Stehli Silks vintage advertisement 1929
From my years of experience as a vintage clothing dealer, I could be blindfolded and sent to a clothing store and determine, just by feel, the fabric content of most garments. I hate to be the Debbie Downer of fashion but here's the deal..we are now paying more for our clothing and getting less. I'm not talking about the clothes you buy at fast cheap fashion stores and big box stores where you know you are getting what you pay for...(that's a whole series of blog entries on it's own). No, I'm talking about department stores and boutiques that sell moderately to highly priced clothing with "designer" labels. You assume you are getting a better quality when you are paying so much more, right? I sometimes can't tell a difference between a dress at Target and those at: FILL IN THE BLANK BOUTIQUES.
All you have to do is look at these beautiful advertisements for fabric to see what's happened to the fashion industry. Because people used to be more discerning, fabric advertisements used to be some of the most beautiful. Some were targeted at housewives, and some were targeted to those who could afford to buy designer clothing. These ads were all so beautiful that you could easily mistake them for fashion ads. The silk and rayon ads from Stehli, Cheney, Enka and Darbrook, and Ducharne are some of my favorites!
Stehlii Silks advertisement from Vogue-1928 Illustrated by Pierre Brissaud
Why don't we see these kinds of ads anymore? Some of the finer fabrics were worthy of ads in fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, you can now really only find them in sewing magazines. They used to feature models like Jean Patchett and Lisa Fonssagrives and designers like Ceil Chapman, Tina Leser, Claire McCardell, Adelle Simpson and Herbert Sonheim. This was easier to do when the designers had a close relationship with their suppliers and didn't use a broker who used a broker who used another broker to buy fabric from a warehouse somewhere in some country somewhere...made by someone somehow from something. Even if it wasn't an ad for fabric, fashion layouts and designer advertisements often mentioned the fabric company because it meant something in those days.
Vintage Schiaparelli 1941 Haramboure illustration of vintage dresses in Ducharne silk fabric
Novelty print 1940s dress shown in an advertisement for Enka Fabrics
A lot of people under the age of 30 have gotten so used to man-made fabrics and low quality clothing, that they don't even question why anyone would use anything else. For starters, natural fiber breathes (and yes, it gets wrinkled) - it feels good to the touch and doesn't give you static electricity. It keeps you cool (you don't need vents cut in cotton or linen) and it keeps you warm - genuine wool and cashmere are ventilated naturally.
Ponemah fabric ad featuring Cole of California swimwear
One of the reasons that buying vintage clothing is appealing to so many people is that the quality of the fabric and finishing of the garment can't be duplicated today and still be affordable. Some of the mid century garments I have in my inventory are in better condition than some of the contemporary pieces I've owned for only a month. Has anyone out there even noticed that fashion quality is slipping away? Most fabrics are now "blends" (a way to get away with describing things as cashmere or silk), or "easy care" (a synonym for cheaply man made). Most manufacturers don't finish seams and you rarely find anything that is beautifully lined with silk or rayon. Soon, only the wealthiest people will be able to afford to buy well made clothing in high quality natural fibers. Even 100% cotton isn't the same cotton quality anymore.
1947 Lonsdale cotton fabric ad featuring designs by prominent mid century female fashion designers Clare Potter, Ceil Chapman, Tina Leser and Adele Simpson
This famous vintage Lonsdale fashion ad from 1947 featured dresses from some of the most well known American female fashion designers of the day including, Ceil Chapman, Tina Leser, Adele Simpson and Care Potter. Guess what? They actually used really good cotton for their garments. The dresses that I have made by those designers are definitely a much higher quality than anything you can find today.
Vintage fabric ad featuring a William Rose Enka Rayon couture evening dress
When younger women purchase clothing from me, they always comment on how much better the pieces "feel." That's sadly because they aren't used to the "feel" of good fabric. Older customers remark that they prefer vintage because they haven't been able to find anything made of the quality they are used to wearing in their price range. When I have had fashion interns in the past, the first thing I do is teach them how to feel for quality.
1949 vintage advertisement featuring dresses by Madame Gres and Givenchy in ducharne fabric
Tina Leser hand painted blouse in a vintage ad for Enka rayon.
I am truly spoiled because if I have an event, luncheon, black tie affair or wedding to attend, I can choose from hundreds of vintage dresses. Without fail, every time I wear something from my inventory, people think I am wearing something current from a famous designer. Wearing vintage doesn't mean looking dated or kitsch, it can be quite the opposite if you learn what looks best on you and incorporate it into your own wardrobe. If you could find a dress like he Ceil Chapman dress shown below. you would turn heads everywhere and no one would ever guess that it was almost 60 years old!
Ceil Chapman gold evening gown in a 1955 Avisco fabric advertisement featuring model Dorian Leigh
Can you imagine top models posing for fabric ads today?
Rudolf designer dress in an Enka rayon ad from 1954
Claire McCardell dress in a Stonecutter fabric ad
Don't get me wrong, I know that man made fabrics have been around for a long time - if you've seen 1950s tulle wedding gowns you will find that many are made of "Orlon." But in those days, you paid less for a gown made of nylon but the average American bride to be could still save to buy the silk fabric to have a wedding dress made. Now, to buy the kind of silk and rayon they used in the past, even if you are making it yourself, would be outrageously expensive. Women buy my vintage wedding gowns because they want to have something unique, well made, and beautifully cut that doesn't cost them tens of thousands of dollars. Even if they buy a more expensive vintage wedding gown, they can still pay to have it altered to fit them perfectly and spend less than they would have on a new one made from silk or rayon satin.
Soie Naturelle (silk) fabric ad 1930's wedding dress
Part of the problem with committing to buying only higher quality, ethically made clothing is that, even if we know who made the piece, most of us have no idea of who made the fabric!. I am really afraid that most of us don't want to know. People will get very angry about those who wear fur and sometimes leather because of animal rights but they are less likely to question where their favorite designer got the fabric they used to make that perfect party dress or favorite pair of jeans.
Monique D'estrill vintage wedding dress in Helanca nylon
Some would argue that taking care of genuine silk, linen and rayon is too time consuming for the average American woman today. My response would be ... if you bought several good pieces a couple of times a year and took very good care of them, you would be saving money and time. Even if you have them cleaned by a dry cleaner (who knows what they are doing), you will not only save money, but you will be doing less harm to our planet. By refusing to support fast disposable fashion and rejecting the tendency to be on to the next trend train, you will be defining your own unique style with quality and integrity.
Vintage art deco 1920s Darbrook Silks fashion ad
Labels don't mean anything to me unless the clothing itself can prove to be worthy of that label. I'm not impressed by runway shows unless I can touch the fabric and feel the quality first hand. They all make great pins on Pinterest but are they worth what they claim to be? When I see the price tag of a nylon or polyester dress at _________ I want to scream; "The Emperor has no clothes!" Translation: :"Doesn't anybody see what a piece of _____ this is?" But I usually cant find anyone who will listen.. Is it just my imagination?SaveSaveSave
This is read was fantastic… sadly cannot access vintage clothes here in Uganda
Thanks, Krystal Pan for shopmodig.com
Oh, my dear! You’ve hit a nerve! I’ve been thrifting and vintage clothes shopping and wearing most of my life. My sister and I used to buy bias cut silk charmeuse 30’s slips for 50 cents-$1 and cashmere sweaters for $3! I never even see any of those unless in a vintage store! All the petroleum-passed fabrics are hot, pill, and are made from poor dead dinosaurs, but you’ll never hear a peep from PETA regarding their plight.
When MGM sold off their costume warehouses in the late 70’s, I bought about $300 worth of clothes. None worn by stars, but exquisitely made and beautifully designed. And every time I wore one, everyone wanted to know if it was Dior or Balenciaga, or YSL. One dress was ivory silk crepe hand sewn with chalk rocaille beads that looked straight out of Paris. Probably from the mid to late 30’s, floor length, with a side split on either side mid-thigh. Silver platforms and a fox boa, no one could touch me! What fun clothes they were to wear, too! Nowadays, you see men in cargo pants on opening night at the symphony or ballet, women in what has to be a poly bridesmaid gown, stiff and resistant to following any form of function. So sad.
In Paris, in Montmartre, there are shops that sell couture fabrics. The fabrics are held back 3-5 years, but they are so wonderful, it’s worth the wait, and very reasonably priced. A Louis Feraud double faced wool was only $20/yd but 60" wide, with woven velvet irregular triangles. An Ungaro beaded Alençon black lace was $50/yd, but so exquisite and yes, I used every bit of it to copy a “follies” style from YSL. And the Swiss cotton eyelets and piques, the tissue linens, the silk organzas, worth the day’s worth of shopping, plus you’re in Paris.
Then there’s Britex in San Francisco, a fabric/sewer’s hog heaven—5 floors of gorgeous fabrics. And in Los Angeles, the House of a Thousand Fabrics on Be early Blvd. They’ll even let you look at their attic stash of silks and laces, some of which are so old, they’ve broken on the bolt. But some are still viable, and you can see the prices from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s! Imagine: $4.79 for silk chantilly lace imported from France!
I am older now, and dress casually in my day-to-day life. But when the occasion calls for something special, I still have a few designer pieces, a few vintage pieces, and a few friends with whom we can “put on the ritz”! And it’s such fun, we get so many compliments, and have a blast. I had an older friend in my youth who was quite the grande dame. She used to say, “A cashmere sweater, a strand of pearls, an Hermes scarf, and you can meet the Queen.” She was very much of the mindset that quality would stand you far longer and more fashionably than cheap flash. She had a crimson silk faille Givenchy she bought in the ‘59-’60 season that had a wide scoop neckline, inverted front pleat on a tulip skirt, with a matching heavy duchesse satin bustled panel on the back. It had a black silk velvet bow in front at the waist, and smaller bows on the shoulders. She’d wear it with long black gloves and turn heads 30 years after it hit the runway! She told me she paid $1900 for it and hid the bill from her husband, never telling him how much she’d spent. But if you average wearing it twice a year for thirty years, that’s only a little over $31/wearing. Far cheaper than dropping $800-1000 on an occasion dress every time a ‘do’ comes up.
Another peeve is the machine embroidery/beading done now. Threads come loose, and there goes a whole section of beading. And when you mentioned silk illusion vs synthetic, I had to shudder. A silk illusion veil falls so softly and reflects the light so beautifully, where the synthetic always looks like a tart’s lampshade.
I so enjoyed your rant, and completely agree with you. Thanks for a great read!
Dear kindred spirit,
I am aware of and saddened by this phenomenon. I worked in the fashion industry and it just all made me so sick- a race to the bottom. Now I manage a costume studio in a theatre department for a small liberal arts university. I am working with others who appreciate vintage and antique clothing. We have a section in our storage for the garments that are too old or fragile for use on stage. We study the fabrics and details and sometimes “knock them off” (make a pattern from the existing garment without harming the garment) to fit our current actresses.
I talk to my students about quality and how clothes used to fit and flatter, but they don’t really understand until they try them on and look in the mirror. They look and feel amazing!
Just know you aren’t alone- I care and miss what is disappearing also.