Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Monday, May 25, 2015

Things I Learned While Preparing My 1920s Talk

Two weekends ago I was scrambling to get my "Seattle Fashion in the Roaring Twenties" talk finished and last weekend I was basking in the triumph of presenting it and feeling awesome about it.

Now that I have recovered (although I am giving it again in August, get tickets here) I want to share some of the exciting things that I came across during my research.

Nellie Carman 

For those of you still wondering about the identity of "Mrs. X" I mentioned in an old post about diva ladies in the Seattle fashion business, her name was Nellie Martin Carman. If you don't feel like following the link to the previous post here is he short version: She worked as a buyer and head of ladies wear at J. Redelsheimer & Co. for a number of years in the early 20th century. Things weren't great in her marriage but when she tried to file for divorce from her husband (Mr. Carman) he turned around and accused her and her employer (Redelsheimer) of an inappropriate relationship.

The whole thing blew up in Mr. Carman's face though because it came out that a key witness (who said he saw the pair "embracing") turned out to have been bribed. Mr. Carman's case was immediately thrown out.

Soon after all that Nellie set out on her own and her "Carman" store enjoyed meteoric success. In 1921 her store took up an entire building downtown and the Seattle Times gushed: “The growth of the Carman Shop from a modest beginning six years ago to its present rank as one of the largest high-grade specialty shops for women on the Pacific Coast forms one of the most interesting annals of merchandising successes in Seattle’s history.”

When Nellie Carman died she left money for a local scholarship fund, which is still active today. 

A Seattle company takes credit for inventing the modern bathing suit

As you may know, I tend to be cautious about claims that someone "invented" this or that piece of clothing. Most of the time, when you look back at some iconic look like the little black dress or the mini-skirt, you find several designers working on similar ideas at the same time. They aren't copying each other, they are just all tuned into the same zeitgeist. So take this with a huge grain of salt, but the Saxony Knitting Company of Seattle (later Sportcraft) claims to have invented the one-piece knitted bathing suit. 

Click to enlarge

Before the one-piece, bathing costumes were multi-part and multi-layer. A two-piece didn't mean you were showing off your midriff, it meant that you had a pair of bloomers that went under a dress, or maybe you had a three-piece consisting of an under layer, a blouse, and bloomers. The knitted one-piece caused quite a stir because it did what women's bathing suits do today: cling to the body in a single, form fitting layer. 

So while I'll need to do a little more research into this claim, it seems like at the very least the Saxony Knitting Company was part of the first wave of designers and companies to make the knitted one-piece. And considering how revolutionary and influential the style was, and how far away Seattle was from everything else, the fact that they are even on the radar is pretty exciting. 

Eddie Bauer was hot

PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection / MOHAI
Seriously. Who saw that coming? Somehow he makes a bow tie with outdoor gear WERQ

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