I'm a big fan of reading Two Nerdy History Girls' blog under any circumstances, but recently have found myself completely addicted to the Breakfast Links digest they publish end of every week, detailing items that would be of interest to fellow history enthusiasts. I work every other Sunday, a slow day in the phone room at the bibliothèque, so I always find myself looking for weird, esoteric time-fillers to trawl on the internet. The Nerdy History girls never disappoint! This week's digest included confessions of 19th century murderers (who also happened to be children), a 1747 recipe for "Nothing Pudding", and the tantalizing tidbit: "Let your closet dream big! Catalogue to upcoming auction of Victorian, Edwardian, & 1920s clothes and jewelry" (via this source).
LANDAGARSHEN, FOLKS. They weren't kidding when they said dream big!
If you click the link above, then click "auctions" and scroll down to lot 129, you'll see hundreds of auction collections of hats, coats, purses in various conditions-- lots of jewelry-- AND THEN THESE DRESSES. I chose the best of the hundreds of listings and then tried to whittle it down to just a few, but nope. I'm just going to have to show you a million dresses instead. Can you imagine these were on living, real bodies, in some cases a hundred years before you were born? Something about seeing all these dresses in breathy pastels and frothy prints made me think of an idea that had been nagging at me since last week.
In looking through a book of Kodachrome slides at the library, I was dumbstruck, goofy as it may sound, by how in living color the world was in times that it's hard for me to picture color as it relates to every day objects. Specifically, there's a time period from about 1880 to 1960 that seems to have happened, in my subconscious, in sepia tones or black and white and greys. Where Renaissance times, medieval times, even colonial times all conjure up images in my mind of bright red doublets, gold frock collars the size of a bicycle wheel, royal blue waistcoats with shining yellow buttons, tiny brocade slippers, etc, etc, there's no such color-associations to be made with items that were ubiquitously photographed but monochomatically documented. To see, for instance, these everyday shots from the thirties' and forties', in full color, is almost as jarring as it is alluring. That's not SUPPOSED to be in color! While the change over from portraiture to photography in the mid-nineteenth century meant a drastic jump in realistic, real-life rendering of the memorialist's subject, I think one of the major things we lost was the connection c-o-l-o-r lends to a modern eye. I can't relate as well with the black and white of a downtown city street in the thirties' as I can to this full color slide, from the forties', where the colors lend detail, distinguishing between different materials, gradients in space and shape, etc.
|See the difference? source|
Let's look at how black and white versus color photography would change our perception of these late twenties'/ early thirties' dresses, which, when photographed on a lively young member of the decade's "youth culture", would likely be captured in black and white, but experienced in color:
Here comes the magic!
Don't you feel just like Dorothy coming to in the Land of Oz? And all I did was sap the saturation out of the same shot! While the dresses are still gorgeous in either setting, would you have guessed the honey on the far left to be a bright fuchsia flowers pattern with perwinkle stamens? All four of these dresses seem to be very similar in black and white, and yet, the COLOR of them in color-- they're as individual as an eyelash!
Let's try it again....guess what color the frocks and frills in this picture are (and don't peek and cheat!!):
Hm, I guessed "cloud grey, grey...darker grey....storm grey?" And look how wrong I was:
They look so lovely and bright in their peacock hues as to make them seem artificial, like someone costuming a 20's movie. I immediately thought of the flapperific dress Debbie Reynolds wears as Kathy Selden in Singing in the Rain-- I remember thinking at the time, watching the movie years ago, "oh GOOD GOD, Walter Plunkett, can we please have something a little less over-the-top-1952-does-1932? Is she supposed to be a flapper or a side show attraction?" Mainly because of the crazy colors of the outfit! Now I look back at the same piece with new eyes-- this was probably as authentic as any of its sister pieces here, color and all!
With the resurgence of interest in the Edwardian period thanks to the crazy-popularity of Downton Abbey (I'm not masochistic enough to keep current with the show, but boy, were the first two seasons GREAT), I can think of 1910's ball gowns with a little more accuracy, but the turn of the century remains, for the most part, bleakly sepia toned in my mind's eye. Look at how vivid the patterns on these eighteen eighties'/eighteen nineties' dresses are! My favorite part, secretly, is that the blue jacket-and-skirt set is too small for the mannequin. People were SO. SMALL. a hundred years ago. Your most slim and diminutive friend might not be able to wiggle into that living piece of textile art! Still, wouldn't it look fabulous not-fitting a mannequin in my own home?
Last challenge! Here's a humdinger of a dress I picked up at the Southern Thrift in Donelson. They never, ever have vintage clothes older than the eighties' (remember my John Tesh run in earlier this year? That's the only other time I've ever seen a forty year old garment in the store)-- so I was just bowled over to find this floor length sixties' gown, hanging out in the formals section. I was positive it wouldn't fit me, and about died when it did. What color do you think it is? No peeking!
Ha! I bet you didn't see that one coming! It's that David-Bowie-Life-on-Mars-suit color that I'm always going on about. Now I could perfectly camouflage myself against the walls of my living room! Seriously, I'm wearing this out to the next event I am invited to, however large, however small. It needs some kind of embellishment to break up the green, green, green...I thought of adding several, same color brooches to the upper left hand shoulder, but I'm afraid to run pin-backs through the material. Maybe a really tight-fitting, solid black vest? I might have to settle for wild earrings and some kind of head-covering. Time will tell!!
So! What do you think of my "treatise on color"? What has been your own experience with thinking of eras where black and white photography trumped illustrations for real-life documentation? Do you ever get frustrated flipping through old family albums thinking, "I KNOW that snazzy forties' dress on my great aunt is a color...but which one?!" Had any technicolor antique discoveries lately, brighter and more vivid than pictures would have you think? Let's talk!
That's all for today, but I'll see you back here tomorrow. Til then!