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.

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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
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When Heros Fall

Other than for artistic merit I have never been a fan of statues because it literally puts someone on a pedestal. I have been thinking a lot about the recent removal of statues of famous men who are now seen as offensive or represent a troubled past. It began with the toppling of Samuel Colston who the people of 17th century Bristol saw as a benevolent philanthropist, but who made his fortune from trafficking slaves. Statues of Confederate Civil War generals then came under fire, followed by former presidents and fathers of the American constitution who owned slaves, like Thomas Jefferson. In Canada, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald has been held responsible for his government allowing the creation of residential schools to assimilate indigenous youth into Canadian society – an act that is now being called a cultural genocide.

We may agree these are troubling issues that don’t represent a rosy past but where do we stop? The axe is now falling on corporate leaders who exhibit bad behaviour in the office and, having experienced a toxic boss, perhaps that is warranted, but some recent events include a San Francisco Museum art curator who used a PC-inappropriate phrase which undid years of his work acquiring art from under-represented contemporary artists in the BIPoC and LGBTQ communities. Nobody is perfect, we have all sinned, but where does the line get drawn between being human and being inhumane? Like Robespierre’s reign of terror in Revolutionary France, when does cutting the heads off of those responsible become just a spectacle to watch heads roll?

I have not been a fan of the ‘Great Man’ theory that history progresses because of individual accomplishments. Some historical figures are remembered for their contributions but history is complicated and progress and change is most often the culmination of many hands – it’s just the one who gets the patent is remembered best.

In fashion, we hold names like Dior and Chanel in high regard but Dior’s New Look wasn’t really new at all – he picked up where fashion left off before World War II began in the autumn of 1939. Much of his debut collection in 1947 didn’t use the ‘New Look’ silhouette, and he wasn’t the only designer who did that silhouette. Chanel was a bully, a fascist, and a traitor. She used and manipulated others and was an opportunist who tried to take advantage of anti-Jewish laws in Nazi occupied France to claw back the rights to her perfume. These two designers made beautiful clothes but should they be held in such high regard?

A couple of years ago we received a donation of some clothes at the museum that had belonged to A.R. Kaufmann, a businessman who ran a rubber company in Kitchener, Ontario. He is remembered as a pioneering industrialist and his huge factory, famous for making galoshes, is now known as the Kaufmann Lofts. He was also an advocate for reproduction rights that, like Margaret Sanger, included eugenics – sterilizing the poor and working class from having too many babies – a popular notion in the 1920s and 1930s that many praised Hitler for practicing at the time.

We don’t have to look the other way when it comes to imperfect behaviour, but maybe we should avoid putting anyone on a pedestal.

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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.

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Patent Fashions – Dude Ranch scarf, 1939-1946

Found this rayon satin print cowboy theme scarf at the local antique mall yesterday and noticed it had the design patent number D-114850 on it. Turns out it was patented in May 1939 for 7 years.

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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…

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Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain…

Ran across this old article during one of those online ‘rabbit hole’ marathons… Photographs of mothers disguised as curtains and tablecloths in Victorian photographs.

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Poison Rubber

Rubber footwear catalogue c. 1880

In 1887, three men who all worked at a New York rubber company were committed to a local Hospital for incoherent insanity. Dr. Frederick Peterson, who specialized in nervous conditions, thought the men may have inhaled fumes from carbon disulfide – a toxic chemical used in the rubber industry.

Rubber is an organic substance but to stabilize it so that it doesn’t get soft in summer and brittle in winter, the vulcanization process was developed in 1845. This process applies heat and sulfur but an improved process called ‘cold vulcanization’ was in common use by 1850. This process used carbon disulfide – the culprit of the rubber workers’ condition. 

By 1851 it was already known carbon disulfide fumes that develop from evaporation, were a danger to the nervous system. The toxins accumulated to create symptoms that resembled intoxication, grew to include weakness and numbness of the extremities, impotence, ‘hysteria’ in the male sex (it was thought at the time that only women suffered from hysteria), and full on insanity.

Carbon disulfide was not limited to just the rubber industry. It was also used in the manufacturing of cellophane and rayon. Many Polish slave labourers during World War II in the third reich’s rayon industry were hospitalized as mental patients before disappearing…

Carbon disulfide is still used in the production of rubber, cellophane and rayon but products made from these materials are safe to handle and use, as the carbon disulfide used during manufacturing is not present in the finished products made from these materials. For more information check out this article.

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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.

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Fashion in Song: The Revolutionary Costume for Today – 2007

Oh, hi. Thank heaven you’re here.
You look absolutely terrific, honestly.
(Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono so we had quite a fight…)

(Singing)
The best kind of clothes for a protest pose
Is this ensemble of pantyhose
Pulled over the shorts, worn under the skirt
That doubles as a cape.

To reveal you in capri pants
You fashion out of ski pants,
In a jersey knit designed to fit
The contour of your shape.
Then cinch it with a cord from the drape.

And that’s the revolutionary costume for today.
To show the polo riders, in khakis and topsiders,
Just what a revolutionary costume has to say.
It can’t be ordered from L.L. Bean.
There’s more to living than kelly green.
And that’s the revolution, I mean.

Da da da da dum…

(Speaking)
Just listen to this: The Hamptons Bee, July, 1972:
“The elderly bed-ridden aunt of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy,
Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale…”

My very own mother, can you imagine?

“…and her adult daughter, Miss Edie Beale,
a former debutante once known as Body Beautiful Beale…”

They called me Body Beautiul Beale, it’s true –
that was my whaddyacallit, my uh … sobriquet.

“…are living on Long Island in a garbage-ridden, filthy 28-room house with 52 cats,
fleas, cobwebs, and virtually no plumbing.
After vociferous complaints from neighbors,
the Board of Health took legal action against the reclusive pair.”

Why, it’s the most disgusting, atrocious thing ever to happen in America!

(Singing)
You fight City Hall with a Persian shawl
That used to hang on the bedroom wall,
Pinned under the chin, adorned with a pin
And pulled into a twist.

Reinvent the objet trouve,
Make a poncho from a duvet,
Then you can be with cousin Lee
On Mr. Blackwell’s list.
The full-length velvet glove hides the fist.

And that’s the revolutionary costume for today.
Subvert the CrisCraft boaters, those Nixon-Agnew voters.
Armies of conformity are headed right your way.
To make a statement you need not be
In Boston Harbor upending tea.
And that’s a Revolution, to me.

Staunch!
There’s nothin’ worse, I tell ya,
Staunch!
S-T-A-U-N-C-H.
Staunch women, we just don’t weaken.
A little known fact to the fascist pack
Who comes here for antiquin’.

Da da da da dum…

(Speaking)
Honestly, they can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday ?
and all that sort of thing.
I don’t know whether you know that ? I mean, do you know that?
They can get you for almost anything ? it’s a mean, nasty, Republican town.

(Singing)
The best kind of shoes to express bold views
Are strapless mules in assertive hues
Like fuscia or peach, except on the beach,
In which case you wear flats.

When I stood before the nation
At Jack’s inauguration,
In a high-heeled pump, I got the jump
on Jackie’s pillbox hat.
Just watch it where you step with the cat!

And that’s the revolutionary costume pour du jour.
You mix ‘n’ match and, Presto!
A fashion manifesto.
That’s why a revolutionary costume’s de rigeur.
The rhododendrons are hiding spies,
The pussy willows have beady eyes.
Binoculars through the privet hedge,
They peek at you through the window ledge with guile!

We’re in a Revolution!
So win the Revolution with style!

Da da da da dum.

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