Saturday, November 27, 2010

Treasures and Curiosities from...

The Kyoto Costume Institute

Museums, private collectors, and auction houses have increasingly begun to offer tantalizing glimpses of their collections and offerings online. The number of these "digital archives" has steadily increased in the last couple of years, providing longed-for access to distant and often elusive extant garments and accessories. It's always so exciting to stumble on new sources of costuming inspirations, so we've decided to begin a new "feature" series for the blog to facilitate those "ooooo!" and "ahhhhh!" moments of blissful revelation. Once a month, we will select an online collection to profile and highlight ten of our favorite pieces from it for your viewing (and sighing and drooling...oh yes, and educational!) pleasure. Our hope is that perhaps we'll be able to introduce you, gentle reader, to something new and exciting along the way.

This month's featured museum collection is the Kyoto Costume Institute, located in Japan.  Their digital archive, which includes only about 200 of their over 11,000 articles of clothing, is accessible here.  Though already extremely well-known to the majority of costumers, the Kyoto collection is nonetheless a truly stunning resource that well deserves to be the subject of our first profile. This current post only includes items from KCI's 18th century collection, though their holdings span up to the present day and we encourage you to check out their website to discover the many other treasures they own.  When using the digital archive, be sure to utilize the zoom feature for some prodigiously lovely up-close views.

Unless otherwise noted, the following images are borrowed from, and linked directly back to, the website of the Kyoto Costume Institute and originate entirely from their digital archive.  They remain the full and copyrighted property of KCI.  All images are used for private educational purposes only, and no copyright infringement is intended.  Happy drooling!

Our Kyoto Top Ten:
Number One: Our first selection, chosen by Ashley as her top pick (because she fancies green, if you haven't noticed!), is an English silk taffeta petticoat embroidered with Chinese and English floral and nature patterns, dating to about 1720 (KCI inventory #AC3657 81-1-4).

A petticoat with this type of embroidery would have been worn paired with an open robe (gown) or with a short jacket, which permits the fantastically detailed work to be on full display.  Below, the petticoat is pictured with a French pet-en-l'air dating to 1775.

Number Two: A white, pink, and green crossbarred silk taffeta gown and matching petticoat dating to the 1760s (KCI inventory #AC4628 83-21-1AB).

The mantua-makers at Colonial Williamsburg created a gown inspired by this one using silk that is remarkably close to the original.  The gown is often on display at the Margaret Hunter shop; it can often be seen either in one of the cabinets, or being modeled by a mantua-maker herself!

Janea Whitacre, Mistress of the Trade of Mantua-making at
Colonial Williamsburg, modeling a recreated silk gown very
similar to the Kyoto original.  The photo is linked from the
Number Three: Saque-back gown (robe a la francaise) of yellow lustring (a plain-weave silk given a lustrous finish by the application of a glaze and heat), England, 1760s (KCI inventory #AC5761 88-11AB).  The gown is displayed with a black silk covered hat, a black silk lace handkerchief (fichu), and silk taffeta mitts.  So simple, but oh so elegant.

Number Four: A Lyons silk chiné gown, France, 1765 (KCI inventory #AC5317 86-8-5AE).

Silk chiné, or chiné à la branche, is silk with a pattern printed on its warp before the weaving process begins.  This produces the pastel "water blotting" coloration visible in the detail photos.  Silk chiné was difficult to make and only produced in France in the mid-18th century.  It enjoyed great popularity as a summer fabric for the French elite, most notably the Marquise de Pompadour (source: Revolution in Fashion, p. 142).

Number Five: A white glazed linen saque-back gown printed with a blue floral pattern, France, 1770s (KCI inventory #AC7621 92-34-2AB).  It closes with a compere (false stomacher) front.

There are two things that fascinate me about this gown.  Firstly, it is a glazed linen - a linen chintz, in other words.  One of the things that made cotton chintz such a luxury item was the expense involved in producing the glossed surface on the textile.  It's interesting that linen, a fabric we typically associate with affordable, every-day garments of the 18th century, would have undergone this type of finishing process.  The quality of this linen must be extraordinary, much superior to anything we have available commercially today.  What I wouldn't give to literally get my hands on this gown!

Detail of the compere front, a false stomacher closed with buttons.

The other thing I find intriguing on this piece is the amount of trim, definitely rare on a linen gown.  I can't quite figure out what kind of trim has been used in the "middle column" down the sides of the skirts, though.  If anyone has an idea, please share your thoughts because I'd love to know!

I was also quite chuffed to find this piece because the fabric is very similar to that which I used on my newest quarter-back gown.  If only I had more of it to posh up my gown to the standards of this original!

Number Six: Red morocco leather shoes, 1770s-1780s (KCI inventory #AC5393 1986-26-5AB).  Sigh.

Number Seven: Pink silk taffeta saque-back gown with matching petticoat, France, 1780 (KCI inventory #AC5312 86-8-1AC).  The floral garland motif is painted onto the silk.  A gown with skirts this wide in the last quarter of the century would have been reserved for court wear or very formal occasions.

Number eight: English back gown (robe a l'anglaise) of painted china silk, England, 1785 (KCI inventory #AC3837 81-15-2AD).  The larger scale of the floral pattern dates the fabric to about 1760, suggesting this gown was remade from an earlier one to keep up with the swiftly changing fashions of the 1780s.

Number nine: English back gown (robe a l'anglaise) of blue striped silk, France, 1785 (KCI inventory #AC4320 82-17-39AB).

Number ten: Pierrot jacket of red and white striped silk, buttoned with silver buttons, France, 1790s (KCI inventory #AC9113 94-11-2).  The pierrot jacket was a fitted bodice with short tails or a peplum that was cut to flare behind; it typically had long sleeves.  This style jacket was popular from the 1780s into the early part of the 1790s.

Printed Resources featuring items from the Kyoto collection:
Luckily for those of us on the opposite side of the world, unable to witness these wonders first-hand, there are a number of spectacularly illustrated books that feature items from the Kyoto collection.

- A two-volume set entitled Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century, published to commemorate Taschen's 25th anniversary, presents a significant portion of the KCI collection in a beautiful, large format.

- Just last week, I discovered a re-release of the one-volume edition of the two-volume set at a fantastic price at Barnes and Noble.  I can't find a link to it on their website or on Amazon, but I promise it was there and the price makes it well worth a trip if you don't own a copy of this!  I understand that the one-volume edition necessarily edits out a handful of the photos, but at over 700 pages, it still includes almost all of the original text.  You can preview the older one-volume edition on Googlebooks.

- There is also a highly affordable, condensed version of the above books available in a portable "pocket" size, but be warned that the page size is less than half of the two above editions, which means the photos of the pretties and the text accompanying them is significantly smaller. If you desire proper details-viewing ability and can find a copy of the re-released single-volume edition, I'd strongly encourage you to go for that one instead.

- In 1989-1990, the Kyoto Costume Institute, in collaboration with the Fashion Insitute of Technology, staged an exhibition entitled "Revolution in Fashion" featuring KCI's eighteenth-century collection, and subsequently released an accompanying catalog with the same name. It is extremely hard to find (and pricey if you can locate it), but the photos are stunning and the selection of articles included in the volume are by some of the best in the field. This is, most unfortunately, out of print, but many of the pictures are replicated in the Taschen books, so don't feel too left out if you can't get your hands on this one just yet.  In the meantime, we'll keep begging for a reprint!

One final note: If you know of an online collection that you feel deserves some proper attention here, please do feel most welcome to suggest it to us for a future "Treasures and Curiosities from..." post!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"The turkey is a truly noble bird"

Happy Thanksgiving to all!  While the above quote was not made in specific reference to this national holiday, it does remind us of this "source of sustenance of our original settlers."  And so for some fun today, I'd like to share this song from one of my all-time favorite films and musicals, 1776:

While Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson did serve on a committee in '76 to begin designing a seal for the country, the decision was delayed for several years, at which point a new committee included the eagle as a representative.  Franklin made his opinion of the choice of bird known in a letter to his daughter, Sarah Bache, in 1784:

“Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country, tho’ exactly fit for that Order of Knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie. I am on this account not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours, the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Despite the debates over the authenticities of the "pilgrims and Native Americans First Thanksgiving" story, congressional decisions concerning the holiday are well documented for us.  In 1789, President Washington signed a proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26 of that year an official holiday of "sincere and humble thanks" to share in "Publick Thanksgivin."  The holiday continued to be celebrated on varying days each year, until President Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863 for a day of "Thanksgiving and Praise," to be celebrated as an annual national holiday held on the fourth Thursday of each November.  (A fun fact: both of the aforementioned proclamations were written on October 3)  To read more about "official" Thanksgiving-related documents, please see this press release and this article from the National Archives.

Postscript: As I was writing this post with the TV on in the background, The Real Story of Thanksgiving appeared on the History Channel.  There was a nice feature on Plimoth Plantation in the last few minutes.  It's always nice to see living history sites and interpreters getting some positive publicity!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Married in white, you have chosen all right"

After living in England for two years, and being a fair specimen of the traditional American Anglophile, I'll admit to being something of a (very) casual Royals watcher. As most of you have probably already heard, the engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton was officially announced today, so we thought this would be a welcome opportunity to swoon over some of the many famous British royal wedding gowns from the past (after all, we're always looking for excuses...!).

In December 2002, during a family Christmas vacation (er, holiday!), Ashley and I had the luck to visit Kensington Palace during a special exhibit, "A Century of Queens' Wedding Dresses 1840-1947," showcasing a number of royal wedding gowns, including Queen Victoria's (1840), Queen Alexandra's (1863),  Queen Mary's (1893), Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's (1923), and Queen Elizabeth II's (1947). I was also fortunate enough to see Princess Diana's wedding dress in a 2006 exhibit of some of her most famous gowns, also at Kensington Palace.  Of course, photography was not permitted in the Palace or either of the exhibits so I don't have any photos of my own, but I've scoured the internet this morning to collect together some images - many from the 2002 exhibit - of these iconically gorgeous royal gowns to post and sigh over in honor of today's most recent royal engagement.

Please note that I do not claim the rights for any of these images.  One click on them will take you immediately back to their original online homes, where all credit for them appropriately resides.

10 February 1840: Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria's wedding portrait (1847),
by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, given as an
anniversary gift from the Queen to Prince Albert.
Queen Victoria's 1840 wedding gown was famously of creamy white Spitalfields silk trimmed in Honiton lace and embellished with orange blossoms.  Instead of a tiara, the young twenty-one-year-old royal bride wore a wreath of orange blossoms (a tradition introduced in France and carried forward by a number of other English royal brides) over a veil of almost two yards of exquisite and specially-designed lace.  She is believed to be the first English bride to wear a veil.  On her breast was pinned a sapphire and diamond brooch, a wedding gift from Prince Albert.  Contemporary accounts of the wedding gushed, with true Victorian sentiment, over the finery of the Queen's bridal gown and the attire of her attendants, who also wore various shades of white.  This article from provides a glimpse into these and many other details from that momentous day.
The Marriage of Queen Victoria (1840-2), by Sir George Hayter.

Famously credited now with introducing the fashion for white wedding gowns, Queen Victoria's silk-and-lace confection is owned by the Royal Collection and can occasionally be seen as part of special exhibits at Kensington Palace.

Queen Victoria's silk satin wedding gown, 1840.
Queen Victoria's wedding gown (1840), on display at Kensington Palace. 
The veil in the photograph is not original to the gown.
When preparing for the 2009 film The Young Victoria, costume designer Sandy Powell visited the Kensington Palace costume collection to examine the wedding gown and a number of other original garments owned and worn by Queen Victoria.  Some of her original sketches for the film's Academy Award-winning costumes can be seen here.  I've also found a set of flickr photos of the costumes on tour, which you can view here.  A couple shots of the reproduction wedding gown are linked directly below.

Sandy Powell's reproduction of Queen Victoria's wedding
gown for the film The Young Victoria. Photo linked from

10 March 1863: Princess Alexandra of Denmark (Queen Alexandra)

An official wedding photo of the new Princess of Wales with her
husband Prince Albert Edward.

Eighteen-year-old Princess Alexandra wore a gown draped in Honiton lace and garlands of orange blossoms.  Her silver moire train was so long it had to carried by eight bridesmaids.

The Marriage of the Prince of Wales (1863-5), by William Powell Frith.

For ease of movement and to make the gown serviceable on subsequent occasions, Queen Alexandra simplified it by removing some of the heavier frills and overskirts.  The current state of the gown, below, reflects these alterations.

Queen Alexandra's wedding gown (1863), as displayed in
the 2002 exhibit of royal wedding gowns at Kensington Palace.

6 July 1893: Queen Mary (Princess Victoria Mary of Teck)

For her wedding gown, Princess Victoria Mary personally selected a white silk satin brocade with a silver threaded design that intertwined roses, shamrocks, thistles, lilies of the valley, and orange blossoms.  Three flounces of Honiton lace (originally worn by her mother) were arranged at the front of the skirt, while the long train remained plain and unembellished.  She wore her mother's Honiton lace veil, secured with a bunch of orange blossoms and several diamond pins.

Women's magazines devoted entire special issues to Mary's gown and wedding trousseau alone.

Queen Mary's wedding gown (1893), as displayed in  the
2002 exhibit of royal wedding gowns at Kensington Palace.

26 April 1923: Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother)

The Queen Mother's choice of wedding gown very much reflected the style of the day with its simple skirt and its dropped waist.  Made of silk crepe moire, the dress featured intricate rows of pearls in front accented by silver embroidery.  It also had a surprisingly short train, fashionable for the period but unique at the time amongst traditional royal bridal wear.

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's wedding gown (1923), as
displayed in the 2002 exhibit of royal wedding gowns at Kensington Palace.

20 November 1947: Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II)
An official wedding portrait of the future Queen Elizabeth II
and the nearly created Duke of Edinburgh.
When Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth II, married the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947, her Norman Hartnell hand-embroidered ivory silk satin gown boasted a thirteen-foot train embellished with over 10,000 pearls and crystals arranged in an intricate floral garland and star pattern.  Crowning her lace veil was a 1919 diamond tiara originally made for Queen Mary.  She carried a bouquet of white Cattleya, Odontoglossum, and Cypripedium orchids.

Sleeve detail.
In celebration of her 60th wedding anniversary in 2007, the Queen's gown, veil, and shoes, her wedding jewels, the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Navy uniform, and a number of their wedding gifts were collected into a celebratory exhibit, "A Royal Wedding," at Buckingham Palace.  The photo above represents the gown as displayed there, while the one below captures its splendor from a different angle at the Kensington Palace exhibit from 2002.

And just how did the heir apparent afford such a gown as a war-time bride?  Rumor has it that like any other hopeful bride of the period, she carefully saved her clothing rations coupons!  For more about the details of the wedding day of Queen Elizabeth II (including some truly marvelous close-up photos of the gown), take a look at the Royal Collection's official "A Royal Wedding 1947" website.

29 July 1981: Lady Diana Spencer (Diana, Princess of Wales)

Diana's formal wedding portrait, linked from Gettyimages.

What frolick through the princess diaries of wedding gowns would be complete without a glimpse of the iconic Emaneul wedding gown designed for Princess Diana?  The hand-woven ivory silk taffeta gown, with its famous twenty-five cathedral train, was trimmed with antique lace and over 10,000 pearls and mother-of-pearl sequins attached with gold thread.  Lady Diana wore her veil (even longer than her train) secured to a Spencer family tiara.

Diana's 25-foot train, laid out to its full length in the "Diana: A Celebration"
touring exhibit.  This photo is linked from their website.

When not touring as part of "Diana: A Celebration" (as seen in the second and third photos above), Diana's gown is on display at Althorp, the Spencer family home.  For more on the gown from conception to creation to its debut on that special day, check out this page from the touring exhibition's stop in Dayton, and the Emanuels' book, A Dress for Diana.

To see more images, photographs, accessories, souvenirs, and gifts from all of these royal weddings, please visit Royal Weddings 1840-1947, the exhibition page on the official Royal Collection website.