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.

A Mask – the New Black?

The plague doctor outfit was an iconic look of the 17th century and became a staple of the Italian commedia dell’arte and Venetian Carnival

The origin of wearing masks to protect against disease dates back to the mid 17th-century when doctors dressed against the bubonic plague in outfits that made them look like giant crows.

The original idea for the ensemble is usually credited to Charles de Lorme, physician to King Louis XIII. He described his plague outfit as a coat covered in scented wax, breeches connected to boots, a tucked-in shirt, hat and gloves of kid leather, and a mask with a beak shaped nose filled with theriac (a compound of herbs including myrrh and cinnamon), with a hole on each side so that with every breath, the sweet scent of the herbs filled the lungs.

Doctor’s plague mask, c. 1650, Yorkshire Museum

Before germ theory, physicians thought the plague was spread through poisoned air and that sweet and pungent scents could purify plague-ridden air. The plague was actually caused by bacteria that was transmitted through flea bites or the inhalation of infectious droplets from sneezing or coughing patients. Although the science behind the beak-like mask was faulty, it would have offered some minimal protection as it stopped doctors from touching their face and the entirely covered body would reduce the possibility of flea bites. 

Manchurian doctors began wearing surgical face masks improved by the addition of extra padding during the 1911 Manchurian plague.

With a better understanding of germs and disease, cloth face masks were first worn by doctors in the late 1890s to prevent surgeries from becoming infected. In the fall of 1910 a plague broke out in Manchuria that had a high and fast mortality rate. A Chinese doctor by the name of Lien-teh Wu determined that the plague was spread by air-born bacteria and developed a more sophisticated face mask consisting of many layers of gauze with a tight fit to the face — he developed a respirator that was effective against the spread of disease.

Telephone operators in High River, Alberta, 1918

In 1918, masks were used by civilians to prevent the spread of the Spanish Influenza. However, pictorial evidence often shows that most people wore loosely fitted masks and often incorrectly, that offered little or no protection, as made evident by the flu ultimately killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide. What would have been effective were gas masks, made for soldiers on the front in World War I, as well as for civilians in World War II. Gas masks were respirators that filtered every inhalation by creating an airtight seal to the face, but they were uncomfortable to wear, and expensive to produce.

Civilian gas masks, World War II, England

The use of face masks disappeared in the West, although in the East, masks continued to be worn in crowded urban areas out of politeness to avoid sneezing on others. In an effort to create a face mask that was more efficient at filtering air but more comfortable to wear than a gas mask, a respirator was developed for single-use occupational safety and health. The N95 was developed by 3M in 1972 primarily for coal miners and other workers who were exposed to fine dust that could lead to health issues. The respirators circled back to medical use in the 1990s to protect immunocompromised patients, and then more broadly with the the outbreak of SARS in 2002.

In the last decade face masks were used as protection from smog in cities throughout Asia. They were also adopted by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong in 2019 as a tool for disguising identities from closed-circuit TV cameras. When the government tried to ban them, they became a political symbol. 

QIAODAN Yin Peng Sportswear collection, 2014

In the last few years some brands, including Fendi and Gucci, started making designer masks. Billie Eilish wore one to the Grammys on January 26, 2020 just as the first reports of the Coronavirus were making news. Masks became the fashion accessory at the Paris and Milan fashion shows this year where they were handed out to guests, and couture versions appeared on some catwalks

Billie Eilish at the Grammys 2020 wearing a decorative face mask

Despite the recent necessity, it will be interesting to see if mask fashions have any lasting power. The look is unsettling, reminiscent of a scene from some movie about a contagion that creates zombies. It is alienating and unsocial – the same reason many dislike the face-covering scarves intended to isolate Islamic women from attention. Time will tell but I wouldn’t buy stock…

Catching Flies

I just read an interesting article about beauty marks or patches (called ‘flies’ in French). This is a rough English translation of that article by Corinne Thépaut-Cabasset, international relations historian and project manager at the Cultural Development Department of the Palace of Versailles and president of the ICOM Costume international committee. The full article appears in issue #34 of the journal Château de Versailles (July-Sept. 2019):

Intended to camouflage a facial defect or to accentuate, by contrast, the whiteness of the skin, “flies” were part of the arsenal of seduction in the Great Century, (note: The Great Century refers to the period in France under the reigns of Louis XIV to Louis XVI, c. 1660 – 1790)

At all costs and for all kinds of people, there are ways: “to soften the eyes, to trim the face, to put on the forehead, to place on the breast and, provided that a skillful hand know how to put them to good use, you never put them in vain.” A 1661 poem spoke of the ‘good fly maker’ – The fly was compared to the bee and the face of a woman to a flower on which, like bees, the fly lands. The ‘good fly maker’ makes a point of making the lady irresistible, and the man is bitten.

Flies varied in size or shape and had specific names. “Those cut in length are called assassins”, explained Furetière in his Dictionary of the French language (1690)… Placed near the eye, it is the “passionate”; at the corner of the mouth, the “kisser”; on the lip, the “coquette”; on the nose, the “cheeky”; on the forehead, the “Majestic”; in the middle of the cheek, the “gallant”; in the fold of the cheek when one laughs is called “the playful”; there are also the “discreet”, the “virtuous”, etc.

Their dimensions vary. Long ones are called “ball flies” or “court flies”, because their large size could be seen from a distance and had a better effect in a room lit by candles. Small and “wonderfully flirtatious” flies were worn during the day for parties and were called “alley flies”.

The best flies were cut with sharp dies from a very black taffeta that was well gummed, so that it did not fray and get caught in wrinkles…

Jesus sneakers

In a few minutes this past Tuesday, Brooklyn sneaker company MSCHF (pronounced Mischief) sold two dozen shoes for U.S. $1,425 each. The customized Nike Air Max 97 sneakers called ‘Jesus Shoes’ were blessed with religious symbols: Holy water from the River Jordan were injected in the sneaker bubbles, the Vatican-red insoles were scented with frankincense, and a steel crucifix dangled from the shoelaces. 

The shoes were made as a parody of the absurdity of collaborative products, although the irony may have been lost on its buyers as many of the shoes have already been resold for more than double their original cost.

History Bounding

‘History Bounding’ is a recent trend for enthusiasts who dress in contemporary clothes styled after an historical period or person. It began six years ago when Canadian blogger Leslie Kay, who was headed for Disney World, began a blog called DisneyBound where she styled modern outfits for Disney characters. The trend grew from there. This site created by two twin sisters has a lot of DisneyBound looks.

The results run from costumey looking cosplay outfits to contemporary fashions that don’t readily appear to have an historical reference. The most successful looks fall between these extremes. I suppose you could call it historical appropriation!

Ronald Bard, – 2018

I just found out that Ronald Bard passed away in Asheville, North Carolina on March 3, 2018. His name may not be well known today, but in the late 1960s, he was the leading spokesman for the paper dress industry. Bard was part owner, of the company Mars of Asheville, along with his sister Audrey, and her husband Robert Bayer, who worked as an engineer at Scott Paper. Mars of Asheville was the first company to manufacture paper dresses as a commercial enterprise. Bard was quoted as saying that in 1966 he was convinced that disposable clothing would become half of the clothing market by 1980. However, the paper dress fad faded into history by 1970.

I came across Bard’s obituary accidentally via a link from the Ramsey Library at the University of North Carolina. They have in their collection this Master Charge paper dress that was created by Mars of Asheville to advertise the launch of Master Charge in 1966 (renamed MasterCard in 1979). I thought I had seen all the paper dress prints ever made, but this one is new to me!

The First Paper Clothing Fad: 1889 – 1893

The late 1960s fad for disposable paper clothing resulted in some mad, mod dresses in flower power prints, but this was the second time paper clothing was a fad. The first time was 80 years earlier, and it all began when there was a change in how paper was made.

Historically, paper had been made from recycled rags, usually cotton garments that were mechanically pulped into a slurry and dried into sheets. In 1843, wood pulp was used for the first time, and although the resulting paper was not as good quality as rag paper it was cheaper to produce because the raw material was abundant. By the 1870s, mechanical pulping was being displaced by chemical pulping that used sulphites to break down the wood pulp, resulting in a better quality paper.

The insulating qualities of paper were well known – it was a common practice to tuck newspapers inside a winter coat to keep the wind from cutting through the weave of the cloth. American entrepreneur R.C. Mudge and his business partner, Edgar Wasson thought the idea of using the new sulphite paper for making clothing for winter insulation had commercial possibilities. Mudge and Wasson applied for a patent for a paper vest in 1888, and in February 1889, the R. C. Mudge Paper Clothing Company began manufacturing paper vests in Detroit, Michigan. They hired John C. McLaughlin, who would go on to apply for Canadian and American patents for the process he developed to make sulphite wood pulp paper pliable by dampening it with a gelatin solution and rolling it between sets of corrugated rollers and then rubbing it by hand. This softening process allowed for the paper to be sewn, like a textile, but still retain its strength.

The new company displayed their goods at the Detroit International Exposition and Fair in 1889. A newspaper report in the Detroit Tribute extolled the virtues of Mudge’s products: “The men’s vest cost 50 cents, the ladies’ 75 cents and other goods come at corresponding prices.  These paper garments cannot be compared with inferior woolen garments.  Wind will blow through wool.  It simply can’t get through this paper, which, besides being warm is tough, standing a pull of 98 pounds to the inch without tearing.”

To promote his venture, Mudge commissioned J.E. Fancher to create a piece of music titled “The Paper Vest Gallop”, printed on the sulphite paper he used to make his paper garments. Mudge also promoted his goods by donating paper blankets to hospitals and paper vests to postmen.

Mudge didn’t have enough financial backing to support his fledgling business that he expanded too rapidly. Despite all the promotion and accolades, his venture failed. Mudge’s business and stock were sold under a mortgage to Henry McMorran and Wilbur Davidson of the Sulfite Fibre Works of Port Huron Michigan for $75,000. The new owners hired Mudge and McLaughlin to oversee the transition and continue to improve the manufacturing process. They also changed the name of their company to the Port Huron Fibre-Garment Manufacturing Company. In July 1890, McLaughlin made suggestions on how to improve the quality of the paper with the addition of spring-loaded pounding machines, but left the company shortly afterwards. In 1891 Mudge also left the company and moved to Brooklyn where he became a Vaudeville stage manager.

The Port Huron Fibre-Garment Manufacturing Company eventually failed sometime in 1893 and leased their property to the American Fibre-Chamois Company. By 1894, ladies’ dresses had taken on full balloon-shaped sleeves, and the American Fibre-Chamois Company found a new, viable market selling their paper as an interlining to give sleeves their desired fullness. In 1896, McLaughlin sued for patent infringement by the American Fibre-Chamois Company over their use of his process for making the paper pliable. The court found that McLaughlin had not been specific enough in his patent over details, like the strength of the gelatin solution used to dampen the paper, and his case was dismissed.

Concurrent with Mudge’s business was the New York Paper Clothing Manufacturing Company, founded by Charles G. Barrett at 290 Pearl Street in New York. Their ‘Zero’ vest for men and women was a paper interlined cloth vest that they advertised as being “…just the thing for cold weather. It is light, comfortable, soft and pliable and fits perfectly.” The Watertown Daily Times reported on October 27, 1890 that: “Anyone that is troubled with weak lungs can readily find relief by wearing a good chest protector. These goods… can be had at the W. H. Drug Store. We have… a line of paper vests, which are made by the New York Paper Clothing Company, which are used by many who are continually exposed to this cold climate and have given the greatest satisfaction.” However, like Mudge and the Port Huron Fibre-Garment Manufacturing Co., this company also failed and was dissolved in 1893.

With thanks to Lynne Ranieri and other members of the VFG who uncovered this story.

Fadshions – The first Onesie?

Lizzie Bramlett recently did a post about pyjamas, citing 1912 as the earliest reference she has found to date for their sale in catalogues. This predates the c. 1917 date when they begin to show up more often in catalogues and magazines as sensible sleeping attire, especially for women in England in case of zeppelin raids. Bramlett also posted a 1919 pattern illustration for a sleeping pyjama intended for camping that looks a lot like a onesie. This might be the first of its kind!

First Fashion story of 2018

Politics continues to make its presence known in the world of fashion this year. This past Sunday, guests attending the Golden Globe awards wore black in support of the ‘Me Too#’ campaign and ‘Time’s Up’ legal fund to end sexual misconduct. This must be the first time since Black Ascot in 1910, when everyone attending the horse race dressed in mourning for the late King Edward, that black has been worn so universally at one event.

Raccoon Coats – The First Vintage Clothing Hit?

Raccoon coat wearing football fans, c. 1930

The raccoon coat originally grew in popularity in the 1920s, alongside college football. Late fall games were not comfortable for fans sitting in open stadiums, and raccoon coats (a more affordable choice than expensive farm-bred mink or fox) became a fashionable way to stay warm. The popularity for the coats peaked just before the stock market crash of 1929, and as they fell from favour during the early 1930s, supplies surpassed demand. The bulk of the unsold coats went into storage where they languished until the Davy Crocket coonskin cap craze of 1955 resulted in many of the old coats being repurposed.

Coonskin cap, c. 1955

In 1957, New York socialite Sue Salzman was telling a story at a Greenwich Village party about how she had hesitated on buying an old raccoon coat, but that it had sold by the time she had decided she wanted it.  A guest who had heard the story told her that if she wanted a raccoon coat, he could put her in touch with relatives who had a warehouse of jazz-age raccoon coats. Sue promptly went into business acquiring and reselling the coats to retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor. Some were sold as is, some recut and relined. However, like thirty years before, their popularity faded after a few years.

More to the Story…