Beaded evening dress, mid 1920s, KSUM 1983.1.2488

Front or back

Now that we have been at our 1920s inventorying project for over a month, we have discovered a number of interesting trends and encountered unexpected problems. We have realized, for instance, that the most popular colors for dresses besides black and white were pale green and a pinky-orangey shade which an earlier museum employee frequently described as “shrimp” as in “evening dress of shrimp georgette.” (If our museum had a café I would push to offer a dish called shrimp georgette because it frankly sounds delicious.) We have also realized how difficult it is to distinguish the front from the back of 1920s dresses.

Determining which is the front of a dress is surprisingly common difficulty. In fact we have an earlier blog post involving this very problem. For 19th-century dresses, the problem is uncommon because of the close fit of the bodice with darts as well as the trains and bustles in the skirt. However, the problem creeps in during the 1910s and 20s as the fit loosens and the bust is de-emphasized. In general, dresses from the 1910s are so intricately fastened with snaps and hooks and eyes (and more snaps) that there is a clear front and back. On the other hand the very complexity of the dresses often makes it difficult to figure out what parts are going to end up where, until it is on the form. This very problem crept in with this remarkable dress by Lucile.

Lucile 2004.28.4 frontback
Silk taffeta and tulle evening dress, Lucile, ca. 1918, KSUM 2004.28.4.

After some confusion we positioned the waist stay so that it fastened in the front. The sash wraps around the bodice and fastens with hooks and eyes at the hip. The skirt is completely asymmetrical with layers of silver lace on one hip and a fold that makes it slant to one side. The dress is in fragile condition but in far better shape than any of our other pieces by the designer. After we photographed the dress, we discovered another dress by Lucile which had a very similar construction for the bodice. However, on the second dress, which was too fragile to mount on a dress form and photograph, the bodice unambiguously fastened in the back. After seeing this we concluded that the peach confection we had just photographed had been dressed backwards! Oops. The dress is so fragile we are loath to put it through the stress of being dressed again, but we really should correct our mistake. The picture here shows the dress on backwards, although I think the error is understandable.

As you get into the 1920s the problem becomes rampant. The cut of the dresses are so simplified that they become little more than 2 rectangles sewn together with openings for the neck and arms. The neck opening is generally either rounded or a V. Often the only difference between the front and the back is the depth of the neck opening. To make it more difficult to determine front and back, very few dresses have any tags or labels inside. We have a few tells we look for to help us figure things out: Where are the sweat stains in the underarms? Which side has the deeper neck opening? (although some dresses have deeper neckline at the back, so this one can be tricky) Is there shirring at the shoulders? (shirring is rows of gathering threads, which were generally done on the front of the dress), Is the skirt longer in the back? (the hemlines are often very irregular that it is not as simple as it seems).

Here are a few examples of some of our dresses seen from the front and the back. In an effort to maximize efficiency as we photograph all of the dresses from the 1920s, we usually only take pictures of the front. And as you can see from these examples, little information is gained by seeing the back. If anyone else knows how to figure these things out we would love to hear from you in the comments!

Pearlescent beads on a black ground, on this beaded evening dress, KSUM 1986.94.1.

1920s in Bloom

As we continue to go through our 1920s dresses, we have discovered countless variations of floral motifs.  Flowers have been applied to the dresses through embroidery, printing, beading and even ribbonwork. While different flowers from roses to chrysanthemums and daisies are recognizable, many of the motifs are so abstracted or stylized that it becomes difficult to identify as a flower let alone a specific species. The following gallery shows some of the variety in color, texture and style that we have found.

For more information about the project to inventory our 1920s collection, see this earlier post and this one.

Sara Hume, Curator/Associate Professor

Detail of neckline on beaded evening dress of cream satin and chiffon, American, late 1920s, KSUM 1983.1.341.

Wedding inspiration from the 1920s

As I described in an earlier blog post, we are undergoing a project to inventory our entire collection of dresses from the 1920s. Many themes pop out at us as we are going through the drawers. In fact, the drawers themselves seem to be organized by color. In the first few drawers we have found a number of wedding dresses as well as dresses that could provide inspiration for today’s brides. A couple of the dresses have the full-skirted style known as the “robe de style” although most are the more typical cylindrical silhouette, so closely identified with the decade. There is also an almost complete lack of lace although there is plenty of silk satin and beading. We hope you enjoy the photo gallery!

Sara Hume, Curator/Associate Professor

Detail of ribbonwork embroidery on green silk chiffon dress, KSUM 2000.39.36

Survey of the 1920s collection

The Kent State University Museum collection includes over 400 dresses from the 1920s. These dresses include some marvelous examples of embroidery, beadwork and fringe. In order to showcase the depth of this collection, we are planning an exhibition of fashions from the decade, scheduled to open this September. As the curator of this exhibition, I realized that there are some shortcomings to our existing cataloguing of these pieces.

Although the KSU Museum has a vast collection (over 30,000 pieces in total) our staff includes only 6 full time employees, supplemented by the invaluable help of student workers and volunteers. Over the years, the record keeping in the museum has been inconsistent. The 1920s collection pose particular challenges. The delicacy of the silk chiffons coupled with the weight of the beading often results in serious condition problems. The general practice is to store such dresses lying down in drawers rather than hanging in closets. Because of space limitations we have to stack the dresses in the drawers. It is very difficult to know what the dresses in the drawers look like and very few of the dresses from this period have been photographed. In order to choose pieces for the exhibition, I would wind up rifling through the drawers anyway, so I have decided to systematically go through all of the dresses in the drawers, photograph them, and make sure they are correctly identified in the database.

Beaded 1920s dresses
A couple of the dresses waiting to be photographed.

I am working with my student intern, Leann Schneider to tackle this project. It is our hope to post ongoing updates from our project on this blog. The drawers hold wonderful treasures from the period as well as all sorts of surprises. We have made it through one drawer so far and these pictures showcase a few of the finds. Already we have corrected a number of errors in the records including mismatched photographs and pieces that are incorrectly dated as being in the 20s but actually belong to other decades. Three of the best pieces from the drawer are all by coincidence pale green silk chiffon and are included in the gallery below.

Sara Hume, Curator/Associate Professor

Detail of back of bodice showing texture of brocaded silk.

Updating the Fashion Timeline exhibition

Silk brocade skirt and bodice, ca. 1765 on exhibition in
Silk brocade skirt and bodice, ca. 1765 on exhibition in “Fashion Timeline.”

At the Kent State University Museum we have a permanent exhibition, “Fashion Timeline,” that surveys historic fashions from the 18th century through the mid-20th century. (Website).  Because of the fragile nature of costumes, we cannot leave the same pieces in the exhibition indefinitely. We have to rotate the pieces regularly, so that means there are often new pieces on exhibition.

Whenever we add a new piece to the Timeline we photograph it. Ultimately our goals is to photograph all of the pieces in our collection. However, with over 30,000 pieces and only 6 full time staff members, we have our work cut out for us. Over the past couple of weeks we have been photographing our most recent additions to the exhibition. This blog post features images of one of the pieces we have just put on view. To see pictures of the dress being replaced, check out our earlier blog post.

This matching bodice and skirt dates to around 1765. The textile is a magnificent brocaded silk. The close-up photographs give a sense of the texture of the ribbed silk and the brocaded floral patterns. The stomacher with the peach bows is a reproduction, which the Museum Director Jean Druesedow created from silk which she carefully dyed to match and ribbons.

Sara Hume, Curator

Detail of gold embroidery on ca. 1815 evening dress, KSUM 1987.97.28. Collection of the Kent State University Museum.

Gold embroidery on a court dress and train

1983.1.2011 and 1986.97.28
Evening dress and court train with gold embroidery, ca. 1815. KSUM 1983.1.2011 and KSUM 1986.97.28. Collection of the Kent State University Museum.

We have recently received a few inquiries about this beautiful dress and court train and while editing the photos, I decided to share them with the public in a blog post. This evening dress is of ivory moiré silk faille, which has been richly embroidered with gold and is paired with a detachable court train of green velvet also embroidered with gold. These pieces are English and date from 1810-1825. Although they have different accession numbers they were both donated to the museum by the founder, Shannon Rodgers and have been exhibited together several times.

Sara Hume, Curator/Assistant Professor

2004.25.2.BodiceDetail

Choosing the mannequin

In an earlier post, I discussed the process of preparing a custom mount for our upcoming exhibition, “The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War.” I thought I would show a comparison between the pieces dressed on these custom mounts and how they appeared on our other mannequins. Among the pieces in this exhibition that have been displayed before are these two dresses from 1912.

2004.25.2.BodiceDetail Purple 1912 1986.20.1.DetailsmThe first is a beautiful dress of green silk chiffon and lace. This dress had been in an earlier exhibition about the Gazette du Bon Ton. when it had been mounted on one of our “Christy” mannequins. The long torso and the pelvic thrust of the mannequin make a significant difference in the silhouette of the dress. In fact, the dress would have originally been worn with a corset that extended to mid thigh (like this one) making this pose impossible. The “Christy” is also too tall for the dress so that rather than pooling on the floor the dress ends at the ankles.

A second dress from the exhibition that had previously been exhibited is the purple wool and velvet dress that was worn by the mother-of-the-bride to a wedding in 1912. In an earlier exhibition it was mounted on a “Kyoto” mannequin which was designed for 19th century dresses and works wonderfully for a number of our pieces (like this or this or this). However, at the turn-of-the-century, the shape of corsets changed significantly and created a different silhouette. Rather than pushing the bust upwards and creating fullness nearer the armpits, the corsets allowed the bustline to fall much lower as the chest was pushed forward and the hips backwards. The sideview of the dress on the two different mounts shows how the differences in body shape change the way the dress hangs.

Certainly there are positive aspects to the mannequins, namely the head which  allows the complete ensemble to include hair and hats. However, achieving the proper silhouette provides a better sense of the way that the dress originally looked. Posture was as important to achieving the fashionable silhouette as the drape of the skirt and the placement of the waist.

Sara Hume, Curator