A Tribute to Grandpa: The History of the Ukrainian Shirt

I want to dedicate this post to my grandpa, Al Traaseth, who passed away one year ago this week. Grandpa was an inspiring person. Adventurous, kind, generous, open-minded, a world traveler, a polyglot. He was a Russian and Latin teacher, involved from the beginning with the Concordia Language Villages in Moorhead, Minnesota. He brought all of his 14 grandkids, including me, to Washington, D.C. when we were around 10 years old. He encouraged us to try new things, especially food (in my case, escargot. Thanks, grandpa, I love it to this day!), and go to new places, and I think his example had a big impact on who I am today: an adventurous traveler who is curious about the world and loves languages, food, and the humanities. He even taught me how to say “I love you” in Russian so I could surprise my Russian-speaking boyfriend.

When I was growing up, there were a few things in my parents’ house that my grandpa had brought back from his travels: a Russian doll in traditional dress, some wooden elephants from Thailand. My mom would tell me about where they came from and how my grandpa had gone to this place or that. There were stories about him giving his shoes to a guy in Haiti and eating food with the tour guides in India so he could eat the real spicy stuff instead of the toned down American stuff. When I was in middle school or high school, my mom showed me another souvenir that my grandpa had brought back for her in the 1970s: an embroidered Ukrainian shirt. Of course, I quickly stole this from my mom’s closet and started wearing it. I wore it for probably a good 6 or 7 years. Alas, by the end of college it no longer fit, and I had to retire it (after almost tearing some seams trying to get it on).

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This shirt was the perfect fine, lightweight cotton and was so comfortable! It had a good life.

Luckily, the saga of the Ukrainian shirt was not over, and a couple years ago my amazing talented mom surprised me for Christmas with a new shirt she had made, on which she had replicated the embroidery from the old one. Thanks, mom! It is so awesome. Also, let’s all just take a second to appreciate the bajillion hours my mom spent making and cross-stitching that shirt. Super awesome.


An exact copy of the original embroidery, down to every last detail. Even the tassels!

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Me in my awesome Ukrainian shirt made by mom!

My mom didn’t even realize that I had written a paper about Ukrainian shirts for my Dress and Textiles in World Cultures class at FIT, so I was super into Ukrainian shirts (almost to the point that I wanted to make my own and wear it like these badass ladies from the 70s. Only minus the hairstyles…)

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Folk dress fashion of the 1970s. The authors of Ukrainian Embroidery model their work

So, for your reading pleasure, here is a slightly abridged version of my paper The Ukrainian Shirt: Historical Handcraft and Enduring Cultural Symbol:

The story of the Ukrainian shirt encompasses a long history of textile production, garment construction, embroidery, spiritual beliefs and traditional customs that attest to the Ukrainian peoples’ rare ability to retain a strong cultural identity despite changing political boundaries and various invasions. The shirt has been worn in what is present-day Ukraine since the time of the Scythians in the seventh century B.C.E. Both men and women wore leather shirts with sleeves as they roamed the steppes between the Danube and Don rivers as nomadic cattle breeders. By the twelfth century, when the people of Ukraine lived a settled life and a feudal system had begun in Ancient Rus’, the Ukrainian “folk dress” that we recognize today was already starting to develop, recognizably different from the rest of Europe and the east. Men and women of all social classes wore folk dress, and the shirt was the basic garment, always worn belted, over which various types of pants or overskirts were worn.

Shirts were made of homespun linen of flax and hemp. The cut of the shirt was the same for men and women, but women’s shirts were longer, almost down to the feet. A long width of fabric was folded in half over the shoulders and straight pieces were sewn onto the sides below the armholes, as the homespun was not wide enough to go around the body. Narrow tubular sleeves were set into the armholes, and the sleeves were often longer than the arm in order to cover the hand in cold weather. The collarless shirts had a high neck and a slit in the middle of the chest, fastened with a button at the top. Embroidery already had a long history in Ancient Rus’, and shirts were often embroidered in red around the neck and front slit.

By the sixteenth century, the term Ukraine, meaning “borderland,” began to replace the name of Rus’ and differentiation in dress based on social class became more common. The wealthy classes started to dress more like the Lithuanian, Polish, and Hungarian ruling elite in more tailored, low-necked costumes, while the rural populations, mainly enserfed villagers, continued to wear folk costume. While dress among social groups changed, the shirt was the universal daily garment for all classes, differing only in decoration and quality of material. The shirt was still made of homespun linen, but was now usually painstakingly bleached white, and ornamentation was gradually enriched. For men, three types of shirt construction were possible, different styles being more common in different regions.

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Three types of men’s shirts: a) shirt with insets, b) Transcarpathian shirt, c) “Chumak” shirt similar to the primitive tunic style of Ancient Rus’. From History of Ukrainian Costume.

Women’s shirts were also made in two styles. The first was similar to the man’s shirt with shoulder insets, but with wider sleeves. The high neck was gathered into a narrow neckband, and a string with small tassels was threaded through two loops at the center of the neckband and tied in a bow.

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Women’s shirt with drawstring, embroidered neck band, embroidered sleeves with insets at shoulder, and two types of cuffs. From History of Ukrainian Costume.

The second style, called “Carpathian,” had unbroken sleeves. The shoulder insets and sleeve were cut in one and sewn to the front and back widths up to the neck, like what we now call the “raglan sleeve.” The sleeves were very full and slightly flared towards the bottom, and the neckline was gathered with a drawstring that tied at the front. Women’s shirts were still long, reaching the ankle, and the sleeves were open, not drawn together at the wrist, and of normal sleeve length or shorter. Sometimes the sleeves were made of a different material than the front and back, such as cotton muslin or a finer linen. All shirts and other garments were cut to waste as little cloth as possible. Cuffs and collars were added in the nineteenth century, but some shirts were still worn without them. Embroidery continued to be the principal embellishment on shirts for men and women.

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Construction of women’s raglan sleeve style shirt. From Traditional Designs in Ukrainian Textiles.

Both embroidery and textile weaving and production were done in the homes of Ukrainian peasant families. Until the late nineteenth century, almost every Ukrainian household produced its own textiles, and in some remote areas of the Carpathian mountains, they still do. Creating the homespun linen was a long process, from planting and harvesting the flax to wetting it with spring or well water, drying it in the sun to be bleached, spinning the yarn and finally weaving the textile. The weaving was usually done on a treadle loom. By the eighteenth century weaving was also done on a larger scale as textile centers developed, particularly in the Chernihiv region. Private or state-owned manufacturies, town guilds, and individual peasant and town weavers all produced textiles for the local populations. In the nineteenth century many weaving centers closed down due to increased prices of raw materials, but trained peasants and craftspeople opened workshops and used locally produced materials, including cotton. The technical skills learned in the weaving centers being applied to village production is “one explanation for the unusually sophisticated technique and ornamentation that is found in Ukrainian folk textiles” (Grabowicz and Shust , 9-10).

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A weaver working at a treadle loom at home, 1913. From Invitation to a Wedding

Like weaving, embroidery also expanded from the home to a larger scale, with guilds forming as early as the seventeenth century. In the nineteenth century, almost every woman in Ukraine did embroidery, but it was also a specialized craft as some peasant women began to produce textiles for the town and city markets and families made their living on embroidery, outside of the guilds. As the shirts were always white linen (people wearing colored shirts would be considered foreigners), it was primarily the embroidery yarns that were dyed different colors. Traditionally, natural dyes were used to create tones that were both earthy and durable. Cochineal and sandalwood were used for red, walnut or sunflower seed husks and young leaves of black maple trees for black, onion skins and buckwheat husks for yellow, and apple and oak bark for orange. The homespun threads were soaked in dye for up to a week and then hung out to dry.

Ukrainian embroidery techniques are extremely advanced and varied, with more than one hundred different recorded stitches. The embroidery can be divided into four basic types: openwork embroidery, flat stitches, weaving stitches, and cross-stitch. All of these types are done in counted thread patterns, where the pattern follows the weave of the even plain weave ground fabric.

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Women’s shirts featuring openwork embroidery, 1920s. Ukrainian Museum, New York. From Invitation to a Wedding

Openwork embroidery creates open space in the fabric by either tightly sewing around areas without cutting thread, as in the eyelet stitch, ochka, or by cutting threads out of the fabric and embroidering around and over the open spaces, known as cut-thread work. Two types of Ukrainian cut-thread work are hem stitching, known as merezhka, and cutwork known as vyrizuvania. These techniques create lacy patterns that often have bars or embroidery with darning over the open spaces where thread was removed. Openwork embroidery is usually done with light colored threads on ground fabric of the same color.

Flat stitches are used to follow lines or fill in shapes and lie smoothly on the ground fabric. Nastyluvania, hlad, and yavorivka are three common styles of Ukrainian flat stitching. Nastyluvania is often used with openwork stitching in motifs of leaves, flowers, and stars. Hlad stitching is typically used as a fill-in stitch, and yavorivka is a very angular style of embroidery that is done in straight rows of pattern.

Weaving stitches are the most ancient of Ukrainian embroideries, and are so named because the needle imitates a shuttle. Both nyzynka (nyz) embroidery, worked in the direction of the warp, and perevolikania, worked in the direction of the weft, are embroidered from the underside of the fabric. The needle runs over and under one or more warps or wefts of the ground fabric, forming rows that create a geometric background pattern. Flat stitches or cross stitches are often applied on the right side of the fabric to fill in uncovered spaces.

Finally, in cross-stitch embroidery, each stitch is made up of two diagonal lines crossing each other, worked in blocks. This is now the most popular embroidery stitch in Ukraine, and is also the easiest to learn.

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A grapevine pattern worked in cross-stitch on the sleeve of a shirt. From Ukrainian Embroidery

Given the long and laborious process of production, textiles were of course extremely valuable for both peasants and landowners. Besides being economically valuable, textiles and in particular shirts also had great cultural and spiritual significance. The shirt was worn next to the body, so it was considered the double of the person wearing it. Some believed that character traits, physical conditions, and both good and bad attributes could be transferred from the wearer to the shirt and vice versa. For this reason, shirts were never loaned. Embroidered shirts made by mothers for their sons before they left to join the army also carried great significance. The shirt served as a remembrance for the boy of his mother back home, and if he died in battle, he would be buried in it.

Shirts and other textiles were also associated with rites of passage, particularly marriage. Every Ukrainian girl learned to embroider, weave, spin, and sew at a very young age, being skilled with a needle and thread as young as six years old. With the help of her mother, she would begin producing textiles for her trousseau, which would be the dowry for her future marriage. This included bolts of cloth, household linens, ritual cloths, and clothing including up to fifty embroidered shirts. Even the poorest peasant woman would have at least twenty shirts in her trousseau by the time of her marriage. The items of the dowry were often exhibited and inspected by guests at the wedding. The shirts played a role in the actual wedding rituals as well. At betrothal, gifts such as embroidered shirts or ritual cloths (rushnyky) were exchanged, and the night before the wedding, or “Maiden’s Eve,” the groom’s ushers would deliver gifts from the groom to the future bride, and she would send them back with gifts for her groom. This always included a shirt she had embroidered especially for him that he would wear for the wedding, like the one below. The woman would of course wear an embroidered shirt at the wedding as well, under several other garments and accessorized with a hair wreath.


The textiles associated with the Ukrainian folk wedding, which was more important than civil or religious wedding ceremonies, were used in rituals that ensured good fortune, fertility, and prosperity for the newlywed couple. The embroidery motifs and arrangement on the shirt were originally thought to have symbolic power related to these elements.The most common of these motifs is the ancient symbol of the fertility goddess, known in Ukraine as “Berehinia,” who is represented in various media from the Neolithic times through the present day.

She is represented in both realistic and abstract forms, usually with her arms raised up, and sometimes she is transformed into a “tree of life.” The goddess is also associated with flowers, even turning into an image of three flowers, and she is often accompanied by a small “daughter goddess,” symbolizing sexual fertility. In Ukraine, the goddess sometimes has bird claws, as birds live in the sky and are considered divine beings. Motifs of Berehinia were often repeated on the edges of shirts, especially for weddings. Examples of stylized tree of life motifs can be seen on the shirts below.

Other fertility designs used in embroidery include lozenges surrounded by rays and hooks, and lozenges divided into quadrants with a dot in the middle of each, known as the “fertile” or “sown field” motif.

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Lozenge fertility motifs from A Worldwide History of Dress

The grape vine motif also recurs in Ukrainian embroidery on shirts, and may be associated with fertility as well, related to the harvest and fertility of the earth.


Woman’s shirt, Eastern Ukraine, 1900s. Ukrainian Museum, New York. This linen shirt has white-on-white openwork and satin stitch embroidery on the sleeves, insets, and hem of the skirt. A grapevine motif is featured on the main part of the sleeves.

While the fertility motifs occur in many reincarnations on Ukrainian shirts, especially for weddings, embroidery designs are otherwise extremely varied. Some motifs may have ancient roots and originally had symbolic meanings that have now been forgotten, while other motifs are purely decorative. There are regional differences in embroidery designs, and some generalizations can be made about design preference based on time period. For example, patterns were almost exclusively geometric between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, and geometricized plant motifs appeared in the seventeenth century as cross-stitch embroidery became popular. The color red was prominent, but other colors were used as well, and white-work was common for everyday wear. Younger girls tended to wear brighter colors and heavier cutwork designs, while older women wore more subdued designs and widows would no longer wear red. The placement of the designs, however, was consistent throughout Ukraine. Embroidered motifs were thought to protect the wearer from evil forces, so they were placed around any opening in the clothing where the forces might get in – the neckline, cuffs, bottom hem, front opening, and also the entire sleeves and especially upper arm, which was considered the source of strength. Women’s shirts often have more embroidery than men’s, as women are thought to require more protection as the creators of new life.

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Women’s shirts, 1900s. Ukrainian Museum, New York. From Invitation to a Wedding

Traditional embroidery techniques and motifs contribute to the uniquely Ukrainian identity that the shirts symbolize, which still lives on today, despite the fact that traditional peasant dress ceased to be used for everyday wear in most regions by the first quarter of the twentieth century. As industrialism made factory-made clothing and textiles more readily available and urban fashions influenced traditional styles, folk dress was replaced by modern clothing in all but the most remote regions of Ukraine. At the same time, the symbolic importance of folk costume started to be recognized and even glorified, first by the romantic movement of the turn of the twentieth century when peasant culture was thought of as “the carrier and embodiment of the true national ‘essence’” (Grabowicz and Shust, 15). For Ukrainian immigrants in Poland after World War II, the shirt and other textiles became important symbols of national identity, and were used for special occasions. During the Soviet period, the Ukrainian shirt was banned because it was a nationalist symbol, and a man could be sent to Siberia for wearing one. When Ukraine finally gained its independence in 1991, President Leonid Kravchuk and many others celebrated by wearing elaborately embroidered Ukrainian shirts under their suits.

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Leonid Kravchuck in an embroidered shirt on the day of Ukraine’s independence in 1991. From ukrafoto.com

In the 1960s, a renewed interest in ethnicity led to the revival of traditional Ukrainian textiles and costume, particularly in wedding ceremonies. In Ukraine and expatriate communities in other countries, the traditional folk costume has lived on in dance groups and theatrical performances, although many of these costumes are exaggerated and stylized versions of the original folk costume. While “folk dress” motifs and designs go in and out of style in mainstream fashion, the Ukrainian shirt still retains its cultural significance and status as a symbol of national identity. Young girls are often still taught to embroider, and many have at least one traditional Ukrainian shirt of their own.

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Young Ukrainian girls in shirts with cross-stitch embroidery. From Ethnic Dress

Despite long periods of invasion and oppression, Ukraine has retained its individuality that manifests itself in traditional textile crafts. The Ukrainian shirt lives on today as a representation of nationalism that is also steeped in a long history of spirituality, cultural traditions and skilled handcraft.


So thank you, Grandpa, for cultivating in me and so many others an interest in and respect for other languages and cultures. You were an inspiration to so many, and I love you. RIP.


Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. The Worldwide History of Dress. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Dankowska, Joanna. Textiles and National Identity Among Ukrainians in Poland. Pittsburgh, Pa: Center for Russian & East European Studies, University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 1996.

Fox, Lilla Margaret. Folk Costume of Eastern Europe. Boston: Plays, Inc, 1977.

Gleba, Margarita, and Ulla Mannering. Textiles and Textile Production in Europe from Prehistory to AD 400. Oxford : Oxbow Books, 2012.

Grabowicz, Oksana I., and Mariia Shust. Traditional Designs in Ukrainian Textiles: An Exhibition. New York: Ukrainian Museum, 1977.

History of Ukrainian Costume: from the Scythian Period to the late 17th century. Melbourne: Bayda Books, 1986.

Kelly, Mary B. “Goddess Embroideries of Russia and the Ukraine.” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Autumn, 1983 – Winter, 1984), 10-13. Woman’s Art Inc. Accessed on April 30, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1357939

Kennett, Frances. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1995.

Kmit, Ann, Johanna Luciow, and Loretta Luciow. Ukrainian Embroidery. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, 1978.

Snowden, James. The Folk Dress of Europe. New York: Mayflower Books, 1979.

Wolynetz, Lubow, and Natalie O. Kononenko. Invitation to a wedding: Ukrainian wedding textiles and traditions. New York: Ukrainian Museum, 2010.



My First Time at the CSA Symposium: Perspectives on Fashion, Costume, and Historic Dress

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Costume Society of America’s Annual Meeting and Symposium in Cleveland, Ohio. Titled “The Full Cleveland: Dress as Communication, Self-Expression, and Identity” it was a week full of research presentations, professional development sessions, and even some behind-the-scenes museum tours all centered around historic costume and dress. This was my first time at the national symposium, and it was an incredible (but exhausting) week!

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For those unfamiliar with CSA, the title “Costume Society of America” can be a bit confusing or even misleading – most of us think of costume as something created for films, plays, or Halloween. The Costume Society of America encompasses much more than that. In the field of fashion studies, the terms “costume,” “fashion,” and “dress” all have specific meanings. The first thing we studied in my graduate program at FIT was the different theoretical perspectives on fashion and the different definitions of these terms, establishing which definitions for these words that we would adopt  so we were all on the same page. After two years of talking about “fashion” versus “costume” and being understood, it is easy to forget that these definitions are by no means universal. So what, then is “costume”? At FIT’s Fashion and Textiles department, “costume” is something that stays the same – uniforms or national dress, for example, or alternatively “costumes” for film or stage. “Fashion” is the system of seasonally changing clothing styles, and “dress” is anything that someone puts on their body, including fashion and anti-fashion, body adornment, costume, and plain old clothes. While the Costume Society of America symposium did include discussions of theatrical costume, it also included historic fashion and dress, “costume” in both senses of the word, and even contemporary fashion.


I think Lady Gaga’s meat dress deserves its own category – beef jerky?

In fact, what struck me the most at the symposium was the interesting mix of people and perspectives that CSA brings together. Everyone in attendance was interested in “costume” or dress in some way, but there seemed to be two groups that fell on different ends of the spectrum in terms of their interests and professional activities: historical costumers and museum professionals and academics who specialize in costumes and textiles. Then of course there were those who bridge the gap – on the bus to one of the excursions, I met a woman who makes mascot costumes as her primary job (the secret to inflated ones are actual fans sewn inside!) but who considers textile conservation her true calling, and does it part-time. Some fashion historians recreate historic dress as a part of their study, so are costumers in a sense. While sometimes there are tensions between these two groups that treat costume so differently, I found the variety of perspectives to be extremely enriching.

On the costume side, there was an excellent presentation by Sara Jablon and Eulanda Sanders entitled Historical Accuracy and the Communication of Theatrical Costume Design. Drawing from her many interviews with Broadway costume designers, Jablon spoke about different ways that designers interpret historic dress for the stage – for example, emphasizing one major historic element of dress while eliminating others, or contemporizing the historic dress to make it look intentionally inaccurate. It was a well thought-out and well-researched presentation, and it was wonderful to hear a costumer address the issue of historical (in)accuracy in such a thoughtful and explicit way. I often hear fashion historians criticize costumes (particularly in film and on TV) for being historically inaccurate, and my feeling is that it’s ok. Costumes do not need to be 100% accurate; they are costumes. Let the designer have some artistic license! Acknowledge that sometimes the goal is beauty and entertainment, not fashion history education. As long as the costumes support a well-presented story and, as Jablon pointed out, don’t distract or confuse the viewer, then they don’t need to have every last shoelace be perfectly accurate. I was not able to attend every single session, but I heard that Matthew Lee Hale’s presentation about Cosplay was also excellent, and there was also a juried design exhibition.

IMG_4814edThe excursion to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was also a celebration of stage costumes. Collections Manager Jun Francisco gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of their collections storage, and showed us clothing worn by Janis Joplin, Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Michael Jackson, and more. On display in the museum of itself was an incredible amount of costumes. From Lady Gaga’s meat dress to David Bowie’s metal wings, it was clear that costumes are one of the most memorable aspects of a performer’s persona, and as artifacts they are some of the most personal. Thanks to Monica Sklar for organizing that special tour, it was truly a privilege!


Sargent Pepper!!!


So much Beyonce fabulousness


Gorgeous Supremes costumes


My inner child freaked out when I saw the Elvis stuff. I was obsessed with Elvis as a kid

On the museum/academic side, there were many presentations of research on a wide variety of subjects. Some of my favorites dealt with print sources of fashion history. FIT’s own April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary presented on the history of Pochoir, an early 20th century artform that beautifully illustrated the fashions of designers like Paul Poiret and Jeanne Paquin (learn more in their book Fashion and the Art of Pochoir).  Michael McCarty and Mark Hutter of Colonial Williamsburg, along with Anne Bissonette of the University of Alberta, presented excellent research that looks at 18th century “Macaroni” dress outside of the satirical sources and caricatures that are often cited in discussions of this flamboyant style. It was interesting to hear the history behind the style of these well-traveled elite young men before they became the victims of harsh satire (including, yes, the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”). I particularly liked that they likened Macaroni caricatures to a meme! Lynne Sorge also drew on a unique source of fashion history in her analysis of dress and identity in the records of the Old Bailey Trials, arguing that undergarments (especially those that achieved the proper silhouette like corsets) were a major source of identity for women, who would rather be arrested than forfeit their stays.

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From Fashion and the Art of Pochoir by April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary

Other presentations were “virtual exhibits” of fashion exhibitions that have happened over the past year, including A Virginia Man: Respect, Responsibility, Rebellion curated by Kristen Stewart at the Valentine Museum, and Ingenue to Icon: 70 Years of Fashion for the Collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post curated by Howard Vincent Kurtz at the Hillwood Museum. It was great to see these, since unfortunately I can’t make it to every fashion exhibition in person.

I also attended professional development panels on how to break into the field, how to deal with collections management problems, and the definition of the “curator” in a digital age when access to information allows everyone to “curate.” This sparked an interesting debate about the role of the museum. What one saw as the “Disneyfication” of museums was seen by others as the necessary and welcome way to get younger people into the museum. This conversation almost made its way to the larger idea of what is the relevance of the museum now, and what are the advantages of the actual object over the digital object (a whole other interesting conversation in itself), but I don’t know that everyone wanted to acknowledge that this is an actual issue (especially if they see having events as a “Disneyfication” that somehow taints their traditional authoritative view of what museums are and should be).


I’m glad I had time for some fun in between presentations and professional development sessions. You’re never too old to ride a carousel!

The tour to the Western Reserve Historical Society was proof that seeing the objects in person absolutely has an impact, because their display of late 19th and early 20th century gowns in In Grand Style curated by Susan Neill was breathtaking. The behind-the-scenes tour of their 40,000-piece collection (including 3,000 hats!) was also incredible. There’s nothing like walking through racks and racks of clothes that have lived a life, and have incredible materials, textures, and designs still intact to show for it. As an added bonus, the Cleveland History Center where the collection is located also includes a carousel, an auto and aviation museum, and an entire mansion! What a wonderful place.


Court dress by Lucile, 1912. On display at In Grand Style at the Western Reserve Historical Society


Turn of the century beauties in In Grand Style

Finally, to bring in some discussion of the fashion industry today, author Terri Agins was the keynote speaker. She covered fashion for the Wall Street Journal for many years, and wrote the book that got me interested in studying fashion rather than working in it, ultimately setting me on this career path: The End of Fashion. That book was written in 1999, but is just as relevant today (and I highly recommend it!), and now Agins has a new book out all about the celebrity infiltration of the fashion industry: Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities are Stealing the Spotlight from Designers. Agins is an excellent and very conversational speaker, and her talk was filled with gems like “The Kardashians – they are just like – forget it,” “Kanye West is the disruptor,” and in reference to the Costume Institute’s recent trend of contemporary and flashy fashion exhibitions at the MET, “they had to tart ‘em up.” I also learned that Jennifer Lopez’s perfume bottles are asymmetrical and designed to look like her butt, and Ralph Lauren makes over $1 billion a year from their outlet stores, but they don’t want you to know that. Agins’ main point was that fashion brands can’t survive without celebrities now. Celebrity endorsements in the form of ad campaigns, red carpet appearances, and even just wearing their brand around town, all of which celebrities can be paid for, make the fashion world go round. Alternatively, the designer him or herself can become a celebrity (case in point: Michael Kors, made famous by Project Runway. We know him for his pumpkin orange glow and markdown-bin logo accessories, not for actual good design). Not everyone agreed with everything Agins said, particularly her view that people will never want more expensive high quality clothing again, and that millennials just want cheap crap and buy into celebrity. One “millennial” audience member spoke up to refute this, which I appreciated, being grouped into the “millennial” generation as well and constantly being generalized about. While Agins’ view was perhaps not as hopeful as those of us who want fashion to change for the better (ethically speaking), it made for some interesting conversation and an entertaining keynote speech!

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Overall, the week was rich with perspectives, scholarship, design, and an appreciation for costume, historic dress, and fashion. I am so glad that I was able to go and meet so many amazing people, and see a lot of old friends too. If you want to hear more about this year’s CSA symposium, check out my friends’ podcast Unravel – Dana and Joy were running around all week interviewing people at the symposium, and they will have an upcoming episode featuring the people at CSA!

Until next time…


Costume Mounting on Nantucket

As I mentioned in my last post, this summer I was interning at the Nantucket Historical Association, and it was a really enriching experience. Friday was my last day, and while I was excited to come back to America (as Nantucketers joke sometimes) and go to Trader Joe’s, it was bittersweet because I absolutely loved the work I was doing and the people I worked with. I think now is a good time to look back at some of the projects I worked on this summer, and as promised, I’ll talk more about costume mounting!

Just before the 4th of July, I got the chance to mount some costumes for the new “Hollywood Meets History” display at the Whaling Museum, the NHA’s main site. We had some film costumes on loan from a major production company that are featured in an upcoming Nantucket-related film. The curator wanted to put these on display in conjunction with some historic pieces from the NHA’s collection, highlighting the women of Nantucket who were at home when the whalers were out at sea.


Here’s the finished product – stay tuned to see how I did it!

Mounting a couple of costumes is usually pretty straightforward, if sometimes quite involved – you start with a mannequin, you pad it out, you add understructures and accessories, etc. We had a couple of challenges that made this a bit more complicated: no mannequins, and display cases that were not deep enough for a full form. The curator also wanted to portray that these were film costumes, and they were displayed alongside props, so we opted for an on-the-hanger look. These costumes would have looked really strange if they were literally just on a hanger in the display case, so I had to give them some body. This also gave me an excuse to take the ferry to Hyannis for the afternoon to get supplies – woo!


Initial plan that changed a bit in the end

For both ensembles, I started with two layers of blue board cut out to be slightly smaller than the costume, and put a small strip of ethafoam in between to create some depth. I then attached these to a wide coat hanger (the widest I could find at Bed, Bath & Beyond!), and covered the whole thing with thick polyester batting.

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I sewed on the batting, then covered it with black stretch fabric. Curved needles come in really handy for this kind of sewing!

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Each ensemble got a different type of arm. The jacket didn’t really need much since it was structured and made of fairly stiff pigskin, so I just stuffed some pantyhose and stuck them in the sleeves to fill them out a little. The other ensemble had a shirt that was really torn up, the wearer having been shipwrecked, and the linen was pretty floppy and needed more substantial arms to actually look like a shirt. Luckily, there were some leftover foam “noodle” pool toys. After a little experimentation with a glue gun and a box cutter to create elbow bends and smooth shoulders and wrists, I ended up with some pretty nice arms. I covered them in black fabric, since they would be seen through the holes in the shirt.


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While the pantyhose arms (whose ends were cut off after that picture was taken) could be sewn directly onto the torso and just squished into the sleeves, the noodle arms required a slightly more complicated setup. I sewed one arm onto the torso, but the other arm had to be removable for dressing. To dress the mount, I first put the shirt onto the stable arm, then over the neck and torso, but if the other arm had been sewn on there would have been no way to get it into the sleeve. I created a ribbon strap with velcro to attach the arm to the torso, so I could put the arm up through the sleeve once the shirt was already on the mount. I made sure that the soft part of the velcro was on the torso since the scratchy hook side might snag the shirt.

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The last part to figure out was the pants. There was a lot of brainstorming on how to use the pants, since the case was not tall enough to display the full ensemble with long pants. We thought about hanging them separately, at a different height, possibly folded like they would be in a closet… Ultimately we thought it looked best to display the pants as if they were being worn with the shirt, and solve the height problem simply by folding the pants up into themselves. The case had a solid base below the display area, so it would look like the pants were just standing up in the case and you couldn’t see the bottom – pretty sneaky!

I carved a block of ethafoam to fit the waist of the pants (which I eventually figured out were worn folded over at the waist, after reviewing some reference photos. Research and accuracy is important!), padded it and covered it with fabric. I then created suspenders that went around the bottom of the foam block so the pants contraption could be hung on the torso. It turned out that the pants didn’t really need anything inside other than the block of foam at the top, since the fabric was fairly thick and the legs were folded up inside. I just held them in place with some trusty little entomology pins (the next best secret mounting material after pantyhose!).



Not too shabby!

After several days of carving ethafoam and noodles and hand-sewing the mounts for our little seamen, I moved on to the historic objects, a shawl and a bonnet. The shawl was a gorgeous embroidered silk satin piece with fringe. It was in beautiful condition, especially given its 1837 date, but it was HUGE. Definitely too big to be draped over a padded tube without folding multiple times, and I didn’t want to fold it too much for conservation reasons, or have it hanging for too long as it may become distorted. I did a bit of research to find the most responsible way to mount it, asked a teacher for advice, took lots of measurements, and looked for examples of shawl displays. I eventually I decided that it would look most impressive and be most space-efficient to display the shawl on a dress form. While we had no mannequins, we did have dress forms! This also allowed me to only fold the shawl once, and I created a long tube of polyester batting wrapped in Tyvek to place in the fold to prevent hard creasing.

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I used the noodle arm treatment again, this time covered with pantyhose so they were easier to sew onto the form, which was fabric-covered hard foam. I then draped a piece of barrier fabric in the shape of the shawl over the form.


Then it was just a matter of draping the shawl nicely, sticking a couple of entomology pins on the front, and detangling the fringe. We covered the whole thing with a sheet to transport it to the museum – which involved me playing contortionist in the car while lovingly holding this little lady still.


Finally, the bonnet. I knew I wanted to make a carved foam mount, padded and covered with fabric. I looked at a bonnet already on display to see how far forward the mount went inside the bonnet, and I made sure that the mount would fully support the structure of the bonnet, which was fairly fragile. I tested it several times for fit, and did some fancy fabric stretching and sewing to get it covered (not the most beautiful, but I placed the seams where they wouldn’t show).

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The one tricky issue was what type of stand to put it on. We didn’t have any appropriate metal stands, or any like the one already on display, so I made one out of blue board.

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I glued the stand to a flat square for stability and covered it with fabric. Finally, I rolled up the ribbons around loops of mylar – you can’t even tell that one ribbon is almost completely torn! Sneaky! To keep the ribbon loops in place, I put another piece of mylar through the loops and attached them to the display case so they wouldn’t unroll while on display.


And that’s it! Four mounts, five days (or something like that), and lots of fun! I have to say, this project was one of my favorites of the summer, and I’m so thankful to the NHA staff for giving me the opportunity to do this. It was challenging and exciting and really satisfying, and I would love to be able to do more of this kind of work. I hope this post can help out other people at small museums and historical societies by giving them ideas for how to mount their own costumes and textiles. There is so much great stuff out there, but it does take a lot of time, thought, and careful handling to properly mount fragile textile objects in a safe way. I welcome any questions and/or advice! Does anyone have any tips, tricks, or cool costume mounting experiences to share?

I <3 Costume Mounting!

It has been some time since I last wrote, and I am excited to say that I have now completed my coursework for my master’s degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology! My time in New York is over, and I have moved on to another adventure on a new island, this time a bit farther out to sea – Nantucket! I am interning at the Nantucket Historical Association as the Curatorial Intern focusing on the costume and textiles collection, and it has been an incredible experience. I have been given the opportunity to really use the skills I gained in grad school, and I am cataloging garments, packing them in archival storage, organizing parts of the collection, and doing some research. One of my favorite things I learned in school that I also got the chance to do (in the real world!) is costume mounting.

Yay costume mounting!

Yay costume mounting!

At FIT, one of our classes was Costume Mounting Skills, taught by Ms. June Bové. June worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for many years, and mounted costumes for every show that the great Diana Vreeland, former editor of Vogue magazine, curated for the Costume Institute. Needless to say, June is an incredibly accomplished lady and it is a huge privilege to learn from her. She is also one of the most hilarious, kind, and patient people I have had the pleasure to meet. A real class act, and an expert in her field.


June sawing PVC pipe like a badass

In June’s class, we worked in pairs to mount a historic costume on a mannequin, complete with head treatment and accessories. My partner was the fabulous Leia Lima Baum of wearwhenwhy.com, and we dressed an ensemble consisting of a bodice, a skirt, and an overskirt. Through researching several fashion periodicals and comparable ensembles in museum collections, we determined that the ensemble was from circa 1871. This helped us to figure out what types of understructure, hairstyle, accessories, and even shoes we wanted to use to give a correct presentation of how this dress would have been worn.


The mounting process started with creating a skull cap to attach our head treatment to so that we wouldn’t have to attach the “hair” directly to the mannequin and damage it. This involved covering our “creature”‘s head with plastic wrap, covering that with buckram, and holding the buckram in place with rubber bands – the bands prevented the buckram from pulling away from the mannequin as it dried, so the skull cap would fit snugly. As June said, the creatures should die of strangulation, not asphyxiation (a room full of mannequins can make for some pretty morbid jokes – which is totally hilarious with June’s deadpan delivery).

The buckram hat just pops right off!

The buckram cap popped right off! Success!

To start building up the body, the secret tool was… nylons! Yes, pantyhose. Preferably white ones. We used a pair with the crotch cut out over the head, and another on the bottom. This created a nice tight body stocking into which we could add padding to get the shape we wanted. June had us buy an anatomy book to show us where the muscles and the fat deposits are in the body. It would look pretty strange to give a mannequin padding straight down the spine or a ring right around the hips. The goal was to shape these areas to look as natural as possible.

Fanny Sue is getting some abs and hips!

Fanny Sue is getting some abs and hips!

Twill tape ties underneath the nylons serve as a base to attach other understructures to, and we also attached fishing line to be used for securing props later. It’s good to have everything attached to the innermost layer for stabilization. Next, we started building up the undergarments – through referencing images, measurements, and trying the skirt on the mannequin several times, we were able to adjust the volume of the petticoats and the bum roll (because this style was working its way towards the bustle) to just where we wanted them.


Fanny Sue, now with shoulder blades, gets a petticoat sewn onto her waistband.

I tried this bum roll on underneath my lab coat later, but it didn't look as good on me.

I tried this bum roll on underneath my lab coat later, but it didn’t look as good on me.

All of the understructures were made out of clean, archival materials (no use of historic undergarments!), and then a layer of muslin acted as a final barrier between the understructures and the historic dress.

Fanny sue seems pretty satisfied with her petticoat as she looks wistfully into the distance

Fanny sue seems pretty satisfied with her petticoat as she looks wistfully into the distance

While the skirt was the main area that needed volume to create this historic silhouette, we still needed to add a little bit of volume on the bodice so the mannequin didn’t look completely lifeless. A bit of pleated bridal tulle on the arms kept the sleeves from falling flat. We wanted to give Fanny Sue some movement, as if she has been scurrying around looking for her favorite book… Jane Eyre?… She may be shy and bookish, but we didn’t want her to look dead.


Once the shape was perfected, we got to try on the ensemble and add the finishing touches. Our research showed that the neckline and cuffs would have been decorated with some ruffles, and Leia went through her awesome stash of historic costume sewing supplies and found the perfect lace and ribbon!

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We also carved boots out of ethafoam and covered them with fabric. If you have feet with shoes, then you need legs to attach them to. Our mannequin didn’t come with legs, so we made some! This may seem strange since the legs were completely covered by the long skirt, but legs do make a difference. Having legs underneath prevents the skirt from sinking in unnaturally, and it keeps the shoes in the right place. If the mannequin is up high on a platform and people can see up under the skirt, we want them to see shoes and legs, not a strange floating skirt.

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Leia attaching our buckram and batting-wrapped wire hanger legs.

Leia attaching our legs! (made of wire hangers wrapped with buckram, batting, and nylons)

Of course hair style and headwear are important to the accuracy of the total look, and we had a lot of options to choose from so it was fun to get creative. A lady would never go out without her hat, and I think Fanny Sue is a simple boater hat kind of girl.

Leia made a lovely hair braid and I tried my hand at (fake) millinery!

Leia made a lovely hair braid and I tried my hand at (fake) millinery!

Leia made a nice little book and arranged it in Fanny Sue’s hand so that it would cover up the missing button on the bodice (which was held closed with an entomology pin).


After a lot of hand sewing, readjusting, and finessing, Fanny Sue finally got dressed! Our class had a photo shoot of all the dressed mannequins, and everyone’s looked great. It was cool to see a room full of men’s and women’s ensembles from different eras, complete with accessories and mannequins that each had their own personalities (and names, and hobbies, and interpersonal relationships… you get pretty close with these creatures after spending a whole semester with them. Pretty sure some of them are having cross-decade romances. George, I’m looking at you.)

Fanny Sue looks fabulous from all angles

Fanny Sue looks fabulous from all angles

Leia's ribbon matched perfectly!

Leia’s ribbon matched perfectly!


It was really satisfying to see Fanny Sue finally up on that platform, and it was such a fun project. Leia and I made a great team, and I was even lucky enough to work with her again dressing mannequins for the Museum of the Moving Image. Thanks for being such a great partner, Leia! Here’s to more mannequin dressing in the future.

P1090141If you like reading about costume mounting, stay tuned for next time – I’ll write about the clothing and accessories I dressed in Nantucket, this time sans mannequin!

Winter Done Right

A couple days ago it was the first official day of spring and it snowed. As a born and bred Minnesotan, I am usually not one to complain about winter and I definitely don’t expect it to be over when spring “officially” starts, but it has been a pretty brutal winter this year.  It was pretty disheartening to get more snow – and snow that actually stayed on the ground – after a few days of 50 degree teasers. It seems we’re in the clear now, but while the last of the snow melts (and hopefully we don’t get anymore),  I thought I would reminisce on a place that does winter right – that’s right, Montreal!

Happy Spring, NYC!

Happy Spring, NYC!

When Igor and I decided to go to Montreal for my birthday in December, I was a little scared because I had never been there in the winter.  We went in November once, the weekend before Thanksgiving, and it was cold (and they were already celebrating Christmas, which felt really weird, but I love a good holiday parade!), but it wasn’t really winter yet.  I was afraid that the frigid cold would prevent me from my typical urban exploration vacation style, but that was not the case!  Montreal definitely embraces winter.  While there are plenty of things to do inside (museums!) and an extensive underground network of shopping malls that is easy to get lost in if you’re not careful, I was happy to find that there were also many things to do outside that really encouraged people to spend time outside.


One of the coolest things that was going on while we were there was the “Lumino Thérapie” displays around the city center. Montreal is a city of festivals, and winter is no exception.  The Lumino Thérapie (or light therapy) displays were at 8 locations in a small area of downtown Montreal, and were basically audio-visual projections onto different buildings.  Some of them were interactive, like the punching bag video game projection!  One was cabaret themed, another was a magician’s act projected onto the  façade of an old cathedral.  It was super cool, and definitely worth trekking around in the cold to find all of them!

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There was also a big display of colorful rotating clear prisms in the Place des Arts.  A man working for the city (of which there are many – Montreal has a lot of city-sponsored events, and employs a lot of people!) explained to us that this light festival was suggested as a solution for the perceived waste of space at the Place des Arts, which is used for big festivals, concerts, etc in the summer.  In February, the Place is used for the Montreal festival of lights (Montréal en Lumière).

light display in Place des Arts

light display in Place des Arts

In the Old Town, there were outdoor fireplaces that were constantly supplied with wood by city workers, creating a really nice little area to warm up but still enjoy the fresh air.  There was even a stand with hot cider and every maple product you could think of, including maple syrup drizzled onto snow and then rolled onto a stick, which is apparently a thing.  I am a huge fan of maple everything now.  Thanks, Canada!





It’s Igor!

One of Montreal’s biggest attractions is Parc Mont Royal, another great place to spend time outdoors that is not as touristy.  It is a huge hill on the west side of the city that overlooks downtown, with McGill college right at the base of it.  Igor and I hiked up to the lookout point, and saw lots of people sledding and cross country skiing on the way.  The chalet at the top was a nice surprise, and we got to warm up and drink some hot chocolate before the walk back down.

in Parc Mont Royal

in Parc Mont Royal


there were ski trails!

there were ski trails!


view of Montreal from the lookout point

view of Montreal from the lookout point

Of course, the indoor things were great too, and we tried a bunch of nice bars and restaurants, several of which were very English-inspired.  I love that Montreal is francophone and definitely has French influences, but I never realized before this trip how much English influence there is, as well.  Canada used to be English, after all.  We found a tea salon with English style pastries, and a nice little speakeasy-style bar/restaurant that had a menu that was kind of half French, half English (the fish and chips were delicious!)


enjoying tea and English pastries at Salon de Thé Cardinal

Of all food-related things, or just things in general, I probably get the most excited about markets.  This is one of my favorite features of winter in Montreal – get the farmer’s market experience without having to stand in the cold!  Montreal has two really great enclosed markets, Jean Talon and Atwater, and there is nothing better than a food market during the holiday season in any place influenced by French cuisine.  I don’t know if I like goose, but this display really makes me want to try it!

Lovely display of duck, goose, and turkey at Atwater market

Lovely display of duck, goose, and turkey at Atwater market

So, as we say goodbye to winter, just remember that no matter the time of year, we can always enjoy the fresh air and  the beauty of the season.  There are plenty of pretty things to look at, lots of good food to be had, and if you can find a wood burning fire pit and some maple candies, then you’re golden.

Finding Treasures: Madame Demorest paper pattern from 1871

As some of you know, my interest in fashion studies stems from my long-time hobby turned obsession of making clothes.  While I never went to school for fashion design (except for one pattern making class) and I have not been “formally” trained, I have been sewing since I was little (thanks mom!) and always used and altered paper sewing patterns.  I have a ton of them in a box in my apartment, thanks to some vintage stores and the $1 sales at Joann Fabrics, along with a huge stash of fabric calling out for me to finally make it into something… someday I will have time to sew again.

I may have a problem, as this is only about 2% of my pattern collection

I may have a problem, as this is only about 2% of my pattern collection

As a graduate student of fashion and textile studies, naturally, I was drawn to the history of paper patterns, and the history of sewing and people making their own clothes in general.  When I saw Butterick’s Company History page I realized that sewing patterns (and developments in sewing patterns, like using tissue paper and patterns in different sizes) were a huge deal in the nineteenth century, allowing women all over the country to make their clothes at home (or have their dressmakers make them) according to fashionable styles without actually needing to travel, causing a democratization of sorts.  I became really interested in the early history of paper patterns, and learned that while many people think Ebenezer Butterick was the first paper pattern maker, another name now forgotten today, Madame Demorest, actually made them first.  Butterick was the first to copyright paper patterns, and to create graded (sized) patterns.  The two were competitors in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, both publicizing and distributing their patterns through fashion and lifestyle magazines, Butterick with the Delineator and Demorest with Madame Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions.  I was so curious as to why Butterick’s name continues on today, but Demorest’s is nearly forgotten.  I wanted to know more about their competition, what made one more successful than the other, what did they do differently.  I actually wanted to write my qualifying paper (i.e. master’s thesis) on this, but due to limited sources and the incredibly well-researched book by Joy Spanabel Emery, A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), that covers much of what I wanted to write about, I decided otherwise.  Maybe I’ll come back to it eventually.  I still wanted to learn more, though, and I hadn’t even looked at any primary sources yet.  When I made an appointment at FIT’s Special Collections and Archives (SPARC) this past week to do some research for a paper I’m writing for our upcoming symposium this May, I decided to take a look at their Demorest holdings as well.  I’m so glad that I did!

Cover of Demorest's Illustrate Monthly and ....

Cover of Demorest’s Illustrate Monthly and Mme Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions (there were a few different titles over the years), September 1871

FIT only has two issues of Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, but much to my surprise and delight, one of the issues actually had an incredibly well preserved and intact paper pattern!  These patterns were included as supplements to the magazine.  Paper patterns this old are quite rare, as the tissue is thin and the ink of often fades, and of course, these were meant to be cut up and used.


This pattern was tucked inside the April 1871 issue of Demorest’s Monthly Magazine, which unfortunately was missing its cover and had a cover from a different date taped on

Isn’t it amazing that the tissue is exactly the type that is used for paper patterns today?  And yet it is over 140 years old… incredible.


The magazine also included songs, fashion plates (below), articles on various topics, and advertisements.  I thought the one for an “Electro-plated water set with tilting stand” was particularly interesting.  Specialized kitchen gadgets to make everything easier are not a 20th century phenomenon.  They may not have had different utensils to cut their apple and avocados, but they did have an ice pitcher that made it unnecessary for them to actually pick anything up to pour it!  Magazines from the nineteenth century (of which there are many!) are so interesting just to give a glimpse into the way people lived.



“Another improvement is the Tilting Stand on which it is mounted, which entirely obviates the necessity of raising the pitcher.”

I also really loved the biography of the Demorests, Crusades and Crinolines:The Life and Times of Ellen Curtis Demorest and William Jennings Demorest (Ishbel Ross, New York: Harper & Row, 1963).  Learning more about  Madame Demorest (who, by the way, was not French, but called herself Madame for the French “caché”) and her husband makes the content of these magazines even more interesting.  Madame Demorest and their contributing writer Jenny June were early women’s rights advocates, and were involved in forming the first women’s clubs.  Madame Demorest also co-founded one of the first businesses owned and run only by women, a tea shipping and selling company.  She went on trips to Paris to see the latest fashions, but always adapted them to American tastes (which were apparently more conservative), creating original designs rather than merely copying.  Mr. Demorest was the editor of the magazine and extremely involved politically.  He was a major advocate for the temperance and then the prohibition movements.  As his views and calls for action became more extreme, and he started to use the magazine to promote his ideas, making it more biased, the business suffered.  This, combined with more competition from other publications and paper pattern companies, seem to be the main reasons behind the Demorest empire’s decline in the late 1880s and 1890s. The couple was getting older, and Mr. Demorest turned the magazine over to his sons in 1885 in order to pursue politics, while Madame retired from the pattern making business in 1887 (although not without drama – they had sold the name for the pattern business to advertising agents and were appalled to find that the Demorest name shared the same page as a liquor advertisement – God forbid! They sued and won).  The magazine ended in 1899, a year after Madame Demorest’s death.


Historic Fashion at Drexel (or: Boxes and Boxes of Clothes!)

Over the past year and a half, instead of traveling around Europe like in 2011-2012, I have been splitting my time between New York and Philadelphia (with the occasional trip to Boston or Minnesota).  I got in to FIT in New York for grad school, and my boyfriend Igor was accepted to do a PhD in comparative literature at UPenn.  While it was a big adjustment to be in different cities, it has been a great excuse to get out of New York (a city that, while it has much to offer, is unfortunately not somewhere I feel at home), and get to know Philly.  It is such a wonderful city!  So much history and culture, some really beautiful neighborhoods, great museums, great food, and it’s also really laid back.  Everyone I have met there has been incredibly nice and welcoming (maybe that’s just how museum people in Philadelphia are?).  There is also a crêperie down the street from Igor’s apartment that is owned by a man from Brioude, a tiny town just a few train stops away from Le Puy where we lived in France.  Small world.

The skyline of Philadelphia

The skyline of Philadelphia

One of the best experiences I have had in Philadelphia was interning last summer at Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection.  I had the chance to help out for a few weeks this past month before classes start up again, and I was so happy to be there again!  It is such a privilege to work with such an incredible collection and a really fabulous staff.  There have been a lot of exciting changes for the collection in the past year, with a big donation, name change, planning for their first big exhibition, and lots of donations coming in, while still sorting through objects that were never moved into storage after the new space was built.  This last part is primarily what I was involved in.

Over the summer, another intern and I worked on developing a system to organize and inventory the “Dirty Room,” which is basically a room full (and I mean really full) of boxes of clothes, mostly from the second half of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth.  I’m talking giant, human body sized boxes; it can be quite the workout to move them!  The objects in this room never made it into the main storage space, and have been stored in less-than-desireable conditions for a while, so boxes need to be examined before brought into the main collection.  It is also kind of a mystery as to what is in there; no one has looked through these boxes for a long time.  Not all of the objects will be transferred over, so another part of our job was assessing which pieces were significant (and in good condition) and should be considered for transfer into the main collection, and maybe even used in the exhibition.  There were a few different numbering systems used to label the garments over the past several decades, so we also had to match up the different systems to be able to track down the original records.  Luckily, most objects are labeled with a number and the donor name.  This is pretty significant, as the donor names can often tell us if the garment belonged to someone important.  Drexel’s collection, and in particular things in the Dirty Room (because they were transferred from another collection, long story…) has a lot of objects that belonged to the Drexel family and other prominent Philadelphians (for anyone who goes to UPenn – does Van Pelt sound familiar?).


Every once in a while we find something special and bring it into the collection. This wedding dress was recorded as a Worth design in the files, but it has no label inside. Isn’t she stunning?!


I love dresses with dangly bits! and pearls!

Working in the Dirty Room is like a treasure hunt.  You never know what you will find next!  It turns out that it is probably 75% wedding dresses, which makes sense if you think about it.  Wedding dresses are the most common piece of clothing that people save for years, they don’t get worn out because they are usually only worn once (or sometimes by a few family members), and people value them so highly (especially on a sentimental level) that they want them preserved in collections.  I never thought I would be jaded by seeing so many nineteenth century wedding dresses.  It is exciting when we find a whole wedding ensemble, complete with accessories.  Sometimes there is even a photo of the bride wearing it, and if you’re lucky, the original record has correspondence from the donor about who wore it, what the wedding was like, etc.  One time there was a letter describing how the newlyweds drove off from the church in a carriage led by their prize-winning horses!  Then there was the one that said the dress was from her first marriage and it wasn’t a happy one… So many stories!


Wedding dress c.1881-1885, complete with shoes and fan, below!  There was also extra fabric and a pair of stockings.


The other really exciting thing to find in the dirty room are dressmaker’s labels.  Every once in a while, there is a New York or Paris label.  Often, they are from Philadelphia!  It is so cool that the collection really tells the history of a certain place and the people in it.  One of my personal favorite finds is this gorgeous formal day dress with the label “Darlington, Runk & Co, Philadelphia.”  Usually the maker is printed on the waist tape of the bodice, but this one had another label on the back, too!  It’s from 1870-75.


64_63_5label1Then of course there is just a lot of eye candy!  And apparently I have a thing for buttons.  I love the buttons!

This beauty was labeled 1830-40. It is printed cotton with velvet trim and buttons, and is all hand-sewn (pre-widespread use of sewing machines!) Most garments we saw were 1870s-1900s, so it was exciting to see something older!

This beauty was labeled 1830-40. It is printed cotton with velvet trim and buttons, and is all hand-sewn (pre-widespread use of sewing machines!) Most garments we saw were 1870s-1900s, so it was exciting to see something older!

detail of a wedding dress from 1903, label: Foley Philadelphia

detail of a wedding dress from 1903, label: Foley Philadelphia.  More dangly bits!


This c.1870 showstopper is by L. Hentenaar, Paris. We found a few pieces by this maker, but it seems pretty obscure… more research to be done!

1920 Worth velvet evening coat with quilted lining and 2 FULL FOXES as the collar. The heads are on the back. There are feet in there, too.

1920s Worth velvet evening coat with quilted lining and 2 FULL FOXES as the collar. The heads are on the back. There are feet in there, too.

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As classes at FIT are starting up again this week (after these couple of snow days – woo!) my time at Drexel has come to an end for now.  I hope to stay involved there and continue to help out with their fabulous collection!  I leave the Dirty Room tasks in the capable hands of Hannah, a student at Drexel who is doing her co-op at the collection.  May you find many treasures!

Montreal Museums and la Mode

Hi everyone! It has been quite a while since I last posted on this blog, but I’ve decided it’s time to revive it because I have so many exciting things to write about (and photos of course!) For those of you who don’t know, I currently live in New York City and I am about to start my final semester in a masters program at the Fashion Institute of Technology called “Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice.” It has been an interesting year and a half in New York with many ups and downs, and I am excited to graduate and enter a new field that I love! For this post, though, I’m going to go back to why I started this blog in the first place – France! Unfortunately I haven’t made it back to France since my amazing stay as a language teaching assistant in Le Puy-en-Velay, but I did recently visit the next best thing – Montreal! Igor and I took a trip for my birthday, and it was so wonderful to be in another francophone city. Montreal has such an active and diverse cultural life, and I was happy to find that two different fashion exhibitions were on view while we were there, one at the McCord Museum and one at the Musée du Costume et du Textile du Québec. Today I’ll talk about “Chic et Choc,” presented by MCTQ.

image from mctq.org

image from mctq.org

The theme of this exhibition is embellishment – stones, beads, sequins gold threads… At first, this can seem like a kind of obvious or unoriginal theme – let’s put a bunch of glittery flashy stuff on display!  But I actually really enjoyed the way MCTQ curated this show, from the choice of objects to how they were displayed, and especially the accompanying labels that made you think about more than just our attraction to all that is glitter and gold.  I like this quote from the introductory text: “The CHIC & CHOC exhibition explores this glittering, fascinating world of dazzling garments and accessories.  It also sheds light on the raw materials involved and the element of inconvenience: fabric quality and maintenance, material sourcing and use, craft or industrial production.  The impacts and implications of this taste for luxury are exposed: this is the CHOC.”


The exhibition started with some beautiful accessories


I thought this purse from 1910-1929 was particularly impressive because of the beautiful pattern and the teeny tiny metal beads. Beads like that would never be produced today!

The exhibition was divided into sections, and in each section elements of “CHIC” and “CHOC” were discussed, along with symbols resembling the care instructions on a garment label, which I thought was a clever little addition.  I particularly liked that several sections touched on conservation issues, like the discussion of dresses from the 1920s that are of lightweight fabric embroidered with (literally) heavy beading and embroidery.  Over time, the fabric rips from the weight of the embellishment and the poor dresses are often falling apart after almost 100 years.  Many museums have these incredibly beautiful dresses housed in flat storage because they have ripped shoulders and cannot be hung.  It is a bit sad, like a fashion morgue or something, but then I think of the spirit in which these dresses were probably made.  They were not made to last; they were made to be worn to a few parties, where I like to think that the free spirited, fun loving wearer danced the night away and enjoyed some cocktails, her dress glittering with every move.  Then the dress was tossed aside when the wearer (who, let’s face it, was probably filthy rich) decided she wanted a new one.  Isn’t that the life?  Anyway, I thought it was great that the exhibition brought up this issue that I think most people don’t really think about. The label below also touches on other issues embellishments have – sequins used to be made of gelatin, which is water-soluble (so be careful when washing vintage pieces with sequins!), and metal can rust, glass can break, etc.


As this was in Quebec, all of the labels were in French and English – take note, learners of French! This is a great way to practice and learn new words!

I was so happy that the museum chose to display these dresses even though they are too fragile to be put on a mannequin. I wish more museums would display items flat so that the public can see them, instead of leaving these beauties in storage for only a lucky few to see.

I was so happy that the museum chose to display these dresses even though they are too fragile to be put on a mannequin. I wish more museums would display objects flat for public viewing instead of leaving these beauties in storage for only a lucky few to see.



The exhibition space was small, but I love how they divided sections with these slightly sheer black fabric panels. It gave you direction but didn’t make the space feel smaller. (Aaaand these are the things that you only really think about when you are in school for museum studies, right?)

The exhibition spanned the entire twentieth century, and included a mix of both designer pieces and pieces not attributed to a designer.  I liked that the focus was on the garments themselves and what went into making them, rather than highlighting only pieces made by famous names.  As someone who loves making clothes and learning about historical construction techniques and materials, this was totally up my alley.  There was also a video that featured interviews of artisans who discussed how the industry of embellished materials has changed, and how it is difficult now to make a living doing work by hand.  They explained that while machine embellishment is cheaper, hand sewn beading is much more durable and long-lasting.


Confession: I secretly have a thing for giant paillettes. I’m loving the top on the right, although I’m not sure if I could pull of wearing something like that in public!

One of the major highlights of the exhibition was a costume that Celine Dion wore on stage (fitting for this museum, since she is from Québec!).  They even displayed the original pattern for the pants, which were hand beaded with Swarovski crystals.



kind of cheesy and 90s, but that’s 1999 for ya.

complete with mic pack!

complete with mic pack!

Overall, I found the exhibition really enjoyable!  I wish Montreal was closer so that I could visit more often.  It is such a great city with wonderful museums, food, tons of festivals, and just a really unique feel with how diverse and multilingual it is. (Although there are a few too many underground malls.  Like, way too many… don’t get out on the “St Catherine Street” side of the subway station because you will get stuck in blocks and blocks of underground malls.)

One last thing from MCTQ that I would like to share – these incredible paper garments were displayed in the Marché Bonsecours where the museum is located.  Aren’t they great?  They trace the fashionable silhouette from the 1880s to the 1920s.


This mini exhibition was put on by the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec

DSCN5418 DSCN5428Well, that’s all for now.  Thank you for reading, and I look forward to sharing more of my fun fashion- and museum-related adventures!  Stay tuned for a post about the McCord Museum’s exhibition Love in Fine Fashion: Wedding Dresses from the McCord Museum.

Dinan et St Malo: Aventures en Bretagne


After Nantes, we headed north to the Atlantic coast in Bretagne.  We spent two nights in a little medeival town called Dinan, which is about an hour south of the shore (by train, so probably closer by car).  I didn’t really know what to expect other than it’s in Bretagne, which has a reputation for cold rainy weather and celtic influences, since it’s right across from England.  A teacher at the school I worked at said she went there and loved it, and it’s slightly less touristy than the coastal towns (but still quite a few tourists when we went there), so we decided to go there.  It turned out to be a really good choice!  It did rain one day, but if it had to rain during our vacation, I’m glad that it was in Bretagne since that seems to be the natural states of things there.  It only rained 2 days during our whole month of vacation, and in Bretagne the rain is kind of romantic anyway.

on the ramparts in the rain

When you go to the tourist office and ask what to do in Dinan, they give you a map and just say follow the line that gives you a tour around the town, and then walk around the ramparts.  So that is what we did.  You can basically see the whole town in a few hours, but it is so cute and there are so many delicious things to eat that we definitely didn’t get bored.  There’s also a little port on a river with a view of a pretty aqueduct, and lots of artisan shops and restaurants.  I kind of felt like I was in a real-life renaissance festival.  All the little shops and all the good food and the cute little houses and the cobblestone… It’s super adorable!  It actually kind of reminded us of Le Puy, being a small medieval town.  We’re used to that now, which is strange.  It wasn’t surprising to see houses from the 15th century, it was more comforting because we were in an environment that we recognized.  Funny how things change like that… I think I’ll be afraid of big roads and cars now in the US.

they had a harp museum!

artisan shops


view of the ramparts

On our way down to the river, we stumbled upon some really good looking seafood restaurants and we realized just how close to the ocean we were!  There was so much seafood, and it was so cheap!  We unknowingly picked probably the best restaurant in town; we were only seated because we were eating abnormally early (6:30), and by the time we left all the table were full with people who had reservations.  It turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip!

For my first course, I had prawns and some big shell creatures served on a silver platter with ice. So fancy!

Igor had oysters for the first time, and I’m pretty sure the waitress thought it was hilarious when he asked how to eat them. She said that the shallot-infused vinegar makes it taste better and also helps to kill it. Apparently the oysters are so fresh that they’re still alive, and you have to detach them from the shell! (I think most places in the US serve them already detached)

Fisherman’s pot. Sea creatures are really hard to de-shell when they’re in a soup! Good thing I don’t mind getting messy and playing with my food!

Igor’s main course was a fish that they brought out raw and grilled on the fireplace in the dining room, right before our eyes! Can’t get any fresher than that.

On our second day in Dinan, we had another great meal when we went for breakfast at a tea salon.  The special that day was Irish breakfast, and there was an actual Irish woman cooking it for us!  She made us unlimited pancakes, and they were probably the best pancakes I have ever had in my life.  So light and fluffy!  Then, despite the rain, we walked around the city and the ramparts and made sure we didn’t miss any of the sites.  Here they are:

the castle

the clock tower

Some of the oldest buildings in Dinan, I think they are from the 13th century

Basilique Saint Sauveur

view from the ramparts

a drawbridge! view from inside the castle

view from the top of the castle

In the dungeons of the castle there were a bunch of tombstones of knights. This one is Rolland de Dinan, who died in 1186. The tombstone wasn’t carved until 1230 or 1240 though (weird). It’s remarkably well preserved, as you can still see the chainmail detail. Pretty cool!

Our last night in Dinan was quite a success.  We found an awesome pub with really good live jazz, and they even had Sam Adams!  Igor was really excited, and so was the bartender.  Apparently he had been trying to get Sam Adams in the bar for over a year, and he had just gotten it in the day before!

St Malo

Our next stop was St Malo on the Atlantic coast.  Seeing the Atlantic was amazing; it was so nice to be back on our home ocean!  The Mediterranean is beautiful and bright and sunny, but the Atlantic at St Malo is a strong, stormy, powerful ocean.  For the first time, I really understood the difference between a sea and an ocean.  St Malo seems like the type of place where a poet could hole himself up in a house on a cliff with a view of the ocean, and he could get all the inspiration he needed.  It’s the kind of ocean that is even more beautiful in the rain, and the tide is absolutely incredible.  When we first arrived, it was pouring rain, so we just took a short walk to the beach to see the view:

There were people parasailing in cold, rainy weather! The people of St Malo must be really hardy, because it rains all the time, and yet everyone there was so nice and smiling all the time. They were the most open people we met on our whole trip!

A few hours later it stopped raining, so we decided to walk to the old walled city and walk around the ramparts.  Here is the view of the same spot on the beach:

The tide was insane!  There was a walled walkway by the beach, and we had to be careful where we walked because the waves were so strong that they were going over the wall!

beware of the man-eating waves!

first view of the walled city

The flag of Bretagne flying high!

St Malo was another city filled with beautiful sights and great food.  Bretagne is probably my favorite region for food specialties, especially sweets.  Crêpes, Galettes, cider, salted butter caramel (on/in everything!)… SO GOOD!  We also discovered our new favorite pastry, a Breton specialty called the ‘Kouign Amann’.  It’s like a little butter pastry/caramel roll thingy, and it is amazing.  Then there is the seafood, of course.  We had another incredible meal, this time with a view of the ocean right outside our window (yay for making reservations!).  There can’t be anything better than sharing a great meal with a view the waves rolling in just feet away from you, and a beautiful sunset.  I will never forget it.

Kouign Amann. This one has apples in it!

first course: seafood platter with crab, langoustine, tiny shell creatures, giant shell creatures, and oysters. SO GOOD! (further research has shown me that these unknown shell creatures whose names I didn’t recognize in French and didn’t know in English are actually whelks and winkles, or small and large edible sea snails. They are delicious.)

mmm oysters!

the view at the beginning of dinner

Igor was very proud when he finally was able to get one of the tiny sea creatures out of its shell. We wondered for a while if they were actually just garnishes because it was so much work sticking a tiny pick into a tiny shell to get such a tiny piece of meat. But they were so good!

For the main course, Igor got a 3-fish sauerkraut, and I got my new favorite meat, duck.

Dessert was a millefeuille made with speculoos, and a crème brulée for Igor

By dessert, the sun was an amazing orange and the waves had risen to just below the window. We watched the sun slip below the horizon.

Our last day in St Malo, we got lucky with some sunny weather (although still very windy and a bit chilly!) and we did a short tour of the old town, including lunch at a Crêperie on the ramparts, which used to be a military post.

The first time we saw this view, the beach was totally covered with water. Now, at low tide, people can walk to the fort!

My last gallette in Bretagne.  For dessert I had a flaming crêpe with Grand Marnier!

Last Kouign Amann, complete with the Breton flag!

The port of St Malo

Needless to say, we will miss Bretagne.  It is a region of culinary delights, tumultuous ocean waves, a rich, unique history, and friendly people.  For now, I will have to survive with fond memories and photos, but I like to think that we will meet again someday!  Goodbye, my new favorite region!


Special delivery from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris:  as promised, the video of the elephant!


I’ll be back in Boston tonight, but I’ll continue going through my pictures and writing new posts about vacation after I’ve slept of my jet lag.  Can’t wait to see everyone!