Category Archives: Fashion commentary

Reflections on the Couture Legacy of Norman Norell

It was my distinct pleasure and good fortune to visit the current Exhibition on Norman Norell at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) in New York City last week. For those of you not familiar with this mid-century American designer, you may be surprised to learn of his enduring influence on, and remarkable contributions to American fashion and glamour. He also, in his extensive and versatile body of work, employed the finest couture techniques, making his clothes still the envy of designers and those of us who strive for excellence in our fashion sewing.

Norell: Dean of American Fashion opened on February 9, 2018 and will close on April 14th. Guest Curator and designer Jeffrey Banks and Deputy Director of MFIT, Patricia Mears, collaborated on this Exhibition. Included are examples from his entire career; however, the Exhibition focuses for the most part on his final, spectacular 12 years, from 1960 – 1972. Norell (1900-1972) left his native Indiana to pursue his interest in illustration and fashion design in New York. He worked under Hattie Carnegie, and then at the beginning of World War II he began a partnership with Anthony Traina, the label for which is the well-known Traina-Norell designation. It was in 1960 that Norell started his own eponymous line of clothing, and it was during this period, up to his untimely death in 1972, that he set his real mark on American fashion.

To all of you I commend the MFIT Exhibition website for learning more about Norell’s life and the evolution of his body of work, including a fascinating video presentation by Exhibition Curator Jeffrey Banks. (Be sure to click on “explore the Exhibition website” which will lead you to some excellent content.) It was with this background knowledge that I entered the Exhibition, knowing I wanted to view it on two levels – 1) as a dazzling display of some of the most beautiful fashions ever assembled, and 2) as an opportunity to see up close some of the construction details, style lines, and elegant touches in his fashions, serving as inspiration for my own fashion sewing.

The Exhibit is physically divided into two areas, the first of which serves as a guide to his trademark themes, each with a small grouping of fashions. I was immediately smitten with this selection of LBDs:

All of these dresses have a timeless appearance, making them as stylish today as when they were designed. From left to right, #1 Label: Norman Norell New York. Black sleeveless bodice with skirt and satin sash, 1963. wool jersey, wool twill. Lent by Kenneth Pool [a major lender to the Exhibit.];
#2 Label: Traina-Norell New York. Black cocktail ensemble, 1950. silk chiffon, silk satin. MFIT, Gift in memory of Miriam Abrams; #3 Label: Norman Norell New York. Black dress with belt, 1962-1963. Wool, leather. MFIT, Gift of Mortimer Soloman.

As a way of illustrating the impeccable couture construction for which Norell fashions are known, this “inside-out” dress was displayed.

Click on the photo for a closer look.

It was all I could do to keep from reaching over to see more of it. Noted on the caption were ”the hand-picked zipper and extra wide seam allowance, the deep hem … edged with bias-cut silk so that it is softly defined yet sturdy. Furthermore, the neckline and armholes are minimally interfaced to give shape without impeding movement, and they are under-pressed in order to hide the seams.”

The larger gallery of the Exhibit practically took my breath away when I entered. The large center stage is resplendent with examples of his famous eveningwear, including his sequined “mermaid” dresses.

The low light in the Exhibition gallery only added to the ambience and allure of these creations.

Around the perimeter of the gallery were featured many, many of his glorious coats, capes and dress suits, as well as dresses. I snapped this photo of one of his trademark sailor dresses to show the hand-picked zipper and the large patch pockets applied by hand (note the provenance on this dress in the caption):

Label: Traina-Norell New York. Off-white sailor dress with navy collar and red tie, circa 1957. Linen. MFIT, Gift of Lauren Bacall.

There were so many terrific examples of Norell’s vibrant use of color, including this coral cape from 1962.

Label: Norell. Coral double breasted cape, 1962. Wool melton. Lent by Kenneth Pool.

And I could not take my eyes away from this combination of off-white evening gown with a red bolero jacket and peacock blue sash from 1968.

The beautiful shape of the jacket, with those amazing buttons and bound buttonholes, sets off the sash to perfection. Label: Norman Norell New York. Off-white evening gown with red bolero jacket and peacock blue sash, 1968. Cotton organdy, wool, silk taffeta. Lent by Kenneth Pool.

Another brilliantly hued ensemble is this pink evening coat with matching skirt and blouse from 1964. Note the rhinestone buttons, the beautiful bound buttonholes, the angled pockets, and the lovely seaming detail of the high yoke on the coat which descends into the sleeves.

Label: Norell, Norman Norell New York. Pink evening coat with matching skirt and blouse, 1964. Wool, rhinestone buttons. MFIT, Gift of Lauren Bacall.

Norell was known for his cone and wedge-shaped coats, of which this purple one is an excellent example.  Note the spread of the descending buttons on this coat:

Photography was permitted, although flash photography was not, so my pictures do not do justice to many of these fashions. Label: Norell. Purple cone shaped double breasted coat with Peter Pan collar, 1966. Wool melton. Lent by Kenneth Pool.

This coat and pants ensemble from 1970 is set off beautifully by its wide belt:

Label: Norell. Coat and pants ensemble, 1970. Wool herringbone, leather. Lent by Kenneth Pool.

The collar is absolutely stunning. And those bound buttonholes are a work of art in that heavy wool herringbone weave.

Norell used the talented stitchers of the garment worker’s union to make his clothing.

While I am writing about coats (one of my favorite subjects!), I want to show you details from two which help to illustrate the quality and finesse for which Norell’s fashions are known. First is this pocket detail from an off-white coat with black collar, 1962-1965.

Label: Norell. Off-white coat with black collar, 1962-1965. Wool and velvet. MFIT, Gift of Mrs. Jane Albert

The right edge of the flap is angled slightly to follow the side seam line, a subtle touch which gives it a graceful appearance.

Second is another pocket detail on a beige coat with pilgrim collar from 1968:

Label: Norell. Beige coat with pilgrim collar, 1968. Wool. MFIT, Gift from the collection of Margery J. Davidson, lovingly donated by her son Harold S. Graham.

The pocket is an extension of a princess seam, beautifully angled. And more shaping is apparent to the left of the full-length seam, giving this coat such elegant and refined lines.

Seeing this following grouping of dresses and jackets gave me a new appreciation of the concept of “less is more.” According to the caption, Norell “chose to trim his day and evening wear with mink, fox, and sable. The judicious use of this expensive and sensuous material elevated the glamour quotient of his restrained daywear.”

From left to right: #1 Label: Norell. Pale oatmeal midi dress and bolero jacket, 1967. Wool, crystal fox. Lent by Kenneth Pool. #2 Label: Norell. Pale peach jacket and black gown, 1966. Brushed wool, fox, sheer jersey. Lent by Kenneth Pool. #3 Label: Norell. Red and black check suit, 1962. Wool, black fox, leather. Lent by Kenneth Pool.

One more Little Black Dress has the most beautifully placed buttons:

Label: Norman Norell New York. Black dress with jeweled buttons, 1965. Wool crepe. Lent by Kenneth Pool.

I loved the caption which (partially) stated: “Deceptively simple, Norell’s dresses were visually quiet but strategically constructed… to enhance a woman’s body.”

I could go on and on as there is so much more to celebrate about this remarkably talented “Dean of American Fashion.” Fortunately, the Exhibition is accompanied by a book, titled: Norell: Master of American Fashion, by Jeffrey Banks and Doria de la Chapelle.   Published by Rizzoli, the book is lavishly illustrated and beautifully presented, both in content and inspiration. I commend it to you.

In closing, on a personal note, I cannot help but think back to 1972, the year I graduated from college and the year Norman Norell died. So much has changed in the world of fashion and fashion sewing since those heady years. Seeing an exhibition like this one is a lovely reminder of the true timelessness of quality and restrained elegance, providing endless inspiration to those of us who dream and sew.

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Filed under bound buttonholes, Capes, Coats, Cocktail dresses, couture construction, Day dresses, Dressmaker coats, Dressmaker suits, Fashion commentary, Fashion Exhibits, Little Black Dress, Mid-Century style, Suit dresses, Uncategorized

“Blazing Fashions”

Every once in a while, something unexpected and totally charming arrives in the mail. Such was the case when a Christmas card we received had something extra inside, besides a lovely greeting. The envelope was rather lumpy so I could not imagine what might be enclosed. The dear friend who sent the card has a generosity of spirit which is an inspiration to me. She is so thoughtful and ever mindful of the passions and interests of her friends. So when I opened the card and a very large size matchbook fell out, I knew she had once again given me something very special and very apropos.   (Thank you, Nancy C.!)

This was no ordinary matchbook!

This matchbook measures 4″ x 6″ so it definitely makes a statement!

“Blazing fashions” –“Larry’s world famous dresses! 10,000 dresses to tell your friends about…at cut prices.” If I had to assign a particular year to this little gem, I would say 1957, based on the styles, hem lengths, and hairdos on display in the drawing. Certainly it is from the final half of the decade of the 1950s.

The back of the matchbook gives a nostalgic glimpse into the constraints of shopping hours during that time in history. “Get here by 2:30 P. M. to be waited on” and “Closed Sunday.”

I can just imagine some of the dresses, coats and suits available for purchase. This is especially enticing when you look at the list of brands carried by Larry’s:

(Click on the image to see the partial list of designers and fashion houses.)

Many of these fashion houses/designers I recognize, others I do not. Some of the notable brands are: Nini Ricci, Adele Simpson, Donald Brooks, Nettie Rosenstein, McMullen, Davidow, Mr. Mort, Herbert Sondheim, Nantucket Naturals, Kasper, Norman Norell, Christian Dior (New York), Oleg Cassini’s, Teal Traina, H. B. Wragge, Ann Fogerty. Some of the names are hidden beneath the match sticks (which are a good 3“ in length). Also hidden is a coupon to cut out and mail in and request the following: “Please Notify Me When Your Private Sale Begins.” Also mentioned is the fact that Larry’s is “Air Conditioned for Comfort” and “All Sales Are Final.”

A number of the fashion houses/designers listed also designed for Vogue Patterns during that time period, such as Nini Ricci, Christian Dior, and Teal Traina. And I would suspect that many of Larry’s customers were also women who sewed for themselves, as so many fashionable ladies did. I also suspect that Larry’s did a booming business during the holiday season – Christmas and New Year’s – when dressing up was de rigueur. So many stories reside in this little vintage piece, to remind us all that, although much has changed, fashion and dressing well is timeless.

Also timeless is this beautiful and sacred Christmas season. It is a magical time, filled with wonder and awe, a time when the generosity of spirit is abundant and enhanced by kindness and love. May your holiday be filled with such beauties and with the love and companionship of dear friends and family. All the best to you from me!

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Filed under Fashion commentary, Mid-Century style, Uncategorized

A Three Piece Outfit for the Holidays, Part 3: The Sash

The sash started it all. After finishing this silk taffeta coat last year, I was left with about 1 and ½ yards of that luscious coral fabric.

I just could not stand the thought of having that yardage sitting in my fabric closet, unused, as I found it so delightful to sew and to wear. That is when I got the idea to combine this fabric with the Guipure lace, also sharing space in that closet of wonders. However, my first thought was to make a blouse from the fabric and also use it as the fashion fabric for a lace skirt, knowing I would need at least one more yard to accomplish this plan. I contacted Britex Fabrics, from whence the fabric came, and to my dismay, they were sold out, with no more available to special order. Undeterred, I then came up with the idea of coordinating fabrics for the blouse and skirt, and using the coral silk to tie it all together. After receiving swatches of several silks from Britex, I settled on the bronzy brown and the apricot colored fabrics for the skirt and blouse, respectively.

A sash should really be straightforward, right? Well, yes; however, I thought it would be good if the sash had a slight curve to it to follow the curvature over the upper hip. That’s when I went to my closet and pulled out a silk sash that I purchased from J. Crew years ago. I had remembered correctly that it had a slight curve to it:

I often think of the tip in the book 101 Things I Learned in Fashion School, page 86: “When in doubt, look in your closet.” Looking at something that is “Ready to Wear” will often help you with construction methods or design ideas.

The J. Crew sash is 72 inches long. A trial tying of the bow proved to me that I needed to add more length to the sash if I wanted to tie a full bow at the waist, which was my intent. I determined that adding 12 inches would do the trick. Then I used that sash as a template to make a pattern, not quite knowing how sewing that long, slow curve was going to work (the sash has one long seam on the concave side of the curve, meaning that some give would need to be worked into that seam.) As it turned out, ironing was the trick to get it to behave correctly, as is so often the case!

84″ proved to be the perfect length to tie a complete bow.

I had to piece the sash in the center back, but I knew that ahead of time and it really does not bother me.

After trying on this completed outfit for the photos, I know that I need to somehow tighten up the interior waist of the skirt (you many recall from my last post, that I added what turned out to be unnecessary width to the circumference of the waist.) My blouse is not going to stay tucked in if I don’t, and the skirt feels like it is drooping on me. I am going to try adding interior waist elastic to straddle the side seams and see if that might do the trick. I am not about to take the skirt apart and remake it! And the sash should help conceal any bobbles in the waistline.

The “concealed zipper.”

It was cold and blustery when I took these photos! I could not wait to get back inside for a cup of hot tea!

Sewing for the holidays is such an anticipatory activity, and one that I love to do. There is already a festive feeling in the air here in late November, and so much more to sew…

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Filed under Blouses, Bows as design feature, Fashion commentary, Lace, Silk taffeta, Uncategorized

My Sewing Fairy Godmother

Time away from home – as in a vacation and/or a trip with a specific purpose – can hold many possibilities and promises, including treasured time with family and friends, new adventures, a change in routine, and, of course, exposure to new and different places, people, and history. For me, and for many of you, it also means a forced hiatus from sewing, which is a change in routine that is not always welcome.

Thus, after returning earlier this week from 30 days away, I felt a great sense of calm and happiness when I went into my sewing room after such a long absence. It took a few days to start a new project, but now I am cranking away at Fall fashion sewing, littering the floor with scraps and threads and pins. My room, which I had left neat and tidy and clean is now scattered with patterns and muslin and fabrics – in other words, it is back to normal.

I have come to know, however, that references to, and examples of, sewing and fashion seem to show up in the most unusual places – even on vacation (or “work” trips) when you least expect it. It is like my “Sewing Fairy Godmother” is looking after me with these charming and fascinating bits of whimsy to keep my focus sharp and my sewing homesickness at bay.

Consider that these two charming dress forms, both size 4, adorned one of the rooms in the spacious and lovely house located high (very high) in the massive and stunning peaks of Colorado (USA) where we just spent the past month.

One form was set in each corner of the room.

 

To make this even more meaningful for me, the forms were the perfect size for our 4-year-old granddaughter who was with us for part of our stay. Wouldn’t one of these be a nice addition to my sewing room!

 

Other fashion vignettes were found throughout the house, such as these glove forms tucked into a corner cupboard.

Do you see the needle and thread hanging on the hand at the right?

And among the art books on display was this volume which I read cover-to-cover, only wishing there had been more photos of my favorite best-dressed women throughout the ages (such as Babe Paley, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Coco Chanel, Mona von Bismarck) – and where was Bunny Mellon? Despite its shortcomings, I found it a fascinating synopsis of fashion and its leading ladies from 1940- 2002.

“The Best of the Best Dressed List” is the focus of this book, with a foreword by Eleanor Lambert who started the International Best Dressed List in 1940.

So when else has my Sewing Fairy Godmother been looking out for me? She must be tenacious, as it took almost two years for her to prove her existence to me. It all started over two years ago, when in a weak moment I agreed, after much consideration, to be President of my Garden Club from June of 2015 – June of 2017. My biggest concern was that my duties in this role would greatly impact, negatively, the hours I could devote to my sewing. And, this turned out to be correct. I had many frustrating hours when I was in meetings, planning for meetings, hosting meetings, running meetings, doing all sorts of unimaginable things for the Club, all of which meant I was not sewing for big chunks of time. However, I persevered, tried to keep a positive attitude about it all, and do a good job.

Then – I had a Eureka moment when I was on a “business” trip for the club early this past May, attending the Annual Meeting of the Garden Club of America. Among the perks of this Annual Meeting is a wonderful multi-vendor boutique, which is set up in the host hotel. One of the vendors specialized in French fashion jewelry. Although her jewelry was lovely, it was one of her props that caught my eye – a wooden sign, with the phrase “COUTURE MODE” spelled out in stylized block letters.

When I approached her about it, she told me she had purchased it in Paris several years ago and it was “not really for sale” – but she would think about it. She gave me her card and told me to stay in touch. Well, did I ever! By the beginning of June, she had agreed to sell me the sign. It now hangs in my sewing room, where I enjoy it daily.

A focal point of my sewing room – I love this sign!

If not for being Garden Club President, I never would have been at that meeting, and I never would have found this sign. So, thank you Sewing Fairy Godmother, for knowing better than I, that opportunities and inspiration are sometimes long in the making or found in unexpected places.

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Filed under Dressmaker forms, Fashion commentary, Love of sewing, Uncategorized

Do You Do Pink?

Apparently, pink is a controversial color. Or maybe “was a controversial color” is a better statement. A recent article by Nancy MacDonnell in the Off Duty section of The Wall Street Journal (“Making Peace with Pink” February 11-12, 2017) makes a case for the appropriateness – and timeliness – of pink even for those who think they don’t like it. While I am one who thinks pink is always in fashion, it turns out that this Spring, it really is in fashion! According to Ms. MacDonnell, “On this season’s runways, pink predominated.” The different fashion houses showed varying interpretations of pink: Michael Kors was “brisk, All-American, [and] cheery.” J. Crew was “equally upbeat,” while Valentino showed pink that was “lush and romantic, with intricate appliqués and historical references…”   The list goes on and on. The unifying thread (pardon the pun), as claimed by the designers, was the lack of traditional “sweetness” associated with pink, with emphasis on the feminine power inherent in the color.

Looming large on page 58 from the November 2016 WSJ Magazine is a Valentino coat, quite traditional in design, but made very special by its stunning appliquéd pink wool.

According to Dr. Valerie Steele, the Museum Director at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, who was quoted frequently in Ms. MacDonnell’s article, the idea of pink as a feminine color did not take hold until the 1950s. Back in 1954 when Christian Dior wrote The Little Dictionary of Fashion, his entry on “pink” stated: “The sweetest of all the colors. Every woman should have something pink in her wardrobe. It is the color of happiness and of femininity.”   He even used pink throughout his book for illustrations, chapter headings and the title page. He recommended pink “for blouses and scarves; … for a young girl’s frock; it can be charming for suits and coats; and it is wonderful for evening frocks.” Who can argue with that, be it 1954 or 2017?

The title page of Dior’s smart little dictionary. (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., NY, NY, copyright 2007)

This page from the June/July 2013 issue of Town and Country Magazine gives an interesting timeline of the color pink, “how the color of little girls and baby dolls came of age”:

Click on the image to read it.

I particularly like this statement from Laura Vinroot Poole, the founder of boutique Capitol in Charlotte, N. C., quoted in The Wall Street Journal article: “To wear pink, you have to be an interesting and smart person… You have to have things to say. In pink, you can’t hide.”   Nor would you want to.

Personally, pink is my favorite color. I am always drawn to it, regardless of its hue. And its hue covers a huge range from palest pink to deepest fuchsia, from bubblegum pink to raspberry red. In thinking about pink for this post, I gathered this stack of pink fabrics from my collection. Just looking at it makes me happy!

From top to bottom:
1) vintage Moygashel linen, purchased on eBay
2) silk charmeuse, purchased from Britex Fabrics
3) vintage Moygashel linen, purchased by me in the 1970s
4) linen, possibly Moygashel, purchased on etsy
5) silk jacquard purchased from Britex Fabrics
6) silk charmeuse, purchased from Mendel Goldberg Fabrics
7 & 8) coordinating silks, purchased from Mendel Goldberg Fabrics

The only controversy I have with pink is deciding which hue of it I like best.

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Filed under Fashion commentary, Moygashel linen, silk, Uncategorized, Vintage fabric