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.

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.

Art History Resources For Writers: Visualizing African American Print Culture

“Print culture” includes all forms of printed text and printed visual communication – including books, newspapers, photographs, advertisements, and print art. African Americans not only participated in the creation of this material in general (including contributing to several printing press and photographic innovations) but also documented themselves and others. I wasn’t able to make the African American Expression in Print and Digital Culture conference in Madison a few weeks ago, but the attendees did an excellent job of live-tweeting and sharing links. I used that as a start to put together this list of links for writers who want to use real, actual, history as a reference for their fiction. Rather than make assumptions about what African Americans wore, did, or were involved in at any point in our country’s history, you can instead find out for yourself.

Bernard Arms, uncle of Lewis Arms, poses with his girlfriend Nellie, who he later married. Early 20th century. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Bernard Arms, uncle of Lewis Arms, poses with his girlfriend Nellie, who he later married. Early 20th century. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Resources:

The Wisconsin Historical Society has an amazing collection of images online, searchable and sorted by galleries. You can find it here. You might particularly be interested in these galleries:

The Teenie Weenies in the Wildwood, original ink drawing of William Donahey's "Teenie Weenies." via Wisconsin Historical Society

The Teenie Weenies in the Wildwood, original ink drawing of William Donahey’s “Teenie Weenies.” via Wisconsin Historical Society

Image taken by Suzanne Sawyer of “Racist type cuts called ‘Brownies’ or ‘Jim Crows’” – used in printing

Through the Lens of Time: Images of African Americans from the Cook Collection – digital collection of over 250 images of African Americans dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, housed at Virginia Commonwealth University

Black History resources at The National Archives – massive collection of photographs, documents, and links to other material online

Texas African American Photography Archive – founded by Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin:

The TAAP archive provides a broad overview of African American photography in the urban and rural areas of Texas, spanning the period from the 1870s to the present and representing a variety of processes and makers. The Archive is unique in its comprehensiveness, and consists of over 50,000 photographic negatives and prints and more than 20 oral histories collected from African American photographers. Most of the items in the Archive have been donated by the photographers and their families, while others have been acquired from private collections.

Library of Congress – enormous searchable online archive (link goes to “African American”)

Western Reserve Historical Society – photograph collections, many online. Also includes newspaper and microfilm collections, as well as historical information

Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection – “This extensive collection contains more than 12,000 photographs depicting African American life from as early as the 1840s through the 1970s.” Housed at Emory.

Pratt Library’s African American Resources

Early Caribbean Digital Archive – “a highly interactive digital scholars lab for the collaborative research and study of pre-C20 Caribbean literature”, includes an archive of digitized texts, and invites scholars to engage with and contribute to the work. Not strictly African-American, it nonetheless represents an important resources for writers working with slave and immigration stories (as well as those writing stories with Caribbean characters). Three online exhibits:

“Downing Family Photo,” ColoredConventions.org

“Downing Family Photo,” ColoredConventions.org

Colored Conventions – digital archive of black political and community organizing in the 19th century. Mainly includes transcribed minutes from events, excellent bibliography here. Site is in progress; plans include maps and data tables (to be added Fall 2014).

Gallon & Black Press Research Collective –  promotes digital research of Black newspapers, includes a huge list of online archives here.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) The Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903 Rare Books Collection

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
The Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches
Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903
Rare Books Collection

Race and the Design of American Life – “African Americans in 20th Century Commercial Art”. U of Chicago Library exhibit documenting the way African American bodies are used to sell everything from food to shoes to music.

Burrell Communications Group – Wiki article on 1970s ad agency established specifically to market to African Americans,

and to tap into how the Black Aesthetic could also appeal to the general market consumer. It was at this time that Tom Burrell coined the phrase, “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”

“Black Printers” on White Cards: Information Architecture in the Database of the Early American Book Tradesthe American Antiquarian Society Blog, Molly Hardy – lists a number of African American printers active in the trade in the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries

Books to check out:

“Theresa; a Haytien Tale” (1827) – Free PDF download of an example of pre-twentieth century African American literature, from Just Teach One: Early African American Print project.

Print Culture in a Diverse America (History of Communication), James P Danky (Editor), Wayne A Wiegand (Editor)

The South Carolina Roots of African American Thought, Edited by Rhondda Robinson Thomas and Susanna Ashton

Early African American Print Culture, Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein, Editors

Representing the Race, A New Political History of African American Literature, Gene Andrew Jarrett

The African American Church Community in Rochester, New York, 1900-1940, Ingrid Overacker

All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, Martha S. Jones

This list is intended as a starting place and is by no means exhaustive. Please add your own suggestions in the comments below.

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