Roaring Twenties Revisited in Clothing


WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) – A new exhibit of costumes from the hit British television drama “Downton Abbey” at the Winterthur Museum could turn out to be the most popular in the history of the former du Pont family country estate.

The exhibit, which runs through January 2015, will offer visitors a firsthand look at the design and creation of the period fashions that are a focal point of the television show, in the context of comparing country house life in Britain and the United States.

Sybil-Crawley Museum director David Roselle said Wednesday that advance ticket sales are strong, and 11,000 tickets have been reserved for bus tours alone. “I believe it will be the largest attendance for an exhibit in Winterthur’s history,” said Roselle, who came up with idea for the exhibit, seeing an opportunity to seize upon the popularity of the television show while giving visitors a comparative look at life at the fictional British estate and at its real-life American counterpart.

Winterthur officials worked tirelessly to turn Roselle’s idea into reality, taking advantage of an indirect connection between Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and Winterthur director of museum affairs Tom Savage. Savage knew a former associate of Fellowes and was able to connect with Fellowes in New York City last year. Fellowes, in turn, worked with the show’s production company, Carnival Films, to help bring the exhibit to Winterthur, which will be its sole venue.

“Julian Fellowes‘ advocacy for this exhibit has been a great help,” said Chris Strand, Winterthur’s director of garden and estate.
Winterthur is renting 40 Downton Abbey costumes, most of which are owned by Cosprop Ltd. in London, one of the world’s largest theatrical costumers. Carnival Films also is providing some of the costumes, including the infamous harem pants worn by Lady Sybil, the engagement dress worn by Lady Mary, and Lady Edith’s wedding dress.

thumbnail.php“Getting the costumes was the easiest part,” said co-curator Amy Marks Delaney, who found that securing the rights to intellectual property, including photos and script excerpts that serve as backdrops to the costumes, far more difficult. Sculpting museum-quality mannequins to properly fit the costumes also required time-consuming work by Winterthur staff.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Winterthur is offering a series of lectures, workshops and other events, including afternoon teas and English brunches. Those interested in a truly behind-the-scenes look at post-Edwardian fashion can take in a May 15 lunchtime lecture on “Downton Undressed: Underwear and the Fashionable Ideal in the Teens and Twenties.”

The exhibit is organized chronologically, with visitors moving from morning to night, and provides a look at life both upstairs and downstairs at a British country estate.

“There was a true regime about what was worn at different times of day,” explained Jeff Groff, director of public programs for Winterthur.

The exhibit opens with three servant costumes displayed in front of a working re-creation of the wall of brass bells used to summon help at the Yorkshire estate and concludes with examples of the evening finery worn by the Earl and Countess of Grantham and other members of the fictional Crawley family. In between are a host of other fashion statements, including garden dresses, cricket uniforms, walking and hunting tweeds, and housemaids’ aprons.

To complement the Downton Abbey costumes, Winterthur brought out several holdings from its own collection, including a well-worn dinner jacket that Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont bought from his favorite Savile Row tailor, Henry Poole & Co., and his wife’s custom-made leather travel case.



Kleenex–a product of the Twenties

imagesOnce upon a time, everyone carried handkerchiefs. Usually linen, sometimes cotton, often decorative and white. Ladies carried delicate lacy ones, gentlemen carried large monogrammed ones, children carried ones printed with juvenile or educational images.

In 1924, Kleenex came out with tissue paper squares that they marketed to women as makeup removers. The description provided to the patent office was “absorbent pads or sheets for removing cold cream.” Ads encouraged women to be like the movie stars, and remove your makeup with cold cream and Kleenex tissues. According to the official Kleenex site, the first magazine ad appeared in 1925 in Ladies Home Journal touting “the new secret of keeping a pretty skin as used by famous movie stars.” Soon, ads were in all the major women’s magazines like McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Redbook. 

In 1926, executives discovered that more people were using the tissues as disposable handkerchiefs than for makeup, and they adjusted their advertising accordingly. In 1929 colored tissues were introduced; in 1930, printed tissues; and in 1932, the pocket pack. 

This is good to know, but the characters in my Roaring Twenties series, which takes place in 1924 and 1925, must still use handkerchiefs. I could write a scene where a woman removing her cold cream with a disposable tissue, but I’m not inspired by that idea . . . 

Published in: on January 25, 2014 at 7:56 am  Comments (5)  
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Antique Flapper Dress, ca. 1925

flapper dress ca. 1925

My cousin just sent me this flapper dress that belonged to our grandmother. She wore it in about 1925 and kept it all her life. I remember seeing it in a drawer when I was a child, about fifty years ago. Actually she had two, a green one and this peach one, and I remember being shocked at how heavy they were. Each was laden with silver beads, millions of them. Some have become tarnished, but not all. The dress is short, which is why I date it to the middle of the Roaring Twenties. 

I’m planning to bring it with me next year when I do book signings for THE IMPERSONATOR. I think it will make a great show-and-tell, along with other items I’ve collected that relate to the mystery, such as vaudeville programs.  

Published in: on September 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm  Comments (3)  
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Where Does the Word “Bootlegger” Come From?

The word first appeared in the 1850s in Maine and of course it refers to smuggling liquor. But this seemed odd to me because Prohibition didn’t start until almost 70 years later. That is, except in Maine, the first dry state, where it became illegal to manufacture or consume liquor in 1851. Because Maine shares a border with Canada, the law was easily flouted. Ordinary folks wanting to smuggle liquor into the country could hide a couple bottles in their pants legs in Canada and walk into the United States. 

(Don’t jump to any conclusions about that pattern on the floor–before Hitler took the swastika for his Nazi Party, it was a perfectly respectable symbol dating from ancient times that was often used to decorate mosaics, tiles, pottery, and other items. This photo pre-dates the Nazis.)

Published in: on January 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm  Comments (13)  
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The Return of the Cloche Hat

The NY Times has reported several times in the past few months on the fashion trend toward cloche hats. Today another article appeared, so I thought I’d share it.

Come Hither, Sighed Her Hat

As “The Artist,” the black-and-white silent film set in late 1920s Hollywood, gathers Oscar chatter, the Jazz Age fashion of that time is having a moment in real time. Cloche hats, the toppers the ingénue Peppy Miller (charmingly played by Bérénice Bejo) wears on her rise to stardom, were all over Ralph Lauren’s romantic spring runway as well as at Marc Jacobs. “There’s a mystery to the cloche,” said Mark Bridges, the costume designer of “The Artist.” “They sort of half hide the face and are coy.” Bridges used period styles to frame Bejo’s face, but these cloches are available now — for warmth and a little hat flirting.

For example, here’s Ralph Lauren’s latest, obviously inspired by the fashions of the Roaring Twenties. 

Published in: on January 16, 2012 at 9:20 pm  Comments (6)  
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A Genuine Roaring Twenties Dress

I was going through an old trunk with my mother last month. She had forgotten what was in it, but she remembered as soon as I pulled out the various articles of clothing. A dress that had been worn by her grandmother around the turn of the twentieth century, two fancy shawls from the same era, a couple dresses her mother had worn in the Forties, and so forth. She didn’t want them. I didn’t want them. So I took the lot to a local vintage clothing store where the owner was ecstatic to have the opportunity to buy such clothing in relatively good condition. (“This is why I went into this business,” she said happily.)

At the last minute, I held one dress back. The vintage clothing store owner confirmed what my mother had said, that this was a day dress from the Twenties. It is a simple dress, cotton, straight waisted. I washed and ironed it, and if the occasion arises, I plan to wear it. Maybe my Roaring Twenties mystery series will get published, and I’ll need to appear at some book signing or conference and can wear something that not only dates from the era, but was owned by someone in my family. Here it is. Look at the cutwork lace. Really lovely work, and it’s “just” a day dress for casual wear!

Published in: on September 24, 2011 at 7:38 am  Comments (1)  
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The Big Secret: Mary Pickford’s Fake Curls

The famous curls of silent screen megastar Mary Pickford were real–at least, most of them. The big secret? She also had 18 false curls that she could add to her own when hers got limp or she needed more volume. They were made of real hair and she paid $50 a piece for them–about $200-300 in today’s money, depending on the year she purchased them. 

Early in her career, Mary Pickford told her fans (honestly) that her hair was light brown, and that it had been blond as a child. But in the black and white films of the 1910s and 1920s, it photographed lighter and she was usually described as a blond. Often she was backlit, giving her a golden halo effect. At last she succumbed to her reputation and dyed her hair with peroxide to make it more blond. 

Her fans were horrified when she finally bobbed her hair in 1928. It made front page news all over the country, and of course, a feature in Photoplay:


Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 2:32 pm  Comments (4)  
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Men’s Hair: Parted and Oiled

When it comes to Twenties hairstyles, all the attention goes to the women with their bobs and waves. But men had a distinctive hairstyle too, one with a slicked-back look that few would appreciate today. 

Many men wore their hair short, often parted (right or left, either side would do), longer on top than on the sides, and brushed back from the face. They kept it in place with lots of brilliantine or other perfumed oil.  

Film stars popularized the look. Here’s Rudolph Valentino, the heart-throb of millions. Another example (left) shows young Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who got his start in pictures at 14 because of his father’s fame. 

Published in: on May 15, 2011 at 12:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Vacuum Toaster Hair Dryer

When I’m writing about the Twenties, my fictional women can dry their bobbed hair at home with a vacuum cleaner. Or a toaster.

While the very first electric hair dryer seems to have been invented by a French hairdresser in the 1890s, it was a heavy, stationary piece of machinery that he used in his salon, not something available to women in their homes. The first time most women had access to a hair dryer was in the Twenties when some nameless person figured out how to rejigger the vacuum cleaner into a hair dryer. By modifying the vacuum with an attachment or making one yourself, you could have your own hair dryer. Vacuum cleaners, by the way, were just beginning to be popular with middle-class women at this time. Articles like the one below from 1933 told how you could make your own attachment and get double duty from your vacuum.

An issue of Popular Mechanics Handbook for Women from 1924 instructs you on how to make a hair dryer from a vacuum cleans and an electric toaster.

Published in: on April 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm  Comments (4)  
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Clara Bow Shows How To Use Makeup

How did women use makeup in the Roaring Twenties? Let’s let Clara Bow, the silent film star known as the “It Girl,” show us.

First, many women, if not most, didn’t use any makeup at all. Those who did were usually younger women, sometimes termed “flappers” for their modern ways. Clara Bow was their model and one of the most copied women of her time. 

Bright red lipstick turned an ordinary mouth into a small, pretty pout, with a bow outline on the top lip. (Clara Bow was certainly playing on her name with that look!)

Eyebrows were plucked thin and arched or sometimes plucked completely and drawn on with pencil. Eyes were dramatically dark, with eyeliner all around the eye and thick curled lashes heavily brushed with mascara. In this picture,  you can really see her eyebrows clearly.

Rouge wasn’t that prominent. It was more of an eyes-and-mouth look.