Stash of cash paid for Zoot suit

At the Karen Augusta auction on November 2, a bidding war for a rare cream wool zoot suit ended with a final price of $65,000!

Zoot suit sold at Karen Augusta Auctions, November 2 for $65,000

When I was writing Forties Fashion, I found a few modified and simple versions of zoot suits but nothing that illustrated the extreme of the style like the one sold November 2. The Henry Ford Museum reportedly has one made by Harold Fox, the self-proclaimed inventor of the zoot suit. The son of a wool wholesaler, Fox had grown up in Chicago and went to New York as a musician in the mid 1930s where he ended up making suits for his musician friends.

The zoot suit fashion evolved in the late 1930s, primarily in New York, amongst young urban Black and Hispanic men who were fascinated by jazz music. The style was identifiable by its full-legged tapered trousers and oversized jacket with padded shoulders, all worn with a confidant swagger. The Zoot style was at its height of popularity in the early 1940s, before the U.S. entered the war. It was even the subject of a 1942 song “A Zoot suit”, with the refrain ‘I want a Zoot suit with a reat pleat, with a drape shape and a stuff cuff.’

View of pants, image courtesy of Karen Augusta Auctions

A variation of zoot suit style was worn by Parisian youths who called themselves Zazous, likewise, the German ‘Swing Kids’ were the counterpart of American Hepcats and French Zazous. The National Socialists denounced American Jazz as degenerate but to Swing Kids, National Socialism was a repressive regime to be ignored or defied through music, dance, and dress.

In America, attitudes changed towards Zoot suits after the States entered the war and the War Production Board initiated clothing restrictions in March 1942 that limited the amount of wool in men’s suits. The zoot suit became technically illegal under wartime regulations and its continued use was considered unpatriotic. A sensational murder trial in 1942 involving rival Mexican-American (Pachuco) gangs associated the Zoot suit-wearers with anti-social behaviour and delinquency.

Cab Calloway in similarly styled zoot suit, c. 1943

In the first week of June 1943, prejudices between servicemen and Pachuco youths escalated into a weeklong street fight in Los Angeles. The brawl became known as the Zoot Suit Riots. Tensions had subsided by late July 1943 just when the film Stormy Weather was released which featured Cab Calloway in an extreme Zoot suit style in the finale of the film.

With the conclusion of war, the Zoot suit lost its association with unpatriotic delinquency and as de-regulated men’s suits in 1946 were made with fuller pants and longer, wider jackets the excesses of the Zoot suit were de-emphasized. For more info about zoot suits, Zazous, and Swing kid fashions – see my book Forties Fashion.

Nuclear Fashion: Selling Style to Suburbia 1946-1964

Better late than never… here are some shots of our exhibition on fashion advertising during the baby boom. The exhibition just closed at the City of Waterloo Museum in Ontario:

Film Costume Review – recreating World War II fashions in film

I have a weakness for films set during World War II, especially if they are about civilian life during the war. I wrote my book Forties Fashion to clarify the differences in national styles during the war, because women in London, New York, Paris, and Berlin all had very different wartime experiences and wardrobes, but those differences often aren’t apparent in films that recreate the period. Although, some films do a better job than others.

One of my favourite costume designers of 1940s films is Anna B. Sheppard. Her Polish background has given her insight into wartime continental fashion. She became so proficient at the job that she got into a bit of a rut doing 1940s films including: Band of Brothers (2001), Schindler’s List (1993), and The Pianist (2002), all of which are extremelly well done, as well as Inglorious Basterds (2009), which I didn’t see but assume the costuming is equally as good.

Another of my favourite costumers who did several films that took place in the 1940s is Shirley Russell. Her work included: Yanks (1979), Hope and Glory (1987), and Enigma (2001). Costumer Sandy Powell often takes on historically set films, including several that were set partially during the war, including Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), and The End of the Affair (1999).

Also worthy of seeing are: Swing Shift (1984) Joe Tompkins costumer; A League of Their Own (1992) Cynthia Flint costumer (but don’t look too closely at the extras); The Land Girls (1998) Shuna Harwood costumer; Rosenstrasse (2003) Ursula Eggert costumer; Valkyrie (2008) Joanna Johnston costumer; Charlotte Grey (2001) Janty Yates costumer; Radio Days (1987), Jeffrey Kurland costumer (a bit uneven but mostly very good); Bon Voyage (2003) Catherine Terrier costumer; and Black Book (2006) Yan Tax costumer (although there are a couple of dresses and one pair of shoes I really don’t like, otherwise the costuming is well done.)

The British television series Fortunes of War (1987) and Foyle’s War (2002-2009) are both great series for their stories but not always the best when it comes to civilian costuming for the period. (Added April 15, 2013 – I just rewatched 4 of the Foyle’s War, and I have to say I was too hasty in my judgment – the costuming is very well done. There are a few small errors here and there, but the costumer did an excellent job on what must have been a shoestring budget.) However, outweighing any indiscretion by any film made in the last thirty years are the slew of war films aimed at the postwar veteran audience such as: From Here to Eternity (1953), Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora Tora Tora (1970). These films rarely even attempted period costuming and have aged badly because of their lack of attention to recreating the period. Unless you want to see them for the war campaigns, they are generally not worth watching.

Added August 22/11: Just discovered another worthy film – ‘Cristabel’ – a 1988 television movie about the true story of an English woman, married to a German lawyer, who lived in Germany for the duration. The costuming was done by Anushia Nieradzik.

Making Do in 1942…

(Originally blogged November 11, 2010)

Remembrance day is intended to honour the memory of those who died in service but civilians also paid a very high price, especially during World War II – the first war where more civilians died than soldiers.

As an honour for Remembrance day here is a snippet I had lurking in my files. This is a picture of a page from an English women’s wartime magazine I found online a long time ago. The magazine gives creative ideas for using military surplus parachute cords for trimming an old dress or hat, or even a lampshade! It may seem silly, but articles like this gave civilian women a distraction by offering a bit of fun, which improved the home front morale.

I wanted to include this illustration in my book on Forties Fashion but I never could find an original copy, so if you have this publication – let me know!

Images, War and Remembrance

(Originally blogged November 8, 2009)

Buying images for a publication can be prohibitively expensive. I wish I had known about the Library of Congress image archives when I wrote my book Forties Fashion. They have a phenomenol collection and it’s copyright free! In keeping with Remembrance Day here are some superb images of women in factories during World War II from the Library of Congress archives. These are American images, but of course, scenes just like these were occurring around the world during the war and on both sides of the conflict.

Canadian Fashion Connections – Rose Marie Reid

(Originally blogged November 21, 2008)

Yesterday I introduced what will become a regular blog column on Movie Costume Reviews. Today I want to introduce another regular blog column – Canadian Fashion Connections. Here I will find interesting tidbits that are sometimes profound and often obscure, but always fashionably Canadian!

Two piece bathing suit with totemic designs labelled 'The Canadiana Swimsuit - A Rose Marie Reid Original' c. mid 1940s

Because of a lucky find at a local antique store on Sunday the illustration for this article has inspired the first Canadian Fashion Connection — bathing suit designer Rose Marie Reid.

Rose Marie Yancey was born into a Mormon family in Cardston, Alberta in 1906. Her first marriage brought her to Vancouver, British Columbia but that union did not last. After her divorce she took swimming lessons and fell in love with her swimming instructor Jack Reid, who became her second husband in 1935.

Bathing suits in the mid 1930s were made of wool and got heavy and saggy when wet. Rose Marie cut a pair of swimming trunks for her new husband from an old duck (cotton) coat and put laces up the sides for a snug fit. Jack convinced Rose Marie to design a woman’s version and also convinced buyers from the Hudson Bay Company department store to look at samples and place orders. Sixteen dozen orders later and Reid’s Holiday Togs Ltd. was born. Reid quickly became known for her well-fitted, comfortable, flattering bathing suit designs but just when her real success began to take off in 1946 her marriage to Jack Reid ended.

As early as 1938 Rose Marie Reid had been trying to break into the American market. The war stagnated any international expansion but in 1946 she began to look for a niche in the U.S. swimsuit market that was being dominated by Jantzen, Catalina, Cole, and Mabs. A buyer at Lord and Taylor in New York was impressed with her line and convinced other buyers to see her show in California where Rose Marie wowed them with her collection. The highlight of the show was an extravagant metallic gold suit bought by Rita Hayworth – the ‘IT’ girl of 1946, and the first of many pinup models (including Marilyn Monroe) to choose Reid bathing suits for their flattering fits.

In 1951, LIFE magazine praised Reid’s hourglass design as the year’s most revolutionary suit. In that same year Reid’s attention turned exclusively towards the U.S. as the headquarters were moved to Los Angeles. The Canadian side of the business was closed in October 1952. Rose Marie Reid of California became the world’s largest manufacturer of ladies’ swimwear from 1954 to 1959, with her suits selling around the world in forty-nine countries.

Rose Marie Reid believed in flattering the female figure by creating bathing suits with support and structure but her Mormon background wouldn’t let her accept the baring of the belly button in bikinis. In the end it was the adoption of the bikini that spelled Reid’s demise. In 1962 Reid sold out her share of the company and stopped designing bathing suits.

Millinery and espionage

(Originally blogged November 7, 2008)

Rose Valois brown wool felt hat with feather and wood ornament trims, c. 1940

While I was researching my book ‘Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look’, I ran across an interesting tidbit but I couldn’t find the right place to fit it into my text. Last night I watched Charlotte Gray, a film about a fictional Scottish woman who volunteers for the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II. I was reminded of the tidbit I didn’t use in the book, so here it is…

The British clothing coupon scheme and the Make Do and Mend promotion came from the office of Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare. But it was also Hugh Dalton’s idea to create the Special Operations Executive. Inspired by groups like Sinn Fein in Ireland, this organization was to help the French continue to fight under the German occupation as well as General Petain’s Vichy government. Independent of the War Office, the SOE was created to aid the French underground and undertake acts ranging from the dissemination of propaganda to sabotage and assassinations. It was by this organization that the fictitious Charlotte Gray was recruited, however, there were real women in the organization.

In April 1942, Winston Churchill gave approval for the SOE to send women into Europe. Women were already involved in the SOE as coders, wireless operators, and conterfeiters of identity papers but in the streets of France women spies were less conspicuous than men and could carry parcels without suspicion. Thirty-nine women were sent into France by the SOE including Vera Leigh.

Born in 1903, Vera Leigh was abandoned as a baby but adopted by an American father and English mother. After training with the Parisian milliner Caroline Reboux she went to work as a designer at the newly founded Parisian millinery Rose Valois in 1927.

When France was invaded by the German Army in 1940, Vera joined the French Resistance. She helped Allied servicemen get out of France until 1942 when she too left France. Recruited by the SOE, Vera was given the codename ‘Simone’ and flown to Tours in May 1943. She travelled to Paris where she worked as a courier but was captured while meeting another agent at a cafe in the Place des Ternes on October 30, 1943. The following May she was transported with seven other captured female SOE agents to Germany and was executed at Natzweiler on July 6, 1944.