If you owned this photograph, wouldn't you want to know more about the young woman wearing the outrageous butterfly hat? I have looked at this image for years, but all I knew was that the photographer had captured my grandmother Arline Allen Kinsel in a very flattering window-seat pose. Arline's white muslin dress and huge hat hinted at a special occasion, but what could it have been?
My aunt may have known more about the photo, but she never shared that with me. She was more excited about the porcelain doll she found and had painted and dressed to resemble Arline of the photo. Dolly Arline was displayed in a glass front curio cabinet for decades, seated on a glass shelf beside the original photograph.
By the time my aunt passed away, the doll had been sitting in that cabinet for at least thirty years. Her once-white muslin dress was brown and crisp and the exposed porcelain was dingy yellow. Ultraviolet light ambient light,, uncirculated air, and the wooden back and sides of the cabinet had created an "acid-chamber" where the doll slowly deteriorated.
Nothing is forever, but the doll would certainly be in better condition if she had been stored in a dark closet, wrapped in a cotton pillowcase, and brought out for occasional display. It's a tough call, because the doll was designed to be displayed and enjoyed. And, everyone who visited my aunt, remarked on the beautiful young woman pictured in the photograph and mimicked by the doll's dress.
So, I've wondered about the dress and hat. I knew my grandmother sewed -- her letters refer to shipping her sewing machine when she moved, and fabric and trim she bought for a handmade "waist." I also knew that she loved stylish clothes and didn't have much money, good motivation for a fashion-forward young woman who could work a needle.
What I needed was a kind of 20th century fashion maven who could look at the doll and the photo and offer more details about Arline. And, SCGS Jamboree proved to be the place to meet Betty Kreisel Shubert, former costume designer and fashion writer, and author of the new guide Out-Of-Style: A Modern Perspective of How, Why and When Vintage Fashions Evolved.
It's a bit misleading to label Betty's 350-page book a simple "guidebook," because it's that and so much more. Betty's fashion career began when she sold her first dress design at age 13, in 1938. Since that time, she's gone on to design clothes and costumes for stage, screen, television, ready-to-wear, Las Vegas musicals, and Disneyland, as well as uniforms for major cruise lines, hotels, restaurants, and casinos. Out-of-Style is a lively, personal memoir and reference book. It's clear that when Betty writes about "The Twenty-Five-Year-Old Dress, When do 'Old' Clothes Become 'Vintage' Clothes?" and shares a story about her own classic gown, she knows what she's talking about.
Betty was tapped to share her fashion wisdom with friends exploring their family history who were having trouble dating old photographs: "I can help that," Betty offered. "I can tell you the date from the clothes." And, a new career working with genealogists was born. Betty shared her knowledge in Ancestry Magazine, and has now assembled a comprehensive reference guide to 19th and 20th century styles in her book Out-of-Style.
I especially like the artist sketches that bring together on one page the changing styles; this makes it easy to compare what you may have in a photo across several years or decades. For example, comparing Arline's hat to this page of compiled hat styles, helps identify the Arline's hat as a "Platter Hat."
Ladies' Hat Styles 1900-1914, Copyright Betty Kreisel Shubert, used with permission
After talking with Betty, I asked her if she would "read" Arline's photo and share her thoughts on the dress and extravagant Butterfly Hat. I hoped for a few notes, but Betty sent so much more -- a handwritten historic evaluation of the clothing and an astute analysis of the kind of woman who might wear such an outfit. Without any extra information from me, Betty picked up Arline's personality and even anticipated her social life. Be sure to check back for Part 2 of this article for Betty's "reading" of Arline's portrait.
Find Out-Of-Style: A Modern Perspective of How, Why and When Vintage Fashions Evolved by Betty Kreisel Shubert at Amazon.com.
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