Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Eye Candy, NineteenTeen Style

On some sites, “eye candy” might involve, say, sculpted male torsos. Or a handsomely-filled-out pair of jeans. On NineteenTeen, however, eye candy usually means one thing: amazing historical costumes!

I recently ran across what may win the Best Eye Candy Award for 2015 in a perfectly gorgeous book called “London Society Fashion 1905- 1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank”, published this year by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. If you have the remotest interest in the fashions of the early part of the twentieth century, this book is for you.

Heather Firbank (1888-1954) was the only daughter of a wealthy upper-middle-class family which included her brother Ronald, who would one day become a well-known author and playwright. She was attractive and well-connected, and when she made her debut in London in 1908, her future seemed assured: marriage, probably into the lower tiers of the aristocracy, and a respected place in society. Financial reverses a few years before her coming-out sent the family on a downhill slope, but Heather’s wardrobe allowance did not feel the pinch; her family knew that making the right impression in society would be vital for her future. So the young woman (twenty the year she made her debut—two years later than usual) was launched into society with a most elegant wardrobe...and interestingly, seems to have tried to create a “brand” for herself, frequently wearing clothes in shades of purple and mauve and using heather as a personal emblem on everything from her notepaper to the embroidered monograms on her underwear.

The death of Heather’s father in 1910 meant further belt-tightening...but Heather and her mother seemed to have continued to spend prodigious amounts of money on their clothes. Though she embarked on a few secret love affairs, Heather never married, and spent the years after the war in Richmond, nursing her dying mother. With her beloved brother Ronald’s death in 1926 she packed up her extensive wardrobe and put it into storage...and upon her death in 1954 at the age of 67, the untouched trunks were offered to the Victoria and Albert Museum. This book is a record of that wardrobe...and it is simply sumptuous.

The Heather Firbank collection contains not only garments for every conceivable occasion, from ballgowns to tennis dresses, but also the accompanying undergarments, stockings, shoes, purses, and hats, representatives of which all appear in this book...not to mention ephemera like photographs of Heather wearing some of the depicted dresses, couturier bills, and sketches. The photography is beautiful, showing garments in both full length and in detail (that cover image is what first caught my eye.) The accompanying text, which details Heather’s life and examines the London fashion industry, is well-researched and written...but it is the photographs that make this book. Highly recommended!

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