Oscar de la Renta 1932 – 2014

Green silk evening gown with sequinned bodice, by Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby, c. 1967

Green silk evening gown with sequinned bodice, by Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby, c. 1967

Oscar Aristides Ortiz de la Renta Fiallo was born to a well-to-do family on July 22, 1932 in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. He moved to Madrid at age 17 to study painting at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. By the mid-1950s Oscar was working as an illustrator for Balenciaga before moving over to Lanvin in Paris to work under designer Antonio del Castillo.

Blue and white polka-dot gypsy inspired outfit, by Oscar de la Renta, c. 1972

Blue and white polka-dot gypsy inspired outfit, by Oscar de la Renta, c. 1972

In 1963 Oscar moved to New York to begin his career in ready-to-wear – where he correctly felt the future of fashion was heading. He started working at Elizabeth Arden and moved over to Jane Derby Inc., shortly before Derby’s death in 1965. Oscar bought Derby’s business with the help of investors found by his well connected wife –  Francoise de Langlade, editor-in-chief of French Vogue.

In 1969, the same year he became a U.S. citizen, de la Renta relaunched his business under his own name. For the next 45 years Oscar dressed Hollywood celebrities, royalty, and every first lady from Jacqueline Kennedy to Laura Bush. Michelle Obama only recently wore de la Renta for the first time after rejecting his designs for years after de la Renta publicly criticized her clothing choices for meeting Queen Elizabeth in 2009.

Oscar de la Renta died October 20, 2014, after a long battle with cancer.

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Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Maginel Wright

Maganela slippes, c. mid 1950s

Maganela slippes, c. mid 1950s, images courtesy of Sarara Brazil

Maginel (a contraction of Maggie and Nell) Wright was more than just the sister of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, she was also an accomplished illustrator of children’s books, Christmas cards, and magazine covers – as well as a shoe stylist. She married twice, first to Walter Enright, during which time she was known for her illustration work as Maginel Wright Enright. After divorcing Enright, she married Hiram Barney, and it was while she was known as Maginel Wright Barney that she turned her hand to fashion.

DSCN4034During the 1940s, Maginal began embellishing felt slippers with glass jewels and gilt-braid inspired by the colours and patterns of Serbian costumes that belonged to her sister-in-law (Frank’s third wife), Olgivanna. Soon Maginel was producing the shoes for resale under the label Maganela using leather soled felt ‘ballet’ shoes made by Capezio. The exact dates of her production are not known, however the shoes were sold through America House – a consignment craft store in New York that sold artisan pottery and rugs etc., which was in business between 1940 and 1971. Maginel passed away in 1966.

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Fashion Myths – Roger Vivier’s Coronation shoes

It has been repeated many times that Roger Vivier designed the shoes worn by Queen Elizabeth for her Coronation in 1953. Although he designed sandals for the event, the shoes were not worn by Queen Elizabeth nor even made at the time. Vivier’s design was purely intended for self-promotion – something at which Vivier has proven to be even better than shoe design.

 Roger Vivier's design for coronation sandals, 1953

Roger Vivier’s design for coronation sandals, 1953

Roger Vivier is more of a mystery than most fashion histories reveal. To begin with, his birth date varies between 1907 and 1911, and his curriculum vitae before 1953 is sketchy, made up mostly of freelance design work for various shoe companies and designers, including the American shoe firm of Delman, the Swiss shoe firm of Bally, and the French couturier Schiaparelli. There was also a brief stint when he worked as a milliner in New York in the mid 1940s.

1953 was the turning point in Vivier’s life. The sketch he did of a pair of sandals encrusted with rubies and diamonds for the Queen’s Coronation was mistakenly reported as having been made for the Coronation – a misconception Vivier never corrected. The thought of the queen wearing a pair of shoes designed by a Frenchman using real jewels, when the English people were still subject to postwar meat and sugar rationing is tantamount to a Marie Antoinette bread recipe. The big spend was on the coronation dress by English-born designer Norman Hartnell – heavily embroidered with gilt thread, crystals, sequins and beads but not rubies and diamonds.

Reproductions of the coronation sandals by Roger Vivier, c. 2012

Variation of the coronation sandals by Roger Vivier, reproduced in 2012

Never-the-less, the royal design propelled Vivier’s name and that same year he was hired to make a line of shoes for Delman in the U.S., and later, a line for Dior, via Delman. From this opportunity Vivier began creating an exclusive line for Dior in 1955, which bore Vivier’s name on the label alongside Dior’s, and from 1955 to 1962, when Vivier left Dior to work on his own, Vivier’s shoes became famous for their luxurious embellishment and innovative heel designs. Although these attention grabbing bespoke designs appeared in magazine pages, few were ever ordered. The vast majority of VIvier’s shoes were ready-to-wear and plain.

Arriving at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation

Arriving at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation

As for the Queen, considering the amount of preparation she did and precautions she took to avoid any potential problems at the coronation (including wearing the crown around Buckingham Palace for weeks before the coronation) it seems unlikely that she would even consider wearing high heeled shoes under the long, full dress that entirely hid her feet. In a recent discussion I had with Alexandra Kim, a former curator at Kensington Palace, Kim said: “there are no surviving (coronation) shoes that they know of and no record of them being Vivier… it seems highly unlikely that the queen would wear the shoes of a French shoemaker for this event and I also think that she might have chosen more comfortable/practical shoes for an event which was long, with a heavy crown to worry about and shoes that wouldn’t be seen.”

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Betty and Veronica make a dress… July 1975

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More Foncie Pulice

I spent a couple of hours on Sunday going through the Foncie Pulice website and  ‘borrowed’ a few more…

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What to do with metal hangers? A suggestion from Women’s Day magazine, January 1953

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It Came From Hollywood – exhibition of 1940s Adrian fashions

Scan 142820028The Fashion History Museum is mounting an exhibition of fashions by Adrian to accompany the Grand River Film Festival, November 3-7 at Landmark Cinemas, 135 Gateway Park Drive, in Kitchener, Ontario.

For thirty years Adrian costumed many of Hollywood’s most successful films including: The Bishop’s Wife, Philadelphia Story, Ninotchka, Grand Hotel, The Women, and The Wizard of Oz. Adrian entered the world of high fashion in 1942, selling an exclusive line of suits and gowns through 25 department stores across the U.S. Adrian retired from both his film costuming and fashion businesses in 1952 and died in 1959.

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Vintage Sartorialist – Foncie Pulice – Vancouver street photographer 1934-1979

I remember seeing Alphonso (Foncie) Pulice once in the early 1970s on Granville street in downtown Vancouver. He would take snaps of people as they passed by and hand you a card where you could pick up the snap the next day (for a fee). In my family’s photo albums I know there are several pics of my grandmother, mother, and other relatives photographed by Pulice between the late 1930s and mid 1950s. Pulice started as a street photographer’s assistant in 1934 and retired the day he turned 65 in 1979. What I love about street photography is that this is fashion in reality – no red carpets:

For more Foncie images there is this archives where you can look at hundreds of images.

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Fashion in Song – Designer Music by Lipps Inc. – 1981

Lipps was a popular disco group best known for their 1979 hit Funkytown, but by the time Designer Music was released in 1981 the disco scene had faded. There is no original video however, someone put together this Youtube video using Designer Music with 1970s-90s clips from the Soul Train Line – where dancers showcased their looks and moves.

Everywhere you go lights flash
All you got to have is the cash
While you think youre able
Its got to have a label

Designer music – Designer music

I dont even know what it means
Stick it on your shoes or your jeans
If Calvin says its smashin
Its got to be in fashion

Designer music – Designer music – Designer music – Designer music

Following the crowd its their game
Everything depends on which name
Its got to be designer
There could be no finer

Designer music – Designer music

Wearing your Sassons stop the show
Got to be in Vogue with Polo
Stick it on your sweater
Its got to make it better

Designer music – Designer music

Everywhere you go lights flash
All you got to have is the cash
While you think youre able
Its got to have a label

Designer music – Designer music

I dont even know what it means
Stick it on your shoes or your jeans
If Calvin says its smashin
Its got to be in fashion

Designer music – Designer music

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Ellen O’Donovan – dressmaker, smuggler, ghost…

It’s amazing what you can find online if you look, and there is no better example than the following story that was pieced together by members of the Vintage Fashion Guild.


Orange silk opera cloak by E. Donovan, courtesy Past Perfect vintage

It all started with a discussion over the date of an Edwardian orange opera cloak. The maker’s label “E O’Donovan” was familiar to Hollis of Past Perfect vintage because of another dress with the same label she sold a few years earlier. After some googling, it was discovered that Eleanor (aka Ellen) O’Donovan was born in Canada in 1852 and had moved to the States by 1870 to work as a domestic in upstate New York. By 1880 she was married to a Jeremiah (aka Jerry) O’Donovan. He ran a dry goods shop and she worked as a dressmaker. Her unmarried sister Margaret O’Brien lived with them, most likely working alongside her sister as a dressmaker.

Madame O'Donovan, 37 West 36th street, New York

1894 dress labelled: “Madame O’Donovan, 37 West 36th street, New York”  Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the 1898 memoir of convicted Irish Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the late Jerry O’Donovan is thanked for his help and support. Rossa also mentions Leo and Alfred, Jerry and Ellen O’Donovan’s two sons, who were studying at Fordham College, as well as Madame O’Donovan of No. 37 West 36th street, New York. An 1894 dress in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art bears a label with this address. Ellen opened her own shop in about 1889, and it seems her sister Margaret opened a shop soon thereafter. A purple silk and lace bodice from the turn of the century is in the collection of the Charleston Museum with the label “M O’Brien – Robes – 266 West 38th St. N.Y.”

Purple silk and lace bodice my Margaret O'Brien, c. 1899 labelled M O'Brien Robes West 28th street, NY

Purple silk bodice, c. 1900, labelled M O’Brien Robes 266 West 38th street, NY, Charleston Museum

By 1909 Ellen O’Donovan had met her second husband Robert McNamara. Retaining the O’Donovan name for her business, Ellen employed her son Alfred to manage a more upscale 5th avenue location for her shop. That same year, a U.S. customs investigation caught Ellen, Alfred, and Margaret in a ring of French fashion smuggling: “A wholesale roundup of importers of gowns, laces, silks, and millinery, together with other persons involved in the smuggling frauds uncovered on the piers of the American Line and the Red Star Line last Spring, was begun yesterday by the United States Attorney Henry A. Wise… Following are those arrested here yesterday:… Alfred J. O’Donovan, of 381 Fifth Avenue, released on $1,500 bail; Ellen McNamara, alias Ellen O’Donovan, and Margaret J. Smith of 37 West Thirty-sixth Street, released on $1,500 bail each.”


Black dress with label, courtesy Past Perfect vintage

Dubbed “The Sleeper Trunk Game”, a consignment of French gowns and other dutiable goods by New York dressmakers was filled by a Paris agent. He would scan the steamship passenger lists, selecting names of Americans who were about to sail for New York on an American or Red Star Line ship, and then pack the consignments into trunks labeled with these culled names. The trunks were sent to the Paris piers too late to be stowed on the passenger’s ship and were instead put onto the next available ship. Once the trunks reached the American and Red Star line pier in New York, a customs agent working with the smuggling ring would whisk the trunks away under the auspices of storing them for the recently returned American passengers to claim, but instead send them onto the New York dressmakers who paid the smugglers 50% of what the duty would have been if everything had been shipped legally. The scam netted an annual loss in fees for customs of about a half million dollars. In one of the last shipments before the crackdown, Eleanor, Alfred and Margaret (as well as other dressmakers) placed an order that was sent under the traveller’s name of Nellie grant, the granddaughter of president Ulysses S. Grant. A week after Nellie Grant sailed from Paris, three trunks were sent on the S.S. Gothland. Upon arrival, the trunks were discovered to contain 231 gowns with a dutiable value of $29,574.30. Despite the scandal, Ellen O’Donovan’s business didn’t seem to outwardly suffer and she remained in business until 1920.

Lobby of the Davenport hotel in Spokane Washington with its skylight ceiling.

Lobby of the Davenport hotel in Spokane Washington with its skylight ceiling.

On August 17 1920, Ellen, now twice widowed, was touring the West with her sister and two cousins. They were staying at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Washington and planned to leave for Glacier National Park the next morning. Wanting some air before dinner, Ellen took a stroll on a third floor walkway over the glass roof of the lobby court. For no known reason, Ellen fell through the skylight into the lobby. She was carried to a couch where she uttered her last words “Where did I go?” She lost consciousness and died an hour later in her room.

For decades now, guests have reported seeing the spectre of a woman in 1920 period dress peering over the railing of the mezzanine in the lobby of the Davenport hotel – it must be Ellen O’Donovan, New York dressmaker.

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