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All Dolled Up – A Victorian Barrow Coat

NOT an antique petticoat with a wide waistband for an extremely thin girl!

NOT an antique petticoat with a wide waistband for an extremely thin girl!

Not a day goes by when I don’t learn something new.  Most of the time it’s something like learning that burnt coffee stinks even after leaving the heating element on under the coffee pot for the 9,000th time.  Slow learner, I know. But occasionally, I learn something really great. Not necessary useful, but great.

Last week, for instance, I learned that an Edwardian petticoat with a 3 ½” wide waistband and a 20” waist ISN’T exactly a petticoat.  Not for an adult, anyway.  It IS a petticoat for a baby called a “Pinning Blanket” or a “Barrow Coat”.

A barrow coat is defined in the 1892 book “A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods“, by George S. Cole as:   Barrow-coat. A square or oblong piece of flannel, wrapped around an infant’s body below the arms, the part extending beyond the feet being turned up and pinned.

I found this item pictured in a couple of old store catalogs dating from 1904 and 1917.  Both catalogs are from the winter months and indicate that the ones offered are made of “flannelette” which is a softer, heavier cotton than the one I have which is made of cambric – probably to be worn in warmer weather.  More directions for making a Pinning Blanket were given in a 1926 reference – I wish I could give you the link, but the site has come down now.

Pinning Band

Catalog Page with Pinning Blankets

Barrow Coat aka Pinning Blanket

Barrow Coat aka Pinning Blanket

I’ve been told that in some old photographs of babies, one can see the pinning blanket through the outer dress.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find any in a search of family photos, but thought you might enjoy seeing my mother’s 1930s baby doll wearing this one.  It’s a perfect fit, too!

Antique Baby Dress Petticoat Barrow Coat Pinning Blanket

Antique Baby Dress Petticoat Barrow Coat Pinning Blanket

The antique barrow coat/pinning blanket (not the doll!) is available in our shop.

Martha Sleeper – Silent Film Actress to Fashion Designer

Maybe I said this before when I was researching a Nelly Don dress, one of the most enjoyable parts of selling vintage clothing – for me – is research and learning.  It seems selfish not to pass along information when I find it. Including a lot of historical detail  in a description can be overwhelming for some, so I’m passing some knowledge along here!

I purchased several pieces of clothing from the estate of a woman whose family owned a high end clothing boutique from about the 1940s through the 1960s or 70s.  Almost every item was either tailor made, designer (remember the Mingolini Guggenheim?), or at least had an interesting clothing label.

Now that we’re well into summer, I’m desperately trying to pull a few more summer dresses out to get into my shop.  This dress caught my eye because the turquoise and white cotton print looks so cooling.  One look at the label, “Martha Sleeper Creates For You  100% Cotton San Juan, Puerto Rico” and I knew I had some research to do!

Martha Sleeper Label

Martha Sleeper Label

It turns out that Martha Sleeper started her career in silent films and then moved on to Broadway in the 1940s.  Then, in 1949 she took a vacation to the Virgin Islands and ended up in Puerto Rico where she loved it so much, she stayed.  While looking for a way to support herself in her new life, she began designing jewelry – a hobby she enjoyed prior to WWII.  Finding that “too tedious”, she started designing clothing and in 1950, opened a shop. She designed the silk screen prints for her fabric and 80% of this printed fabric was processed in Puerto Rico.  By 1955, her island inspired clothing was being exported to other islands and to the US.

Martha Sleeper Vintage Summer Dress

Martha Sleeper Vintage Summer Dress

In 1964, Ms. Sleeper opened a shop in Palm Beach, Florida at the urging of her friends and divided her time between Palm Beach and Puerto Rico.

Martha Sleeper died on March 25, 1983 of a heart attack at age 72 in Beaufort, South Carolina where she lived with her third husband.

So now that I’ve found out just who Martha Sleeper was … can I really sell the dress?  Well it depends.  Does it fit me?!

What Story Does YOUR Flapper Dress Tell?

Original 1926 Antique Teal Green Beaded Flapper Dress

Original 1926 Antique Teal Green Beaded Flapper Dress

I’ve gotta say … I’ve loved this fantastic beaded flapper dress ever since I first saw it.  The unusual, bright teal underdress is striking enough, but add the black crepe and steely beads and this dress is just breathtaking!

The dress practically has its own fan club.  It gets “oohs” and “aahs” whenever it’s displayed in the shop or at a show.  But I could never get a decent photograph of it because it just refused to hang right and it languished in the shop.  I was certain there had been some alterations made – it looked shortened because of the tuck at the dropped waistline that held the under and over dresses together – and I assumed there was some hidden damage although I really couldn’t see where.  There are some catches near the hem of the teal underdress, but … it just didn’t add up.  At one point, I had almost decided it had been altered for a pregnant flapper because of the odd darts at the waistline!

1920s Antique Beaded Flapper Dress Altered for Mid 20s Shorterr Hems

1920s Antique Beaded Flapper Dress Altered for Mid 20s Shorterr Hems

Not long ago, I found space to set up a specific location for photography and thought maybe that would help.   So I tried it again.  It didn’t.

Finally, I decided that the only thing left to do was to remove everything that looked like an alteration and see what was going on.  After all, there were large basting stitches showing on the underside and in order to write an accurate description to offer it for sale on my website, I really needed to know what the problem was.  After some encouragement from my friends in the VFG (Vintage Fashion Guild), the decision was made —

Very timidly … I do NOT want to screw this up – this is taking all my courage … and very cautiously, all the stitches were removed.  Certainly there was something awful under that tuck.

Nothing was wrong.  Absolutely nothing!  No damage whatsoever … just the most minute bit of evidence of the stitches I removed.  Now that the under and over dresses could be separated, I could see that the straps had been shortened, tucks had been taken under the arms, near the waist, and a strip of silver metallic lace had been added across the bust.  These remaining alterations were removed.

Why had this dress undergone such neatly done alterations that were so obviously reversible?  Occasionally, we find antique and vintage dresses that have been altered (usually not very nicely) for use as costumes in plays … or worse – Halloween.  But this alteration showed all the signs of being contemporary to the dress.

Showing the results to the VFG gave me the answer I was looking for.  The dress was made about 1923, when the hemlines were fairly long.  Fashion being what it is, hemlines became shorter in 1924 and 1925.  Our foremothers had always updated their clothing by remaking their dresses and it was only prudent not to permanently shorten the dress.  Many dresses with this very treatment have been found and some are even in clothing collections and museums.

Wouldn’t you love to know who wore the dress when it was longer and what the occasion was?  Maybe it would be more interesting to know what the occasion was when it was shortened!  If dresses could only talk ….

Mingolini & Gugenheim – Italian Designers

Mingolini Gugenheim Italian Designer Dress Vintage 50s 60s

Mingolini Gugenheim Italian Designer Dress Vintage 50s 60s

From the first moment I laid eyes on it, it was obvious that this dress was special.  The label read “Mingolini Gugenheim Piazza del Spagna, 9-91- Roma”.  Honestly, I had never heard of Mingolini & Gugenheim before I found this dress

What little information I found while researching indicates that Carlo Gugenheim and his partner, Sergio Mingolini were designing clothing at least since the 1930s and into the 1990s.  Micol Fontana mentions a Mingolini Guggenheim jacket from the 30s in her archives that was once owned by Edda Ciano – Mussolini’s daughter – in an interview with Eugenia Paulicelli, the author of “Fashion Under Facism”.  She calls Mingolini Guggenheim “one of the best known fashion houses in Rome”.

In a Reuters article from January of 1960, Italian fashion designers DeLuca and Mingolini-Gugenheim are said to be designing with an eye toward the American market by creating fashions with a “long, slim line for a long, slim woman”.  Smooth fabrics are meant to emphasize “slimness, softness, and smoothness.”

An Associated Press article from January 1962 describes the coming spring fashions from Italian designers Mingolini-Gugenheim as being focused on capes and influenced by the Egyptian look due to the new Elizabeth Taylor movie, “Cleopatra”.   The new designs by Mingolini-Gugenheim were notably the cocoon-like capes, evening gowns with godet skirts, and suits with short or bolero jackets and narrow skirts.  They were described as having “lots of appeal for individual private clients but much too lush to be a pacesetter for mass produced fashions”.

Undeniably, one of the most outstanding tidbits of information I was able to find was in the Caribou Observer of March 10, 1955 (p.14).  Included on the social page was a photo of a drop-dead gorgeous evening gown (would have loved to have seen it in color!) on a .. shall we say “special” mannequin.  The caption calls it “weird” and “surreal” – the body of a woman with the head of an animal.

Mingolini & Gugenheim are now on my personal radar.  As I locate more information about these designers and their fashions, I’ll be posting more here.  And if you have any information to add, let me know!

What’s in a name: Housecoat, House Dress, Dressing Robe, or Bathrobe?

One of the many things I find so enjoyable about vintage fashion is coming across something I’ve never seen before and then learning about it.  Of course, part of that comes from needing to know as much as possible about an item in order to properly describe and sell it.  But really, I enjoy placing vintage clothing in its context.  It’s really amazing how understanding the clothing people wore at different periods in time tells one so much about HOW life was lived.  It’s history, yes, but with everyday people in their everyday lives.  I could yap on this subject forever but I’d never get to the point I was originally trying to make.

1930s/ 1940s Hostess Dress

1930s/ 1940s Hostess Dress

My latest “whatzit” is a delightful late 1930s / early 1940s house dress.  To be honest, when I first laid eyes on it I thought it was just Depression era cotton fabric yardage.  That is, until I discovered the metal zipper down the front that led from the bodice with the poufy sleeves and scoop neckline to the billowing bias cut full-length skirt.

To say I was stymied, is an understatement.  To my modern eyes and modern mindset, this looks to me to be almost an evening gown.  But in cotton calico?  With a metal zipper at center front?  And it’s so simply constructed that it could easily have been homemade except for the size tag and the manufacturer’s label – Modely.

Putting on my Sherlock Holmes detective hat and secret decoder ring, I made a list of things I knew about the dress:  1)  Cotton fabric in Depression era colors and pattern.  2)  Large metal zipper on cotton twill.  3)  Bias cut fabric in the voluminous skirt.  4)  Label.

Numbers 1,2, and 3 all scream 1930s to me.  An internet search brought absolutely nothing on the manufacturer.  I tried searching on 1930s dress, 1930s fashion, 1930s gown … some similarities but the cotton fabric kept tripping me up.

After exhausting my own resources, a quick turn of my decoder ring (aka a yelp for help from my buddies at the Vintage Fashion Guild)  brought me loads of information once I knew what this item is actually called!  It’s a house dress from 1939 – 1941, sometimes called a housecoat.  Proper terminology really helps, especially with internet searches.

Now after doing more research, it occurs to me that the words “house dress” bring the image to mind of an old, cotton, rumbled, frumpy dress that some old auntie wore around the house while cleaning and doing laundry.  Something I would not be caught dead wearing.  And the word “housecoat” makes me think of a shapeless, quilted nylon knee-length piece of “lingerie” (bathrobe) that covers up jammies and goes nicely with  those vile, bristle hair rollers with the pink plastic picks sticking out everywhere.You know, the hair rollers from h*ll.(Have you ever tried to SLEEP in those things??!!) Ok, so maybe I come from a family of hillbillies but also, I’m thinking of things I saw back in the 60s and 70s.

Obviously, the meaning of the words “house dress” and “housecoat” in the early 1940s has changed.  A page from a Sears Catalog from 1934 is titled “House Wear and Uniforms” and includes a “house frock” (a cute gingham dress) and aprons as well as nurse and waitress uniforms.  The house dress, at that time, was still nice enough that one could have a friend over for a cup of coffee, clean house, and run to the grocery without having to change to a day dress in order to be seen in public.  (This reminds me of a Letter to the Editor of our local newspaper that made a comment about how it’s nice that people wear their pajama pants anywhere now, especially when they get “dressed up to go to Walmart”.  Oooookay.  But I digress.)

After some thinking, I’ve been wishing for something to wear around the house in the evening that isn’t as frumpy as my nightshirt and bunny slippers.  I think I just might sew one of these pretty little frocks for myself – this one isn’t quite my size, or a color that could ever conceivably look attractive anywhere near my body.  It’s time to feel just a bit more feminine and fancy at home, in my house dress.  I might even ditch the bunny slippers.

Nooo … let’s get real!

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