Sunday, 24 November 2013

Fortuny and the Delphos dress

Venice appears to be one place where my fabric-and-costume radar doesn’t work. Not only did I not know that it possesses a costume museum until our last visit, I have never been to the Fortuny Museum, either. (Although to be fair, in our numerous visits there we have been to almost no museums; we prefer to stroll round the city and explore instead).

Mariano Fortuny was born in Grenada, Spain, in 1871. His father, a successful artist, died when Fortuny was very young, and the family (Fortuny, his sister and their mother) moved to Paris, where his maternal uncle lived. When he was eighteen the family moved again, this time to Venice; partly because his mother felt that Paris had become too expensive, and partly because Fortuny suffered from an allergy to horses. In Venice the family lived in an eighteenth century palazzo, surrounded by Fortuny senior’s vast collection of objets d’art. From his father Fortuny inherited a love of the East, and never lost his fondness for dressing up, as seen in this photograph of him wearing a turban and a Moroccan striped djellaba. (Looks familiar, where have I seen one of those recently?)

Mariano Fortuny in the late 1930s

Fortuny began painting while still a small boy, guided by his uncle, a celebrated portrait painter. He also learned to etch, and after the family’s move to Venice he developed a keen interest in photography, eventually amassing a collection of over 10,000 negatives. He was also at various times in his life a sculptor, a stage lighting engineer and a set designer, but it is for his textiles that he is best known.

The first reference to him working with textiles appears in 1906 and around a year later his most famous garment made its first appearance; the Delphos dress. The dress was derived from the draped clothing of the Classical world, and took its name from the Charioteer of Delphi; a bronze, life-size statue of a chariot driver from ancient Greece.

The Charioteer of Delphi

Its simple shape, a cylinder of tightly pleated silk hanging from the shoulders, was unlike anything else of the time, and had more in common with the images of Romantic painters such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema than current fashion.

Silver Favorites (detail) by Alma-Tadema, 1903

Lillian Gish in a Delphos dress

Indeed the dress was so different that Fortuny regarded it as in invention, and patented it in Paris in 1909. The diagram which accompanied the patent registration shows how the dress was constructed, with fastens along the shoulders, and a gathering ribbon inside (item f) which altered the line of the sleeve.

Patent diagram of the Delphos dress

1930s Delphos dress, showing shoulder fasten and internal gathering (from Whitaker Auction)

Although shown in the diagram as a loose, straight dress, some later versions were worn with a belt at the waist, or gathered under the bust.

The dresses were made of fine silk, with small beads of Venetian glass down the sides, for decoration and to add some weight so that dress would cling to the body. Although there were numerous variations of the dress over time, and no two Delphos dresses were exactly the same, the basic design never changed.

1930s dress with overblouse

Dress with printed chiffon tunic

When not being worn, the dresses were to be stored rolled up to preserve the pleats.

Rolled dresses, © Victoria and Albert Museum

They were sold in small boxes, and must have been far easier to pack than most dresses of the time!

Delphos dress in its original box

The 1920s were the heyday of the Delphos dress. In an article in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1976 Lady Bonham-Carter recalled buying a Delphos dress in Venice in 1920, and added that, “Everybody went to Fortuny then. I think everyone I knew had a Fortuny dress”.

Natasha Rambova, wife of Rudolph Valentino, in a Delphos dress c 1924

While everybody may have gone to Fortuny, whether everyone looked good in a Fortuny dress might have been a different matter altogether. According to Lady Diana Cooper the dresses, “Clung like mermaid’s scales”. Nowadays Delphos dresses tend to be displayed on tall, slim dress forms, sometimes with the dress pooling on the floor, which is how Fortuny intended them to look. This setting shows the dresses to their best advantage.

A selection of Delphos dresses

Equally, when worn by someone like Lillian Gish in the photograph above, the clinging nature of the dress worked well. However I can’t help feeling that not all the photographs of Delphos dresses being worn look entirely flattering.

Back view of a model wearing a Delphos dress. Hmm.

Three of Isadora Duncan's adoptive daughters, looking oddly short, in Delphos dresses

That the narrow dresses only suited the very slim seems to have been recognized by some people. The dresses were originally made from three or four widths of fabric and Elsie Lee, who sold Fortuny’s goods in the United States, suggested that an extra width of fabric should be put into the dresses so that more women could wear them.

However I think that the worst ever photograph of the Delphos dress was taken early in its life. In 1907 Mrs Selma Shubart was photographed by her brother, Alfred Stieglitz, wearing a Delphos dress. The dress is a beautiful colour; a rich gold, achieved like all of Fortuny's colours by dying the fabric several times. The Cromwell shoes are a bit quirky, but given that the dress was quirky by the standards of the time, not a problem. The flowers at the waist are no doubt an addition of Mrs Shubart's, but to me they work. But the cardigan??! Even if it is a matching colour, a nice comfy cardi over a Delphos dress is, without a doubt, a crime against a costume icon.


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Generosity and Gratitude

Warning: the end part of this is a far more personal post than I normally write.

The current Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Generosity and Gratitude. The Dreamstress describes this challenge as
“not about a particular item or aesthetic, it’s about celebrating the generosity of spirit and willingness to help others that makes the historical sewing community great, and giving credit and thanks to those who have contributed to our collective knowledge without expecting payment in return.
Make anything that fits the general HSF guidelines, and utilizes research, patterns, and tutorials that have been made available for free, and acknowledge all the sources that have helped you to create your item. This is also an opportunity to credit the more local, personal generosity that is so wonderfully prevalent among sewers: historical and otherwise.”

I used this challenge as an opportunity to finish something which has been in my UFO pile for a long, long time; a djellaba for Mr Tulip. The djellaba is a traditional Moroccan garment; a long, loose-fitting outer robe, reaching almost to the ground and with a large pointed hood. The basic shape has remained unchanged for centuries.

The Moroccan ambassador arrives at Algeciras, January 1906

Moroccan and Jewish musicians

A djellaba consists of central rectangular panels, with shaped panels for the sleeves and the sides. There is a gap in each side seam so that the wearer can reach pockets in the garments underneath. Traditionally djellabas were made from cotton for the summer and wool for the winter.

Front view of a djellaba, minus the hood

In February 1999 Mr Tulip and I went on an escorted tour of Morocco. As well as a British guide, the group had a Moroccan driver, called Abdullah. Abdullah frequently wore a djellaba which his sister had made for him, and Mr Tulip was very taken with it.

Abdullah in his djellaba

The rather taller Mr Tulip wearing the djellaba

I always have a tape measure in my bag (doesn’t everyone?), so one evening I borrowed the djellaba, and took measurements from it. Once we were back in Marrakech we went to the souk, and managed to find a shop selling fabric. In my very rusty French, I explained that I wanted to make a djellaba for my husband. The shop owner didn’t seem in the least surprised by this; presumably it’s what any right-thinking woman in Morocco would want to do. He looked at Mr T, and told me how much fabric I would need. It didn’t seem sufficient to me but sure enough, when we got home and I drafted out the pattern, there was exactly the right amount of fabric.

Apart from the fact that the loosely woven fabric frayed very easily, the actual construction was quite straightforward. What stumped me was the trimming. Abdullah’s djellaba had what looked like cord sewn over each seam, but on closer inspection it turned out to be stitching rather than a separate trim sewn onto the fabric. It might even have been part of the construction itself.

Seam decoration on the centre front

As I couldn’t work it out how this was done, I went over each seam with heavy chain stitch in cream cotton perlĂ©. For the centre front I did three rows of stitching; the side ones in cream, and the centre row alternating eight stitches in cream with eight stitches in light brown.

Right underarm, showing the seams covered with stitching

The centre front decoration

There is no way I could replicate the impressive hand-sewn buttons on the original djellaba, so instead I was going to put on a purchased frog fasten. However all the examples I found online didn’t have a fasten, I decided against it.

Unfortunately I couldn’t persuade Mr Tulip to pose for a photo, so here is the finished djellaba laid out on my living room floor.

If I was starting to make this now, I think I'd do it quite differently; I've learned so much from taking part in some of the challenges, and from reading about the things which others have made and how they made them. The reason why the djellaba ended up in my UFO pile was that the chain stitch decoration was taking me so long to do that I got totally discouraged. Well, my hand-sewing has come on a lot since I made my Peasants and Pioneers bonnet in March, and when I picked this up again, I found it far easier to do.

The small print:
The Challenge: Generosity and Gratitude
Fabric: Striped fabric of unknown composition, from Marrakech souk
Pattern: My own, based on measurements taken from a modern djellaba
Year: Traditional Berber garment
Notions: Anchor number 8 cotton perlé in cream and light brown
How historically accurate is it? Probably not very. The basic shape has remained unchanged for a very long time, but I suspect my decoration is very modern.
Hours to complete: Unknown, spread over 14½ years!
First worn: Not yet
Total cost: Unknown

And now, the difficult bit.

When the Generosity and Gratitude challenge came up, it seemed the perfect time to finish the djellaba as a thank you to Mr Tulip for his generosity and support over the years. He has happily travelled all over the country with me when I have wanted to visit certain museums or exhibitions. He has uncomplainingly amused himself while I then go round these museums or exhibitions (he must have toured about a quarter of the Victoria and Albert Museum while I inched my way round Queen Maud: Style and Splendour). He has even gone to my local fabric shop and collected my order of 20 metres of turquoise satin for Tunisian costumes without turning a hair. On top of this he is happy to check that hems are level and back views are problem-free, to offer useful suggestions to problems, and to calm me down in the face of sewing disasters.

And … he won’t be around forever.

Those of you who are kind enough to read this blog regularly may remember that a while ago I posted about altering Mr T’s shirts to fasten with press studs, as he was having trouble with his hands and couldn’t manage buttons easily. On 7 October my world fell apart when we discovered the cause of his problems; motor neurone disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS.

So, we don't know how long he has to live, but I do know that I want to spend as much of that time as possible with him. From a practical point of view, I now have to do most of the household chores which we used to share, and this will only increase over time. More of my time will also be needed to care for him as he grows weaker. All of this means that much less of my time will be free for sewing, and for blogging about it. Mr T wants me to keep this blog going, so I will try my best to do so, but they will be far shorter pieces, and not necessarily posted every week.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Running late - again

Anyone who has been following my 'progress' on the recent Historical Sew Fortnightly challenges won't be the least surprised to learn that I am rather behind with the latest one; Generosity and Gratitude.

What is different is that for once I'm only a little bit behind, and should definitely have something to post about in the next day or two. For now, here's a sneak preview of what I'm working on.

What could it be?

Monday, 11 November 2013


The current Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Masquerade. I had hoped to make something for this challenge, but all sorts of things (otherwise known as Life) got in the way. See what the other Challengers got up to here and here.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Beauty in Exile - the Alexandre Vassiliev Collection

Over the years, Mr Tulip has become used to my ability to sniff out anything fabric/costume/sewing related anywhere we go. So it came as no surprise to him when, amid the myriad posters for various events which appear all over Venice, I spotted this.

Beauty in Exile - between fashion and costume in the time of Diaghilev

As you may just be able to see from the dates, the photograph is actually from two years ago, but somehow I haven’t got round to posting about it until now.

Despite many previous trips to Venice, until then I hadn’t realised that the city had a museum of fabrics and costumes; very remiss of me. So, one day we set off to find the Palazzo Mocenigo (not entirely straightforward, given Venice’s address system). Once we’d found the place, Mr Tulip left me to it, and went for a stroll.

The exhibition was mostly from the collection of Alexandre Vassiliev; a Russian-born costume and set designer and fashion historian, now living in Paris. There were also a number of stage costumes and artworks relating to the Ballets Russes, from the collection of dancer and choreographer Toni Candeloro.

When I walked into the main room of the palazzo, what I saw just took my breath away: dresses everywhere, not in glass cases, and arranged in such a way that you could see all round each dress. Bliss!

Apologies for the blurred image, but you get the idea

These dresses featured in my Assuit post

When I nervously asked if it was possible to take photographs I was told yes, so long as I didn’t use flash (obviously) and only photographed the dresses, not the building itself (not exactly a hardship).

There were over 200 items in the exhibition, displayed in the reception rooms of the palazzo, and I took a lot of photographs. To save this from being the longest post ever, I’ve concentrated on just a few dresses.

First of all, the dress from the poster. This was a 1908 ball dress, made by Jenny of Paris (the designer whose 1925-28 evening dress in Patterns of Fashion 2 provided the pattern for my neglected-but-not-abandoned beaded dance dress).

The beading was stunning.

One thing which was not at all obvious from the poster was that the dark skirt does not go all the way around the dress, but is in two separate panels.

I was surprised that such a delicate fabric could support the weight of so much beading around the hem without the fabric tearing.

But I was even more surprised to see the back of the dress; it seemed rather cobbled together from whatever pieces of beaded fabric they’d got left over at the end!

Next to this was an “Oriental” reception dress from 1913.

I loved the lines of this, and the way that the pearls were spaced out on the drapes.

The back was just as beautifully done as the front.

Some of the dresses in the other rooms, such as this 1913 evening dress, were displayed in glass cases, which meant that I got various annoying reflections in the photographs.

But it was still possible to appreciate the intricate details.

Not all the ball dresses were so sparkly. This 1912 ball dress is decorated with matte white beads, and heavy satin stitch.

Again, I wondered how the fine fabric could support such dense decoration.

The same question came to mind when looking at the dress displayed beside it; a 1911 French summer dress of silk and tulle.

These two and the next dress were all displayed together, in such a way that I could get close up to the backs of the mannequins and examine the backs and the fastenings in detail. Not something which is often possible in exhibitions.


Braid around the neckline

Tiny loops for the hook fastenings

Sometimes it’s the simplest of details which are the most impressive, rather than elaborate decoration. That was certainly the case with this 1907 Russian day dress of silk and lace.

Yes, the lace sleeves and bodice were lovely (although I didn’t care for the single lace motif on the front).

Yes, the delicate embroidery on the skirt back was a nice touch.

But what I really, really loved was… the hem. The overlapping overskirt with its beautiful curved edge, lying almost perfectly flat.

And the same smooth curve carrying on round the back.

I dread to imagine how many attempts it would take me to get something that smooth!

Finally, here is the dress which, although made 15-plus years earlier, gave me the idea for painting and then beading my dance dress. Another dress displayed in a glass case, so apologies for the reflections.

1910 Paris ball dress of painted silk

The patterns were inspired by the Ballets Russes

Beading around the painted motifs