Laura I. Baldt and Clothing for Women
One of the vintage textile manuals I have is Clothing for Women: Selection, Design, and Construction by Laura I. Baldt, published by Lippincott in 1916 and 1924. Baldt was an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her book is quoted frequently in The Lost Art of Dress, but unlike her colleague Mary Schenk Woolman, I have not been able to find anything on her life, so we will let her words and illustrations speak for themselves.
The first short chapter is Clothing Selection and Budgets, starting with principles of selection that all of the “Dress Doctors” would have agreed with.
WHAT CLOTHING SHOULD DENOTE
Clothing and Circumstances – Well-ordered clothing should, first of all, denote fitness to circumstances. We may dress as richly as our circumstances permit, but should let the keynote of that richness be simplicity…There should be evenness of attire; we should not sacrifice one garment for lavish expenditure upon another.
Clothing Fit for the Occasion – It is a grave mistake to go about unsuitably dressed, wearing clothing obviously meant for another occasion. A tweed tailored suit at a formal reception, a much frilled short-sleeved chiffon blouse in a business office, or a half-worn satin gown in the kitchen, do not bespeak fitness to occasion, yet how often are such “misfits” seen!
Clothing and Environment – Good sense should guide us in suiting our clothing to our environment. We should please ourselves in this matter, but we need not offend our neighbors nor make ourselves the jest of others….the busy little housewife will have less use for be-ribboned negligée than the society belle…
Clothing and the Wearer – Last but not least, clothing should be chosen for its suitability to the wearer. It should be an expression of her highest individuality. It has been asked, ‘How many women dress for their own self-satisfaction?’ Why should we not? Have we not set for ourselves standards of excellence, toward which we strive, in other modes of conduct? Why not, then, in the conduct of our clothing? We should never give ourselves over to a blind following of fashion; this dwarfs our individuality and handicaps our sense of freedom. (pp. 4 and 5)
When you think about the difference in styles between 1916 when Baldt’s book first came out, and 1924, when this second edition came out, you can see why she emphasized not offending the neighbors with your clothing choices! But I am still wondering why the society belle needed be-ribboned negligées. Just who would be seeing her attired thusly? Hmmm?
I always love to look at the prescribed budgets, to see what garments were suggested, and their prices in relation to each other.
You may notice some tiny little footnotes in the budget — they were on the following page and they were (1) Remodelled, (2) Homemade, (3) Purchased at sale.
After a chapter on Fabric Selection for the Consumer (which is illustrated with lots of lovely samples), Baldt turns to Principles of Clothing Design. She sees two streams of design — one which expresses the beauty of the human form, as in classical Greek dress, and the other which makes the garment a work of art independent of the form beneath, as in traditional Japanese dress.
Analyzing historic styles, she says that from the earliest times up until 1500, all these styles had the first aim, to subtly suggest the contours of the human body.
From 1500 through the 1700s, the aim in Western fashion turned to the other ideal, that of creating decorative structural contours that had little to do with the body beneath.
“After this there was a return to the preceding type, which held its own up to about 1870, when there was a change, and a long period of inadequate attempts toward a silhouette ensued, 1870-1900. Within the last few years we achieved an approach to a contour of rational beauty, but this may be short-lived for, according to present commercial standards, fashion must be ever changing.” (pp. 62, 63)
“The costume of 1879, Fig. 27, is an attempt to return to the natural silhouette, but what a failure! The garment is an example of very poor design, without unity in line or mass, and much unrelated in variety. Fig. 27, 1887, has a perfectly arbitrary silhouette, and is without even decorative unity. Fig. 27, 1900, is an improvement over 1887, but is still not successful. The lines have a certain uniformity of character that are not beautiful. In the costume of 1909, Fig. 27, there is a good structural feeling in the general form and in the parts; through unity, variety, and balance, it approaches beauty.” (p. 66)
Personally, I love the styles of the 1890s and 1900, and I would take them over 1909 any day!
After this look at historical styles, Baldt gives some design exercises in color, unity and variety, and balance. There are only 7 colored plates in the book, but three of them are mostly gray:
The main body of the book is over 300 pages of instruction on pattern-making, stitching, and finishing all kinds of garments.
One of the garments I had never heard of before is a guimpe, which Baldt says is either a soft underwaist for wearing under a sleeveless overblouse, or a garment made of net or lace to be worn under silk or wool dresses.
Another garment we just don’t see anymore is the middy blouse.
Baldt writes, “Because of the comfort and freedom of movement it insures, the middy blouse is to be recommended for wear at school, gymnasium, camp, and for both indoor and outdoor sports.”
What amazes me most, about the middy blouse and the other garments illustrated, is the amount of attention to detail. All that braid on a shirt that was meant to be worn for outdoor play! All the variations in decorative stitching and trims!
I love this book and its clear step-by-step instructions. It makes me want to sit down and sew some lingerie blouses and tailored waists.
(There is an interesting history of the Teachers College here. But no mention of any of their textile teachers.)