Tuesday, January 19, 2010



By Polly Guerin, the Fashion Historian

This may come as a surprise to any bride-to-be, but historically June brides did not wear white wedding gowns. Pioneer women probably wore their made-do calico's, and adventurous women who helped to settle the West chose whatever finery was available. Brides up to the 19th century merely regarded the wedding gown with practicality. Museum costume collections attest to the fact that many surviving wedding gowns, worn by women through the Victorian era, were not angelic white, but merely the owner’s Sunday best in colors like mauve, green and deep burgundy. These brides probably referred to Godey's Lady’s Book, for the most fashionable advice at that time, and had a dressmaker reproduce the latest Parisian gown.
During The romantic Victorian era “love” and “marriage” were the key words in the language of a young woman’s desire to succeed in a successful alliance and to become engaged. In her diary, Sarah Elizabeth Jewett, an American writer of the era wrote these sentiments, “Oh, will Heaven grant I may love and be loved someday. Then I shall be engaged.” The print makers Currier & Ives further abetted the romantic influence with framed scrolls featuring period themes such as “The Declaration” and “The Wedding Day.”
It was truly the Age of Innocence, and marriage was the ultimate solution and highly regarded as the pinnacle of a bride’s finest achievement. The focus on marriage and wedding attire was also a strong theme in women’s literature. In fact, in 1886 Godey’s Lady’s Book editor, Sarah Josepha hale, insisted that blue and brown were still both popular and stylish for weddings. Perhaps taking a cue from Hale, America’s first fashion editor, Andrew Carnegie’s bride wore a gown in tones of gray and brown.
The incarnation of the white bridal gown with flowing veil, emerged as the quintessential wedding attire during Queen Victoria’s reign. In previous historical periods royal weddings favored velvet and ermine, but Queen Victoria quite outraged the Royals at the time when she changed the standard to a white wedding gown. Women obsessed with propriety chose white not only to emulate Victoria but also as a symbol of virginity. Her influence was so widespread that in an attempt to support England’s declining lace industry, when she married Prince Albert in 1840, her wedding dress was designed with Honiton lace. Always a sentimentalist and consummate journal writer, Queen Victoria commemorated her marriage with the following entry, “I wore a white satin gown with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, imitation of old. (Meaning an old lace design) I wore my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings, and Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.”
Countess Eugenie, the legendary devotee of the styles of France’s first couturier, Charles Frederick Worth, originated yet another tradition. On the occasion of her marriage to Napoleon III, she instructed her hairdresser to fashion her coiffure and the crown with a wreath of orange blossoms, a symbol associated with fertility. Brides quickly picked up the idea and orange blossoms became part of the headdress for many brides. By the 1870s the long and diaphanous wedding veil in clouds of tulle or sheer lace, created an aura of mystery and enchantment, and became a fixture of wedding dress etiquette.
In America headlines were made the first time a president was married in the White House. In 1886 Frances Folsom married Grover Cleveland in the Blue Room wearing a white gown with a 12-foot illusion lace train. The extravagant sweep of the train reflects the advent of the machine age as it was decorated with machine-embroidered cotton net lace.
In consideration for certain restraints brought about by major wars, brides again went back to bridal practicality by wearing their Sunday best. Patriotic in spirit in 1868 Amelia Jane Charley wore a gray wedding dress to honor the dead at Parkersburg, W.V. During World War I, wedding fashion came to a standstill and brides made do wearing refurbished gowns that had been worn by their mother.
The roaring 20’s saw the raciest of styles. The flapper bride liberated with short hair wore a shorter skirt and danced the Charleston at her wedding. The good times were gone with the advent of the Great Depression in 1929 and only the very rich could afford the traditional wedding gown, its contingent of bridesmaids and ushers. However, for the shop girl and secretary hand-me-down wedding gowns were popular again.
World WAR II brought an era of wartime austerity, and with the shortage of satin and lace fabrics, brides exhibited their patriotism by wearing a suit or their Sunday best, very much like the pioneer women.
In 1947, when war-forced restrictions were eliminated, Dior brought out the “New Look” featuring yards of fabric in a voluminous ankle-length skirt, nipped waist and a narrow-shoulder jacket. It was a fashion revolution of sorts, a throwback to Victorian crinoline silhouette, but women starved for something “New” embraced it for its return to femininity.
The whole business of a purchasing a wedding dress and the staging the wedding itself has reached to the height of monumental preparation. In January modern brides must have finalized their wedding gown choice because it requires lead time to create the made-to-order gown in time for a June wedding. Less expensive a proposition is to visit a bridal retailer where a sea of white ready-made, off the rack gowns awaits selection. This can be a somewhat intimidating task. One young woman I know, who was on a limited budget, was confronted by over 500 gowns only to find three that she actually considered. Fortunately bridal manufacturers today create both historically influenced styles and evening gown versions to suit the tastes of the modern woman, not only in white but in jewel tones and even black.
Remember Jezebel when Betty Davis wore a red gown to the White Ball in New Orleans. Well, I declare the red wedding gown is already here. Other cultures also prefer red. In northern India, for example, brides wear red and yellow to ward off demons. All this makes a dramatic departure from puritan white, but like Queen Victoria, Red gives today’s bride an opportunity to make a unique fashion statement.One interesting tidbit. The 1937 film, "The Bride Wore Red,"Joan Crawford portrays a chorus girl who crashes an exclusive Swiss resort to snare a rich husband.

Friday, January 15, 2010


By Polly Guerin, The Fashion Historian
Nowadays on the fashionable streets of major cities the thin, gravity-defying Stiletto Heel seems to have ensnared more fashion victims than any other footwear style. Yes, they are sexy but difficult to walk in and most importantly they throw the body off balance, and can cause other foot problems. Yet despite this fact countless women insist on spending big bucks to point their way to fashion.
History seems to repeat itself and so it is in fashion footwear. You no doubt remember how women in ancient China insisted on binding their feet to emulate the royal prerogative, but this rendered them incapable of walking . It’s alright, I guess, if you’re a royal and can be transported about by servants, but obviously this privilege was not available to an average peasant woman. As for platform footwear Carmen Miranda may have popularized this style but clog versions also go back to ancient China as well as adaptations of platform shoes as early as 1640. Throughout the ages people have been dying to follow whims of fashion and the footwear became an indispensable accessory.
Until man invented footwear, he walked. That’s it barefoot! The invention of footwear was the first step forward in devising protection for the feet. The sandal is perhaps the oldest creation and has its incarnation as far back as the Egyptians and evolved in modern times as the flipflop. Jeweled sandals worn by the privileged few in the early Roman Empire were decorated with priceless gemstones and pearls. However, one could not exist by the sandal alone and eventually different styles were needed as transportation. Footwear back then identified with one’s lifestyle or work and did not come in a right and left configuration. They were just one size fits all. If you were a member of the wealthy class or a member of the court, however, you could have your servant wear the shoes for a while so that they could break them in for you. And did you know that in the 15th century women of fashion privilege and dandies outdid the pointed vamp on their boots. The point became such a projectile that a gold cord had to be extended from the point to the top of their boot so that they could walk.
The French took the shoe and boot into further decoration with lace trimmed cuffs in the 17th century and the Cuban heel painted red was a style reserved for the king. The wealthy classes in Europe wore shoes in which the uppers were made in the rich brocades of the Orient, and from the looms of Venice and Genoa. Defying the mud and filth in the medieval cities it was essential to wear shoes with stilt-like pattens of wood to elevate the foot and increase the wearer’s height or aid them in walking through the filthy streets. These practical stilt-like platforms were popular footwear and worn right down to Colonial America. During the Empire period in France women opted to imitate the Greek and Roman fashions and wore such diaphanous garments that only a delicate slipper could accommodate such attire. Costly to make and fragile these slippers did not last more than one night on the dance floor. Sadly, too, fashion victims who wore these sheer gowns in frigid weather didn’t survived either.
Footwear was one of the great industrial arts in the Middle Ages and bore a distinction of service with pride and production of a specific nature. Leather tanners, boot, shoemakers and cobblers were organized into guilds and each guild had it own armorial insignia attesting to the quality of their trade. Interesting, is it not, that the same tools used in the production of handmade shoes today are the same type of tools used in Europe in the l8th century? Handcrafted leather shoes or custom made shoes are an expensive rarity. Today, however, most shoes today combine machine production with some handmade features. Herman Delman, of Delman Shoe fame, who specialized in building shoes that were chic, yet comfortable believed that skilled construction was essential to the creation of a quality shoe. He employed several notable designers over the years, including Roger Vivier, Herbert Levine, and Kenneth jay Lane as a means shaping the tastes of fashionable women across the country. An extrovert and proficient businessman Delman knew the power of educating the viewing public about handcrafted shoes. At one time Delman store on Madison Avenue featured an oval window showcasing three cobblers at work. “Scandal Sandals and Lady Slippers: A History of Delman Shoes, exploring the company’s vibrant history of style, advertising and fine craftsmanship will be on view at The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology, March 9th through April 4th. Free Admission.

Monday, January 4, 2010


By Polly Guerin, the Fashion Historian

Functional, flirtatious and designed with mysterious compartments, vanity cases that go by the collective name “compacts” were an essential part of a chic woman’s equipment in the 1920s to the 1950s, and for those nostalgic collectors among us they are having a comeback. These little gems of personal deportment reflect on a time when liberated women needed to transport their cosmetic essentials discreetly encased in a glamorous container that was part a jewel of an accessory that also served a functional purpose. Prior to the birth of compacts a refined woman had to ingeniously conceal her cosmetics.
Since “makeup” in the early 1900s was considered daring and perhaps not-quite-respectable, early compacts were sometimes disguised as lockets or lapel pins or hidden in the top of hatpins, umbrellas, or walking sticks. With the advent of World War I a massive change took place. As more and more women were working outside the home they no longer had the pleasure or time to linger at the dressing-table mirror. Convenience and practicality ruled the day and the compact became a woman’s necessity. More social freedom spread throughout the women’s movement with the liberated woman at the wheel of an automobile, smoking, dancing and attending movie and nightclub entertainments. The high flying flappers personified the age of rebellion and vividly made-up actresses became style icons. In the roaring 20s and 30s compacts went public and were very much on display.
They were made of sterling silver other simulated gold or silver metals, plastics like Bakelite and even wood and most often jeweled or embellished with initials or designs. Small compartments for rouge, powder, lipstick and mascara, and even secret a compartment for love letters were ingeniously squeezed into the small spaces. Some were equipped with wrist chains which made it easier to carry them. A vanity often substituted for a handbag, especially for dressy occasions. In 1925 International Sterling took a half-page advertisement in Vogue to promote their newest solid-silver vanity case. Described by their overzealous copyrighter: ‘ “Stunniest of vanities!” exclaims mademoiselle when she beholds this newest creation. So slim! And of solid silver!...She opens the case! It holds the very newest combination. A compartment for rouge! And then…another compartment with another mirror for her own choice of loose powder! A clever sifter device dusts the power out, just as mademoiselle wants it.’
Manufacturers kept coming up with new gimmicks to attract new converts to compacts.Vogue described a new one as being ‘made of black metal, with a single bright line of color at the top and a smart marcasite motif.’ The vanity contained rouge, powder, lipstick, and mirror, as well as allowing space for cigarettes. Consider this extract from an advertisement for the Trejur, Queen of Compacts, 1924. “Powder, Rouge and Lip-stick Complete! A case as lovely as a gem. It opens at the touch! Inside---a full size mirror and powder of true quality, scented seductively with Joli Memoire. Below—a drawer which yields to a magic touch, revealing the best of rouge and lip-stick! In your bag—securely closed; in your hand—three swift allies to fresh charm. $1.25.” Lucille Buhl’s cosmetic gimmick was doubles—a face powder box containing two drawers of powder, one for day and one for evening.
Eventually compacts were combined with watches, cameras, cigarette lighters, embellished with floral designs, personalized with initials, phone numbers and even photographs. My prized possession among compacts I have collected is a little black enamel shell shaped compact etched in gold with a 2 x 2” small watch inside, whose face can be viewed though on opening on the cover. Inside reveals a place for rouge and powder with the replacement inscription: “send 25c and shade desired to Elgina, 358 Fifth Ave, New York City. Another charmer I own is a chic 3 x 5” silver and black enamel compact, the cover incised with a floral bow. Inside it is attributed to Kathleen Mary Quinlin and features a compartment with the remains of ruby red lipstick, strawberry pink rouge, the power puff inscribed with the name Quinlin, this divided by a 2 sided mirror with creamy white powder and Quinlin puff. I wonder what flapper once owned this little gem for it seems to be missing its chain for easy portage but must have seen many entertainments in the jazz age.
With the advent of WWII many famed compact makers converted to manufacturing shell cases. It wasn’t the total demise of the compact because fashion-conscious women could scoop up military-themed novelty compacts embellished with flags, anchor, officer’s hats and service insignia. One such compact that I cherish is a gold metal compact with royal blue enamel and in the center of the blue cover sits a miniature white enamel life preserver and gold anchor. Despite its chipped condition I love to use it with my summer outfits. By the 1950s, compacts were taking a setback. For one thing, the powder, once an important cosmetic item, was replaced by cream or liquid makeup that wasn’t easily carried or applied in public. In response to this cosmetic makers produced solid makeup which was sold in its own plastic container, further abetting the demise of a beautiful compact. In an effort to generate sales, cosmetic makers came up with small compact collectibles in beautiful animal or floral shapes, which contained only one item, a solid perfume or solid powder. They were a sort of gift with purchase idea.
The golden age of compacts may have ended, but there is avid interest in these little gems. So much interest in collectible compacts that I was able to sell on the Internet a particularly handsome Italian enamel case displaying a decorative engine-turned picturesque design coated with translucent colored enamel. Both Sotheby’s and Doyle New York have conducted auctions in which signed Tiffany and Cartier gold or gem-set compacts hit the hammer at prices from $2,000 to $7,000. If this feature has perked your interest the Internet is loaded with information. One popular site is the Compact Collectors Club www.lady-a.com/antiques/COMPCLUB.html.

Bio: Polly Guerin honed her skills as an Accessories Editor at the trade fashion bible, Women’s Wear Daily and later taught product knowledge as professor at The Fashion Institute of Technology, where her definitive textbook and video production, Creative Fashion Presentations, is used even today. In 2009 she was a vice-president of RWA/NYC and currently serves as a board liaison. Visit her at www.pollytalk.com