Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Seattle Fashion Factoids

Inspired by Bishop Rickel, I'm going to try to post more straight-up Seattle fashion stories on this blog.

First up, travel tales with Helen Igoe.

Photo from Charmed Land Women's Magazine, December 1926

Helen Igoe came to Seattle in 1905, when she was 35 years old. She went to work at the Seattle department store MacDougall-Southwick as a buyer. In 1907 she was part of a historic first for the city. On April 21, 1907 The Seattle Times had this notice:

Miss Gladys Allen and Miss Helen L. Igoe, two of the buyers of the MacDougall & Southwick company will leave Seattle for Europe Tuesday next, sailing from New York City May 4. Purchases will be made at this time for the fall season, as well as for the new store at Second Avenue and Pike Street, which will be opened early next year. 

This firm is the first in Seattle to send their buyers to the European markets, and this action has been found necessary on account of the increasing demand for exclusive merchandise of high quality.

So Helen and her pal Gladys (or bitter rival? I actually don't know anything about Gladys) were the first people from a retail establishment to be sent from Seattle to Europe for the purpose of buying fashion.

In 1910 Helen opens her own shop, and keeps making annual trips to Europe.

A couple decades later, she pops up in the papers for another important travel expedition, this time covered by the New York Times. Turns out Helen was one of the first brave passengers to travel across the country via "Air Rail". This was in 1928, and the concept of flight as a means of passenger transport was still in its infancy. Since a complete all-airline trip across the US wasn't totally feasible, "Air Rail" was the newest, fastest airplane-train combo possible. This is from page 1, New York Times, September 2nd 1928:

Broker First Patron West on Air Rail Route; Seattle Woman Uses It To Catch Ship Here

...Miss Helen Igoe, a Seattle business woman, expects to arrive here tomorrow morning in time to board a liner to Paris. She left Seattle Thursday evening to make a trip to New York, air and rail, in eighty-one hours and forty minutes, thus saving seven hours and twenty minutes over the all-rail schedules.

But Helen wasn't just a lady of the sea, air, and rails. She also enjoyed driving around Seattle in her very own automobile. In fact, as a local icon of style, her taste in vehicles was used to advertise a car company.

Seattle Times, April 6, 1919

While unconfirmed by the historical record, I think it is fair to assume she pimped it out with a gramophone and cruised around blasting the 1919 equivalent of Beyonce. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Did Anyone Warn You About The Oil?

Today I have a story about clothing but in order to tell it I have to admit something personal that might weird some of you out: This weekend I got baptized.

There is a whole long story about why I did it and why I chose to do it in an Episcopalian church, but the main things you need to know is that Episcopalians are really into their rituals, and this one involved a BISHOP.

This guy.

Now, as someone who came from a relatively non-hierarchical church tradition where the pastors walk around in sweaters and khakis, I find myself fascinated by the whole concept of a guy (or lady--they ordain both) who wears a pointy hat and embroidered robes and has magical hands that can bless things. I mean, outside of Harry Potter, how is that actually someone's life? So I was intrigued when I found out that my baptism was going to involve interacting with The Bishop.

A couple weeks before I was talking with someone else who was getting baptized and she asked, "Oh- has anyone told you about the oil?"

"What? No."

"Apparently the Bishop gets pretty liberal with the chrism oil and it probably won't come out of your clothes so you should plan your wardrobe accordingly."


(Side note: you know you are becoming an Episcopalian when a sentence like "The Bishop is liberal with the chrism oil" makes any sense to you whatsoever).

Basically, after the baptism, the Bishop "anoints" the person with oil. This can be as minimal as just dipping his/her thumb in the oil and making the sign of the cross on your forehead (days later, the appearance of a cross-shaped zit identifies you as a Christian to the rest of the world) or can include pouring a bit on your head, letting some drip down, and then making the sign on your forehead.

So I planned. I wore a deceptively nice outfit that was comprised of seen-better-days pieces that I dug out of the back of my closet. Although part of me was like, "I am a textile person. I think I know how to get out an oil spot."

So, night of the Easter Vigil service I get baptized first and then I step forward toward the Bishop. He sort of smiles and says, "Did they tell you about this part?" and then the congregation audibly gasps as he lifts up a glass which had like TWO CUPS of oil and proceeds to pour it all over me.

It completely covered my hair, face, neck and dripped all over my clothes. It soaked through the sweater, the tank top, and even my bra. This is what my sweater looked like when I got home:

Sitting on the towel I was given to wear around my neck for the rest of the night

At one point I leaned over to side-hug the other woman who got baptized and I felt oil ooze into my ear as we squished together. When I got back to my seat I thought maybe my skirt had been spared, but then noticed that I had managed to spill candle wax all over it. Good job greasy genius I thought to myself.

But despite the fact that this man led me through a ritual in which an entire outfit got ruined, I ended up being a fan. Before the service we got a chance to talk with him and ask him questions. He was very funny, friendly and not pompous, and spouts intriguing progressive theology through a southern drawl. And he gave a great answer to a question I asked.

I asked about my devotion to material things. As a Mennonite, I absorbed some guilt about my interest in fashion and clothing. There is actually a verse in the Bible that warns against attachment to "treasures on earth" that can be destroyed by rust and moths. And I think SHIT. Stressing about stuff getting destroyed by moths is basically my life.

In response he told a story about when he was in seminary and one of his mentors made him help this woman clean out her house. He was annoyed and didn't know what this had to do with anything, but then as she went through her deceased husbands suits, and told a story about each of them and he realized this is amazing. She ended up giving him one of the coats which he wore for years and would always think about what a gift it was to have this thing that connected him to that woman and to her husband. I bet you have stories like that, he said. And I thought about my lecture last week and how I told the story of Helen Igoe and Louise Thiry to a rapt audience, and how the attendees gasped in awe and excitement as I showed them garments that Helen and Louise had worn. These are two people who have been almost totally forgotten by history, and here I had uncovered their stories and made them real and tangible again. Caring for the collection isn't about having stuff for stuff's sake. It is stuff that tells stories about people and creates relationships with the past and to each other.

So here is a photo from Easter morning of me and style icon Bishop Greg-- Here to offer fabulous, oily blessings to all. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Popularity Problems

This week I caught myself uttering a pretty epic backdoor brag.

If you are not familiar with the concept of the "backdoor brag" it was delightfully illustrated by Jenna several times on 30 Rock.

Kenneth: The personal essay is way harder than I thought, cause it's not in my nature to brag on myself. 
Jenna: Not even a backdoor brag? 
Kenneth: What's a backdoor brag? 
Jenna: Backdoor bragging is sneaking something wonderful about yourself in everyday conversation. Like when I tell people it's hard for me to watch American Idol cause I have perfect pitch. 
Kenneth: Oh! Ew. 

Here was mine:

"I sort of wish my lecture wasn't sold out, because it is so stressful dealing with all the people still clamoring for tickets."

I know. Gross.

But it's true! Tomorrow I am giving my lecture about Helen Igoe and Madame Thiry, and it sold out almost two weeks in advance. So this week I kept getting calls and emails from people trying to figure out if I could squeeze them in. And I got all anxious and stressed out because I want everyone to know about those fascinating ladies but there is only so much space in one room. It is going to be such a good lecture, so I can't help feeling bad for the people who can't go.

[Although maybe I should be practicing instead of blogging and bragging]