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Author Lucy Adlington first read about the fashion salon at Auschwitz while researching the Nazis and the fashion industry. The idea of Jewish women, skilled seamstresses, forced to make clothing for the very people who were in fact killing them, has to be, as Ms. Adlington said in one of her recent online presentations, “one of the most grotesques anomalies ever.” She explains that she tried to find out more but only had nicknames for the women of the salon and she reached a dead-end. But her mind was whirling with what it must have been like working in the Auschwitz fashion salon. So she wrote a novel, The Red Ribbon (Hot Key Books). After the worldwide publication of her book in 2017, the emails started to arrive: My aunt was a dressmaker in the fashion salon at Auschwitz … my mother … my grandmother …

Connections were made, interviews happened, and Ms. Adlington was finally able to write the true story of Marta, Irene, Renee, Bracha, Katka, and Hunya; just six of the twenty-five women who created beautiful clothing for SS wives.

In The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive, Ms. Adlington weaves the stories of our heroines, some who knew each other before the war and all accomplished seamstresses (Marta was a master cutter and Hunya had once owned her own fashion salon) with the broader context of the war and more specifically the fashion industry just before and during the war.

The fashion salon at Auschwitz, called The Upper Tailoring Studio, was the idea of Hedwig Hoss, the camp commandant’s wife. She, like most other SS wives, appreciated fine clothing and that was something hard to come by at the time since the SS had completely decimated the fashion industry, largely run by Jewish people, in every country they occupied. Marta was the first seamstress to start making clothing for Hedwig and as other SS wives also wanted bespoke clothing, Marta insisted that she needed help and so one by one she was able to save twenty-five women from hard labor and probably death.

In telling this story, Ms. Adlington is also pointing out the value of clothing – clothing as identity, as historical documentation, as memento, as comfort. When people first arrived at Auschwitz, they were forced to strip down to nothing. Every last stitch of clothing removed and put into a big pile. The SS knew what they were doing – take away identity, take away the familiar, take away dignity. Most of the work at Auschwitz was hard manual labor, like tearing down brick buildings, but some of the work was less physical, yet no less harrowing. One of the jobs was to sort through the clothing of the newly arrived. Digging through coats, dresses, shoes, even undergarments of people who were likely dead. One young woman found clothing that had belonged to her sister.

So what was done with all this clothing? After it was sorted into categories, the SS wives chose what they wanted and sent the pieces to The Upper Tailoring Studio for alterations. Some of it was sent to Germany to be sold (sold!) while the more tattered items were moved to another camp where slave labor wove the fabric into rugs. Shoes were repaired, if necessary, and also sent on to Germany. (While many camp laborers had no shoes or wore wood clogs that didn’t fit.)

The Dressmakers of Auschwitz is full of disturbing facts like these I mention and for me it was slow going, as I just couldn’t take too much in one sitting. But I appreciate knowing the story of these remarkable, courageous women as well as the central role clothing had in the Holocaust. The photos of the six women throughout the book make the story less abstract and to see their pre-war smiling faces is heartwarming. There are also magazine adverts images to show what fashions Frau Hoss and her ilk would have requested.

Ms. Adlington has done an impressive job telling a complicated story. Can I say I enjoyed it? I don’t know that “enjoy” is the right word. I would say it was a difficult but fascinating read and anyone who is interested in fashion history will want this book in their library.

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Winter coats, an important investment and carefully treasured, now unbelted and set aside. Sweaters and cardigans, often home-made, with patches of wool fluff where the arms rubbed against the body, peeled off. Then, more hesitantly, the front buttons of blouses, and neat side zips of dresses and skirts, all creased from the journey, possibly marked with sweat. Shoes and boots – off, placed together out of habit, their insoles gently curved to fit the owner’s feet, the heels scuffed from all the steps their owners had walked. Socks rolled off, perhaps new, perhaps darned. Stockings unclipped from girdles and garter belts. Legs bare. Feet cold on concrete.

Lucy Adlington – British fashion historian and author of The Dressmakers of Auschwitz (Harper).

In this passage, Ms. Adlington is describing how the new arrivals at Auschwitz concentration camp had to completely disrobe.

Please check back with ODFL tomorrow for my book review of The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive.

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My dog loves clothes. This sounds like parental projection, I know, like a mother who insists her toddler loves to be in pageants. I do love putting clothes on Clovis. But the level of enthusiasm Clovis shows for raiment cannot solely be explained by my own myopic insistence that he wear things. He truly loves clothes. During a visit to Palm Springs a few years ago, I found a man selling dog coats at a street fair. A faux fur coat in two tones caught my eye: earthy gray with a blond fur collar. It looked like a chinchilla pea coat Kanye West might wear. And with Velcro tabs for easy on and off. Very Clovis.

Taylor M. Polites – American novelist.

This quote is from an essay included in the book Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, (Wiley). In this collection of essays edited by Ann Hood, writers share their experiences with and love for the craft of knitting. In his essay, Mr. Polites goes on to discuss how he learned to knit to make sweaters for his dog, Clovis.

In general I believe that putting any kind of clothing on a dog or cat or any other animal is cruel. I know for sure cats would hate it, but perhaps a dog might not mind, since they live to please their owners. But actually LIKE to don a coat, a sweater, a Halloween costume? I have my doubts.

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The Intruder by Gabriel Metsu, circa 1660.

Dishevelment

A sweet disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness:

A lawn about the shoulders thrown

Into a fine distraction:

An erring lace, which here and there

Enthrals the crimson stomacher:

A cuff neglectfull, and thereby

Ribbands to flow confusedly:

A winning wave (deserving note)

In the tempestuous petticoat:

A careless shoe-string, in whose tie

I see a wild civility:

Do more bewitch me than when Art

Is too precise in every part.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674), English poet and cleric.

I found this poem in a book by fashion writer Tobi Tobias, Obsessed by Dress (Beacon Press). This great little book is a collection of quotes all about clothing and fashion from ancient times to modern day.

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Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Not all vintage needs to be professionally cleaned. Many articles can be hand washed, and some can even go in the washing machine, although I almost never use a drier for my vintage. Hand-washable vintage includes simple cotton or linen dresses, skirts, and blouses; woolen sweaters (even cashmere); and knitwear that is unlined. Because vintage lingerie was made to be easily laundered at home, most is hand-washable, even silks and rayon.

Melody Fortier, a vintage clothing dealer and author of The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping: Insider Tips, Helpful Hints, Hip Shops (Quirk Books, 2009).

I have a confession – I love to hand wash. I like the hands-on cleaning, the smell of Woolite, and I particularly like hanging the clothing outside in the sun and fresh air. At the end of each season, I pile up the staples: sweaters, blouses, scarves, etc. and put them in my mending/washing cotton bag. I do any needed mending first and then off to the laundry room sink I go for some meditative hand washing.

As much as I enjoy this domestic task, it is now a luxury because we here in California are in the midst of a serious drought. Year after year since around 2010 we have had little to no rain. A ridge of high pressure just off the coast is to blame. It sits there sometimes for weeks blocking all the rain storms that we should get. It’s depressing.

It takes a lot of water to hand wash, so I fill up the tub less than half full and wash only what absolutely cannot go in the machine. To help keep my vintage (and all my clothing) fresh after a day of wear, I hang it in the bathroom or laundry room and air it out for a day or two. Often I’ll open a window and let the air circulate.

It never hurts to take good care of our clothing.

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We live surrounded by cloth. We are swaddled in it at birth and shrouds are drawn over our faces at death. And yet there persists a stubborn belief that clothing and cloth are frivolous subjects – unworthy of serious notice – despite their overwhelming importance to human evolution.

Kassia St. Clair, British journalist and author.

This is, in part, a quote by Ms. St. Clair from the inside jacket of her book The Golden Thread: How Fabric Change History (Liveright Publishing).

I’ve started off the new year with this book, dipping back into non-fiction after reading quite a lot of fiction in Pandemic 2020. Having taken a textiles class in 2017, some of the information in this book is a welcome refresher, but I’m learning new things too! Such as the Vikings used wool to fashion their ships’ sails. I’m looking forward to the chapter on lace and I’m very intrigued by “Rayon’s Dark Past.”

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Walking with The Muses is a compelling jaunt through the life of model Pat Cleveland, who hit the fashion runways when she was a teenager back in the late 1960s. Tall and strikingly attractive, she started modeling for Ebony and then went on the road with the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show for African American women.

While pursuing a career in modeling, Ms. Cleveland was also studying fashion design and making her own clothing. As she bopped around her native New York City, her unique style caught the eye of a Vogue magazine editor. Even Bendel’s department store bought some of her clothing, but fashion design and clothes-making hit a snag when Ms. Cleveland was unable to provide her designs in multiple sizes. So it was full steam ahead into modeling.

She went on to create a successful career as a runway and print model in Europe and the US. But there were rocky times, including not getting hired initially because she wasn’t a blue-eyed blonde. (She got her start in the industry as a fit model.) There was a disturbing incident while traveling in the south with the Fashion Fair, sexual harassment, and a violent stepfather. Still, Ms. Cleveland didn’t allow anything to keep her down; she knew what she wanted and kept going, taking knocks along the way as well as enjoying quite a few unusual adventures. Her bright spirit and inner strength is an inspiration.

During her decades-long life as a model, she worked and partied with the likes of Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Karl Lagerfeld, Halston and even her long time crush – Warren Beatty. Each one of her encounters has a story and there’s where we find the fun. She worked for the biggies such as Valentino, Thierry Mugler, and de Givenchy and she became known for her signature way of walking the runway, which was part strut and part dance.

Along with Ms. Cleveland’s life, Walking with the Muses offers a peek into the world of mid-century fashion in all its splendor from mini-skirts to shoulder pads. A good read for those interested in fashion history or anyone just interested in reading about a fascinating life of a successful model.

I say this is an easy holiday gift choice.

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Photo: Charles Tracy

I’d learned to tailor from my mom, and that coat, with its forest-green satin lining, was our masterpiece. We defied any fashion-conscious person not to fall in love with it. Mom had taught me that when it comes to clothes, there’s no such think as timidity. The point is to show yourself off. My mom and my aunt had always done that; now it was my turn. If I could get people to love the clothes I made, then maybe my mom and aunt could have the fashion house they’d always fantasized about, like the ones my aunt saw when she was in Paris.

Pat Cleveland, American model.

This quote is from Ms. Cleveland’s memoir, Walking with the Muses (Atria Books), written by Ms. Cleveland with Lorraine Glennon.

These past few months I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, but my first love is biographies/memoirs, particularly of people in the fashion business. I had heard about Ms. Cleveland’s memoir on the fashion podcast Dressed. (If you don’t know about Dressed, you want to.)

Check back on Wednesday for my review of Walking with the Muses.

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When I was taking a fashion history course earlier this year, I was determined to avoid the Internet for any research I had to do. Why? Because I prefer books and thanks to the many fashion history books I’ve collected over the years, it was easy to keep the promise I made to myself.

One book I didn’t own (and it would have been quite handy) is 100 Years of Fashion by Cally Blackman (Laurence King Publishing, 2020).

Blackman, a fashion historian, university lecturer, and author, digs into fashion history from 1900 to circa 2000. She discusses high society, the everyday lady, designers, and all the trends from the S-Bend silhouette to Grunge.

The book is divided into two sections: 1901-1959 and 1960 onward, making the subject accessible for the serious student and the casual fashion admirer. Both sections include an overview of the fashion trends of each decade and the historical context for those trends. A complete index makes for quick and easy research.

Another reason I prefer fashion books to a search on the Internet is I can more easily study the provided photos. Similar to an exhibition catalogue the bulk of 100 Years of Fashion is photos and illustrations with captions. The over 400 images provide a visual documentation of twentieth century fashion history. Such examples are essential for fashion study, not to mention the eye candy factor.

The compact size of the book makes it a great choice to take on the road if attending a fashion conference or traveling to take a course (yes, one day the pandemic will be over).

I noticed while researching various fashion history topics that each book I went to offered a little different angle, giving me a more complete understanding. In other words, you cannot own too many books on fashion!

Books are on everyone’s gift list this year and 100 Years of Fashion is an excellent choice for anyone interested in fashion. Support your local independent book store! Most will special order whatever title you’re looking for.

Let the holiday shopping begin.

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When I was a kid growing up in San Francisco on the occasional Sunday afternoon my father and I would drive to Chinatown, park (because you still could), and walk around looking in all the shops. The stuff in the stores was fun to peruse but I was more captivated by the older Chinese people I saw strolling along Grant Street and the unique way they dressed. Their style was was bold and bright – mixing patterns with checks, layering unexpected color combinations such as red with yellow, and sporting something like my Mary Janes but made from black fabric (they looked so cute and comfortable).

Fast-forward quite a few years and not only is Chinatown style still thriving (with a new generation of older people), but we have a recently published book on the subject by photographer Andria Lo and journalist Valerie Luu, Chinatown Pretty: Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors (Chronicle Books, 2020).

As second generation Asian Americans, Lo and Luu have a shared fascination with the clothing of poh pohs (grandmas) and gung gungs (grandfathers) in San Francisco Chinatown. Curious about the people behind the clothes, they began to approach individuals on the street and ask how they put their outfits together. “The Chinatown seniors’ dress and demeanor,” the authors explain, “also reminded us of our own grandparents – their permed hair, their sock-and-sandal combinations, and the way their expressions could switch between extremely tough (and intimidating) and overwhelmingly affectionate.”

Their interest turned into a book, which covers six city Chinatowns – SF, Oakland, LA, Chicago, Manhattan, Vancouver, BC. – and dozens of stylin’ seniors. The people are as varied as the clothing with ages ranging from 60 to one woman over 100. Most immigrated decades ago from China or Vietnam, and they have worked as seamstresses, gardeners, store clerks, vendors, accounts, and social workers. Each person featured shares a lot or very little of their story and the authors say that 90 percent of the people they approached declined to be photographed or interviewed.

A theme among those featured was that their style is unintentional. They just wear what they have, some of it vintage, some hand-me-downs or purchased on sale. “At my age we don’t care about fashion,” says Show Chun Change from Vancouver Chinatown. “We just wear what’s comfortable.” How it’s all put together is more of a practical consideration, such as layering to keep out the cold. One gentleman had hand stitched several hats together for warmth and another used safety pins to close a buttonless vest, which made for a very cool look. I love that their style came from their ingenuity. (See slideshow.)

Several among the group do dress with intention. Anna Lee is in her 90s and immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada in 1989. She worked as an accountant and a social worker and although now retired she still enjoys dressing well in her custom-made dresses, high-waisted pants, and silk blouses, all accessorized with beaded necklaces she makes herself. (See first picture in slideshow.)

Another woman’s more artistic flair reminded me of the Advanced Style set, a group of older women in NYC who have become style superstars thanks to photographer Ari Seth Cohen. Dorothy G.C. Quock (called Polka Dot), 75, was born and still lives in SF Chinatown and works as a tour guide there. (See picture nine in the slideshow.) Growing up, Polka Dot spent a lot of time where her mother worked as a seamstress at the sweatshop that manufactured Levi’s:

As a preschooler, she got her first experience trimming thread ends. In second grade, she learned how to use an embosser to stamp the Levi’s logo onto the leather tag. At age ten, she mastered the buttonhole, which appeared on Levi’s before zippers became the norm.

I enjoyed the glimpses into these people’s lives and I also appreciated that the authors included a brief history of each of the six Chinatowns.

Chinatown Pretty is a fun read, a visual treat, and important documentation of an overlooked segment of fashion history.

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