Sometimes my life is really amazing.
Almost two years ago Elise asked me about inspiration for an Art Deco wedding gown. I posted a whole week’s worth of pictures. We chatted a bit by email, she picked the most adorable modern Art Deco dress, and I sewed and sewed.
And then she contacted me again: her mother had given her a bunch of 1920s and 30s clothes from a museum clear-out. Would I like them?
So I paid shipping and Elise sent me a box of gorgeous vintage things which I drooled over and meant to show you right away and just got caught up in too much other stuff and didn’t get around to photographing.
But now, months and months and months later, I have. So for the next couple of months I’ll be showing you images of the stuff Elise sent, and giving a bit of info on dates and background and stuff.
And because I’m nice, I’ll be showing you the most interesting garment first: a spangled gold on black tunic.
All the clothes probably came from a museum in Houston, Texas. The few that have labels have Houston labels. And you are thinking “what does that have to do with this tunic? It doesn’t look very Texan”
And you are right. The tunic almost certainly didn’t originate in Texan. It is almost certainly from North Africa or the Middle East.
The 1920s saw a huge interest in Egypt and the Middle East, partly because of WWI and all the soldiers who visited that area at the time, partly because of archeological finds like the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, partly because of the Ballets Russes and their Eastern-inspired visual design, and partly because of a new English translation of the One Thousand and One Nights in 1923.
High Society Houston in the 1920s was incredibly wealthy, and quite avant-gard and innovative. Elise said she could just imagine a Houston socialite in this dress at a soiree at the end of the 20s. It might even have been a masquerade ball, or an ‘Oriental’ themed party, such as the 1002 Night party that Poiret was famous for.
The tunic may have been imported into the US, though the market for Middle Eastern and North African imports and textiles never reached the volume of the Far Eastern textile exports.
It’s more likely that the wearer bought the tunic on a Grand Tour, which would have included Egpyt and Jerusalem, as well as other parts of the Middle East. What an amazing souvenir!
The tunic would have been worn over a slip, probably of red silk to match the vivid red cotton the lines the neckline and the sleeve edges.
The material of the tunic itself is net: almost certainly made of cotton. The really exciting thing about the tunic though, is the metalwork. From a distance you might think it was ordinary metal pailettes sewn onto the net, but it’s not.
Instead it’s something amazing and unusual that I have never seen on any other vintage garment: little rectangular strips of soft metal, folded through the net and then wrapped around itself and crimped down.
As the metal hasn’t tarnished or oxidized in any way I suspect it actually is at least partly real gold.
It’s certainly heavy: the tunic weighs an impressive amount. Because of the weight, it’s quite fragile as you handle it. I prefer to have helpers to put it on a dressform, so that there are extra hands to support the hem and sleeves.
Once on a body or dressform the shoulders and bulk of the body support the tunic, and it’s actually very robust. Sadly, it did have some damage when it arrived from being hung for storage or displayed on the wrong dressform.
Because of the weight and fragility, and to keep the metal from catching on the net or any other material, I store this in a padded bag, with a slightly padded piece of fabric slipped through the middle, to keep the front and back from catching. With the tunic in, the padded bag gets rolled up. The padded bags are something that many museums use to store heavily beaded garments, such as 20s evening dresses, as they support the weight and protect the beads from catching.
Someday (when I find the right fabric) I’ll make a red silk slip to go under the tunic, so that it can be displayed properly.
Thank you Elise for the amazing gift!