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On a sunny morning in AD 79 the residents of Pompeii, a bustling Ancient Roman city located near the Bay of Naples, started the day like any other – opening shops, negotiating deals, preparing meals – unaware of what was headed their way. Although nearby Mount Vesuvius was sending clues in the form of earth tremors, people were used to those and paid little attention. Then, Vesuvius erupted. Before long the sun was completely blocked by thick gray smoke. From the black sky came pellets of pumice and rock, some rocks large enough to knock people out. Over the next 18 hours the volcano spewed 10 billion tons of pumice, rock, ash and poisonous gasses all over Pompeii and nearby villages, collapsing homes and killing thousands of people. By the time Mount Vesuvius had exhausted itself, the city was completely buried; preserved from the passage of time until its rediscovery centuries later.

Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave, on now at The Legion of Honor in San Francisco, exhibits artifacts from Pompeii excavations that give us a peek at people’s daily activities in Pompeii, particularly around food, which was of great cultural importance. With an abundance of all tasty edibles at an easy reach – seafood, grapes for wine, produce – food and dining were central to Pompeii lifestyle, much like it is in our modern times.

“Last Supper in Pompeii brings us into the world of ancient Rome by focusing on the particulars of everyday life, influenced by the extensive, rich, and complex relationships between food, drink, and society,” says Renee Dreyfus, Distinguished Curator and Curator in Charge of Ancient Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “The objects on view not only capture our imagination but also whet our appetite, informing us of the glory that once was Rome.”

Touring the galleries I sunk deep into imagining what life was like in Pompeii and I was struck by how, in some ways, it was similar to ours; much of their time (well, the time of their servants) was spent attending to, growing, gathering, preserving, serving, and consuming food. Food that we also enjoy today such as fish, bread, olives, nuts, fresh fruit, and of course wine. Some of the 150 objects displayed include kitchen utensils, dishware, mosaics, frescoes, and jewelry.

Image courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Visitors enter the exhibition greeted by a marble sculpture of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and fertility. Each gallery tells the story of food production and consumption. We see from the displayed frescoes that, like today, there were markets, shops, restaurants and taverns, although, they were frequented by the lower classes, who didn’t have the space to store and cook their own food. Eating at home was actually a luxury. Servants prepared and served food to the wealthy who liked to show off their wealth by hosting dinner parties.

Rather than sitting at tables, dinner party guests enjoyed meals reclining on couches like this (missing the soft parts). One can just imagine men in draped togas and women in layered tunics lounging on this couch nibbling on roasted dormice and sipping wine sweetened with honey and spices.

This mosaic, part of a larger piece, depicts the abundance of seafood available to the people of Pompeii.

Food + art = a favorite combination for the Romans. In this fresco we have pomegranates, figs, and a rooster.

In this fresco we see a baker selling bread? Or a high ranking citizen giving away bread? The clue is in what he’s wearing.

These women are wearing long tunics topped with a draped shawl, called “palla.”

Of course while I was walking the galleries I was on the lookout for images of people and what they’re wearing. In ancient Rome only male citizens were permitted to don the toga. Slaves, foreigners, and women wore tunics.

Much of what we see in Last Supper in Pompeii has traveled to the US for the first time. The original exhibition, organized by the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, has been adapted and expanded for Legion of Honor visitors.

What to know before you go:

  1. Tickets are timed to keep the crowds at safe numbers and ALL visitors are required to wear masks.
  2. I noticed that people have become a little casual about maintaining a distance, so if you’re like me and sensitive to personal space, be flexible and open to moving on from crowded areas when necessary and circle back.
  3. For now the Coat Room is closed, so travel light.
  4. Backpacks have to be hand held while inside the museum.

Click here for all the latest scoop on visiting the Legion of Honor.

Don’t miss this opportunity for a little “armchair travel” as well as time travel.

Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave is on through August 29, 2021.

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White buttons.
Yellow buttons,
The end result.

Visiting NY in fall 2019 (my last trip before the pandemic) I bought a vintage dress from Leroy’s Place, a must see art gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn that offers original artwork, unique gifts, and a select array of clothing, including vintage. By the way, Leroy’s Place is a fun destination for kids – they love the friendly monster puppets, interactive installations, and all around fun to be had.

(Full disclosure, Leroy’s Place is owned by my niece.)

So, the dress came back with me and recently while I pondered what to wear at home as the weather heated up, I remembered the charming cotton dress and pulled it out. What a good choice for a “housedress.” But there was one thing bugging me – the buttons. Plain white didn’t do it. The grey dress needed pop. I often change buttons on new-to-me clothing, sometimes to perk it up, sometimes just to make it mine. I have a big collection of buttons and out they came. I considered going with black carved glass buttons as that would be elegant but also a bit dull for summer. Silver mother of pearl buttons were also in play but then, the yellow glass buttons caught my eye. Nice color for summer and certainly an unexpected choice against the grey. Yellow it is!

I changed the buttons and realized the yellow was so distinctive that the dress needed another yellow embellishment to tie the whole thing together. I love thinking about this stuff!

Initially I thought a big yellow flower but I couldn’t find one. Embroidering something came to mind, like my initial in yellow but, that felt too Laverne & Shirley. No. More buttons? No. I ventured out to do a little shopping and found a sunflower patch and a package of small yellow flowers. I bought both but soon decided on the small flowers – floating on one shoulder.

Now I’m ready for warm weekends on the patio, enjoying a good book and an afternoon cocktail. Pimm’s and Lemonade anyone?

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A late 1940s shirtwaist housedress. Illustration from Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume & Style.

Housedresses are what women used to wear when they stayed at home. They didn’t flop around in their pajamas like we do today and sweats didn’t exist yet. People, both women and men, dressed at home, casually yes, but always presentable in fear of the unexpected guest.

Usually made of cotton, housedresses were a simple drop waist in the 1920s or a shirtwaist in the 1940s. The sheath silhouette in the 60s gave way to the billowy boho housedress of the 70s. Styles changed but the purpose didn’t – something nice to wear at home while doing housework or just lounging. (Men wore khaki slacks and a polo shirt, maybe jeans.) But by the 1980s women were working outside the home and the whole idea disappeared.

That is until Pandemic Year 2020. Stuck at home for months, by summertime last year women were looking for an alternative to leggings and tunics and designers were on it – the housedress.

Check back in with ODFL tomorrow when Housedress Week continues with a post about a vintage dress turned housedress.

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We all went up and found our garment bag and unzipped it and out popped twenty identical outfits: a double breasted houndstooth pattern jacket, a matching knee length pleated skirt, a rib knit turtleneck sweater, and a black beret. And we were expected to wear black and white saddle shoes and white knee-high socks. I was miserable. This getup was going to make me look like a cow.

Betsey Johnson, American fashion designer.

This quote is from Betsey Johnson: A Memoir (Viking, 2020).

Earlier this year while searching my local library’s online catalogue, I found this memoir in audiobook format. How perfect to listen to while working on various weekend sewing projects.

Ms. Johnson is the reader and generally speaking reading is not her forte, however, she has such earnestness and enthusiasm that I can’t imagine anyone else’s voice reading her story.

The quote I’ve used is about one of the many outfits that she and the other young ladies were to wear in1964 going out and about in New York City as the summer interns at Mademoiselle magazine. Like many other women before her (Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion) Ms. Johnson won a coveted place as a junior editor.

Born in 1942 in Connecticut, Ms. Johnson wanted initially to be an artist and she studied art in college, but it was her internship at Mademoiselle that led to the right connections that led to fashion design. Always ahead of her time in style and the way she lived her life, Ms. Johnson never let anything stop her from doing what she wanted, particularly not the conventions of her generation. A can-do approach combined with a lot of luck provided her an interesting if not always a rosy life.

There are so many fascinating tidbits in this memoir, including brushes with Andy Warhol and Eddie Sedgwick; hanging out with the guys from The Velvet Underground (she even married one of them); fabric research trips around the world. She was married three times, had a baby on her own, started and ran two fashion businesses, and survived breast cancer. Additionally, any fashion historian will enjoy hearing the many details of how the industry operated back in the day.

A fun yet informative read!

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The tactile feeling of a lush, hand-knit sweater or an embroidered top provides a bit of comfort in an increasingly unpredictable and progressively digital world, where even socializing takes place onscreen. Sitting down with a pair of knitting needles and fluffy merino yarn sparks a deeper connection than mindless scrolling ever could.

Kristen Bateman – Contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar.

Knitting, sewing, quilting, you name it we’re doing it. Even before Pandemic 2020, crafting was on the rise as interest in commercially manufactured goods declined. People are realizing that creating their own clothing and accessories is much more fun and easier on the environment.

On weekends I stay away from my laptop and spend time working on sewing projects, knitting, embroidery or whatever inspires me. It’s a treat to create with my hands and shift my mind from working words to working yarn or fabric. (And much more satisfying than scrolling social media looking at what other people are doing.)

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In 2004 I attended the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference. This big deal event for both published and pre-published children’s writers is held every summer in Los Angeles and attracts several hundred attendees.

Henry Winkler signing books while sporting his fabulous sport jacket. I know this is a lousy photo, but it’s the one I took that day and isn’t it great that he’s wearing a tie!

On the morning of the fourth and final day of the conference, I was standing in the middle of a long line to get a book signed when Henry Winkler walked in. Standing right in front of us, he took a look at the line, raised his arms slightly with palms out, a la The Fonz, and said, “Wow, this must be for someone important. I never get lines like this. Who is it?” He laughed and we laughed and everyone was a bit star struck by the charming Mr. Winkler. But I was also quite struck by something else – the jacket he was wearing. Not The Fonz leather jacket, actually that hangs in the Smithsonian, but a beautifully tailored sport jacket made of the finest quality fabric I’d ever seen.

I’d call the color oatmeal and it looked to be tailormade of a wool/silk blend. You know when you’re looking at quality garments. They hang right, they fit right, they speak quality. Between Mr. Winker’s humorous charm and his lovely jacket, that encounter is vivid in my mind to this day.

Did you know that Mr. Winkler writes books for kids?

He writes the Hank Zipzer series with co-author, Lin Oliver, who also is the co-founder and director of SCBWI. Hank is a little kid who has some trouble learning, but he’s funny and nice and resourceful and the books have been very successful. In fact, the BBC created a Hank Zipzer television show.

(Speaking of children’s literature, FYI May 3-9 is Children’s Book Week, when we celebrate all things related to children reading and books for kids!)

I appreciate a man who pays attention to his words and his wardrobe. Over the years I’ve seen Mr. Winkler interviewed and spotted his photo in magazines, and he has an array of beautiful sport jackets, which he likes to pair with button down shirts and sometimes a crewneck sweater.

Writing, books, and fashion – three of my favorites.

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I have mentioned before on ODFL that in fall 2018 I ventured to Seoul, South Korea on a textiles tour. Our busy two week schedule included several workshops in traditional Korean crafts.

One such workshop was Korean embroidery, taught by a young and very talented embroiderer in her studio. I had never done any embroidery before but, on a sunny Saturday afternoon five of us sat around a small table and got to work. First we drew a flower design onto a swatch of red silk fabric. Then we stretched the fabric not on a round embroidery hoop, but instead a square wood frame. Stretch tight and keep in place with thumbtacks – that was sort of tricky.

We had two hours to finish and that wasn’t enough time for me; I am quite slow when learning something new and by the end of the workshop my eyes were sore and I was ready to call it a day. I stuffed the fabric into my bag, thinking that probably that was the end of embroidery for me. However, the next year I took an embroidery class at San Francisco School of Needlework & Design, which helped to ease my feelings of inadequacy when it comes to needlework.

Fast forward to Pandemic 2020 and one day while sorting through my fabric stash I came across the unfinished embroidery piece. I spontaneously decided to finish what I had started and in no time, I was done. I made a button out of it and added a pinback, which turned it into a brooch. I wear it on a coat I had made and the red nicely picks up the coat’s red accent stitching.

What a surprise to create something out of what I had (mistakenly) dismissed.

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Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing. Photo: Richard Aiello.

Helen Uffner is well-known around NYC and Hollywood for having the best old duds. She runs her own business renting period clothing and accessories for theater productions, films, television, magazine editorials, and book covers. 

I met Helen over hats in 2013 at the reception opening for the Milliner’s Guild exhibition. When I mentioned that I write about fashion and have a fondness for vintage, she generously invited my partner and me to her warehouse.

We stayed in touch and I remember that in 2018 Helen had to move her collection of fabulous vintage/antique clothing to a new space. That was no easy feat! Now she faces another eviction as her warehouse is getting knocked down for a residential high-rise. Still, she presses on.

Read more about Helen and how important she is to costumers from coast to coast:

https://nypost.com/2021/04/12/helen-uffners-private-vintage-collection-outfits-hollywood/

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Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

We had this vast archive of fabrics from the past decade, and we really tapped into that – and in a strange way it forced us to be more creative.

Lazaro Hernandez, American fashion designer and co-founder of the womenswear brand Proenza Schouler.

Pandemic Year 2020 was challenging for fashion designers as they faced disruptions in the industry’s supply chain – mills were shut, materials were moving slowly or not at all, and manufacturing of just about everything across the globe was at a standstill. So for new collections, designers got creative and sorted through stacks of unused fabrics from past years.

According to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation less than one percent of the fabric produced by the fashion industry was recycled into new garments. But in 2020, out of necessity, there was a shift. Fingers crossed this shift will stick.

Milliner Behida Dolic once told me that she was grateful for having to be thrifty because it made her more creative and resourceful. Spoons became tools and every bit of fabric was put to use, including extra bits of leftover felt which she used as decoration on her fabulous one-of-a-kind hats.

What’s in your fabric collection? Make it your next project.

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At 4:40 pm on Saturday, March 25, 1911 a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employed 500 mostly immigrant woman and children to make blouses, or what were called “shirtwaists” back then. The company rented the top three floors of the ten story Asch Building located in Greenwich Village, NYC. The staff worked 52 hours a week for approximately $7 to $12.

Shirtwaists buttoned down the back and usually had a high collar. They were worn with long gored skirts and a belt. Sometimes women sported a men’s style tie or a cameo at the neck.

On that spring afternoon, a fire started on the 8th floor in the scrap bin underneath one of the cutter’s tables, perhaps from a lit match, a cigarette or something else, no one knows. Because of the vast amount of piled fabric pieces (two month’s worth), the fire spread quickly. Workers on the 10th floor were able to escape onto the roof, but others were trapped due to locked doors, flames, and a single faulty fire escape that collapsed. Many workers jumped from windows; others jumped down the elevator shaft after it quit working from the intense heat.

That day, 23 men and 123 women and young girls lost their lives.

The shock and horror of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire prompted changes in factory regulations.

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