ONCE WORN: LAURA MCLAWS HELMS

I am beyond excited to introduce our next Once Worn style extraordinaire, Mrs. Laura McLaws Helms! Laura is a fashion writer and historian currently living between London, New York and Los Angeles. You may know her as the Director of Lady magazine, Curator of the much anticipated Thea Porter exhibition or a global style influencer (her social media following is epic) - needless to say, Laura is seriously rocking the fashion world and we are so excited that we were able to speak with her. 

 

Tell us about your role as a fashion historian

I'm a freelance fashion and cultural historian so my work takes on many different forms. At the moment I am finishing up a book on the designer Thea Porter (V & A Publications, 2015) and am curating an exhibition on her that will open at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London on February 6, 2015. In addition I am working on several book proposals and working with other museums to set up a tour of the Thea Porter exhibition. I consult with designers and brands―helping to create mood boards and help with design inspiration. I also do research for photographers, writers and for movies. Every day is completely different and usually taken up with working on many different projects at once―at the moment it is primarily the Thea Porter book and exhibition, as well a finishing up the second issue of the annual art and fashion magazine, LADY, that I co-founded, but I'm usually working on a few smaller things at the same time.

When/why did you become interested in fashion history and wearing vintage clothing

As a small child I was fascinated by my grandmother's clothes and would spend hours looking through them when I visited. I started collecting all of the Tom Tierney historical paper dolls when I was around 4 or 5 so was soon able to speak quite eloquently about Schiaparelli and Hartnell. When I was six we went to visit London (prior to moving there a year later) and my parents took me to the V & A to see the costume galleries. I was enamoured and awed by the heavily embroidered mantuas―my mother bought me the catalogue, 400 Years of Fashion, and that pretty much became my bible.

I started shopping at charity shops when I was around 10 or 11―I've always been a collector and a pop culture obsessive so would buy old records, magazines and things like Bay City Rollers annuals from 1974. Along the way I started picking up old clothes and gradually over the years stopped wearing anything else.

What genre, era or mode of fashion do you find most interesting

I'm very interested in the sixties and seventies in all aspects of culture, art and design―studying the huge cultural and social shifts and how those played out in fashion, in interiors and architecture, in magazines, in relationships. All aspects of culture are so deeply interrelated. In terms of fashion, I'm primarily interested in western fashion from 1967 to 1977―in particular the British designers who brought a sense of fantasy, exoticism and romance back into dressing (Ossie Clark, Thea Porter, Bill Gibb, etc.). I also love Classic American sportswear from the 1970s and the over-the-top opulence of 1980s French couture.

How has studying fashion history influenced your personal style

Since I only wear vintage it has made me a much more informed shopper. I know how much things are worth and also what labels might not be well-known now but were important and luxurious at the time. My Masters included conservation - while I chose not to pursue that side of the field, I know how to tell if and how something can be repaired. In the end I think all of this helps me make more informed decisions when I am purchasing vintage to wear myself.


Tell us about an exciting project you’re working on

A project I've been working on for several year is finally coming to fruition―I started researching Thea Porter my first year of grad school, so it is wonderful to have the book an exhibition launching so soon.


Is there a fashion collection or exhibition you’ve been wanting to see
I've heard great things about the China exhibition the Costume Institute is working on for next May, so I am excited to see how that comes together. I still need to find a day to go to Philadelphia to see the Patrick Kelly show.

I really regret not seeing the Giorgio di Sant'Angelo exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum two years ago―he is one of my favourite designers to wear so I'm still kicking myself for not just getting on a plane and going

How would you describe your personal style
It's basically an amalgam of various trends of the 1960s and 70s―high wattage glamour, prairie girl, disco diva, Edwardian miss... I love clothes that have an element of drama, romance and fantasy to them.

Who or what has influenced your style most

My maternal grandmother. She was always immaculately put together, so stylish. Almost all of her clothes were made by a couturier in Geneva; the rest were Lilly Pulitzer and Pucci pieces she wore for leisure.

Over the years she gave me all of her perfect suits, evening ensembles, pool cover-ups. I do wear them all quite a lot―in general my style veers more towards the 1970s, but I've been deeply influenced by her fastidiousness in terms of fit, her love of colour and print, and by her general engagement with dress as a major aspect of personal narrative.

What is your most treasured item in your wardrobe

In terms of clothes, I have a few Ossie Clark and Thea Porter pieces I am very partial to. There is a purple-and-white Pierre Cardin coat that I was wearing when I was in an accident―it was completely untouched and I feel that it has a strong blessed and protective energy to it. Other than those, my grandmother's rings and the cross I designed when I was 18 are definitely the most treasured.

Where do you find style inspiration

I find style inspiration everywhere. Usually it comes from the clothes themselves―I see something and can immediately imagine how I will wear it―but I know that my years of looking at hundreds of historical images daily informs everything that I do in life. I never look at an image and think that I want to replicate the look; it's more that every image has gone in and been filtered and merged into my aesthetic.

Do you have a signature piece or heirloom that you wear often

I usually wear two rings I inherited from my grandmothers; one from each. I don't wear both every day, as one of them is a rather large cluster of diamonds, sapphires and emeralds, but when I do wear them I feel very deeply attuned with my heritage and they always seem to bring me good luck.

ONCE WORN: AMBER BUTCHART

If you study, follow or work in the field of fashion then you're probably familiar with Amber Butchart, the seriously hip fashion historian/DJ/lecturer/TV personality and author. Butchart's career is booming with opportunity so we were thrilled  to steal a few minutes of her time to talk fashion history and personal style.  From her latest book Nautical Chic to fashion facts you'll be surprised to learn, Amber shares some must read updates and insights about her stellar career as a fashion historian. Follow @AmberButchart on Instagram.

 

Why did you pursue a career in fashion history

I started off as a buyer for the vintage chain Beyond Retro (http://www.beyondretro.com/en/) back when the word 'vintage' was only just finding its way into fashion magazines. So it was really working with the items themselves that fueled my interest. I also did the MA in History & Culture of Fashion at London College of Fashion (where I'm currently an Associate Lecturer), which gave a theoretical basis to the work I was doing at Beyond Retro, and the rest is history!

What genre, era or mode of fashion do you find most interesting

I find most eras interesting, choosing a favourite is difficult! But I think if I had to choose one I would choose the long 18th century - from the Restoration through to Victoria's reign. That's a pretty long century, to be fair, but covers so much change that's it's fascinating to study.

How has studying fashion history influenced your personal style

I'm lucky in that all the work I do involves research, from our Jazz FM show (http://jazzfm.com/onair/programmes/peppermintcandy/) that focuses a lot on forgotten women of the jazz age, to the writing and lecturing that I do on different aspects of fashion history and the cultural life of dress. I find it all inspirational and definitely take elements on board when I can, for example I was influenced by Russian Constructivist design for the outfit I recently wore to speak about Soviet fashion. I like to use a literal interpretation of what I'm discussing where possible. 

Who are your style icons

Janelle Monae, many of the Advanced Style women and the art teacher in the film Ghost World. (http://advancedstyle.blogspot.co.uk/)

Tell us about an exciting project you’re working on

I'm just finishing my latest book, Nautical Chic, for Thames & Hudson. It's a look at the history of high style on the high seas, from officers and sailors to fishermen and pirates. It will be out in Spring 2015 published by Thames & Hudson in the UK and by Abrams in the States. 

Share a fashion history fact that we’d be surprised to learn

High heels were originally worn by men for horse riding, and in the 17th century King Louis XIV - the Sun King - was a big fan. The colour red – at the time costly to produce – was favoured by the king for his heels. Only those admitted to his court were allowed to wear such markers of virility, wealth and status. It just goes to show that our ‘gendering’ of clothing changes over time.

Is there a fashion collection or exhibition you’ve been wanting to see

I'm looking forward to seeing the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty show when it comes to the V&A next year. I'd also love to get to New York this autumn for the Met exhibition on mourning dress.

How do you see this industry evolving in the future

Fashion is becoming more popular both in a museum setting and in an academic context. To me this makes sense, as I think it's an area of design history that can tell us a lot about our past, as clothing has a visceral relationship to our bodies, and has also had a huge impact on society, from the economic - such as driving the industrial revolution - to allowing us to express our cultural beliefs. So I hope to see the area growing and becoming ever more popular! 

Any advice you'd like to share with young people looking to get into the field

Don't give up! There's a lot of hard work involved, but if you love it you should stick with it.

ONCE WORN: SARAH JEAN CULBRETH

Introducing our first personal style edition of Once Worn with Sarah Jean Culbreth. Sarah Jean currently works at Beacon's Closet,  interns at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, and will soon be starting the Fashion and Textile Studies MA program at FIT. 

Sarah Jean's unique sense of style, beauty regime and ability to replicate historical garments are just a few of the many reasons we wanted to feature her on Inside The Archive. Read the in-depth Q&A below and make sure to follow her on instagram @sister_wife.

When/why did you become interested in fashion history and wearing vintage/historical clothing

 When I was young, my mother and grandfather took me to see the Fashion Museum in Bath, England which really piqued my interest in fashion history. It was exhilarating to see clothes from hundreds of years ago and to imagine the wearer of such complicated and beautiful dresses. I distinctly remember feeling bewildered when I saw my first bustle.

 I started wearing vintage clothes in high school, mainly because I didnt like what the other kids were wearing. My mom taught me how to sew and so I started altering clothes that I found at thrift stores. Watching old movies helped me learn silhouettes and patterns from different eras- I was always on the lookout for 1960s dresses to emulate Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour.

 I started recreating historical clothing to learn more about how garments were constructed and what its like to wear them. It is one thing to recognize a 1860s day dress, but quite another to feel the sway of a crinoline.

How would you describe your personal style

I think that its a reflection of my interests.

Who or what has influenced your style most

What I wear is most influenced by research, whether its directly or subconsciously. During a recent visit to the New Orleans Museum of Art, I saw a photograph- The Sketch by Getrude Kasebier- for the first time. I had been studying the Photo-Secession movement and was surprised to see a Kasebier photo at the museum. After a moment, I looked down and saw that I was dressed almost exactly like Beatrice Baxter, the subject of the photo.

What is your most treasured item in your wardrobe

The practical side of me says my most treasured item is my black oxfords that I wear every day. Im on my feet nearly all day and comfortable shoes are essential.

But the other, more romantic, side of me treasures a pair of beautiful beaded pants that my boyfriend brought home for me. They look to be mens cotton pants from the late 19th century and have mysterious blue and white glass beading down the legs. Because I have no information regarding their history or purpose, I like to imagine that they come from a Native American trader.

Where do you find style inspiration

Currently, I am most inspired by dance- specifically Balanchines Apollo and Grahams Appalachian Spring. And the work of strong, creative women like OKeeffe, Karinska, and my friend Bunny is always on my mind. For me, choosing what to wear for the day is driven more by a feeling than anything else.

How do you see your style evolving

I think my style will evolve every day for the rest of my life. There is really no way to know where its going because as my realm of knowledge expands, my appreciation for different eras and cultures will affect the way that I dress.

Describe your beauty routine 

My routine is simple and, at risk of sounding predictable, a little old-fashioned. I wash my hair once a week with a pine tar shampoo and I moisturize with a jojoba- frankincense- lavender oil concoction. I comb and braid my hair every morning, brush my teeth three times a day, and floss before bed. I dont wear any makeup but, once I work up the courage, I plan to start wearing thick kohl eyeliner everyday. 

Do you have a signature piece or heirloom that you wear often

I don’t feel fully dressed without jewelry- I love the sound and weight of my stacked necklaces and earrings.

ONCE WORN: BLACK CAT VINTAGE

Vintage fashion collector Claudine Villardito has been actively collecting, restoring and selling historical fashions for over a decade. From Jacques Fath to John Galliano, Claudine has amassed a museum worthy collection of garments that she currently houses in her boutique, Black Cat Vintage, located in Tucson, Arizona. ITA took a trip to Tucson to explore her goldmine of vintage goods and this is what we saw and learned...

How did you come up with the name of your store

The name "Black Cat Vintage" comes from the other love of my life: animals, and specifically cats.  I have a soft spot for rehabilitating things others have discarded (see #8), and in 1993 I adopted an orphaned black kitten whom I named "Bear."  Bear was probably the closest I'll ever come to having a daughter, my best friend and my constant companion for 17 years, so I named Black Cat Vintage in her honor.  I also consider myself a bit of a misfit toy, so the name appealed to me in a "black sheep" kind of way.

How did you get involved with vintage collecting and dealing

I blame my mother for getting me hooked on vintage clothing.  She came from a very poor family but had immaculate taste and incredible discipline.  In the 1950s when she began earning her own money, she would put away $1 a week for a dress (or china or flatware or…) she admired, and before long she had acquired an astounding collection of Dior, Balenciaga, de la Renta and other designer gowns.  I grew up watching her wear those gowns to events and parties and would spend the entire following day standing inside her dresses in the closet, smelling her perfume and pretending I was her.  The weight of certain fabrics, the detail in a simple buttonhole and the cold teeth of minuscule metal zippers became hallmarks I could recognize with my eyes closed.  Whenever I encountered a piece of clothing with those hallmarks I did whatever I could to acquire it, whether or not it was my size, color or personal style.  Soon the quantity of vintage pieces--many of which I could or would never wear--outnumbered my own and my husband threatened to move out if I didn't stop stealing his closet space.  And Black Cat Vintage was born.

What is the most interesting item you've sold or purchased

 The most interesting piece I've purchased is probably a silk moire gown attributed to Jacques Fath.  It belonged to a French heiress who knew Fath personally and asked him to make her one after having seen it in a French magazine.  He refused, stating the gown was bespoke and couldn't be reproduced.  The heiress pressed him and he finally agreed on the condition that he not sew his label to the inside at the risk of angering the gown's owner; instead it has a couture ribbon with the gown's style name and what I believe is the original price, which equals about $40,000 in today's money.  I now have the gown, but have been unable to find the French magazine clipping that proves the provenance of its doppleganger.  As juicy as the story behind the gown is, it would be much juicier with that magazine clipping!

 How do you authenticate the pieces in your collection

When items come from other collectors or museum deaccessions authenticity has typically already been determined, and when I acquire pieces from the original owners I take the time to get a history of the garment, where it was worn, purchased and if possible a photo of the owner in it.  In those rare cases when the designers are still alive I correspond with them for additional authentication.  However, sometimes labels are missing or treasures turn up in odd places; in those cases I rely on a vast (and still growing) collection of resource materials, a firm knowledge of fashion history and other experts for help.  Every vintage garment is an experiment in forensic anthropology because each construction element--from the type of thread to the stitch used to the button or zipper manufacturer--is a clue.  It's just a matter of putting clues together correctly and knowing what to look for.

 How has the vintage fashion industry changed over the last decade

The biggest change in the vintage fashion industry over the last decade is the influence of the Internet. Period films and TV dramas have exposed new audiences to vintage fashion, and exhibits like the Met's "Savage Beauty" have raised awareness of fashion as art; these are undoubtedly positive developments.  However, high demand has led to an explosion in the number of online vintage vendors with questionable product, knowledge and business ethics, and virtual shopping makes it difficult for consumers to separate vendors who collect, admire and sell vintage because of what it stands for from those who are in it to make a buck while it's hot.  

 What is your most requested item from clients

I can always tell what's trending in popular culture by the requests I receive.  When "Atonement" was in theaters, everyone wanted a Nile green 1930s gown; when "Impossible Conversations" debuted at the Met, interest in Schiaparelli soared.  After William and Katherine's wedding, requests for wedding gowns with sleeves outnumbered sleeveless or strapless gowns for the first time in years.  People are always looking for that piece that makes them feel exceptional, and whenever they are exposed to a garment that has the potential to do that they seek it out for themselves.  The wonderful thing about vintage is that even if the piece they were originally looking for isn't a "home run," vintage fashion offers an era for every body type so they can typically find their own exceptional item with a little guidance.  And because everything eventually comes back into style, chances are their garment will be the next big thing given a little time.

 What are some of the challenges you face with selling vintage clothing

 In my business model, the biggest challenge is educating consumers on the difference between vintage and costume.  October is my least favorite month because of the number of calls I receive from people looking for flapper gowns or Marilyn Monroe dresses to wear to Halloween parties.  Trying to explain why my 1920s gowns cost what they do when you can find one for $25 online is a diplomatic minefield.  

 What do you enjoy most about owning a vintage boutique

My biggest joy comes from resurrecting pieces that others have written off as unsalvageable.  For better or worse I tend to anthropomorphize my clothes, and nothing gets my game face on like an underdog.  I restore all my pieces using period materials and employ period techniques whenever possible, so restorations usually take a minimum of 6-8 months but the finished products are worth every minute.  It's like discovering an unknown work of art or being present at the birth of a new life.

What is your absolute dream piece that you’d like to add to your collection

(We're dreaming, right?)  An Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian dress from 1966.  A Vionnet evening gown with a thumbprint label.  A Fortuny gown with Gallenga stenciling.  A Poiret lampshade ensemble from the Ballets Russes collection.  A Schiaparelli lobster dress or shoe hat.  A Paco Rabanne chain metal dress from 1967.  A 1965 Pucci/Braniff Airlines flight uniform complete with perspex helmet.  Absolutely anything Dior Paris, 1947 - 1955 or Chanel, 1919-1939.  The magazine clipping with Fath's gown (see #3)!

 What’s next. How do you plan on growing your brand

 A true nerd's nerd, when I'm not restoring vintage pieces I actually enjoy studying, researching and teaching others why the history of dress is so important.  In coming years I see Black Cat transitioning from simply a boutique to more of a vintage fashion resource for students, museums, collectors and TV/film producers.  I intend to continue lecturing on fashion history and plan to publish a blog focusing on restoration and the cultural significance of clothing in society; I will likely change the focus of my web site from exclusively e-commerce to an informative/authoritative one with a tightly-edited collection of historical and collectible pieces for sale.  I am currently in negotiations to write a monthly article on the influence of vintage fashion in modern life, and am co-curating a fashion exhibit with a local museum in September.  Ideally, the future will include more such opportunities!