Flights of Fancy

Detail of swimsuit by Fellegi for Cole of California, 1936.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.74.76.11), Costume and Textiles Collection.  An example of the Matletex process.

Detail of swimsuit by Fellegi for Cole of California, 1936. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.74.76.11), Costume and Textiles Collection. An example of the Matletex process.

If my ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’ project brings together cowgirl dress, resort wear and 1930s fashion (which, I believe, it does), then my latest Youtube discovery is right on message.  My ‘find’ is a short, 20-minute film from 1940, titled  Fashion Horizons (click the link to watch).

Although new to me, Fashion Horizons has, so it seems, something of a cult following in the online world of discussion boards and fan sites, particularly so among aviation aficianados*.  While for some, the aircraft may be the star of the show, for me, and anyone with a penchant for American fashion history, the clothes are out of this orbit (to use a suitably airy phrase).  The location, the looks and also the brilliant musical score (which will stay with you as an earworm for days hence) are so evocative of the era.  It’s a must-see.

It’s difficult to fathom the provenance, or even the purpose, of Fashion Horizons.  The film is a travelogue made, I assume with some guesswork from the opening credits, in collaboration with Paramount Pictures and Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) .  It’s, presumably, a promotional piece that showcases a number of loosely-related creative industries: the sleekly modern aircraft of TWA; the burgeoning talents of ascendent Paramount film starlets, and the glamorous resort fashions of the early forties (just to clarify, the film was made in 1940 and debuted collections for 1941).  The somewhat curious premise is that Paramount’s leading lady, Mary Martin, along with some aspiring actress friends, are called to a screen-test ‘Out West’.  Taking the luxurious TWA Stratoliner (complete with its own ‘Charm Room’ to cater for the needs of female travellers) across the US from La Guardia in New York City to Los Angeles (via Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque), the viewer is treated to panoramic views and is tempted by a richly poetic (and, at times, socially and culturally problematic) narrative from CBS announcer Wendell Niles.  “It’s a fairy land of tumbling castles far above where the raindrops form”, goes Niles’s voice over.  Oh, what stirring stuff!

The fashions showcased in the film are described in great detail, and lingering shots, enhanced by glorious technicolour, give a sense of the vibrancy of resort dressing, which was fun, bold and colourful.  During their tour of the West, the would-be actresses stop off for a week-long vacation at Camel Back Inn in Phoenix, Arizona and this vignette offers a glimpse of contemporary ranch life.  A couple of the women go for a breakfast ride dressed in what is termed as ‘frontier costume’, comprising “frontier pants, western high-heeled boots and ten gallon Stetson hats”.  But the ranch vacation is depicted as far from being only about horses and cowboy hats.  All manner of (slightly bonkers) scenarios are deployed to display the latest fashionable styles: a dinner engagement; sun lazing by the pool; a game of shuffleboard;  a cocktail party; sightseeing; a boat trip etc.  The ranch vacation, as my thesis for the ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’ project asserts, required a diverse and distinctive wardrobe.

American sportswear of the thirties (or, in this instance of 1941) catered for women who required a versatile, practical, yet stylish, form of dressing (and I’ve written about this in previous blog entries such as this one in relation to the contemporary designer Elizabeth Hawes).   Fashion Horizons features an entire raft of examples, one such being when ‘Margaret’ plays a game of shinty, casting aside her wrap-around skirt to reveal a swimsuit worn underneath.  This mixing and matching of combinations was a typical feature of thirties (okay, 1941) fashion, which catered to the changing demands of modern lifestyles.  Midriff-showing shorts and cropped top combos, short-legged playsuits and swimwear separates were all the rage.  Importantly, for the dress historian, the narration goes on to describe to the audience the way in which Margaret’s swimsuit was manufactured: “shirred and elasticised in a new process called Matletex”, which had “a slenderising effect”.  Technological advances in textile engineering and clothing design were celebrated and lauded as a means to promote garments to women seeking to embrace innovation and a modern sensibility.

And a note of explanation for those not entirely au fait with Matletex.  Pioneered in 1936 by Margit Fellegi when she was working for the Californian swimwear label, Cole’s, Matletex enabled cotton fabric to be shirred (that’s a  sort of smocking technique) on elastic thread.  The result was an ability to manipulate style lines without sacrificing closeness of fit.  Figure-hugging designs and functionality were brought together.  Matletex gets several mentions in the film, which suggests techy-talk was a selling point for consumers: what those in the trade would term as a ‘value-adding’ property.  Consumers were seduced by the ‘latest thing’ and bought (literally and metaphorically) in to technology in order to signal their own credentials as forward-thinking and fresh.

It only remains, then, to quote from the closing lines of Fashion Horizons, which invoke a suitably awe-inspiring and thrusting tone.  Onwards, and, indeed, upwards!

 “…the girls are reminded that horizons in the air, like fashion horizons are reached only to reappear again and again.  As Tennyson said only a century ago, ‘For we dipped into the future as far as human eye can see/ Saw the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be'”.

* You know who you are!


Happy Endings

Dedication in Loraine 'Happy' Hornaday Fielding's 'French Heels to Spurs', 1930.  Reads: 'With much pleasure I inscribe this copy of my first book to Katharine H Kaelber - with the hope that someday her 'ranch dream' may come true.  Loraine Hornaday Fielding, 'Happy'.  Nov 21st, 1933".

Dedication in Loraine ‘Happy’ Hornaday Fielding’s ‘French Heels to Spurs’, 1930. Reads: ‘With much pleasure I inscribe this copy of my first book to Katharine H Kaelber – with the hope that someday her ‘ranch dream’ may come true. Loraine Hornaday Fielding, ‘Happy’. Nov 21st, 1933″.

As my departure date to LA looms large, I’m surrounded by ‘to do’ lists and am assembling my goods and chattels ready for departure.  In short, it’s panic stations here at Style Stakes Towers.  There are the usual dilemmas about ‘what to pack’ for a prolonged trip and that the perfect mix-and-match ‘capsule wardrobe’ (much vaunted by style editors in lifestyle magazines) is utterly elusive to me.  But with an archive trip there are other, more specialised and scholarly, dilemmas also.  Although I can haul a good deal of my references, articles, images and documents across the Atlantic very portably because of digitisation, there are some potentially important sources that don’t lend themselves well to the strains of airport baggage handling and weight restrictions.  Some of my heavier, bigger books and more precious contemporary source materials are just going to have to remain on the shelf at home.

One book is going to accompany me on my travels, though.  That is my 1st edition of Loraine ‘Happy’ Hornaday Fielding’s French Heels to Spurs, published in 1930 by The Century Co and illustrated by Eve Ganson, which I was fortunate to acquire on one of my (regular and varied) second-hand forays.  The book itself is really a piece of juvenalia, written by Fielding at the age of seventeen, and isn’t a great literary masterpiece.  However, it does provide a contemporary, first-hand account of a dude ranch vacation and goes into great, daily, detail of Western life at Bones Brothers Ranch at Hanging Woman Creek, Birney, Montana.  Fielding herself is, or was, an interesting character.  Granddaughter of William T Hornaday, retired director of the NY Zoological Park (Bronx Zoo), she was raised in Stamford, Connecticut and, in life emulating art, went on to make a career in writing, penning the 1947 Esther Williams movie This Time for Keeps.

As fascinating as the content of the book itself, my copy of French Heels to Spurs  includes a tantalising series of additional emphemera.  There are some press pictures of Fielding pasted into the front and back covers of the book.  And lo and behold, too, there are even a couple of envelopes of correspondance between Fielding (postmarked Stamford Conn, Dec 13 1933 and Jan 8 1934) and a ‘Miss Katharine H. Kaelber’ of Rochester, New York.  Remarkable!  On reading the letters, one might surmise that young Katharine was an avid horse rider and great admirer of Fielding’s adventures out West.  Katharine seems to have sent Fielding some fan mail late in 1933 seeking an autograph for her own copy of French Heels but as the following transcripts reveal, a ‘blunder’ in the Fielding household meant that Katharine’s request was not as straightforward as first appears.    Read on:

Dec 13, 1933: Letter to Katharine from ‘Loraine’s mother’

20 West North St, Stamford, Conn.

Dear Katharine,

To-day we were shocked to find tucked away on a shelf in the coat-closet, this auto-graphed book belonging to you.

Someone has severely blundered – not Loraine I know, for she has been away many weeks, coming home only on one or two week-ends.  Evidently, she asked some member of the family to mail it for her, and instead, it was carelessly put on a shelf and promptly forgotten during her absence.  Do please forgive this inexcusable delay, which would greatly distress her were she to know of it, for she is always punctual to the extreme in every way.

Loving horses as you do (and Loraine is just like you in her intense love for them) she earnestly hopes that someday before many years, you will have your thrill and delight of a summer spent on a dude-ranch. Time flies by so quickly when one is young, that that day won’t be long in coming – and how you will enjoy it!

Loraine and her six-teen year old brother are already planninng to drive out to Montana next summer – she to the Bones Brothers (‘Big Brothers’ in her book) – he (Dodge) to his beloved R-Bar (‘A Wild Picnic’ ranch in French Heels).  This is the one I think you would enjoy the most.  Mr and Mrs Woodard are such dear people and the life on the R Bar is such a happy one.

Please give my cordial greetings to your dear Mother and to your Father, and believe me.

Most sincerely,

Loraine’s Mother

Postscript: Just call Loraine ‘Happy’.  She wants you to.

Jan 8, 1934: Letter to Katharine from Loraine


Dear Katharine –

It was very nice to get your letter!  I appreciated it tremendously, – for nothing is more encouraging or satisfying to a new author than to find that people like her work – and especially when they write her in such a delightful way about it as you did.  ‘French Heels’ was a lot of fun to write, for you see, I loved it so out there, that it was just reliving my summer again and nothing could have been nicer than that – except being on the ranch again.

Someday you’ll have to go out yourself.  It’s all so new and interesting, and I know you’ll get as much out of it as I did.  But it seems to me that you have a pretty happy time now.  A horse all of your very own, a chance to ride whenever you like, and then that grand Christmas gift of a formal riding habit.  I never had one of those, and they really are a lot nicer than chaps for you can wear it so much more often.  While my big hat and boots are lying dusty on the shelf, you’re busy using yours which is a great deal better than wondering when you’re going to ride again, isn’t it?

When you have time you must write and tell me more about your horse, the ribbons you’ve won, your school and things.  I should enjoy so much hearing – and perhaps some day before very long, we can meet each other, and exchange notes on your eastern riding and the ranch.

In the meantime, the happiest of New Years to you – and my best wishes to your Mother, and her daughter – who wrote that fine letter to ‘Happy’

Yes, it all reads like the stuff of a black and white movie premise, doesn’t it? Even having its very own Hollywood ‘happy’ ending to boot.



'Dude Ranch Vacations' print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933.  (BNSF Railway Company)

‘Dude Ranch Vacations’ print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933. (BNSF Railway Company)

The more eagle-eyed of my followers will have noticed that a new-ish tab has appeared on The Style Stakes’ menu bar, a tab titled ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’.  This is the name of my latest research project, which sees me taking up a month-long Viva Foundation Fellowship funded by the Autry National Center for Western Heritage in Los Angeles.  Very soon, I will be headed ‘out West’, to sunny California, to spend a blissful (and no doubt blistering) month in the archives at the Autry researching female dude ranchers and resort wear from the interwar period.  For a longer explanation of the project, click on the Buckskins and Ballgowns tab post-haste.

On the face of it, a project about dude ranch vacations (dude ranches being working holidays where Easterners could sample a version of cowboy life) may seem an obscure departure from my usual scholarly territory of riding dress, sportswear and American fashion.  But my forthcoming foray into ranch- and resort-wear isn’t so far removed from my regular interests.  In fact, it seems (to me) an obvious trajectory on my interwar, equestrian, female, fashion research journey.  Dude ranch vacations were, essentially, horse riding holidays and peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s as Easterners sought respite from the agitations of modern living.  Dude ranches were opportunities for play and playfulness in the sublime setting of the great outdoors and the process of ‘dressing up’ for the West (to varying degrees of authenticity) was part and parcel of that escape from the formalities of (sub)-urban routine.  Dudes (the term used to describe, sometimes somewhat hapless, Eastern tourists) were often motivated and influenced by portrayals of the West on the silver screen.  The Hollywood movie industry was booming and the buying and wearing of a theatrical interpretation of ranch costume enabled dudes to perform the role of cowboy and bring their fantasies closer to life.

Travelling to and from dude ranches was all part of the exciting vacation experience, too.  Modern, luxurious, airliners and long distance rail routes catered for tourists making the journey West.  Many rail road operators teamed up with dude ranch owners to promote their related services and packaged these through enticing, richly-illustrated, promotional materials such as posters, print ads and brochures (and I’ll be working on some of these original travel brochures as part of my study at the Autry).  Indeed, these tantalising marketing images, which were featured in equestrian and sporting magazines of the day, were what first piqued my curiosity for Western riding dress.  As a researcher, seeing these, I began to realise that there were stories to be told about interwar riding dress beyond my studies of the East coast formality of hunting turnout, side saddle attire and show ring uniforms.  And thus, I too now am making my own journey West (in every sense).

Back in 2012, I very, very briefly referenced the three ‘nodes’ of dude ranch vacations, Western riding dress and rail road advertising in one of my published articles, laying the groundwork, I guess, for the bigger ‘Buckskins and Ballgowns’ project that is, only now, coming to fruition.  That article was a piece, in the main, about female equestrians and formal dress codes (titled ‘A Severity of Plainness’) but towards its end there are hints towards alternative versions of riding dress.  The most relevant extract refers to the Northern Pacific ad illustrated, top left, in this blog post, and reads:

“Riding holidays also emerged in another, very different, form during the 1920s and 1930s.  Dude ranch vacations were increasingly popular and opened up ‘The West’ as a viable destination and leisure space for Society women.  Importantly, the ‘Old World’ regulations of English riding turn-out were considered inappropriately uptight or ‘academic’ to use the words of Amory (1933, 47), in the more casual American ‘wild’ West.  This point is visualized in the imagery (see image, top left) used by Northern Pacific to promote ranching holidays in the Montana-Wyoming Rockies (The Sportsman 1933: inside cover).  A young woman is perched on a cliff top gazing across the wide open spaces of the West.  Her tousled hair blows, untamed, in the wind.  Her bright red neckerchief hangs loosely.  Her hands-on-hips stance is unchecked.  The freedom from centuries old Anglo-European codes is marked symbolically through her appearance.  She is dressed for riding but not in the traditional sense.  As much as the 1920s and 1930s were about the enforcement of long-held codes in riding dress, they were also a period in which conventions were re-written for the emerging spatial and sartorial territory of the American West (Albrecht, Farrel-Beck and Winakor, 1988).  The West marked a literal and metaphorical frontier for female riding dress.”

Citation: Goodrum, Alison (2012) ‘A Severity of Plainness: The Culture of Female Riding Dress in America During the 1920s and 1930s’ Annals of Leisure Research, 15(1): pp. 87-105.


Plugging The Gap

The term 'stable mates' can be taken literally when visiting Middleburg, VA, the horse and hunt centre of the USA.  My very cosy guest accommodation was in 'Lauderdale's Box', adjacent to a stable block full of fine horses.  They made magnificent 'neigh-bours'!

The term ‘stable mates’ can be taken literally when visiting Middleburg, VA, the horse and hunt centre of the USA. My very cosy guest accommodation in March 2014 was in ‘Lauderdale’s Box’, adjacent to a stable block full of fine horses. And, yes, they made magnificent ‘neigh-bours’!

Blogs, and the digital world in general, are concerned, mostly, with the ‘here and now’ or the ‘what ifs’ of the future.  The Net is about immediacy, the present and, also, the possibilities of tomorrow.  It is slightly incongruous, and perhaps somewhat remiss on my part, then, to delve backwards. But!  Go back, I will…just this once.

This blog entry is about playing catch up and reporting news from the past.  Am I ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’?  I hope not.  Well, not entirely.  There are a couple of highlights from last year, back in 2014, that are worth recording and relate fairly squarely to the premise of my blog: that is, to communicate about my research travels and archive visits, particularly to, and in, the States. I was lucky enough to make three trips to the US last year:

1. The first, as regular followers of The Style Stakes will know only too well, was my 3-month long fellowship at the Bard Graduate Center, NYC. And I recorded those adventures in detail in my several blog entries below.  An overview of my research project at the Bard is here.

2.  Only a couple of months later, in March 2014, I found myself on another Trans-Atlantic flight, this time headed to Washington DC, and, to my ultimate destination of Middleburg, Virginia.  I was thrilled to have accepted an invitation back to my old ‘stamping ground’ of the National Sporting Library and Museum (NSL&M).  The museum was hosting a symposium on side-saddle riding to accompany the ‘Riding Aside By the Book’ exhibition. I gave a lecture (titled, ‘Mad Caps and Mannequins: Equestrian Fashion in the NSL&M Collection’) in the splendid surroundings of the Founder’s Room, bedecked (the room, not I) with equestrian treasures, paraphernalia and artworks.  Whilst there, it was also very satisfying to be able to present the NSL&M with a freshly-published book from Routledge that featured a chapter (‘A Dashing, Positively Smashing Spectacle’) I’d written on some of the glorious holdings in their collection.  The NSL&M have been very supportive of my work ever since I was a Daniels Fellow with them in 2011.  The staff are enthusiastic, knowledgeable, generous and wonderfully hospitable, and I enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with them again.  Along with the symposium, I was able to squirrel a couple of days in their archives during my trip and I seized the opportunity to do more work with the specialist collections on riding, horses and sport.  And, while I was in ‘the stacks’ (the book storage area) I couldn’t help but take a few precious moments to revisit some of the holdings that, years ago, kick-started my writing on spectator dress and side saddle attire.  There’s a good deal of ‘pilgrimage’ in archive work.  For example, I couldn’t help but check up on Lucy Linn’s riding scrapbook from the late 1930s and 1940s (and the photographs therein were as captivating as ever, depicting her thundering, side-saddle, over the jumps in full formal ‘turn-out’ complete with top hat).  It seems that old friends come in many guises in a museum collection, be they human, artefact or text.

3. Another Stateside expedition came along in October of last year (yes, ‘the Fall’, to use the vernacular).  I was asked by Bucknell University and the Samek Art Gallery in Pennsylvania to deliver a public lecture as part of the programming for their Country Living exhibition.  I spoke about rural dress, made reference to some of my past projects that have looked at the branding of rural identity, and gave a response to the excellent exhibition.  Andy Warhol lived in Pennsylvania, so the gallery is fortunate enough to have some stellar bequests, and Warhols were mixed, cheek-by-jowl, with rusting barn stars, seed sacks and RedWing boots to challenge visions, and versions, of country life (and the exhibition catalogue is accessible here).  As well as working with the gallery, I was also able to go along to a couple of undergraduate classes and I lectured to costume design and to geography students during my visit.  It was Hallowe’en and autumn leaves, pumpkin displays and mellow sunshine formed a picturesque backdrop to my travels. Suffice to say, my experience was well worth the eight hour coach trip, replete with tyre blowout and missed connections, into deepest Pennsylvanian countryside. After all, being an academic, as with most things in life, is as much about the journey as the destination, is it not?