Sunday, August 30, 2015


    They have been made of everything from the rudest materials, to the most fine. They have been everything from dead plain, to fantastically bejeweled and bedecked.  And for roughly 200 years they were an essential part of a woman's wardrobe.  What?  The stomacher.
    By definition a stomacher is a triangular piece, separate from the gown, that was laced, sewn, pinned, or otherwise temporarily affixed between the two sides of the open dress, to connect it across the torso.  Sometimes it was heavily boned, and stood as part of the corseting women endured.  Sometimes it was entirely decorative, and was simply used as a cover over the corset.  In proportion it shifted considerably over time.  And at the end of its primacy, the lower point was so sharp, and reached so far down, that sitting became problematic.  The upper edge sometimes concealed the majority of the breast, and at its most revealing, left the nipples exposed, which were then covered with bits of lace, or shawls called fichus.
    Apart from its practical function of closing the front of the open gown over the body from upper torso to waist, it performed as a prime place for decorative imagination to be expressed.  At the highest end, stomachers were made up with precious metal laces, strewn with real jewels, and densely embroidered.  The stomacher was a versatile item as well, allowing a lady to significantly alter the look she was wearing, by trading out a simple stomacher of a row of ribbon bows, for one more extravagantly decorated.  Since they were simple to construct, and fairly small, they could be easily made up by a lady herself, so they became a strong marker of a woman's tastes and skills with the needle.  They were also sometimes given as love gifts, because of their potentially great expense, and also because of where they sat on the body.  A gentleman giving a stomacher to a lady, implied a high level of real, or desired intimacy, so they were not given lightly. 
    Connected to that, is the literal triangulation that they create on a woman's body. A stomacher, positioned as it is, points directly to both the secondary and primary sexual parts, like a trio of arrows saying here, here, and here.  So they also function as an unsubtle reinforcement of the primary roles of women in society at the time, sex, and progeny.   It is curious to think about that, especially with the boned versions of stomachers that existed, there was a kind of armorial protection implicit in their use and placement, rather like a cuirass, in men's armor.  It was as though a man was being told that, if one could get past the rigid door, everything would be his.  So a flirtatious game of invitation, and refusal got played out, with this simple three sided flat object.
    So here are an array of examples that show both the variations of shape, and some of the range of decoration that they employed.  We are fortunate that, because the boned versions were so sturdily made, many of them have survived to give us a glimpse.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Scatter #70

    Another week has flown by and here we are again, back in my brain's attic, or is it the sub-basement?  I can never tell.  Anyhow here comes your Scatter to the week!

    As globalization continues to spread, a seemingly endless array of differing ways of employing the Attire language are emerging. These images are of some of the Fashion Rebels of Praetoria, South Africa.  Pulling influences and garments from multiple cultures and sources, they are creating a new dialog that is cheeky, crosses gender boundaries, and challenges us to think differently.

    Congratulations to Maitele Wawe, Sizophila Diezl, and Thifhelimbilu Mudau, of the Social Market Praetoria, who are the minds behind Fashion Rebels, for pushing the conversation forward in this, to me at least, delightful way.
    Very often, accessories are created for runway presentation that the designer knows are never meant to be put into production and worn anywhere besides a layout for a magazine.  But the ephemera that gets created is often powerfully expressive, and all the more so because it will be used in an Attire expression just a few times before fading out of existence.  As absurd as these beaded sandals are, with their feathers grazing the ground, the communicative nature of them is strong.  They inspire immediate imagery and association in our minds. Perhaps we think of Africa, or Native American tribal cultures.  Perhaps we start seeing ritual dance in our minds. Whatever the association we draw up, the point is, that its a potent one.
    The importance of body art in our broadening culture is gaining ground daily.  And as it does, more and more people are not just having a tattoo done to have one, but they are beginning to think more holistically, taking the entirety of their person into consideration when they choose and place their permanent body additions.  More and more often, the usage of tattooing, and other body modifications, is taking on a decidedly artful, thoughtful manner of expression.  It makes me look forward to seeing much more of what we crazy, curious, inventive humans will come up with.
    For many people, the 1860s, with the vast round skirts, and abundant decorations, is the apex of romantic dress.  This is a lovely example of that.  Made in England in 1866, this creamy yellow silk ball dress has a cotton tulle overlay that is extensively embroidered in gold thread and purl. There is a second layer, like an apron, worn on the back, and a short ruffle of the tulle with gold, at the broad, low neckline.  This must have been enchanting looking in candlelight, and most especially while sweeping the floor, dancing.  And we are already seeing the beginnings of a train, which presaged the collapse of the skirt and the movement of all that volume to the rear.
    This just made me smile so much I had to add it into the mix.  A shoulder bag designed to look like a huge koi fish.  The introduction of a loudly trumpeting accessory like this has to be handled with care, because it can easily overtake everything else, and drive what is being said visually, in a direction that wasn't intended.  But used thoughtfully, something like this can make the whole assembly sing.  In the case of this, part of what makes this bag work is the great attention to detail. The thoughts that come up for me are Japan, marine biology, and swimming.

    One of the significant changes for men in the past decade or so is the increasing importance of the perfectly sculpted body. Its become your first accessory. And the biggest indicators that you have the right accessory are sculpted pecs, and 8 pack abs.  I understand, and have written many times about the desire we have to mark ourselves as members of a group, culture or tribe. This is exactly that mechanism in action.  What is different of course, is that it is affecting our very bodies, and how we feel about them.  While I will not fault the desire to be fit, what I find worrisome is that its ramping up the level of anxiety around having just the right body.  Of course, women have been dealing with this for a long time now.  And the feminist in me has trouble feeling sympathetic with men who are struggling with this. But in the larger cultural sense, this damages all of us, when we try to force ourselves into a mold that is not really who we are.  So by all means be fit, but don't lose yourself in the process.
    One of the things I appreciate about the designer Manish Arora is his unique approach to surface embellishment work.  While the sleeves and hem are done in a more traditional manner the applied chain with the two steer heads is decidedly unusual, and brings the entire ensemble to another page in the Attire dictionary.  By inserting sly cultural references into the completed look he gives the viewer the opportunity to see more broadly, and receive more story from what is viewed.
    You should all know well enough by now how I feel about the whole sheer thing going on.  When I clap eyes on something like this, though I have to shut up about that for a minute and concentrate on the absolute technical brilliance of the work presented.  Of course this is in no way whatever something to be worn in the real world.  That said, the decorative work here is done to a degree of exactitude that is wonderful to behold.  Do I love the fringes? No, not at all.  But the rest of it is sublimely beautiful even if it is unwearable.
    I am having a case of serious shoe lust for these.  Yup. Major. It is delightful to see that men's footwear, like the rest of men's clothing is getting a big shake up that is allowing new ideas to come forward.  This mash up of a wing tip with a classic golf shoe is great, though I would wear them with some terrific socks.  No shoes with socks for me.
    This is Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, oft times referred to as Mary the Rich, since she inherited the vastly wealthy lands of Burgundy and the Low Countries after the death of her father Charles the Bold in 1477.   Her reign was quite short, (she died in 1482). This portrait shows that she certainly had no problem with the visible display of wealth.  A white silk brocade dress with wide gold embroidered, pearl bedecked bands on her gown, and on her headdress. If we are to believe the size of those pearls, they were huge, and no doubt wildly costly.   Then there is that big honking gold chain, which must have weighed a good deal.
    Meanwhile back at the body discussion,...
    This goes in the WTH category, even for me.  The notion of the long trimly cut tunic is fine.  But making it sheer, and then just plonking a Speedo on the model?  And the back pack?  In the words of Nina Garcia, "who is this person and where are they going?"  This is a great example of an ensemble that is visual gibberish.  The various elements are not working in harmony to create a cohesive visual remark.  These are three conflicting things, so we cannot use them to work out purpose, emotion, or thought.
    The final entry is something of a nod to part of my mixed ethnic heritage.  My dad's side of the family is Hungarian, Rom, actually.  Gypsies.  This outfit was very likely worn as a wedding costume by either Orsolya Esterhazy, or by Eva Thokoly, the two successive wives of Pal Esterhazy (1635-1713).  The skirt which was originally a light blue is faded to a dull green now. The flower basket embroidery is done with padded stitch work in gold and sliver wrapped threads, with coral beads.  The vest is in the traditional Hungarian style and laces broadly across the front.  It became fashionable to wear traditional costume for certain festive occasions, and weddings done in this manner were quite popular.

    So, there you have it, another Scatter duly delivered.  No go have fun this weekend!

Friday, August 28, 2015

One Shot: Shirt/Blouse Late 1500s

    This is the final One Shot for this series.  When I came across this object in the Met's collection, it brought something to mind.  For over a thousand years, actually closer to 1700 years, garments very much like this were the essential item for anyone in the Western world.  Whether you were lowborn or high, you had a shirt similar in shape and construction to this one.  If you were a plain living serf, your shirt was un-ornamented, homespun ,and was very likely your only clothing. If you were wealthy or titled, your shirt might be one of many you owned, and richly decorated.  And the difference between the shirt of a man, and that of a woman, was a matter of length, and to a lesser degree, type of embellishment.  But the basic garment, the square cut shirt,  remained virtually unaltered by time for nearly 2 millennia.
    A square cut shirt is one where in all the component pieces are rectangles of one measure or another.  It started out that way simply because the art of cutting close fitted pattern pieces was still nascent.  But once it took hold, its simplicity of construction, and the lack of textile waste, made it spread across Europe, and stick fast.
                                                                     Front of shirt
    This shirt is from the late 1500s, and made for a woman of substantial means.  The indicator that this was a woman's shirt is really all about the manner and placement of the embroideries.  A man's shirt would be free of embroidery on the sleeves and body, but could be richly worked on the collar, cuffs and placket.  You can see in the images of the front and rear of the shirt, that there is really no difference in shape, or decoration.
                                                                    Rear of shirt
    The decoration was originally black, but it has faded to an eggplant purple over time.  The work is done in padded satin stitch and gold wrapped thread on the fine woven linen of the body.  The hand worked Reticella lace of the collar and hem is made with cotton, black silk floss, and gold wrapped thread.  This is without question the shirt of a very wealthy person.  Its very survival is a partial testimony to that.
    The other really important point about the primacy of this kind of garment was not its ubiquity, but the fact that the entire ensemble to be worn, used this as its base.  Even moneyed people slept in their shirts quite often, getting up, and then clapping on whatever clothes they were going to wear, right over it.  And those less affluent fell asleep in their shirt, woke in it, put on their shoes, and went to the fields in it.  We have no analogous item in the Attire language now, within the Western culture world.
    By the end of the 18th century, the appearance of ready to wear clothing, and the movement away from agrarian society, caused this sort of shirt to fade out of use, evaporating completely by the beginning of the 20th century.  So very odd really, that something we held as vital for nearly 2000 years, could vanish so fast.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

One Shot: Quilted Robe a la Francaise-1750s

    The Robe a la Francaise was one of the most widely copied fashions of the 18th century, spanning all of Europe and Russia, and extending its influence to the Americas.  Composed of an open fronted gown, a usually matching decorated underskirt, and a stomacher to hold the dress around the frame, it was a descendant of the gowns of the prior century, which incorporated many of the same elements.  What made it significantly different was the huge open volume of pleated fabric that flowed freely from shoulder to hem on the back.  It was so immensely popular that it held sway, unchallenged, for nearly 60 years.  It was a style that allowed for endless variation of ornament, and because both the under skirt and stomacher were separate, they could be changed out to alter the appearance of the gown with ease.  One thing that was quite common, especially in colder weather was the use of densely quilted under skirts.
    Which brings us to today's One Shot.  Its rare enough to see an example of the quilted under skirts or Caracao jackets that were so popular. What I have never seen before is an entire ensemble that is quilted.  Even the stomacher is quilted to match.  Remember that every stitch of this is hand done. The whole surface is tightly worked in a pattern of trellis work, and arcing flowers.  It must have required hundreds of hours of labor to do.
    Quilted work was considered day wear, and suitable for travel. It was also, as I said, useful in winter months. So its likely that this ensemble was made for travel in winter, or simply to keep milady warm at home in some drafty chateau.  Though it was commonplace for dresses to be lavishly ornamented with trimmings, laces, and flowers, quilted garments rarely were.  Most often the design of the quilting was considered enough.  It was also a more subtle way to express wealth, conveying along with it a restraint, and elevated taste.

The calm greenish hue, is most likely significantly faded from its original condition, and the backing of the quilting is shredding, as you can see in the detail that shows the inside of one sleeve.  But the overall effect of the dress is undiminished.  One of the things I like so much about this gown is that it distills the idea of the robe a la Francaise down to its essential terms, allowing the inherent grace of it to come forward.
    A final bit of luck with this garment, is that it survives with the lace pieces that would have been worn tucked into the bodice corsage.  The simple black and white lace would be a fitting accessory to this gown.

With appreciation to the Metropolitan Museum of New York

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

One Shot: 16th Century Spanish Court Dress

    As the fourth entry for my One Shot week, something else that's extra special.  This garment resides in the Met's extensive collection, and is one of the oldest complete ensembles they have.
    This is the sort of gown that would have been worn by the highest, most influential, and certainly the wealthiest members of the Spanish court.  And its survival is most likely due to that fact.  Garments of this type, formalized as they are, are meant to convey indisputable status. The woman wearing this gown would instantly proclaim that she was a person of power, and wealth.  Also, the manner of the decoration speaks about her education, and tastes, to those who are schooled to see the cues correctly.  To all others, this is meant to create a reaction of deference and respect, cementing class distinction, and assuring that she would get what she wished with minimum fuss.
     Its an extraordinarily rich garment in its decorations and details. In fact, there is hardly an inch of its surface that is not embroidered with silk floss, or metal wound cording, and threads of gold and silver.  Some of the decoration is padded for relief, and the imagery is primarily of repeating pairs of trumpet shaped flowers, with yellow green centers.
     The skirt is both embroidered on its surface, and decorated with five parallel rows of broad metallic brocade trim.  The cone shape of the skirt would be held to out with a farthingale of either padded or boned hoops.
    The bodice has a round torso, in keeping with the cone shape of corseting at the time that made no allowance for a woman's actual form.  The deep basque at the bottom is meant both to create a visual transition from skirt to top, and also to evoke the current fashion in menswear for skirted doublets.  It has another function also, it hides the essential ties and tapes that hold the lower body to the upper. Very often dresses like this were tied together, top to skirt, to keep them from slipping out of position.  The sleeves are straight cut, and fairly close fitted.
    Then at last there is the floor length coat, which really serves little real function, since its actually only half a cost.  Only the back half of the body, and the arms are covered.  Its real purpose, above any considerations of warmth, is to create another avenue through which position and importance can be related to the viewer.  Being able to afford an essentially purposeless garment, and have that same article covered with lush decorative detail could do nothing other than reinforce the prominence of the wearer.  The hanging sleeves of the coat are actually a hold over style from the 1400s, and they would continue as a style choice for a bit longer, to finally disappear in the 17th century.
    What is completely absent from this assembly of garments is even the least hint of sexual availability, or interest.  If anything, these clothes stand as a stern warning against transgressions of any sort, including invitation to sensual play.  As such this is also a strong example about the tight constraints that women, even women of power, had to contend with.  Its a great thing indeed that women are finally literally shedding the last vestiges of this suffocating, if gorgeous, cocoon.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

One Shot: Man's Doublet 1620s

    The third entry in my week of One Shots is this extraordinary doublet from about 1620.  Part of what makes it a find, is that there is only one other known example of this doublet type in existence, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
    As the 17th century began, the visible waistline, which had been a trifle above the natural point before, started to rise further, till it stopped just under the ribcage. This change happened for both women and men, and created a curiously filled out appearance, since for most people, that point is one of the widest on the torso.  The combination of the broad deep points of the doublet skirt, the extending shape of the shoulder wings, and the breadth of the upper sleeves combine to accentuate this already widening aspect of the design.
     This doublet is made of a luxurious floral silk brocade that has been extensively decorated with pinking, and slashes on its surface.  The upper sleeves are divided into 10 slashed bands, each one trimmed with braid around the opening.  The chest front is also divided, and when the shirt fills it out, it creates the illusion of a larger chest.
    What is most curious of all to me is that this doublet buttons both on the front, and on the back.  The buttons on the sleeves are purely decorative, ones, but the front and back buttons are functional.  I can see that stepping into the doublet and having your servant close the back would take less time than the other way round.
    The same trimming is used on nearly every structural detail and seam line, which was a common method of decorating a doublet at the time.
    The finished look required breeches that emerged from just under the waist point, making men look quite short-waisted and broad hipped.  Worn with stockings, very often with high topped boots, a broad lace collar and a vast plume trimmed hat, and we have the beginnings of what we have come to see as the Cavalier or Musketeer fashion.
    We are lucky indeed that this garment has survived.
    With grateful thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.