I Love Those Earrings!

Since ancient times earrings were women’s prized possession. Whether small little studs, large chandeliers, skillfully set with gems, or playfully designed with ready-mades, earrings are the final touch, that extra little bit of style that frames the face and finishes up the look. 9780764345166Earring are under the spot light in a new publication, a book titled I Love Those Earrings (Schiffer Publishing) by Jane Merrill and Chris Filstrup.  Lucky me, Jane and I are co-authors of two upcoming fashion history books (more about that in the near future) so she agreed to answer some questions and share her experience of researching and writing.

Keren Ben-Horin: Hi Jane, congratulations on the wonderful new publication, the book has some spectacular illustrations. First things first, why earrings?

Jane Merrill:  Beginning with ancient Celts, Greeks, Scythians and Egyptians, people wore gorgeous and intricate earrings that exhibited personal style.  The more you look the more you see about their beauty, how the wearers glamorized themselves, and the cultural context.  I was living in Paris when I began to study earrings – in antiquarian fairs and shops, and in museums.  I discovered that earrings often don’t show up in reproductions, whereas in paintings especially from the Renaissance to now they provide the fascinating detail.

08-38 Merrillredgold

Red gold from Jane Merrill’s private collection

Jade earrings from Jane Merrill's own collection

Jade earrings from Jane Merrill’s private collection

KBH: Tell us a little bit about the arrangement of the chapters.

JM:  My co-author, Chris Filstrup, and I surveyed from ancient examples to the present.  Most sources skip the medieval period as having no earrings which isn’t true.  We chose to subsume the Georgian jewelry style within Romanticism, 1815-1840, which seemed to suit earrings very well.  The book has women talking about their earrings, men (like pirates and athletes, Chris’s chapter) who wear earrings, designers doing intriguing things, and how earrings fit into my life, too, as a journalist and one time semi-hippie.

Borden earrings from Jane Merrill's private collection

Borden earrings from Jane Merrill’s private collection

KBH: Out of the periods covered, which is your favorite in terms of earrings design and why?

JM: Victorians of Europe and America sit in the middle of our book because their era was an apex for partisanship, invention, and charm.  Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria earrings made from teeth of his stag quarry, and women who were “sportive” themselves or spectators of their beaux and husbands wore miniature racing shells, croquet mallets, etc. in their ears.  Then there were the earrings made of every color hair but red (too flashy) and whimsies like the vogue for housefly or exotic natural motifs post Darwin.

Grace Rose. Fredrick Sandys.

Grace Rose. Fredrick Sandys.

Portrait of Empress Eugenie. Frantz Winterhalter.

Portrait of Empress Eugenie. Frantz Winterhalter.

KBH: Can you explain why a certain type of earrings was adopted in a specific era or culture?

JM: Availability of precious metals is a story in itself.  For example one of my favorite pairs in the book is gold sculpted women’s heads, with tiaras, and earrings – earrings wearing earrings. The modeling is exquisite and when they were fashioned in Crimea in the fourth century B.C. there were abundant gold artifacts being made.  The Supplies of natural pearls kept shifting, so that when the pearl trade in the Persian Gulf was depleted, other sources were sought.  Even on Elizabeth Regina’s gowns not all the pearls were real, although the ones in her earrings were.

KBH: were earrings popular at some periods more than others? Why do you think that is?

JM: Wimples, hats and usually veils are anathema to earrings. Decolletage, hair bobs and up-dos encourage them.

KBH: Tell us a little bit about the research process. Where did you begin? What kind of sources were you looking at? Where did you find the greatest abundance of information?

Birds nest earrings.  A la Vielle Russie

Birds nest earrings. A la Vielle Russie

JM: Does one have guided tours of La Vielle Russie and Verdura, and meet gemologists and curators of jewelry to write on earrings, or write on earrings for these dazzling opportunities?  I’ve fastened on earrings every since putting in order my mother’s jewelry box.  Also, much jewelry appears on the Internet that is fugitive, as soon sold, and sellers were kind enough to assist me with many of the images.  I regret to say that, many years ago, I wimped on an assignment for Town & Country to go down into the diamond mines, from fear.

KBH: The book features some remarkable women who enjoyed splurging on jewelry. Can you give us one or two examples? How did jewelry, politics and power intertwined?

06-02 PoissardeAmandaGroveHolmen

Possardes. Source: Amanda Grove Holmen

JM: There are so many.  Cleopatra dissolved a pearl and drank it to impress Marc Anthony; the Virgin Queen’s last suitor, a French prince, gave her an earring in the shape of a frog to remember him by; Louis XIV when he was a dauphin gave his first love Marie Mancini a perfect pearl drop, the La Peregrina, that later would be in the jewelry collection of Elizabeth Taylor; Mrs. Lincoln shopped for lovely earrings that are in the MFA in Boston, probably beyond her husband’s means; and Josephine Baker and Mae West outdid everybody in the Roaring Twenties.  Frida Kahlo put exciting earrings including some unmatched ones into her self-portraits.  Women also have worn earrings that bespeak their politics: for example, the engraved gems attesting a woman’s faithful allegiance to the memory of Charles I, and the grisly fashion for teeny model guillotines in the wake of the French Revolution.

Marie Louise de Parma. Anton Raphael Mengs.

Marie Louise de Parma. Anton Raphael Mengs.

KBH: How did mass production influence the style of and the fashion for earrings?

JM: One of my valued informants, Ulysses Grant Dietz, Senior Curator of the Newark Museum, explains the “bread and butter” jewelry suddenly available to all from mid-19th century.  He says that between 1850 and 1950, more women’s earrings in 14 K and 18K were made in Newark than any other city on earth.   In 1872, a Newark manufacturer also introduced machine production of the so important little earring findings.  The Providence Jewelry Museum (Rhode Island), located in an old factory, has hundreds of drawers of beautiful steel dies once used to make intricate costume jewelry.

KBH: Tell us about the “Suffragette” earrings

JM: In England and also the U.S, women fighting for the right to vote might wear on their person purple, white, and green:  purple for pride and triumph; white for purity; and green for hope or spring. Even if not of precious gems these are rare.

 

Suffragettes earrings. Source: Edith Horwitz

Suffragettes earrings. Source: Edith Horwitz

 

KBH: What changed for earrings in the new millennium? Do we see any new technologies coming in? How do they influence the aesthetic?

JM: Different materials, from paper to plastics to palladium, CAD, and a patent for earrings in sync with a heart beat.  Today people apply their beliefs about living to the earrings they create.  For instance, you see mismatched silver earrings by Mocium and earrings made of fascinating shards of antique Chinese porcelain, cut woods, coral, and old coins by a silversmith who travels the world for inspiration.

Belperron earrings.  Verdura

Belperron earrings. Verdura

KBH: Jane, thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us. Finally, do you have any advice for young researchers who want to publish their work?

JM: If you don’t want to bore your significant other to tears, find someone as obsessed as you are and collaborate on learning what fascinates you both.

 

 

 

I Love Those Earrings can be purchased here

 

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A Fashion Mystery Solved

H&H_2

Hagar Cygler with Hannah

I am very excited to share a conversation I had over email with Hagar Cygler, a talented, young, Israeli artist. Cygler recently published a book which started with a visit to the flea market; she was looking for photographs she could cut and experiment as preparation for a project she was working on. In the photographs she bought that day, a women kept showing up. Cygler was intrigued by this woman who captured her imagination and sent her on a detective-like chase. The result is a fascinating project that examines our hyper-documented present by looking at the past.

Keren Ben-Horin: Hello Hagar, congratulations on the new book. It must be very exciting.

Hagar Cygler: Hay Keren. It is very exciting. I have been waiting for this for a long time.

KBH: tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background and what you do when you are not chasing anonymous women from the 1980s?

Hana Book_05HC: Well, I live and work in Tel-Aviv, Israel. I earned my BA in photography from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, but as soon as I graduated I realized I am not going to be a photographer. I do have a studio where I mostly shoot for exhibition catalogs and for other artists. I use my studio for my art which, for the most part, is not photography. I do crafted work that almost always uses photographs as a starting point. Some of the photos are of my own family, or people would give them to me or I’ll scout flea markets. I’m also working on an archive for Batsheva Dance Company. It’s a fascinating project that allows me to continue and work with my favorite material- old photographs.

KBH: How did you get to Hana?

HC: I met her by chance. I was invited to be a part of the last ceramics biennale in the Eretz Israel museum in Tel-Aviv. I needed a large amount of photographs for the object I was making. I stopped by the flea market in Jaffa and bought a random pile of photo albums. When I started going through them I realized they belonged to the same family and I took out the photos I liked. At some point I started to see a repeating pattern of composition in some of the photos- these are the photos of Hannah standing at the hallway of her apartment and modeling a different outfit every time.

Hanasmall2

KBH: Tell us a bit about the blog

HC: Hannah’s photos looked so much like the fashion blogs I follow and I thought for sure, if she could, she would have had a blog like that. So I did it for her. I opened a blog called same place, same haircut, different outfit. Every day I posted a new picture.

Hanasmall1

KBH: You had 46 photos of Hannah in the same place and position. What happened after you posted all 46 pictures?

HC: The reaction was great, people got really excited and started asking questions about her I didn’t really know to answer. When all 46 pictures were uploaded I felt I had to continue with the project, it felt like this has to be a book.

KBH: Why a book?

HC: There’s something about the medium of blogs that feels temporary. We scroll through quickly to consume more and more. The huge amount of data is distracting and doesn’t let us really submerge in what we see. A book is more permanent, repetitive. It doesn’t constantly change like a blog and you can always go back and re-look at images. After I experimented with the blog, I felt Hannah needed a permanent platform because I didn’t have more photographs to update the blog regularly.

KBH: How were you able to get the rights for the photographs?

HC: I assumed that because I found the photographs at the flea market, most chances Hannah was no longer alive and I was looking for her children or relatives to release the rights. I was looking for clues in the photographs which led me to a building in Herzeliya. One thing led to another, I remembered places I saw in the photos and somehow I found myself in Hannah’s old building talking to her neighbor who told me everything about her.

KBH: What did you find about Hannah?

HC: Hannah was a loving, charming woman who was in love with her husband until the day she died. She loved kids but did not have children of her own. She always bought chocolates and gifts to all the kids in the neighborhood. She was very warm and sweet. Her love of fashion was nurtured even in her native country Hungary, before she immigrated to Israel in the 1960s. She loved to splurge on clothes. The neighbor introduced me to Hannah’s relatives who released the rights and also told me more about Hannah and her husband.

KBH: What was people’s reaction to Hannah’s photographs?

HC: There is something heartwarming and charming about Hannah, anyone who shows interest in the pictures ends up falling in love with her. One of the most common reactions is of disbelieve that people throw away photographs. It always stirs a conversation about how we retain memory and the way we handle different objects in our lives.

KBH: What do you mean?

HC: We tend to capture memory through objects: mementos from places we traveled to, diaries, endless number of photographs. Even people living in a minimalist space would still leave things behind when they are gone. The work I did for the ceramic biennale was based on the experience of having to throw away my grandparents’ belongings after they passed. We gave away what we could, but there were still things we had no choice but to trash. I couldn’t bring myself to throw away a pile of photographs that my grandfather had taken. They had no visual value, but the fact that he took these made them valuable, and for me that was where the memory endured. The gap between the image and the material as indicator of memory intrigued me and resulted in a series of ceramic photographs.

Cygler's work at the Ceramic Bianalle Photo : Leonid Padrul, © Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

Cygler’s work at the Biennale for Israeli Ceramics. Photo : Leonid Padrul, © Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

KBH: Why do you think Hannah captured your imagination? What drew you to her personal history?

HC: Hannah is like sunshine on a rainy day. Every time I felt tired or depressed I looked at her pictures again and they made me happy. She is very authentic, not pretentious at all and she always makes me smile. At the beginning, I didn’t care much for her personal story. The research was really just to get the rights from the family. But after I learned about whom she was, it intensified all the emotions I had to begin with.

Hana Book_04

KBH: What can we draw from Hannah about how visuals are made and consumed today?

HC: Hannah’s photos are a fascinating mirror to the way we take pictures today. We feel that technological advances changed us. At the end of the day, we use the same tool to get to the same point. We shoot ourselves the same way, in the same places, and for the same purpose- to document a moment we want to remember. The fact that technology is faster and more accessible doesn’t change the way we pose in front of a camera, we still want to look our best.

KBH: What do you think changed in the 30 years since she took these pictures?

HC: In our culture everyone is taking pictures and sharing them instantly, we don’t have time to digest. The anticipation for the developed film, choosing which ones to print, putting pictures in an album, and giving out pictures to friends was a process that allowed us to scrutinize, to absorb. The culture has changed, it became more complicated. At the same time, Hannah’s life in retrospect might seem simpler but she is doing exactly what many other fashionable women are doing today.

KBH: Hannah’s husband is the silent, yet active partner, why do you think they took the photographs?

HC: That’s a great point of view. When I imagine the situation, I visualize Hana asking Yosef to take her picture just before they leave the house in the outfit she chose for the day. Pictures of hers in a house robe, make me think that it might have become their private joke. From the family I know that Hannah loved photographing and being photographed, she is very present in every picture. Yosef tends to slightly slant the camera or a sliver of his finger is visible, I think it’s charming. There’s love in the pictures, you can see it in Hannah’s gaze.

Hanasmall3

KBH: I absolutely love the ease and confidence of a woman with a body that doesn’t conform to fashion norms, and clothes that were probably not fashionable when they were worn. Yet she takes pleasure in dressing up and she is obviously admired by the eyes behind the lens.

HC: Indeed, there’s confidence and ease in front of the camera that stems from their relationship. As for the body image, you have to remember that 30 years passed, and although Hannah is not exactly a top model, I do think she could have been a Burda or hand-knitting catalog model- representing a “normal” body type. You also have to remember she lived in Israel in a time when fashion from Paris or New York arrived her in a delay of a few years. She was also a factory worker and her husband was a plumber, even if she wanted to spend more on fashionable clothes she probably wasn’t able to afford it.

KBH: Is the book sold in the US?

HC: It’s available online at my Etsy store and on the publisher’s website.

Hana Book_03

KBH: What’s next for you?

HC: I would love to rest. I am still collecting materials, people always come by with things they have found, I am sure something will start cooking in the studio soon.

KBH: Hagar, thank you for taking the time to share your work with us. Do you have any advice to young researchers of fashion history who want to publish their work?

HC: Thank you! Wow. I think mostly to work hard. If you believe what you have is good, don’t wait for someone to discover you. There are so many outlets today to get to a wide audience without mediators, so keep working and keep trying. If you think I can help or advise, I am always happy to help, shoot me an email.

Hana Book_02

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Guest Post: After Yves

By Cary O’dell

Such is the power and influence of Yves Saint Laurent that when he announced his retirement in early 2002 from his namesake fashion house, it was reported not only in the fashion press but via all aspects of the world media, from CNN to the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times.

Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent

The retirement of Saint Laurent represented not only the stepping down of one of fashion’s great (greatest?) grand masters, it also represented a seismic change within the culture, one that we are only now, I think, are beginning to fully appreciate.

Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, was the last of his kind, the final purveyor of a particular but important type of fashion:  subdued, reserved, understated, and elegant above all.  His were the clothes—day and evening—that for years formed the uniforms for the Ladies Who Lunched.  And though these “ladies” are often mocked and derided for who they were/are and what they represent, it was their fashionable sensibilities (not to mention their bank accounts) which, for decades, kept fashion alive and afloat both in America and abroad.

After YSL’s stepping down in ’02, preceded by Givenchy’s and Bill Blass’s earlier exits, I began to wonder just who would now dress the lunching crowd?  With Saint Laurent’s end, it seemed fashion was absolutely no longer about proper gentlemen working in quiet workrooms.  Instead, it was now populated by a bunch of (in comparison) young turks, who were flashier, splashier and funkier.  And, try though they might, desperate though they might be, I did not see the elder ladies of fashion running off to the showrooms of Versace, Viktor & Rolf, Stella McCartney, or even Prada for their daily dress needs.  And though the houses of Givenchy, Chanel, and Balenciaga all endure, the clothes produced by their current lead designers are often far removed from the spare silhouettes and uber-classic stylings favored by their house founders.  For a time, at least, clients could turn to the work of Valentino but now, even that classicist has—as of 2007 -constructed his final garment.

Granted, fashion has always had a place for the eccentric designer, one has to think no further than Schiaparelli’s powerful influence during the 1930s to acknowledge that fact.  But these extreme witticisms were always tempered by a band of gifted cutters and tailors able to craft the most spectacular suits and eveningwear (think Dior) for even the most proper and socially-conscious of women.  Today, however, with the possible exception of the newly revitalized House of Dior and Vivienne Westwood when she feels like it, “safe” (yet stylish) labels are completely outnumbered, overtaken by the likes of The Row, D&G and Gaultier along with a lot of other radical visionaries.  Even the Met has gone avant-garde; this year’s annual Costume Gala was, as you probably heard, devoted to the Punk aesthetic.

PUNK: Chaos to Couture at Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo courtesy of the MMA)

PUNK: Chaos to Couture at Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo courtesy of the MMA)

But, never fear, we are not on the verge of rash of criminally under dressed society ladies.  If designers for this set no longer exist, that’s okay, for the “ladies who lunch” themselves, by and large, aren’t that much of the populace either.  Nan Kemper passed away in 2005.  Mrs. Astor in 2007.  Loulou De La Falaise in 2011.

Brooke Astor

Brooke Astor

This is not to say that all fashionable “women of a certain age” don’t still exist and don’t still need to be DRESSED.  It’s just that, nowadays, these women are different.  Today, the women who lunch look like Jane Fonda or Sophia Loren and have the bodies and mentality of Cher and Tina Turner.  Jane, Sophia and Tina are all grandmothers, as is Goldie Hawn and Jessica Lange.  Helen Mirren is a sex symbol at age 67.  And Betsey Johnson (always her best customer) is 70.  These women, and their kind, grew up wearing Westwood from Westwood’s punk phase and the color splashes of early Stephen Sprouse.  Later, they lapped up Lacroix.  Today, then, these women, even though in their “golden years,” they are not ready to wear cap sleeves and muted twin sets—nor would we want them to.

Helen Mirren (photo courtesy of FanPop.com)

Helen Mirren (photo courtesy of FanPop.com)

Still, despite this shift in customer, it nevertheless behooves fashion to try to keep alive some of the grand traditions of some of the old masters not only as homage to a great fashion tradition, but also because it’s good business, something that no fashion house these days can afford to ignore.  After all, Nancy Kissinger is still with us and still needs clothes.  And even the most chi-chi and forward-thinking of 50-plus women don’t want to wear leggings and hoodies everyday.  And, hence, an important customer base awaits, as do their closets.

Designers should (and must) find a way to be fully grown up without being stuffy, to be dignified without being anything less than “modern.”  As mentioned, Dior, now in the hands of designer Raf Simons, has shown his ability to marry the most important edicts of the House with a great modernity.  And when she is indulging her vintage sensibilities rather than her punk tendencies, no one cuts a better, more dignified and stylish suit than Vivienne Westwood.  Finally, Chanel, as interpreted by Lagerfeld, can still be depended upon (most of the time) to bring us something classic and stylish and not overly outré. 

But these designers shouldn’t be the only ones.  Even if their numbers have dwindled, the “ladies who lunch” still cast a profound, influential shadow, one whose current state and needs fashion should embrace and learn from, not turn its back on.

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Then & Now

Left: Alice Austen, June 1888. Photograph by Captain Oswald Muller. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.  Right Christian Lacroix for Schiaparelli. Scanned from Vogue September 2013.

Left: Alice Austen, June 1888.
Photograph by Captain Oswald Muller. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.
Right Christian Lacroix for Schiaparelli. Scanned from Vogue September 2013.

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Fall 2013: New Links

Over the summer, many of us traveled to participate in internships, present papers, and attend conferences. There is always something new to discover in our field, and some of our research led to online discoveries: new websites or updates to some of our favorite online resources.

Of course, we’d like to share our findings with you. On the right side of our page, we’ve added a few more links:

1. A digital archive of Les Modes, a fashion periodical (1902 – 1934)

2. The digital collections of the Library of Congress, which includes free downloads of high-resolution images

3. The digital collection of the National Gallery of Art, this also includes free downloads of  high-resolution images

4. LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a beautiful online collection with many illustrations, fashion plates and photographs of museum objects.

5. The University of Oregon has a great digital collection of photographs

6. The Museum at FIT continues to update its digital collections.

7. The digital collection of the Yale Center for British Art

8. The online database of the Staten Island Historical Society, which includes the collection of photographer Alice Austen

9. The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas

10. The Bridgeman Art Museum

We’ve also added another website, The Cutting Class, to our list of friends.

Have you found any digital archives over the past few months? We’d love to hear about your recent discoveries!

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Upcoming exhibitions of fashion

This fall season in NY is going to be an exciting one for those of us who love fashion.

Here is a list of some of the upcoming exhibitions, if you know of any other please post it to our facebook page. Thank you!

Gilded New York at the Museum of the City of New York

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Brooklyn Museum

Interwoven World: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk at the Museum at FIT

running until mid-November and worth visiting RetroSpective at the Museum at FIT

Irving Penn: On Assignment at Pace/MacGill Gallery

And in the spring:

Charles James: Beyond Fashion at the newly renovated Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Downtown, Uptown: From the Dry Goods Store to the Palace of Consumption- Part II

This is part two of a paper I presented last May at our annual symposium. You can read the first part here.

Christmas Shopping on Grand Street, 1890. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Christmas Shopping on Grand Street, 1890. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

By the late 1850s the Grand Street area was established as the new shopping district, but society had already moved north to live.  Nathaniel P. Willis, editor of The Home Journal, described the smart set as those “who keep carriages, live above Bleecker Street, are subscribers to the opera, go to Grace Church, have a town house and country house, [and] give balls and parties.”

Grace Church, c. 1890.  NYPL Digital Gallery.

Grace Church, c. 1890.
NYPL Digital Gallery.

A.T. Stewart, always ahead of the game, moved his store in 1862 into a cast iron palace on Broadway between Ninth and Tenth Streets.  Fully embracing the industrial age, A.T. Stewart bid farewell not only to lower Manhattan, but also to the marble of his former palace. Outside, cast iron formed an elaborate and fashionable façade while inside cast iron columns supported the building, enabling open spaces to become the distinctive department store architecture. The large open interiors, washed with natural light from the great glass dome, embodied the new style of consumption— drawing in crowds of shoppers who were free to leisurely study the vast array of local and imported merchandise.

A.T. Stewart’s store at the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street, C. 1869. The New York Historical Society.

A.T. Stewart’s store at the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street, C. 1869. The New York Historical Society.

A.T. Stewart’s eight floors fashion emporium employed over 2,000 men and women. One visitor observed that this immense establishment was arranged as follows:

There is one general superintendant, with nineteen assistants, each of whom is the head of a department. Nine cashiers receive and pay out money, twenty- five book keepers keep the record of the day; thirty ushers direct purchasers to the department they seek; two hundred cash boys receive the money and bring back the change of purchases; four hundred and seventy clerks, a few of whom are females, make the sales of the day; fifty porters do the heavy work and nine hundred seamstresses are employed in the manufacturing department. Besides these, there are usually about five hundred other persons employed about the establishment in various capacities… 

This account demonstrates that the traditional dry goods store has fully bloomed into a department store, providing employment to many and a substantial income to some.

sewing room AT Stewart 1875 Grafton

The Sewing Room at A.T. Stewart’s, 1875.
Frank Leslie’s.

The 1860s gave birth to New York’s most famous shopping district—the “Ladies Mile”. Historians define the Ladies Mile as a stretch of blocks from Fourteenth to Twenty Third Streets along Broadway and Sixth Avenue and later up Fifth Avenue. As the city’s elite society started another migration northward, now residing around Union and Madison Squares, store owners felt compelled to follow.

Twenty Third Street. 1885.  NYPL Digital Gallery.

Twenty Third Street. 1885.
NYPL Digital Gallery.

Though A.T. Stewart remained successful in its Ninth Street location, most downtown establishments that made the move to Grand Street area in the 1850s, relocated further north to the Ladies Mile in the 1860s. The stores enjoyed a constant traffic of shoppers who were transported to the area in Carriages and public horse drawn trolleys from every direction- up and down Broadway and from the two rivers.

If boarding a carriage was challenging with the fashionable clothes of the 1850s, it must have been as hard, if not harder, when in the 1860s the horsehair crinoline gave way to a new invention. The cage crinoline, a petticoat of flexible steel hoops, invented in 1856, was mass produced in factories and sold ready-made in the department stores built of the same material. The light weight steel supported even the widest skirt, freeing women from the cumbersome weight of the petticoats, yet allowing skirts to achieve an even wider circumference. The increasing use of sewing machine, invented in the late 1840s, meant that elaborate trims were more easily applied to dresses. Decorations such as machine made lace, embroidery and ribbons were now more affordable, permitting even women of lesser income to participate in fashion.

Cage Crinoline, 1868. Victoria & Albert Museum

Cage Crinoline, 1868.
Victoria & Albert Museum

“New Omnibus Regulation.”  Punch, 1858, NYPL Digital Gallery

“New Omnibus Regulation.”
Punch, 1858, NYPL Digital Gallery

The invention of the sewing machine is largely credited for propelling the dry goods trade along Ladies Mile, not only for its ability to increase production, but also because it became available for domestic use. Union Square and the surrounding area of Ladies Mile was also becoming a center for the selling and promoting of domestic sewing machines. The most famous was the Domestic Sewing Machine building, where fashion shows displayed imported dress models from Europe. These models were later translated into paper patterns published and sold in the company’s Fashion Review magazine. The paper patterns would have been taken to a local dress-maker, several of them residing along the ladies mile, or cut and sewn at home.  The fabric, trims, undergarments and accessories to go with the dress would have been offered and religiously purchased at the new palaces of consumption- the grand department stores.

Two Piece Dress, c. 1859. The Museum at FIT.

Two Piece Dress, c. 1859.
The Museum at FIT.

Building of the Domestic Sewing-Machine Company,  corner of Broadway and Fourteenth Street.  Harper’s Weekly, 1872.

Building of the Domestic Sewing-Machine Company,
corner of Broadway and Fourteenth Street. 
Harper’s Weekly, 1872.

Although department store owners chased elite society, leaping from one district to another in an attempt to remain close to the trend setters, it is evident that by the 1860s the new commercial palaces catered no less to the rising middle classes.  Fashion, so it seems, was democratized by technological advances. The department store adopted several marketing methods to appeal to all classes, yet the newest of them all was the window display. For the nineteenth-century shopper, window displays created a sensation. Presenting the goods behind a glass window for the shoppers’ scrutinizing eyes, was in many ways an extension of the mind-set of the open space interior, which allowed visitors to roam the sales floor uninterrupted This new approach to shopping made luxury goods seem more accessible to more people. The German historian Uwe Spiekermann notes that “when gazing into the shop window, even a person with little income believed that the world was at his feet.”

Macy's Christmas Window, 1884 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Macy’s Christmas Window, 1884
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

As America entered the Gilded Age, the middle and upper classes’ appetite for consuming fashion grew even more.  Store owners who survived the panic of 1873 could not expand fast enough to appease this hunger. Barely surviving the economic downturn, Lord & Taylor recovered and continued growing, gradually adding more and more buildings along Nineteenth and Twentieth Streets, eventually taking up the whole block. But, by the turn of the century, society had set in motion yet another cycle of migration northward.

As Commerce came in place of elite residence, the once fashionable districts of Union and Madison Squares were abandoned for the new, more desirable neighborhoods, which lay above thirty second street up to the edge of Central Park. While American millionaires dwelled in private palaces along Fifth Avenue, the middle class had the department store. By the end of the decade most major Ladies Mile department stores adopted a new Fifth Avenue address which epitomized the luxury and wealth most associated with the Industrial revolution. For the masses visiting Lord & Taylor, B. Altman’s, Henri Bendel, and Arnold Constable among others who had found a new home here, the commercial palace became a symbol of potential social mobility, attained by the mass consumption of luxury goods.


 For selected bibliography see part I of this post

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