Monday, December 19, 2011


I've been very good the last two months about getting pictures taken in the most fabulous vintage outfits I've come up with from small acquisitions here and there. Posting them? Not so diligent on that front. So now here they are, from hats to hose, if not in my own collection, then what I envision in the near future.

A couple of months ago, my dear friend Birdie of Oak Tree Apothecary and I spent several days creating and canning homemade chili together. I was quite proud of my concoction - a delicious ensemble of beans, corn, ground beef, tomato puree, hominy, spices, and several secret ingredients. 

Canning is a lovely sport made easier by friends with more knowledge than oneself. It makes large quantities of food last longer, and if said food is especially tasty, it's a way of inviting back the memory of a great day of cooking and canning and watching Poirot in the meantime.

Sidenote: Okay, is anyone else who read Atlas Shrugged annoyed that they set the movie in the modern day? The 1940s is a much better context, not only for its fabulous fashion, but also for its much-more-understandable background of railroads.

Anyway, canning day also happened to be pin-curl day, and I couldn't have my lovely curls falling into the chili, could I? So I wrapped them up into a turban of sorts with a pink scarf. I learned a better way from Solanah at Vixen Vintage, but my scarf has no stretchability, so I satisfied myself with a lounging bow atop my head.

Incidentally, after getting myself used to doing a pin curl set, I've found it requires both diligence and strong arms. It isn't the kind of thing one can just do in five minutes, and for that I both respect the process and fear it. The result is always fabulous - once you've gotten the hang of it - so in my view, always worth doing. Do read what Solanah has to say about pin curls, though, to get a feel for how a regular pin-curler plans the process.

The photos below highlight several ideals of vintage periods (as you may have now noted, I tend to stick with the mid-20th century).
Bottom-left: satin hat with brooch, textured scarf as belt, blouse tucked in
Center: textured blouse tucked in, high-waisted skirt, bright belt, satin wrap Bottom-right: pin curls wrapped forward at each side and bangs back, pill box hat, fitted heavy-wool coat, reminiscent of the Dior A-line

More delightful vintage ensembles to come! 

Friday, December 9, 2011

The elements of style: bottoms! ...sort of

A woman’s closet sixty years ago included several items we won’t find in our own. Girdles, for example, are literally a thing of the past. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be resurrected! There were different styles for different kinds of women, so this exploration, while by no means exhaustive, is intended to cover the basic elements of style for the beatnik babe to our effervescent housewife, and perhaps a few in between.

Here are a few items typically found in a woman’s closet during the decade that idealized the “living doll.” We are keeping ourselves to the bottom half for the moment, as there are many pieces to discuss. I hope someday to include them all in my own antique armoire (as yet to be purchased), but we’ll take it a step at a time.


Circle skirt

This skirt, if laid out on the floor, is a complete circle. At the waist, all the material is gathered. Most skirts of this kind are not pleated or gathered unevenly--that would defeat the purpose. The purpose, if it is not obvious, is to allow the wearer to twirl magnificently across the floor, hopefully showing off no more than the dense fluff of ruffles that is her petticoat. As a child, I loved them because I could sit on the floor most romantically, my skirt spread out in all directions and able to cover me no matter how I sat. For more info, check out the post on circle skirts at This Girls Vintage blog.

1950s vintage sewing pattern petticoat


This lovely item is a terror to one's closet (don't even think of storing it in a drawer!) and is the main reason, I am convinced, that women kept their clothes in large trunks at the foot of their beds. Petticoats can be very thin: a single layer of fabric gathered and ruffled to add volume to the skirt shape over top of it. Mostly, though, at least through the 1950s, they were ruffled and layered to the extreme to increase volume to circle skirts, and also to allow enterprising dancers to practice their can-cans with some degree of modesty. For more info, check out this section of Also see Flounce, below.

Jacques Fath Suit

Pencil skirt

Made extremely popular by Christian Dior (also attributed to designer Jacques Fath, whose sketch is shown at left), this skirt--like the circle skirt--is well-known for its ability to promote a certain silhouette. It accentuates one's natural curves by hugging all of them, sometimes (preposterously) past the knee. Think about trying to walk with your knees bound together. Still, I prefer this skirt over the circle skirt because of how it lends itself to a womanly maturity where the other does not. If you look for vintage skirts of this kind in thrift stores or vintage shops, take care to only buy skirts either with a lining or clearly made of a strong, firm fabric well-sewn. The best, of course, are tailor-made for one's figure, but as most of us cannot afford such luxury, we must make do with skirts that will at least avoid the risk of embarrassing us in public by tearing disastrously and always at the wrong time. A more full description can be found at the HeyViv blog.

modes royale spr sum 1952 1069-72

One of my favorite words to say aloud. And strictly speaking, it isn't a garment of itself. Flounces are simply stiff, ostentatious ruffles - down the side of a gown, for instance. On collars, flounces are distinguished from ruffles in that they stand up while ruffles lay down. On skirts, picture Scarlett O'Hara in her white ball gown. Those are flounces. Flounces in the 1950s are better observed in the image at the right. They can edge sleeves, make skirts more exciting (as they are usually visible a few inches below the hemline), or insist on being the whole skirt, as with Scarlett. Buoyant and fun, flounces are decidedly my favorite garment embellishments. Learn how to make them yourself from the Off the Cuff blog!

Lady in green

Cropped pants / pedal-pushers / Capri pants

Christian Dior ushered in the era of cropped, fitted pants and cropped blouses, along with about a hundred other fashion concepts. These pants were useful to women who regularly rode bicycles (wider-legged pants and skirts tended to get caught in chains and gears) and were iconic for young people in the '50s and '60s.

It should be noted that Capri pants were designed and introduced by Sonja de Lennart in the 1940s, but are also attributed to Emilio Pucci who sold them in his boutique on the Isle of Capri in the late 1940s. They were made famous when Hollywood costume designers used them in such movies as Roman Holiday and Sabrina, and were quite frequently paired with ballet flats (a style happily resurrected in the last decade). A history of Capri pants can be found at


Dungarees (a.k.a. jeans)

Personally, I prefer the term "dungarees," so I might start a campaign to resurrect it. Back in the day, you couldn't find them made with comfortably-stretchy spandex - they were just denim. Most of us have worn just-denim jeans… and most of us prefer the way that bit of spandex allows them to move with you. They were originally designed for cowboys (and are still worn by them), but became popular with teenagers in the 1950s. You'll likely recognize the original brands - Levi's, Lee, and Wrangler.

James Dean popularized them among teens with his movie Rebel Without A Cause. For a while, dungarees were banned from theaters, restaurants, and schools because of their rebellious and untraditional connotations. The image seems to have stayed with us in some ways - jeans are decidedly not "formal attire" or appropriate for many formal functions. A little more of their history can be found at

In Part 2, we'll explore tops of all kinds. Also check back for posts on outerwear, unmentionables, shoes, and accessories. There's a world of vintage fashion to investigate and try on for ourselves, and we've only touched the surface!

Monday, October 3, 2011

The living doll

I have always idealized the 1950s housewife. Everything she was and did and wore and didn’t do appealed to me since my baby brother was born and I experienced a hint of what it meant to live solely for one’s family. Hey, if the 1950s woman could look cute doing all this hard work and make life lovely for her family, what more could she ask for from a home life?

"Cheesecake Phone Sex"
Fall from grace
Sadly, my ideals have been shattered.
The other day I read an illustrated book: Fashions of a Decade: The 1950s by Patricia Baker. One of the taglines for it was “The Living Doll.” What could that possibly mean? I quelled my curiosity and read from the beginning, learning quite a lot that I never knew about America’s fear of Communism, the Korean upheaval, and (to my great delight) young men known as “Teddy boys.” A spectacular array.
When I arrived at the “living doll” pages, however, I was immediately reminded of the movie Mona Lisa Smile. That movie was the first crack in the art deco vase of my 1950s housewife ideal. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a brief synopsis from my perspective: A teacher goes to a women’s university and learns that although the girls are extremely intelligent and capable, they see college as a quick way to meet a man, get married, and start their happy-housewife life rather than reach their intellectual potential. It’s a brilliant movie, and the costumes, hair, and makeup are very well done.
Back to the point. I didn’t go to college to find a husband, but the rest of the attitudes of the girls in the movie echoed mine very well. But the story expands on a good point: this pretty life that all these young women desire is not as pretty as it seems. Besides the inequality issues between spouses (which has undoubtedly affected people’s attitudes toward marriage ever since), one has only to look at the clothes to see where American women began to believe they had to be something completely impossible.

Who was she?
Holiday Kitchen
According to  Baker’s book, the “living doll” appeared in all sorts ads via the new household commodity, the television set, and was amplified by myriad paper ads and catalogues. Her waist was tiny, her curves voluptuous (though always modestly covered), her makeup precise, and her lovely pin curl set pristine and tasteful. She was the epitome of the 1950s housewife.
Now I must be fair: this particular woman, appearing in so many ads and commercials, had every convenience of “modern” life. Her workload was ideally lessened by the conveniences of new home products such as refrigerators, top-loading washing machines, and microwave ovens, to name just a few. So perhaps she did have time to look as she did. But for the average housewife (although admittedly this was the heyday of America’s middle class), this was not real life. There was no way she could be everything the advertisements enjoined her to be.
This has turned into rather a rant than an exposition of the “living doll,” so let’s return to the fashionable point. How many of us would be able to achieve the nipped waist, sloped shoulder, accentuated bust, and emphasized calf and ankle that the housewives of the 1950s were expected to achieve? Perhaps if we really tried, but what about getting the housework done as well--cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, etc.? It’s a tall order, to say the least. 
Slim Housewife Loves Her Slim Vacuum Cleaner!
It comes down to stars in the eyes of the general public. So much new technology was becoming widely available in this decade that life was supposed to be made easier at every turn. This vision could maybe, possibly be what the future looked like.
The real thing
The truth is, most women were not this idealized version of a housewife, and I can no longer pretend that it is a viable objective for me.
In reality, most women wore a loose dress, or a sweater with comfortable trousers or dungarees to do their housework. The apron with heart-shaped top and amusingly creative pockets may have been good for show, but it wasn’t practical for sopping up messes, shielding one from grease and hot oil, or dusting the furniture (because everybody knows the best way to dust furniture is with one’s apron skirt).
The future of now
At this point, although my idealized self is still canning in the kitchen with a lovely tapered hourglass figure and said apron, I can direct myself toward a more attainable goal. Whatever I do, I will do it fully. When I play housewife, I will make sure my kitchen creations engage my skills and creative capacity. When I play cocktail partier, I’ll be dolled up to the perfection of whatever body I have. When I play writer, I’ll drink coffee like a beatnik broad and get into character.
The “living doll” was an amusing vision. But now that we’ve taken her down a notch, we can rebuild that vision and those of Christian Dior’s A, S, and H lines (among others) as what they are: visions. The new goal: explore the “epitome” of whatever classic persona existed and was embodied by the few, and learn to recreate it whenever we so choose.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pin curls! - Attempt #2

...and, one would hope, more helpful this time.

Another attempt at a 1940s-era hairstyle--this one more successful (it just takes practice!). I started by parting my hair into three sections - left, right, and back - and made smaller pin curls than last time. I curled my bangs forward and to the left this time. I used 24 pin curl clips and several bobby pins for this set. I included my most recent headgear acquisition at the end, a perfect touch on top of this particular hairstyle.

Here is a good look at the back of my head with all the pin curls in. 
They don’t have to be very organized, just using all your hair. And the pin curl clips them-selves don’t have to cover the whole curl.

Smaller sections make for tighter curls, and larger sections often require more clips.
I curled the front-side sections the same direction on purpose: counter-clockwise. This helps when I want them to frame my face after I brush them out.
I pulled my bangs across and then curled them counter-clockwise as well. This allowed me more ability to mold them once they were brushed out.

This is with all the clips removed. Stop here to create the Shirley Temple look.

Unclip, shake out the curls, spray down, and run your fingers through with de-frizz gel or spray. It’s a bouncy look, fun for those with straight hair and hat if you like.

As you can see, the bangs are looser curls but they are fairly uniform to allow me to keep them over my forehead. They are also long enough for me to pin them down as I please.

Here I have liberally brushed out the curls.
The bangs were not compliant when I brushed them straight out, so make sure to curl with the brush if you can (round brush!).
Also, brushing each curl individually gave me a lot of volume in the back.

The final product!

I used the brush to curl the bangs and sprayed them into place. The longer bangs were curled and pinned under, and are neatly hidden by the hat. 
I had enough volume to wear a hat that would emphasize the shape, and the veil is a lovely finishing touch.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dream a little dream of hats

I’ve spent a significant portion of the last five years carving out my corner in the world. In so doing, I have acquired several items that are expressive of my passion for antiques and vintage living. 
Foremostly, hats. All shapes and sizes, and they must be elegant. I have heard that some people are “hat people,” and some people are not. I’m not sure I believe that, because after quite a few hours of research, I’ve discovered there are about as many types of hats as there are countries in the world. 
With that kind of variety, you will most certainly be able to find a hat that suits you even if people tell you (or you tell yourself) that you are not a “hat people.” Hats are a beautiful expression of personality, and with the right hat, everybody is a “hat people.”
I love the example of Jacqueline Kennedy. I read in another vintage blog that she had a designated personal stylist, fashion designer Oleg Cassini, who was responsible for dressing her throughout her career as First Lady. She was henceforth a trendsetter, and was the woman to bring to the world the pillbox hat. Thank you to Lisa, writer of the Vintage Fashion Librarian blog, for a fashionable history of the fashionable Jackie O.
There’s no way I could write about every hat known to man, because frankly I’m not that interested in conical Asian hats or baseball caps. I can, however, offer an exposition of the more interesting hat types one finds in antique shops and can easily examine for quality.
Soon I will post my own examples of these hats - as many as I have (and sadly that does not include the well-known top hat) - so you can see how they look.
:: Types of hats ::
This word is French for “bell,” and the hat looks like its name. Very popular in the 1920s.
Also French, this hat has a wide brim that is meant to shield one from the weather.
A hat worn on the back of the head and designed to draw attention to the face. Designed by Halston for Jackie Kennedy on the occasion of her husband’s inauguration in 1961.
A brimmed hat made from reeds or straw; one of the oldest hat types in human history. In women’s hat fashion, this hat is often shaped into a bonnet and decorated with ribbons, flowers, etc.
In the context of women’s fashionable hats in the last two centuries, these hats were often sewn to a foundational hat so as to be more easily removed. Most popular in the early 20th century.
Pork Pie
Quite popular in the 1990s, this hat has a flexible brim, flat top, and is crown-shaped with an indentation around the top. 
Most popular in the 1960s (and worn more by men than women), this hat is one of the more popular hats of today, reminiscent of gangster-style fedoras. The brim is turned up at the back, and the top of the crown is pinched in the front so as to be easily removed. Its name comes from George du Maurier’s novel Trilby.
Glengarry Cap
An alternative to the Balmoral bonnet, this hat is boat-shaped, and has a toorie (little pom-pom) on the top. It also has ribbons down the back, and a rosette cockade (knot of colored ribbons) on the side. Believe it or not, this hat is traditionally worn by men. In Scotland. That should make it less surprising. Those men also wear skirts.
This is often a trim for another type of hat, being a kind of headband. Sometimes it has a stiff structure, sometimes not.
Originally the name for men’s headgear but now worn primarily by women and children, this hat has a deep brim and most often ribbons to tie it under the chin. Very stylish and with a myriad of variations throughout the Regency and early Victorian eras, bonnets were eventually replaced by veiled hats with less brim in the mid- to late-19th century.
A cousin of the tam o’ shanter of Scotland, this hat is soft, round, and flat-crowned. Usually one thinks of a mustachioed French artist with a palette and paintbrush in his hand, but although this hat was mass-produced first in France and Spain in the 19th century, this hat has been worn since the Bronze Age.
One doesn’t know where to start--there are so many options when it comes to this headpiece! Typically an accessory of formalwear, fascinators are worn by women only--attached to the head in lieu of a hat. These were popularized in the early 20th century--think 1920s flapper headbands. Before that, they were actually a lacy head covering bedecked with feathers.
Tudor bonnet
This hat is reminiscent of Henry VIII, yes, but is now worn mostly in academic circles (go to a college graduation ceremony sometime and check out the faculty). It’s a soft, round cap with a stiff little brim with a tassel hanging from it. Frankly, it looks much more stylish - although slightly less recognizable - than the standard mortarboard one wears at one’s own graduation ceremony.
Top hat
Worn, I am told, tilted exactly 10 degrees, this hat ranks among the most recognizable, most noble hats in the history of millinery. Made famous by Lord Ribblesdale in a portrait, there is a popular myth that it was first worn by John Hetherington, who was thrown in jail for it. Sadly, that story is not true, as these hats predated the 19th century. Also made famous by Uncle Sam himself, this wonderful hat is tall with a flat crown and is often made of felted beaver fur. Most excitingly, these hats were made collapsible at one point because they took up too much space in cloakrooms! Read that history here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pin curls - Attempt #1

This is one of my first experimental pin-curl escapades. For this particular ‘do, I used regular mousse, a blow dryer, liquid (spray) styling mousse, about 14 pin curl clips, a boar bristle brush, some hair pins for my bangs, and a bunch of hairspray to keep it all together.

Styling: This set took about 30 minutes to put up. I took fairly large sections of hair, and each section required a pin curl clip as well as a bobby pin. 

I curled large sections because I only had 12 pin curl clips. I would recommend using more clips (so you don’t have to use bobby pins) if you want the curls to come out tighter. 

I struggled with my bangs; there are a lot of options! In the end I used plenty of liquid styling mousse to force them to bend backward like that, creating a bit of a bouffant. I curled most sections the same direction, which helps when brushing them out.

This shows the lovely array of curls when all the clips have been removed. 
Styling: If you use lots of liquid styling mousse (as I did), the curls will be stiff and hard to disentangle. I lost a lot of hair trying to brush them out for this set, and that isn’t necessary. The key is gentleness.
Brushing: The easiest way to brush them out is to use a boar bristle brush (round or flat) and brush out one curl at a time. Unless you’re in a very humid area, your hair should hold plenty of curl even when you brush it out.
Not of encouragement: Be patient. Pin curls are not about speed, they are about finish. Take your time and enjoy the process.

Here is the finished look. I have improved on the vintage-ness of the look since this pin curl set, but this is a good start. 
Brushing: I brushed out my bangs and curled them back into position with my fingers, the brush, and used bobby pins (my hair color) to keep them in place. For the rest, once I brushed out the curls, I kept brushing to encourage them all into the same position. They all folded nicely in to frame my face. I brushed the back curls under, and used hairspray to glue it all down.

The finishing touch would be heavy eye makeup (if you have a forehead like mine) and dark lipstick. Et voila!

More such escapades to ensue! I look forward to getting better at this.

Old to you, new to me

There are a lot of things about the past that inspire me to live life differently than the average life-liver. Antiques happened to me as a teenager, and I was bored and annoyed by them.

Since then, a series of events has opened my eyes to the endless variation of what I call “living material.” 

It started when a friend of mine got engaged and insisted on French netting for her veil, complete with a pearl-studded antique hair comb. We decided to excurse ourselves to the largest antique mall in town - about the size of a football field, not even kidding - and look for this elusive netting, which she couldn’t find at a fabric store.
As we wound our way down aisles named “Vienna,” “London,” and “Paris,” we found a plethora of headgear in the same family as my dear friend’s dream veil. Hats were abundant in that store, and the more we looked, the more we gawked. Hats with feathers, hats of felt, fascinators of all kinds began to garner our attention. Soon, we couldn’t help but take photos of ourselves in said hats. They were wild to us, but once on, you had to admit that they gave you a look, and it wasn’t altogether bad.
I don’t know if she ever found the French netting she was looking for (honestly, she should have just tried the internet first), but it was the beginning of a new phase of life for me. She and I spent nearly a year going to the antique mall every few weeks, and the more I saw, the more I learned. What’s valuable to collectors, what people bring in that’s really junk, and how obscenely small women were half a century ago. I’ve acquired several articles of clothing that are worth their weight in gold for the compliments I receive, and I always find something new, no matter how many times I go a-hunting.
Lesson for the day: When shopping antique, have an item (or a few) in mind that you’re looking for. Your brain will punch in the code and your eyes will almost automatically be drawn to that item in a sea of various whosits and whatsits. Case in point: my mother and I once went antiquing, and she mentioned it would be nice to have a perch for our miserably noisy and kermudgeonly cockatiel. After that, all I could see in the antique mall were birdcages, and no matter how hidden, every single one caught my eye. Let that be a lesson to you!