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America's History in the Making

The Progressives

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with nna Marie Von Firley.

 

Anna Marie Von Firley is a vintage reproduction fashion designer. She owns and operates Revamp Limited Edition Vintage Recreations in downtown Los Angeles, California.

Q: Where do you get your ideas for your clothing?

Von Firley: In the beginning, when I'm looking to start, I go through a myriad of resource materials. I go through old catalogues, magazines that have fashion plates in them, vintage patterns, movie stills, actual garments from the period; pretty much any source material that I can get my hands on. I find my source materials in a variety of locations. I can find them in old bookstores, thrift stores, swap meets, vintage fashion expos…When I travel, oftentimes I'll go into antique stores and see if I can find old magazines. Patterns are also found sometimes in vintage clothing stores. Older vintage patterns are getting more expensive because they're becoming more rare: You don't often see them now from the thirties or twenties, or earlier, so they can be quite expensive.

I tend to select things because I respond to them, when they don't feel too costume-y. If people wear them, they're not gonna feel like they've just walked off a movie set. I want them to feel natural: The idea is for contemporary people to wear the garments, and to not feel as though they're wearing something that's made for the stage.

Q: What is the first thing you do when starting a new piece of clothing?

Von Firley: Most of the time, I start with a silhouette, and then I'll go and try and find appropriate fabric. From there, I go ahead and make a pattern. If I'm working from a vintage pattern, then I'll trace it and then change the pattern to suit my medium silhouette. I will make a muslin and put it on a dress form. Or, if I have a fit model, I'll put it on a fit model. It's always better to work on a body, because she can tell me whether or not she can lift her arms, or whether things are uncomfortable. Once I've established that the pattern is as accurate as I can get it, then I will move it into final fabric. And if I'm sourcing buttons out, about the time that I'm looking for fabric I'll look for buttons or to have cover buttons made. And then the final piece is made. And from there we'll grade it through the different sizes. You always start with your medium, because there are always errors that are made in the grading process. If you start in the middle and work small, extra small, and then large, extra large, it's more accurate than to start with an extra small and then grade it up five sizes, and then you'd have more room for errors to be made, as far as fit and accuracy. And then we're done. Then we just make them up in all the sizes.

Q: What is the most difficult thing about creating the clothing?

Von Firley: When I look for fabrics, it's actually the most difficult thing. Everything that I do is fairly easy to do, once you know what you're doing. The hardest thing is your source fabric that looks period-appropriate. I always try to use natural fibers. I tend not to use vintage fabric, because it's hard to find and because it's often just as brittle as vintage clothing, so you haven't really solved the problem with the delicacy of the garment. I can find vintage notions, like buttons and whatnot. I'll use them if I can find enough. Like, three buttons aren't gonna do me any good. I need, you know, a couple hundred or a thousand pieces in the long run.

Q: Do you alter the styles in any way for the modern woman?

Von Firley: When I use vintage patterns: they were designed for women who were wearing foundation garments or corsets, depending on the decade. And because women don't wear those types of undergarments now—and there's no way I'm going to convince people to start wearing them again—I adjust the patterns to accommodate natural waists that aren't girdled or corseted. Oftentimes, when you're dealing with period garments, you find that the silhouettes that were important or created during the time were not created for women who were expected to be very active. They weren't running for buses; they weren't expected to put their suitcases in the overhead bins for themselves. Oftentimes, you were just expected to be lovely and not to do much of anything at all. In the twenties, you find very slim-fitting sleeves, and oftentimes they'll have added tucks or pleats to the elbow so you can bend your arm. But for women who are active at all, that have any muscle development, wearing sleeves like these will cut off the circulation. And because women are active today and are running for buses and picking up and moving their own suitcases, we adjust the pattern so that they can move—so that the silhouette is accurate, but you can be more active.

I adapt things. I put in invisible zippers. I eliminate a lot of the handwork, while I still try to keep the correct silhouette and a lot of the details. The reason I respond to the decades that I cover—1910 to 1950—is because of the amount of detail work that is in the garments. Contemporary clothes have a whole lot less garment detail than the period pieces do, so I don't want to lose my detailing. But I also don't want to spend so much time making everything so historically accurate that now the garment is too expensive for the people who are going to appreciate it and want to wear it.

Q: Do you ever mix and match styles?

Von Firley: One of the pieces that I'm presently working on is a skirt from 1916, which I paired with a blouse that would be about 1919, 1920. The reason I did that is not only for aesthetic reasons—that it looks very nice—but women of the period would not have been getting brand-new clothing every year, especially when you're dealing with lower-class families, or even lower-middle-class families. Oftentimes they would be wearing the same skirt for years at a time; and so, while they may have bought a new blouse, say, in 1919, they still may have been wearing that 1916 skirt. Women didn't have hundreds of garments in their wardrobes. They would have had maybe just one or two pieces total.

Q: How would you compare yourself to other fashion designers that create vintage styles?

Von Firley: I think there are two different extreme ends of historical reproductions. On the one end, you would have the people who do the super-accurate reproductions, who spend their time patterning the garments exactly as they would have been at the time, dealing with the ways that the garments were structured, dealing with hooks and eyes, and snaps, and grosgrain ribbons and all of the bits that would make the period exact to the period. And on the other end would be a costume designer that's really just working towards a silhouette for camera. They don't really care if the fiber content is a hundred percent natural fibers, and they don't really care about a lot of the under-structure; they're really just trying to get across a silhouette. I put myself somewhere right in between them, because to reproduce a garment that is completely historically accurate becomes cost-prohibitive. Suddenly, a dress that would have been $150 now needs to be sold for $600 because of the amount of time and labor that goes into doing all the handwork that would have been done in the historical period.

Q: Do you run into many problems when designing styles?

Von Firley: One of the pitfalls that I just recently dealt with was when I was doing a line of bathing suits, and I based one of my fifties bathing suits on a vintage pattern which I diligently put on paper and adapted to be the correct size. And I found this really amazing little mini-gingham fabric, and I made it up and made a corresponding skirt. At this juncture, I'd only worked on a form. I hadn't put it on a body, and when I went for the photo shoot and put it on the model, it just looked horrible. The colors didn't look right. The fit was really wrong. It didn't structurally hold up her…her bits that need to be structured. [Laughs.] And so I ended up having to retire that silhouette immediately, because it just didn't function on any level—it didn't shoot well; it didn't look right; it didn't fit right. And it's something I'll probably come back to, but I set it aside for now because I have other things I have to work on.

Q: How did fashion change with the times in the early part of the twentieth century?

Von Firley: When the automobile became more available to most people, you find that clothing had to adapt. Oftentimes, you'll find motoring coats; you'll find special hats and gloves for motoring. The cars churned out quite a lot of soot, and so the reason you'd have the coat was to protect the clothing underneath it. So you would have had a linen coat, and you would have had a hat. I've been told that the clothes were developed to be close-fitting in the twenties so they wouldn't blow off when you were in a car. And then, oftentimes you will find certain gloves that were manufactured with leather palms and net on the backside for driving, for both men and women.

I think that you find during any war, but in particular World War I, the problem with a labor shortage. Men are off to war, and oftentimes women need to take their places in order to have the wheels of capitalism turn. During World War I, women for the first time were really moving into the workforce en masse, taking jobs that were traditionally held by men. What this meant for fashion is that they no longer could have clothing that was merely form and not function. They needed to be able to move. They needed to be able to carry things in their pockets. They needed to be able to do the things that they weren't required to do beforehand when they just needed to look lovely.

What you find in down times—during the Depression or any times of economic recession—you find that you strip away a lot of the detailing, a lot of the frivolity. The fabrics become less specialized, less delicate. You see that in the Depression. During the Depression, oftentimes you see that women were repurposing dresses, taking older dresses and trying to make them look updated, but really just using the same dress again.

Q: Did the suffrage movement have any impact on fashion?

Von Firley: The suffrage movement changed fashion quite a bit. Women were fresh from having to be in the workforce and realizing that they no longer necessarily had to be domestic. In the 1900s, upper-class women were expected to be, uh, ornamentation. That they were dressed very frivolously in a lot of garments would illustrate conspicuous consumption. When you got to the suffrage movement, women were really wanting to be taken seriously as human beings, as thinking, capable people, so you find that they were less willing to wear garments that were frivolous. They wanted garments that had more function as opposed to all being about form. These women were really wanting to be taken seriously as equals to men. I think that the women who started the suffrage movement really enjoyed their new freedoms once they ended up taking positions that would have been traditionally held by men. I think they enjoyed the intellectual stimulation they would have missed having to spend their time taking care of the home and raising children. Because they felt that, you know, "We are thinking beings; and we can make decisions; and we should be able to vote; and I don't understand why men feel that we are not capable of doing such things." This thinking really pushed forward fashion, because these women wanted to show, "I'm an equal of men. I don't need to be a dressed-up peacock that is just around to dress the arms of men. I'm a person who thinks and who can vote and who can run a business and who can do all the things that men can do, and I want my clothing to reflect the fact that I'm not just ornamentation. I am a functioning person."

Q: How was fashion broken up by socioeconomic classes?

Von Firley: Fabrics that were used in clothing from 1900 to 1924 would have been natural fibers. There weren't any synthetics at the time. You would have had wool, cotton, linen and silk. You would have found that the lower classes would have probably used linens and wools, which were less expensive. Cotton was a sort of wonder fiber. Up until then, it was just wools and linens, and—for those that could afford them—silks. Oftentimes, those silks were being produced overseas, and so they were imported and not accessible to the lower classes and even some of the middle classes. People who were of the working class or lower classes would be using fibers that would withstand a lot of wear and tear and wouldn't necessarily be so fragile that they needed to be, uh, cleaned. Oftentimes, when you get up to the upper classes, you find that they were using more delicate fabrics that would be maintained by other people, not by the people who wore them. So you would have finer, delicate, imported fabrics—it didn't matter if they only lasted a season, because that woman would be buying a new one. Whereas, in the lower classes, that one wool dress would be worn for years. With women of the lower classes in the beginning of the twentieth century, you find that they wouldn't have had money to spend on buying fashion magazines or on books that would have shown them what the latest fashions were, and they couldn't afford them to begin with. But when you have the advent of movies, which were very inexpensive, suddenly you had an entire class of people who were now exposed to fashion. So movies democratized fashion in a way, because they allowed lower classes to be able to see what was fashionable.

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