Stitching in the ditch on a Friday or any other night…fun! 🙂
By 1907, a seismic shift was happening in the fashion world that saw a repudiation of the tightly controlled architectural styles defined by tight corseting to styles that were seemingly unstructured and free-flowing (although undergarments still played a key role, albeit more subdued) a more freer. One manifestation of this new fashion trend was a return to the Directoire and Neo-Classical styles of the early 1800s, styles that were incorporated by Paul Poiret in his couture collections such as with his iconic “Josephine” evening dress that he created in 1907:
This dress was constructed from an ivory silk satin and cut in an empress silhouette, a silhouette characterized by a fitted bodice with a high waist that ended just below the bust line combined with a loosely fitted skirt that flowed over the body. The dress is trimmed with a fitted black net shawl, trimmed in gold braid along the edges and hem. Finally, on the bodice front is a large silk fabric rose that draws the eye. Here’s another view:
Here’s a comparison between the dress and concept illustration that was published in 1908:
And here’s a close-up of the dress front. Note the black net covering:
This dress definitely looks back to an earlier time and it could be argued that the style completely repudiates the tightly structured styles that had dominated fashion for over half a century. To draw a further parallel, the Directoire and Neo-Classical fashions of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century was also a repudiation of the earlier tightly structured styles that were characteristic of most of the 18th Century up until the 1790s. Just for comparison, here’s just two examples from the early 1800s that are very similar to Poiret’s design:
And here’s the concept illustration that appeared in Les Robes de Paul Poiret which was a design album illustrated by Paul Iribe that served to promote his fashion concepts1Les Robes de Paul Poiret was a limited edition book- only some 250 copies were printed and almost impossible to find on the used book market. But you can download an electronic version for free from https://archive.org/details/lesrobesdepaulpo00irib[/mfn]:
Poiret’s Josephine dress is a perfect illustration of the basic fashion cycle of action and reaction and it pointed the way forward for fashion into the 20th Century.
There are draperies to make, new gowns, product and corsets to shoot, and little crazy dogs to take for walks. It’s going to be busy at No. 11 pretty soon. We’re going to make an extra effort to get to town at some point, maybe we’ll get to enjoy a summer monsoon…either way, some Old West fun is needed.
One of the unexpected benefits of creating historical and historically-inspired garments is that I have also being in the garment business is that I’ve also learned a lot about vintage sewing machines. While using a vintage sewing machine may been somewhat self-limiting, it’s actually been quite the reverse for both me and Adam and for the most part, I can pretty much do anything with a vintage sewing machine that I can do with with a modern machine. More importantly, with a little maintenance, vintage machines wear much better than their modern counterparts and deliver better results. Once we switched over, we’ve never looked back. We hope you enjoy this piece of reminiscing… 🙂
For those who follow our Lily Absinthe blog, one of our business points is that we believe that in order to create high quality art, one needs high quality tools. The modern plastic machines tend to not fall into that category (in our opinion) so a conscious choice was made many years ago to use classic tools to perfect our craft. Did CF Worth, Dior, or Chanel use plastic? My point exactly. They still don’t.
My primary machine that I swear has a soul and is named for my Grandmother (Singer devotees tend to name their machines) is a Singer 201 in a semi-industrial Art Deco table. It was called: “The Tailor’s Model”, was marketed to designers of the era (1933-1950s) and has a foot pedal that has a treadle footprint, but no flywheel. Gear-driven, which means no belts…she is smooth and powerful. She’s an amazing tool that has created hundreds of corsets and gowns since she came to live here. In early Singer advertisements, the 201 was called: “The Cadillac of Machines”..which means today, that would be a Maserati.
Then…my husband realized she was amazing as well. He’s going to Fashion School and it was time to find his own machine. Sadly, this isn’t the sort of thing one can go and just purchase. It’s a hunt…a Safari. You have to suck it up, get dirty, be prepared to drive anywhere and PICK.
I found him the machine head long ago (actually, it’s nicer than mine, it’s a 201 Centennial model and pristine) but it was in a “Library table”. It’s cute, but sized for 1950s housewives who (if you believe old advertisements) wear pearls and heels to sew. Adam is 6’1″, and has to work all hunched over this little table and it’s been hard for him…you know, women who look like this:
A close friend (Arlene, a talented designer and machine enabler) sent me a listing for an identical model of my machine and table, the pictures were so sad–it was covered in dust and dirt, and since the owner didn’t know what it was, it was referred to as a “treadle” and broken. It was (thankfully) in a shed and not rusty. It was time to Pick!
I drove up to Hesperia, (about an hour and a half away) and didn’t post anything showing my location lest I attract suspicion from Adam. Of course, it was in a filthy shed filled with who knows what…my favorite kind, but I had no time to look. The seller helped me knock off some of the dust, (pretty bad) load it into my car, then he told me that it had belonged to his brother, who used it for upholstery. There’s always some story of a machine’s origins, but it’s usually about a Grandmother and an attic. So there was one owner , now us…a good pedigree.
So here she is in my SUV after a gleeful drive home. Adam has no idea that he is going to come home to a “Dream Machine” setup, and I have only a few hours to clean this old lady up and get her ready!
Notice that I remove the drawers and anything loose before moving the machine…of course, my neighbors laugh when I’m dragging yet another machine into the house, wearing a skirt and heels, and no–they never ask to help.
Molly came out to check out the new machine. Notice the dust and dirt…there was a layer nearly an inch thick when she was in the shed in Hesperia! Better dust than rust, though.
Checking what’s underneath the back plate. YUCK! Spiderwebs!
Be sure to wipe off all dust with a dry rag first, then go in for the dirty work. The Holy Trinity of restoration consists of: “Tri-Flo, Murphy’s Oil Soap, and PB Blaster”. The latter one has horrific fumes, but I was reduced to using that to unscrew the feed dog plate. I work in front of the front door, so the mail carrier is treated to an interesting scene…
A Picking Pleasure is to check out the treasures in the drawers. Old manual, lots of attachments for several kinds of machines (not all are alike) and the usual “rare” buttonholer set (the green container). Have you noticed in listings how everything is “rare”? Geesh. But wait…check out the note with the “W&G” on it! For you sewing machine peeps, you and I both know that means “Willcox and Gibbs” (another brand of machine) but sadly, there was nothing in the stash that was for that model. Sigh.
Et voila…my hard work has paid off. Adam will come home to his amazing new setup and I get to clean up all this dust around here that this little lady brought in. Note the embossed “yardstick” on the front (the yellow broken line) that is worn away where the previous stitcher sat…very cool.
She’s alive! She was made in 1936, an American Beauty, and ready to work. The happy ending is that we’ve decided to put his other machine into this new industrial table, and the new machine (in the video) will be going to live at the Tombstone house so I’ll have something fast and familiar to use for corsets and gowns. Adam is happy, I am happy (no more “hey, use your own machine!”) and we saved another machine from the dump. <3
Paul Poiret was one of the most influential designers during the early 20th Century and he played a major role in shaping haute couture and the fashion industry as we know it today. Most notably, Poiret helped ensure the demise of the corset, and especially it’s most recent incarnation in the form of the s-bend corset, and introduced new designs that moved fashion away from highly structured silhouettes to more loose ones based on draping rather than tailoring. Also, Poiret was noted for the development of the hobble skirt and the “lampshade dress” as well as incorporating oriental elements in his designs. Here we see just one example of the “lampshade” dress style from 1912:
However, lost in all of Poiret’s achievements is consideration of his ideas, or “philosophy” were about dress itself. One charge that is often laid on haute couture and their designers is that wealth automatically equates to good or “correct” dress. To Poiret:
This art has little in common with money. The woman whose resources are limited has no more cause for being dowdily dressed than the woman who is rich has reason to believe that she is beautifully gowned. Except in so far as money can procure the services of a good dressmaker, of an artist who can judge his customer’s style and garb her accordingly, the wealthy woman stands no better chance of being correctly dressed than the woman who must turn every penny before spending it. 
While the above is almost a truism when it comes to fashion, at least today, it’s still revealing coming from the man who had crowned himself the “King of Fashion.” Poiret further expands on this theme, stating that dressing is:
…not an easy art to acquire. It demands a certain amount of intelligence, certain gifts, some of them among the rarest, perhaps—it requires a real appreciation of harmony, of colors, ingenious ideas, absolute tact, and, above all, a love of the beautiful and clear perception of values. It may be resumed in two words, good taste. 
So, what is “good taste” to Poiret?
Taste is by no means developed by riches; on the contrary, the increasing demands of luxury are killing the art of dressing. Luxury and good taste are in inverse proportion to each other. The one will kill the other as machinery is crowding out handwork. In fact, it has come so far that many persons confuse the two terms. Because a material is expensive they find it beautiful; because it is cheap they think it must be ugly. 
The above is as true today as it was back then and we see it in the fashion nearly every day. Naturally, “good taste” can be somewhat subjective, depending on time and place but it still gets to the idea that one cannot simply buy their way into good taste, or by extension, good fashion.
Here we see a sample of the fashion illustrations that Poiret commissioned by various avant garde artists such as Paul Iribe. Here we see a definite revival of the simple vertical lines of the empire dress style:
Poiret also notes that:
In order not to appear entirely at odds with her surroundings and the place where she lives, a woman is obliged to follow fashions to a certain extent. But let that be within certain bounds. What does it matter if tight skirts be the fashion if your figure demands a wide one? Is it not important to dress so as to bring out your good points rather than to reveal the bad? Can any idea of being fashionable make up for the fact of being ridiculous? 
And there it it- Poiret gets to the heart of the matter by pointing out that fashion is about emphasizing one’s good points rather than the bad, something that holds true today as it did then. The above has been only a small sample of the depth of Poiret’s fashion “philosophy” but it’s interesting to see that his ideas still hold true today in many ways and as such, they represent a distinct break with the 19th Century.
1. Principles of Correct Dress, Florence Hull Winterburn, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1914, p. 237.
2. Ibid., pp. 237-238
3. Ibid., p. 239
4. Ibid., pp. 240-241