is failing to thrive, feed her custard with her fruit and watch her bloom! Who knew?

I was very interesting in this AMP insurance advertisement which shows the husband drying dishes. I was impressed. I'll bet there weren't too many around helping with that chore in 1935.

Note the washing happening in the enamel bowl on the kitchen table. I wonder when most kitchens had sinks.

And finally, the best discovery of the evening for a knitting book collector. Dating is always tricky because few knitting books have the date printed in them. But newly published  and advertised in The Australian Home Journal in 1934 is Patons  book no.4. So now we have a starting date for the biggest publisher of knitting books in Australia, Patons, or Patons & Baldwins as they were in the 1930s. Only three issues before this one, so we can safely say they began publishing in Australia in 1933 or 1934. Yay!

And look what else I found, circa late '50s or early '60s:

Loved to death, held together by metres of sticky tape, the pages in tatters. I still love it. Henry can't escape it the next time her comes.

The Australian Home Journal, February 1, 1934.
Everylady's Journal, May 1, 1933.
The New Idea, October 6, 1933.
The New Idea, November 29, 1935.