Behind the Seams with de Vol clothing

Laura Macfehin looks ‘Behind the Seams’ at iconic Wellington brand de Vol!

I well remember my first de Vol garment– it was a black Jeanie dress my husband bought for me and which miraculously fitted like a glove.  It quickly became my go-to dress because it was so comfortable and easy to wear and was super flattering.

Over the years I have bought many garments from de Vol and I can say in all honesty they have been the most flattering and most loved modern clothes I have owned.  Their aesthetic continues to evolve, but they remain reliably consistent in their commitment to craftsmanship and high quality, locally produced clothing.  So I was excited to find out more about these Cuba Street stalwarts!

 Who are the folks behind de Vol?

 There is just the two of us; my partner in crime Brendan and me, Stacey

You’ve been selling clothes for almost twenty-five years now- how did you get started?

 If you counted my stall at Calf and Lamb day at primary school and the Barbie clothes I sold to friends and family you could say it’s been a little more!  De Vol started when I studied fashion and Design at Bay of Plenty polytech in the mid 1990s.  In my last year we had to make up a clothing label and produce a range.

When I finished tech I sold most of my work over that summer and I just never stopped.  Brendan was trying to get a streetwear label together doing screen-printed tees and denim but he couldn’t find any shops to take it on.  So I guess his ideas came over to de Vol (de Vol is named after Frank de Vol who composed the music for the Brady Bunch, a show we both loved as children).


How did you learn to design clothes?  Were you a home sewer or did you have training? 

Well I have always been interested in sewing.  Way before I could sew I would get mum to sew scraps together and wear them until they fell off or mum would hide them from me.  When I was nine I got my first machine and started making my own clothes.  Aunties would give me fabric or I would cut up old things.
I wasn’t very popular when I made Madonna gloves from mum’s wedding dress.
Brendan’s mum was a factory machinist and had machines at home; when Brendan was a teen he would cut up old suits and make punk tees and hoodies.
We met at a sewing factory in our late teens, and when the factory closed down I decided to follow my childhood dream and study fashion.

What is your process like– do you start with a fabric or a garment in mind?  Where do you work?

Jeepers my process is very random.  Sometimes it is a design idea, which may just be something like a sleeve shape to a dress silhouette, other times it could be something I would like to wear.  There can be problems with this method is finding the right fabric which speaks to you, and says hey make me into…
Our work room is attached to the end of our house.  It was built as a billiards hall by a previous owner, and has the best axminster carpet.  Its definitely our dream work room with space for an office, a three metre long cutting tables, six machines and twenty years of patterns.

How would you describe your design aesthetic?

 That’s a hard one… it has definitely changed over the years.  There has always been a retro vein in our designs.  I think what I am going for at the moment is late 1970s librarian who has just come back from a trip to Japan.  We would like to think our clothing is versatile, easy to wear and care for.  We don’t go for fussy fabrics, and try to pick fabrics which will last.

Where do you get your design inspiration from?

 I really enjoy reading and learning about new things.  Inspiration could be from traditional costumes, different periods in time, or reading a biography about an interesting character.
In the last few years I have been influencing current inspiration especially Japanese and South Korean work.  It also helps that the Japanese do the most beautiful fabrics.

How has the process changed for you over the years?

 I leave less doodles around the house these days, especially now that ceramics take up any spare time I have.  I use to work on de Vol seven days a week (actually some weeks at peak times we still do), just not all year round.
The clothing industry in New Zealand has changed a huge amount in my time.  Firstly tariffs were lifted off imported clothing in the 1990s, the internet came along, and a disposable culture has come along… being such a small business we really need the bigger local designers to stay in the game, but they are closing their doors and that affects suppliers.
So the situation now is that is more difficult to find fabric, machinery, mechanics and more.  All of these factors affect our process, we now produce more designs in lesser numbers than we did in the late 1990s/early 2000.

Were you always creative/crafty?

 Yes totally!  Being sick as a child meant staying in bed knitting and drawing.  My great-gran, my grandmother and my mother were all sewers/knitters.
Brendan’s grandfather was a saddle maker and his mum is a sewer and he made his own wooden toys as a child.  So we have both been around makers since we can remember.

What has been the highlights for de Vol and you over the years?

 I think having clients like Anna Paquin, The Pointer Sister and Nico Case is pretty awesome for such a small label like us.
You know the best thing in the world though is when someone takes the time to let you know how much they love whatever it is that you have made them.

What do you spend your time doing when you are not creating fashion?

I started making ceramics about five years ago, and have become an addict!  I love the freedom of being able to make something that is what it is and I don’t have to think about how it fits, who will suit it etc.

Ceramics for me is a great stress relief and I feel very lucky to have people want to buy it.  I sell my vases and planter pots (as the tailors wife) at Yvette Edwards floral studio in Wellington and Frutti stock my porcelain necklaces and earrings.  Also I have been getting back into dying fabrics, especially linen, I used to do a bit in the 1990s dying muslin.


I notice you are including knitteds in your range now– what other developments do you have in mind for de Vol in the future? 

I have been toying with the idea of an on-lone store for my ceramics.  I’m not sure how it would work along side our clothing or whether it should be its own separate thing.  Something to look into for sure.  I love making both ceramics and clothing so it would be great to have them together.


de Vol clothing can be found online and at the Cuba Street store Frutti and they are very kindly offering our readers a discount from their webstore!  Just enter promo code ELLBLOG10

This code is valid until the end of July!

 Frutti, 180 Cuba Street, Wellington.

Behind the seams with Vivien of Holloway

Natasha meets the wonderfully witty lady behind the Vivien of Holloway empire.

It’s not every day that you get to meet the reproduction vintage pioneer behind one of your favourite reproduction clothing labels.

Vivien of Holloway is a veritable institution in the vintage world. Since 2000, the label has been serving up only the highest quality, authentic, reproduction vintage clothing to pinup and rockabilly devotees worldwide.

Inspired by the timeless style of 1940s and 50s silver screen starlets, her glamourous clothing is made in England and designed to flatter your curves.

It’s an extremely humid Friday morning in late January and Vivien Wilson, aka Vivien in Holloway, is in Auckland and I meet her at Rita Sue Clothing, a vintage inspired boutique in St Kevin’s Arcade, which has recently become a stockist of the brand.

While I’m hungover as hell and my hair is plastered to my skull with sweat, Vivien is a picture of style and elegance. Dressed in a red and white Kitty dress with a striking Hawaiian print, her strawberry blonde hair perfectly coiffed, she’s a walking, talking ambassador for her label.

We grabbed a coffee at a bustling cafe overlooking Myers Park and had a jolly good chat.

Read on for the interview!


Vivien Wilson aka Vivien of Holloway at Rita Sue Boutique photographed in January.

You’ve been making clothing since you were a child and your label started in 2000. So you’re a reproduction clothing pioneer, is that right?

I am the first! I don’t think anyone else was doing it when I was 9 or 10.

I don’t think I’ll tell you how long ago that was! I didn’t start selling  until I was about 14 except to my friends because, obviously I’d make something for myself and then they’d go ‘ can I have one’ and I’d go ‘OK’.

So then I’d make it. And then at the first ever rock ‘n’ roll festival in the world as far as I know, probably the second one actually,  I took some clothes along to sell.


Was this in the 80s or 90s?

 Very early 80s is as far as I’m going to go back.

Was that the beginnings of a scene in the UK?

No there’s always been a scene!


 I went to America when I was 18. There’s pictures all over my personal Instagram…


There was no scene there…no rockabilly scene.

There were a few people there and they said to me ‘there’s nothing here.’


Why do you think this was?

Maybe because it’s so spread out and rockabilly is already a part of their culture. They dressed according to their music but they didn’t dress 50s style.

It was a bit flat to go to America and not to be able to find any rockabilly clubs. But it wasn’t a surprise as obviously I had friends from there who said there wasn’t any. And they were coming to England.

I went out there to meet an English boy who I was seeing and later married and when he picked me up from the airport he had a Chrysler and a ’59 Cadillac and we just got dressed up and went cruising all the time.


And he had a couple of young friends that had Corvettes, so there were cars and people into cars but there wasn’t really a music scene as such.

A few years after that when my friend came over from America… it slowly built from there.


How have you noticed the scene evolve?

The English scene doesn’t really change. People come and go. What’s shocking is when you remember there being a new young person to the scene and then they’re turning 30… Time just goes quickly!

Is the scene a lot bigger than it used to be?

There’s always been a big scene in England. Ever since I can remember really, if anything the clubs were bigger when I was young.


Enter a caption

In New Zealand it seems like the opposite way around. Pinup and vintage culture seem to be booming here. despite us being a tiny country.

I think there’s a big difference between vintage culture and rockabilly clubs. It’s not the same thing.


Viven meets local pinup Dolly Destory.

I guess the scene’s so small here that we don’t really have enough people to have separate scenes..

That’s a good thing it’s not like that in England. I wish more people who are just interested in pinup and vintage would come to clubs, it would make them more interesting.

As it is, it’s just people I’ve been looking at for 30 years.  And oh not you again! Hahaha!

As the first vintage repro label. Obviously everyone is doing vintage repro now. How does that make you feel?

It’s a bit sad that so many of them feel the need to copy my designs!  They do very close copies and then say there’s nothing like it. There’s a million different styles from the 50s- why did you choose to take so much influence from mine?


Vivien of Holloway’s flagship store on Holloway Road, London.

How do you feel about those cheap, nasty, made -in -China knock-offs that people buy on Ali Express and Wish?

One company in China actually stole my whole website! They have now copied a lot of other designers who are now contacting me. And it’s like, well none of you cared …they didn’t have any recognition of the fact that the scene is too small and you need to look further afield.

I started designing 1940s style trousers, I had them with the turn up and buttons and now people  seem to think that that’s the only style of the 1940s trouser instead of looking a bit further and going ‘ there are lots of different styles of 1940s trousers’ you don’t have to put buttons on one side and turn ups!


Do you go after then with lawyers?

When I first started, I didn’t do many designs. The stuff sold really well and I didn’t have to.It sold as quick as I could make it.

But then when people started copying my clothes, I just thought well that’s going to happen and it was just a big kick up the backside to do more designs. So really, they did me a favour.


But the difference with my brand is everything is made in England. Everything has my hand on it because literally those factories are within half an hour travel of my office and I personally check every pattern, I check every fit of every garment.

They’re fitted on one of the girls in the office who’s a size 10, and me who wears a size 18.  Every garment is checked like that- so it fits every person as an average the best. It’s difficult to make something fit at all on a short person.  But what we try and do is do the average of everything. So everything doesn’t fit me perfectly cos I’m tall!


That time I met Vivien Wilson in the flesh at Auckland boutique Rita Sue Clothing.

But it will fit everyone on an average pretty well. Some designs- because they’re made, they might not fit a short person quite so well.


I was actually going to come to that next as I’m sure you get a lot of comments about sizing..

There’s a lot of argument about the sizing. My label has been going so long that the sizes were actually made on the large size when we started.

If you look at an official size chart, it’s not actually that far from our sizing. But also a lot of clothes that are made in China – Asian people don’t have waists like we do so a lot of the clothing doesn’t get made with waists..

28034613_1947677521927239_1990867361_oAlso it’s the same with vanity sizing – if they don’t put a waist on something it’ll fit everybody. But I’m not happy with that. My clothing is limited to girls with one type of figure or maybe two, but it’ll fit them brilliantly.

The thing is there’s a massive gap in the market – for the body shape I cater for. There’s not a massive gap in the market for girls who are size 10. But there is for girls of size 18.

I try and leave little bits of extra [fabric] here and there so you can do adjustments.


Have you ever considered making extended sizes (currently her laegest size is UK22 with a 38″ waist)?

It’s very difficult because we already do 8 sizes. It’s not that there isn’t enough of a market–we could either cut off the small and add another larger size, but I can’t do more than 8 sizes. As it is, every time we make a dress – we make 500 dresses – that’s going to add another 80 dresses every time we do a fabric…

You have to have a cut off somewhere. And that’s kinda where we got to. 

28033166_1947679475260377_2025412431_oA lot of people have asked about larger sizes in the sarongs, but it’s difficult because as you get bigger, different people have their weight in different places and so it’s hard to know where to add the extra. I totally sympathize as I can’t buy clothes on the high street I’m too big…unless I want to go to a big girl’s shop and then just all tents.

In Australia I wear a 16 and at home it would be an 18 to a 20 and most shops don’t even cater that large. And if they do, they do one so it’s gone pretty quickly.

Maybe some of the clothes that aren’t so fitted I could do to a larger size..

28694591_1971569019538089_1357051668_oThe idea of our clothing is to pull you into the shape you should be so if you use a stretch fabric it will just let you out…but I think this year will see us possibly doing a little leisure range so a little beach dress maybe and with me coming to Australia every January , I don’t have anything to wear on the beach.


I like the structure that comes with wearing something non stretch.What about the idea of doing a separate plus size range or even a couple of pieces?

Oh I’d really love to but it’s just not plausible if you understood how small the company was .. because everything we do sells really well so I don’t want to stop… a lot of companies bring out a new range every year. But if we stopped doing anything from our range , people would be unhappy ..

28695235_1971569829538008_909684462_oWhat are the hallmarks of the Vivien of Holloway brand?

Well I like to think we are actually reproduction, most labels are just retro which just means made out of funky fabrics [ or a vague nod to retro] wheras I use the same fabrics – as close to the fabrics as I can get- or we replace rayon with polyester because it washes and it hangs just like rayon but it washes brilliantly or you can chuck it on the floor and put it straight back on.

I try and use fabrics that will hang exactly the same as the original which is where I think a lot of clothing brands fall down.

28695071_1971570499537941_241343011_oSo did you have any formal training in fashion?

No not really. I started [sewing] when I was about 8 or 9 I think – might have been 10. My mum loved old movies so I used to watch old movies with my mum and you know there was always that scene where you saw the women clicking down the road in those heels- stiletto heels with her seamed stockings and her tight skirt .. so I really wanted some of those shoes.


So my mum took me shopping and we looked everywhere and then she went ‘ ok I know where to go’ and she took me to a charity shop which is probably the worst thing she ever did in her life – and from that minute onwards I was hooked. I went in there and she said right- you can have two pairs of shoes and two items of clothing so I remember I bought two pencil skirts and two pairs of shoes and from then on, every single penny I got went straight to the charity shops and jumble sales.


And that’s how I learned the construction of vintage clothing, because I started altering them to fit me – first of all I just made tucks everywhere. My mum always made her own clothing but she wasn’t very good ..and she said this is what you do but then I realised you could start taking things apart and that’s where I learnt all my knowledge about how things were constructed. So that’s how my brand differs from other peoples because I’ve taken thousands of garments apart and I know how to put them together.

1950s-halterneck-turquoise-duchess-dress-p35-12965_image.jpgIn early days I used to just cut a dress in half and use half of it for a pattern and keep the other half to see how the rest went back together.

I learnt an awful lot of things that people can’t teach you .. how seams were made, how darts were made , how things should hang, how a particular style should hang and where it should drape- you need to know all these things.

And through a whole life of being into vintage, that’s how I am ..


Rita Sue Clothing proprietor Cathy Warden models the new Kitty in tiki print.

Have you got anything exciting coming up with the brand or personally?

It’s a bit late for the season but there’s a coat coming. It’s the first time I’ve told anyone we’re doing coats!

katharine-trousers-crepe-scarlet-p2757-12538_medium.jpgAren’t coats quite expensive and complicated to bring out?

They will be, but they’re worth it. It’s very beautiful and already under way and they’ll be made when I get back to England and they’re very beautiful and they’re going to be very limited – I think we’re only making 20 to start with!


We just started a new range before I went away called the Pink Label Deluxe and that’s because so many people admired clothes that I was making for myself but the fabrics were too expensive for me to put them into our range for a similar price so the pink label – probably most items will be twice the price as everything else but it’ll be because the fabric is really nice quality.

I mean we use nice quality already but this will take the limits off what I can spend on fabrics which means I can buy whatever I like. And we’ve already brought out some of the pink label items which are absolutely beautiful.


What is the label most known for? 

Well if you go to my live page on instagram, you’ll be able to see how I spend my life.

What are you most proud of?

My son! He’s just turning 30. He does work with me sometimes but he’s a musician- he’s in a metal band called Counting Days. They’re quite well known but there’s not an awful amount of money involved in music at the moment..

Fashionwise it’s usually my latest thing: I make clothes for me basically. If I want to wear something, then I make it. I might make something I wouldn’t wear now but everything I make is things I would have worn at some point in my life.

28642991_1971570889537902_1730123199_oHow has your style evolved over the years?

I very much dress for my body shape and for my age and I think the label probably reflects that but when I choose fabrics I make sure I choose fabrics that suit every personality and age so I just pick fabrics I think are beautiful and will look good in design- I might not wear them all.

I go to some very high end events a lot and even though I’m surrounded by people in designer clothes I’m always getting people stop me and tell me how amazing I look. And that’s everywhere I go really.

28822071_1971573742870950_422064913_oMy friends find it really funny that some people actually chase me up the street to tell me I look amazing. Year ago they used to laugh but now they understand what it [vintage] is. It’s in the press so much that people understand what you’re doing.

I used to go to a lot of fashion parties with stylists and fashion people . I myself am not really interested in getting involved in the fashion world, I’ve never been to fashion shows, I don’t think it’s got anything to do with what we do.

28695591_1971570639537927_2061382378_oBut I go to fashion parties with other people and whereas people used to look at me like I was weird and ignore me, now they tend to treat you like you’re some 50s movie star or something because they get it. But before it was fashionable, it was like ugh who’s that? The fashion industry can be really catty.

Want to find out more? Check out Vivien of Holloway stock in store now at Rita Sue Clothing or visit the website here.


Vivien and yours truly. Thank goodness for Vivien’s beloved ‘beauty app’ LOL


New Vivien of Holloway kitty dresses in store now at Rita Sue Clothing!

Something old, Something strange…

In this edition of Believe It Or Not Laura Macfehin looks into the strange superstitions surrounding wedding dresses!

Recently I was lucky enough to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Phantom Thread.

I had been a little nervous that the plot might be a bit Pygmalion-ish (which is one of my all time most hated storylines) but it wasn’t, thank goodness.

Instead it was an obsessively beautiful fever dream set inside a fictional and chilly couture house in 1950s London.

There was, obviously, lots of sewing which was great for me, as sewing is one of my favourite things to do/watch/think about.


Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread

Wedding dresses play a central role in the story (as they do in real life couture houses), and the couturier, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, tells his new muse of some of the superstitions surrounding them.

In particular he tells of how his terrible nanny wouldn’t help him sew a wedding dress for his mother for fear that she would not then marry herself, and of how young models don’t wish to model them in case they marry a bald man.

These stories got me thinking of some of the weird superstitions I had heard around wedding dresses, a garment that has been loaded up with some fairly heavy symbology over the years.


Seamstresses prepare a wedding dress fit for a Princess in Phantom Thread

Oh no she didn’t!

First, let us do a little low-key myth-busting.  No- Queen Victoria did not ‘invent’ the white wedding dress as some people put about.  Although she certainly gave it a boost in the popularity stakes white wedding dresses were around before Victoria tied the knot with her cousin Albert (this is just talking about the Western European tradition of bridal wear, because of course Shinto brides have been wearing white for centuries).

She chose white because she wanted to make a feature of the Honiton lace that swathed the otherwise quite subdued satin gown, and support British cottage industries which were suffering at the time. Her gown was hugely influential and the Devon lace-makers certainly benefitted from her choice.


Queen Vic in her wedding dress

She was not the first royal to marry in white.  A couple of decades earlier Princess Charlotte had married in a stunning regency gown of silver and white.


Princess Charlotte’s 1816 wedding dress

And as many (including historical novelist Loretta Chase here) have pointed out- white wedding dresses were already quite in vogue; as these ladies magazine fashion plates from the 1830s demonstrate.



Which brings us to our second bit of myth-busting (or perhaps it is more like myth-tweaking? Anyway).  And that is addressing the idea that the symbolism of white as equalling chastity is an ancient one.  The reason aristocracy (and those wealthy enough to imitate them) had traditionally chosen white was because it is so impractical.  Most women throughout history (and even up until the end of the 1940s) married in their ‘best’ frock.

Even if they had a new dress or suit for the occasion (and sometimes employers would foot the bill or provide a hand-me-down of good quality) it was generally expected by most women that they would get more than one days wear out of their wedding outfit.

In the days before dry cleaners a white silk gown was the height of luxury, because it said to the observer I can afford to wear something new that I never expect to wear again.


A 1950s bride and groom

Historically blue had been the colour that signalled ‘purity’ and innocence-hence Our Lady’s blue garb.  The Late Victorians (wouldn’t you know it) were the ones who got caught up on the virginal brides thing and made the link between chastity and wearing white.

Certainly until the 1950s it remained common to marry in whatever colour you fancied (within some limits as we will see).

It perhaps not a surprise that in the 1950s, a time when both consumerism and gender conformity both spiked, there was a huge uptake on the notion of a white wedding dress as a one-wear garment.


Colour me lucky

Although marrying in a colour other than white was not unusual, that is not to say the were no superstitions around colour choice!

In Scotland, green was considered so unlucky it was not only banned from the bridal party but also from guests and even wedding decor.  As the following rhyme shows there could be repercussions for brides flighty enough to go with their own taste over folklore.

Married in White, you have chosen right,

Married in Grey, you will go far away,

Married in Black, you will wish yourself back,

Married in Red, you will wish yourself dead,

Married in Green, ashamed to be seen,

Married in Blue, you will always be true,

Married in Pearl, you will live in a whirl,

Married in Yellow, ashamed of your fellow,

Married in Brown, you will live in the town,

Married in Pink, you spirit will sink.

Different fabrics have different superstitious connotations as well.  In most traditions silk is lucky, satin unlucky and velvet will result in poverty!
It is not surprising that so much superstition should surround weddings.  In a time before divorces were attainable and property rights for women largely nil, there was a lot riding on making a decent marriage.  Brides really needed luck to be on their side.

I should be so lucky

This is where some of the weirder superstitions come in.  Although I scream inside to write it, it has long been held lucky in English folklore to find a spider inside your wedding dress (one would hope before the frock goes over your head).  This probably dates back to Roman times– the Romans considered spiders very lucky and used to carry spider charms around with them to aid in business transactions.


Old postcard with a good luck spider

In other animal related luck– if a bride should find a cat eating from her left shoe a week before she is married then that is also hugely lucky.  And, you know, really probable without any highly involved orchestration.

The Evil Eye

Other superstitions built into the choosing and constructing of wedding clothes tend to be more about diverting bad luck.  Much of this is seems to come from people’s paranoia around hubristic displays of good fortune or happiness in public, with a little bit of not counting your chickens thrown in for good measure.

The wedding veil is a good example of this.  Although some point to the veil’s utility in keeping the bride’s face a surprise in arranged marriages, it actually has an older and more talismanic function, which was to ward off the evil eye from jealous onlookers or angry gods.


This 1960s bride easily deflects bad hoodoo with her nifty shoulder-length veil

In the not counting your chickens basket it has been considered unlucky to complete your outfit too far ahead of time.  Ideally the last stitches should be sewn (by the bride’s mother) just before she walks down the aisle.  Some dressmakers still leave a little bit of hem unstitched for this purpose.

When it comes to the construction of wedding dresses there is a whole bevy of superstitions.  Some (possibly dressmakers looking to protect their business) say that it is unlucky for a woman to sew her own wedding dress, and that every stitch she sews will be a tear she sheds in the marriage.





In the seamstress’s workshop

Within the couturier’s workshop there are plenty more superstitions that come into play with the sewing of wedding dresses.  A common one is for unwed seamstresses to sew a hair of their’s into a seam of the dress.  This is meant to ensure they will marry themselves.  Sometimes, to secure the bride’s good luck, they may sew in a hair from the head of seamstress who is happily married.  In other shops they may sew in a good luck charm, like a small cardboard horseshoe or a piece of blue ribbon into the hem or waist stay of a gown.


Once upon a time, long, long ago I myself got married dear reader!  I was lucky enough to have my mother sew my dress for me (she also sewed the dresses for my beautiful best-women) so I avoided the tears that would have come from sewing it myself, but I did sew a red velvet wrap to go around my shoulders.  Perhaps the fact that I was still sewing it the night before the wedding mitigated the terribly unlucky red velvet!

Scan 6

My mum fitting me for my wedding dress while my sister offers encouragement

Scan 7

Me sewing my wrap the night before the wedding

So far we’ve stayed married for coming up to eighteen years, so the D.I.Y approach can’t be too unlucky.

Scan 8

My parents and I on my wedding day

How about you?  Did you or would you sew your own wedding dress?  Do you have any family superstitions or cultural traditions around wedding clothes?  I’d love to hear about them!

In the closet with Labretta Suede

Welcome to the sixth installment of our In the Closet series! This week Natasha steps inside the exotic wardrobe of Labretta Suede and the Motel 6 frontwoman Labretta Suede.

Although we’ve been friends for well over a decade, my first memories of Labretta Suede go back to my teenage years in the early to mid-90s. 

Even then she still rocked her trademark look which was part Ronnie Spector, part Bettie Page and part Poison Ivy. 

There was the same enormous black beehive, winged liquid eyeliner, ripped fishnets and short shorts –and the same raucous laugh that could be heard several blocks down the road!

More than 25 years later and she’s barely changed style-wise. As the diminutive but feisty frontwoman of Labretta Suede and the Motel Six (read our interview with the band here), she’s notorious for appearing on stage in outrageous, barely there ensembles. However what you might not know is that Labretta is a longtime lover of vintage clothing and has amassed an incredible collection thanks to many years touring the USA and the world.

Alongside her hubby Johnny Moondog, they’re also the proprietors of Cockspurs Vintage, a boutique specialising in true Americana vintage (catch them vending on the second floor of the Rebel Roundup markets this weekend).

Read on to find out why she prefers to be a purist, how she developed her signature style– and why you should never leave a good frock on hold at the thrift store! 

You seem to have a great wardrobe. Wanna take us on a tour of your closet?  
Home invasion much?  OK – I’ll give you a sneak peek then. Come on! Down the rabbit hole we go….  

thumbnail_Labretta Suede-7675_preview

Photo by Megs Moss.

 What would we find within?  
Lingerie and corsetry, feathers, bullet belts, ripped fishnets, leather things with zips, pristine 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s evening dresses. Authentic 60’s dresses and  playsuits, Las Vegas show girl sparkly dresses, cowboy boots, 1950s -1970s short-shorts, 1940s – 1970s Westernwear, 1910- 1960’s Hollywood glamour night slips, all the way through to custom-made Spanish flamenco dresses from Barcelona that I bought when I was 19 years of age.

Labretta Suede-7751_preview

Photo by Megs Moss.

Labretta Suede-7765_preview

Photo by Megs Moss.

 Are you a vintage purist or do you wear repro pieces occasionally too?  
I am more purist than repro. I tend to not buy newly made items of clothing. The world is over flowing with too much cheaply made, slave labour clothing and junk as it is. Consumption needs to stop!  

Not to say that all repro is cheaply made, as much of it is not and I have a few custom made pieces from high-end repro designers. I think many of them are brilliant and it’s nice to see quality fabrics and beautiful styles reproduced again. Especially when I see someone in the mainstream wearing it and I can finally not be offended by bad fashion. Ha!  

Growing up as an artist with my love of the bizarre has kept my heart true to indiviual asthetics. I am horrifed by this era of comformity and lack of imagination when it comes to expression, or rather lack there of.  

What are some of your most prized pieces in your vintage collection and why?  
Hmm.. tricky. I have some amazing pieces that often are too sentimental and valuable to me to ever see the light of day. Although, my go-tos are my old beat up leather jacket which has seen me through many an escapade.  However, my short-shorts collection, my on-stage, two-piece outfits and my sparkly dresses have been what I am most famous for.  

unnamed-2  unnamed
Then there is my handbag, purse and clutch collection.  My love for wicker hand bags is a bit out of control. My fur and velvet handbag/hand warmer muffs. Mmmmm…. Nothing like good accessories.  
My sterling vintage Amercian Indian jewelery keeps me grounded and provides endless facination in my day-to-day when meeting people. Again, some never see the light of day as it’s too dear to me and I have lost many a family heirloom at shows/gigs and mosh pits. So, perhaps this punkabilly has learned a few things over her years around the moon.  

Any noteworthy recent purchases?  
The last trip to Melbourne took the cake. While mincing around in one my favourite stores, I hear my husband say while pointing to a garment hanging on the wall, “check that out! You have to have that and I know that it will fit you”. He then frantically asks the shop attendant to pull it from the wall and the tag said ‘on hold for Sally’.

My husband was adament. “Whose Sally? Has she put a deposit down?” The shop attendant called the owner as I tried on the dress. She hung up with a very unconclusive answer …until, she saw the dress on me and said “WOAH! You said you were playing a show right? Ok, I agree you have to have it”   So, I handed over very little- in my opinion- for the dress and boy were we excited. My husband more so.  
Here it is!

Labretta Suede-8100_preview

Photo by Megs Moss.

Labretta Suede-8116_preview

Labretta Suede-8114_preview

Photos by Megs Moss.

How did you first become interested in vintage style?  
Being that I am vintage in age…teehee… I still own and wear those items I first bought which are now deemed vintage. You could still buy cool punk labels right off the racks with stores like Bluebeat and Vivian Westwood. 
I still own them but I always had a very unique style from when I was young and I have pretty much looked the same since I was about 12. Winged eyeliner, pale face, red lipstick with a punk/goth/country style and themes throughout my dress code. I have always been tiny but curvy, so have had to be creative about fashion.


As newly made off-the-shelf clothing never fit nor did it suit me and admittedly still doesn’t. Ever since I was a child I would always go thrifting and op shopping with my mother and I would chop and alter things to fit me. My mother to this very day sits and helps me come up with outfits and creations. She gives me ideas on the best way to sew or cut the fabrics. It’s still some of our favourite bonding time.  

What is it about vintage clothing that appeals to you the most?  
The quality of the fabrics, the styles, the patterns and cuts. They are feminine and flattering and oddly most vintage fits my slight but shapely physic purr-fectly. 

How does it make you feel when you wear it?  
Being that I wear it most everyday I guess that is a loaded question.  Different outfits give you different super powers. Some can be drop-dead sexy, where others can be wholesome and cute. I do love my dangerous bad girl outfits but the next day could be wearing a gorgeous 1930s evening dress that gives me that same sexy dangerous feeling by with elegance. By in large I like to feel outside of society, as I do like the exotic and other worldly….  

What are your favourite eras when it comes to vintage clothes? 
Well, the era’s that truly suit me are the 1910-20s burlesque style, a touch of the 1950s more casual styles, with cuts that are high waist but I feel I can be a bit small for 50s styles and they tend to look a bit matronly on me. The 1960s are super cute on me and late 70s punk are my go-tos.  
As a musician and in my early career as a burlesque performer I have had a great affinity with the 1860s- 1930s burlesque styles. I have a big crush on the broken down Hollywood glamour look but for me it’s not about singling out one era.  

Where are your favourite shopping haunts and why?  
Most of mine are sadly not in New Zealand. They are mainly based in the USA with a few in Melbourne, Australia. These shops are eclectic and I get giddy with excitement just knowing we are going to visit. Stopping in to visit these stores are as important as our shows and gigs when we are touring the globe. 

Sadly, many are closing down or do not have the calibre of quality anymore, due to the vintage trend spiraling into the mainstream. Although, this is only part of the issue. It is just simply getting harder and harder to source as we move away each year from those finer eras.  

What are your general thoughts about op shopping and vintage shopping in New Zealand?  
You can definitely find some good finds in New Zealand when it comes to kitsch household items, deco mirrors, retro furniture and curios. 

However, New Zealander’s have always been fairly casual when it comes to fashion and design. Thus, the design was never as detailed as clothing or furniture made in the USA or Europe. When my parents first arrived to NZ in the 60s from Greece, they looked like the mafia with their beehives, A-line dresses and three-piece suits.

My parents still giggle about how New Zealander’s would wear stubbies and jandals just about anywhere. One of my fathers friends got sick of seeing him in a suit and cut his tie right off his neck at a party. So, I think I definitely acquired my sense of style from my lineage.  My grandfathers were both shoemakers too.  


Photo by Carlos de Treend from The Juice Lab.

What are your holy grail pieces?   
Not telling…. A gal needs some privacy in her long lost search.  Ie: back off bitches it’s mine! Teehee!  
Fave labels/ fabrics/ outfit types?  
Leather is a true love for me. Sorry vegans but for the most part it is vintage. Thus, saved from the landfill by being reglamourised by yours truly. I have never been a label basher, or rather labels have never concerned me. I like what I like and it’s all in the hunt and the find.  unnamed-1
Whose closet do you envy and why? Who are some of your style icons and influences?  
It would have to be a combined envy of Bettie Page, Siouxsie Sioux, Zsa Zsa Gabor and a little of Daisy Duke.  


The Queen of Curves: Bettie Page.

Bettie Page for her risque, wild but always sweet sensibilities. Siouxsie Sioux for her extreme dark edge and uniquely appropriated fabrics.  Zsa Zsa Gabor for that always overly dressed hollywood sparkle and style. Daisy Duke for her sexy hillbilly casual charm.  


Daisy Duke

Can you remember the first vintage piece you bought? What was it?  
Growing up in a immigrant family with four children there were a lot of hand me downs that I appropriated and being the only girl I got my mothers cool hand me downs. I would ritualistically sink them in a boiling pot of black dye. Mmmm…. that smell but they never did come out black, Always charcoal, deep purples and deep blues, which made them more interesting still. I certainly stood out at high school in a sea of Guns & Roses T-shirts.  


Labretta and Johnny Moondog  with members of the Hallelujah Picassos.

I remember my high school outfits fondly but as for my first purchased vintage item, it must have been a leather jacket or some kind of undergarment. As I do remember spending years looking for just the right leather jacket. Or maybe it was records? I was and am still a vinyl junkie.

How do members of the public react to your getups?  
It’s a swinging pendulum really. I either get complimented all day about my style or people take a wide berth. I prefer the latter. Not good with compliments. Thanks New Zealand for that affliction.  


Do you wear vintage to work as well?  

How is your style received in the workplace?  
Mostly people are intrigued as to what I will wear the next day. I seem to be a bit of a runway model for many and a person of interest. It’s healthy and fun and gets most people out of their workplace modes and opens up some really fun conversations. So, I feel I get to know a lot of my co-workers on a deeper level.  


Photo by Carlos de Treend of The Juice Lab.

Does your vintage obsession extend into other areas too such as home decor, car, accessories and other collections?  
Yes, my husband and I are lifers. We have 1950s-built home, decor is broken down Hollywood glamour. I have owned my 1963 Dodge for over 15 years and my husband is a fan of vintage cars and motorbikes too. Complete with two red dingo Kelpies …one is vintage the other a newby.  It’s a colourful household!

Anything that you’d never be caught dead wearing? 

Gray marle and sweat pants.  


Catch Labretta Suede and the Motel 6 live at the following gigs:

February 17 and 18, Rebel Roundup, Pukekohe Park, Auckland.

March 1st, Stiff Little Fingers, The Powerstation, Auckland

March 17, St Patrick’s Day, Kentish Pub. Waiuku, Auckland.



The Handmade’s Tale: Nifty threads from Wellington label Cry Cry Cry Clothing

In the closet with Heather Benzie

In part four of our ‘In the Closet with’… series, Heather Benzie spills her sartorial secrets to Natasha Francois.

Vintage doyenne Heather Benzie has a knack for crafting authentic-looking 1940s and 50s high fashion outfits using a hodge podge of vintage, retro and modern items.

The Christchurch-based apparel manager happily mixes eras and has a particular interest in retro pieces which recall earlier eras such as 1930s does 70s items or 80s does 40s or 50s.

But you wouldn’t know this from looking at her. From head to toe, she’s the epitome of elegance and tailored perfection. She’s certainly no vintage snob but by the same token, doesn’t own a single piece of  ‘purpose-designed’ reproduction clothing.

Read on to find out about her eclectic wardrobe, her passion for formal day-wear and skirt suits, and why she believes 1980s clothing is the ‘vintage of the future’.  


Being ladylike, as I do sometimes for fun, faking the 50s in a modern op shopped blazer. A good blazer is a good blazer, really.

Are you a vintage purist or do you wear repro pieces occasionally too?

I don’t think I own any actual purpose-designed repro. In general, manufactured reproductions and retail shopping don’t really interest me. What I like is the quirky, the individual and the fortuitous. I love to go hunting and see what I find and be inspired by it. And I do value my true vintage for age and authenticity: I suppose I like things that are a bit rare and special.


The green and white ‘Snow Drop’ post, in a pretty polyester 60s blouse on a chilly early spring day …

But I am definitely not a vintage purist either. If I am wearing a good vintage dress or suit I like to keep my fairly accessories in keeping, but for every day I will happily mix up vintage, retro and modern items to create a look I like, and it might or might not be a historically accurate effect that I am after. And I am really interested in retro pieces which in turn reference earlier eras, like 30s-influenced 1970s fashion and 80s fashions which are similar to styles from the 40s or 50s. For one thing they are handy because you can wear them either way, but I am just fascinated by the overlaps and circularity of fashion. 


A beautiful Chloe jacket I bought at the Recycle Boutique in Auckland – more expensive than vintage but exquisite really. The vintage of the future.

What are some of your most prized pieces in your vintage collection and why?

I have acquired a nice Lilli Ann suit and some lovely 1950s and 1960s dresses and suits which are always nice to wear for special occasions. They are always elegant and glamorous. One of my favourites is a teeny black silk velvet cheongsam which I will probably never squeeze into again … thank goodness for the everlasting photographic record of the internet! If I am buying proper vintage I try to follow the same guidelines I would for buying a new piece of clothing: is it beautiful or stylish (in my opinion), well designed, and well made of quality fabric?


I love a little fierce 40s style: actually 80s vintage jacket and veiled hat. Don’t you just love veiled hats?? I do. Hurrah for 80s does 40s!

Any noteworthy recent purchases?

There are a couple of dresses I picked up recently which are quite different from each other but both of which I love. I recently added to my collection a long silk evening dress, maybe 60s, with a stunning Chinese style water lily print. It’s very elegant. And I bought an amazing 1980s velvet cocktail dress with amazing oversized shoulders and puffed sleeves which I love because it is so ’80s’ but it has a real high fashion flair to it – elegant too, in a different way. It’s what I call the vintage of the future: when the rest of the world catches up with me in appreciating 80s fashion I will have the market cornered! 


One of my nicest things: an ivory cocktail suit. Tres Dior, non?

How did you first become interested in vintage style? Can you remember the first vintage piece you bought? What was it?

I remember from quite a young age loving the the glamorous high style of the old movies which were still pretty standard fare on the telly. As a teenager in the 1980s I got interested in current fashion – it was the age of Madonna, British New Romanticism and punk, so a really fun, eclectic time. There was quite a strong retro element in popular culture, and my friends and I loved visiting the local op shops and mixing up our Glassons stuff with vintage 50s and 60s items, among other things. I used to wear my pencil skirts with op shop 60s cardis and my mother’s gloves and pearls or a silk cocktail jacket and brocade shoes from my Nana. I don’t think we called it ‘wearing vintage’: it was more just a way to stretch our small budgets and wardrobes with nice things!


The closest I ever get to that immaculate pinup style! – pretty 60s wool frock from Dunedin Savemart, and a hat to minimise my naturally chaotic hair.

What is it about vintage clothing that appeals the most?

I am mostly driven by aesthetics and a kind of curiosity about fashion in general. I love a good outfit of any era and style and really appreciate when anyone puts thought into what they’re wearing. Vintage gives me opportunities to try out different aesthetics. I love co-ordinating all the elements from top to toe: it is like a puzzle you can put together in different ways. Sometimes I want to look smart, or cute or romantic or whatever, and sometimes I am just mucking around.


I was inspired by Kate Bush’s video for The Hounds Of Love to photograph this romantic 80s Thornton Hall ball gown this way ..

Given that, the question of whether my clothes are a form of self expression is complicated. It is true that wearing different clothes makes you feel different (if you are interested Google ‘enclothed cognition’) and the fact that I experiment with lots of different looks probably indicates that I am happy with being several different people! I have said before that my clothes mostly express a desire to make the everyday just a little more fabulous and interesting!


This lovely silk 70s wedding dress reminded me of the White Witch in the original Narnia illustrations, with its austere medieval styling.

My photographs are really important to me as a creative outlet. I don’t have time to do many at the moment and it makes me sad! When I have time I really love to photograph some of my clothes in a creative way. I am trying to show some cultural or even an emotional association of the clothing for me. For example, I styled a 1980s ballgown in a photo shoot inspired by a Kate Bush album, as an attempt to illustrate the new romantic spirit. It’s a very personal and impressionistic interpretation, though; not a documentary.

What are your favourite eras when it comes to vintage clothes?

I wear clothes of lots of different eras: more than favourite eras I have favourite styles or genres that I gravitate towards. I adore formal daywear and love to wear a skirt suit with all the accessories – from any decade from the 40s to the 80s. The sharper and more glamorous the look, the better, so I do have a special yen for that high drama, fierce 40s, 50s and 80s style.

I take any opportunity to get dressed up in eveningwear too. I have a lot of elegant 50s and 60s frocks but I have started wearing more funky late 60s and 70s dresses, and of course I can’t resist a good 80s number!

For casual wear I mostly revert to various forms and eras of what you might call romantic and boho style, from 40s looks to current ones. 
If I were going to sum up my preferred style, it is either elegant and formal, or colourful and romantic. With a hint of preppy and the odd cute moment. Go figure. 


A ravishing gold satin 50s gown against the golden autumn beauty of the Port Hills here in Christchurch.

Where are your favourite shopping haunts and why?

I do the rounds of my local op shops when I can, buy a few things off Trademe and always visit Overflow in Mayfield when we head south. I don’t buy a lot of ‘retail’ vintage only because I’m tight with money. Some of my best things have been bought from friends in the vintage community, because I trust them. 

Do you have any general thoughts about op shopping and vintage shopping in New Zealand?

Well, it is easy to get envious about the seemingly bottomless pool of amazing vintage you see on overseas sites. But paradoxically the small size of the vintage community and stock in New Zealand keeps prices down, which is nice for a collector. I have bought beautiful true vintage suits and dresses off Trademe for a fraction of what the would sell for on an overseas site. And you can definitely still find bits of true vintage in the op shops and fairly inexpensive second hand shops. Sometimes I can’t believe what I find that has been overlooked or consigned as valueless. You do need patience, sharp eyes, some knowledge, and a bit of luck though.

Whose closet do you envy and why?

Marilyn Monroe’s maybe? Ava Gardner’s? 


Ava Gardner

Who are some of your style icons and influences?

So many influences! I have certainly been influenced by the beauty and glamour of the classic movie stars of the 40s and 50s. My favourite designers are pretty diverse: Vivienne Westwood, Ralph Lauren and Yves St Laurent spring to mind. Fashion advertising and pop culture of all sorts in recent decades interests me.

I don’t really follow any bloggers or such but I totally love Leandra Medine, aka Manrepeller, for the way she has divorced an interest in fashion from conventional notions of femininity, prettiness and sex appeal. I think that is my position, to some degree. Looking pretty is not, in and of itself, particularly interesting to me these days.


Leandra Medine aka ‘Manrepeller’

Anything that you’d never be caught dead wearing?

Nude lipstick. Trackpants. Activewear unless I am actually running. Any form of imitation Ugg boots or boot slippers. Leggings as pants. Chunky gladiator sandals. Makeup modelled on that of a Khadashian. But that’s only me and what I personally consider attractive or suitable for me. I don’t care what other people wear: we are all different! That’s a good thing. 

What do you think of Heather’s vintage style? Let me know in the comments! xx


Vintage Beauty from the Roaring Twenties

Laura Macfehin takes a looky-loo into what made a flapper flap.

In November 1921 Archbishop Kelly of Sydney penned and published a pastoral letter strongly condemning the latest women’s fashions, saying that “the devil’s snare is found to be set surely and fatally in the allurements of attire”.  He begged clergy and laity alike to be vigilant in preserving Christian doctrine by repudiating new and immoral fashions.

Not long after a British doctor made headlines condemning the use of “modern rubber belts” (he was thinking– probably too much– of girdles) these he claimed gave an “unnatural, boyish figure and prevented the expansion of the hips essential to happy motherhood” thus constituting a “national danger”!!


What was it about these fashions that was so threatening?  As with most fashions it was what they signalled rather than the clothes themselves that were the problem.  After the First World War young woman seemed less concerned with the conventions of the past.  They weren’t going to wait for a chaperone, or wait to be asked to dance– they adopted individual dances they could do in a group or on their own.  

In fact, most of these changes were fairly superficial– most women were still going to end up wives and mothers or working in fields prescribed as feminine, but the possibility that they might not, and the potential usurping of authority from traditional sources like doctors, churchmen and parents by film stars and the like was obviously worrying enough to condemn the frocks and accoutrements of the flapper!


The original ‘It’ girl– Clara Bow.  She was considered rather uncouth by the Hollywood elite.  She managed to fight the slanderous rumours about her love life but the town wore her out and she retired to a ranch not long after.

Yes Sir!  That’s My Baby!

These days the word ‘flapper’ is what most people think of when they think of the 1920s, and you can see it attached to some very dubious costuming choices around Halloween and school ball season, but what was a flapper really?

The term actually predates the 1920s, but really took off when silent movie stars like Olive Thomas, Colleen Moore and Clara Bow became popular. Films like ‘The Flapper’, ‘Flaming Youth’, and ‘It’ spelt out what it meant to be a modern woman. Modernity was key here—this was the gay abandonment of previous generation’s rules and values. The flapper valued fun—dancing, motoring, flirting—everything was meant to be done at breakneck speed.


Hair we go! 


Louise Brooks and her iconic bob

So if you had just come out of the local picture palace and decided you HAD to be a flapper too—what was the first thing to be done? Get your hair cut of course!

The 1920s was the first time shorter hairstyles for women really took off. They were somewhat risqué because they could be quite androgynous, and they also suggested a hastier, more carefree lifestyle (although in practise the cutting and dressing of these styles were just as time-consuming as longer ones).

The three main styles of the flapper were probably the shingle, the bob and the Eton crop. Women could now go to professional hairdressers who specialised in the latest cuts, as well as marcel waving and singeing, so you no longer had to have a lady’s maid to achieve the latest look .

Baby Face

Once your hair had been singed off and marcelled into an appropriate shape it was off to the cosmetics counter. This really was the decade when make up became overt and a truly artificial look became fashionable again.

Now (mostly) lead free face powders could be applied without fear of madness or your skin slipping off. A grease paint foundation was around but as the name suggests it was mainly utilised on stage and screen. Most women would have used powder, rouge, lipstick in a push-up tube, kohl pencil and cake mascara.

In general the fashionable complexion was still very pale, although the popularity of Coco Chanel’s tanned look and Josephine Baker meant their was at least some acknowledgement of darker beauty.

On top of a heavily powdered face the flapper would draw on thin eyebrows (plucking didn’t really take off until the thirties) that sloped somewhat downwards towards the temples and a heavily ringed eye with mascara brushed onto the lashes. Rouge was applied in rounds on the apple of the cheeks to enhance the general moon-face affect, and then a small dark cupid’s bow was drawn onto the lips, generally a little within the natural lip-line. If you had trouble getting this right, you could purchase lip-stencils to guide your hand.


Magazines like Photoplay took advantage of the huge interest in movie stars and makeup by printing tutorials on how the different stars achieved their looks—their beauty routines and favoured products.


Putting on the Ritz

Before you go out dancing you will need to put something on – but what?  Obviously fashions changed over the decade but the three watchwords of the jazz age– youth, modernity and action were present throughout.  In general this meant hemlines rose (although not above the knee– sorry trashy online costume shop) and waistlines dropped.  Evening clothes were made to accommodate wild dances and day clothes were designed to allow sporting pursuits and working in offices.


So did flappers really “rouge [their] knees, and roll their stockings down“?  Well yes, actually they did!  Stockings were rolled down to just under the knee, with the rolled top working like a garter.  The bare knees could then be rouged if you wished to draw attention to their bareness– remember hemlines were still lower than this so these cheeky knees would only be seen if you were flinging your legs about in a Charleston or Black Bottom frenzy.  

The rolled stocking also suggested that you were too modern and carefree to wear the kind of girdles and garters the previous generation went in for (although many women still wore girdles and even corsets to try to achieve the fashionable boyish figure).

Silk, rayon and cotton stockings were all available at this time, as well as ‘cut’ stockings which were cut out of very fine fabric like chiffon and incredibly flimsy.  Cotton stockings were considered a bit utilitarian and rayon was a bit shiny– ladies were known to powder their stockings to dull them down a bit.  Silk stockings in a pastel shade to match (or clash!) with your evening dress were the cat’s meow!  

Some came with a little rosette at the top which hid a mirror and compact, or a pocket into which you slip cab fare and your front door key.


Evening wear was often constructed out of light weight fabrics like silk chiffon, voiles or crepe de chine


Practical cotton dresses for working around the home

Designers of the 1920s invented styles that have been regularly repeated on runways ever since.  Coco Chanel brought a slimline, sporty silhouette while Elsa Schiaparelli went in for flights of fancy inspired by surrealist artists like Salvador Dali.  In America ‘Prohibition dresses’ featured a hidden pocket for your flask.  Madeleine Vionnet popularised the bias cut, that allowed figure skimming styles while Jean Patou was famous for his ‘cubist’ cardigans with matching scarves, gloves and hats.

There is a reason why stylists and designers continue to come back to this era for inspiration– as well as dripping glamour like so much monkey fur and fringe, it seems to embody a sense of liberation and fun.  Which makes me think– if the essential element to flapper style is attitude then those tacky ‘Gatsby‘ costumes with sequined headbands and cheap boas might possibly be the perfect thing– especially if they make toes of a forty-two year matron like me curl!

If you are enchanted by the look of the 1920s you can recreate your own jazz age at home.  Companies like offer authentic 1920s sewing patterns for the home sewer while has period accurate make up like cake mascara.

Break out the gin and 78s and be the bees knees!

In the closet with : Jana Bradley


This week, Nelson-based op shop queen Jana Bradley, lets me delve into her eclectic wardrobe.

Although I’ve never actually had the pleasure of meeting Jana Bradley in real life, I’ve admired her sartorial style via social media for quite some time. Those blunt cut bangs! Those effortless poses! That quirky vintage collection!

The mother of two, who works in fashion retail, also has a great eye for home decor too.

Read on to find out more about her ever-evolving style, her love of pillaging her local op shops, her current style crush and more!


exercise bike best 3 (1 of 1)

Cycle chic: Jana strikes a pose on her vintage exercise bike.

exercise bike best (1 of 1) (1)


You seem to have a great wardrobe. Wanna take us on a tour of your closet? What would we find within?

My wardrobe is jam-packed with an eclectic mix of vintage and modern which i have been germinating over the years. My greatest interest is in vintage lingerie and sleepwear.

I am forever exploring and changing up my style and I am known for selling and buying at alarming rates.
If I don’t absolutely love something it usually gets the cut pretty quickly. Life is too short to own items that don’t look or make make me feel my best.
wardrobe best (1 of 1).jpg

Hanging out: Welcome to Jana’s closet.


Are you a vintage purist or do you wear repro pieces occasionally too?

I have to say my wardrobe predominantly consists of vintage treasures, but I have fallen for the odd reproduction and New Zealand-made piece. These sorts of pieces normally hold a modest portion of real estate in my wardrobe.

Fit and quality is of high priority to me and unfortunately a lot of modern-day labels just don’t cut the mustard. Nothing makes me happier than quality original vintage pieces, they just don’t seem to make garments like they use to and its very sad in my opinion. 

 I never will fit into that purist box just because I ain’t a girl who enjoys those restraints. 

necklace best (1 of 1).jpg

Statement piece: Necklaces galore in Jana’s bedroom.


What are some of your most prized pieces in your collection and why?

I have a couple of Cole Of California dresses I am happy to possess. I love my full-length ’60s gown as seen in one of my photos, it was saved by a dear friend of mine. I feel gorgeous in this and its a bit of a feel good story knowing it got saved from the rubbish heap.

I have a merry widow corset I absolutely adore, I’ve had it for years and I will be taking that to the grave. My vintage exercise bike was a pretty fruitless purchase but I think it looks cool and it’s a conversation starter. 
donej (1)

Checkmate: Jana wears her full-length 1960s gown, salvaged from a rubbish heap.

Any noteworthy recent purchases?

Favourite recent purchase was a 70s terry toweling jumpsuit and a Faux Fur leopard print coat for winter. The coat is immaculate, that in itself brings me much joy! 

How did you first become interested in vintage style?
My family had a huge influence in my first interest with vintage. My siblings and I were lucky enough to have a large dress-up box which contained some of mum’s old clothing. She made most of her clothes as a teen (as they did back in the dark ages) and I still have fond memories of dressing up in them. I feel lucky that she saved these garments and i hope to do the same for my own kids.
I still remember seeing my parents getting ready to go to dress up parties as a youngster, this sort of free expression of individuality resonated with me. I remember having a lot of freedom with dressing myself, and wearing something nobody else is wearing was and still is very alluring to me.
mum and dad betterer (1 of 1).jpg

Free spirits: Jana’s parents were a big influence on her style.

How does it make you feel when you wear it?

I feel like a million bucks when I wear vintage. There is something special about walking down the street knowing your not going to see someone else wearing what you’re wearing. If this was to happen I can only assume we would do some sort of slow high five motion. 

washing best (1 of 1).jpg

Wash day: A colourful confection of undergarments.

What are your favourite eras when it comes to vintage clothes?
I appreciate all eras to be honest. I would say the 1940s-1970s are of most interest to me. I go through phases and right now i am going through a long drawn out 70s phase. This one might stick around for a while.

Where are your favourite shopping haunts?

I love pillaging all the usual Nelson op shops and Savemart. I get a wee thrill fossicking through racks of clothing to find a treasure, it certainly can be a workout.
We have a great antique store here called Eclectic which is a great place to peruse. It’s seriously a vintage collector and admirers dream. I’ve certainly daydreamed about moving in there permanently.
The Nelson Reuse and Recycle Centre is a great place to visit if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty!
painting best- (1 of 1).jpg

Prints charming: Retro pictures hang proudly in Jana’s Nelson home.


What are your general thoughts about op shopping and vintage shopping in New Zealand?


I think op shopping is pretty darn good here. It’s obviously not in the same category as the United States but it’s certainly not too shabby. I have noticed in recent years its become much more popular and prices have skyrocketed.
I worked out pretty quickly that it all comes down to repetition, foraging and luck! Just because there is a vintage section doesn’t mean you won’t find some treasures in other parts. Best place to buy vintage online personally for me has been via Facebook and TradeMe. 
jewels (1 of 1)

The finishing touch: Various jewellery and trinkets.


What are your holy grail pieces? Fave labels/ fabrics/ outfit types?

I wouldn’t say no to Vintage Dior or Chanel  but my realistic holy grail pieces would be a Cole of California 1950s leopard print swimsuit, anything Vintage Lee or Wrangler. I am currently searching for Vintage 70s Ringer tees, 1940s jeans and a 1950s Cowboy Cowichan sweater.

I would love to own a few more Warners Merry Widows bustiers. Fabrics I love are Crepe, lace, silk, tweed, leather and denim.

Capture d’écran 2015-10-10 à 12.32.15.png

Style crush: PinkPloyd gives Jana serious closet envy.


Whose closet do you envy and why?

I follow a girl on Instagram called PinkPloyd whom I have a huge style crush on and she gives me some serious closet envy. Her collection consists of vintage American western and work wear.

I have two dear friends here in Nelson that have been collecting for years and I must say I am pretty enviable of their closets. One friend has a vast collection of Rex bags and the other has previously owned her own vintage store, so you can only imagine the puddles of drool when I go visit her! 

Capture d’écran 2015-10-10 à 12.23.06.png

The west is the best: Some of PinkPloyd’s vast collection of western wear.

Who are some of your style icons and influences?


Perhaps a little predictable BUT Audrey Hepburn had such an effortlessly chic and timeless style that I admire. Bettie Page is my biggest influence in terms of my own appearance. I have had Bettie bangs off and on since i was about 3! I’ve even been nicknamed ‘The Fringe’ by fellow friends.
 A modern day style icon would be Vintage Vandalizm, her style oozes confidence and sex appeal, which I am all about! 

Effortlessly chic: “Audrey had a timeless quality to her style.”


Bettie Page’s iconic bangs  inspired Jana to cut some of her own.

Can you remember the first vintage piece you bought? What was it?

I don’t really have a memory span that goes back that far to be honest but i do remember buying an absolutely pristine labelled Blue and Gold Brocade 60s dress from the Nelson Hospice Opportunity shop for $20. This was such a jaw-dropping find and I am still upset that I sold it when I was a poor student. I am not sure I will ever stop kicking myself for doing that!


How do members of the public react to your get ups?


I get sweet comments, i can’t say i have ever had any horrible experiences. On occasions i get passing comments like “I love your bag!!” but generally i am on mum duty so i try to dress as casual and practical as possible.  

Various  finds sourced from Nelson’s secondhand shops.

 Do you wear vintage to work as well? What do you do and how is your style received in the workplace?


I work in fashion retail so people give me a lot of positive feedback when I wear a complete vintage look. I still remember a wee girl asking me why I was wearing a dressing gown to work one day. Needless to say my chic faux fur coat was looked at in a different light after that!
It’s normally very sweet comments and it sparks up a good old chin wag about vintage clothing, who wouldn’t enjoy that!? My fellow workmates are always complimentary when I rock into work.

Jana’s gorgeous kids in their vintage ringer tees.

How did you first become attracted to vintage clothing and style?
When I was a teen I was all about standing out and this of course had to be done on a budget. My older sisters were pretty alternative, one was a metaller and the other a hippie, so i already had the odds stacked against me.
Once I had exhausted fashion options at home I started experimenting with my own style through much trial and error. I can’t say i have it completely figured out yet!  Something I have figured out though, is that vintage clothing truly has my heart and the ‘fast fashion’ i see around me is no longer alluring. I try to purchase as little as possible brand new, hence why buying secondhand suits me down to a T.
 Recently I have started considering even downsizing my collection as I feel like owning a million bangles and never wearing them makes no sense to me– funny that. Vintage is meant to be enjoyed, lived in and shared in my opinion. I love to collect certain things but I’m much more choosy about what I bring home.
painting best 2 (1 of 1).jpg

Ballet fixation: She’s always been drawn to the kitsch aesthetic but wants to focus more on her decor in the future.

Does your vintage obsession extend into other areas too such as home decor, car, accessories and other collections?
Yes, I’m guilty of collecting too many kitsch ornaments and furniture. I have a tiny flat, so its a bit of a problem. I have inherited a pretty groovy 70s leather lounge suite from my late grandparents. I have a modest record collection which I’m trying to build up. 
My decor needs more focus, I have been too obsessed with clothing but I am slowly building up my vintage collection in all areas. 
 Anything you’d never be caught dead wearing?
Croc’s, Jandals, Ugg Boots, Tracksuits, polar fleece, tie dye, fluffy vests, Ed Hardy, and anything fluorescent or from Kmart.
Do you have any pet hates when it comes to vintage shopping?
When people overcharge for items, especially if they aren’t in tidy condition. When something is labelled as ‘vintage’ and it’s clearly from a chain store or the tag has label has been chopped off! Grrrr!!
What do you think of Jana’s awesome style? Let me know in the comments!
JANA collage

A dress a day: Some of the vintage beauties in her collection.

In the closet with: Angela Carter


“Fashion is a language. Some know it, some learn it, some never will – like an instinct.”
– Edith Head

Whangarei-based artist, blogger and seamstress Angela Carter shares her sartorial secrets with Natasha Francois.

With her sharp tailored silhouettes and angled  vintage hats, Angela Carter is one of those women who simply oozes style. She’s certainly one of the most ‘authentic looking’ vintage ladies I’ve ever seen at events. She looks like she could have just stepped out of a Dior advertisement or a gritty 1940s film noir.


The most amazing thing about her wardrobe however, is that it’s largely self-created. The couture-obsessed fashion fiend is sewing her way to her dream wardrobe, one vintage pattern at a time.

Read on to find out about her enviable wardrobe, why modern patterns don’t do it for her, and the power of a good hat. 

Vogue 273 full length skirt.jpg

Femme fatale: This film noir gown is one of her favourite dresses she’s made.

You have a great wardrobe. Wanna take us on a tour?
Thank you! I have a host of garments I have sewn, op shop pieces and ready to wear I have bought and looked after, way back when I was in regular paid employment, almost 10 years ago now, including quite a few hats, vintage gloves and scarves.
I have a few original vintage garments, a classic trench, a deep green wool coat, a full length leather coat, a couple of suits and dresses that I enjoy, but most of the time I’m wearing me made, supplemented with op shop finds.
My accessories are mostly vintage, I have way too many vintage gloves, scarves and items of custom jewellery, and hats! For me, I’m keen on a good design, good quality, and you can get that with some reproduction pieces.
Bolero Simplicty 2269 and skirt 3114 v6.jpg

Look sharp: Angela wears a bolero and skirt suit she made last year.

You’re also a keen sewer, do you make most of your clothes?
Yes! I make enough to kit myself out for most days, I have staple garments that get a lot of wear, like my favourite ’40s slacks, variations on some elegant McCalls dresses, a classic 50s-shaped shirt, and some jumpsuits, which are my current favourites to wear.
I can’t resist making cocktail frocks though!
Dresses I have sewn
How long have you been sewing?
I used to sew as child, making doll clothes, toys, but found sewing at high school so boring, and so I dropped it as soon as I could.
I started again around 9 years ago, properly, when I realised I could create a wardrobe I would enjoy more that what was available to buy.
My vintage suit sew along tall looking down nice shot

Angela’s project for the Vintage Suit Sew Along.

My vintage suit sew along tall looking down (1)
I had also had my first baby, and I was pretty sick of seeing off-the-rack clothes that were heavily marketed to surly looking teens and middle-aged women.
I just didn’t see myself in those clothes, so looked at styles that were fabulous and more individual.
I also had a limited budget, so started sewing as it was the most affordable way I could create my own style.
It helped that my mum still had my nana’s sewing machine and, as it turns out, quite a lot of fabric and haberdashery items.
Three special makes.JPG

Three special projects.

Do you make your own patterns or use vintage ones? 
I know the basics of pattern drafting, but I use vintage patterns, often making style adjustments, flaring a pant leg or lengthening a sleeve to create a more varied wardrobe.
I can drape and shape well, but I have an extensive collection of patterns to work from, so that makes it easy!
I have a couple of patterns that I use at starting point if I need to grade up or down, I am fortunate that I am mostly standard proportion, so my adjustments are minimal.
I just love working with my old patterns, they are so beautiful.
dresses she dreams of making.JPG

A few dresses she dreams of sewing.

What are you working on at the moment?
I work on multiple projects at a time, this year I plan to finish some garments that have been languishing on the shelves of my sewing room.
At the moment, I’m completing a Vogue Couturier pattern I started last year, which has some finishing details that have been challenging, mostly due to the fabric choice, a luxurious cream wool crepe (op shop score!).
Also on my ‘to finish’ list is a jumpsuit in black, a pair of slacks, to match a classic swing jacket I made this summer, on my ‘new projects’ list are a pair of pyjamas from a pattern that belonged to my nana, with a mandarin collar and ‘one piece’ pant legs, and a Vogue Special Design sheath dress using some soft upholstery fabric I picked up at an op shop – if I can can make it fit the small piece of fabric.
Vogue Special Design up next.JPG

“If I can make the pattern pieces fit, I plan to make this dress in this fabric I found in an op shop.”

Weigel%27s pjs up next.JPG

“I’m looking forward to some really snuggly pyjamas.”

Are you a vintage purist?
So far, I only sew from genuine vintage patterns, so that might make me a bit of a purist when it comes to my source patterns, I just prefer them now. I started sewing garments (as an adult) with a couple of early 60s and 70s patterns, and I haven’t looked back!
The 60s pattern I started with was a simple kimono sleeve wriggle dress, on unprinted pre-cut tissue paper, with different sized holes to represent the seam allowances, darts, straight grain etc.
I still find unprinted vintage patterns ideal to work with, no visual overload, and once you get your eye in, it’s easy. I also know the pattern companies various fit and style components that suit me, so basically, I use what I love and what works for my lifestyle.
Modern patterns just don’t do it for me!
What are some of your most prized pieces in your collection?
Oh so many! I think of my ‘vintage collection’ so broadly, I have the pleasure to sew on my nana’s old Bernina, notions and a few stunning pieces of very vintage fabric inherited from both nanas. I have a couple of patterns I inherited from my nana, and some Couturier patterns that I scored on TradeMe a while back.
Nanas patterns.JPG

Some of Angela’s nana’s patterns.

Vogue couturier design patternsVogue Couturier Design SuitsThese are really hard to find, and would fetch top dollar, so ‘investment’ pieces (cough) you could say.

As you might expect, Vintage Couturier and designer patterns were pricier, are rarer, have the most unusual features, they are sometimes very complex and well, they are so stylish!

Sewing from the Couturier patterns I have has been challenging and very rewarding.

Vogue Paris Original and Couturier patterns.JPG

“Stunning Vogue Couturier Patterns, I love the way these women don’t give a damn!”

I also have a number of precious printed posters that my poppa screen printed in the 50s and 60s, these are so special, as I also worked in the signage and print industry in my twenties, there is a family connection there that makes them more special.
There are other random treasures too, like a globe, some pressed glass and other odd bits that remind me of family.
Cool vogue women who remind her

“I love these women, they remind me of my mum, she used to draw women like this when she studied sewing at high school.”

Any noteworthy recent purchases?
Ooo I am on a bit of a ‘downsize’ the sewing room at the moment and I haven’t had any dream finds come up for a while.
Earlier this year I did pick up some stunning patterns, I have sewn up one, and have others on the ‘to make’ list.
I love this dress, and hope to make one of these coats for winter but I’m a little late starting. 
Butterick up next (1).JPG

Angela shows off a recent op shop score.

How did you first become interested in vintage style?
I used to be sort of anti-fashion, I am a bit shy, and internalised stuff about not attracting attention to myself, so other than being a bit of a goth teen, I was not that into fashion or clothes.
But growing up with two nanas who sewed, a mum who sewed, and loving all my grandparents old stuff, some of which I inherited, and are now special pieces to me, it was only a matter of time before it became a bit of a passion.
I got some of my angst out and started to think more about what I wore, I had had my babies, and had reached a point, where I knew myself, and was a bit ‘life is short’ I’m going to embrace the styles I love!
I was also out of the paid work force, I knew how to sew, fabric was easy to come by in op shops, so I just started sewing clothes I liked, learned along the way, found my style, and didn’t stop.
Fabulous forties patterns (1).JPG

Fabulous forties patterns.

How does it make you feel when you wear it?

I love to wear my makes. Most days I’m wearing something I have made, like my slacks from my most used 40s pattern, so comfy, and a great style.

I’m still working on that perfect fit, though most of the time, my clothes fit me well, and I chose fabric and colours I love.

McCalls black dress swirl copy

“I finished this dress this year, just in time for my nana’s funeral, sad days.”

McCalls black dress skirt copy

“I’m wearing vintage gold gloves, op shop score, my VVDO shoes, black, read and gold brocade, and my other nana’s flower brooch.”

Since I have been sewing my own, I rarely go to clothing stores, and when I am in malls (which I loathe!) I look around and wonder, how many people have sewn their own clothes? Or have a connection to what they wear?
Vogue 6435 blue hat back.jpg
What are your favourite eras when it comes to clothes?
I gravitate to the 30s and 40s, I love jump suits, and the shapes that were popular during the war years, utilitarian yet chic.
There are so many things to love about past fashion trends and styles, so I dip into what I enjoy in the moment, sometimes that reflects what I’m reading or watching.
Vogue 3435 and black and white fabric
Vogue 6435 blue waist long groovy

“One of my jump suits, made with a 60s Vogue pattern.”

What are your general thoughts about op shopping and vintage shopping in New Zealand?
I have seen prices rise, and quality in secondhand and op shops drop, over the last ten years especially.
I think it’s a combination of rising rents (particularly in Auckland), op shopping becoming more trendy, and sometimes people forget that they are selling used goods – and that buying new all the time, is not an option for plenty of people, especially families, so it bugs me a bit.
Butterick 6299 finished and hem dropping.jpeg

“A recent make, using a new to me vintage Butterick pattern, using fabric my nana gave me.”


Butterick 6299 finished tall.JPG

The finished result.

The drop in quality clothing, speaks to the huge problem of fast fashion, garments are not made to last, and are of low quality fabrics, they are less well cared for, most of the time, they swamp the op shops. That makes the special vintage finds even more exciting though.
I enjoy op shopping, you never know what you may find, but it requires a level of commitment, time and regularly visiting, that I don’t always have!
My grandparents and mum used to get up early for Saturday morning garage sales, which were great for bargains and meeting your neighbours, it’s a bit of a shame that is no longer a past time.
I have a great green wool coat I scored at a garage sale, took out the shoulder pads, and voila! one of my most worn garments.
Do you have any holy grail pieces? 
My holy grails are usually the rarer Vogue Couturier or Special Design patterns, I would love more 30s and 40s, they are hard to come by if you’re a bargain hunter like me!
I limit my buying to local auctions (like TM) though some really nice patterns can be found on eBay and Etsy, the cost of shipping from international sellers is prohibitive.
Whose closet do you envy and why?
Actually, none! I’m pretty happy with what I have.
Vogue 273 full length back buttons.jpg
Who are some of your style icons and influences?
I love the work of Edith Head, she dressed a number of women on screen, so superbly, including some Hitchcock films I enjoy such as Vertigo, To Catch a Thief and Marnie, she used dress so cleverly to communicate.

Costume designer Edith Head.

Diana Vreeland was a very interesting person, and I think she knew how to dress, and be herself, I admire her for her work and how she wasn’t just all about traditional beauty.
I find collaborations really intriguing, Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen, and Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn, these relationships seemed to help define a personality through dress.
How do members of the public react to your get-ups?
 You know, when I’m out, I forget that I might look a bit different. I often receive compliments from people, especially if I’m wearing a jumpsuit, I see a few onesies around, but jumpsuits, not so much!
If I go all-out hat, dress, pearls, people stare, and sometimes rush up and say, “Oh my god I have to say you look amazing!”
That’s the power of a good hat for you.
Does your vintage obsession extend into other areas too such as home decor, car, accessories and other collections?
Absolutely. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a child, and loved their old stuff, I learned about quality and care, and many of my memories are associated with their homes, the textiles and homewares that we used.
The fact that these items can still be found in use is a testimony to the quality of such pieces.
I use Crown Lynn for my tea and coffee, we listen to records, occasionally use a reel to reel player, we have a bit of a mix of analog and high tech, for movies and music at home.
We shop second hand for almost everything, so we chose carefully and go for mid century pieces of furniture when budget permits.
                       My make of Butterick 7653, my nana’s fascinator, and gloves.
My love of vintage is also about knowing where I come from.
I love history and the social~political side of dress, and how various social movements have been reflected in fashion. Like the move to evacuate children out of London during WW1 brought into the public eye the scale of poverty that many families were coping with, the clothing they wore said it all.
Vogue jump suit hat in mirror.jpg
I am a bit of a sci-fi nerd and collect and read John Wyndham books, and when I can put aside the glaring chauvinism of the period, I get into 40s-50s sci novels, by writers such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clark.
And film! I love classic cinema, noir film, Hitchcock, and 60s science fiction series like Star Trek TOS, and Batman, so awesome! I have spent a couple of months binge watching Batman with the kids, and the costume design and set design is spectacular.
I also love a good classic cocktail…that counts doesn’t it?
See more of Angela and her amazing style at the below links:
Advance 6190 complete bodice necklinedetail

“I love this dress, such great detailing in the sleeves and back, I’m wearing a hat I that I picked up at an op shop for $3, it had a terrific shape, but was a little dull and faded. So I revamped it with some black fabric and it comes out more now.”

Advance 6190 complete  tall outside (1).jpgAdvance 6190 and fabric (1).jpg


How old is your bra?

Love them or hate them– the bra is something most woman wear everyday.  But when did we start doing this, and why?  How old are our bras and why did a garment that can sometimes seem like a torture device actually start off as part of women’s emancipation?  Laura Macfehin looks at bras and traces their sometimes surprising pedigree.


Greeks and Romans

When asking the question “just how old are our bras?” some historians have been tempted back into the ancient world by frescoes showing Roman gals gadding about in breast bands and loincloths. I’m going to cavalierly dismiss this breast get-up (otherwise known as a strophium, fascia, fasciola, taenia, or mamillare) as a forerunner to what we wear now because a) they only really wore them when exercising, and b) it was pretty much just a length of fabric wrapped round to contain the bust while tossing balls about. Greek ladies may have tightened their belts under their busts to prop up their bosoms up but again I don’t think this really counts as a bra-type bra. So due diligence to antiquity done—when did we start wearing bras?

ancient roman underwear

Roman lady challenges the viewer — “come at me– I’ve got my strophium on and my twirly thing”

From about the 16th century onwards, it became increasingly the thing to encase oneself in some sort of undergarment that held the body in place and created whatever shape was considered desirable at the time. Corsets changed depending the silhouette that was demanded by fashion at the time and the materials that were available, but they all generally involved boning of some kind and lacing. They were also all in one piece—that is they encompassed everything from the bust down to the waist or hips in one garment.

(c) National Trust, Tredegar House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Portrait of Blanche Parry, possibly by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.  She demonstrates the type of Elizabethan fashions that required stiff underpinnings.

By the 19th century (after a brief loosening up in the Georgian era) corsets had become marvels of engineering, providing a sort of exoskeleton within which Victorian women lived their heavily prescribed lives. Much has been made (and I think overplayed) of the potential hazards of these garments but it is certainly true that there were women who felt them to be irrational items of clothing that impeded women from living full lives. Although there had been a couple of gentlemen who had acquired patents for garments solely for the support of the breasts these tended to be stupid designs involving inflatable bits or cups made of steel mesh that looked like tea strainers. In 1876 Olivia P. Flynt, of Boston patented a bodice type garment to be worn instead of a corset which was specially adapted to ladies having large busts… thereby enabling beauty of form to be preserved without lacing or otherwise injuriously pressing or binding the body.   Unfortunately her bust improver didn’t take off, although it looks like it would have been quite comfortable.


Oliva P. Flynt’s ‘Bust Improver’ 1876

The Socialist Soutien

Herminie Cadolle was a Communard who had taken part in one of the first women’s movements—the Union of Women for the Defence of Paris. During the Paris commune of 1871 she cared for the wounded and became friends with insurrectionist Louise Michel. Afterwards she was imprisoned in Rouen for her role and served six months before being released. She continued her political activities however—becoming treasurer of the Socialist Revolutionary Committee which was set up to support deportees of the Commune. Eventually though there was too much heat on her in Paris and she moved to Argentina—setting up shop in Buenos Aires. It was here that she conceived of her emancipatory undergarment by essentially cutting a corset in half.


In 1889 Herminie Cadolle exhibited her new design of undergarments at The Great Exhibition. The “soutien-gorge” (literally ‘throat support’) was a two-piece undergarment to replace the corset thereby ending the constriction on a ladies organs. From 1905 she was selling the top half separately and in 1910 she set up the Parisian workshop which she left in the charge of her daughter Marie, and in which successive generations of Cardolle women have continued to produce lingerie.


The Crosby Show

Born Mary Phelps Jacob, Caresse Crosby is often credited as an inventor of the modern bra. She came from a privileged New York family with all that entailed, and so in 1910 found herself a debutante attending balls and generally appearing in society. One night she was dressing herself for a ball in a diaphanous evening gown she had bought several weeks earlier. Unfortunately at this time underwear in New York was not keeping pace with the new sheer fashions, and Crosby found that her regular whalebone corset and super tight corset cover showed at the top of the gown’s plunging neckline, poked through the delicate fabric and turned her ample bust into a mono-boob. Frustrated she called for a couple of hankies and a needle and thread and whipped up a bra that protected her modesty without destroying the dress.

1910s gowns

These gowns (that belonged to Queen Maude of Norway) shows type of delicate fabrics and low necklines that were popular in 1910

It was an immediate success with many girls requesting she make them one that very night. Crosby patented the ‘backless brassiere’ in 1914, maintaining that it was “well-adapted to women of different size” and was “so efficient that it may be worn by persons engaged in violent exercise like tennis.” I find it hard to imagine a couple of hankies helping me much while playing tennis, but then I am no longer 23. She later formed the Fashion Form Brassiere Company that produced her bras until 1922, when her second husband Harry Crosby, persuaded her to wrap it up and come to Europe with him instead (they didn’t really need the money).  She sold the patent for US$1500 to The Warner Brothers Corset Company who discontinued the style but went on to make over US$15 million dollars over the next three decades.

mpj bra

Young Mary Jacob Phelps and the bra she designed

Crosby would go on to have a very exciting life after bras– with husband Harry she set up Black Sun Press which published ex-pat writers in Paris– people like Hemingway and Lawrence.  After Harry died in scandalous suicide-pact/murder-suicide with a lover (the Crosby’s had had a very open marriage) she continued to run Black Sun Press, published her own poetry, married an alcoholic actor nineteen years her junior, flouted U.S anti-miscegenation laws with a relationship with famous fighter and Broadway Star Canada Lee, founded organisations like ‘Women Against War’ and ‘Citizens of the World’ and ran an artist’s colony in Rome.

Caresse Crosby and her whippet

Caresse Crosby in 1922 with her whippet Clytoris (yes you read that right)

Our cups runneth over


Ida Cohen Rosenthal

At the same time as Crosby was rigging up her hanky bra another New York woman and her husband were working on the next step in the evolution of the modern bra.  Ida Cohen Rosenthal was born in Russia, where she had studied Russian and worked as a seamstress.  When her and her husband William’s Socialist activities began began to draw the hostile attention of the police they decided to emigrate.  At first they settled in Hoboken, where they set up the dressmaking business that they would eventually move to Manhatten.  Here they combined forces with dressmaker Enid Bissett.  In the early 20s the prevailing flapper look called for a boyish chest and most brassieres were simple bandeau type affairs.  Bissett and the Rosenthals found that this did little to flatter many of their customers, so Bissett took one of the bandeaus apart and re-stitched it to better suit a fuller figure.  They tinkered with the design and eventually worked a system of cup sizes to accomodate A, B, C, and D cups.  These bras were originally given to customers as part of a dress purchase, but they became so requested as individual sales that the trio soon started to stock them as stand alone garments.  In 1930 the Maiden Form Brassiere Company was formed.


The cup sizes system proved so successful that other companies such as Warner’s was quick to adopt it, and the four different sizes were nicknamed egg-cup, tea-cup, coffee-cup and challenge-cup!  The Rosenthals continued to run Maidenform (as it became in 1960) which became famous for it’s newspaper and magazine advertising.  The “I dreamed” campaign was thought up by a New York ad-man in 1949 and continued for twenty-one years.

maidenform election

Ida Rosenthal ran the business side of Maidenform from 1930 until her stroke in 1966, traveling to promote their products and taking on a leadership role that was unusual for women at the time.  Today the business is run by her granddaughter Beatrice Coleman.

But wait, there’s more…

So that’s about it, right?  Apart from tinkering here and there– the bullet bra, underwires, the push-up–  our modern bras have continued in pretty much the same mould.  Which means we can trace their birth back to around the beginning of the twentieth century.  At least that is what everyone thought.  Then in 2008 some workers who were part of the reconstruction of Castle Lengberg in Nikolsdorf, East Tyrol found a hidden vault containing 2,722 textile fragments.  Among these were four amazingly modern looking bras.

Lengberg_longline bra_0

The remains of a medieval bra from Lengberg castle that bears a striking resemblance to a 1950s longline bra


Among the finds were these underpants which look a lot like a modern string bikini.

Until this find it was generally believed that medieval women across Europe wore only a chemise beneath their gowns to protect them from the dirt and oil of their medieval bodies.  Archaeologists and historians are still working to discover who might have worn this garments and whether they were part of everyday garb, but it definitely extends the family tree of our modern over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders by about five hundred years!

What are your thoughts on bras?  Love them leave them?  Modern or vintage?  And did you know they were so old?

For more on textile history and the Lengberg Castle find see Laura Ricketts’ article The Case of the Medieval Bras in Piecework November/December 2014

%d bloggers like this: