Being able to identify the origins and historical significance of archival materials is truly satisfying, and—dare I say it?—quite fun.
Full disclosure: I’m a complete fashion nerd. Yes, the type of person who spends hours in a fashion exhibition and sometimes does research just to satiate my own curiosity. It’s that ‘Eureka!’ moment that I live for, and, fortunately for me, my work at The New School Archives provides a lot of opportunities to make exciting discoveries.
I was originally hired to digitally catalogue a collection of over 1,200 sketches of French couture designs produced by a team of fashion illustrators working under Herbert Sondheim (1895-1966), a New York dress manufacturer who produced relatively affordable “interpretations” of Parisian fashion between the 1920s and 1960s. Sondheim was one of the many Seventh Avenue dress manufacturers who regularly attended the Paris fashion shows each season along with a small team of illustrators. Using their exceptionally photographic memories, these illustrators were trained to covertly sketch and take detailed notes on garments that would eventually be copied and sold in America for much less than the price of an original couture piece—a practice that was often done illegally.
The Herbert Sondheim collection, a large part of which can now be viewed on The New School’s Digital Collections website here, provides a detailed view of how fashion evolved between the Great Depression and Second World War through the ever-changing styles of evening gowns, day dresses, jackets, skirts, and more, as well as various examples of millinery and hair styles that were popular throughout this time period. The majority of these sketches feature thorough notes about the materials and construction of the depicted garments, as well as the name of the original designer, including well-known French labels (Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Vionnet, Molyneux) and other lesser-known labels (Dormoy, Rosevienne, Francevramant, Manguin). The collection is quite diverse, but even for a fashion history fanatic like myself, meticulously cataloging over 1,200 sketches can get a wee-bit tedious.
However, there was one thing that could always breathe new life into the most monotonous of days. While doing a little research to help date certain sketches, I occasionally found images that depicted the exact same ensembles that were illustrated by Sondheim’s team. Whenever this happened, it seemed like angels were singing and the stars were aligned in the most perfect way. Why? Well, let me to try to explain…
When I first came across this simple sketch of a day dress by Elsa Schiaparelli (shown above), I knew that the embellishments looked familiar, and after a quick Google search, I was able to find an image of a woman wearing what appears to be the exact same garment in a magazine from 1935. This was particularly exciting for multiple reasons. For one thing, I was able to accurately date the sketch, and provide a bit of historical context by showing how it was worn. But, above all else, these types of discoveries were significant to me because I was able to vividly imagine the sketch artist seeing the garment for the very first time. Suddenly I wasn’t just holding a piece of paper with pencil markings: I was holding a piece of history, and physically connecting to the lives of people who worked in the fashion industry long before I was born.
I had read numerous books and articles about the practice of copying French fashion, but it never seemed as real as it did when I was able to find an uncanny match such as the evening dress shown above. The sketch itself may have been made just moments after the illustrator walked out of Madame Vionnet’s salon in Paris in 1936, and now here it was, quietly preserved in our archive. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine these types of objects outside of how they are seen in museums or the pages of old magazines. With this collection, one can discover how American sketch artists quickly interpreted the designs after just one or two quick viewings. Sometimes their ideas may have differed slightly from the actual garments (they were mostly relying on memory, after all!), but for the most part, their ability to remember the smallest details was almost impeccable. Take, for example, the Schiaparelli bolero jacket below, shown next to a model wearing the actual garment:
I made many more discoveries like these during my time cataloging the collection, and it never felt any less exciting. Of course, there were still over one thousand sketches that I wasn’t able to match to anything, but it was that euphoric feeling of seeing some of the garments in three-dimensional form that made the work feel extremely gratifying. I’m sure there are millions of people who never feel that kind of satisfaction from their jobs, and for that reason I’m extremely grateful for my work in The New School Archives. Below are a few more of my favorite matches. I hope that some of you enjoy seeing the comparisons as much as I do!
(If you’d like to know more about Herbert Sondheim or the complex business of copying and marketing French design for American consumers, please check out my thesis here.)
List of Figures:
Figure 1: A view of some cataloging work being done at my desk.