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.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Special Offer

Like my Facebook page and then message me to receive a 10% discount coupon, valid till the end of January, 2016.
Facebook - Louisa Amelia Jane

Make and Mend - Necessity as the Mother of Invention

Last month I purchased a fabulous little book - "Make and Mend For Victory", published in the US during World War 11. This book is full of hints and instructions for dressing oneself and one's family smartly when resources were short.

On the opening facing page is The Consumer's Victory Pledge:

" As a consumer, in the total defense of democracy, I will do my part to make my home, my community, my country ready, efficient, strong.
I will buy carefully - and I will not buy anything above the ceiling price, no matter how much I may want it.
I will take good care of the things I have - and I will not buy anything made from vital war materials which I can get along without.
I will waste nothing - and I will take care to salvage everything needed to win the war.
Consumer Division
Office of Price Administration"

The book's editor then follows with:

" It's up to you to keep the home fires burning, to see that you and your family stay easy-on-the-eyes. Fortunately, you can be patriotic and pretty both. It's easy to teach an old wardrobe new tricks, to resurrect the skeletons in your closet and bring them up to date. Come on, take those old knockabouts and turn them into knockouts, keep that glint in Uncle Sam's eye and still do your stint towards Victory!"

Chapters on how to mend and patch, and how to alter and restyle an outfit follow. The mending chapter is homework for me.

But what do you do if you can't restyle that old dress? You accessorise, of course. The book gives instructions for making collars, edgings and trims for dresses, coats, hats and even pyjamas! Patterns for dickeys are also given. A dickey is an artificial shirt front which peeps out from below a jacket and make it look like you are wearing a blouse when you are not.

Yes, a collar makes it look like a new dress

Some hat trims
My favourite trimming illustration is this, showing a crocheted frog closing and seam braiding for pyjamas.

Presumably these are the lounging around the house kind of pyjamas. Note the boudoir shoes.

What I was most fascinated by in this book were the instructions it gives for cutting up garments and making them into other garments. E.g., making a woman's suit from a man's suit. Garments needed to be unpicked and cleaned and pressed. Cutting layouts were then given for commercially available patterns. 

Cutting a woman's suit from a man's suit

Here are whole lot of pattern layouts for cutting women's and children's garments from men's shirts:

And my favourite chapter, how to take your old dress and upcycle it into a sun frock, an apron or a romper.

This sun suit I recently acquired is an example of this kind of thrift. 

The fabric is well faded, but that's to be expected in an outfit worn in the sun more than 70 years ago. I wouldn't be surprised if it was already quite worn  before this garment was made. The maker has certainly scrimped for fabric. Note the facings on the skirt made out of a completely different garment.

I think our consumer driven society today could learn a lot from wartime necessity. So few people today seem to mend their garments. Even sewing on a new button is a skill beyond many. Once, when I worked in a school library, a teen girl asked me why I was sewing up a hole in the seam of one of the library cushions. Why, she wanted to know, didn't I just go down to K-Mart and buy a new cushion? Well, I said, it would only take 5 minutes to sew it, and it was a special Batik cushion from our sister school in Malaysia. Would I be able to get that in K-Mart? Fair enough, she said. I don't think she had ever seen anything mended. 

These days I buy very little new clothing. Apart from underwear and shoes, and occasionally a pair of jeans, the rest I buy second hand in Op Shops. I find more interesting and better quality clothing at lower prices than that at K-Mart and in chain stores. And I'm constantly complimented on my wardrobe. If I get rid of an item I either sell it, take it to the Op Shop or if it's beyond hope, I salvage the buttons and put it in the rag bag for dusters and painting. Only when it's covered in paint or oil does it go in the bin. That's just the way my mother taught me. 

You'll be pleased to know that I did buy a new dress for my daughter's wedding three years ago!