Victorian Secrets

A few weeks ago an article had been floating about the interwebs.  It was an article about a woman who wears Victorian garb as many of us vintage gals rock the 40s and 50s.  I was so intrigued, having an interest in the Victorian era in addition to the mid-20th century.  The woman, Sarah Chrisman, mentioned how wearing her corset every day for a year reduced her by waist ten inches, improved her posture and reduced her migraines.  As a migraine suffer myself I was enthralled by the notion of a corset curing migraines, yes, more so than the trimming of the waist! I was even more excited when I read that she had recently written a book about her transformation as a daily corset wearer, and promptly purchased it!

Chrisman’s book, Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself, is an insightful look into how today’s society looks upon the corset, and those who dress differently.  Always interested in the Victorian era, Chrisman had collected clothing of the period, and when her 29th birthday arrived, her husband, Gabriel, gave her a corset.  Initially she wasn’t happy with the gift, but as she looked at her corseted figure in the mirror, she was enthralled, quickly wanting to wear her corset as much as possible.  Wearing the garment lead Chrisman to do research about corsets, and quickly learned that much of what she had heard about the corset were pure myth, and as she began to get a smaller waist, her wardrobe slowly transformed to become more in line with what women of the Victorian era wore.

As Chrisman’s waist shrank, she began to receive a wide range of comments, from gushingly positive to horrifically negative and some that she just didn’t know how to take! Many people were intrigued by her deep interest in the period that would take her to the lengths to wearing a corset 24/7, but others, mostly women she noted, were appalled, calling the corset a symbol of oppression.  As Chrisman and her husband got deeper into their manner of dress, they began to be invited to events as participants, and were then able to educate, and dispel stereotypes of the Victorian era as depicted in films and crush flat out lies, such as broken bones (which refer not to human bones, but the bones of a corset, originally referring to the fact that the stays were originally made of whale bone).

I enjoyed Chrisman’s comparison of dressing in period clothing to that of being from a different country. She quotes a book which states that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” How true that is! But unlike foreign countries, which have ambassadors and such, Chrisman notes that “[h]istory has no emissaries.” And I would like to think that historians, and those who choose to dress in a manner from the past can be those emissaries, to become a “[h]istorial ambassador”, and Chrisman and her husband do just that.

Dressing out the norm on a regular basis has its own daily struggles, but sometimes there are special circumstances that can make it even more difficult, and in that case some, like myself, make concessions.  One example is air travel (for more on traveling for the vintage loving gal, read this post).  When the holidays approached, Chrisman had been corseting herself every day since her birthday, and had altered her clothing so much that there were “few clothes left that would fit me without my corset”, and chose to go through with their holiday flights to the east coast in her corset.  The flight to the east coast was met without too much issue, and the TSA apologized for the inconvenience, but between their arrival and their departure, Newark, the same airport they were to fly out of, had a bomb scare (Chrisman’s book, while contemporary, much, including this visit takes place in 2009, post-9/11, but pre-common use of body scanners).  When flying back to their home state of Washington, Chrisman’s corset set off the metal detector and was subjected to a strip search, and feared a body cavity search, but was spared that.  After this case, Chrisman makes no mention of deciding upon different arrangements for future travel, or to select a specific travel wardrobe that does not require her corset.

While Chrisman enjoys the Victorian era, and I myself the mid-20th century, I still found her book extremely easy to relate to.  Dressing out of the past’s closet, regardless of era, is often met with odd comments, many of which I face on a daily basis.  People wonder what you’re doing “all dressed up” or if you’re “in a play”.  Chrisman’s corset and the comments surrounding it were similar to how some react when the topic of girdles is brought up.  Some are quick to bad mouth them while I stand there in one! Then those who lived through the days of seamed stockings inquire why on earth I wear them.  Tired of checking for straight seems, and attaching the garters, they rejoiced when seamless stockings, followed by pantyhose became the norm.  Chrisman also recounts moments of “a special kind of self-torture” when looking at garments on-line that are out of budget, something I’m certainly guilty of!

Victorian Secrets isn’t without issues though.  Chrisman isn’t afraid to describe people physically that she comes in contact with in an negative light, describing a man with “triple chins”, a woman as “dumpy” and as a “crone”.  She also assumes someone’s education based upon their manner of speech, and declared that the person should be “weeded from the gene pool”.  There were other moments I had issue with as well, such as a moment when a hostess’ hair whips through a cake’s frosting, and instead of informing her hostess of the issue, Chrisman instead makes a “mental note” not to eat any of that cake.  While such descriptions of people may add to a fictional story, it comes across as unnecessary and cruel in a memoir which is to focus upon wearing a corset on a daily basis.

Overall, I found Victorian Secrets book a very quick and easy ready, finishing it in just five days (possibly a new record for me!), and could be easily completed in one sitting.  Her style of writing is similar to that of a blog in many respects, but I will admit I did bump into two words I was utterly unfamiliar with and had to look up!  The book is accompanied with images from various catalogs of the turn-of-the-century, Gibson drawings, and photographs of the author herself.  Ultimately I found Chrisman’s mini-memoir to be inspiring, and encouraging.  She has armed herself with numerous sources as she steps outside her front door to quickly thwart those who know only the stereotypes of the period, and has become a Historical Ambassador! I find myself now more eager to speak up for myself when one talks about the annoyances of girdles and/or stockings and other matters of “oppression” with regards to dress.

You can purchase Victorian Secrets on Amazon.

Speaking of corsets and girdles, now is a good time to mention tomorrow is the last day to enter the What Katie Did book giveaway if you haven’t already! It closes tomorrow night and the winner will be announced on Thursday!

Broken Threads

When I completed my review of Nazi Chic? Fashioning Women in the Third Reich, I made note of other books on fashion and World War II that I was looking forward to reading and sharing my thoughts with you.  And today I share with you my thoughts on Broken Threads: The Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry in Germany and Austria.

Broken Threads stems from a fashion exhibit that was produced by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in 1999 and shares a collection of essays written by a variety of authors on the subject of Jews and the fashion industry during the Second World War.  Nazi Chic author Irene Guenther is among the essayists and a few of the pieces are translated from German.

The book opens with a wonderful introduction that discusses the origins of the book, and why fashion is an important part of WWII history, and brought up a great point – fashion is a way to bring in new audiences to Holocaust education.  What so few people know is that the Jews were integral to the fashion industry.  Prior to the WWII, Jews in Germany operated nearly eighty-percent of the department and chain stores, sixty-percent of the wholesale and retail clothing business and forty-percent of the wholesale textile industry.  They had talent regarding fashion design, knowledge of textiles and extreme business savvy that made them excel in the fashion world.  But by being such a pillar of the fashion industry, the Jewish owned businesses became easy targets once Hitler rose to power.  Jewish fashion was deemed a perpetrator of modernism, something the Nazis felt was un-German.  According to the Nazis, modernism was degenerate, and the fashion coming from the Jews was labeled hideous, and a “satanic mockery of womanhood”.  Boycotts ensued, Aryan take-overs of businesses began, and those shopping at Jewish owned businesses were labeled as traitors, which even became grounds for divorce in Germany.

In 1933 Adefa, the Federation of German-Aryan Manufactures of the Clothing Industry, was created.  The group aimed to eradicate Jews from the fashion industry, and perpetuated that their goods were superior to those made by Jews.  Members had signs in their store windows boasting that their garments were “made by Aryan hands” and the garments also bared sewn in Adefa labels.  Additionally, the group produced fashion shows and exhibits showcasing their German goods and aimed to produce a true German style.

Eventually, the boycotts and work of Adefa culminated in in Kristallnacht, where 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed. After that horrific night, Adefa felt its goals of ridding the fashion world of Jews was complete and began to focus on removing Jewish methods and technique from the industry.   Then, on August 15, 1939, as Jews were forced into the ghettos, Adefa proclaimed success over the Jewish “monopoly” in the clothing industry and dissolved.

In the ghettos Jews were then, ironically, forced to work to produce clothing and shoes for Nazi officials, their wives, the military and even for “Aryan” businesses, who contracted cheap ghetto labor in order to gain huge profits, and the same thing continued into the death camps.

Broken Threads also offers more details regarding the rationing process, noting precise points to garment numbers, but the images painted regarding the lack of inventory, and desperate means that women went to clothe themselves and their families are not as harsh as those described in Nazi Chic.  Other topics of discussion are the history of Jews in the garment industry, dating back to biblical times, the history of the department store, and the Aryanization that occurred in Vienna.

In many respects I wish I could have read Broken Threads prior to Nazi Chic.  It is a much easier read, includes a timeline and pictures throughout, while covering many of the same topics as discussed in Nazi Chic.  The only topic really omitted is the discussion of women in the military.  So for those wishing to learn more about the fashion industry under the Third Reich, and not the military aspect, then Broken Threads is a much better read, and I would recommend it for anyone with the slightest interest in the subject.

Broken Threads is available on Amazon.

Titanic – 100 Years Later

Unless you live under a rock, you’re aware that today marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  I’ve been interested in the Titanic prior to the 1997 film, and it is this interest that spurred my desire to attend Solanah’s tea commemorating the sinking.  Earlier I blogged about the dress I was making for the event.  Well, I can now proudly present it!

Dressed to the nines, we all met at the Grant House along Officer’s Row in Fort Vancouver area for a lovely sit-down tea and gossip of course.  We had the whole house and grounds to ourselves and we were able to explore, and, of course, take pictures…

I hitched a ride with Rhiannon, of Garb-Oh Vintage, who dressed up as an Edwardian child in this adorable sailor inspired outfit.

Julie of Fab Gabs attended in an amazing dress she actually picked up from Rhiannon!

The lovely Margorie of Reviving Vintage, who I met at Expo, also attended with her friend who is into the regency scene.  There is an event planned for June at the Pittock Mansion that Solanah and I may get together and sew some outfits for the event.

After the tea we had a lovely stroll around Officer’s Row, enjoying the sun.  I had such a wonderful time, and was so pleased to meet other like-minded people, and of course play dress up.  It isn’t often we get to dress in fashions pre-1920…

A Sewing Voyage

April 14th marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  Growing up, even prior to the film, I was fascinated with the ship.  I loved its tragic story…the maiden voyage of a ship that was called “unsinkable” and the captain’s last journey before retirement.  Then the movie came…and everyone had Titanic fever! Shouts of “I’M KING OF THE WORLD” could be heard from the highest peaks throughout the playground, and my bedroom became plastered in Titanic movie posters.  I even had a Titanic themed birthday party, complete with film viewing and a cake done by the local bakery based on a drawing I did.

Flash-forward to today, I still love both the film and the actual ship.  You’ll find me watching Titanic specials on the History Channel and reading each new book that is published on the topic.  And on April 14th I have the chance to get gussied up with other wonderful gals to attend a Titanic themed tea hosted by Solanah of Vintage Vixen.  Knowing I needed a dress, I became frantic before my mother came to my rescue, providing a box of patterns (we had bought loads of patterns back in 2005 when a fabric store was moving and all patterns were one dollar, my mum told me I could buy anything I wanted).  And after much consideration, I picked out a pattern.

We then went to my new favorite haunt, Fabric Depot, to purchase fabric.  I ultimately settled upon a deep, royal blue fabric that has a sheen to it and some black and silver trim.  I’m going to stitch the silver over the black, making it look like one piece of trim, then put it on the dress.  I’m opting for dress “A” – the red number on the right.

This is the most ambitious sewing project I’ve taken on.  Sure, the Disneyland skirt was ambitious, but in a different way – that was painting, which isn’t nearly as scary as sewing.  I hope to be blogging throughout the process.  Let’s just hope it doesn’t take a turn for the worst like the Titanic itself.  Wish me luck!