Started a new Facebook page for the Fashion History Museum yesterday that is tracking the rise of face masks in 2020 as a fashion born out of necessity. This is going to be with us for a while and there is a lot to document and remember about the rise of masks and the reactions, from anti-masking protests and politically charged masking to fun and even campy-masking looks.

The Year That Just Keeps Taking…

COVID-19 has decimated retail. Since the beginning of May American retailers Neiman MarcusJ. CrewJ.C. PenneyBrooks Brothers, Ann Taylor and now Lord and Taylor have all filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to shed debt and break expensive leases for their stores. Lord & Taylor’s roots date back to 1826 – the oldest department store in the U.S. and has been famous for its holiday windows since 1938.

Kansai Yamamoto 1944 – 2020

Kansai Yamamoto with stage costume he designed for David Bowie

Born in Yokohama, Japan, Yamamoto learned civil engineering and English before self-training as a fashion designer. He debuted his work internationally in London in 1971 where young fashions were still originating. Two years later he began collaborating with David Bowie who often wore his genderless creations on stage. Yamamoto debuted in Paris in 1975 and rode the wave of Japanese design that dominated fashion until the end of the 1980s. After the early 1990s, his fashion shows became more extraordinary and his clothes less commercial. He died last week from leukemia at the age of 76.

For more about his life see Vogue and the New York Times

Cotton jersey dress by Kansai Yamamoto, late 1980s, FHM collection

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Conover Mayer 1995-2006

Just before COVID-19 shut down the world, I was invited to guest lecture at Syracuse University for the fashion arts program. Two of the teachers in that program, Jeffrey Mayer and Todd Conover, were former design partners working under the label Conover Mayer. Their high-end women’s fashion line produced two collections per year between 1995 and 2006 that were sold through stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

I won’t repeat all the tea served in conversation, but it was fascinating to hear how the fashion industry shifted and changed during that decade. The two were already teaching fashion design at Syracuse University while they designed their collections, and continue to teach there today, but both have since moved on from designing fashion on the side. Todd Conover now designs jewellery, and Jeffrey Mayer curates fashion exhibitions.

Brooks Brothers Bites the Dust

I was not surprised when I read this morning that Brooks Brothers was filing for bankruptcy protection. The company blames the pandemic, but is that really the problem? I knew they were in trouble years ago.

Founded in 1818, the company boasts that they have dressed 40 U.S. presidents and that much of their product is still made in the U.S., which means it is well made, but not fast-fashion-cheap. The company was sold by English parent company Marks and Spencers to Italian owner Claudio Del Vecchio in 2001 who looked to update the stodgy reputation of Brooks Brothers by appealing to a younger crowd — this was the beginning of its downfall.

I have bought a lot of my clothes from Brooks Brothers over the past 20 years but what I found was that it gradually became more difficult to buy anything. When I went into the shop closest to me, which is 1 1/2 hours away in downtown Toronto where there is no parking nearby, I found that what I wanted was not stocked in my size, and often not available in any size. The American shops I went to while travelling were rarely better. Online shopping through their Canadian site resulted in massive import costs, and so my only option was to order through the Toronto shop, which often took weeks for the items to arrive and required a return trip to pick it up. I will bet the typical client of Brooks Brothers is the classic middle aged male shopper who wants in and out of the store in 20 minutes – tops – I know I am.

As the company courted thirty-somethings who weren’t into buying suits (unless they were appearing in court as either lawyer or felon), they ignored the fifty-somethings who wanted classic business and ‘something-with-a-bit-of-ease-and-flair-for-a-more-contemporary’ business casual look that didn’t abandon respectable middle-aged needs (think Kennedys at Hyannis Port). It got to the point that I was just putting in an order for a few of the same shirts every year and I doubt any company could survive on a few shirt sales.

Added August 14: It was just announced that Brooks Brothers found a buyer, in Simon Property Group (mall operator), and Authentic Brands Group (a licensing firm) so the brand will live on a while longer. It doesn’t sound like the perfect fit to me, but maybe they will fix their supply and demand chain better and not force off-shore production to improve the bottom line…

Would the Real Rosie the Riveter Please Stand Up

In 1943 Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote a song about a munitions worker who “keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage / sitting up there on the fuselage”. The song Rosie the Riveter was inspired by real life riveter Rosalind P. Walter, who worked as a night-shift welder at an aircraft plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Walter died in early March 2020 at the age of 95.

On the heels of that song, Norman Rockwell created a Saturday Evening Post cover for the May 29, 1943 issue with the central figure identified as Rosie the Riveter (Rosie can be seen written on her lunchbox). The model (for the face) of that image was Mary Doyle Keefe, who worked as a telephone operator, not a riveter, during the war, and was a neighbour of Norman Rockwell in Vermont. Keefe died in 2015 at the age of 92.

Probably the most famous image of Rosie the Riveter isn’t actually Rosie the Riveter at all. Geraldine Doyle thought she might be the inspiration for the ‘We Can Do It!’ poster who is often erroneously identified as Rosie the Riveter. The famous graphic of a woman in blue overalls and red and white polka-dot bandana was created by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in February 1943. The image was made to deter female employee absenteeism and was used only for internal display in the factories. It was not published or really known outside of the Westinghouse plant during the war. 

This is NOT Rosie the Riveter

The image had a second life when it was reprinted in the early 1980s and quickly became a feminist icon. It was the reprinted poster that caught the eye of Geraldine Doyle in 1982 who thought she looked like the woman in the poster. Doyle remembered that when she had been working as a metal presser at a factory in Inkster, Michigan a photographer came to the plant to shoot images of women in wartime jobs. Without a word to the contrary from anyone who knew, Geraldine Doyle became known as the model for the We Can Do It! image. When Doyle died in 2010 at the age of 86, the New York Times carried Doyle’s obituary, crediting her as the model poster’s image.

Naomi Parker in her polka-dot bandanna was likely the inspiration for the We Can Do It! image

However, in 1942 Naomi Parker was working in a Navy machine shop in Alameda California when she too was photographed working at her lathe for a local newspaper article. While attending a war workers reunion in Richmond California 69 years later, she saw a reprint of that photograph, attributing the war worker as Geraldine Doyle. Knowing the woman in the photograph was herself, she wrote the Rosie the Riveter Home Front National Historical Park, correcting the attribution. While the photograph has been now properly identified, the question is if Miller, the graphic artist of the poster, used the photograph for inspiration. Although Miller never said during his lifetime where the inspiration came from, the photograph of Naomi Parker in her polka-dot bandana was widely reprinted in 1942 and appeared in a local Pittsburgh paper where Miller was living at the time he created the poster for Westinghouse. Parker died in 2018 at the age of 96.

Canadian Fashion Connection – Army & Navy (1919 – 2020)

In March 1919 Sam Cohen, a native of San Francisco, and his brothers Joe and Harry opened a store at 44 West Hastings Street in Vancouver, B.C. to sell surplus army boots. Originally known as the Liberty store, the name was changed to Army & Navy in 1922, probably to leverage the marketing from the long-established English Army & Navy stores. The store sold military surplus as well as goods from other stores closing down and even advertised its own closing in 1927 as a publicity gimmick, reopening as ‘new and improved’ months later.

The original location

Sam bought out his brothers and, in 1938, bought a five-storey building at 27 West Hastings St., turning the original location into a shoe annex. In 1948 he opened a new store on Cordova street and in 1959 bought the adjacent Rex Theatre to tear down the 1913 movie palace for a nondescript expansion. Over the years the business expanded across Western Canada to include stores in New Westminster, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw. The original location became famous for its annual shoe sale, first held in 1949.

Management of the business passed to his son Jack, but a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, necessitated bringing in Garth Kennedy, a non-family member, to help Jack manage the company for three decades. Jack’s son died of a drug overdose in 1978 and his eldest daughter died in a car crash in 1982, leaving his youngest daughter Jacqui to take over the family business, which she did after Jack died in 1995, and Kennedy died in 1998.

The Army and Navy became the longest running department store in Vancouver. However, department stores have been struggling with low profit margins since the 1980s, and even more so since the turn-of-the-century with online shopping. COVID-19 was too much for the business and the Army & Navy stores did not reopen after the quarantine shutdown in March.

The recently renovated Army & Navy department store, Vancouver