What is this?

dustpan-thumbOur exhibit, Making Connecticut, showcases over 500 objects, images, and documents from the CHS collection. “What is this?” posts will highlight an object from the exhibit and explore its importance in Connecticut history every other week. What is this object? What is the story behind it?

Pamphlet, How to Make Plain Things Beautiful, published by The American Fabrics Co., Bridgeport, 1920s

Pamphlet, How to Make Plain Things Beautiful, published
by The American Fabrics Co., Bridgeport, 1920s

Following political trends, Americans began looking inward for fashion inspiration after World War I. Hollywood provided inspiration through actors, costume designers, and movie costumes. New synthetic (man-made) fibers like rayon and nylon were cheaper than silk and were made in a wide array of colors and patterns. As a whole, fashion became more relaxed and casual compared to previous centuries of formality and intricacy.

LIFE Magazine advertisement for Cheney silk & rayon, Manchester, 1947

LIFE Magazine advertisement for Cheney silk & rayon, Manchester, 1947

The Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company, founded in Manchester in 1838, became known for its innovations in silk thread production and favorable workplace environment. It reached its peak in 1924 with 5,000 employees. However, with the invention of the synthetic material rayon in the 1920s, the company began to decline along with the value of raw silk. It enjoyed a brief rebound during WWII, when it produced silk parachutes for the war effort.

Insert from “A Summer Sports Wear Idea” packet, prepared by the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company of Manchester to promote their “Debonair” sports fabric, 1930s. Reproduced from the original in the CHS collection.

Insert from “A Summer Sports Wear Idea” packet, prepared by the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company of Manchester to promote their “Debonair” sports fabric, 1930s. Reproduced from the original in the CHS collection.

This period saw major shifts in the variety, cut, and fabric of women’s clothing. Connecticut-born actress Katharine Hepburn helped popularize slacks as an everyday garment for women. Breaking from past fashion restraints, women embraced pants, skirts above the knee, and freedom from corsets. Men added patterned (not just white) shirts to their business wardrobe, and a short-sleeved shirt with a blazer became an appropriate choice for casual attire.

Speaking of Katharine Hepburn, our next exhibit, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screenwill feature stage and screen costumes from the actress; an ensemble of her signature tailored beige trousers and linen jackets; as well as vintage posters, playbills, photos, and other Hepburn-related artifacts.

For more information about the exhibition visit a blog post written by Andrea Rapacz and for more information about an exhibition-related fashion show visit a blog post written by Jennifer Steadman.

Mike Messina is the Interpretive Projects Associate at the Connecticut Historical Society.

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