Mention the word “archive” and many fashion students and younger fashionistas instantly picture in their minds dreadful images of dusty, boring and extremely silent dark places. Yet most archives (even the smallest and remotest ones…) are actually tremendously inspiring and definitely not dusty at all, especially when they are based on digital platforms.
As some of you may have noticed or read on the Internet, thanks to a partnership between the Picture Collection of The New York Public Library and the Department of Special Collections and FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) Archives, the drawings and sketches produced by the New York firm André Fashion Studios in the 1930s and early 1940s are now finally available online.
The over 5,000 illustrations included in this unique archive, chronicling the first decade of André’s production, were originally divided between the two institutions that decided to join forces and produce an open-source archive and image portal.
Pearl Levy Alexander and Leonard Schwartzbach were partners in André, a firm mainly specialised in selling fashion drawings of children’s coats, and ladies coats and suits to manufacturers based in the US and Canada. Pearl create the designs, while Leonard was the salesman and the company produced about 20 sketches a week from 1930 to the early 1970s.
From now on hand-coloured illustrations of costumes, suits, coats and accessories including scarves and gloves – previously accessible only to researchers – will be available to Internet users based all over the world (costume designer rejoyce – imagine how easier it will be to carry out researches for a film set in the '30s-‘40s with this archive available for free!).
The archive also includes André's sketches of original designs by Chanel, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli (the third image in this post shows for example a 1939 Schiaparelli coat with guitar-shaped buttons down front) Lelong, Patou and many others. Users can click on an image, enlarge it to easily analyse it, download it and even share it on social networks.
While many professionals, but also students or fashion fans who can still make their own clothes will find this digital archive particularly useful for obvious reasons (there are some lovely designs, including coats with multiple pockets and cinched waists that look much more desirable than some of the designs seen at the recent fashion shows for the next Autumn/Winter season), the aim of this project is to document the role of New York’s fashion industry in the history of 20th-century fashion.
During the last few years we have actually rediscovered the importance of fashion archives: while the American and the Italian editions of Vogue have been creating their own digital archives (though, unfortunately, you have to pay to access them…), museums and cultural institutions all over the world have been working on digitalising their collections to make them available to all Internet users.
The Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute put online a while back images (check them all out from the collections page) of Dal Co’ shoes (please refer to previous posts on this site to have further information about the historical Italian brand).
Even in Italy it’s rare to find books featuring images of Dal Co’ shoes (in fact this brand has been practically neglected for some reason by most fashion writers, even though it’s still alive and, excuse the pun, "kicking"), famous for their innovative designs and construction (including a glove-like "floating upper" which wraps under foot and is stitched to the sled-like sole at the center of the foot), so being able to actually see some pictures showing these pretty and rare pumps from the ‘50s is extremely important on a fashion, style and also a cultural level.
The pictures include pumps in summery colours such as white and yellow from 1955 decorated with little Smarties-like beads; slender stiletto heels in which the leather or synthetic heel was replaced with the internal steel shank (1956); pumps with an appealing colour contrast on the sole and toe and a slightly curved up toe (1956) reminiscent of Dal Co's "paparazzo" shoe and a 1958 pink/fuchsia pump in a novel leather with a printed pattern inspired by Marc Chagall’s paintings.
Some of the Dal Co’s shoes now available online come from the Osgood Collection at the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Met.
The collection - belonging to Charline Osgood, Director of the Kid Leather Guild, a trade organisation of American kid leather manufacturers - comprises 179 objects, mainly fashionable Italian-made women's shoes dating from the years 1954 to 1958.
Osgood actually earmarked a pair of 1958 thongs by Dal Cò as one of the most exciting and radical shoes in her collection: the sandals in question feature a rather unique T-strap inspired by Japanese tabi and perfectly following the line of the first metatarsal bone.
Alberto Dal Co' seemed to love taking inspiration from exotic countries and then mixing them with a touch of surrealism.
In 1958 he came up with a pair of shoes (characterised by a very interesting single-seam construction) in which the toe shape derived from traditional Indo-Pakistani footwear, but added to it a court jester bell on its point and a sort of Dadaist heel.
This Dal Co' design from 1958 also appear in the volume 100 Shoes, curated by Harold Koda and introduced by Sarah Jessica Parker.
Hopefully, if you started reading this post thinking archives are boring places, you have by now changed your mind, but, if you haven't, try visiting some of the best digital archives put together by the most famous costume institutes or museums around the world.
You can bet that, after browsing them for a while, you will feel a bit like a time traveller taking an exciting trip through history, fashion, style and trends that will allow you to get to know the past and even get a glimpse of the future.
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