Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Muse on Creative Headwear for Women

When I heard the announcement for the Royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton I got a little excited. I don't pay much attention to the world of the paparazzi, so it wasn't the event itself that peaked my interest, it was more of a hat thing. You see women tend to wear them to important functions in England. Although it is not protocol, it is tradition. An event of this proportion was sure to inspire fantastic millinery work and THAT is what had me excited.

As the date neared, the news wires were buzzing over the royal nuptial preparations. The wedding took place before a world audience with all of the expected pomp and circumstance. The ceremony was flawless, the couple lovely and the attendees perfectly mannered, no surprises there. However, I'm not sure anyone was quite prepared for some of the astonishing head wear that was spotted in the audience of aristocrats. Personally, I was thrilled. One amazing creation after another....a cascade of sculpted curlicues, a sweeping brim arched over a fanciful whimsie, festive colors, surreal flora and haughty plumes. The show stopper by far, was a scrolling architectural number worn by Princess Beatrice and created by Phillip Treacy.
After the wedding, Beatrices hat was auctioned off and fetched a whopping $132,000 which was donated to charity. I was impressed with them all and expected there would be a strong response in the press and on the fashion blogs. I knew the more conservative crowd would probably view such adventurous design as unattractive and perhaps even inappropriate but I was surprised at the level of attack. Snide comments and banal insults flooded the gossip columns and blogs. Even the sunny yellow color of the queens tasteful chapeau came under fire. I was truly taken aback at the lack of imagination that these critics possessed until I reminded myself that extravagant and artistic headwear has been evoking strong reaction for centuries.

I decided to explore this further and learned some fascinating things that I would like to share. Please keep in mind, this is not a costume history lesson, it's a meandering muse through time. Each country and era had it's own complex range of styles and customs, I'm just stopping at some of the highlights. Having said that lets begin with the Middle Ages....

Proper decorum over most of Europe, dictated that a married women cover her head and conceal her hair. Early on nets were worn beneath simple veils that draped under the chin (think of a nuns wimple). Cloth bands were used to secure the veil to the head. For those of noble class these bands were sometimes ornamented and embellished as a sign of status. The simple fabric band became wider and was eventually stiffened to form a pill box shape, this piece came to be called a torque or toque. Those of privilege favored coronets of precious materials and flowers. The headdress began to morph into elaborate shapes and by the 15th century women’s headwear had become very intricate and quite exaggerated. There was great variety in style, from wired hoods (coifs) and even turbans but the hennin, a cone shaped or steeple headdress, is what we associate most with that period in history. The single cone hennin often had a sheer veil draped from the tip and ranged in height from 6 inches up to to three feet(!) depending on the societal position of the wearer. There were divided hennins that looked like horns and truncated hennins as well. Other styles of headdress used the hennin as a base and added wired forms and padded rolls along with embellished hair nets, my favorite is a heart shaped wonder portrayed in the illustration below. Some of these structures were terribly heavy and obviously uncomfortable to wear, some were cut high on the forehead requiring the wearer to shave and pluck the hairline. The more elaborate styles were worn by the upper class and were neither functional nor practical, they were simply exotic objects of fashion and to this day their images in painting and manuscript are a delight to behold.

The hennin from a 15th Century painting and an illustrated rendition of a royal woman in padded headress

By the 16th century towering headwear was falling out of fashion as women were allowed to show more and more of their hair and interest turned to elaborate hairstyles. Small hats, veils and pretty lace caps were popular. In my research I found an amusing tidbit on Wikipedia that is testimony to the fact that the fashion critic has been with us for some time. It seems that towards the latter part of the 16th century some of the women’s hats borrowed their styling from those worn by men. Apparently even this whisper of cross dressing was too much for some. Puritan evangelist Philip Stubbes was most disapproving and condemned the practice in his book Anatomie of Abuses (1583).

Head coverings remained relatively subdued during the 17th century. Hoods, scarves and veils were dominant and the trend for masculine styled hats, adorned with oversized plumes, continued. However the tendency towards the fantastic was not be constrained. In the 1680s the Fontage made it's debut. The Fontage- A wired lace headress from the latter 1600s

The Fontage evolved from the exquisite handmade lace veils worn by ladies of court. It began as a wired lace headdress that was created in sections or tiers which was incorporated into an elaborately curled hairdo atop the head. It started out small but soon began to grow. At it's peak in the 1690s this lacey confection had reached grand heights of 16" or more. Once again, completely impractical but lovely to look at. According to the book Costume and Fashion by James Laver, the Fontage remained in style for over twenty years despite stern disapproval from the moralists of the day who considered it an "incitement to pride". Towards the early 18th century it's popularity was on the wane but within a few decades the penchant for astounding headdress was destined to return.

By the 18th century the requirement that married women cover their hair was long past and the vogue for artistic hairstyles was in full swing. High powdered pompadours and curls took the place of the Fontage. In the 1760s a huge collapsible bonnet called the Calash was invented as a protective covering. The Calash was an amazing feat of engineering. Hoops of arched whale bone or steel were joined by shirred fabric and could be opened and closed with a cord.
Photos of two actual Calash bonnets and a satirical illustration with exaggerated example (1780 by Carrington Bowles) Bonnet photos generously supplied by Deborah Burke of

Around 1770 extreme hairstyling took on a life of it's own with Marie Antoinette at the lead. The more "simple" styles were done with padded rolls of hair piled on the head and festooned with notions and decorative items. However, the Royals and high gentry took the fad to outrageous levels. Their hair was brushed over wire structures, built up with horse hair and false curls then plastered and powdered with all manner of noxious substances. This coiffure then served as a base for fanciful objects and themed props. According to the book Dressing the Part by Fairfax P. Walkup, the final product could reach 72" high! He goes on to describe some of the more infamous creations including "a frigate in full sail atop monstrous waves of powdered hair" (La Belle Paule) and an English rendition that included "a lighted cookstove equipped with pots and pans!"
Satirical drawing aimed at the wildly embellished pompadour headresses worn by court society

Satire and caricature came swift on the heels of this monumental mode du jour. Dressing the Part (pg. 227) quotes this poem from the time.

"When he views your tresses thin,
Touched by some French Friseur,
Horsehair hemp and wool within
Garnished with a diamond skiver;
When he scents the mingled steam
Which your plastered head is rich in,
Lard and meal and clotted cream,
Can he love a walking kitchen?"


I admit that this was fashion in the extreme and an undeniable provocation for criticism, but you cannot deny what fun it must have been to witness the bizarre splendor of it all. As with all trends of frivolity, the amusement soon faded and interest began to wane. In 1789 the French Revolution snuffed all such extravagance and an era was ended.

For the first half of the 1800s caps, turbans and bonnets were the toppers of choice for women. One bonnet of note, the Poke bonnet, presented in a variety of styles often with oversized proportions which fueled the satirists of the day.
French fashion plate of the Poke bonnet and a satirical illustration

Over the last decades of the Century, bonnets lost favor to fashion hats. Aside from a run of exceedingly high crowns and beak shaped brims I didn't see much else that strayed too far outside the days realm of moderation.

The debut of the 20th Century brought back a craze for a padded pompadours. Big hair meant big hats, really big hats with wide brims and sometimes high crowns. Oversized forms require oversized trim and milliners went wild. There was a frenzy for exotic plumes and at times entire birds were used as decoration. Swaths of chiffon and clouds of net engulfed crowns and brim. Poufs and bows of wide ribbon...Flowers fruits and leaves... Milliners had been using feathers since the days of Marie Antoinette, but towards the latter part of the 1800s demand was out of control. Techniques for harvesting bird skins, wings and feathers were indescribably cruel and sparked outrage from animal lovers. In 1886 the American Ornithologist Union released an estimate that five million North American birds were being slaughtered yearly for the millinery trade. Rare species were the most costly and were worn as symbols of status. In 1896 two Boston women, Mrs. August Hemenway and Miss Mina Hall vowed to boycott bird hats and were joined by a number of their society friends (this was the beginning of the Massachusetts Audubon Society). In 1900 the Lacey act was adopted in the US to try and prohibit interstate trade of protected animals. The Weeks-McLean act was passed in 1913 prohibiting feather imports and the sale of selected species of birds. Although these efforts helped, the style continued for a few more years both in the States and Europe making poaching a lucrative business.
1901 fashion illustration from the Delineator featuring oversized hats decorated with whole birds

Hats styles went through a drastic makeover in the 1920s. The bobbed hairdo became the rage and headwear began to shrink (along with hemlines). By the end of the decade brims were nearly non existent and crowns became nothing more than scull hugging cloches, a dramatic change in a very short space of time. The 1920s experienced a style and culture revolution that shattered convention and started a roller coaster of change. 20th century fashion innovations came and went with lightning speed and so did trends in headwear, creating fertile ground for the fashion critic. During the later 30s and into the 40s surreal pillboxes perched at impossible angles (the most famous is Elsa Schiaparelli's shoe hat). The platter hat of the late 40s-50s hovered eerily over the brow. The sixties saw space age bubble toques and oversized blossoms in mutated colors. Then in the later 1960s it all came to a crashing halt. For the most part women stopped wearing hats, sure there were a few loyal hold outs but the blow to the millinery business was devastating.

Thank you again to for photos of the platter hat and the winged tilt hat. The pink bucket hat with giant flowers is from my own website :)

In my opinion the demise of hats left the world of fashion a lot less fun. How wonderful it was to see this forgotten art revived in force at the royal wedding. How refreshing that creativity was given full reign. I applaud the bravery and adventurous spirit of both the creators and the wearers of those marvelous hats and I hope that artistic headwear will one day again be an important part of fashion.

Click here to see some of the Royal Wedding Hats.

Friday, April 1, 2011

In Celebration of the Simple House Dress

High end vintage dresses are far and away the stars of the market. There are books and blogs galore celebrating the work of famous couturiers and celebrity designers. I love fine vintage fashion and I spend a great deal of time reading those blogs and books but, like many hard core vintage devotees, I am also intrigued by everyday fashions from past years. I get just as excited flipping through an old Sears catalogue as I do a vintage Vogue magazine and I really have a soft spot for vintage house dresses. Imagine, living in a time, when women, rarely if ever wore pants let alone jeans. It wasn't so long ago. Before the 1970s the majority of women wore dresses almost all the time. So imagine again, you are a homemaker, running after children, scrubbing the floors, hanging the laundry... always in a dress.

Early 1900s Cotton house dress, imagine scrubbing the floor in this

For most of her life my maternal grandmother flat out refused to put on a pair of pants. Hard working and soft spoken this woman raised eight children, tended chickens and a huge garden and even went fishing (she loved to fish)... all of these things in a dress. She was no different than the majority of women from her time. Thats the way it was. According to the 1956 book Dress Smartly by Mildred Graves Ryan "clothes for housework should be practical and functional. They should allow for feedom of movement, with nicely fitted looseness placed across the shoulders and in the sleeves. Skirts should be full enough to allow one to walk quickly and with ease, but they should not be so wide or so long that a person is liable to catch a heel in the hem and fall as a result. Loose or dangling decoration, wide sleeves or big pockets which could be caught on a nail handle or a saucepan should not be worn" Ms Ryan also stated that a nicely fitted pair of slacks or overalls could be worn while gardening but "if your figure looks badly in slacks, you should refrain from wearing them". Old advertisements for house dresses often stressed easy care fabrics and thrifty prices but they also emphasized style. I am often amazed at the lovely details to be found on old house dresses. Novelty pockets, dainty ruffles, piped edgings and rick rack trim to name a few. Cheerful prints in pretty colors were most popular. The preferred fabric tended to be cotton or some sort of cotton blend. During WWll cotton was in short supply so manufacturers turned to rayon. However, the rayon house dress was less sturdy and harder to care for so after the war, the market reverted back to cotton. In the 1950s homemakers welcomed the new cotton polyester blends because they hardly wrinkled and were so easy to press. By the 1960s cotton poly blends made up a good share of the market.

Easy care and wrinkle resitant, Cotton Polyester blends

Overwhelming evidence indicates that a bonafide house dress should open in the front. Wrap dresses closed with with fabric ties and the rest with buttons or zippers. A pretty little house frock from the 1940 Fall Montgomery Ward catalogue brags about their zipper front feature "no ties to tie, no buttons to button!" Anything to make Moms day a little easier. Styles in house dresses changed slowly especially from the late 30s up to the mid 1950s. They are often found without labels which makes precise dating difficult. Often times manufacturers used the same dress pattern over a number of seasons. They might change up the fabric prints and small details for the next run but essentially it was the same dress. Although I don't have numbers to back me up, reason tells me that many millions of house dresses must have been manufactured over the years. Yet, I definately find more dressy garments on the secondary market. I'm sure that most house dresses were worn to a frazzle and mended til they couldn't be mended anymore. A "good dress" on the other hand, would have been used just occasionally and it cost a lot more so it had a better chance of being stored away. When I find an old house dress I feel like I have found a special treasure. I think about the woman that wore it and what she might have been like. Did she sing to the radio when she made the evening dinner? Did she have children... grandchildren? For some reason I never think these things when I come across a fancy party dress or an elegant gown. I appreciate their beauty but that's all. An old house dress, for me, represents a real person in time and history. Someone like me who had good days and bad and did their best with the life they had. A rare example of a late 1920s housedress in unworn condition, polished cotton with dropped waist and ties in back

Monday, February 28, 2011

Ruth Saltz Handbag Designer - A True Pioneer

Ruth Saltz Photo provided by Marcella Saltz

I have been curious about the story behind Ruth Saltz handbags ever since I found my first example in a vintage shop many years ago. It was an oversized, fold over clutch in the yummiest shade of red. I could tell right away that the quality was superior. The leather was soft and supple and the interesting closure was as well made as a piece of jewelry. I was not a big fan of envelope style bags at the time. They just didn't seem a practical choice for a working mother of three. My typical handbag was more the size of a duffle bag (OK slight exaggeration), but I really fell in love with this one so I bought it anyway. At some point, in a fit of closet-purging, I decided to put it up on my website and sad for me, it sold. That was nearly a decade ago and I still kick myself.

Since then I have come across many Ruth Saltz handbags (although that long lost clutch remains my favorite) and they are always beautifully made and designed. Even if you don't recognize the name I'm sure most of you are familiar with her work. You know those iconic 1970’s and 80’s handbags with the long chain handles and cougar head ornament? THAT’S Ruth Saltz. Oh, and those flat clutches with the leather rose, she designed those as well. As I mentioned, I've always wondered who the talent was behind these wonderful bags so imagine my delight when daughter Marcella Saltz agreed to an interview about her mother!

Left to right clockwise... Ruth Saltz rose clutch...handy pockets and handsome details on a bone leather bag...signature lining

Our first contact was via e-mail. We introduced ourselves, I sent her a list of questions and she promised to send back her answers.... standard procedure for an online interview. A follow up phone conversation was planned for the weekend. I had no idea how fascinating that phone call would be! Marcella was warm and funny and had a delightful enthusiasm about her. It appears the apple did not fall far from the tree...

Saber Handbag from the Early 1960s Designed by Ruth Saltz. Note the Pretty Toile Lining.

I asked Marcella for a bit of history on her mother. Ruth was a painter before she started designing handbags in the late 1950s. Her husband, Sam Saltz owned Saber Handbags an accessory company based in New York. Sam asked his artist wife, Ruth, to help design the showroom and to give advice on color and new direction for the new collection. Ruth had great design talent and became the creative force behind the company. Throughout the late 50’s and 1960’s Ruth and Sam Saltz were a successful team and pillars of the Accessory industry. Her artistic nature lead her to rebel against the smooth and somewhat boring frame handbag of that day. A lover of color and texture, she experimented with soft supple leathers, suede and exotic skins like ostrich, rhinoceros and turtle. Alligators were a protected species at the time, so Ruth went to Italy to work with leather tannery’s where they custom created fine leathers and suedes for the company including embossed leather that closely resembled alligator and crocodile. She was a forerunner in her industry, creating ever new avenues of design with texture, color and finishes. I would give my eye tooth to see the turquoise alligator embossed handbag that her daughter, Marcella described to me!

Ruth was also a champion of practicality. She understood the need for convenient compartments and easy access in a handbag and was the first to extend the inside zippered compartments from each side to the bottom of the bag. Besides all the handy compartments, Some of her bags even had convenient outside change purses that were attached with chain and fit into their own pockets. She was a great fan of the shoulder strap and in the 1960s she was a pioneer of unisex handbags as well as a handbag made exclusively for Men. Quoted from the Aug. 8, 1968 edition of the Times-News Hendesronville, N.C. " are starting to carry handbags. This latest fashion for men had it's start around Fathers Day...when a couple of handbag manufacturers ventured into purses for men." the article went on to say, "Ruth Saltz at Saber handbags uses whipcords and unpolished leathers in her "Gentry" and "Now Voyager" styles". Just a little aside here... it's obvious the writer of this article did not know much about the designer herself because Ruth Saltz disliked the word purse referring to a handbag. I can't imagine what she thought of someone calling a mans bag a purse! Marcella quotes her Mom as saying “the word purse relates to something you put change into inside your handbag”. She educated the public and the buyers and insisted they use the word HANDBAG.

Ruth was always loved and admired in the fashion industry. According to her daughter everyone adored her. Marcella wrote "Ruth was a warm, loving and generous person and a source of great delight to all who knew her. She was a force to be reckoned with, always ahead of the curve". In the early 1970s Ruth and Sam Saltz created the label Ruth Saltz Designs, which remained successful until the company closed in the late 80”s. Through out her design career Ruth continued to be innovative and fashion forward. She created the first signature lining, with an all over "autograph" print.

Marcella..."Throughout the seasons and the years the cougar bag came in many designs and elements and I guess you could say her signature ornament."
The handsome cougar head adornment was a functional pull to open and close the handbag.

I asked Marcella to tell me where her mother found her inspiration. Without hesitation Marcella said her mother loved the water and could sit for hours watching the ocean. She loved to be with family and friends. Entertaining was her joy "At the drop of a suggestion she would throw together a fabulous dinner party". She continued to be passionate about painting and was devoted to her family and good friends. Marcella said "Her designs came from her heart and her love of life each handbag collection was filled with love and mother most definately took pleasure in all her moments"

When I set out to write this blog I suspected Ruth Saltz must have been a remarkable person, but I had no idea... Her creative genius continues to influence the handbag industry and her designs continue to be echoed in the work of contemporary designers today. I am indebted to her daughter Marcella for sharing so generously and please stay tuned because there is a future "Saltz" blog in the works. You see Marcella is a prominent jewelry and accessory designer and she has promised to share on her own intriguing career, highlighting the wild and wonderful accessories world in the 1980s!


Monday, January 24, 2011

The Infamous Red Dress

Valentines day is just around the corner...for one brief day Cupid will cast his spell and Romance will reign queen. It is a day for sentimental cards of hearts and lace, decadent chocolates in gaudy boxes and sweet smelling roses. A day for innocent flirtation or passionate declarations and certainly a day to be daring. Red is the traditional color of romance and passion and it's the color of Valentines day. So... I decided to pay tribute by posting a collection of red vintage dress on my website. This got me to thinking. What is it about a red dress? Why have fashion ads and articles consistently described the red dress as bold or saucy or even racy (for decades mind you). It's seldom the style that elicits this response. A little 1950s party dress in powder blue might be termed sweet or darling but the same exact dress in red suddenly becomes daring. How curious. Why I wondered?

I decided to look into this and did you know that a study was released just last October by two researchers at the University of Rochester which concluded that the color red absolutely enhances men's attraction to women? You can read about it here but the gist of it is this... hands down, no doubt about it men seem to have a primal attraction to a woman wearing red. There were some really interesting finds like the fact that men estimated they would be willing to spend more on a date with the women they saw wearing red (wow, who knew?). Anyway, it appears that the infamy of the red dress now has a bonafide base in human psychology.

Given all this you would think the red dress market would have always been a booming one. Not so. Ask any vintage dealer and they will tell you just how difficult it is to find them. Flip through your vintage magazines and you will see that there are precious few examples to be found. Again, I began to wonder why. Then I remembered a story an older friend of mine told me. She was a teen in the 1950s and was looking for a prom dress. She fell in love with a frothy number in crimson and rushed home to tell her mother. Imagine how taken aback she must have been when her mother adamantly refused to allow her to buy the dress. When pressed for a reason all her mom would say was "only fast girls wear red dresses". Yes, Dior said it was his lucky color and Valentino was famous for his scarlet gowns but back in the day, it appears, the red dress was reserved for only the most daring and confident of women.

Best to you all and Happy Valentines Day!!