Sunday, 8 December 2013

From Bohemian to Pepper Fiend - Auntie Ev

I never cease to be amazed by how risque the 1920s were. Coming out of straight laced Victorian times, hot on the heels of elegant but still conservative Edwardian times, we get World War 1, then a couple of years later, Boom! the Roaring Twenties. It's a time of excess, elaborate decoration and luxurious fabrics such as beading, embroidery, fringes, furs, feathers and every kind of animal skin imaginable. If fact, it's amazing that more animals didn't become extinct supplying the fashion market of the 1920s.

On Pinterest, to which I am addicted, my favourite and most popular board is "Naughty Vintage". Once again, I'm amazed at what they did back in those days. Admittedly, a lot of the models for the predominantly French postcard trade were probably prostitutes, but the desire to flaunt one's wares seems to have been more widespread than the advertising by the ladies of the night. Here are a few of my favourites:

I love the look on her face which says "I don't give a damn what you think". And check out those fabulous boots.

This is silent movie star, Gloria Swanson, who later played possibly her most famous role as a fading silent movie star opposite William Holden in "Sunset Boulevard". Here she is before she was at all faded.

This girl doesn't look at all comfortable with this set up. I hope she was well paid.

And these lovers are really going for it. I think this is a still from a silent movie. Who knew?

Join Pinterest and check out my Naughty VIntage board. You'll be amazed, (and amused!)

All of this reminds me of a family mystery. My partner, Geoff, had a Great Aunt Ev, short for Elevina. She was Irish, and migrated to Australia. Geoff remembers Auntie Ev from when he was a young boy as a sour and grumpy maiden aunt, famous for putting too much pepper in the dinner. She passed away in the 1980s and left us a small amount of money, and her photo album. Imagine our surprise to find the following photos:

I apologise for the poor quality photo, but it has been pasted onto brown paper, several sheets of which stitched together form the photo album. However, we can make out Ev as a young woman, posing on the beach in her knitted neck to knee bathers, black stockings and boots. This is earlier than the 20s, probably World War 1 or just before. Her hair is long and loose, worn with a large bow. She certainly looks comfortable posing for the photographer.

Here is another of Ev at the beach, a few years later by the look of it.

But here is the photo that really amazed us - Ev, sitting on the sideboard in her undies. I would guess that this photo was taken between the war years and the early 20s. Why would a young woman in those days have her photo taken in her undies, unless she was a prostitute/model or a movie star? Could this Bohemian beauty be our straight laced Auntie Ev? She was clearly comfortable with posing and modelling.

The plot thickened when we found this photo:

This is a photograph of some very famous paintings by Australian artist, Norman Lindsay, well known for his nudes and Bacchanalian scenes. Why would these feature in her album of no more than 12 photos? Was there a link between the modelling and the paintings? Could Ev have been one of his models?

I managed to identify the paintings and view good reproductions of them. The painting in the centre of the photo is actually an etching called "The Promise".

The woman in this etching bears a striking resemblance to our Ev. Lindsay finished "The Promise"  in 1919, which fits well with our time frame. Here is our best and most demure portrait of Ev:

We will never know the truth, but it just seems so strange that all these portraits are here together in this very small album. There must have been a reason why these were significant.

The family legend about Ev is that she had a man, (or maybe it was a fiance?) who was killed in World War 1. Like so many other women of this era, she never married. The story goes that his loss caused her to become a bitter old woman who devoted her life to the Catholic Church and left her house to the nuns.

I can hear Ev turning in her grave and cursing us from Heaven for saying such things about her. She would have been horrified. Sorry, Ev - but it's so interesting, and impressive!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

1920s Fashion and Darning on Net

This week I bought a wonderful old book from the 20s on eBay - "Bestway No.175 - 3rd Darning on Net Book".

Like most people these days, I am surprised to learn of this now obsolete but very interesting and effective art. The patterns are for jumpers and tunics, which appear to have been worn as an overdress.
Just look at that fringe! So 20s.

As far as I can understand this, the method seems to be to take a regular sewing pattern in a straight style, as most of them were in the 20s, and cut it out of netting. Then a flat blunt needle is used to weave the silk or wool in and out of the net until it is all filled in. Various patterns can be introduced, as well as different trims.
This garment is finished with a crocheted border, and the fringe is hand knotted into the bottom row with a hook. There is a lovely big crochet covered button  on the right hip.
This garment is worked with a diagonal pattern, and the wool trim is worked as in a hooked rug, lengths of wool cut to the same length are inserted and knotted with a hook.
This garment features embroidery worked over the darning.
In addition to these interesting garments are the wonderful old ads. Here are two of my favourites:
If you can zoom in to read the poem about the fairy Sylvanata, do so. I guess that the artificial silk would be rayon. All of these garments were made with silk or wool.
Granny's hearth and knitting expertise, offering comfort and wisdom.
Another great find for me. If I can ever find netting , I might give it a go.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Steamy Edition of Vogue - 1939

On Sunday I bought "Vogue's 15th Knitting Book" at a local vintage market for $2.00. A quick flick through the book told me it was from the 1930s so I quickly snapped it up. It was only when I got home that I realised that most of the pages in the book were well and truly stuck together.
Time to try steaming them apart. I know the theory, but I'd never actually tried it. I boiled a saucepan of water and gave it a go.

Separating the cover from the first page was the most difficult and took about half an hour. There was a fair bit of damage to the inside cover and some tearing. I'm not sure what made this book stick together, but I suspect dampness as there was no sign of food or drink.

As more pages came free I saw that the models had 1940s hair dos, so I though maybe the book was very early 40s. I just love this ad:

Those braided evening coats are well left behind in 1939 if you ask me.

The original owner of the book had filed lots of newspaper clippings on various topics inside the pages of the knitting book. The stuck together pages formed little envelopes which, on being steamed open, released their little treasures. I had quite a collection of these by the time I finished steaming the book. Some were from the 50s, but some bore the partial date: "193..." Aha, I thought, 1939! It all makes sense. What was special about these articles? There were two articles from 1939 about a bread price cutting war and the union campaign involved, a few celebrity photos from the 40s and 50s, a society wedding snap and two clippings from a religious publication, one showing a nativity scene and the other the Saint Ann's Mission Church. I can't see why anyone would want to keep any of them. I guess it is just a cross section of a woman's interests, and gives us a glimpse of her personality.

During the many hours I have spent trawling Pinterest and putting together my fashion decades boards I have noticed that the very end of a decade heralds the following decade. Likewise, the early years of a decade echo the second half of the previous decade. Here, in Vogue in 1939, we had distinctively 1930s patterns, with the new wartime hairdos, the "Victory Roll", and echoes of the fashions to come in the early 40s.

As I stood there for an hour bringing this book back to life, strange thoughts filled my head. What were these newspaper articles and why had they been kept? 1939, the war. Was there something special about these articles, and had they been deliberately sealed up and hidden inside this book? Spies!! I looked for a secret code. My over active imagination ran away with me. The other thought I had was, what a lot of steam, and what a shame I hadn't put the Christmas pudding into the pot before I began. The ingredients were still staring at me from the bench top making me feel guilty.

My 1939 theory was confirmed when I found this ad:

Note at the very top underneath the heading "Darnley's London 1912 - 1939" .

Here are some fabulous turbans:

This gorgeous little evening jacket features knitted smocking.

When I finished I came to the conclusion that this book takes the award for best photos inside the most uninteresting cover.

That, and the fact that the pages were stuck together and difficult to see explains why I was able to purchase the book so cheaply. I have not been able to find another copy of this book on the internet. The oldest editions of Vogue knitting books I could find came from the early 50s.

The book is in fairly good condition now, except for a little invisible tape repairing the tears on the inside of the cover. I have committed the collector's sin of repairing the spine of the cover  with invisible tape (on the inside, of course). I have too much OCD to tolerate the tatty when I can easily have the neat. It looks beautiful now. Thank goodness it was stuck together and full of secrets wonderful and ordinary, just waiting for me to come along and discover it.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Don't Try This At Home

Last week I stayed the night at the house of my eldest daughter, Evie, who was married in April. See the story of the wedding at

While sleeping in her spare bedroom I noticed her wedding dress on the floor in its cover, still uncleaned from the  wedding. She hadn't got around to having it cleaned, and with a quote for $600 to clean it, I can understand her procrastination. This is the dress that was dragged about in the dirt, through the long grass and up onto boulders for the photos.

Here is the dress in mint condition: Just look at that train!

And a close up of the lace. Unfortunately, you can't see the occasional spangle of a discreet sequin in this shot, but it is really beautiful.

Here is the bride wearing the dress on the day:


It was full of grass seeds and clippings all tangled up in the lace, and was grey for the bottom six inches around the hem. I occupied myself pulling out the grass seeds while watching TV that evening, which took about two hours. I don't know whether you've ever seen the seeds of corkscrew grass, but I hadn't. Country Victorians will no doubt be very familiar with it, but it was new to me.

These annoying little seed tails do a great job of twisting themselves into the fur and fleece of animals and thus travelling around and spreading. They had also twisted themselves all through the lace of the dress.

What possessed me to offer to wash a $3000 dress in the bath? Evie said she was happy for me to try as she was only going to "archive" the dress anyway. So I took it home, and next morning it went into the bath tub. I sprayed a pre-wash laundry spray all around the hem, using 1 1/2 bottles on the hem of the full circle skirt and train. I estimate it to be  10-12 metres in length. I left it to soak for about 30 minutes, then added eucalyptus woolwash liquid and ran the bath. To my horror, the water immediately turned black from the dirt, so I pulled out the plug and kept sluicing all the water down the plughole till it ran clean. Then I gently rubbed between thumb and forefinger with a mild soap all around the hem and removed the dirt.

After two rinses in the bath and a gentle squeeze, I made a dash for the clothesline with a dripping dress over my shoulder. It took two of us to arrange it flat across the top of six lines of wire. Luckily, it a was a sunny, windy day. I brought it inside after dinner and left it to dry on the dining table.

By the next day the skirt was mostly dry so I decided to start ironing. This dress has six skirt layers - lace, satin, two layers of pleated and ruched net for body, 3 layers of tulle stitched together for a petticoat, plus, I now discovered, an inner skirt to protect the bride's legs from the scratchy tulle. This inner skirt was still muddy as I had overlooked it in the cramped conditions of the bathtub. My partner supported the dress behind me over my shoulder as I washed the inner skirt in the kitchen sink. Then back onto the table for a blow dry.

Here is the full circle of the skirt spread out across the table upside down so that I can pick out all the grass seeds I missed the first time in the underlayers. Getting them out from in between the stitched up layers of tulle was interesting. Note the bowl on the chair for the seeds once removed.

Here is a close up of the grass stuck between the layers of tulle:

Then time to get out the iron. What saved this dress is the fact that the fabric does not require ironing. The underlayers are deliberately crumpled to add body, and only the top lace layer around the hem where it had been rubbed to clean required careful pressing under a cloth.

And here it is, "come up beautiful", as I said to the bride.
Evie's father says I should go into business cleaning wedding gowns, and that at $600 each I would only need to clean three a week to stay in business. Yes, as long as I'm not sued for ruining them.  No thank you, one is enough.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Micro Beaded Beauty Update

Many thanks to Ann from Pickwick's Emporium on Etsy. Ann sells many vintage beaded purses in her shop.
Her opinion is that my purse is a French evening purse circa 1930s-1950s. She also comments that it's unusual to find these purses featuring blue, which is very attractive, and that the electric blue jewelled frame is stunning.
Well, there's progress!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Vintage Micro Beauty

A few weeks ago I had a fabulous find when I bought this micro beaded purse at a local op shop (thrift store for some), for $8.00.

Clearly, it was my lucky day. Until this time, I knew virtually nothing about old beaded purses, and I have been rummaging around on the internet trying to find out something about my beauty.

This purse is beaded with the tiniest beads you can imagine. Each bead is approximately 1 mm long and 3/4 mm wide. The hole in the centre must be minute, but what about the needle used for it? And what about the eye of the needle, and how could anyone have threaded it? And what superfine but strong thread did they use? I still don't know the answers to any of these questions, sorry to disappoint.

Something else that puzzled me about the purse is that the beads appear to be made of a type of plastic, yet the purse clearly looks to date from a time before plastics were readily available. The "jewels" in the clasp are glass, but the beads are definitely not. The design makes me think Art Deco, but the purse doesn't look 1920s to me. The 20s purses are so distinctive, usually with beaded fringes, and usually made of glass beads. I thought it must be 30s, still Art Deco. However, my Vintage Fashion Consultant (Mother!) commented "Maybe even older." At first I was sceptical about this, but now I am thinking it's a strong possibility that this purse dates from the first two decades of the 20th century - 1900-1920. Maybe even Art Nouveau more than Art Deco??

Some internet research on early plastics and their uses confused me, but also surprised me in that I discovered that there were early forms of plastics around at this time. I knew about Bakelite and celluloid, but now I know about milk beads. Did you know that you can make plastic from milk? I even found a "recipe" for this casein plastic that an amateur can make at home. I don't know whether this plastic had any other uses other than for making beads.

Another thing that intrigues me about this purse is the tiny little chain strap. A modern woman would wonder what possible use it could be, but apparently one used to thread one's middle finger through the loop and dance, while your hand and gorgeous purse rested decoratively on the gentleman's shoulder. These purses are sometimes called Tango Purses. Ladies' also used to thread their gloves through the loop so they wouldn't lose them.

This purse was made in France, as stated on the tag on the silk lining. It's in good condition. There are five jewels missing from the clasp and the lining is soiled. There are a few dirty spots on the beads which look like someone's drink spilt. I am tempted to give them a gentle rub with a toothbrush and mild detergent, though my consultant has warned me not to.

Here are some other interesting purses I found on Pinterest:

Edwardian purse

Knitted Pie Crust Purse. Rare and in pristine condition, this one dating from the end of the 19th century is for sale for more than $10,000!
Read its interesting story:

1910 purse
This little beauty is simply described as an antique purse.
I have decided not to sell my purse. I have no idea where I would ever wear it, but it's so beautiful this bower bird is keeping it in her bower.
If you know the answer to any of my unanswered questions, or if you can make a guess about the era of my purse, please contact me.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Yesterday's Child - Nursery Viyella and Motherhood in the 1940s

I am currently expecting my first grandchild, and luckily for me my daughter loves vintage baby wear too, so I am madly knitting and her grandmother is madly smocking.

Amongst my extensive vintage knitting book collection (now expanded to fill two x four drawer filing cabinets), I have three pattern books from the 1940s by Nursery Viyella. Two of them are very sweet little books of baby knitting patterns.

The third is more than this - a knitting book, a sewing book, and an advice to new mothers book.

"From The Day They Are Born" discourses on the "Principles of Clothing", by "Our Doctor Advisor",  who "is herself the mother of three boys."

I was relieved to read that the parenting ideals espoused were relatively enlightened and "modern". In the section on The Purpose of Childhood I was interested to read "The baby whose wants are regularly satisfied, whose discomforts are always speedily relieved, gains a feeling of confidence, which becomes an attitude towards life. It is only one step at this stage from momentary fear to the development of a fear attitude towards life in general - an attitude which may persist from infancy into adult life." (p.2)
I wish my mother-in-law had read this. She had four children in the 1950s and didn't feed one of them through the night, remarking to me "Well, you need your sleep." According to her, they only cried for a few nights before they gave up. This kind of thing may have allowed her to sleep, but it keeps me awake at night worrying!

Here is the prescribed list of clothing required for the new baby. It allows for "One on, one dirty, one drying and one clean."
Here are the rules for baby's garments:
"Nothing can be worn which interferes with the free, vigorous movement s of the little body and limbs; nothing should be worn that can chafe, irritate, or interfere with the free circulation of air over the skin. So the essentials are - garments so cut that they can neither restrict nor constrict, made of a material which is warm, light, non-irritant and porous and will remain so no matter how often it is washed. Any material that shrinks and becomes "felted" immediately becomes non-porous and is uncomfortable, because perspiration instead of evaporation remains on the skin. The shrunken garment too, is invariably constrictive somewhere - tight in the yoke maybe or tight round the wrists or neck; and this of itself is enough to drive most infants into moods of fretfulness and fear." (p.2)
Before I owned these books I did not know that Viyella made knitting yarn, although I had heard of the famously light and warm woven  fabric. I doubt whether there is anything similar on the market these days.

I have baby knitting books published in the 1930s which have patterns for the accursed "constrictive" garments such as this
illustration from "What to Make For Baby", by Ella Allan, a 1931 reprint of a text published from 1917 and through the 20s. Note No.43, the binder. I guess this would be worn around the infant's arms to reduce movement. Also of note is No.47, Baby's First Stays. Although these are clearly and mercifully nothing like a woman's stays, I still find the idea alarming.

And we will still wrap a small infant in a "bunny rug" for "security", but not tightly.

This lovely book also has many sewing instructions for garments for babies, in Viyella, of course. Here is a lovely ad for Semco patterns.

And how lovely is the little boys suit for a birthday party? Let's hope we can believe the caption, which reads: "Here is Peter again, all dressed up for a birthday party. His suit is made in Viyella; no no-one minds how dirty he makes it."

Here are my other favourite illustrations:

Imagine all the hand washing of little woolly undies for tots (and big people!) I know that ladies did not change their woolly undies daily, I've read the care instructions in magazines, but I imagine that toddlers' undies were the frequent victims of accidents. The following helpful advice is provided: "For urine and cod liver stains, soak at once in water with 1 teaspoonful of ammonia to 1 pint of water, for 5 to 10 minutes, then wash in the ordinary way."
And here is Lyn, ready for bed:
At three, we would think Lyn would well and truly be out of a cot, but maybe not. The one-to-threes, we are told, are prone to "the pugnacity tendency", which only requires the mother to "increase our efforts and so overcome difficulties." But all this, along with natural curiosity and self-assertion, are necessary for a child's development. However, "Unfortunately, very often normal outlet is denied the small child. He is kept for hours in a pram with little outlet in action for his clamouring energies." This is what causes bad temper and difficult behaviour in a toddler.
And the toddler is also very often a victim of the "Clothes Repression" if he is chastised for dirtying or tearing his clothes, once again causing emotional and/or physical damage.
Dr Spock's ground breaking text "Baby and Child Care", was published in 1946. The ideas expressed in the Viyella book would seem to be influenced by his more enlightened approach to parenting, so I would hazard a guess and date this book as late 40s.
I will be keeping an eye out for more delightful Nursery Viyella books.
From the Day They Are Born - Nursery Viyella - late 1940s
From Birth to 8 Years - Nursery Viyella Knitting Book for Children's Garments - 1940s
Nursery Viyella Knitting Book: Over 40 Designs From Birth to Five Years - 1940s
Spock, Benjamin; Baby and Child Care; 1946
Ella Allan; What to Make For Baby, Part 1; 1931