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!

end of fashion

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…


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.