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Beginning on January 1st and ending on December 31st, Worn On This Day looks at garments worn on monumental occasions across centuries, offering capsule fashion histories of everything from space suits to wedding gowns, Olympics uniforms, and armor. It creates thought-provoking juxtapositions, like Wallis Simpson’s June wedding and Queen Elizabeth’s June coronation, or the battered shoes Marie-Antoinette and a World Trade Center survivor wore to escape certain death, just a few calendar days apart.
In every case there is a newsworthy narrative behind the garment, whether famous and glamorous or anonymous and humble. Prominent figures like Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, and the Duchess of Cambridge are represented alongside ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Beautifully illustrated throughout, Worn On This Day presents a revelatory mash-up of styles, stories, and personalities.
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Worn on This Day is a different kind of fashion history book. Instead of the usual linear chronology, it begins on January 1 and ends on December 31, looking at monumental occasions in different years from the first century A.D. to the present. And instead of documents and diaries, its source material consists of dresses, hats, ties, uniforms, umbrellas, and shoes. Rather than a predictable timeline of changing hemlines and hairstyles, the book is a revelatory mash-up of styles, stories, and personalities, and a journey of discovery through fashion’s fascinating history, one day at a time.
Each day of the year is represented by a garment or outfit with a newsworthy narrative, whether famous and glamorous or anonymous and humble. The wardrobes of prominent figures like Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana are examined alongside those of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Even seemingly mundane or unsightly garments are transformed by unique circumstances into priceless, totemic objects that illuminate humanity’s historical relationship with clothing and culture.
While a traditional chronology might trace the evolution of fashion over decades and centuries, fashion also evolves through the seasons, bringing Easter bonnets, June brides, Fourth of July flag waving, Halloween costumes, and ugly Christmas sweaters. Events like the Oscars, the Met Gala, the Kentucky Derby, and the Olympic Games happen around the same time year after year, making their own highly anticipated fashion statements.
Measuring time by days rather than years creates surprising and thought-provoking juxtapositions. The onetime King Edward VIII’s wedding to American divorcée Wallis Simpson and its inevitable consequence, Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, are only twenty-four hours apart. So are Olympic medalists Clare Dennis—who was almost disqualified for showing “too much shoulder blade” in her racerback Speedo swimsuit in 1932—and Ibtihaj Muhammad, who became the first American athlete to compete in a hijab in 2016. After their long and highly publicized trials, O. J. Simpson and Al Capone got their shocking verdicts in close calendrical proximity.
Clothes rarely survive for the reasons curators want or hope them to; that is, museum pieces are not often representative, well-preserved expressions of what everyone wore in a finite and clearly defined time and place. Linda Baumgarten, the longtime costume curator at Colonial Williamsburg, has written that “survival of… any artifact for hundreds of years usually favors the beautiful and the unusual,” which is why museums are full of gorgeously beaded and embroidered formal garments but short on everyday clothing, especially that of the middle and lower classes. Additionally, more women’s wear than menswear survives, because it usually went out of fashion faster and got less use. The clothes of small people were less likely to be reused or repurposed than those of large people, giving rise to the commonly held belief that everyone was smaller in the past. Bodices survive without their skirts, which were cut up and made into new garments; beautifully embroidered men’s coats survive without their breeches, which were less valuable and got more wear and tear. Indeed, many museum garments have been altered or damaged and may no longer look precisely the way they did on the day they were first worn.
While beautiful, exotic, and elite objects may be more likely to survive, choosing objects according to a single criterion—a precise date—levels the playing field, allowing clothes worn in a variety of times, places, and socioeconomic circumstances to rub shoulders with each other. In many ways, imposing this very narrow and somewhat arbitrary lens allows for a broader and more inclusive view of fashion history than a more traditionally structured book would, because it is not limited by time period, geography, or nationality. It gives equal footing to cultures and peoples traditionally underrepresented in museum collections: the poor and the working class; the marginal and the minority; the indigenous and non-Western cultures that are so often excluded from the story of mainstream fashion. Even encyclopedic museums seldom have the opportunity to make these kinds of narrative leaps, and most museums have collecting policies that dictate a narrow thematic, geographical, or historical focus, for lack of storage and display space as much as philosophical reasons.
It’s true that this day-by-day approach does privilege the famous and infamous, especially in more distant periods of history. One could easily write a book about an entire year’s worth of clothes worn by Jackie Kennedy or Princess Diana or Elvis. But celebrities come in many forms—statesmen, scientists, serial killers—and their clothes are not necessarily unique to the rarefied world of fame and fortune. During World War II, Princess Elizabeth wore the same uniform as the rest of the Auxiliary Territorial Service members. And even the most successful actors and athletes may come from modest beginnings. The main difference their renown or social status makes is that their garments have been preserved or photographed, while others haven’t.
Museum curators use the word “provenance” to describe the critical background information that anchors a garment—or any other work of art—in a specific moment in history. In a nutshell, provenance is the ownership history of an object, from its maker onward. An object with a verifiable provenance is more valuable, both monetarily and educationally, and less likely to have been stolen, faked, or otherwise obtained unethically. Ideally, a garment’s provenance would include who made it, who wore it, when, where, and maybe even how much it cost, but seldom is all that information straightforward or readily available. It requires curators to do intensive research, and to make educated guesses when the object’s history simply cannot be reconstructed.
In the vast majority of cases, it’s impossible to know who made or wore a decades-old garment, much less when. Designer labels have only been in use since the 1860s. Inventories, invoices, and wills sometimes contain valuable information about surviving garments, but it is rare for both an object and its documentation to be preserved. A trained curator can usually date a garment within five years or less based on stylistic and construction details, and narrow it down to a specific country or region. If it does have a designer label, it can often be dated to a single fashion season. Of course, most clothes are worn many times, over a few years if not longer, possibly by multiple people; moreover, it’s generally not necessary to know the precise date or dates on which they were worn. A museum of decorative arts has much different collecting priorities than a local historical society, for example, and provenance may be less important or less likely to be recorded. But in those exceptional cases when a piece of clothing can be dated to a single day, there’s usually a really, really good story behind it. These are the stories told in Worn on This Day.
Anthropologist Nicholas Thomas has pointed out that “objects are not what they were made to be but what they have become.” Indeed, every garment in the book has two histories: its provenance—how it came to be—and what it came to mean. Wearing a garment gives it meaning beyond its material history or intrinsic worth. An antique textile dealer once told me about a woman who called her, wanting to sell a black dress worn by her great-great-grandmother, who had died in the 1850s. Not another Victorian black dress, the dealer thought, rolling her eyes. The caller continued: “My great-great-grandmother was a slave.” The dealer nearly dropped the phone in shock, then invited the caller to name her price. Documented slave clothes are as rare as Victorian black dresses are commonplace. Sometimes, it’s the man—or woman—who makes the clothes, not the other way around. In other words, every wedding dress is special to someone, but only Kate Middleton’s wedding dress could bring in $15 million in ticket sales during just two months on display at Buckingham Palace.
Clothes reveal ineffable truths about not just individual lives, but also collective values and experiences. Garments act as totems and taboos and retain their power to impress or intimidate long after they were first worn. Things like Nazi uniforms and Ku Klux Klan robes are collected but rarely displayed by museums and historical societies, precisely because they so powerfully evoke events and emotions most visitors would prefer to forget. At the same time, old clothes may acquire new and problematic meanings over time. For example, many museums are reluctant to display fur garments because they offend animal lovers, even though fur has been an integral element of dress for thousands of years. In this book, you will find many ordinary and even ugly objects that never would have been saved if not for the profound meaning they acquired on one fateful day.
This book includes many “firsts.” The first three-piece suit, worn by King Charles II on October 15, 1666. The first baseball uniform, worn by the New York Knickerbockers on April 24, 1916, and consisting of blue woolen pantaloons, white flannel shirts, and wide-brimmed straw hats. The first burqini, worn on February 4, 2007, by Lebanese-Australian volunteer lifeguard Mecca Laalaa Hadid in Sydney. It also includes a lot of “lasts.” Many garments survive precisely because they were the last one someone wore before their life was tragically cut short by an accident, a natural disaster, or a bullet. Others were kept as souvenirs of having cheated death. These evocative objects are no longer mere garments but relics.
Beyond the fact that these pieces were saved for posterity, there is often evidence that the people who wore them realized that they were historically important, as they carefully signed, dated, or otherwise labeled them. And they have been speaking eloquently from the past to the present for hundreds of years. After visiting the National Maritime Museum in 1926, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “Behold if I didn’t burst into tears over the coat Nelson wore at Trafalgar.… [I] could swear I was there on the Victory.”
These iconic clothes—many of them already imprinted on our collective consciousness—instantly transport us back in time, with a you-are-there quality that elicits powerful emotions and memories. Unlike birth dates or death dates, clothes take us to the moment when history was made, in an instantly relatable and tangible way that no mere headline can match. Many of these garments were worn on days that changed not just the lives of their wearers, but the lives of thousands, or even millions—days that unexpectedly split history into “before” and “after.” These wearable time capsules transcend fashion to make up the fabric of history.
– 2000 –
New Year’s Eve is always a cause for sartorial celebration, but the coming of the year 2000 demanded once-in-a-lifetime party clothes, suitable for saying goodbye to the old millennium while welcoming the new. This commemorative evening wear—hers by Escada, his by Jean-Paul Gaultier—was designed for staying up all night. The gown’s geometric and floral motifs are augmented by stars, fireworks, popping corks, clinking glasses, and the date “2000.” The silk suit is woven with a confetti-like metallic pattern, and the lining of the jacket is printed with “1999/2000”—a detail the wearer could reveal casually or in a dramatic striptease.
Heiress Annabella Milbanke married the Romantic poet George Gordon—Lord Byron—in the drawing room of her family home wearing “a muslin gown trimmed with lace at the bottom, with a white muslin curricle jacket, very plain indeed, with nothing on her head,” according to Byron’s best man, John Hobhouse. The couple separated a year later, shortly after the birth of their daughter, the pioneering mathematician Ada Lovelace.
The handsome sword General Hugh Mercer carried when he was wounded by a British bayonet in the Battle of Princeton was virtually obsolete as a weapon of war in the age of muskets; only high-ranking officers carried them in the American Revolution, as symbols of rank. Mercer died from his injuries days later and received a triple tribute for his sacrifice: Charles Willson Peale’s 1784 portrait of George Washington leading the Continental Army to victory includes a dying Mercer, and, in 1799, New York’s Clermont Street was named Mercer Street after him—an honor subsequently referenced in the 2015 hit Broadway musical Hamilton.
For her wedding to Walter Foster in London’s Brondesbury Synagogue, Rachel Ginsburg wore a £22 wool and mohair suit, purchased at Liverpool’s Bon Marché department store using clothing coupons donated by the couple’s classmates at the London School of Economics (LSE). Due to the demand for uniforms and other military textiles during World War II, the United Kingdom rationed civilian clothing from June 1, 1941, to March 15, 1949—just weeks after Ginsburg wed. To buy clothes, you needed coupons as well as cash. Each type of clothing had a coupon value: eleven coupons for a dress, for example, or two for a pair of stockings. By the end of the war, the adult coupon allowance had shrunk to just thirty-six per year.
Clothes rationing hit brides particularly hard, and wartime weddings were often subdued affairs. Many war brides borrowed gowns from friends, made them out of unconventional materials like parachute silk, or chose day dresses or suits that could be worn again. When Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten in 1947, people across the country sent her their clothing coupons. She returned them all, using her own (plus 200 gifted by the British government) to purchase her satin and lace Norman Hartnell gown. Though Ginsburg’s wedding garb was less traditional, it was equally evocative of joy and new beginnings—not just for the bride but for the nation.
Ginsburg had served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), but found her domestic and secretarial duties “extremely boring,” she confessed in a 2008 oral history taken by the Imperial War Museum. When the war ended, she seized the chance to study social science at LSE, funded by a modest government grant. Most of the students were fellow veterans. “That was a wonderful time, after the war,” Ginsburg remembered. “You were still alive! For me, life was beginning.” Ginsburg met her future husband, Walter, through the school’s Jewish Society. He had his own war stories: born in Vienna, he had come to England as a fifteen-year-old refugee in 1938. When war broke out, he was interned as an “enemy alien” before being allowed to enlist, serving as an interpreter in occupied Germany.
Like all demobilized servicemen and servicewomen, Ginsburg received a sensible “demob” suit. “You had to go to a depot, give back your wonderful uniform,” she recalled. “You could choose from a rail of various rather disgusting-looking clothes”—in her case, “a brown tweed suit which Walter always hated. It wasn’t very nice, but it was the only one I had.” Small wonder, then, that Ginsburg selected this stylish, sophisticated, anything-but-sensible red ensemble for her wedding. The straight skirt and unlined jacket conform to wartime austerity regulations, and the black silk braid gives it a military air. But the shawl collar, pinched waist, and extravagant peplum betray the influence of Christian Dior’s New Look, launched in 1947. Ginsburg had never seen anything like it. She wore this glamorous garb with a small net veil on her wedding day and on many days afterward.
Grace Kelly carried one of her many Hermès sacs à dépêches (dispatch bags) to a luncheon at the Philadelphia Country Club, where her father announced her engagement to Prince Rainier of Monaco to friends and family. Thanks to the international publicity surrounding the fairy-tale union of Hollywood royalty and Monégasque royalty, the style acquired a new name, which it retains today: the Kelly bag.
British-ruled India celebrated the coronation of King Edward VII with a “Durbar,” a Persian term meaning a courtly ceremony. No expense was spared for the ten-day event, including the construction of an amphitheater, roads, railways, and an electrical plant. There were military parades, firework displays, dances, polo matches, banquets, concerts, and exhibitions. But the highlight of the Delhi Durbar was the State Ball in the Red Fort on January 6.
At 10 p.m., a fanfare of silver trumpets announced the arrival of the couple responsible for organizing the elaborate festivities: Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, and his wife. “The scene was a brilliant one,” the Washington Post reported, not least because Lady Curzon wore one of the most magnificent gowns ever seen before or since: a Jean-Philippe Worth creation in cloth of gold entirely embroidered with overlapping peacock feathers of gold thread and sequins, the eye of each plume set with an iridescent beetle wing. (Many guests mistook the sparkling blue-green carapaces—shed naturally by the aptly named jewel beetle—for emeralds.) Lace encircled her shoulders, and white silk roses bordered the hem of the trained skirt. It weighed more than ten pounds, not including Lady Curzon’s tiara, stomacher, and necklace of diamonds and rubies. In the new electric lighting installed for the occasion, she sparkled like a one-woman firework display. As one guest declared: “You cannot conceive what a dream she looked.”
Lady Curzon had been born Mary Leiter in Chicago; her father, Levi, co-founded the Marshall Field department store. She was one of many American “dollar princesses” who married into the British peerage in the late nineteenth century and one of the inspirations for Cora Grantham, the fictional mistress of Downton Abbey. As Vicereine, her role—like that of the Durbar itself—was not just ceremonial, but essential to promoting the fragile peace between Britain and its colonial subjects. Even her fashion choices were diplomatically motivated; while many British women in India went to great lengths to avoid assimilation, Lady Curzon wore Indian fabrics and worked with local weavers and embroiderers to help them adapt their wares to Western tastes. Though it was designed in Paris, her Durbar gown was embroidered by Indian women, and the peacock and beetles were native to India.
Like a firework, Lady Curzon’s ascendancy was dazzling but brief. Lord Curzon resigned in August 1906, and the couple returned to England, where she died less than a year later, at the age of thirty-six. This portrait was painted after her death, based on a photograph taken at the Durbar. (“Keep the feathers picture of me,” she told her husband. “That is the best.”) But the gown itself was painted from life; the artist used it as a model for the portrait. It survives today at Kedleston Manor, but its glory has dimmed over time as the fragile fabrics have disintegrated and the metallic decorations have tarnished, and no mannequin can convey the impact it made on the beautiful Lady Curzon, who stood six feet tall.
For his inauguration ceremony, Nana Akufo-Addo, the newly elected president of Ghana, wore a toga-like robe of kente cloth, a native fabric woven in four-inch wide strips on narrow horizontal looms that are then sewn or basket-woven together. (“Kente” means “basket” in the Ashanti dialect.) Hearts and flowers joined the traditional geometric patterns. Historically worn by royalty, kente cloth is today reserved for special occasions. The president’s cheerful, colorful, draped garment (paired with dark sunglasses) was a stark contrast to the British-style military uniforms of the Ghanaian troops he inspected as part of the event, with their tailored, white-belted red tunics and black trousers with red welts (or stripes)—a relic of Britain’s ninety-year colonial rule of Ghana, which ended in 1957.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a picture of himself—wearing one of his trademark gray Brunello Cucinelli T-shirts—holding his six-week-old daughter, Max, who was dressed in a colorful hooded Reversible Puff-Ball Bunting by eco-friendly, California-based luxury outdoor clothing label Patagonia, with the caption “Doctor’s visit—time for vaccines!” The post was widely interpreted as a pro-vaccination statement to his 47 million Facebook followers.
At the annual Macworld trade show in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, wearing his habitual attire of Levis 501 jeans, gray New Balance sneakers, and black mock turtleneck custom-made by Issey Miyake, who designed the corporate uniforms for Sony that Jobs had admired on a trip to Japan. Many scientific and artistic visionaries have embraced the convenience and cohesion of a personal uniform; others include Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Ray Eames, Tom Wolfe, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Denise Poiret, wife of couturier Paul Poiret, scandalized guests at one of her husband’s “Fête des Rois” parties by appearing as the Queen of Sheba in a gold lamé gown of his design, slit to the hips on both sides. The Festival of the Three Kings—also known as Epiphany or Twelfth Night—falls on January 6; Poiret traditionally threw a costume party during the week of Epiphany, allowing his guests to play king (or queen) for the day.
King Henry VIII bought armor the way some men buy flashy sports cars, and his passion for the dangerous sport of jousting often got him into just as much trouble. On March 10, 1524, he held a joust to test out a new suit of armor, “made to his own design and fashion, such as no armorer before that time had ever seen,” according to courtier George Cavendish. The king forgot to close his visor, and his opponent’s wooden lance struck him “on the brow” and broke; miraculously, Henry survived, his helmet “full of splinters.”
On January 24, 1536, Henry was competing in a tournament at Greenwich Palace when he was thrown from his horse, which then fell on him. Both horse and rider were fully armored, and the king remained unconscious for two hours. The accident may have altered the course of history. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, miscarried a few days later, delivering a stillborn son; he had her beheaded on May 19. It has been speculated that Henry suffered an undiagnosed brain injury, which would explain his increasingly erratic behavior; his leg was damaged to the extent that he could no longer exercise regularly. (In addition to jousting, he had been an enthusiastic hunter, wrestler, and tennis player.) His idleness led to weight gain, making exercise even more difficult.
This suit of armor—crafted in Greenwich by a German-born armorer, Erasmus Kyrkenar—was likely worn at the tournament celebrating Henry’s wedding to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. The unconsummated union was annulled after just six months. But the armor clearly outlasted the marriage; Henry must have worn it over a period of several years, because it shows evidence of later alterations as the king’s girth continued to expand.
For her husband Jimmy’s inaugural ball as governor of Georgia, Rosalynn Carter wore a gold-embroidered sleeveless blue brocade coat over a gold-trimmed blue chiffon gown by Mary Matise for Jimmae. She would rewear the same outfit at his presidential inaugural ball six years later, cementing her reputation as a First Lady more concerned with pinching pennies than following fashion.
- "Worn on This Day is an eye-opening look at a year's worth of iconic fashion."—-Bustle
- "A meticulous, fascinating collection of stories."—-Stanford Magazine
- On Sale
- Nov 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Running Press