Art History Resources For Writers: Vintage Sewing Patterns (20th century)

Standard 1108; ©1899; Men’s and Boys’ Military Shirt.

If you’re writing about at people who lived in America (or at least, a parallel version of the United States with a similar fashion sense), in a generation or region different from your own, you might not have a clear vision of how your characters dressed. Vintage sewing patterns can tell you what the average person was wearing at the time. Different eras relied more or less on home-sewn clothes, but every generation has worn the styles depicted in sewing patterns, whether they bought off the rack or not.

Peerless 9590W; ca. 1920; Ladies’ & Misses’ Drawers.

Mass market clothing has always been inspired by the high fashion of a couple years prior, and that filters down into the everyday looks worn “today”. It used to be that finding old patterns meant scouring garage sales, or — if you’re lucky — diving deep into your local library’s collection of ephemera. Thanks to the internet, you can now find a lot of these rare pieces on the Vintage Sewing Pattern Wikia.

Hollywood 1090; ca. 1932; One-piece evening frock and short fitted jacket.

Like any other public wiki, this one is updated and maintained by a group of people who may or may not be historians, so double check whatever you glean from their archives, but with sewing patterns, it’s pretty easy to get information about the date and region right there on the package.

Butterick 4133; late 1940s; Misses’ Hostess Gown: Scalloped Midriff.

This site includes both patterns uploaded individually by folks who owned a copy, and some  Vintage Pattern Vendors who allowed their patterns to be used; the site’s About section warns against uploading copyright images.

McCall’s 3616; ©1956; Misses’ Bathing Suit and Beach Robe with or without Sleeves

Vogue 7497; ca. 1968/69; Misses Caftan.

Click on any of the images to see a larger version. All are currently available on the Vintage Sewing Pattern Wikia.

 

Art History Resources For Writers

I’ve occasionally talked about different aspects of art history here: semiotics, evolution of style, photo references, and so on. I don’t work as an art historian now, and I’m no longer pursuing a degree in that field (though I do have one and studied for another), so I’m always on the fence about how much time to devote to discussing it in this space. I think most people who read this blog are here for writing — my writing, or conversations about writing — and I’m not sure how much interest there ever was in me excitably sharing some obscure piece of history or culture that I read about this week.

But the truth is that I read non-fiction every week, in addition to fiction, and most of what I’m studying on my own is related to art history. I’ve always been a sociocultural art historian, which means I seek to understand art by  understanding the culture and context within which it was created, instead of trying to fit the art of another time and place into a framework I’m imposing. (I’m looking at you, Marxist aestheticists.) That’s part of why semiotics is an integral part of my art criticism; visual communication, including art, is an extension of linguistics, and like language, can’t be truly understood unless you know the context in which it’s spoken, and the culture of the people speaking it.

So, I think I’m going to incorporate more of that into this space. It’s a part of who I am, and that’s what you signed up for when you read my blog.

Before you go, check out these links to some previous posts that might interest you:

If you’d like me to talk about anything in particular, please leave me a comment below.

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 2

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.” ― Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Did you read “A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1“? In that post, I talked about the basics of what semiotics is, and a little about how it’s applied to writing. These links go to articles and sites that will explain further:

Foundational Work:

  • David Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners (1998) is online in its entirety here. This is a linguistics-based text that reads like college coursework from an old British professor, which some of you will hate and some of you will adore. It covers the history of the field and gives a foundation for later study to work from.
  • Arthur Asa Berger’s Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism is only available for sale at used bookstores but Dartmouth has one of the intro chapters up here. His Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics is also quite a good place to start, and is available on Amazon here.
  • The Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited by Paul Bouissac, Oxford U Press (1998) is available online here.
  • A Theory of Semiotics (Advances in Semiotics), Umberto Eco (1976). My favorite! You can get it from Amazon here.
  • Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco (1984). The whole thing is available here as a PDF. Also excellent.

Semiotics and Writing:

… and Advertising:

… and Theater/Performance/Music:

  • Semiotics of the Theater“, The Academy
  • Musical Semiotics in the 1990s: The state of the art“, William Echard, SRB Review
  • The Semiotics of Theater and Drama, Keir Elam (1980). Full book online as a PDF here.
  • The Semiotics of Theater, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Indiana U Press (1992). Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Available from Amazon here.
  • Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre, Fernando de Toro, U of Toronto Press (1995). Translated from the Spanish by John Lewis. Available from Amazon here.
  • Performance Studies, Semiotics Encyclopedia

… and Film/Gaming:

… and Early Childhood Education

Further Reading:

  • SemiotiX – “A global information magazine. Its aim is to provide periodic snapshots of the situation of semiotic research in the world, with photos, editorials by, and profiles of, active semioticians, mini-reviews of books, state-of-the-arts at a glance, and selective publicizing of scholarly events.” Published by Semiotics Institute Online. They also offer online courses and an excellent archive of articles. They’re also working on an online semiotics encyclopedia here.
  • Signata – a scholarly journal put out by the Université de Liège. It’s not available to the public online, but if you’ve got JStor or other academic access, you should find it there.
  • Umberto Eco’s semiotics links page
  • Google’s list of scholarly articles on “semiotics and fiction” is here.

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1

I’m going to be chatting with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding this Wednesday, September 14, at 1 PM EST. This is a live online chat, and anyone can join in. It’ll be streaming on YouTube; check out Juliette’s other videos here.

I’ll be talking about two things: writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. #SFWAPro

Semiotics (not semiology) is basically the study of what things mean. It examines how signs become stand-ins for meaning — why a shape scratched onto a rock becomes a symbol, becomes a letter, which is interpreted both as a specific sound and an effect on the other letters it’s placed next to, for example; it’s related to linguistics, without being confined to written or spoken language. Semiotics looks at everything as a symbol, and the display of those symbols as extra layers of meaning. Rather that only using the letters on a billboard for meaning, it also explores what effect the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has on the meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans will have a different meaning to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right?

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. Traditionally, that’s meant that art historians will look at a painting, and they’ll interpret the color of the subject’s clothes to mean something specific. The objects and animals in a painting will also have an extra meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain women, a plant, or a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was therefore assumed by viewers at the time to be a reference to the faithfulness they’d enjoy during their marriage.

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Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century probably understood about the dog, and several dozen other symbolic references as well. They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, viewers, it doesn’t give the same impression.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

The study of semiotics looks to understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. You’ve been using it ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t know.

Writers often use this shorthand to enhance their writing, so readers are used to looking for and understanding that shorthand. It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

Everything has meaning, when you want it to.

(Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, September 14. Stay tuned!)

Art History Resources For Writers: 150 years of Sherman-Williams Paint Colors

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To celebrate their 150th anniversary, Sherman-Williams has created a gallery of their paint colors, sorted by decade, so that as you write, you can see exactly what shade of blue would have been available to your Jazz Age decorator, or what color of purple your mid-century modern housewife’s bathroom would be.

Color Through the Decades also offers short notes on how colors were paired, and the changes in popular colors over time. For example, that Jazz Age decorator would have known that “wall colors were generally light neutrals and greys with accessories and accents in vibrant colors like Chinese Red and Blue Peacock.” Your 50’s housewife would have known that the “exuberant post war boom was a mix of styles with mid-century modern and Scandinavian influences making the most impact. Pastels are the norm with pink and turquoise appliances adorning the kitchen and laundry room. Lilac and Chartreuse are very popular” before choosing how to paint her bathroom.

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The colors we paint our homes says something about the times we lived in. Bookmark this reference now so you’ve got it when you need it later.