Menswear again, and the beauty of the worn

In my post of January 30, 2014, I referred briefly to a book that has some pretty wonderful photography, “Vintage Menswear: A Collection from the Vintage Showroom”.  FIT has been smart enough to purchase this book which was put together by Douglas Gunn, Roy Luckett, and Josh Sims.  A friend showed it to me, and I had to share it with you, dear readers.

This is the London showroom of Vintage. Note the carefully-styled and well-used props.

The Vintage Showroom, 14 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, Covent Garden in London, was opened by Douglas Gunn and Roy Luckett.  The two had collected vintage menswear for years, and by 2007 they needed a space to put it all.  Their specialties are military and civilian utilitarian pieces, and classic English tailoring.

What makes this book remarkable, I think, is the way the photographer, Nic Shonfeld, lavishes such loving attention on the the worn spots and functional details of each garment.  It’s the anti-glamor of utility that has made the worn nature of these garments the most sensual thing about them.

The photographer has styled these pockets to highlight their utilitarian double stitching.
The photographer has styled these pockets to highlight their utilitarian double stitching.





Many of the book’s images highlight such details.  The authors are enamored of pockets, top-stitching, special closures, flaps, and the tears of hard usage.  This book is a lovesong written to the details:  special tabs to close collars, contrasting linings, darning repairs, and the softened surface of worn canvas and leather.

Each darning was done in a different thread, creating an organic texture of built up stitches.






I decided to do some searching on the internet, and found that this company has a web site (of course they do!):


This is awesome because the blog has a lot more opportunities for the gentleman owners to show off their quirky but wonderful collection.  Like them, I am also fascinated by the details.

trench collar
The detail that’s probably missing on your inexpensive trenchcoat: the tab and buckle that close up the point collar for truly chilly weather!
This is the trenchcoat in its entirety.  Note the "messenger" pocket placed diagonally across the chest for maximum speed of access.
This is the trenchcoat in its entirety. Note the “messenger” pocket placed diagonally across the chest for maximum speed of access.












The bloggers have their own “Hey, check this out” list:

Gunn and Luckett frequently post images of jackets with their collars turned up, to highlight construction details.  Some of the outerwear have this buckle that pulls the collar up, close around the wearer’s neck for warmth.  Others have felt under-collars for shaping. (Oooh, and Cary Grant!)

Many details are highlighted and there is a secondary focus on labels from more traditional garment and accessory makers, particularly the English producers.

The green waxed cotton of this Trailmaster jacket has worn in places, making it look like copper patina.
This is the same jacket inside out. The plaid is carefully matched and contains a stripe that matches the outer green.












This well-worn Belstaff “Trailmaster” jacket was once the height of motorcycle-driving fashion.  The British company that made them was famous for its performance-wear in the 1950s and ’60s. This waxed-cotton jacket was once bright green, but developed a patina as it was worn. The matching-plaid-cotton lining is carefully centered over the center-front closure.

This collegiate-jacket patch from 1949 is hand-embroidered in silk thread.


The book has another recurring feature, called “Small is Beautiful”

Apparently other people found the book lovely as well, because it won an award for its design:

FIT’s library has the second book they published, which you can find down on the 4th floor, in Art Reference Art Reference GT1710 .G85 2012 


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Old silk, old roads, old habits


Last week, I came across an article which highlights some recent textile finds in Milan.   These relics are associated with the early Christian Saint Ambrose, who was elected bishop of the city of Milan in 374 C.E. What makes his burial of interest to us is that among the items kept in his honor are garment fragments.  These were likely ceremonial garments that he wore during his lifetime.  These delicate silk fragments give us a way of seeing more clearly into the splendid religious display of a church leader, priest and protector to emperors, and skilled political negotiator in a time where we have few other types of records.

To put Ambrose (born Aurelius Ambrosius, c. 340 C.E.) into historical perspective, he lived only a lifetime after Emperor Constantine changed the official Roman religion to Christianity (313 C.E.) and moved the imperial capital city east to Constantinople in May of 33o C.E.  Milan was a wealthy city in northern Italy, and it was sometimes used by Roman emperors in their travels as an alternate home.  Ambrosius was well known to Emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius.

Saint-Ambrose-crypt-Basilica-di-SantAmbrogio-MilanAmbrosius, besides being the patron saint of Milan, which he governed, was also the patron of bees, beekeepers and candlemakers.  And more useful for our needs, he was also the patron saint of children, learning, and students.

Silk was very precious in Europe in the 4th century C.E.  According to current scholarship, Byzantium and Rome were still importing all of their raw materials (reeled silk) from China and the near east.  Imperial Byzantine silk-weaving workshops often held specific weaves and colors for distribution by the emperors as diplomatic gifts.    Ambrose must have had considerable political importance to have been given such sumptuous garments.  However, Dr. Sabine Shrenk, the archaeologist working with these textiles, suggests, as a result of this find, that silk textiles were being woven in Italy by this time, even if still from imported silk threads.

“These are marvelously beautiful vestments of sumptuous silk that have been ascribed to the saint,” says Professor Dr. Sabine Schrenk of the department of Christian Archaeology at the University of Bonn. One of them has intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards, while the other valuable textile is kept rather simple.”  (Science Daily article cited above)

kier leopardsTextiles woven with hunt scenes, trees, and leopards are a genre of silks associated with royalty.  Lions, tigers, and leopards, have been the preferred quarry of kings since the Sassanian rulers of the 8th c. B.C.E.  The motif continued to be woven for hundreds of years, and spread to Muslim workshops which produced textiles in Spain, Italy, and Syria through the 1300s.

Many fragments of silks with hunting themes have survived (likely because they were too valuable to make rags from).   The elaborate textile in St. Ambrosius’ tomb may encourage scholars to date more of the extant, intricate examples earlier.  In general, the multi-colored silks with hunters and roundels have been dated to the 7th or 8th century.

Here are some of the other hunting silks that have survived the centuries, so you can get an idea of what St. Ambrosius was dressed in:

mozac hunterred lions








The silk on the left was found in a reliquary in the Museum of Sacred Arts, the Vatican, Italy.  The silk on the right was formerly in the tomb of St. Calmin in Mozac, and now is in the Musee des Tissus in Lyon, France.  Both have been dated approximately to the 8th century C.E.  Fewer silks remain from the 5th century.

The article below adds that Saint Ambrosius brought the custom of relic worship to Milan.  This was an early-Christian practice where a piece of bone, hair, or some other body part associated with a holy person was kept in a church, wrapped in scraps of luxury textiles, in a richly-decorated case of some kind.   Imported silk textiles were often used as wrappings because their value was properly sumptuous for these precious objects.  It was believed that such objects offered the worshipper closer access to the holy person’s (e.g. Jesus, Mary, one of the apostles or saints)  goodwill when the believer venerated the objects.  Many churches collected such objects to give their churches greater spiritual significance.  The cases housing the relics were often very highly decorated, made of precious metals, and trimmed with jewels.  Here are a couple in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

relic crosssilver arm


The reliquary on the left is Byzantine cloissone, late 8th century.


The reliquary on the right is French, 13th century, but added to in the 15th century.



You can read more about these here:

Also, a quick search in ArtStor brings up thumbnails of many more:

The author of this history blog puts Ambrosius’ bishopric into historical perspective, detailing how the saint stood up to several Roman emperors and potential invading forces, while creating his own rich court in Milan.

In this blog, a researcher tried to imagine himself making the journey of a merchant along the silk road around Ambrose’s time.

These sites discuss histories of the trade routes, the spread of the silk industry throughout Europe, and other materials traded along these routes.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art did two major exhibitions on the history and art of Byzantium.  We have the catalogs from these shows:

The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261, ed. by Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom.

4th floor, Art Reference N6250 .G55

This is the catalog from the first big exhibition at the MMA.

Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), ed. by Helen C. Evans.

4th floor Art Reference N6250 .B962

This is the catalog for the second big exhibition by the MMA.

Byzantium: from the Death of Theodosius to the Rise of Islam, by Andre Grabar.

5th floor, Main Stacks N6520 .G6923

This is an older history, but considered quite well done.

A History of Private Life, ed. by Philippe Aries and Georges Duby,

5th floor, Main Stacks GT2400 .H5713

The first essay in this book is about everyday life from the Roman Empire through the Byzantine.

The Oxford History of Byzantium, by Cyril A. Mango.

5th floor, Main Stacks DF552 .O94

This is a recently finished general history.

Studies in Silk in Byzantium, by Anna Muthesias.

5th floor, Main Stacks NK8908.8 .M87

Anna Muthesias is the recognized expert on Byzantine textiles and the workshops that produced them.

The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium, by Warren Woodfin.

5th floor, Main Stacks BX341 .W663

This title examines vestments and their meanings.


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Is a Passion-for-Clothing shallow?


Image from HR Daily Advisor Article listed below

I have a lot to say about this, but my first reaction is to be dumbfounded that we are even having this conversation in 2014 when several respected institutions give M.A. degrees on the study of clothing (as material culture, generally), and clothing-related industries have formed the center of regional economies repeatedly throughout human history.

My second reaction is, “do you really need the illusion of world-wide consensus to argue this point?”  Because that’s what the authors of this book have essentially done:  They’ve crowdsourced their clothing-related memoirs as if having testimonials from around the world would make it somehow more valid to argue the social importance of our clothing.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m sold on the importance of clothing as a social marker, as personal expression, as an indicator of world industries, and so on.  None more so.  In a real sense, since I work at FIT and I research clothing as used at royal courts to express power, clothing is my life.  So why do we still have to argue this case?  Is it purely because since the 18th century, “fashion” is gendered “female business” and, therefore, “trivial”?  Still?  Is it because fashion week presents garments so outlandish that they can only really exist as theatre?  Is it because NYC, so integrated into the fashion system, is only vaguely an American city in the eyes of many Americans residing west of the Delaware?

I cannot answer these questions, but this question bears further discussion…  Of which much presents itself…

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The Future, as imagined in the past

So today I got an email from the British Museum, which has several really nifty blogs.

Not surprising, because they are a museum full of very nifty things.  Someone on staff had found an article, written in 1969, thinking about how the museum will be for patrons come 2069.

britmuseumSome of the guesses are remarkably similar to things that have happened, such as the “Ten Most Famous Objects in the British Museum”.  Books of this sort can be purchased in their bookstores,

whether you want a more detailed guide to the collections, or just a highlights book of the most famous items you saw.  This idea predicts both the “History of the World in 100 Objects” exhibit and podcast series that has been so wildly popular of late, as well as the fact that the museum is a destination for whirlwind “Greatest Hits” tours from all over the world,

and frequently spend very little time looking at lesser-known museum holdings  (e.g. the Mona Lisa being swamped at the Louvre with tourists taking selfies in front of her.)

And then there is the problem of how to handle the influx of students needing to make their scholarly mark:

“It is no longer possible, because of lack of space, to allow students to read for more than two hours a day, but the extension to 24-hour opening admits twelve shifts a day. Through the floor you can also see the amusing scenes when a Student’s two-hour meter runs out, lets out a loud alarm bell, and sets off a mechanism which propels him automatically out of the door if he has not left within 60 seconds.” “Saxo Japonicus”, alias of curator/author of this article

Pretty funny, huh?  But at least we grad students would get some archaeological experience!

Truth is, this is part of an ongoing debate.  Since the British Museum is one of the western world’s oldest public institution, they have some of the most experience in dealing with the public.  They bring this to the current debate, as we can read,

What should the museums and libraries of the future look like?

British Museum of the Future


You can follow the debate by keeping up with #museumofthefuture, @britishmuseum



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The history of the footie


Rattan football from Burma, collection of the British Museum
Rattan football from Burma, collection of the British Museum

Just when everyone in town has lost or triumphed with their favorite team, the British Museum gives us some historical context for this beloved contest.  How did we get here?  Take a look at what their curators have to say about it.

Says David Francis of the British Museum,

“Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famously said ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death …. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ His quote would have been more appropriate, however, if he’d been talking about the Central American ball game. Whereas in modern football a major penalty miss can result in a hate campaign from the tabloids, mistakes in the ballgame could be even more costly. Reliefs exist depicting the participants of the ball game being sacrificed after a match and some scholars think that playing the game was believed to be linked to the rising and setting of the sun.”

The museum has some terrific objects related to the different games that evolved around the world and combined into what the rest of the world calls “football”.


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