As awearer of vintage clothing, I come across numerous interesting garment labels. Some are minimalistic, some are extravagant, some quirky and some plain. One recurrent theme I have found on my clothing is that of the union workers label. I have two items which feature the label of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, or ILGWU, and one for the United Garment Makers of America, or UGMA.
ILGWU label found of a vintage skirt
The ILGWU was created in New York in 1900 and lasted until 1995, when the decline of American-made garments necessitated the merging of fabric worker unions. ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE. UGMA was founded in New York in 1891 and similarly survived until its merging with the United Food and Commercial Workers union in 1994.
UGMA label found on a vintage coat
Purchasing union-made garments was a source of patriotic pride throughout the twentieth century. A consumer of union products supported, whether inadvertently or conscientiously, the cause of fair wages and safe working conditions. Their purchase also directly supported the consumer’s countrymen and women and the national economy. Union labels meant more than that a garment was simply a product of American labour, however. Many labels from both the ILGWU and UGMA include a unique code made up of numbers and letters which identify the specificities of an item’s production. With this code, a consumer could hypothetically locate and contact the exact union member who created his or her garment. This was vital in emphasising that clothing items were created by specific human beings. It could potentially have reminded consumers — distanced from the creation of clothing by ready-to-wear in the mid-twentieth century and fast fashion at the end of the century — that behind their clothes were living, breathing, tax-paying individuals who deserved fair wages and recognition, however minor, for their hard work.
The author at Ely Cathedral wearing skirt with ILGWU label and coat with UGMA label
The concepts of union labels and unique item codes have been largely lost today, as the majority of garments are exported to places without unions in order to reduce production costs. When you look at, say, the jumper from Primark and the jeans from Topshop which you were given for Christmas, chances are their tags will name foreign countries of origin, lands which most of us have never visited. The distance we feel from the people creating the clothes we wear is recreated and perpetuated by this physical global distance from where our clothes are manufactured.
Recently, as part of the Documenting Fashion MA, we visited the Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum. The exhibition features many glamorous evening dresses set out in tableaux and a number of colourful day outfits laid out thematically, from holiday wear to work wear. I previously had little knowledge of 1930s styles as, in my experience, they have often been eclipsed in the popular consciousness by the more famous 1920s Flapper fashions or the ‘New Look’ hourglass designs of the mid-twentieth century. 1930s styles were simple and elegant, yet bold and playful, which is perhaps why many elements of fashion from this period have endured. At the exhibition, I was struck by how much of the day wear contained features which were previously, in my mind, associated with the 1970s; yellow, brown and orange colour combinations, floating fabrics, long skirts and fluted sleeves. Apparently, I was told by my course mates, this is because in the 1970s there was a popular trend towards vintage – particularly 1930s – clothing and styles. One garment which highlights this interrelation between 1930s fashions and later styles is a long summer dress made of fine, white cotton or chiffon, decorated with brightly coloured polka dots. The layered skirt and ruffled sleeves are striking yet elegant, and it is possible to see how such elements were reinterpreted in 1970s fashions. Furthermore, the delicate fabric and stylish pattern would not be out of place among summer garments today.
What also struck me about the 1930s dresses, particularly the evening gowns, was how figure-hugging they were, with silks – as well as newly invented synthetic silk-like fabrics, such as rayon – closely skimming the shape of the body. We were told by our guide that these garments were so tightly-fitted that no underwear could be worn with them as it would have shown through the thin silk and ruined the elegant sweep of the dress. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this trend for figure-hugging evening wear coincided with a vogue for fitness and health, which encouraged women to work towards the ‘ideal’ sporty body. This close-fitting style appears sensual and noticeably revealing even to the modern eye, displaying an attractive and alluring silhouette. I love many of the garments in the exhibition, but one of my particular favourites is a beautiful, bright yellow silk gown with a subtle ruffle of fabric around the shoulders and bust. The colour is strikingly modern, reminiscent of the currently fashionable ‘Gen-Z Yellow’, and stands out even among the array of brightly coloured dresses. Another favourite is a peach gown which makes great use of the bias cut, popular in the 1930s, which meant that the fabric would have rippled gently down the body. The cut-out detailing on the back is reminiscent of Art Deco geometric patterns which were in fashion, particularly for home wear, during this period.
The 1930s fashions we saw in this exhibition are elegant, colourful and glamorous. They have a definite air of chic refinement but also utilise bold patterns and innovative styles which give them a sense of vibrant modernity. This fusion may be why elements of these styles have endured for nearly 100 years yet still appear modern today.
Photos by Lily-Evelina England and Jeordy Raines with permission from the Fashion and Textile Museum.
This past week, the Courtauld had its annual winter ball, a chance for students to dress up in their fanciest evening wear and celebrate the end of term. During the 1930s, minaudières became a staple of women’s evening wardrobes. Defined as jewellery, these were miniature oblong cases which acted as purses or bags for cosmetics and other items considered essential for a smart evening out. In 1934, Van Cleef and Arpels patented the design and created luxury metal versions, finished with beautiful stones or lacquer. Even though they were beautiful and highly decorative, these cases were also functional – aimed at optimising space whilst carrying necessary items. Studying these items as dress historians proves most interesting because they reveal what were considered the essentials for an evening out in the 1930s.
This minaudière, which has been passed down the line of women in my family, appears to be from the years following the 1930s. An inscription on one of the clasps shows it is made by L.S. Mayer for ‘Park Lane Deluxe.’ The exterior is in an art deco style faux shagreen, a beautiful pebble green colour with a speckled pattern, and a gold metal frame. It has a chain which would have been worn round the wearer’s wrist whilst dancing at the balls, also making it fulfil the role of a decorative bracelet. In the first section inside there features a very generously sized mirror which runs the entire length of the minaudière, and opposite that there are two compartments which include rouge and powder, complete with the puffs to apply them. There is a fold up tortoiseshell hair comb, and a section at the bottom for a bullet of lipstick or perhaps cigarettes. Each aspect of the design has been carefully thought through to make do with the small space and to maximise its functionality.
On the reverse of the minaudière, there is another mirror and a notepad and pen with a holder. There is also a hidden compartment below this which flaps up to reveal a long and narrow case, which could have contained alcohol or was a cigarette lighter. What makes this minaudière stand out from the rest is that it differs greatly from any usual accessory, because it features a notepad and pen. As my grandmother says, this could have been for women to write down the names of their partners to dance with at the ball. Either way, it asserts the active role women had at the time in terms of fashioning their own identity. The minaudière is also interesting when compared to modern day clutch bags used on nights out such as the Courtauld’s Winter Ball. Usually there is at the very most a tiny zip pocket in clutch bags, and the rest is an empty space. On the one hand, the 1930s minaudières were genius in that they planned out each and every thing that might be needed, and catered for it within the case. On the other hand, nowadays we have much more freedom in choosing which items we consider as essentials in our individual clutch bags, and therefore how our evenings will be defined.
I have, for some time now, been in love with Christie’s prints and was so happy to hear that she accepted my request to interview her. We met at Barbican Centre and talked about her work and inspiration, Mid Century Modern and fashion.
What are you wearing today and could you tell me a little about the pieces?
Today’s outfit is a pair of vintage 1950s sage green wool ‘White Stag’ label pants with a green and navy print shirt, also vintage 50s. The shirt’s unlabelled and has become one of my favourites for its ‘dressed up’ simplicity. The white bucks are from ‘repro vintage’ footwear brand Rocket Originals, bought back in 2012 and the navy swing jacket I have on is marked ‘Wyandotte Fabric, 100% wool’, with no fastenings, just a large lapel and deep pockets. It’s also vintage 50s, complete with an excellent pink/purple sharkskin lining. (A good lining is crucial!)
The jacket, the pants and shirt are from Etsy, where about 80% of what is in my wardrobe is from. The vinyl purse I don’t remember buying. This is probably 60s judging by the zip. The necklace I’m wearing is Danish silver dating from the late 1950s and was bought as a job lot along with a few other mid-century Danish silver pieces from a Swedish auction site – bought for peanuts. Finally, the green bangle (once again 50s!) was bought on a trip to Berlin.
What inspired you to pursue a career in textiles?
I am a believer that design should be fully accessible, embraced and experienced as much as possible – and the home as a canvas so to speak proves a great platform for my designs in interior textiles & soft furnishings.
In terms of how I finally came to take this direction, having always been interested in art and hand crafts. It took on a new element when I began studying textiles design alongside modern art and design at the end of high school. Not only was I able to construct my own garments and products, but I could also design the fabric too, with this new passion for mid-century modern design language in all its many forms. I went on to specialise in print and textiles at college in Leeds then finished my studies in London with a degree in printmaking and surface pattern design at university in 2012.
Courtesy Christie Goule.
How would you describe your work?
I’d say my design aesthetic was bold and illustrative, sometimes playful. I always manage to fall into using patterns of either spots or stripes in my work, sometimes in the loosest sense – an appreciation of the simple things I guess! I am more for the bold ‘here and now’ designs which can sit lively and vibrant around us, if we let them. The origins of my inspiration do lie within mid-century art and design, though I am consciously not looking to form copycat work, but looking to carry on and stay true to an aesthetic with such meaning and staying-power which still manages to inspire my own personal development to no end.
Courtesy Christie Goule.
What inspires your work?
Materials and methods both strongly inspire the work I do. I like working a lot by hand and feel the handmade is usually the essence of my designs. Inks, paint, paper, pencils, clay, woven fabric, block printed fabric, and printmaking! It all offers an opportunity to be used and exploited to your advantage as a textiles designer. I like the honesty in the design when using and experiencing such methods and materials as all the above.
Architecture has been a great source of inspiration too. I took a trip to California a couple of years ago, mainly to submerge myself in the mid-century cool which California is effortlessly famous for. Whilst there I was able to see a few case study houses such as the Eames House, took a tour around the Stahl House and stood outside The Frank House where all I was able to do was stare in wonder at the giant door.
Christie at Barbican.
What is your creative process?
My natural creative process is to see a problem or see a need for something, try to picture a solution and fill the gap with plenty of development in the form of drawing, painting and motif play. I have a great source of books and vintage home styling magazines too, which I always get ideas for products or prints from.
Actually, the other day I was preparing dinner, cutting mushrooms randomly, and found some great shapes and lines which I don’t usually see when cutting them. I took some photos and plan to use them as a starting point for some dinner table place settings I want to design for my dining table. I am always considering [a product’s] final resting place and what its natural surrounding should be in an interior.
Juice truck illustrations, courtesy Christie Goule.
What is your relationship with fashion, in particular with vintage fashion?
I am very proud of the things I chose to buy and then wear. I am proud of the fact they could still mean so much today as they did 60s years ago. I also feel a little like a custodian to these pieces and believe they should still be shown off, experienced and experimented with. Oh and naturally a lot of what I own are printed shirts and trousers. I also love the simple and effective materials used in accessories, particularly that of bags and purses.
I prefer the strong mid-twentieth century styles of ‘the beatniks’, ‘sweater-girls’ and juveniles – with their smart cotton basics, statement silhouettes, defiant bold colour choices and forward thinking attitudes! In the 50s it was all about being modern, so I never do feel I was ‘born in the wrong era’, as I tend to politely smile (cringe) when I hear that said to me today.
The appeal of the 50s must be the infections cool these cats had as they entered a room in any film, exit any car or the way their outfit demands so much attention, not always sexual. The attention to detail too – the details and accessories usual speak to me and I can relate these right back to interior design, sculpture or architecture.
The people and the outfits pictured by photographer Julius Shulman help capture the mood of an interior and what it can do to clothing choices. So it is certainly a lot about style in relation or reflection to textiles design and interior design.
Pocket square design, courtesy Christie Goule.
What are your favourite brands/artists/designers?
To start with, Marimekko, Svenkst Tenn & Heals. Ray Eames is an all-time personal hero. Evelyn Ackerman was the most fantastic ceramic, weave and tapestry artist. Picasso, for all he did for textiles design in both fashion and interior and for of course art work. Stig Lindberg will always be a firm favourite ever since visiting Gustavsberg in Sweden and gaining an understanding of his importance in ceramic design and ceramic finishings. Saul Steinberg, as his humour and imagination are endless.
Some past fashion brands I like to wear and shop for are White Stag, Queen Casuals, Paddle and Saddle, Turf and Track and finally Alfred Shaheen (not for the Hawaiian prints he his best known but for the tea-timers and separates).
Number one favourite artists include Jean Arp, Hepworth, Robert Motherwell, Vanessa Bell and Wifredo Lam.
Courtesy Christie Goule.
What projects are you involved in/are in the pipeline at the moment?
Currently, I am just trying to fix myself within a permanent role within an interior textiles design lead studio! Projects wise, I potentially have a collaboration (soon to be ironed out and design vision made a little clearer) with a dear friend of mine who I studied textiles and surface design with at University. We hope to launch a small range of interior textiles involving both weave and print.
Another fun [project] happening right now is sourcing appropriate vintage picture frames for my lino prints. Having had an Etsy shop for a few years, I began to feel that one of the most important things about a print was its frame. Selling my prints framed is making them an easily accessible thing, all ready to buy, hang on a wall and enjoy. I feel the frames also complete the aesthetic I am looking to achieve – the point been that they are all vintage and chosen by me.
Harrison hard at work in the Courtauld Slide Library.
Detail of Harrison’s jacket.
Detail of Harrison’s sleeve.
Harrison is a second year undergraduate at The Courtauld, currently specialising in 20th Century Modernism and Renaissance Mannerism. When he is not studying, he can often be found hard at work in the Gallery, the Research Forum, Public Programmes or the Slide Library. Harrison was the BA1 Representative for the Students Union last year, in addition to playing the role of Malvolio in the Courtauld’s first play, Twelfth Night. Beyond the Courtauld, he works as an Antiques, Collectables and Vintage Consultant, advising clients on buying and selling objects of all genres.
What are you wearing today?
Today I am wearing a navy double-breasted boating blazer, an Austin Reed pinstripe shirt, pale blue chinos and Barker shoes.
How would you describe your style?
Eclectic, vintage, traditional, sartorial.
Have you always dressed like this?
Would you believe it, no! My style emerged and developed when I discovered a love of all things old-fashioned and traditional about 5-6 years ago.
Where do you look for inspiration in how you dress?
I’m quite active in the London ‘vintage’ scene, and have met some amazing people who put real passion into their outfits. But if I see something that I like I’ll try and source one, rather than emulate an entire look.
Harrison participated in the Tweed Run on 17th May 2014, photographed here at Somerset House.
How does your interest in antiques inform your style?
When handling wonderful items, in stunning settings (not to mention dealing with customers) it would be rude to wear a tee-shirt and tracksuit bottoms.
Do you have a particular dress code for the Courtauld and how does this translate when you are ‘off duty’?
We are so privileged to study in such an amazing location, steeped in history. But as I work both in and outside the Courtauld, I often need to be smartly dressed. I did however turn up in a jeans and tee-shirt for a lecture the other day, which a friend was somewhat disturbed by!
What does your look say about you?
Well that is probably in the eye of the beholder! But I hope it would suggest I take pride in my appearance.
Where do you like to shop?
Vintage shops, eBay, and the family wardrobe. I’m sometimes given things, but when buying new I try and stick to long established quality outfitters such as Cordings, Hackett, Wolsey, Jaeger etc.
Any other comments or clothing secrets?
‘Why dress down when you can dress up?’
A small part of Harrison’s Gladstone bag collection.