Review of the Historical Fashion Flip-Up Book “Fashion Through the Ages: From Overcoats to Petticoats”

Subuculas, Stays, and Slips!

I like going to Half-Price Books. They have all sorts of out of print and hard to find books, plus a great antique/collectible section! Their Fashion selection, however, is sometimes seriously lacking. I spent one day frantically trying to find the Fashion section after they apparently moved it. I was looking for a copy of The Tudor Tailor, so I asked the front desk after searching through the Art section, the Craft section, the History section, and even the Collectibles section (where books like Fashion in Detail had appeared before) to no avail. Turns out they had no clue where to put fashion books, historical or otherwise, so they stuck them in the “Salf-Help” category! They had very few historical fashion books of any type, but just before I gave up hope, I found this book:

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“Fashion Through the Ages: From Overcoats to Petticoats”
by Margaret Knight with awesome illustrations by Kim Dalziel

Inside, there were stylish illustrations of historical fashions from ancient Rome to the 1960s, all with nifty flip-up clothing layers! At $5, I had to have it!

Inside, there are there are 28 thick cardstock pages that detail fashions for men, women, and male and female children in chronolgical order from earliest to latest fashion, starting with the Roman Empire (27 BC to 467 AD), then the Middle Ages (500-1500), the Fifteenth Century/Early Renaissance, Sixteenth Century/High Renaissance, Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, 1901-1920, the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s-50s (combined), and the 1960s.

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Besides the illustrations, each category included a generously-sized foldout describing the changes in fashion and society during the era. Along the edges of the pages are additional fashion tidbits, like hairstyles, hats, and other information not included on the main feature of the book: the flip-up clothing layers.

Each figure has at least one fancy flip up/open/down piece that reveals information about the layer. For example, the “1635” man’s doublet/coat folds open to reveal his shirt beneath and a brief description of it:

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And the “1750s” woman has a layer for her gown and a separate one for her petticoats which both lift to reveal her shift, stays, and panniers underneath:

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The adults clothing has more details than the children’s clothing, but the children’s clothing flip-ups do contain bits of information about popular children’s clothing colors and fabrics.

That’s the basic description of the book. Now, for the review!

This such a cool idea! I love the illustrations and the discovery with each turn of the page and lift of a flap. Children and adults alike are curious about the “weird” clothing our ancestors used to wear and this book is a fun way to explore the basics without feeling like an intruder (how many times have you as a reenactor, cosplayer, costumer, or vintage-lover faced that awkward question or unwelcome groping hand?). The basics are all contained in this book, so it acts as a jumping off point for multiple eras without the intimidating immensity of a fashion encyclopedia.

The illustrations are well-balanced with the double-sided flaps containing the detailed text portion so it’s neither too child-like nor too text-heavy. The colors are well-thought-out and suit the general mood of the chosen eras (lighter colors for Rococo, earthy colors for the Middle Ages, and, of course, bright primary colors for the 1960s).

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There are a few places where I was disappointed, however. The sections, especially for the earlier fashions, are very broad– some covering 500 years or more! I admit that I am not a scholar of the nuances of these earlier eras, so I am not as disgruntled as, say, an expert in the 1340s would be. For example, the Tudor era (1485-1558) is almost entirely skipped, save for Elizabeth I’s reign.

I can excuse some generalizations because this is designed as a children’s book meant to present the very basics of fashion history in an entertaining and quick manner. In a world when most folks know Medieval fashion only from the Lord of the Rings movies, learning even the most basic real Medieval fashion concepts can be confusing to a beginner. The layers and undergarments, which is the main purpose of this book’s illustrations, are all pretty well-covered (ha ha!) despite the broad time swathes. For the most part, petticoats, garters, stockings, stays, and shifts are introduced in the eras they should be.

There was one era, though, which I thought was done a huge disservice: the 19th Century.

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Since this is a book about layers and showcasing the mysterious underwear worn beneath them, it would seem natural to include the many different types of undergarments in the 19th century. It was, after all, probably the most exciting, underwear-centric time in history! There were the short Regency stays and slips, the long stays and crazy-huge sleeve-puffers of the 1830s, the steel-busked corsets and hoop skirts in the 1850s and 1860s, the advent of the bustle in the 1870s and its construction ingenuity in the 1880s!

bustle centaur

Were they centaurs? They must have been centaurs.

Yet, the book dedicates only one section to the entire century and only illustrates the 1810s at the very beginning and the 1850s in the middle– with no children’s outfits to boot! So many shapes that I was bewildered by as a curious child (and even as an adult) are skipped over. The bustle is relegated to a few notes in the top right corner. I would not be as disappointed if the 20th Century decades weren’t given their own sections and illustrations despite the relatively uneventful underwear and layers involved. The 20th Century pages have fewer flaps, and there is little change to the undergarments after the 1920s. The most exciting bit is probably the corset and bullet bra on the 1940s/50s woman:

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The copy of the book I bought was preowned, but despite that, many of the flaps in the later eras had never been touched even though the flaps of the earlier styles, particularly the Roman, Medieval, and Victorian eras, were more “worn in” from use. Whatever person(s) had the book before me was clearly less interested by the modern era! The underpinnings of the 1400s were far more mysterious than the 1940s, at least in this case. In a few decades, perhaps the 20th Century sections will seem more exciting since they will be more distant from the now.

With that said, this book is all about layers and undergarments, so you are literally undressing the illustrations layer by layer down to their skivvies. Some folks might not be particularly comfortable with this, especially since the Middle Ages allows you to see under the lady’s chemise to see her stockings and she’s nude (of course) underneath:

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The illustration is not heavily detailed, but she does have curves denoting her breasts, a little belly button, and the tiniest V where are thighs meet her trunk. Being nude under her shift is historically accurate, but you can easily paste down her shift to make her more modest if you are concerned about it. The children’s layers are not as detailed, so they don’t go down that far and neither do most of the men’s outfits, though the 1960s keeps the playing field even:

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The fashions are Euro/Anglocentric (the author worked for the Victoria and Albert Museum), some of the terms are out of date (the book was written in 1998), the corset/stays/bodies information retains a slightly sensationalized tone, and the 1590s woman is wearing inaccurate pantaloons, but at that point, I’m letting my current knowledge outpace the level this book is intended for.

According to Amazon, this book is for ages 5-7 years, but I believe that’s way too young for this book: not because of the revealing nature of it (the whole point of the book is to reveal the hidden parts of fashion), but because this book has a lot of text and details that a younger child might not appreciate. However, for a 7-14 year old, this book would be a really fun, informative introduction to the world of historical fashion! I would have loved a book like this as a tween and I still appreciate it even though I no longer need it. For $5 or even $15, this book would make a great gift to a budding historical fashionista. The quality of the book itself is very high (great paper, wonderful layout, etc.) and it will answer many questions, prompt new questions, and encourage further research.

Overall rating:

Great fun for a fashion history newbie!

Elsa Schiaparelli’s Wonderland: Fantastic Fashions of the Late 1930s and Early 1940s

A Designer of Dreams

Elsa Schiaparelli Butterfly Evening dress, circa 1937
With a matching parasol!

The iconic Elsa Schiaparelli butterfly dress is the perfect introduction to one of the most ingenious designers of the 20th century. Elsa was a butterfly herself: a metamorphosis out of the fashion conventions of the past and into a new, colorful world of her own fearless design.

Elsa Schiaparelli Seed Packet Dress, circa 1939-41

Elsa’s designs are playful. Always one to lighten the mood, Elsa’s collections often have distinct themes, often involving butterflies, mythology, the zodiac, and natural curiosities.

Elsa Schiaparelli Evening Dress with Plastic Flowers, circa 1938

The flowers adorning this dress are made of plastic. Elsa embraced new materials and loved to play with texture.

Elsa Schiaparelli Musical Evening Dress, circa 1939

This lyrical creation was worn by Millicent Rogers who was a big admirer of Schiaparelli’s imaginative fashions. Besides the bright musical notes applied to the dress itself, the belt buckle provided more music from a working music box built inside. Elsa’s belts are some of my favorite pieces. They are cheeky and very modern looking. Many of them would still be considered on the cutting edge of fashion today.

Elsa Schiaparelli Sequined Evening Blouse, circa 1938-39

Feeling a little bit of a 1980s flashback coming on? Elsa’s brilliant and over-the-top fashion designs featured padded shoulders, layers of embellishment, and the decorative use of zippers, studs, and buckles 50 years before “Power Dressing” for women became fashionable; she was like the Vivian Westwood of the 1930s and 1940s! Her fashions were considered quite daring–shocking even–and she collaborated with many surreal and dadaist artists throughout her career. For example, she collaborated with Salvador Dali to create the Circus Collection, which even by modern standards is considered avant-garde.

Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí Skeleton Dress, circa 1938

Elsa Schiaparelli Clasped Hands Belt, circa 1934

Elsa Schiaparelli High Heel Hat, circa 1937-38

Elsa played both sides of the fashion card: she would design swoon-worthy, romantic pieces, then mix in pieces with modernist angles and experimental shapes. Many people would find this seesaw rather jarring, but Elsa always struck a balance between old and new. She enjoyed change and was always looking for the next fashion adventure without abandoning what she already knew was beautiful.

Two Schiaparelli Pieces from the same Year and Season:

Elsa Schiaparelli Ivy Necklace, fall 1938

Elsa Schiaparelli Rhodoid Insect Necklace, fall 1938

What is truly wonderful about Elsa’s designs, however, is that as couture and over-the-top they are, they are still wearable. She doesn’t reach so far into surreality that function disappears. Many of her pieces would still be considered chic–even comfortable–by the women of today.

Elsa Schiaparelli Sweater, circa 1932-38

Elsa Schiaparelli Taurus Belt, circa 1938

Elsa Schiaparelli Jacket for Millicent Rogers, circa 1938-39

Sadly, the austerity of 1940s wartime and post-war fashion did not meld well with Elsa’s vision and she closed her fashion house in 1954 as Christian Dior’s “New Look” became the favored style. However, the beauty of her work has not diminished and her collections continue to inspire fashion designers, costumers, and artists around the globe.

Costume Cheats: Simple Vintage Hairstyle

My hair doesn’t curl at all, so making 1940s and 1950s rolls used to be impossible. This little trick makes them much easier!
Materials:
Paper tissue tube
Bobby pins
Headscarf

Step 1: Gather up the front of your hair by parting it about 1/2 way back. I just use my fingers to gather up enough hair to make a good curl, but a rattail comb is really helpful if you want 100% clean lines. The headscarf will cover the part lines anyway! The rest of the hair becomes a simple bun.

Step 2: Cut a slit in the tube. I made mine a boxy cut, but for thinner hair, a slit from one of the ends to the middle works well. Have trouble getting the hair tucked into the tube? Dampen the ends of your hair and they’ll behave much better! For a shorter curl, trim the ends of the tube.

Step 3: Roll it up! Bobby pin your hair to the tube if it wants to unravel.

Step 4: Bobby pin it down. This is where you can determine the shape and placement of your roll: front and center, left side, right side, high, or low. You can also press the tissue tube down for a less poofy roll.

Step 5: Tie your headscarf around your head. You can tie it at the top or bottom: your choice!

That’s it! You’re done!

With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes

How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes

An Outdated, Incorrect Diagram of a Corset's Effect

We’ve all heard the horror stories and seen the illustrations of how our corsets supposedly squish our bodies, but what about the ways in which they affect our appearance?

A corset’s most obvious effect is the reduction of the waist. The amount of reduction today’s fetish corsets achieve (up to 10″) is actually far past the historical norm even if the proportions are not. For example, “The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement,” a study preformed by Robert L. Dickinson for The New York Medical Journal in 1887, sought to calculate the force of the pressure exerted on the body by the average corset and that pressure’s effect on the health of the wearer. It is an excellent article with lots of numbers for those of you who, like me, like to know a bit more about the math and science side of history!

In his study, Dr. Robert Dickinson states that, “Six inches difference between the circumference of the waist over the corset and the waist with the corset removed is the greatest difference I have measured. Five and a half and five I have met with once each. The least difference is in those cases where the measurement with and without is the same. The average contraction of the 52 cases given in the table is 2½ inches. The maximum there is 4½ inches, the minimum 1 inch.”

Note that the doctor encountered cases in which the with and without corset measurements were the same. How can that be? If  you aren’t reducing your waist measurement, why bother wearing a corset at all?

Measurements without a corset (left): 36″ x 28″ x 35″
Measurements with a corset (right): 35″ x 28″ x 35″

The photo above shows me in the same dress without and with a corset. Notice how much more smoothly my dress fits with a corset and how the bust is higher and slightly reduced, yet my waist measurement remained constant. The corset not only adds its own thickness, but rounds out the waist, a subtle, yet important factor to consider.

The oval on the left is a cross section of a 36 inch waist without a corset and the one on the right is taken in 3 inches with a corset. The shapes are to scale (remember: slight math nerd).

For many people, the human body looks skinnier from a side angle than from the front. The corset draws in the sides of the body, thinning the front view while making the waist more circular and increasing the thickness of the body. So I look smaller from the front even though my actual size hasn’t changed.

So why did/do we wear corsets? The answer lies in that fact that corsets act as more than just a measurement reducer. In fact, there are other effects a corset has on the figure that are just as important as its waist reducing properties, especially when it comes to determining historical health and beauty ideals.

Before and After, Spencer Corset Ad from 1941
Pre-20th century ladies aren’t the only ones who benefit from steel and whalebone. Until the 1970s, girdles were still essential for girls to get the nip and lift they needed.

One of the major features of a corset aside from its reduction capabilities is its rigidity and support. Further into his report, Dr. Dickinson mentions that one of the participants in his study only wears a corset to go out and works without a corset at home. He notes that because of this, her abdominal muscles have remained strong while other ladies, whose muscles have the corset to do the work for them, have weak “paunchy” abs (which I have gained even without wearing a corset. *sigh*).

The nudes of the era that feature soft, doughy forms were appreciated because most of the women, once freed from their corsets, sprang back to their natural size, but with soft bellies and low, fleshy hips. Today we consider tight, toned bodies sensual and untoned bodies casual, quite the opposite of yesteryear. However, if we looked toned everyday in society and kept our natural jiggle hidden except in the most intimate of settings, our ideas of sensuality might also reverse.

“Nana” by Edouard Manet, 1887

In a world without underwires and Spanx, the female body would quickly succumb to gravity. One of the main functions of a corset is to support the breasts. If you are like me and have boobs much too large for your frame, you know the hazards of going braless: stretch marks, painful jiggle, and general sag. It’s not fun; it’s not pretty; and the darn things can get in your way! A corset holds them up and back, like a levee lest those girlies runneth over while you’re doing laundry, cooking, or being jolted around by a runaway quarterhorse. It also provides shape to the chest which is more telling of an era’s trends than the size of the waist reduction. Thus we get Regency’s high breasts; the Romantic period’s large, wide breasts; the soft, rounded Civil War breasts, the high mono-boob of the bustle era, and the pendulous pigeon-breasts of the Edwardian era. Most misconceptions about frumpy 19th century fashions come from trying to wear the styles without the right foundation garment. A late Victorian gown just isn’t the same without its corset companion.

Besides its effect on the natural state of the body, the corset had an equally vital role in fashion development. Without it, none of the fashionable trends we’ve come to love would be possible. Again in his report, Dr. Dickinson describes what happens when a woman tries to wear the popular fashions from 1887:

“In the woman who wears no corsets the many layers of bands about the waist on which heavy skirts drag are sufficient to cause considerable constriction” – Dr. Robert Dickinson

A corset is essential…ESSENTIAL…to wearing any period gown not only to achieve the desired silhouette, but because some historical dresses are HEAVY. I have a simple 1870s wool gown with no extra buttons, beading, or trims besides a plaid capelet. There are the obligatory bones inside the bodice to further support the shape and all told, the thing weighs 6 pounds 5 ounces. That’s without the cage, petticoat, slip, and underskirt. If it had all the bells and whistles of high fashion like draping fringe, bows, and miles of ruffles, the weight increases dramatically– up to 15 or 16 pounds! Other styles, like the mounds of petticoats from the 1850s, would actually bruise your hips from the weight. A corset offers protection from the weight of a gown in addition to giving the fabric the smooth support it needs to keep from straining and sagging.

Court Dress, circa 1775
 An 18th century silhouette relies on stays to give the torso a cone shape and to flatten the front of the bust upward.

The corset is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing pieces of clothing ever devised. It is both functional and fascinating, crossing the realm between necessity and vanity. The daily fashions of the 2010s rely on exercise, good genes, and diet to achieve our ideal body shape, but the corset still lingers in spite of the changing times. Will it ever leave us?  Well, with the ability to give me a neatly defined waist where otherwise I have none, I don’t think my spiral steels will be leaving my closet anytime soon!

Happy Costuming! :)

For even more information about corsets and how they physically affect your body, I highly recommend visiting Lucy’s Corsetry. She is considered one of the leading authorities on modern corsetry and discusses everything from medical issues and myths to making your own!

WWII Red Cross and Army Uniform Exhibit

At the Texas Tech Museum

My dear Christopher is in the final stretch of earning his Master’s degree in Mass Comm from Texas Tech in Lubbock, TX. Since I currently live and work in New Mexico, that means that we are an infinite 3 hours apart except for rare weekends when one of us can drive over to meet the other. On a recent trip, Chris told me that the Red Cross (with whom he is currently interning) had a World War II exhibit up at the university museum that I might enjoy. Might enjoy?! There is no might, only yes, of course I’ll enjoy it!

The exhibit included service uniforms as well as nurses uniforms. I’m a sucker for uniforms, both for ladies and gents. Everyone looks so dapper in well-fitted, matching outfits! I hadn’t brought along my camera (darn!), so pardon the graininess of my cell phone camera.The exhibit was amazingly well put together and all the uniforms were close enough to see clearly (there was no glass), but not touch (sadly).

I have an old 101st Air Force uniform, but it’s a man’s cut and doesn’t really fit. I didn’t know that ladies had very similar uniforms, complete with gorgeous wide lapels. I really, really want one now even though I feel a little weird wearing such things. I always feel like I’m cheating somehow, like I never EARNED it.

If you’re in the Lubbock area, I highly recommend visiting the museum. The building is enormous, multimedia, and the exhibits are constantly fresh!

Late to the Ball: An Antique Dress Find

1930s/1940s Party Dress

I am addicted to ebay. Seriously. It’s a giant, perpetual estate sale that knows no borders! My latest treasure? This 75 year old party gown– snatched up for only $45! It’s bias-cut (my favorite!) and has sleeves that would make the 1890s proud! The little flower pattern is flocked and most of the seams are tight, but the red and lavender flowers will need to be pressed and there is obvious fading. It’s also missing one button, so there is a little work to be done. I hope to get it all fixed soon and have better photos of it for you later– more projects to add to my to-do list!

Now if only there were time machines so I could go back to high school and wear this to prom. I think I would have had much more fun!