Fabric Vocabulary You Never Knew

•June 30, 2009 • 1 Comment

I used to subscribe to a word-of-the-day email service, my lazy version of reading the dictionary. Very slowly. Out of order. In any case, one week they had a theme of vocabulary related to textiles, but they focused on the non-textile definitions. I myself had not been aware of some of the secondary meanings to the following common fabrics. As the author of wordsmith.org writes, “There are numerous idioms: people are advised not to wash their dirty linen in public, even adults like to have their security blankets….”

Lambdoidal Tweed Wool swatch

Lambdoidal Tweed Wool swatch




1. Academic or scholarly.

2. Informal; casual; outdoorsy.

2. Made of or resembling tweed.


After tweed, a coarse woolen fabric made in twill weave, preferred in casual wear, for example those in academia or in the country. The origin of the word tweed is not certain. It’s probably an alteration of Scots tweel, influenced by the river Tweed that flows along the border between England and Scotland.


“Ramrod-tall, blue-eyed and aquiline, with a high forehead swept clear of thin, fair hair, [William Hurt] even looked clever, like a tweedy young professor of letters on secondment to Hollywood.”

cotton flannel swatch

cotton flannel swatch



noun: Nonsense; evasive talk; flattery.


Besides the fabric, the word flannel can refer to a washcloth, an undergarment, or trousers, but here we are interested in its metaphorical sense which apparently developed from the soft and smooth texture of the fabric. The origin of the word flannel remains fuzzy. Two possible derivations have been suggested: from Welsh gwlanen (woolen article) or from Old French flaine (a kind of coarse wool, blanket).


“Commissioned by the Blair economic team, the report is just what the doctor ordered. No flannel. No spin.”

Peter Koenig; Honeymoon With the Economy is Over For Blair; The Independent (London, UK); Nov 16, 1997.

 75% white churro wool blended with 25% black llama fiber

75% white churro wool blended with 25% black llama fiber




1. Fuzzy; unclear; confused; vague; disorganized; rough.

2. Of or relating to wool.


From Old English wull.


“Edward Scicluna: This woolly and opaque way of reporting and forecasting must stop.”

Charlot Zahra; Is Restarting the Excessive Deficit Procedure Justified? Business Today (Malta); May 13, 2009.

cotton bush

cotton bush



verb intr.:

1. To become fond of; to get on well together.

2. To come to understand (in the phrase “to cotton to” or “cotton on to”).


Via French and Italian from Arabic qutun (cotton). The idiomatic usage of the term as a verb refers to the mixing of another material, such as wool, with cotton and perhaps from the idea of cotton fiber clinging well to something.


“Marketers and retailers have already cottoned on to the fact that, since the entire culture is defiantly refusing to grow up, parents and children are all now approximately the same age. We’ve got the same music on our iPods.”

Karen von Hahn; I Like to Hang Out With My Teenager; The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada); Sep 1, 2007.

polyester plush swatch

polyester plush swatch




1. Characterized by luxury, extravagance, or ease.

2. Or or related to plush: soft and shaggy.


From plush, a fabric of silk, rayon, cotton, or wool, having a long pile. From French pluche, a variant of peluche, from Latin pilus (hair).


“The warm, dark glow and plushy tone so typical of Central European orchestras from the late 19th century on seems steeped in the Staatskapelle’s bones.”

Wynne Delacoma; Staatskapelle Berlin at Symphony Center; Chicago Sun-Times; Dec 12, 2000.

“But since Hugo left university in June, he has not strolled into the sort of plushy job that supposedly awaits our hordes of upper-second graduates when they roar onto the job market.”

Rachel Johnson; Graduates Get Jobs — But No Pay; The Daily Telegraph (London, UK); Dec 5, 2003.


It’s a wonderful thing that familiar items permeate our language in such creative ways. And it makes perfect sense that clothes and fabrics and materials, which have developed in tandem with the human race and which conjure up such specific, tangible references for us all, integrate themselves into dialect unrelated to technical apparel conversations. I listed some slightly obscure words, but terms like “silky” and expressions like “pulling the wool over your eyes” act as more common reminders of the power of fabric.


Bicycle Chic & Athletic Aesthetics

•June 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

You might have noticed, as I have, a proliferation of articles about “bicycle style” in recent months. Mayor Bloomberg has invested money in designating bike paths and adding bike racks to make New York friendlier to the traffic easing, eco-friendly transportation. Fashion has responded and, being the fashion culturalist I am, I’ve been slowly making links and connections to the history of bike fashions — and sportswear fashion in general — in an attempt to gain greater insight into this resurgence in popularity. Let’s start with the advent of bicycle culture and dress, shall we?

The first bicycles were manufactured in America in 1878. Strolling down boulevards was already a favorite pastime of the leisure class, but this wheeled invention fast became a popular sport. Men had little difficulty straddling these “velocipeds” in their trousers, but the heavy, voluminous, dragging skirts of the time — not to mention the upper-body immobility imposed by structured corsets which inhibited both bending at the waist and breathing — made it nearly impossible for women to participate in the exciting activity. Fashion aside, bicycling was initially deemed dangerous for women, who were not encouraged to exert themselves physically nor to assert their independence (i.e. stray too far from the domestic homefront literally or figuratively).

Bloomer costume, 1851

Bloomer costume, 1851. The bloomer costume consisted of lose harem-like pants that were collected at the ankles, worn under a skirt in the typical style of day, save its length which was roughly 6” shorter than the acceptable hemline.

Invented in the 1850s, the bloomer costume provided an obvious source of activewear for women by covering their legs while allowing them the freedom of a bifurcated garment. However it had only ever been adopted by fringe Victorian dress reformers who were ridiculed by the press as radical feminists with silly, indecent (still!) sartorial selections, and it never achieved widespread acceptance in this form. Somehow by the mid 1890s the social stigma of women on bicycles had all but vanished and as a result, “bicycle costumes” were actually lauded as preserving modesty while preserving health. These outfits bore suspicious (and unacknowledged) resemblance to the disparaged bloomer costume by alleviating some of the major fashion impediments with narrower skirts and fewer under-layers. Here is a description of an acceptable female riding outfit from 1895:

“A combination garment was worn next [to] the skin – all wool in cold weather and cotton in warm. Over this she wore no corset, but a patent waist without bones, to which were buttoned the circular bands of drawers and petticoats. It will be seen that the waist escaped much of the pressure and dragging incident to the old style of dressing, as the only bands were of the least trying shape. Her dress skirts and waists were hooked to each other all around, thus insuring their staying together, while they were loose enough for comfort.”

Woman's cycling costume, fastened at ankles. 1895

Woman in cycling costume, buckled at ankles. 1895

Above is a pattern for a bicycling costume, sold in that same 1894 magazine. This pattern is for an adaptable costume, allowing the wearer to buckle the skirt around her legs for complete coverage of those scandalous ankles. Then she could unbuckle the skirt for a more lady-like traditional look when not on the bicycle.

Woman in convertible cycling costume, loose. 1895

Woman in convertible cycling costume, loose. 1895

I was interested to note that even in 1895, the perceived sexual transgressions of the bicycle ensemble remained an issue. One author pointedly, if humorously, wrote “The great ladies of the land will unblushingly don man’s dress, or something alarmingly like it, and jump astride their apparatus.”

Woman on bicycle, 1922. Original caption: "No more messenger boys for the National Woman's Party--from president to messenger all the members of the staff are feminine. This is in accordance with the stipulation of Mrs. Belmont when she donated the National Women's [i.e., Woman's] Party headquarters. Photo of Julia Obear, messenger."

Woman on bicycle, 1922. Original caption: "No more messenger boys for the National Woman's Party--from president to messenger all the members of the staff are feminine. This is in accordance with the stipulation of Mrs. Belmont when she donated the National Women's Party Headquarters."

As athletic activities increased in general popularity over the following decades, athletic, lean bodies became the new standard of ideal beauty. The greatest jump was in the early 20th century as the voluptuous feminine form of previous centuries (excepting only the Napoleonic era) went from curvy hourglass to flat and tubular (elastic undergarments often assisted with this allusion, as the corset had in the past). The hemlines also rose in the 1920s, when energetic dance crazes like the Charleston literally shook the Western world (fun fact: the highest hemlines crept was 1” below the knee — never higher until the 1960s). Dresses were often beaded, dripping with fringe, sashes, or asymmetrical hemlines to create pleasing effects while in motion — a far cry from the stiff, heavy, wide, deliberately debilitating female garments of earlier eras. Men’s fashion too, slimmed down to accommodate the encouraged active lifestyle.

"For the well dressed man : comfort is the keynote of the modern man's wardrobe." Note the boxy but narrow silhouette with creeping hemlines. 1922

"For the well dressed man : comfort is the keynote of the modern man's wardrobe." Note the boxy but narrow silhouette with creeping hemlines. Note the boxy but narrow silhouette with creeping hemlines. 1922

Wars always impact fashion and WWII certainly had a tremendous impact on the styles of the 1940s. Material and dye shortages in America necessitated civilian fabric rationing and even a limited palette of allowed colors. Elegant 1930s hemlines rose to mid-calf, the bias-cut draping (a favorite 1930s innovative method of using material cut at a 45 degree angle) was too wasteful to be employed anymore, and puffy sleeves and ruffles popular in the preceding decade were all but eliminated from popular fashion out of patriotic necessity. The silhouette contracted and became boxier, more militaristic and uniform-like. For the first time, women were encouraged to join the work force to replace their boys overseas, and their work in factories further necessitated clothes cut close to the body to avoid being caught in plant machinery. (This style was gleefully abandoned with Dior’s “New Look” of 1947, which had yards of non-utilitarian skirt fabric and which embraced a curvier, feminine form once again.)

Jump ahead another few decades: though not what the era is most remembered for, track suits were introduced in the 1960s. At this time it was worn for specific physical activities like jogging and not as daily dress, but Americans worked physical fitness into their routines more and more. The 1980s saw a resurgence in obsession with athleticism, as Olivia Newton-John’s humorously dated song “Physical” (1981) attests:

Though the video is undeniably silly, the song “Physical” brought the sexual connotations of physical activity to the foreground. With exaggerated flushed and dewy makeup complimenting her workout leotard, Newton-John’s double entendre embodied the wanton women 19th century men feared would come of skimpy (i.e. shorter) clothes.

Preoccupation with the latest workout fads manifested itself in fashion quickly. Ensembles resembling aerobic workout outfits — complete with sweat bands, legwarmers, and torn oversized sweatshirts — surfaced in popular fashion and were eagerly perpetuated by pop icons like Pat Benetar and Loverboy’s Mike Reno, and seen in movies like Flashdance (1983).

Loveryboy's lead singer Mike Reno in the 80s.

Loverboy's lead singer Mike Reno in the 80s.

This was due — at least in part — to advancement in textile technology: the invention of new thin, lightweight, stretchy materials was well suited to sportswear. As in the 1850s when synthetic dye was invented (leading to “mauve madness”!), synthetic material had the property of taking especially vivid dyes extremely well, and is evidenced by all the neon colors now associated with the ‘80s. Likewise, the tracksuit and sneakers were adopted by some early hip hop musicians (all kept in ironic pristine condition). In this raging capitalist, brand-obsessed time of Regan and Thatcher, I suspect wearing clothes previously relegated to leisure activities was a subtle statement that people who could wear athletic gear had enough off-time (and therefore money) to devote to recreational sport, and an amusing side effect was that those very clothes eventually lost their cache due to widespread adoption by the public.

Though not all specifically bicycle related, all the fashion changes I outlined speak to the larger issue of popular fashion responding to the specific physical needs (or fads) of the time: like the current explosion of people using bikes as an alternative mode of transportation and the resulting cycling projects and availability of bike lanes in urban settings. Throughout the history of the bicycle, the challenge seems to have been — and to be — assembling an outfit that accommodates the peculiarities of movement on bicycles in a practical manner, while integrating into mainstream fashion in an inconspicuous way so a cyclist may ride to a destination and enter a social or professional environment without needing to change. For this, America is looking to other countries that have been using bicycles as daily (as opposed to purely recreational) transportation for much longer, like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and London.

The New York Times reported that “Before [the London-based company] Rapha, there were two ways to be fashionable in cycling,” said Bill Strickland, the editor at large of Bicycling magazine and until recently the author of its Style Man column. “The first was to be supertechnical, and look like a pro. The other way was to be pure vintage. Rapha created a third way, starting with a premise of ‘How would I like to look in town?’ ”

Though there are infinite paths to this end, I would imagine the one unavoidable restriction must be the amount of bulk at the crotch and ankles. They must all have relatively close-cut silhouettes with as little loose material as possible around the gears, while being flexible at the waist — exactly where the dress reformers focused in the 19th century. Adding an additional layer of influence, this description happens to coincide with the male suit of the 1960s, which is also currently experiencing a surge of popularity.

bicycle chic 2009

bicycle chic 2009

Aesthetic cultural influences are at work here, including but not limited to the popular Mad Men TV series. Set in the 1960s, this show has coincided with the resurgence of skinny jeans and slimmer, shorter trousers. This is evident even in formal wear; I spotted many a slim-fit tux at this year’s Academy Awards. Which came first: the retro look or the latest bicycle movement? Like most other fashion developments, many influences across cultural, ecological, and political spectrums have impacted the collective unconscious and manifested itself in everyday dress. Isn’t it fun to try to figure them all out?

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Corporate Collaborations with the Arts

•May 26, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Anna Wintour in Chanel at Met Costume Institute Gala 2008 w stringsMetropolitan Museum facade

Anna Wintour’s involvement with the Metropolitan Museum is reestablished at this time every year with the Met’s renowned Costume Institute gala, and we are again bombarded with pictures of A-list celebrities, socialites and models attending the lush affair. Whether attendees are portrayed in adoring light or to ridicule their outrageous outfits, the glut of coverage across paper publications and the internet succeeds in generating widespread coverage and awareness of the event, invaluable marketing for both the Met and the gala’s loud sponsor, Vogue. These sorts of relationships are so ingrained in our capitalist system that many don’t give Anna Wintour’s involvement in this museum fundraiser a second thought but, for me, it highlights the uneasy balance between cultural institutions and their sponsors. Especially in times of economic hardship, relationships between art centers and their patrons are ever more precarious and therefore precious. Among museums the Met retains one of the most prestigious reputations in the world. But the news that is perhaps the most widely disseminated about the Met every year is not about its new acquisitions, nor its beautiful newly renovated American wing, but the Costume Institute gala, arguably the most hotly anticipated social event — to say nothing of fundraising events — of the year.

The 700 invitations are coveted by high society and pop culture icons alike, and the photos are disseminated equally by pop culture websites, blogs, and newspapers. I freely admit that I comb the internet for photos of the chic attendees — more than other galas or award ceremonies even — as there is always a fashion theme relating to the spring costume exhibit that is supposedly being promoted by the event, which I think prompts people to be even more outlandish in their sartorial selections than they might otherwise be, glamorous lives notwithstanding. This year’s “Models as Muse” was a bit weak in terms of gala inspiration (it resulted in many haute micro-mini skirt ensembles), but it did succeed in attracting celebrities who may or may not actually be personally invested in the museum’s mission (specifically the “advance knowledge of works” “in accordance with the highest professional standards”), but whose presence attracts the photographers nonetheless.

Helena Christensen at Met Costume gala, 2009, doing her own shilling for Vogue

Helena Christensen at Met Costume gala, 2009, doing her own shilling for Vogue in Zac Posen dress

Michael Gross concentrates on the questionable relationship between the Met and Vogue in his newly released book “Rogue’s Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum.” In it, he blames the Met’s collaboration first with Diana Vreeland and then with Anna Wintour to co-host the Costume Institute fundraiser which, he claims, has been twisted into a publicity platform for Vogue and Wintour’s personal vendettas, displacing the Met’s own mission. “The most highly publicized event at the museum has been turned into a magazine and movie-promotion party, where Anna sells herself and movie stars sell their latest projects,” said Gross. “What gets lost in the process is the museum.”

Suspicious as I am of Vogue’s motives (it is clearly in their best interest to invite the beautiful people they’d like to court to be in Vogue’s own pages), I whole heartedly support utilizing an institution’s fashion collection as a revenue generator — which the Costume Institute absolutely is for the Met, raising a significant portion of the museum’s income (the 2008 total of which was $297,790,000). First, as demonstrated by my drive to work on this very blog, I believe there is a wealth of knowledge — social, financial, and political history for starters — to be gleaned from the study of clothes, just waiting to be disseminated in an engaging and articulate manner. I crave museums tackling projects involving costume. Tragically, many institutions small and large (i.e. Merchant House, Brooklyn Museum) have fabulous costume collections that are rarely displayed and even more rarely exhibited in-house due to budget, space, staff, and/or costume history expertise shortages. Second, costume exhibits have been proven to be excellent revenue generators precisely because anything fashion related draws in younger, pop-culture obsessed people who may not otherwise attend museums that have the unfortunate reputation for housing stuffy, inaccessible “high art.” I have no problem whatsoever utilizing fashion exhibitions to tap into this market. Isn’t the goal of museums to market their exhibitions to attract in people, and then actually teach them to look more deeply into a subject they may only have had a superficial understanding of?

The trick is for museums to capitalize on this obsession with glamorous fashion. Obviously, money can and should be raised for the institutions. Museums increasingly struggle for attendees, and in this free market democracy, private investors are relied upon to fund so-called worthy projects more than the government is. With the latest financial crisis, corporate sponsors have become ever more sparse (working for the Development department of a New York museum, I have witnessed this scramble first-hand). In some cases, this has forced museums to hike their admissions (in New York it’s not uncommon for tickets to be $20), which has the unfortunate cyclical consequence of making these exhibitions even less accessible to the general public.

Do these galas confirm the perception, accurate or not, that fashion is inaccessible to the mainstream public? Or worse yet, that the study and presentation of fashion in an historical context is unimportant, has no bearing on “serious” studies, offers no insight into history, and has no greater implication on or by current events? My fear with the Met Costume Institute gala is that Vogue’s self-promotion cannibalizes what could and should be an opportunity to present fashion as an incredible marker of human civilization that varies according to technological breakthroughs in materials, social morays, etc. I’m doubtful these parties accomplish this. And this is due, in part, to the accompanying spring Costume Institute exhibitions that are usually of the blockbuster variety with a lot of flash and glitz, but weak-themed and presented with little-to-no background information drawing from a larger historical context, which in my mind must be the crux of any exhibition, costume or otherwise (I am specifically thinking of the popular but superficial “Chanel” and “Superheroes” exhibitions).

As friends know, there are few things that exasperate me more than a flubbed costume exhibit. The wasted opportunity hits me like a brick in the face: that money could be collected, venue provided, fashion displayed, and the opportunity to use costume as a teaching tool not utilized kills me. Partly because I’ll walk away disappointed for the lack of new information I personally collect, but mostly because I’m all too aware of how superfluous and flighty the majority of the population views fashion, and exhibits that don’t treat the subject academically confirm people’s belief that there is nothing but pretty, outrageous, or at best creative works at play and nothing deeper. This is perhaps a I see the Met’s Costume Institute gala as just such a wasted opportunity to broaden the public’s opinion and understanding of fashion’s relevance and importance.

Museums must weigh the pros and cons of the opportunities corporate money affords them — not just more elaborate exhibits but more advertising to reach wider audiences — versus the control corporate sponsors believe they become entitled to exert (i.e. Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to cut the Brooklyn Museum’s public funding when it exhibited controversial material in the “Sensation” exhibit of 1999). The American Museum of Natural History in New York actually had trouble securing sponsorship for their 2005 Darwin exhibition because (exasperating as it is to me), creationism and the so-called “theory” of evolution continues to be incendiary and corporations were afraid of alienating their own potential supporters, political and financial. (Ironically — or not so? — once funding was secured, the Darwin exhibition was extremely popular.) The Museum made up for this difficulty with its latest corporate partnership.

The movie series Night at the Museum prominently incorporated two Smithsonian museums: the first film (2006) took place in the Museum of Natural History, the second (2009) in the Smithsonian Institute, and it actually contains “Smithsonian” in the title: marketing jackpot! This arrangement gave writers license to incorporate actual Smithsonian-owned ephemera (like Amelia Earhart’s plane, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, etc., used to great comic effect) into the plots, and both museums have enjoyed the reciprocal reaction of an immediate and impressive surge in attendance. I see this as a fair exchange. Like the Museum of Natural History, the Met needs to reassert its power and purpose with Vogue (or another sponsor), because the Costume Institute is more than an exclusive venue, and should be leveraged as such.

Much as I’ve concentrated on current corporate collaborations, the alliance of patron and artist (or art institution) is not a new subject, though it’s taken new forms. The Mérode Altarpice is a triptych by the early Netherlandish painter Robert Campin, c. 1425 – 1430. Though ostensibly a religious painting depicting the popular Annunciation, the commissioning family was painted directly into the religious scene (left panel).  They also guaranteed their identities by their coat of arms seal in the window, and by the presence of a costume (yay costume historians!) typical of a town messenger from Mechelen, where the family was from.

The Merode Altarpice by Robert Campin c1425 – 1428

The Merode Altarpice by Robert Campin c.1425 – 1428

As religious paintings waned in popularity, patrons continued to be inserted into works. Fragonard’s “The Swing” (1766) is a delightfully naughty painting  portraying a pink-clad woman (I will refrain from dissecting her ensemble in greater juicy detail, though I’m tempted!) being pushed on a swing by a bishop in the background, while her “hidden” lover in the foreground gazes admiringly up her yawning skirt. John Fleming writes “The identity of the patron is unknown, though he was at one time thought to have been the Baron de Saint-Julien, the Receiver General of the French Clergy, which would have explained the request to include a bishop pushing the swing. This idea as well as that of having himself and his mistress portrayed was evidently dropped by the patron, whoever he may have been.” Fleming points out “the picture was depersonalized and, due to Fragonard’s extremely sensuous imagination, became a universal image of joyous, carefree sexuality,” (my italics) as opposed to a straightforward vanity portrait. Since then, corporate sponsorship has replaced less conspicuous donations as a major funding vehicle for many arts organizations.

"The Swing" by Fragonard, 1766

"The Swing" by Fragonard, 1766

So collaborations between moneyed patrons and starving artists has not been uncommon historically, but patrons were not advertising themselves — no revenue was expected from the inclusion of their images in commissioned paintings, unlike corporate sponsors today who slap their logos on every visible posterboard. There can be mutually beneficial relationships — partnerships — established between non-profits and corporations (as with Fragonard and his patron), but it’s vital that those non-profits remember that they need not be beggars bending to the whim of their sponsors. Corporations can offer money, but museums offer  credibility in public relations and marketing return. Children today may very well associate Exxon Mobile with the funding of public television instead of my own foremost memory, the infamous Exxon oil spill of 1989, and the Altria Group, owner of cigarette giant Philip Morris, is not coincidentally one of the most significant donor to the arts in a transparent but successful attempt to gain positive PR-by-association. Perceived cultural good will is important in any era, but essential in times like these when the financial sector and big business are regarded as especially villainous. I don’t condemn corporate backing; I just want curatorial integrity to remain in tact.

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Jockey Silks and Spectators

•May 5, 2009 • 1 Comment

2009 Kentucky Derby finish line with leading jockey Calvin Borel

2009 Kentucky Derby finish line with leading jockey Calvin Borel

With all the excitement of the Kentucky Derby culminating last weekend, I thought I’d take the opportunity to learn about (and share) the roots of horse racing apparel. To begin with the basics, jockey “silks” are comprised of white breeches and a bib, stock or cravat, and receiving them is a rite of passage for jockeys entering their first race ride. Horsemen wearing “colors” (as they’re also known) has a long, illustrious past that has developed with the various horse sports. In ancient Rome for example, chariot drivers wore unique, brightly colored capes and headbands to identify themselves in the arenas. Roots in heraldry and coats of arms can be seen, the decorated shields and armor of which identified members of families and soldiers on battlefields, as jockeys came to be identified by their silks:


This is a German Hyghalmen Roll with coats of arms, circa 1485. Note the simple shapes and limited palette.

Horse racing meets are recorded as far back as 1114, and individual silk colors are first mentioned in 1515 when Henry VIII occupied the English throne. In those early days of horse racing, few horses would compete and close finishes were rare enough that identification was not terribly problematic, but in the 18th century, racing gained popularity. As more horses competed in each race, riders wore simple colored silk jackets to combat increasingly confused judges and spectators. This was not an entirely new idea: in medieval times, jousting knights wore bright, distinct colors which facilitated the identification of the competitors for the audience members of large arenas:

Jousting knights from Sir Thomas Holmes' book, circa 15th century

Jousting knights from Sir Thomas Holmes' book, circa 1445.

In 1762 the English Jockey Club formalized what had been a general practice and requested that owners submit specific colors for riders’ jackets and caps, which were to be used consistently. Later that year they made the Newmarket resolution that owners must submit the racing silks for their horses to compete. From the minutes: “For the greater convenience of distinguishing the horses in running, and also for the prevention of disputes arising from not knowing the colors of each rider, the under-mentioned gentleman have come to the resolution and agreement of having the colors annexed to their names, worn by their respective riders.”

"Un Jockey Angleterre" (1796)

"Un Jockey Angleterre" (1796)

More rules have been implemented since then. The horse owner or trainer selects and registers their jockey’s colors (which includes colors and patterns) in national horse races; typically all horses belonging to a particular owner will be raced in the same colors. The owner must check the appropriate database (Weatherbys for England, The Jockey Club for the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, etc.) as each racing silk must be unique. Patterns are created with squares, lines, circles and stars of contrasting colors.  Uniforms at national races are very bright but regulations dictate a maximum of 4 colors. Japanese rules mandate that the hat color must match the gate color, but in other countries it must match the uniform.

This looks similar to the racing cheat sheet I was given at the tracks in Ireland, which listed the names of horses, jockeys, and had a crude depiction of the riders' colors.

This looks similar to the racing cheat-sheet I was given at the Irish tracks, which listed the horse names, jockeys, and had a crude depiction of the colors. You can see that Don't Get Mad and Greeley's Galaxy are owned by the same person.

Jockey silks used to be made of actual silk, though it is unsurprising that synthetics like nylon are often used nowadays, as they are for other athletic ensembles. The cut of jockey silks is close fitting for minimal wind resistance — important when tenths of seconds can make the difference between first and second places — but not tight, as the rider must have freedom of movement. Thin, lightweight materials like silk are ideal for ease of movement, breathability, and not adding bulk to jockeys for whom low weight is a necessity. Long or short sleeves may be chosen but jockeys usually prefer long sleeves that minimize chafing. A 2005 lawsuit granted The Jockey Club the right to add small logos and advertisements to the jockey pants which had previously been pure white. It’s interesting to me that this sport previously resisted the seductive pull of ostentatious corporate sponsor logos that have visually taken over another track sport: car racing.

It behooves (ha!) jockeys to stand out from others not only to distinguish themselves from their competitors, but also as walking (or running) advertisements for the owners, the jockeys’ employers (even without literal sartorial branding). In a time when casual attire is more and more the norm, on the horse tracks pride in performance is still displayed with bright, shiny, colorful and patterned silks, where historically the attendees have been the upper class bourgeois, dressed in their own finery to see and be seen. This leads me into the class struggle that I see on the horse tracks.

I believe the jockey silks serve yet another purpose: to distinguish them — the hired talent — from the owners and spectators. The owner-dictated colors to be worn by jockeys are already a kind of stamp of claim, and professional jockeys — unlike gentlemen who ride or hunt for leisure — are typically culled from the working class who often got their starts as humble stable boys. In his fascinating book “City Games: The Evolution of Americann Urban Society and the Rise of Sports (Sport and Society),” Steven A. Riess notes that “thoroughbred racing and yachting, strongly identified in the public mind as elite sports because of the exorbitant cost of participation and the restricted memberships of jockey and yacht clubs, served as status-defining communities.” After being banned during the American Revolutionary era because of its associations both with the unpopular elite and immoral gambling, Jockey clubs were eventually created and justified “as the only means of developing superior horses for such uses as national defense (the cavalry) and transportation.”

Here is a card (c. 1876-90) depicting children dressed up in various professionals. Note that the jockey is included in an all-working-class / subservant lineup: coachman, concierge, and maid.

Here is a card (c. 1876-90) depicting children dressed up as various professionals. Note that the jockey is included in an all-working-class / subservant lineup with coachman, concierge, and maid.

The horse track is one of the few daytime, outdoor activities where formal attire is expected; it’s the plein air version of a night at the opera where the rich and famous (who may or may not actually care about the race outcome) can “see and be seen” while peering through their binoculars as opera-goers peered through their opera glasses. Mint juleps are served to daintily sipping guests while mud and dust spattered horses and jockeys are running for their lives — and sometimes to their deaths. These jockeys, though respected after wins, have been depicted in rather startling ways.

Jockeys are often portrayed as either boyish and/or with hunched posture:

"The Favorite Jockey" by Fred Archer, 1881

"The Favorite Jockey" by Fred Archer, 1881

This begs physical comparison with jockeys’ equine partners, as The Triplets of Bellville (2003) portrayed their cyclist athlete as a kind of horse-slave:

Triplets of Bellville hunched cyclist

Triplets of Bellville's hunched cyclist

Compare to a horse owner. Note the erect posture, with top hat to emphasize his stature physically and socially (men of lower classes wore different hat styles):

Owner Mr. W. Hall Walker MP by Leslie Ward ("Spy"), 1906

Owner Mr. W. Hall Walker MP by Leslie Ward ("Spy"), 1906

The wonderful scene in My Fair Lady (filmed in 1964 but taking place circa 1916) illustrates the class prerequisite of the races. Lower-class Eliza Doolittle has never attended the races before, and her behavior in the exclusively upper crust setting is the final test of Henry Higgins’ skill, who has forced himself upon her as her aristocratic mentor. It also displays Cecil Beaton’s interpretation of the conspicuous fashion that lives on even today, with great humor and only slight exaggeration:

A marvelous irony is that horse racing was one of the first venues for legal gambling (it has been argued that its popularity continued because of this), so for every preening attendee there is a gambler who probably cares less what he looks like or where he sees or hears about the race and more who actually wins, (wearing whatever he damn well feels like).

Off Track Betting, 2008. The casual attire really stands out, non?

Off Track Betting, 2008. The casual attire really stands out, non?

Though I am undeniably attracted to race horsing as a genteel, civilized activity (I could never say I don’t love excuses to wear big hats, for example), my pragmatic, socially progressive side abhors the class distinctions that the races perpetuate, exemplified still in the attire of athletes, attendees, and remote observers.

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Cross-Posting Partnership

•May 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment




I have partnered with the lovely Monica Sklar and her team at Worn Through, so I will be cross-posting there every-other week. Monica has multiple co-editors for an intelligent, well-rounded take on fashion history, fashion teaching, fashion book reviews and listings of exhibitions and calls for papers. Check it out here.

Mourning Costumes and Religion

•April 20, 2009 • Leave a Comment
Tearing "Kriah", 1996, welded iron. By Orna Ben-Ami

Tearing "Kriah", 1996, welded iron. By Orna Ben-Ami

A couple months ago I had the unfortunate task of attending the funeral of my former coworker’s 20 year-old daughter who tragically died — of all  unlikely things in a developed country — during childbirth. In dressing for the funeral, I selected a lovely black taffeta dress with an outer layer of sheer black tulle with long tulle sleeves. In spite of its beauty (it’s a Lilith sample my friend, a former employee of that Parisian label, gave me), I actually don’t wear it very frequently because it’s a lot of black and I think it makes a morbid statement, especially paired with my pale skin; however this quality made it ideal for my sad errand.

my funeral costume

my funeral garb

As I was putting the finishing touches on my toilette — I accessorized with a dripping black tasseled necklace — my lover asked if I really wanted to be so fancy. “Of course,” I replied, “it’s a funeral. You’re supposed to dress up to show your respect.” Though I had to leave at that moment, we resumed the conversation later.

My Man is accustomed to Jewish traditions including the kriah (or keriah) where mourners tear a rent in their clothes which they display for the 7 days of shiva, the intense mourning period following a death. The specific placement of this tear is determined by the relationship with the deceased: for a parent, the visible rip is on or near the heart; for siblings, children and spouses, the rip is on the right and need not actually be visible. Children of the deceased are not allowed to ever mend the tears they make, even when shiva has ended, whereas all other mourners may patch the holes after shoshim, the 30 days following a death.  Straight away, a hierarchy of relationships is established by the clothes. That of the parent and child is given precedence — even over spouses — in a stylized demonstration of respect and perhaps obligation more than an implied closeness of personal relationship, which I found interesting.

Kriah is traditionally ripped while standing (to show strength in a time of grief) and the following blessing is recited: Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam dayan ha’emet. Translation: “Blessed are You, Adonai Our God, Ruler of the Universe, the True Judge.”

tearing kriah

tearing kriah

Nowadays, a torn kriah ribbon is sometimes substituted for an actual tear in mourners’ clothes:


kriah ribbon

The Biblical roots of the kriah include when Jacob believed his son Joseph was dead and he tore his garments (Genesis 37:34). Likewise, in II Samuel 1:11 King David and all his men rent their clothes upon hearing of the death of Saul and Jonathan. Job, too, in grieving for his children, stood up and rent his clothes (Job 1:20).

The kriah is a visual representation of the tear in the hearts and lives of the bereaved, or alternately, a vent to release their feelings. It also signifies that it is only the outer garment (representing the body) that has been torn; the soul of the deceased and the love that the deceased and the mourners have for each other endures. Furthermore, vanity in times of mourning is viewed as disrespectful — the bereaved should be focused on internal, soulful emotions and not outward public appearance. To this end, bathing, changing clothes, haircuts and nail clipping are also suspended, and to avoid temptation of pride, mirrors are covered.

The final rule of self-presentation during shiva (which also applies for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) is that leather shoes may not be worn. I was initially perplexed (as were several Jewish friends I asked, and many many people on the internet) as to the reasoning behind the ban on leather shoes in times of mourning. I understand that going without shoes is a powerful display of the rejection of physical comfort, but why would leather be specified? Sneakers, flip-flops or Crocs would circumvent the no-leather shoes rule but wouldn’t make sense if shunning comfort were the sole object (tee hee). Have no fear, Reader on the edge of your seat — I did find a plausible explanation.

First (and unsurprisingly), foregoing leather shoes to show deference has roots in the Torah: Moses removed his leather shoes (or sandals, as the case probably was) to approach the burning bush (Exodus 3:5), Joshua did as well when he faced the angel at the Promised Land (Joshua 5:15), and Ezekiel was commanded to remove his shoes while in mourning (Ezekiel 24:17). In these cases, the object was to show deference to God, but during shiva I imagine that that reverence is transferred to the departed. These were not demonstrations of deliberate discomfort so much as those of humility. A secondary explanation is that leather used to be far more of a luxury item than it is today (though there are clearly still traces of this high end market remaining). Leather shoes, then, fell into the category of jewelry and general adornment too ostentatious for times of ritualistic despair. The third reason for the leather shoes ban is one of sensitivity. “This is a day that we are not to practice violence and to look for compassion in life,” says Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of the Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation. “But to get the leather that would be used to make shoes would mean killing one of God’s creatures.”


Ultra-orthodox Jewish men pray as they gather for the mourning ritual of Tisha B'Av -- when Jews mourn the destruction of the biblical temples -- at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, August 10, 2008. Note the cloth shoes.

For Jews, distressing their appearance is a physical manifestation their distressed emotional states, which I find perfectly poignant, though it runs contrary to the Christian practices and ideologies I was familiar with before writing this post. I was brought up Episcopalian (the WASP version of Catholic, if you don’t know), and had a very different set of rituals surrounding death and mourning. A particularly complex and rigid set of rules and customs were solidified during the Victorian era, which I’ll concentrate on for no better reason than that period especially interests me.

After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, the devastated Queen Victoria decreed a 40 year mourning period that was to be observed by all in an elaborate and conspicuous manner. The dress codes relating to the royal death trickled down and were adopted by the church, to be followed for all (Christian) deaths. Dark, somber clothes were demanded by all affected by the death. Widows endured the most elaborate dress rules and for the longest period of time. They were to wear black dresses made of crepe (a dull, lusterless material) with black caps which were generally in a toned down version of the current style. Topping the costumes were long “weeping veils” which were sheer crepe or silk. All widows’ accessories were black as well, including parasols, gloves, and stockings; undergarments were exempt only because color-fast dyes had not yet been perfected and black would rub off on wearers’ bodies.

“Full mourning” lasted a year and one day for widows, after which they could graduate — slowly — to lighter, brighter colors, but only by prescribed degrees. Grays and deep purples were acceptable in “half mourning,”  and after 2 years or so a normal, fashionable pallet was once again acceptable. Additionally, widows were not to participate in society — that is, balls, social gatherings, and essentially any public event except church — for 3 months, after which they could go out in public but only in full mourning garb. When a widow appeared in fashionable colors again, it was essentially an announcement to the community that she was available for courting and remarriage, which was usually a financial necessity.

Scarlett O’Hara famously flaunted this tradition in the Gone with the Wind (1939) dancing scene where she flouts propriety, not by her clothes (which she complains loudly about but wears) but by dancing publicly, an act of frivolity distinctly unbecoming of a widow.

At the ball, having accepted the inappropriate dancing invitation of Rhet Butler:

Rhet: “We’ve sort of shocked the Confederacy, Scarlet.”

Scarlett: “It’s a little bit like blockade running, isn’t it?”

Rhet: “It’s worse!”

Here is a not-very-good clip, but even muted (which I suggest), you can practically hear the gasp of the shocked ball attendees when Rhet publicly bids for a dance with supposedly grieving Scarlett — and her Aunt Pitty actually faints! Fast-forward to 1:30:

Here is a properly dressed widow, accessories and all:


Maria Dennis (1842-1917) wearing "widow's weeds" headgear

Christians, like Jews, downplay personal adornment while mourning, though not as completely. Jewelry may be worn, but it must be dark and possess little or no sheen. Several unusual materials became popular during the 19th century due to their possession of these qualities.

The hair of a beloved or recently deceased was often intricately woven into “chains” and “beads” to be worn by the bereaved:

Victorian hair jewelry

hair jewelry

Queen Victoria’s obsession with the public mourning of Prince Albert resulted in a great demand for fashionable and affordable black jewelry, and jet became a popular material for jewelry and buttons. It is an incredibly dense, dark mineraloid derived from decaying wood, appropriately enough. It has been imbued with a religious significance too, as it is a traditional material for monks’ rosaries. Queen Victoria sported and popularized Whitby jet, which initially created a boom in the industry but hampered its long term usage as people associated the stone with death.  Vulcanite was another material of similar properties commonly used for mourning jewelry.


jet earrings

Compare the left shiny buttons below, suitable for everyday wear, to the matte version on the right, acceptable for mourning:


As in the Jewish custom, levels of Victorian observance were determined by relationship to the deceased, but this was marked more by length of time in mourning dress than by placement of a mourning emblem. Grieving men initially wore simple black suits and black armbands. Servants wore black armbands, as could men who were obliged to wear military uniforms. Children usually wore white with black trim in summer and gray with black trim in winter; they were to observe full mourning for 9 months and half mourning for 3 more (this was the same timeframe parents followed). Siblings observed full and half mourning for 3 months each. Unlike Jews who place the heaviest mourning obligation on surviving children, (Victorian) Christians emphasize the spousal relationship by cloaking the widow in the most elaborate costume and for the longest period of time, that is synced with her ultimate marital / sexual availability.

You can see that though the Victorians had strict rules regarding color (or lack thereof), materials, and textures / sheen, mourning clothes could still be decorative, a major departure from the Jewish tradition. Some of the differences may be related to the belief or disbelief in an afterlife. Christians, though grieving for their own losses, are supposed to rejoice that their loved ones have passed from this mortal world to the next heavenly one. Jews have no such idealistic post-death haven to temper their sorrow, so it follows that the mourning dress should be plainer. Relating to this theory is another Jewish tradition pertaining to the attire of the deceased themselves. After being washed, the body is dressed in tachrichim, hand sewn linen clothes. There are no pockets, as Jews believe we take nothing with us when we die, and everyone buried in identical robes symbolizes that all people are equal (this is reinforced by identical, plain pine caskets).

I love how costume has been utilized as a mourning tool in such different ways. I think there’s something very beautiful and appealing about both sets of rituals: they are both intended to demonstrate respect for the dead, comfort those left behind, and eventually assist the bereaved to return to normal life. Silly or excessive as either may seem, don’t we all crave those things in trying times?


Since working on this post, my own uncle passed away (this is why it’s been so long since I posted last). Though I’m not religious, I did wear black for a week. This was not intended to be a signal to others (black garb is too commonplace to stand out anymore anyway) but as my own private gesture of deference and sorrow, using the language I express myself with: clothes. I dedicate this entry– as a fully inadequate demonstration of my own love and loss — to Uncle Dick.

Further reading:

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Duct Tape as a Textile

•March 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment


New York Magazine brought an annual event to my attention I had no idea existed, but I wish I had in high school: namely, a Duck Tape “Stuck at Prom” contest. Costumes were judged based on workmanship (30%), originality (30%), use of colors (15%, accessories (15%), and quantity of Duck Tape used (10%).

In addition to my well documented love of clothes and the relationship between technology and fashion, it just so happens that I’ve recently become obsessed with duct tape crafty things. My sister recently gave me a duct tape wallet (at my request), and I intend to fashion myself a duct tape DIY dress form in the near future, so I’m all about exploring the wonders of this durable, malleable, industrial material.

The other aspect here is clearly The Prom. As I mentioned in a previous post, proms can seem silly and superficial at best, and an excuse for insecure teens to exclude at worst. However, I believe this much hyped event has the redeeming quality of allowing teenagers about to enter an important new phase of life– adulthood– to explore the implications of this change sartorially.  Somewhat ironically, this contest’s textile restrictions promote more whimsical, thematic, youthful looks rather than grownup ones, but it certainly encourages creativity and stresses fun in dress, and in my estimation, that is equally valuable.

As a side note, I was pleased to see that though contestants must enter as a pair, mixed (i.e. heterosexual) couples were not required for entry. Though I didn’t see any flaming gay couples, I was happy to know they were not explicitly excluded.

Here are some of my favorite contestants:

Hello pimpin’ goth pinstripes! Those must’ve taken forever to apply!


How can you not love the nerdy dapper Duck Tape dandy??duck-tape-prom-nerdy-dandy

Though I think patriotic clothes are almost always distasteful, I was amused that the center “A” in “Obama” is a tiny White House:


I am so impressed this guy agreed to the bird theme:


Commitment to a weather motif– they were clearly looking to score high on the color segment:


It’s mildly amazing to me that this guy found a girl who was into the sci-fi theme at this tender, unassured age:


On the flip side, I was not such a fan of the beige, brown and turquoise cowboy prom look, for many reasons:duck-tape-prom-cowboys

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