Sailor suits for little boys were the first democratic fashion – easy to make and easy to wear, with no stiff collars or fussy fastenings. They were mass-produced in British factories from 1870 onwards, and became the default outfit for boys starting school. There were washable cotton versions for seaside holidays – and fancy velvet ones with lace trim for party wear. Clothing manufacturers loved the fact that there was a constant demand for them – and issued new versions every year with slightly different trim. Mothers loved the fact that the baggy tops gave room for growth, and could be worn over layers in winter. Small boys dreamed of having a version with a cap and a whistle like a real sailor – while older boys saw sailor suits as childish, suited only for Infants School.
E tautz at London Fashion week 2014
The E Tautz catwalk at the 2014 London Men’s Fashion week showcased embroidered embellishments by students at the Royal school of Needlework. Following the theme of the ‘Rake’s Progress’, embroidered motifs were left unfinished and distressed, to give the impression of precious garments that were relics of former prosperity. A real-life ‘Rake’s Progress’ can be traced in Henry Cyril Paget (1875- 1905), the 5th Marquess of Anglesey. His love of extravagant entertainments bankrupted him in 1904, with debts of half a million pounds – only five years of his income, at a time when many families were living on £100 a year. Paget’s possessions were sold to pay his creditors – some of his suits were purchased by Vesta Tilley, a music-hall male impersonator who appeared as ‘Burlington Bertie’. An Art Nouveau embroidered waistcoat, probably designed especially for Paget, was bought by his friend Miss Emilie Grigsby and later presented to the V&A.
Creed waistcoat for henry Paget, c1900 V&A t.177-1967
Pincushion made by a soldier c1875-1900, Goldsmiths' College, University of London
At the time of year when we remember those lost in wars, it’s particularly moving to see craft objects made by soldiers on active service. There is a long tradition of handicrafts made by soldiers and sailors from scraps of fabric or items at hand like shells (both the marine variety and munitions casings). Sometimes these were for sale, like the carvings done by sailors. Most interesting, however, is the large number of pieces made to send home to loved ones, often incorporating images or messages from the maker. Pincushions were pieced together from a patchwork of uniform fabrics, decorated with beads, sequins, and ribbons, then sent home ‘For Mother’ – as they tell us in beaded lettering. This example, from the collections of Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, makes a direct appeal: ‘Forget me Not’.
Tennis apron, from 'Madame Schild' Shilling Dress Patterns', Issue 7, 1889 (British Library)
Given the recent triumph by Andy Murray at the Wimbledon championships, tennis may be about to have a resurgence of interest – not before time. Lawn Tennis (so called because it was played outside, unlike ‘real’ or ‘royal’ tennis, played in a specially constructed room) has a long history in Britain, but not for the reasons we might expect. In the 1870s it became popular as an upper-class diversion, played on the lawns of large country houses. It was one of the few sports acceptable for young ladies (other than horse riding, which was much more expensive) and ‘tennis parties’ provided a welcome opportunity for young people to socialise relatively informally. Not surprisingly, ladies’ tennis clothing was chosen for its smartness as much as for its practicality; dress sleeves were so tight that it was impossible to serve underarm, and corsets and hats were de rigueur. One concession to sportswear was the ‘tennis apron’ which protected the front of the dress from grass stains and abrasion, usually made with a large pocket on the front for storing tennis balls. Patterns to make these at home started to appear around 1878.
For American Independence day, a reminder that in the past there was a strong export market for British goods in the USA. The Stationers’ Hall documents at The National Archives, London, contain thousands of ‘piece goods’ labels – brightly coloured stickers attached to fabric yardage as a form of branding. These were designed and copyrighted in Britain for use with British cotton textiles. Each label is customised for a specific retailer or a specific market (although the textiles themselves were not so varied) and they present a microcosm of the places where British cotton was sold: China, Burma, Egypt, India, West Africa… In 1911-12 many of the labels refer to the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary – including one that pairs George with his American namesake George Washington. This was commissioned by A Lascelles of New York to sell Lasco prints, presumably in the U.S.A.
Copy 1 320-67843 1912 George V and George Washington
Dinner dress by Boue Soeurs, 1900
At the time of year when all the Fashion and Textile courses are exhibiting graduates’ work, it’s good to think about the history of fashion promotion. One of the major attractions of the international exhibitions held around the world from 1851 onwards was the opportunity to view new styles in dress – worn by the illustrious ladies and gentlemen at the opening ceremonies, on the bodies of the international visitors, and in the displays. At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 there was a whole building devoted to fashion, sponsored by the Collectivite de la Couture, the trade body of Paris Haute Couture. This contained large vitrines with staged scenes inhabited by figures with realistic wax heads – some of them portraits of the designers themselves. Visitors could linger over the details of elaborate toilettes for the ballroom or for presentation at Court – garments that would normally only be seen by those present at these exclusive events, or by those involved in the making. For those unable to visit, there were many illustrated review articles and guidebooks, including a lavish volume with hand-coloured illustrations of dresses from the Collectivite.
Primula Auricula 'Clouded Yellow', from http://auriculasuite.net/the-flowers/\
The arrival of the English spring (slightly delayed) reminds us how much flowers of all kinds were appreciated in the past for their ephemeral beauty. Keen gardeners would invest significant resources in fostering delicate plants, building walled gardens and even ‘theatres’ to shelter and display prized blooms. Plant breeding was a form of science open to all – and still is, with new varieties of tulips, auriculas and roses developed every year. The forms of flowers most appreciated in the past can be seen on luxurious textiles and ceramics, which offer permanent reminders of a fragile beauty.
Man's silk waistcoat, professionally embroidered in Lyon c1760 V&A 1571-1904
Yinka Shonibare, 'The Last Supper after Leonardo', installed at Stephen Friedman Gallery London
A recent exhibition by the Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare prompted some reflections on the relationship between medium and artwork, and between concept and execution, in contemporary art. Shonibare uses ‘wax print’ textiles, manufactured in Europe for consumers in West Africa using South Asian technology, to create installations that critique the power relationships of colonialism. His latest pieces incorporate specially commissioned textiles printed with symbols of international currency such as the Yen and the Dollar. However this is not immediately apparent as textiles for the West African market draw on a wide range of imagery, including symbols that reflect consumer familiarity with global brands.
This point is made explicit by another work featured in this show, ‘Bling Painting’, which revisits Shonibare’s earlier work ‘Sun, Sea and Sand’, a series of discs or platters covered with wax print motifs. In this version the discs are surrounded by rays or spokes topped with sequinned miniatures of Western consumer products, from designer logos, to handbags, to AK47 rifles and the mercenary soldiers who wield them. The disconnection between the glitzy designer logos and the bold textile motifs raises questions about modern African culture which are not easy to answer.
Yinka Shonibare, 'Bling Painting' (detail), Stephen Friedman Gallery London 2013
Magazine pattern sheet, 1860
I was a consultant for the Great British Sewing Bee on BBC2, talking about early dressmaking patterns. Although we know these were on sale from the 1860s, very few tissue paper originals survive. It’s even difficult to find copies of the magazines that advertised them – but those I have seen in the British Library and elsewhere suggest that there was a real demand for patterns, with several British companies selling them in the 1870s. What do survive are pattern sheets published as part of magazines such as The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. These are frighteningly complex, with up to twenty different patterns printed on the same sheet using different types of lines. The dressmaker had to trace off the pieces, adjust them to the right size, and add seam allowances before cutting out. The magazines also advertised tissue paper patterns, cut to the correct size and tacked together to show the shape. One wonders how many magazine readers tried these patterns once and vowed to leave dressmaking to the professionals after that…
'Marie Antoinette' fichu to be made from the pattern sheet
'Ladies Sewing Circle' t-shirt puchased in New York, 1981
Recently I attended the launch for Stephanie Talbot’s book, Slogan T-Shirts, Cult and Culture. It was a starry event, with fashion designers rubbing shoulders with journalists, bloggers and DJs. The book itself is a fascinating examination of the different meanings of slogan t-shirts, with contributions from designers, retailers and collectors as well as academics like myself. My contribution was an interview about the meanings and ethics of the currently popular ‘Barbie is a bitch’ t-shirt – it was really thought-provoking to unravel the different points of view on this slogan. Stephanie and I also discussed the ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ t-shirt, and how its meaning changes depending on who is wearing it. I was pleased to see this t-shirt photographed on a variety of different wearers in the finished book. I was also interested to see -in the chapter by the designer Dr Noki – a different version of a t-shirt I have had for years but rarely worn because its slogan is so liable to misinterpretation: ‘Ladies’ Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society’. http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/slogan-t-shirts-9781408157541/