art history friday

What does this chair, designed by Hans Wegner, have to do with John F. Kennedy? Read the story on our blog


[Hans Wegner. Armchair. 1949. The Museum of Modern Art, New York]

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It’s FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today we are discussing another very specific piece of fashion history: Lover’s Eye Jewelry. Much like hair jewelry (which I discuss here) while the concept may seem very foreign to us today, these pieces were highly valued and treasured keepsakes.

The concept of lover’s eye jewelry, known in it’s time as eye miniatures, is pretty obvious. Lover’s would commission miniature portraits of just their eyes. The portraits would be incorporated into all types of jewelry, such as brooches, necklaces, and bracelets. They were seen as much more intimate than a typical portrait. Since the portrait focused solely on that one feature, only those closest to the portrait’s subject would be able to identify to whom the eye belonged. This meant that eye portraits were rarely turned into lockets, as was common with typical miniature portraits. The anonymity of eye portraits also caused these miniatures to develop a bit of a reputation of being exchanged between forbidden loves, whether the star-crossed lovers, those in the midst of scandalous affairs, or even men and their mistresses.

Eye miniatures were also seen as especially intimate because of how personal eyes themselves are. As we have all heard, “the eyes are the window to the soul.”

Such a romantic piece of jewelry deserves an equally romantic story to accompany it. While no one is certain where eye miniatures got their start, it was the tale of a forbidden love between a prince and a commoner which sparked the trend’s popularity. In the 1780s, the future King George IV fell head over heals in love with commoner Maria Fitzherbert. She was 6 years his elder, twice widowed, and, most controversial in Britain at the time, Catholic. Both knew that the relationship would never be approved of by the King, George III, and so Maria resisted. Yet the Prince of Wales (George IV) persisted, and Maria fell for him in return. She presented the Prince with an eye miniature pin, which it was rumored he wore hidden under his lapel. The two were wed in secret, yet the marriage was never recognized as valid by the British government. Likely due to the rejection from King George III, the two separated in the 1790s. George went on to marry another (the full story is fascinating- I recommend reading up on it.) However, on George IV’s deathbed, he requested to be buried along with Maria’s eye miniature, a wish that was granted.

Eye miniatures remained popular through the early Victorian Age. Mystery shrouds most surviving examples, as it is nearly impossible to identify the eye without solid provenance. Though they fell from popularity, lover’s eye jewelry never disappeared completely, and are still created on the rare occasion today.

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

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It’s FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today’s topic is another fantastic example about how fashion was a reflection of society. This is a particularly important example, though, because this fashion reflected the early seeds of feminism, as women fought for the right to an education in an age where they were only allowed to pursue domestic endeavors. We’re talking about dishabille.

(Sidenote: This was another section of my masters dissertation, where I also discussed how riding habits reflected another angle of the early feminist movement. You can read my Fact on that here.)

Dishabille, derived from the French word “déshabille” meaning “undressed,” has it’s origins as private homewear in the 17th century, yet it first became commonplace as a fashion to be seen when the banyan rose in popularity in men’s portraits (read here.) Not long after the style became popular for men, though, women began claiming the trend as their own.

There was a huge range of dishabille among women. It could mean anything from a disheveled look to undergarments and a robe. Sometimes stays were simply loosened, other times women went without stays altogether. A woman might wrap herself in a shawl, or wear an banyan and turban very similar to that worn by men. As with the men, these styles were intended to be worn in private, yet it became a common, and very meaningful, choice for portraits.

Some women may have wished to be depicted in dishabille because it seemed shocking and rebellious. More often, though, it appears as though women wished to display their own intelligence by wearing similar fashions to those worn by male scholars and intellectuals. Women strove to demonstrate that they embraced the pursuit of intellectual endeavors, and were fully capable of achieving academic accomplishments. As with men’s banyans, dishabille was a sign of function over fashion. This is emphasized by the fact that over half of all female dishabille portraits depict the sitter with a book in hand, or sometimes a pen. They also are often depicted with a pensive expression. Many of the top members of the Bluestocking Society, an organization which promoted the education of women, were depicted in dishabille. The look was also often melded with classical inspirations, as neoclassicism was simultaneously gaining popularity (read here).

It is important not to confuse dishabille in portraiture with boudoir or toilette genre paintings, which were also common at the time. Those genres were intended to either be seductive images or realistic depictions of everyday life. Dishabille was meant to imply a disregard for high fashion in lieu of more substantive and intelligent pursuits. Of course,  as the dishabille style gained popularity into the late 18th Century, women may have begun to choose to be portrayed in such a manner because it became the fashionable thing to do. Additionally, as it gained popularity in portraits, it also gained more popularity in real life. With the help of Marie Antoinette’s casual cotton chemise (read here) women began to wear mild forms of dishabille outside the house. Naturally, traditionalist were shocked and appalled by the loose, relaxed fashions. But as we know, the softer styles would eventually take over the formal rococo fashions, and by the end of the century, classicism reigned supreme.

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

#Fashion Friday

“La flute de pan” from Falbalas et Fanfreluches 2eme Almanach des Modes Présentes, Passées & Futures Pour 1923. 1923 Colette Modes. Aquarelles par G. Barbier. Meynial editeur Paris.

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Happy FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today I’m going more modern than I’ve ever gone before in these posts. And what better topic to go modern with than one that is named for the term? That’s right, we’re talking mod! Specifically, we are talking about the one piece of fashion that arguably epitomized the mod culture: the paper dress.

I’ve spoken about dresses made out of unusual materials before (see: the glass dress) but what is so interesting about the paper dress is how popular it was, albeit for a short time. In 1966, the Scott Paper Company released a marketing campaign where it would ship customers a dress made out of “Dura-Weve” paper for just $1.25 (a dollar for the dress and 25 cents handling.) The material was essentially a cellulose paper mixed with traces of rayon. This gave the dress more durability and flexibility as compared to standard paper. The original Scott Company paper dress was sold in two patterns, a black and white geometric “op-art” print, and a red paisley “bandana” print. Both the simplistic cut and bold patterns of the dress were clearly aimed at capturing the attention of the booming mod culture.

The typically young crowd who followed the mod lifestyle were known to strive for the next, newest, and even most futuristic styles, whether it be music, art, or clothes. They were bold and sleek, and broke away from all things traditional. In essence, they were the opposite of the World War II “Greatest Generation” which preceded them. So how does the paper dress fit into this? The disposable nature of the paper dress was highly appealing to the mod generation. Many believed paper was the fabric of the future, and that one day all clothing would be made out of the material. It was fast-fashion at it’s fastest. The ephemeral nature of the dresses meant that you could consistently (and affordably) purchase new clothing. It also blended well with the art of the day. This was peak Warhol era, and his pop art prints were perfect to adorn the simple shift dresses, as were the colorful psychedelic prints of the time. Paper dresses made it easy to always wear the newest patterns and art.

Several companies quickly followed Scott’s lead, and soon paper dresses were everywhere, as well as other styles of paper clothing, including menswear. Within a year, though, the novelty faded, and the realization of the impracticality outweighed the idealistic image of paper clothing. The fad disappeared as quickly as it began. Yet paper clothing hasn’t vanished completely. Instead, it found it’s niche in hospitals, where it’s affordable and disposable nature is perfect for sanitary purposes. So in a way, the mod’s were right, paper was the fabric of the future, just not in the way they expected.

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

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Once again, it’s FRIDAY FASHION FACT! All the time I get asked: In past centuries, why did little boys wear dresses? The answer is simple- it’s all about practicality.

You have all seen the images, whether it be in art or in the movies, of the little 18th Century toddler wearing a frilly white dress. Girls and boys both sported the look. The first thought is probably, why dress such a young child in such a pristine look? Kids are so messy! Were the child in a delicate silk, then yes, it would be highly impractical. But a durable cotton or linen was another story. Mothers throughout history dressed their children in white for the same reason so many parents dress their children in white today- you can bleach the hell out of it. In the days before washing machines and Clorox for Colors, a lot of outerwear would only be spot cleaned. Of course, wealthy families would dress their children in colors and fine fabrics occasionally, typically for special occasions and such. This is important to keep in mind when you see portraits, which are often over-exaggerations of reality.

Wearing a dress was far more practical for both genders. Remember, spandex and stretchy fabrics did not exist. Try to imagine trying to coax a squirming baby into a pair of structured trousers with button closures. Seems like it’d be challenging, to say the least- not to mention how uncomfortable it would be for the child. Now think about the fact that babies grow by the day. With no stretch to the fabric, children would be growing out of their trousers every few weeks. This is also why children in the 5-10ish age range would wear short pantaloons or knickers- since they were cropped already, they hid growth better.

Finally, there was the diaper factor. These days, so much has been done to make the diaper changing process as simple as possible- disposable diapers with stretchy sides and tape closures, onesies that literally come off with a snap, and wet wipes, ready to use and toss as necessary. In past centuries, though, dresses were the best option to simplify changing diapers.

There are many rumors that dressing both genders the same as infants was due to high infant mortality rates, that by not distinguishing genders could make loosing a child slightly less difficult. This is just a rumor. Though both genders wore dresses, there were distinguishing features. Hair styles were the most common (once long enough to be cut.) By toddler years, when children were old enough to have some structure to their clothing, girls’ bodices would mimic adults, while boys’ would often button up front. Trims would also reflect the respective adult versions.

When boys reached the age when they were fully toilet-trained, they would be breeched- aka, they would begin wearing trousers. The occasion was a very big deal, and typically marked the point where fathers became more involved in raising their sons.

Want to learn more about historical infant clothing? Check out these books:

Children’s Clothes Since 1750, by Clare Rose

Clothes and the Child: A Handbook of Children’s Dress in England, 1500-1900, by Anne Buck

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!