Category Archives: Historical Fashion

Go Fish! (For an Irish Sweater)

The Aran jumper, better known as an Irish fisherman sweater, is a bulky, cable-patterned sweater popular in Ireland.  Its name derives from the Aran Islands off the west coast of the Emerald Isle.  The jumpers were originally stitched with unscoured and undyed cream-colored báinín, yarn made from sheep’s wool that contained natural oils, which made the material water-resistant – a perfect fabric for men primarily working on the sea!  The wives of fishermen would knit these beautiful sweaters for their husbands.  Each stitch has a meaning.  The cable stitch depicts a fisherman’s ropes to wish for safety; the honeycomb pattern symbolizes hard-working bees; the basket stitch represents a fisherman’s basket with the hope of a plentiful catch; the zig-zag stitch depicts the twisting cliffs on the islands; the tree of life pattern shows the importance and unity of family; and the diamond shape reflects the small fields of the Aran islands, which are sometimes filled with Irish moss stitch, depicting the seaweed that was used to fertilize barren land and produce a good harvest – therefore, the diamond represents good fortune and success.  Origins of the sweater are often debated.  Some historians claim that Aran jumpers have been knitted for hundreds of years, sometimes credited to knitting historian Heinz Edgar Kiewe, who claims he discovered an image in the Book of Kells, in which Daniel was wearing Aran knitted clothing!  Supposedly, there aren’t any other records of the fisherman sweaters until the early 20th century.  The likely explanation is that the women of Aran adapted the traditional Gansey sweater by changing the thickness of the wool and streamlining the construction.  There is a common belief that each family had a different pattern, in case one of their sons, husbands, fathers or brothers went overboard, they’d be able to identify bodies washed ashore, based on the clan’s sweater pattern.  This stems from the 1904 play Riders to the Sea, by J.M. Synge, in which a dead fisherman is identified by his clothing’s stitching, although there is no reference to Aran knitting in the play.  Jumper patterns do have regional associations though, so fishermen and sailors lost at sea could have been identified by sweaters associated with their county, town or church’s pattern.  Men also had their initials sewed into their garments, which also helped determine who they were, if killed.  (Fun Fact: The Ó’Máille family of Galway created traditional costumes for the 1952 film The Quiet Man!  You can still purchase their knits today!)  Irish-American leading men look pretty good in these sweaters, too!  The “King of Cool” Steve McQueen (pictured, top left) looks rugged on the set of The Thomas Crown Affair, and Ryan ONeal (pictured, below) looks handsome filming one of the final scenes of Love Story.  We love ’em, because they remind us of sweaters passed down and worn in our own Irish family!  It’s nice to keep cozy while paying tribute to the Gaels who lived and died before us!


Girl Scout Power

[A uniform] gives a certain prestige in the community. When a girl is seen in uniform, people recognize her as a girl who is courteous and obliging… The uniform puts every girl on the same footing…[and] makes a useful dress for her to work and play in at the meetings.”Reads the Girl Scout Leader’s Manual, circa 1917.  Today, the Girl Scouts celebrate their 100th anniversary, and despite some recent criticism from wackos like Rep. Bob Harris, the Girl Scouts remain a great jumping off point for young girls.  (Fun Fact: 69% of female US senators, 67% of House Representatives, and 80% of female business-owners were in the Girl Scouts!)  What people generally associate with the nonprofit is delicious cookies, and the color green!  It’s serendipitous that the Girl Scouts’ centennial falls during “Irish Week,” a country whose national color is also GREEN!  The Girl Scouts were founded by Savannah-native Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low (whose portrait is pictured, left).  Following her husband’s death, she moved back from London to her hometown in Georgia.  She had met Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of scouting, while living in England, and decided to create a similar organization for young girls, when she returned to the states.  Eventually, the Girl Scouts blossomed into a huge American youth organization, with over 50 million alumnae.  Their uniform color was originally navy blue, then changed to khaki, and finally became the official green color they are today.  The Girl Scouts’ official webpage has an adorable exhibit on the uniforms used during the last 100 years.  (Our favorite has to be the 1934 Mariner uniform for girls interested in the sea and sailing!  Why didn’t they have that when we were little?!)  Some notable former Girl Scouts include Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric (pictured in uniform, right), Mary Tyler Moore, Sandra Day O’Connor, Tipper Gore, Lucille Ball, Janet Reno, Barbara Walters, and Gloria Steinem, among many others.  Even international supermodel and Project Runway host Heidi Klum’s eldest daughter, Leni, is a Brownie (pictured, below center)!  Sporting green has certainly produced some powerful women, so here’s to another hundred!  Happy Birthday Girl Scouts!

O Little Town of Washington

Searching for an updated holiday look?  Well look no further than our First Family’s sophisticated 2011 Christmas portrait!  First Lady Michelle Obama looks glamorous, as always, in a textured Byron Lars capped-sleeved, black cocktail dress from his Beauty Mark line.  Many writers were impressed Mrs. Obama wore this dress a second time, as she sported the look earlier this year at the 9/11 Memorial, sparking many to commend her for reusing pieces of her own wardrobe!  Elder daughter Malia looks quite grown-up in her blue and black “Unconditional Osier dress” from Anthropologie (which is already sold out!).  Younger daughter Sasha looks just adorable in her silver and eggplant “Clarissa dress” by BB Dakota.  And the President looks handsome as always in a navy suit and silk tie.  The Obama girls all sported beautiful frocks with lines that look like they’re straight out of the 1950s, but the materials make them completely modern!  Whoever said Washington is Hollywood for ugly people hasn’t been to the White House in a while!

South Pole Chic

This time of year usually revolves around the North Pole, but this week the news has been all about its magnetic opposite.  Yesterday was the 100th Anniversary of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (pictured, above) reaching the South Pole – making him the first human to ever set foot on the continent.  About 10 years ago, this editor’s father made her read an article on the Antarctica voyager, Sir Ernest Shackleton, (pictured, below) in National Geographic.  He was trying to illustrate the importance of hard work and determination, but being a teenage girl, the most memorable part I took away from the remarkable story was the fact that Shackleton outfitted his crew in Burberry.  The British label is eponymous with glamorous raincoats, so it was quite surprising to learn that the chic clothing line was the choice of a rugged adventurer.  Thomas Burberry, the company’s founder, invented the waterproof fabric gabardine (for those of you Seinfeld fans – that’s the thin layer of cloth separating Kramer and his private parts from his friends, when he decides to stop wearing underwear).  The company went on to make coats that would keep these explorers, including Amundsen, dry and warm in extreme temperatures and conditions, which started the company’s tradition and reputation for creating resilient outerwear.  The men on these ships would generally wear wool layers and top it off with a Burberry gabardine coat.  (Fun Fact: This editor got a Burberry trench for college graduation from her parents, and it is the finest piece of clothing I’ve ever – and probably will ever – own.  Tim Gunn said one Burberry trench should literally “last a lifetime.”)  Burberry is also committed to supporting the imagination and vision these voyagers held, by creating the Burberry Foundation, which organizes opportunities for young people with dreams.  So when Santa enjoys himself by the fire this year, remember it was Burberry keeping his brothers on the other side of the globe warm enough to live to tell about it.  Saint Nick brings presents, but these men brought us the extraordinary tale of seeing the world – and never giving up.

Ralph Lauren Saves American Flag

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light...”  I guess Ralph Lauren wanted his grandchildren’s children to see the flag that inspired our national anthem, because he is one of the major contributors that donated the funds to save it!  The flag in question, is the enormous Star-Spangled Banner that has hung in the Smithsonian over the last century.  It was flown on September 14, 1814 in Fort McHenry, Baltimore, during the War of 1812, and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the haunting lyrics that later became the United States’ national anthem.  Ralph Lauren, whose label epitomizes classic Americana sophistication, is no stranger to the national symbol, as his Polo brand’s icon is also Old Glory!  In 1998, Polo Ralph Lauren pledged $10 million to the cause of saving the nearly 200-year-old piece of history.  Lauren went on to actually give $13 million to the cause (which was nearly half of the money donated!)  Lauren even wrote the forward for the 2008 book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon, which tells the story of the flag and the measures taken to save it.  Our editors were surprised to see the classy designer’s name printed outside the exhibition when we visited the flag last spring, and ended up investigating.  Museum director Brent Glass said, “Ralph Lauren really reflects the American dream in his personal story,” as a Bronx-native named Ralph Lipchitz, who went on to build his own business that would make him a billionaire, and become synonymous with American style.  Lauren stated, “The flag is an inspiration for all Americans and it captures the dreams and imaginations of men and women all over the world.  I am a product of the American dream and the flag is its symbol.  We at Polo Ralph Lauren are incredibly honored to be able to make this possible.”  It’s nearly inconceivable to separate American sportswear from the Ralph Lauren label, so it makes sense that he will forever be affiliated with another icon that embodies the American experience.  Today, it’s especially important to remember the sacrifices our veterans have made so we could all pursue our own American dreams, and remember how important Old Glory really is.

100th Anniversary of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire happened 100 years ago today.  One-hundred and forty-six garment workers died in the industrial disaster, burning or leaping to their deaths.  The factory was a groundbreaking event in workers’ rights in the United States.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Company owned the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village, on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, now owned by NYU.  The company employed about 500 workers, most of whom were young, Italian and Jewish female immigrants.  As the great-granddaughters of immigrant workers in the garment district, we’ve always held this story near and dear to our hearts.  The women typically worked 9-hour days Monday through Friday, and then 7 hours on Saturdays.  An emergency staircase became blocked by flames, and workers tried to exit the building down the fire escape, but the flimsy structure became weak from the heat of the fire and collapsed, sending dozens of workers to their deaths on the pavement, 100 ft. below.  The fire department couldn’t put out the blaze, and didn’t have ladders that stretched beyond six floors, making it nearly impossible to rescue victims still trapped in the factory.  Others decided to leap instead of burning to death, which also made it difficult for firemen to approach the building.  While arson was ruled out, the fire is believed to have started in a scrap bin.  Rumors of the cause range from a lit match, burning cigarette and even the engines running the sewing machines, but still remain inconclusive.  Factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were indicted for manslaughter, as they had locked the doors to the factory (a practice they often used on their employees to prevent them from leaving during work hours), but on this fateful day determined that many workers would become trapped in the flames.  They were acquitted in less than two hours.  Blanck and Harris’s fines amounted to less than the amount they received from their insurance company for the fire.  Disgusted and outraged, union organizers from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) began to protest and argue for a change in workers’ rights.  As a result of the tragedy, the NY State Legislature created the NY State Factory Investigating Committee, and their findings in a 1915 report helped change New York State labor laws.  The American Society of of Safety Engineers was also founded several months after the accident.  The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Gotham Center, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Bowery Poetry Club and others have created the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition in honor of the event’s centennial.  They will be holding memorials, discussions and artistic tributes throughout the day.  Although it happened a century ago, this tragedy is a good reminder of the importance of responsible treatment of factory workers in the fashion industry.  While these practices are nearly nonexistent in the US, this is still a crime that repeatedly happens in Third World countries, when companies are looking for outlets of cheap labor.  Today, church and firehouse bells across NYC will ring at 4:45 pm, the time when the fire started 100 years ago to commemorate the factory girls.  It’s a good a time as any to remember lives lost in pursuit of corrupt businesses.

Triangle Shirtwaist Victims Displayed in their Coffins