The Tissue of Dreams: Paper Patterns in the Tailoring Trade

Monarch Tailoring tradeplate, 1887

In the opening chapter of her book A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution, curator and scholar Joy Spanabel Emery cites the October 1916 issue of Designer magazine: “There is nothing so cheap & yet so valuable; so common & yet so little realized; so unappreciated & yet so beneficial as the paper dress pattern.  Truly one of the great elemental inventions in the world’s history— the tissue of dreams.”

Far from only detailing womenswear and the history of commercial dress patterns, Emery’s book cracked open a wealth of information about many of the menswear publications we hold in FIT Special Collections & College Archives.  We were delighted to learn more about our substantial holdings of menswear periodicals including Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion, Scott’s Mirror of Fashion and The Tailor & Cutter.

Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion, October 1876

Established in 1828 by Louis Devere, Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion was a trade publication which included drafts and patterns for tailors.  During the 19th century, a marked shift took place in the dissemination of the techniques and tricks of the tailoring trade as information became increasingly available by way of printed publications. Prior to this time, tailors by and large received their education by way of apprenticeships, which often started at the tender age of eleven or twelve. In exchange for their labor, the mentors’ knowledge would be passed down to the apprentice who might launch a tailoring venture of their own after a decade plus of learning the trade.  Often times this knowledge included copies of patterns which were treated as trade secrets, being handed down within a lineage of tailors, from one generation to the next. So valued were these proprietary paper patterns they were sometimes referred to as ‘gods.’

With the growth of the publishing industry during the 19th century, books and magazines became available to increasing numbers of individuals. From the technical to the promotional, fashion-related content became available to the middle classes for the first time in a way it never had been before. The market now expanded, many publishers searched for innovative ways to engage with tradespeople in particular. Once strictly protected by individual tailors, publications began publishing information about drafting systems as well as scaled down paper patterns and offering full-size paper patterns for sale.  A curious business model developed; in order to promote one’s paper pattern business, many entrepreneurs launched fashion magazines, using them as platforms to advertise their wares.  Oftentimes, these connections between the publication and the paper pattern enterprise are heavily obfuscated which was one of the most revelatory aspects of Emery’s book which unearths the connections between them, and and enduring a business model which was implemented for more than a century.

Launched in the 1870s, The American Tailor and Cutter was the promotional vehicle for John J. Mitchell’s paper pattern company which “offered to make patterns to the customer’s measurements, and supplied ready-made menswear patterns ‘cut from the finest manila paper… for FINE CUSTOM TRADE.’ ”  A similar origin story for the company Butterick, which today is most associated with patterns for womenswear; in 1866 Ebenezer Butterick launched The Tailor’s Review to promote his earliest offerings— tissue paper patterns for boys and menswear.  Their womenswear patterns were offered by way of a sister fashion publication, The Delineator, from 1873 onwards.

While FIT Special Collections and College Archives does not hold an inventory of the paper patterns themselves — our holdings were donated to the Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island in 2016 —  our periodical holdings evidence the rich connections between fashion magazines, the commercial pattern industry and the tailoring trade.

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Shoes to ‘Chutes: The Wartime Story of I. Miller & Sons

Tearsheet of advertisement which appeared in Vogue, February 1, 1944

On January 12, 1945, the Grand Ballroom of the luxurious Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City was packed full as a thousand pair of curious eyes looked on as shoe industry executive George Miller and Lieut. Col. Harold L. Lister of the US Army posed awkwardly for a photo op.  The snapshot was forever immortalized in the pages of Women’s Wear Daily the following day and ran with a press slug noting the occasion marked the presentation of the Army-Navy “E” Flag to Miller’s shoe company, I. Miller & Sons, for their esteemed wartime service.

The story of how I. Miller, a leading American manufacturer of footwear, came to receive official honors from the Armed Forces dates back three years earlier when in addition to its contiguous production of shoes, the company concurrently launched a Parachute Division.  While the socialites, career girls and housewives back home clamored to slip on a pair of I. Miller’s high-end soles, the boys at the front outfitted themselves in I. Miller offerings as well:  bulletproof vests, flying suits, gloves, leather helmets, electric boots and parachutes.

Research for this blog post first began several months ago during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sequestered, working remotely from home on a barely functioning laptop on a cold rainy afternoon, I assembled a healthy folder of primary sources on I. Miller & Company’s early history. It was not until returning to the project some months later that I uncovered a curious connection to recent events; how both then and now the American fashion industry pivoted their labor forces on a dime and came to public service in a moment of crises.

I will not belabor the predicament healthcare workers around the world faced in obtaining adequate personal protection equipment in the first weeks and days of the 2019/2020 pandemic. The virus being spread by respiratory droplets, medical workers needed medical grade N95 face masks to protect themselves from infected patients, but the nationwide supply of N95 masks—which were usually used once and then disposed of—was far from adequate.  Healthcare workers were forced to resort to makeshift substitutions with far less efficacy; any face covering was better than no protection at all.  Private individuals and fashion brands alike were quick to devote their sewing machines to churning out masks fashioned from whatever materials on they had on hand.  These masks, in turn, were donated to the frontline workers so desperately in need.

More than 75 years ago, the American fashion industry also answered the nation’s call to act in a moment of crises.  I. Miller & Sons joined the ranks of other fashion brands who converted their productions facilities to support the war effort.  American Silk Mills made parachutes for both the Army and Navy. Norwich Knitting Co. produced underwear for the Armed Forces. The preeminent luxury textile manufacturer, Cheney Bros. diverted so much of their work force to war work, the brand’s fashion offerings were a coveted scarcity.  Perhaps the most unusual wartime conversion was Chipman Knitting, the self-professed “first women’s hosiery mill” in the US, which remodeled their facilities to manufacture artillery shells and landmines.

Following the war, the majority the dozens of fashion brands that manufactured in the service of the country during WWII resumed business as normal, operating strictly in the realm of fashion.  I. Miller & Sons’ reputation as one of America’s finest footwear brands grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  FIT Special Collections and College Archives holds a selection of both original sketches and shoe samples of I. Miller models designed by noted footwear designer Arsho Baghsarian, and examples of I. Miller shoes can be found in many museum fashion and textile collections across the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Emergency Mode: The Wartime Hats of Sally Victor

Press photo, 1941, Sally Victor collection, FIT Special Collections and College Archives

Promptly at 3pm on December 18, 1941, members of the American fashion press gathered at the legendary Rainbow Room in New York City and patiently awaited their introduction to emergency mode.

A fundraiser to benefit the British Ambulance Corps, the event showcased the latest wartime fashions issued to accommodate, “the prospective new way of life which people in this country may be forced to enter sooner than they expect.”  Down the runway came the “Ickes Bike Suit” named after Harold L. Ickes, the then-US Secretary of the Interior.  In days leading up, Ickes had vociferously predicted gas shortages in light of the American’s entrance into the fray of WWII days earlier, making a boom in bike sales a distinct reality.  The same runway showed designer Madame Pauline’s matching set of “blackout bag and mittens…made of pink felt and prepared with a luminous process by Stroblite Co. to stand out in the dark,”  while a waterproofed wool one-piece “Siren Suit” by Mrs. MacDonald of Andrew of Luxembourg featured not only oversized pockets, but also “a broad brown pigskin belt with cigarettes, flashlight and a pocket knife.”

The American fashion industry’s snap to adapt to the exigencies of war in the matter of a few days was less expeditious than one may think.  After all, French couturiers such as Marcel Dormoy, Robert Piguet and Elsa Schiaparelli—among others—had begun offering what I like to term ‘conflict couture’ two years earlier; in late 1939 French couture offerings included thick wool air raid suits with a proliferation of pockets, fur lined “shelter boots” with slip-resistant soles and suits and outwear trimmed with glow-in-the-dark buttons, all issued under the label of one’s favorite maison de couture.

Women’s Wear Daily, December 16, 1941

Never one to be left behind, American milliner Sally Victor’s air raid hats had been covered in Women’s Wear Daily two days before the 1941 fashion show benefit at the Rainbow Room.  Victor, originally born in Scranton, PA had emerged as one of American fashion’s top milliners beginning in the early 1930s.  She began her career working as a salesperson at the hat counter at Macy’s in New York City before moving on to become the millinery buyer at Bamburger’s department store in Newark, NJ.  Following her marriage to Serge Victor, a ready-to-wear millinery manufacturer and the birth of her son, Sally gave up working for a time, until as the Boston Evening Transcript noted in 1933, “Every time she came down to his [her husband’s] factory however, she felt like doing something to those hats (with quick pinching gestures), and, when she couldn’t stand it any longer, she made him give up his designers and took over the job herself. She sees her four-year-old boy in the morning, telephones him during the day and sees him again at night, and feels he is much better off in the care of a nurse than a mother who just couldn’t stand giving up her work anyway.”

Victor’s talent and passion for the art of hat-making was repeatedly acknowledged by her industry peers.  In 1933, Victor was one of the first designers tapped by Lord & Taylor for their ground-breaking promotion of American Designers, and subsequently Victor even had her own ‘pop-up shop’ in-store where her creations retailed for $9.75 (just under $200 adjusted for inflation today). The awards and accolades would continue to come Victor’s way in the ensuing decade; in 1943 she won the Fashion Critics Millinery award, not to mention winning Coty American Fashion Fashion Critics Awards in 1944 and 1956.

Victor’s designs of the 30s, 40s and 50s were some of the most frequently profiled by the American fashion press, right along with other top designers of the era such as Mr. John and Lilly Daché, who perhaps remain better known to us today.  Victor’s quirky air raid hats, made a perfect fodder for Women’s Wear Daily, which described them as being made in a variety of materials “wether felt, straw or fabric has been fire-proofed in the firm’s workrooms.  As a trimming, a small flashlight is posed at front, covered with flannel or some other durable and contrasting material, which lights easily by snapping the catch.  The under-chin ties match the covering of the flashlight.”  The author goes on to note the model in featured in the illustration above left is a white felt model with red red trim.

As Victor believed “style should never be sacrificed for service,” she would continue to create millinery looks with the wartime woman in mind.  As fashion historian Nadine Stewart has noted in her wonderful MA thesis, Traffic Lights of Chic: American Millinery and American Style, 1937-1947,  perhaps Victor’s “piece de resistance was a welder’s helmet covered in blue cloth with a red “V” for victory on the crown for the workers at General Electric. It was so successful General Electric featured it on the cover of its brochure for Arc Welding Supplies complemented with chartreuse leather work gloves. Victor apparently liked this design so much, that she later repeated it for her fashionable clients. The “Winnie the Welder” style appeared in blue and black felt in 1943.”  Also this same year, a beret Victor designed for the “Army’s Cadet Nurse Corps made the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.”

The caprices of fashion are frequently reflections of the spirit of the times, during the 1940s this meant the anxieties stemming from a world engulfed in war were frequently made manifest in the fashions of the era.  Today, I write this blog post from home as we are under a different kind of siege, the siege of disease.  COVID19 has us hunkered at home shunning unnecessary human contact in an effort to fight an unseen enemy, one which has already reinvented the fashion landscape.   This morning Native American activist and fashion designer Korina Emmerich, of the NY-based brand Emme, announced her line of fashion face masks using Native American motifs, which she has offered as part of her line for quite some time, to be sold out for the foreseeable future as she keeps up with an explosion in demand for examples that fall in line with consumer’s fashion sensibilities (not to mention her charitable endeavor to make and donate additional masks for each one sold).

COVID19 will undoubtedly reshape our world, but if history tells us anything, one question that remains is, ‘exactly how will it refashion your closet?’  World events, social and political change and new innovations in technology have long been driving forces in the evolution of fashion, and this moment is no exception.

 

 

 

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