Meet My New Serger – Brother 1034D

Obviously the past few weeks have been replete with a whole host of different developments for me – most of which have made it to Sew For Victory in one form or another. There have been so many new experiences – moving country, getting married and, most dramatic of all, setting up a whole new sewing system in the US. I brought what I could with me in my transatlantic move but shipping is so expensive that all of the big stuff – my sewing machine, work table etc. – had to stay in the UK. So I’m faced with the task of rebuilding my sewing space and my supply of tools. At the moment, I’m in a temporary living situation. My husband (it’s still super weird typing that) and I are staying with my parents-in-law while we look for an apartment but we’ve now found one we love that would also give me my own perfect sewing space. So keep your fingers crossed for us and hopefully I’ll be giving you a tour before too long! I’ve also introduced you to my brand new sewing machine, Agatha. She and I are having a great time working hard on new projects and I can honestly say that the Janome DC5100 is the best machine I’ve ever used. Definitely check out my review (linked above) if you’re on the lookout for a new machine.

But I’ve been keeping from you one of the greatest sewing developments that has occurred since I arrived in the US – I have a serger!! Meet my Brother 1034D

Full View Serger

Please excuse the table mess. I’m set up on the dining room table right now and working out of boxes and bags!

I’d never really thought all that much about getting a serger. I know a lot of people rave about them but I’d always felt pretty content using the overlock stitch on my old sewing machine. It did the job and, honestly, I was intimidated by what I thought would be an intense threading learning curve. But, after the move and seeing the extent to which my half-finished wedding dress had frayed, I thought that a serger might be a necessary investment. If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, you’ll already know that the wedding dress project went bust but I’ve been using my serger on my on-going projects and it has honestly been pretty revolutionary to the way I finish my garments.

Serging Seams

Getting a strong finish on my makes has always been a bit of a problem. I’ve never been totally happy with the way the inside would look a little jerry-rigged in comparison with the outside. The edges were usually a bit ragged or, at least, sufficiently insecure that washing machines had become my nemesis. Using my sewing machine to overlock was a good interim measure but still didn’t give a totally neat, clean finish. Enter the serger! The Brother 1034D defied my expectations in that it actually wasn’t too tough to get to grips with. I used a number of resources to help guide me in learning how to thread and use the machine (listed at the bottom of this post for anyone interested) and, after a few test runs, I felt confident in my abilities! If you decide to invest in a serger, definitely don’t let yourself be intimidated by the potential learning curve. As scary as the machine looks, it’s really not much trouble.

I will add that the Brother 1034D comes with an excellent guide on the various components of the serger, how to thread, and how to operate. There was also a separate booklet demonstrating the different kinds of problems you could potentially encounter and how to determine threading issues by the way the stitch looks. I trawled through this and it has been incredibly helpful already. Since you’re working with four separate threads that all do different things, it’s important to know what does what. Of course, there are endless video and blogger tutorials to help with this too.

Front View

Threading the left and right needle is pretty similar to threading a regular sewing machine. Pulling the cover back shows the threading system for the upper and lower looper.

One thing I will mention is the tension wheels at the top of the machine. As with a sewing machine, you use these to dictate thread tensions. Since you’re juggling four threads with a serger, it can obviously get a little more tricky determining appropriate tensions. But using a good guide (check the list at the end of the post) can help solve any issues on this front. That said, I spent a good couple of hours re-threading because I couldn’t get the stitches to come through correctly, only to realise that I had jogged one of the tension wheels. The tensions wheels aren’t like those on a sewing machine in that they don’t click in place. They move very easily and, when you’re threading or manipulating your spools at the back of the machine, it’s incredibly likely that you’ll accidentally move the wheels. So just be sure to bear that in mind and, if there are any problems with your stitch, those wheels are a likely culprit. Because of these issues with tension – and the fact that the necessary tensions will vary pretty dramatically depending upon the type of fabric you’re using – it is always worth doing a test run on a spare square of your fabric. Keep testing until you get the tensions right and the threads are sitting where they should on the stitch.

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This is a pretty good representation of how the stitch should look and what each thread does. The threads consist of left needle (yellow), right needle (red), upper looper (green), and lower looper (blue).

I’ve also found that judging where to place the edge of the fabric can be a bit of a challenge. For those not familiar with sergers, they come with an attached upper and lower knife on the right-hand side of the foot. As you serge your fabric, these knives operate to trim off any excess fabric. The knives made me incredibly nervous when serging seams because I was perpetually paranoid that I’d end up taking off too much excess and then stitching over my seam. The stitch itself is pretty wide so, where the seam is already sewn in, it can be a bit tough to judge how far in the stitch is going to reach. However, this is entirely a confidence and experience issue. The more I’ve worked with the serger, the easier it has become to make those judgements. And with typical seam measurements (I’ve serged both 5/8″ and 3/8″ seams), there are not problems with stitching over the allowance.

Even though learning to use a serger is undoubtedly a case of sitting down, watching videos, and troubleshooting a host of inevitable problems, it’s totally worth it. I’m currently working on my first pair of trousers (SO excited to share these with you!) and it’s made such an incredible difference to the way that the inside of the garment looks. Not only does it give a wonderfully neat finish, it also gives the edges enough security that I can finally pop my me-made clothes in the washing machine without being scared that they’ll fall apart. It’s honestly been such a worthy investment!

For those of you interested in learning to serge or looking for help with your serger, here are a few great resources that I’ve been using:


A side note – the Sew For Victory Book Club is making a return this month. I’ll be posting about the book at the end of July. For anyone who wants to read ahead, July’s pick is The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

For those who have doubts about the relevance of this choice to the content of the site, I actually got half way through before deciding to make it the July selection. Not only is it an incredibly important feminist tract (which alone makes it SO worthy of reading), it is hugely insightful in terms of women’s lifestyles during the 1950s and 1960s. So for anyone with a particularly keen interest in reading about the female experience (disclaimer: this book does not do a great job of being intersectional, so I use the term ‘female’ to refer to an incredibly specific type of female experience), The Feminine Mystique is a must-read. I hope you’ll join me!

I Got Married!

As promised, I thought I would post some pictures from my wedding! Although I didn’t end up making my dress (see previous post), I still wanted to share some photos with you. Many of you have followed me and my now-husband through the trials and tribulations of the past few years. After a lot of work and so many months apart, we’re finally closing a chapter dictated by distance and a whole lot of bureaucracy. Thank you to all of you who’ve been here, empathised, and offered your support. Even if I don’t know you personally, I still can’t tell you how incredibly important this little community has been to me. So thank you and now on to some photos…

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How To Sew Your Wedding Dress (Part 3): Stitching Without Stress and Anxiety – Or How To Avoid My Biggest Mistakes

This is definitely not a post that I anticipated having to write. For those of you who have been following my relationship/wedding journey, you’ll know that I was moving along quite happily with progress on my dress. I had a fabulous pattern, beautiful fabric, and a muslin that I had tailored to fit just as I wanted. Yet, for reasons that will be the subject of this post, I’ve wound up two days away from my wedding with no me-made dress. While you might think that I’d be freaking out – and, I won’t lie, there was a fair bit of that going on last week – I actually wish I’d decided to abandon the project sooner.

It’s inevitable that this post is going to turn into something of a P.S.A. for all other sewcialists out there, along the lines of a warning about ambition, internal pressure, and a lack attention to self-care. When I set out to make my wedding dress, it was really a distraction from the turmoil of dealing with a long-distance relationship and a lengthy immigration process. I needed some sort of project to focus on in order to remind myself that there was a light at the end of the LONG tunnel of forms, interviews, and waiting. Had I started even earlier than I did, I might have got the wedding dress finished in plenty of time. My main fear was that, if I started too early, the fit would end up being off if my measurements shifted – especially since I was going for such a tailored fit. Since I also had no idea when I’d finally get my visa and be able to move to the US or schedule a wedding date, it was also totally impossible to determine exactly how much time I would have between finishing the dress and actually getting married. So I delayed. I started sewing just before I left the UK and figured that I’d have plenty of time – around a month or so – to get it finished once I arrived stateside. This didn’t seem too outlandish to me, given that it’s a relatively simple pattern and one that I had already sewn up.

Looking back, I’m not sure that I could’ve dealt with the situation any better. But with the stress of packing up my life in the UK, moving to the US, and trying to get a wedding organised in a month, I definitely took on too much. Just trying to adjust to life in a new place is a big deal and takes up a surprising amount of time. At the end of it, I was left with a week to go until the wedding and no more progress on my dress. While I tried so hard to pull it round, the stress was overwhelming. I’ve shed many tears at my sewing machine before – the curse of being a perfectionist – but sometimes you just have to step back and ask whether its worth it. A wedding dress is such an important garment – perhaps the most important one you’ll wear over the course of your life. As much as I desperately wanted to sew my own, it was pretty necessary – for my sanity and peace of mind – that I admit defeat. Fortunately, I managed to buy one I love and with a few days to spare!

That said, I’ve learnt a whole lot about myself and my relationship with sewing over the course of this project. These are lessons that I’ll definitely be applying to any future projects – particularly those in which I’m sewing for some sort of event or feel especially invested in what I end up producing. So I thought it would be appropriate to close out my series of wedding dress posts with one on sewing without stress – alternatively titled, ‘How to avoid the mistakes I made’.

1. Remember why you sew

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This was, for me, definitely the most important lesson. I was initially really hesitant to commit to sewing my own wedding dress, largely because it felt like it flew in the face of the fact that I sew for self-care. Sewing was a hobby that I developed at a really difficult time in my life. It was a distraction from overwhelming anxiety and debilitating panic attacks, when I struggled to even leave the house. I’m so far away from where I was then, but sewing remains a really fundamental part of my self-care regime. It’s time I take for me, where I’m given space to become totally absorbed in what I’m doing. Choosing to sew my own wedding dress – a high stress project at a high stress time of my life – was a decision that began to feel incredibly disconnected from the reasons why I took up sewing in the first place. That’s not to say that you can’t sew for self-care and still make important garments. You can do absolutely anything you set your mind to. I could’ve finished the wedding dress. I could’ve scrapped Version 1 and began again. But reminding myself of why I sew – primarily for self-care – gave me a much needed wake-up call and the ability to say that enough was enough.

As I said above, the conclusion doesn’t have to be that you scrap a project as soon as it stresses you out. But, if you’re stressing, it’s a good idea to adjust what you’re doing to minimise the negativity. This might simply mean taking a break – get a cup of tea, listen to some music or read a book. Put the garment away for an hour, a day, a week. Work on a different project. Do whatever you need to do to channel the stress elsewhere and return with a fresh perspective. Remembering why you took up sewing – whether simply as a new hobby, a professional skill, or as self-care – can help to pull things back to where they should be. Stress has no place at the sewing machine (unless you’ve sewn over your finger, of course).

2. Forget the ‘should’ and the ‘could’

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I try to avoid these words as much as possible in everyday life. They are not healthy and they never lead the mind to anything good. The above paragraph should show you how easily toxic thoughts of this kind can fester – “I could’ve finished the wedding dress. I could’ve scrapped Version 1…” But this is totally where my mind was for the majority of this project. Despite my initial hesitation, I let myself get swept up in the idea that because I could sew my wedding dress, I should. Everyone would expect it after all, surely? If I didn’t turn up to my wedding in a me-made dress, wouldn’t everyone just be confused or doubt my sewing skills?

For anyone overcoming anxiety or other forms of – incredibly circular and self-defeating – mental illness, getting rid of the shoulds and coulds is one of the hardest battles. These words are often one of the main reasons why we end up where we do: I should have a better job than I do; I could just get out of bed, so why don’t I?; I should be happy and grateful for everything I have. What’s wrong with me? The power of these words is limitless and they come up more often than we’ve trained ourselves to realise. I only monitor my internal language because it was absolutely key to getting through the bad times. But this is not just a problem associated with mental illness. I notice that, in periods of general or high stress, the narrative comes straight back to me. And just because we’re doing crafting projects that we’ve actively chosen, doesn’t mean that we can’t experience stress and berate ourselves for not doing better. I should’ve just started this thing earlier and I wouldn’t be sewing it an hour before the event; Why couldn’t I just have done a better job on these seams? They’re such a piece of trash; Look at all of these bloggers and Instagrammers. They’re making such amazing garments. I should be doing that too. Seriously, why can’t I just do a better job? Does any of this sound familiar or even slightly recognisable to you? If so, you’re definitely not alone. These are the examples that came to mind exactly because they’re the thoughts I have most often. Putting yourself out there via blogs and social media is such an easy avenue to inescapable comparisons with others.

So do yourself a favour. Forget the coulds and the shoulds. Replace them with phrases like I want to or I choose not to. When you’re in periods of high stress – whether sewing a wedding dress, a commission that just won’t work out how you want it to, or a skirt with some beautiful and expensive fabric – remember that beating yourself up with guilt and regret won’t do anything to move you along or make you a better sewist. Talk to yourself the way you would your best friend or a child trying their hand at sewing. There wouldn’t be any shoulds there.

3. Do this the way that you want to do it

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Whatever event or reason you’re sewing for, remember that ultimately it comes down to what you want to do. If you’re sewing for your wedding, it’s about the dress that you want to wear. Make sure that you stay realistic given your time frame but there’s no reason why you can’t get a little ambitious. Combined with the advice above, it’s absolutely key that you don’t compare what you’re doing to what anybody else has done. Your wedding dress doesn’t need to look like those you’ve seen on Facebook or Instagram. The joy of sewing is that you’re making things that are 100% certifiably yours. Take as much time as you need and as many tea breaks. Throw it in the bin a couple of times but be sure that, each time, you rescue it when you calm down and reassess (so don’t throw it on top of food rubbish. I suggest doing what I do and having a separate bin for fabric so you can be sure that any rescued projects aren’t tea bag stained!). Not everything is the catastrophe it seems.

And, something that I’ve had to remember – even if you decide to call it a day, you are not a failure. This is not a life-or-death situation. You tried, you learnt, and you ultimately decided that it wasn’t quite the right time or project for you. That’s seriously ok. It’s rectifiable. Even if it’s only a week until your wedding and you don’t have a dress. I’m proof that there is always a way forward. Nothing is worth your happiness or your peace of mind.

So go forth and sew! Remember the reasons why you first sat at that sewing machine and never forget that you are a superhero for sitting back at it every time things go pear-shaped. We’ve all had those days and part of the joy is – as with this post – sharing them with others.

My Vintage Life: The Hollywood Canteen

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We’re finally returning to a normal blogging schedule after a month of intense disruption. It’s been a crazy time. Between packing up my life in the UK, adjusting to life in the US, and putting together a wedding in 4 weeks, I’ve been incredibly distracted! It has been a classic case of taking on too much. For that reason, I also decided not to make my wedding dress. With everything else going on, I’ve had such little time to work on it, added to which I botched it in a way that will make continuing incredibly difficult and time-consuming. With only a week to go until the wedding, I’m all about minimising the stress at this point! I’ll be posting next week about the entire fiasco and closing my series of posts on making your own wedding dress with how to avoid ending up in the place that I did. Even without a me-made dress, I’ll be sure to post some pictures on here after the day for those of you who have been following my journey!

In an effort to pull myself out of wedding mode, I decided to get back into blogging mode with a new My Vintage Life post. These are always such a lot of fun for me to write – I love having the opportunity to research such fantastically interesting quirks of eras past and (hopefully) peak your interest through these posts. Of all the stories that I’ve come across in my vintage journey, one in particular sparked my fascination. The events surrounding the establishment and running of the Hollywood Canteen, a club that provided food and entertainment to US servicemen, are genuinely some of the most interesting tales in classic Hollywood’s lengthy list of incredible accounts.

So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and the story of how Hollywood’s intersection with World War II produced a site where celebrity met fan, frivolity met fear, and political progress met conservative resistance.


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The Hollywood Canteen was opened on 3rd October 1942 as the creation of Bette Davis and John Garfield. Looking to establish a base to which allied servicemen could flock for evenings of entertainment, Davis and Garfield approached the president of the Music Corporation of America, Jules Stein, for help creating and funding the operation. By all accounts, Stein was fundamental to the success of the project despite his position as a somewhat behind-the-scenes personality. As Bette Davis described it:

“Jules Stein, up to this time, was seldom ever seen. Few people even knew what he looked like. He preferred to live this way. It was a big decision when he said he would head the financial committee. He would have to alter his way of life. Without his hard work, advice, and investments of our funds the Hollywood Canteen could not have been successful, to say nothing of the work of his wife, Doris, who I asked to be the head of the committee for the hostesses necessary for dancing partners for the servicemen. When the canteen was no longer needed after V-J Day, $500,000 remained in the canteen account. These monies were the result of Jules’ ideas. A great source of revenue came from a film he urged Warner Bros. to make called Hollywood Canteen, a large percentage of which was allotted by Mr. Warner to the canteen itself. With the remaining monies a foundation was formed, and to this day contributions are made to worthy projects dealing with the armed forces.”

Despite the popular personalities that dominated ideas of how the Canteen was conceived and run, it was undoubtedly the work of multiple minds. The work to establish the Canteen came to fruition and, as desired by Davis and Garfield, successfully provided a place where servicemen could associate with Hollywood’s biggest stars, dance, eat, and try to forget impending assignments overseas.

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Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth performing their magic act at the Canteen

It’s important to remember, however, how central Stein was to the operation of the Canteen. Responsible for the financing of the project, Stein not only had to fund its creation but also find money and donations to support the hefty expenses that came with day-to-day running. 50 percent of the Canteen’s food was donated, relying on a series of fundraisers in order to raise the money necessary to provide the rest. Since the servicemen went through 4,000 loaves of bread, 400 pounds of butter and 30,000 gallons of punch per month, finding the funds to provide such massive quantities was incredibly necessary. In order to navigate ration restrictions on meat, the Canteen’s head chef – Chef Milani – was forced to write to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanding action:

“The Hollywood Canteen will not be able to provide the necessary amount of meat for the servicemen unless we are able to secure an allotment exception permit immediately. Will you please help us secure this permit by directing this wire to the proper authorities with your O.K.? God bless you.”

Needless to say, the Hollywood Canteen received its permit.

The Hollywood Canteen did much for the way Hollywood’s activities in World War II were perceived. By having major stars – including Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, and Hedy Lamarr – work voluntarily at the Canteen – serving food, signing autographs, and dancing with patrons – the Canteen bridged the gap between these distant celebrities and the men giving their lives for the allied cause. It advanced the idea that, not only was Hollywood fully behind US engagement in WWII, but also that the celebrities themselves were prepared to give their time to boost morale and work in service of those men serving the country at large. To control any potential ‘personal’ mishaps, the Canteen came with strict rules about romantic assignations between the hostesses (both famous and not) and those visiting the Canteen. Although there are accounts suggesting that, in a number of cases, romances did develop, there is nothing to indicated that the Canteen became a site of sexual mayhem.

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Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth working at the Hollywood Canteen

The Canteen was a revolutionary project in a number of ways. Not only did it provide a place for celebrity civilians and allied soldiers to mix on equal terms, it also served as a site of (relative) racial tolerance. Bette Davis immediately shut down the notion that the Hollywood Canteen would enforce a segregation policy. And, for the most part, the Canteen operated without racial incident. If such incidents did occur, the Canteen’s managers had instructed the band to play the national anthem, something that occurred only twice during the Canteen’s existence. It must be observed, however, that operating without segregation did not mean that the Canteen functioned as a site of racial equality. The managers made sure to recruit black hostesses to ensure that black servicemen were tended to by women of their own race and vice versa. Although, in 1940s America, Bette Davis’ decision on the side of tolerance was undoubtedly a forward-thinking move, it would be troubling to suggest that the Canteen totally avoided continuing a tradition of informal and customary segregation. That said, entertainers of all races were welcome to perform before the troops and renowned performers Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong were amongst the most celebrated.

The Hollywood Canteen was an incredibly successful initiative that undoubtedly boosted the morale of all who attended. It offered an opportunity for men, plagued by the thought of walking into the battle, to escape – however briefly. They could mix with celebrities as equals, eat, drink, and share in camaraderie. One of the most fascinating things about the Canteen is its true authenticity. There is little evidence to suggest the project boasted false successes or claimed an impact that it didn’t have. Instead, everything points to an initiative that delivered over and above what it set out to achieve. The 1944 Warner Bros. film Hollywood Canteen, although undeniably a staged and overly positivised account of the Canteen’s operation, is not so far from the mark in showing how fantastically the club boosted the morale of its soldiers and offered Hollywood stars an opportunity to demonstrate their gratitude. The fact that more than 3000 individuals – including celebrities, musicians, dancers, and publicists – had signed up to volunteer at the Canteen before it even opened its doors, shows just how keen people were to offer some form of service to those men ultimately giving their lives for the country. Here, the soldiers were treated like individuals. The millionth guest – Sgt. Carl Bell – attended the venue on 15th September 1943 and, as a prize, was offered both a kiss from Betty Grable and escort by Marlene Dietrich. Stories of stars going out of their way to make guests feel special and valued abound.

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Bette Davis in the film ‘Hollywood Canteen’ (1944)

As war initiatives go, the Hollywood Canteen was undeniably one of the best conceived and most successful. Although it is undoubtedly the case that the Canteen offered at least some opportunity for Hollywood to massage its own ego, there is too much contradictory anecdotal evidence to believe that this was the only motive at play. From 3 October 1942 to 22 November 1945, the Hollywood Canteen operated as a place of hope, fun, and freedom. It provided an invaluable reprieve for those preparing to walk into some of the most horrifying events in history. While the Canteen did not stop a war or save the men who walked through its doors, it reminded its guests that a country stood behind them. And, for that alone, the Hollywood Canteen will be remembered as one of Hollywood’s most generous acts.


For more information on the Hollywood Canteen, I would recommend watching the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen. There are also numerous videos and documentary extracts on Youtube. Another fantastic resource is the book The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced with the Most Beautiful Girls in the World by Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence.

Meet My New Sewing Machine – The Janome DC5100

Happy June, lovelies! I’m back after a bit of radio silence. For those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning, you’ll know that I am now nearly at the end of four years of working to be permanently with my fiancé. I am finally in the US and in the process of putting together a wedding that will be happening in exactly one month. It’s been a hectic few weeks of paperwork, immigration interviews, and travel! Needless to say, Sew for Victory has fallen ever so slightly to the side – but never far from my mind. Now that I’m starting to find my feet, sewing has returned to its usual front-and-centre position in my life. I’m still working on finishing my wedding dress but am also just beginning a new project that I’ll be previewing on the site soon! Most importantly, though, a new country means a new sewing machine! Introducing Agatha (obviously named after one of my favourite authors):

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When I realised that it really wasn’t feasible to ship my UK machine over (not only because of the shipping cost – which was more than the cost of a new machine – but also the need for a voltage converter in order to make it run), I started a search to find a machine that was roughly equivalent to my trusty Constance. I knew that I wouldn’t find the same machine in the US since the Britannia brand is limited to the UK and, even there, is not a common make to come across. I wanted to find a machine that could work with a wide range of fabrics, offer a variety of stitches, and – I’d say most importantly – run incredibly smoothly. There are so many well reviewed machines out there that these requirements obviously didn’t narrow my search down too tremendously. But after searching for lists of ‘intermediate’ sewing machines, the Janome DC5100 caught my eye.

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The machine ticks all of my boxes. It’s got 167 stitches (all of the essentials, plus a lot of decorative stitches that the realistic part of me tells me I won’t use) and five button-hole options. The LCD screen and touchpad also make it incredibly easy to use. For those who need the facility, the DC5100 also has a memory function. I haven’t yet sewn up a complete garment but I’ve tested the machine out and used it to make a bit of progress on my wedding dress. Although I had taken time to read through the manual, there was no real learning curve with the machine. Threading is simple, stitching is simple. Admittedly, I haven’t used a whole lot of the machine’s functions yet but first impressions certainly speak to an incredibly well made and well running machine.

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The other big plus side of the DC5100 is obviously the look. I love the pink accents, although pink is pretty far from my favourite colour. It’s undeniably a sleek and well designed machine. Does it justify the cost though? The machine certainly comes in relatively steep – I found it for $649 (on Amazon, with a bundle of extra goodies), which is a roughly equivalent cost to the ££ of the Britannia. But for a mid-range machine with this many functions, the cost is actually very reasonable and certainly on the lower end of what I was finding for alternative models. Although the machine is one that I think would be easily useable for those new to sewing, as well as the more advanced, the cost may very well be prohibitive to beginners. Unless you have the money to spare, I would recommend starting out with a machine both cheaper and with fewer functions. I’ve only been sewing for 18 months or so and, were I presented with this type of machine so early on, I likely would’ve been incredibly overwhelmed – not to mention I would never have used half of the DC5100’s capabilities. But for those who consider themselves advanced beginners or beyond, the model is utterly perfect!

The final word of this post should, however, go to Constance. My beloved Britannia Instyle 65. All boxed up in her prime. Hopefully she will go on to bigger and brighter things, once I finally get round to putting her on eBay! Thank you, beautiful Constance, for being such a trusty sewing companion over the past year. I’ll miss you!

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My Vintage Life: Fatty Arbuckle and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood

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Welcome back! Firstly, sorry to anyone who checked in last week expecting a post. My fiancé flew over at very short notice to help with some visa-related bits and pieces. As I’m sure you’ll understand, I was pretty well taken up enjoying some time with him. It was definitely wonderful to see him, especially after three months apart. But he’s back in the US now so normal service has resumed once again!

On this week’s My Vintage Life, we’re going to be talking about one of the most momentous and yet little remembered events in Hollywood history – the trial of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle for the rape and death of the actress Virginia Rappe. The scandal was truly the first to blacken Hollywood’s image – an image that had been traditionally dominated by the on-screen faces and personalities of its stars. Fatty Arbuckle’s trial was not only remarkable for its sensationalism and widespread coverage within the press. Its ripples also added fuel to a growing perception that Hollywood required some kind of moral and ethical regulation. I talked in my very first My Vintage Life post about pre-Code Hollywood – the Hollywood that existed before the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code that restricted what could be shown on screen. The censorship that came about in 1934 through the introduction of the Code can be traced back to the fallout of the accusations at Fatty Arbuckle’s trial and the fact that the mask had now been lifted from the true face of Hollywood.

So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and an exploration of the scandal that felled Hollywood’s biggest star and turned the movie-making industry on its head.

Trigger Warning: This post will be talking about rape and sexual assault. 


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In the early part of the 1900s, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was the definition of a household name. Born in 1887 in Kansas, his talents were discovered early and, by the beginning of the 1900s, Arbuckle was well established as a successful vaudeville actor. By 1909, Arbuckle had broken through into film, playing consistently comedic roles that met with widespread recognition. Despite being known mostly for his size, it was his agility, athleticism, and refusal to be consigned to obtaining cheap laughs that really gained him a position as one of Hollywood’s best known stars. In 1914, Paramount Pictures recognised Arbuckle’s growing reputation and success by making him a salary offer of $1000 per day, in addition to paying him 25 percent of all profits make from his films. By 1918, this was increased to a $3,000,000 contract over three years. Such salaries were unheard of at the time and Fatty Arbuckle became Hollywood’s highest paid actor.

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Inevitably, however, Arbuckle’s success was not destined to last. In 1921, Arbuckle made his way to San Francisco to take a short break from making films. His friend, Fred Fischbach, decided that a party was in order to celebrate Arbuckle’s newest contract with Paramount Pictures and the release of his most recent film Crazy To Marry. The party was held at the St. Francis Hotel and among its attendees was a 26-year old actress called Virginia Rappe. Rappe was not particularly well known for her acting. She had secured some relatively minor roles in the later half of the 1910s and appeared in several films directed by Henry Lehrman, to whom she subsequently became engaged.

Accounts obviously differ as to what precisely occurred during the party at the St. Francis Hotel. What is known, however, is that screams were heard from Room 1219 and Virginia Rappe was found writhing in agony. Within the week, she had died from a ruptured bladder. According to Maude Delmont, who was at the party with Rappe but whose relationship with Rappe remained unclear, Arbuckle had pulled Rappe into Room 1219. When Delmont heard Rappe screaming, she ran to the room and, finding the door locked, proceeded to knock and kick until Arbuckle appeared. Delmont found Rappe on the bed in visible agony and, in Delmont’s version, Rappe told her “Arbuckle did it.” This version of events was picked up and widely distributed by the press, who attributed Rappe’s subsequent death from a ruptured bladder to the weight of Arbuckle’s body pressing down on her while he raped her.

Arbuckle’s version of events offers an alternative account. In his telling, he was at no point actually alone with Rappe. He claimed that he had woken up to a party taking place in the rooms and that, later, Rappe’s drinking had made her hysterical. He subsequently found her vomiting and he, with the help of other party guests, moved her to Room 1219 so that she could recover. Despite Arbuckle’s very different account of events, he was charged with manslaughter and sent to trial.

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Virginia Rappe

The subsequent trials show much not only about the state of Hollywood, but also how little has changed in the way of prosecuting sexual assault. Over the course of three trials – the first two of which resulted in hung juries – Rappe’s sexual history and history with abortions were dissected. Arbuckle’s legal team argued that Rappe suffered from a pre-existing bladder condition, corroborating the fact that doctors had not found any evidence of sexual assault on her body. By the end of the third trial, these arguments had convinced the jury. They were, in fact, so incensed by Arbuckle’s subjugation to trial that they issued a formal apology:

“Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed. The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from blame.”

This exoneration could not, however, salvage Arbuckle’s reputation. To assist in dealing with the fallout from the trial, the censor Will Hays was hired by Paramount Pictures to navigate the damage done by the scandal. In the immediate aftermath, Hays decided to remove Arbuckle from all films, although within the year Hays changed his mind. Still, Arbuckle never quite recovered from the trial’s impact. In 1933, on the day that Warner Bros approached him with an offer of a contract, Arbuckle died of a heart attack.

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at Trial

The death of Virginia Rappe and surrounding scandal had a lasting impact, both on the personalities involved and on Hollywood at large. Will Hays, who became so integral in the rehabilitation of Paramount Pictures, subsequently took on the job of assisting the rehabilitation of Hollywood at large. By 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code) had been introduced and Hollywood was subjected to industry-wide censorship of the films that it produced. The Code restricted the portrayal of sexual scenarios and bad language, among a whole host of other things deemed worthy of censorship. Despite Arbuckle’s exoneration, Hollywood’s first scandal did lasting damage. It revealed a Hollywood behind the movie screens – one of parties, illegal drinking, sex, and debauchery. For a country where conservatism had demanded the introduction of prohibition, it was perhaps inevitable that such a revelation would sit uncomfortably with the powers-that-be.

Yet, of all the lasting impacts had by the trial of Fatty Arbuckle, there is one that goes generally unmentioned. When reading about the scandal and trying to dissect what actually happened (which remains really difficult to do), it is Virginia Rappe who comes across as the most maligned of all involved. In a scandal that involved a suspected madam (Delmont) and a suspected murdered (Arbuckle), it is difficult to believe – although, not as difficult as it should be – that the dead victim should be the one to find her reputation most destroyed by events. Rappe’s life and lifestyle were torn to shreds during the trial and continued to be questioned even after Arbuckle’s exoneration. Rumours abounded following the trial, suggesting at different times that she had been a prostitute, an alcoholic, carried STDs, and that she had spread pubic lice around Keystone Studios. This type of character assassination remains still too common in trials of sexual assault and rape – it certainly sits uncomfortably with me that, in reading about the Fatty Arbuckle trial, I could recall too many news stories of similar trials where victims are subjected to the most grotesque types of questioning.

Rappe was a figure of her time and, in many respects, a product of the way in which Hollywood did business. If we assume for a moment that the rumours spread about her were true, it says far more about the cultural dynamics at work in and around Hollywood than it does about her personality or, realistically, her choices. Hollywood of the 1920s – and decades onwards – was one in which women were forced to utilise sex and sexuality to get ahead and get noticed. The expectation that women would sleep with producers, directors, and casting officials was a given. To expect, encourage, and subsequently degrade women for using sex to achieve their goals was a power dynamic that dominated film making for much of the 20th century. The experience of Virginia Rappe, both before and after death, is perhaps one of the best examples of how this relationship between sex, power, and movie-making manifested in the first few decades of the 1900s.


If you have any suggestions for future posts, there are a few ways that you can get in touch. Via email at laura@sewforvictory.co.uk or on Instagram and Twitter by tagging me @sewforvictoryuk and using the hashtag #myvintagelife

The Sweetheart Dress – My Wedding Dress Muslin!

This much anticipated (by me) post is finally here! I’ve been busying myself with my wedding dress muslin for a while now, trying to tweak the fit to exactly what I want. And it’s finally done! Now that I’m underway with the real thing (and my move to the US is fast approaching), I thought it was about time to share some photos of the muslin and my thoughts on the Sweetheart Dress pattern from Sew La Di Da Vintage!

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My strategy with the muslin was very much to alter that pattern as I went along. And there was quite a lot of modifying to be done in order to get the fit that I wanted. From the beginning, I was keen to achieve a well tailored shape to the bodice – particularly important as a complement to the fullness of the skirt and the big ol’ petticoat that I’ll be wearing underneath it.

The main strength of the Sweetheart Dress is, I think, the neckline. It’s so wonderfully shaped and I especially appreciate the way that the straight neckline is complemented by the way that it curves around the back of the neck. Something about the shape elevates the dress from a standard day dress to a garment that really does work in more formal settings. This is obviously vital to any wedding dress that is made using less traditionally formal patterns, since you’ll still want to make sure that you look bridal. Adding a level of formality that works for a wedding dress was also the main reason that I decided to go with the straight neckline, rather than the sweetheart option (I was a bit worried about a potential cleavage situation).

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The main modifications I made to the pattern were around the bodice. I took the bodice in quite a lot to achieve a more tailored look. Initially, there was a LOT of ease. I ended up taking the dress in when I attached the back zip, basically working with pins until I felt that I had enough ease to be comfortable but not so much that I felt baggy. I had a similar issue with the neckline (obviously I’m talking only about the straight neckline option here) – there was quite a lot of gape when I first put the bodice together. Judging from photos of other people’s makes that I’ve studied, I think this is a relatively common issue. But it was easily fixed. I just took in the seams attaching the front and side front panels, essentially adjacent to the neckline. I probably ended up taking these seams in by about 1 inch on either side to get the neckline to lie flat.

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Apart from that, the only other modification I made was with the hem. Mine ended up being quite narrow, simply to ensure that I was achieving a length that worked with my petticoat (the one that I’ll be wearing for the wedding, rather than the one pictured here).  The length of my muslin is really the maximum I could have achieved without actually adding more fabric when I cut out the pattern pieces – so bear that in mind if you’re after something longer, although honestly I think this length works perfectly for the ’50s style.

I think the skirt on the pattern is spectacular. It’s got the classic circle skirt silhouette but has two front pleats that offer a unique take on the traditional ’50s dress patterns. I think this is another detail that tailors the Sweetheart Dress for more formal occasions. Since I’ll be making my wedding dress in a heavier brocade fabric, I think the fall of the pleats and the hang of the skirt will look especially great! Obviously with a skirt so fabulous (and no fiancé here to tell me I’ll make myself sick), I decided that I needed to do some serious spinning.

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And, yes, I did make myself sick. There are a lot more than two of these photos on my computer.

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As you can see from the back shot of the dress, the invisible zip is very much un-invisible. This was kind of a sacrifice on the path to getting the bodice to fit right. I might let the bodice of the wedding dress out a bit to better accommodate the zip (when the dress isn’t on my body, the zip is actually invisible), but I’m not too worried – mostly because a white zip on a white wedding dress isn’t much of a problem. Obviously I won’t be diving in to sewing up the wedding dress with the exact same measurements and dimensions of the muslin – partly because the fabric is totally different, and partly because I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate since the muslin was made! But it’s good to have some idea of the issues I had with the base pattern so that I can go in a bit more aware of potential problems.

The final thing I’ll mention is the heart patches. I’d like to claim that this was a work of creative genius conceived before I started sewing. Unfortunately, that would be a massive lie. The dress was finished and ready to go. I was trimming down the seams on the zip and accidentally cut a massive hole through the back of my dress. Oops! Obviously my first thought was my usual when I run into any kind of issue, large or small – throw the whole thing in the bin. Fortunately, I resisted and decided the best thing to do would be to patch it in a way that worked. So I bought some red cotton, fashioned some heart templates, cut them out of the fabric, attached some interfacing, and top-stitched them to the dress. I think it actually worked pretty well in the end, proving that you can salvage even the most desperate mistakes!

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I was honestly so stressed out about making this muslin. There’s a definite level of pressure to sewing your own wedding dress that I didn’t quite appreciate before I started making. Fortunately, the Sweetheart Dress pattern is incredibly easy to work with. Modifications aside, the pattern is the clearest that I’ve ever used, with detailed instructions and photos at every step. The structure of the dress is also such that it would be a great dress for beginner sewists who are feeling a bit more ambitious!

From here, it’s on with the wedding dress. Just a few weeks to go!

My Vintage Life: Bradshaw Crandell And The Evolution Of Pin-Up Art

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Happy Friday, love bugs! I hope that you are enjoying the last few days of April. Things are action stations for me right now, trying to sort out my visa so that I can finally head over to my fiancé in the US. It’s all starting to move at long last, which is great! Although this means that I really need to step up the pace on my wedding dress making. I finally got around to taking the photos of my muslin yesterday so watch out for those next week!

Anyway, on to this week’s instalment of My Vintage Life. Since starting Sew for Victory, I often get asked about my sources of inspiration. For anyone who enjoys or admires vintage style, inspiration really is key. I tend to spend a lot of time perusing photos on the internet and watching classic films as easy ways to increase my exposure to a wide variety of vintage fashions. But, for me, probably the most effective way to obtain inspiration is looking through genuine vintage magazines. I’ve collected quite a few over the past 18 months and they provide not only an insight into the every day lives and priorities of women living in decades past, but also a mine of pictures and illustrations that offer a clear portrait of popular fashion choices. The portraits used in, or on the cover of, vintage magazines particularly intrigue me. I’ve always wondered at the stylistic choices made – why a particular cover star has been featured, why the fashion selection has been made, why this or that pose has been chosen. For any popular magazine, such choices are always purposeful.

As I started to dig around for more information, I came across the name Bradshaw Crandell. Crandell was perhaps the most successful magazine cover artist through the 1930s and 1940s, working with an incredible array of Hollywood’s most elite stars to capture their image. His work is pretty astounding and I think taps into what was going on with popular culture at the time. Although Crandell didn’t typically work in what we would identify as the pin-up style (more about this below), I can’t escape the feeling that there are some fairly major overlaps between his art and the proliferation of a pin-up culture. So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and a look at Bradshaw Crandell’s life, legacy, his contribution to the evolution of pin-up art.


 

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John Bradshaw Crandell was born in 1896, in what is identified as the Golden Age of Illustration. This period (late 1800s to early 1900s) was a period of incredible productivity and achievement in book and magazine illustrations, largely a consequence of new technologies that allowed for the cheap, mass reproduction of images. These developments were capitalised upon by professional artists, looking to make a name for themselves in the production of magazine or postcard illustrations for popular consumption. Raphael Kirchner, an Austrian artist, was particularly successful in exploiting the Golden Age with the production of what can be identified as early pin-up postcards and magazine illustrations. His relatively sexualised images of beautiful women were incredibly popular and, as World War I began, particularly favoured by soldiers.

Crandell was very much part of the legacy left by illustrators such as Kirchner. His aptitude for art was recognised early, although he failed to graduate from both Chicago’s School of Art Institute and Wesleyan University. But he never stopped being a student of his craft – he worked relentlessly at the fundamentals and could not abide inaccurate or careless work. This dedication to hard work undoubtedly served Crandell well as he moved forward in his career and, eventually, once he had attained true celebrity status.

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Lana Turner by Bradshaw Crandell (1943)

Crandell’s career truly began in 1921, after he was contracted to create a cover for Judge magazine. Although he had previously been hired to provide illustrations for a Lorraine Hairnets ad, it was his work for Judge that served as a launching pad for his unprecedentedly successful career. In 1925, Crandell created the John Bradshaw Crandell studios but, by 1935, had decided to drop his first name. The new Bradshaw Crandell went on to produce some of the era’s most famous magazine illustrations – including cover portraits featuring Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner (pictured above), Rita Hayworth, and Bette Davis. At the time of World War II, Crandell also turned his hand to producing ads for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and Pontiac, amongst others.

By the end of the 1940s, Crandell was virtually a household name. His celebrity portraits, in particular, made him a popular figure – so much so that he was used in an advert for Lord Calvert Whiskey. Crandell died in 1966 but his work is very much remembered – He was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2006.

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Bradshaw Crandell’s Ad for the Women’s Army Corps (1943)

The appeal of Crandell’s work is so interesting to consider. Disclaimer: I know very little about art from an artist’s standpoint. I can’t paint and I’ve never studied art. But it seems to me that Crandell’s portraits and his legacy are not deemed exceptional purely on the basis of his (considerable) talent. Clearly – even to the uninformed among us – he has some serious artistic abilities. What’s interesting to me, however, is thinking about the extent to which Crandell’s legacy exists because of the social and cultural dynamics at play while he was producing his portraits. Essentially: was Crandell just in the right place at the right time?

Crandell is not typically remembered as a pin-up artist. Pin-up art is traditionally identified as portraits or pictures of women that are sexualised (but not pornographic) or incorporate a degree of (usually not so subtle) eroticism. The resurgence of pin-up photography as a contemporary phenomenon means that pretty much everyone can conjure a mental image of what we mean by pin-up art. Little of Crandell’s work portrayed his subjects in this traditional pin-up manner. But he walked a line between the overt eroticism that we now identify with the term ‘pin-up art’ and pictures that, while sexy in their own way, would’ve been acceptable to a more traditional female audience. The origins of the term ‘pin-up’ are enough to inform us of the typical audience for the more sexualised pin-up portraits and illustrations – these were designed as pictures for men to literally ‘pin up’ on their walls, made acceptable by the fact that they were not pornographic but still appealing in their sexual content. The women portrayed in these pictures were sometimes celebrities, sometimes unknown and unnamed girls. Crandell provided a different kind of pin-up to the world.

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Rita Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen by Bradshaw Crandell

What’s truly interesting about Crandell’s work is the manner in which he provides a sort of pin-up that crosses gender lines. With his portraits, Crandell was able to appeal to both the soldiers on the front lines – men who wanted pin-ups of their favourite movie stars – and the women left back at home. When looking at his portrait of Rita Hayworth, for example, her curves and beauty – very much accentuated by Crandell – clearly appeal to a more stereotypically pin-up culture. But Hayworth’s obvious vivacity, and the lack of an overt eroticism in the picture, would make this an appealingly aspirational portrait for women.

While Crandell did occasionally work in a more traditionally erotic pin-up style (see his portrait of Liberty, below), the fact that he is remembered for his celebrity portraits speaks to his success at seizing on the characteristics that made pin-up art so popular and making it his own.

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Spirit of Liberty by Bradshaw Crandell (1940)

I highly recommend taking some time to browse Crandell’s portraits. You’ll end up with a very clear picture of his incredible talent and the way in which he managed to simultaneously defy and subscribe to the pin-up style that dominated popular portraiture during the period. His celebrity portraits provide images that are aspirational in a way that dramatically increased his popular appeal – sexually aspirational for male consumers and providing a type of aesthetical and social aspiration for female consumers. Although the more overtly erotic style of pin-up art would continue to enjoy cultural supremacy, Crandell’s legacy very clearly continues. When we look at the types of celebrity images we often see plastering magazines today, they walk a very similar line to Crandell’s portraits – not alienating in their sexuality but simultaneously aspirational across gender boundaries. It is the ability to obtain this type of popular appeal that can make or break a celebrity and Bradshaw Crandell’s work shows just how successfully images can be used to offer a broad and multifaceted audience exactly what it wants.

My Vintage Life: Lux Radio Theatre

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Thank you all so much for the response to last week’s post on Norma Shearer and pre-Code Hollywood, as well as the introduction of My Vintage Life. It’s been a big week on Sew for Victory with this, plus the launch of the Sew for Victory Book Club. Your comments and support has been fantastic and I’m happy to know that you’re enjoying these new features!

I’ve had an incredibly busy week sewing-wise. On top of finishing the muslin for my wedding dress, I’ve now completed my version of the Baltimore Dress from Decades of Style – I’m planning on posting pictures of the muslin next week and a post about the Baltimore Dress should follow relatively soon after that! One of my secrets to productive sewing is having something great to listen to. An interesting podcast will usually motivate me to get to the sewing table, even when I’m really feeling a loss of motivation. It was on a hunt for something new to enjoy that I came across recordings of the Lux Radio Theatre. I had never heard of this grand radio production that ran from the mid-1930s through to the mid-1950s – this is particularly surprising given that recordings of the programmes are easily accessible online. I started working my way through the recordings and could not escape the feeling that such an incredible treasure trove needed to be talked about! So it’s to the story of the Lux Radio Theatre that we now turn…


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For those living in the 1930s and 1940s, radio provided an essential source of entertainment and information. It’s difficult to imagine, in our era of unprecedented technology, that there was a time when even radio was a luxury. In 1921, there were just five licensed broadcasting stations across the entire US. By 1924, this had increased massively to 500. A similar pattern shows the dramatic growth of radio ownership among American households, increasing from 40 percent in 1930 to 83 percent in 1940. Other than trips to the cinema, radio was everything in the way of entertainment. Comedies, dramas, musical performances – all were broadcast via radio to households across the US. Given these figures, it was perhaps natural that someone would seek to exploit the opportunity to bring together America’s two primary forms of entertainment – radio and film.

The Lux Radio Theatre began broadcasting on 14 October 1934, as one of the most ambitious radio productions in history. The project was a conceptualisation of the Lever Brothers, makers of Lux Soap, who sponsored the programmes for the duration of its production through to 1955 (if you listen to the productions, trust me when I say that you will hear more than you ever could have hoped to about soap and complexions). The show was a weekly hour-long radio broadcast, initially created with the purpose of adapting successful Broadway plays for radio. Each week, actors and actresses would perform these adaptations live in New York before a studio audience, broadcast via radio to – at the show’s peak – an estimated 40 million listeners. During the first two seasons of the show, a number of great Broadway plays were adapted – including Smilin’ Through Berkeley Square and Way Down East.

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The first two year’s of Lux Radio Theatre productions proved a remarkable success – a success upon which the show’s producers and sponsors were determined to capitalise. They decided to broaden the scope of the programme – and widen its audience – by relocating the entire production to Hollywood and, rather than adapt Broadway plays, produce adaptations of successful Hollywood films. From here, incredible success was almost inevitable. On 25 May 1936, the Lux Radio Theatre presented its first programme from its new base in Hollywood, with an adaptation of The Legionnaire and the Lady (based on the film Morocco), starring Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable. Listening to this first adaptation, it is easy to feel why the production was a remarkable coup for all involved. The listener is given the opportunity to hear the most famous Hollywood stars acting live in a condensed and radio-appropriate version of an incredibly successful film. There’s the odd fumbling of words from the actors but this just adds to the sense of being right there, watching these performers do what they do best. Nothing like this had been done before and, in my opinion, modern radio productions would struggle to evoke the same effect on their listeners.

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Cecil B. DeMille

A large part of the Lux Radio Theatre’s success is undoubtedly owed to its long-time host – Cecil B. DeMille. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s worth going and doing a little digging. DeMille was perhaps one of the most interesting figures to work during the period we term ‘classic Hollywood’. He was an incredibly prestigious film maker and is often created as being the founder of American cinema. Lux Radio Theatre brought him on as host when they moved to Hollywood and he stayed with the production for almost a decade. As a man who would’ve been known to almost every movie-going American in the 1930s, DeMille added a definite level of authenticity to the production. When you listen to the episodes that he hosts, he often drops in anecdotes or converses with individuals with whom he has previously worked. At the end of The Legionnaire and The Lady, for example, DeMille introduces Clark Gable with this story:

Host: And now– And now a word about a certain young actor before he steps out on the stage. I want to tell you a little story of him. When I was casting “Madam Satan” six or seven years ago, I was looking for a villain. Somebody had given my script girl a screen test of a young man and she kept dinging the life out of me to see it. I asked her if he was a villain, and she said she thought he could do anything. Eh, so I looked at it and decided he was not a villain, but that he had definite possibilities. So I showed it to the other executives at the studio. When I asked them about the young man a day or so later, they said he never could succeed in pictures. I asked why not. They said, “His ears are too big.” … But evidently– Evidently, those ears were no obstacle to the triumph of Clark Gable.

These types of stories – with which every production is dotted – fantastically heighten the sense that you are listening to the ‘real’ Hollywood – hearing from those figures that stand at the very heart of this flashy, gaudy, and impenetrable metropolis of fame and fortune.

Over the course of its production, the Lux Radio Theatre adapted some of the best known Hollywood films and employed the most famous personalities in starring roles. Mostly, productions attempted to retain the original cast unless the stars were totally unavailable. In many instances, the production of films would be halted temporarily by the studios in order for the stars to be available for recordings of Lux Radio Theatre. Stars such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Gene Kelly, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant, all starred at various points in Lux Radio Theatre productions. This list is only the tip of the iceberg. For many of these stars, however, appearing in the radio adaptations was no simple matter. To actors used to multiple takes for any one scene, the idea of acting live with no second chances was incredibly intimidating. However, the offer of $5000 for an appearance often quelled the fears. In addition, these radio productions offered an opportunity to promote any upcoming projects.

One of my favourite parts of the episode is right at the end, when the main stars of the adaptation come out to speak with the host. There’s typically a bit of back and forth conversation, sometimes a song if one of the stars is a singer, and a promotion of future films. Although these interactions are always scripted – and typically feel so – there’s something truly endearing about them. At the end of the adaptation of Burlesque, for instance, stars Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler talk with Cecil B. DeMille. Although this takes up perhaps just five minutes of the whole episode, it’s incredibly heartwarming listening to this husband and wife acting partnership interact with one another. This, more than anything, truly does give the sense that the listener is somehow penetrating those barriers traditional perceived to stand around Hollywood and its best and brightest.

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That fact that we have access to the recordings of every production of Lux Radio Theatre is incredibly fortunate. The archive of episodes provides potentially days of entertainment for those interested in classic Hollywood or classic radio productions. I can’t quite put across how impactful it is, for someone who is fascinated by the 1930s-1940s Hollywood era, to listen to these live recordings of radio adaptations based on Hollywood’s greatest triumphs. One of the biggest difficulties when researching those periods that we associate with the word ‘vintage’ is, I think, attempting to humanise and bring life to the people and events that we read about. Even watching classic films fails to bring this humanity – as with any actor who does a half decent job, the portrayal of a character on screen will always serve as a kind of wall between the audience and the person behind the actions and words. I read a lot of biographies with the explicit purpose of attempting to understand more of the ‘real’ Hollywood or the ‘real’ actors. The Lux Radio Theatre productions offer a different way of bringing some humanity to these people whose names we all know. The fumbling of words, the demonstrable nerves, and the genuine real-life moments that pervade almost all of the productions shine a new kind of light on the Hollywood of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.


If you want to listen to the Lux Radio Theatre broadcasts for yourself (which you absolutely should!), they are available via public domain from a number of sources. I have been listening via this archive.

 

 

 

Sew For Victory Book Club: ‘Zelda’ by Nancy Milford

 

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A book club feature is something that I’ve been working on introducing for a while. As I mentioned in last Friday’s post, I spend a lot of my free time reading up on various aspects of things that you could loosely term ‘vintage-related’. I created the My Vintage Life feature to help introduce a bit more of that sort of content here – alongside all of my continuing posts about sewing, of course! However, it’s also important that I get to have a conversation with all of you. And what better way to do that than through a book club?! I’ve always been an avid reader – I actually ran a book blog, long before I created Sew for Victory, and I’m currently training to be a high school English teacher. So bringing together my love of reading and my love of all things vintage seemed like an excellent step!

The Sew for Victory Book Club is going to focus on reads that have something to tell us about those various components that we associate with the word ‘vintage’ – so it might be a book about a particular era, person, or event. I’m also hoping to get a good mix of fiction and non-fiction. Largely, the Book Club is going to reflect whatever I’m most interested in at that moment in time. But I’m also open to suggestions – so send any book recommendations my way through a comment, email (laura@sewforvictory.co.uk) or tag @sewforvictoryuk on Instagram or Twitter. Typically, I’ll be using social media to point you towards whatever book I’ll be posting about that month. Since this is the first post, however, I’m going to dive right in with April’s selection – Zelda by Nancy Milford.


 

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I picked out this book for April because it seemed quite timely to me, both in terms of the blog and popular culture more generally. Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, has recently seized the collective imagination with renewed vigour. A TV series about her life, as well as a couple of upcoming films, mean that Zelda is very much a part of contemporary public consciousness. For my part, I recently threw myself into stitching up a 1920s storm with the Baltimore Dress from Decades of Style. Since I have a hard time separating fashion from the larger historical context in which it emerged, I obviously threw myself into learning more about the ’20s. It was perhaps inevitable that I would find myself enthralled by the woman termed the ‘first American flapper’ by her husband.

By this point, I’ve read a couple of biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald. Nancy Milford’s is not, in my opinion, the best or most thorough. But it is accessible in length (quite a bit shorter than the alternatives at 464 pages) and remains incredibly well researched, despite being written back in the 1970s. The book offers a detailed account of Zelda’s life – her childhood in the South, her marriage to Scott Fitzgerald, and her tragic encounters with mental illness. The book gains most of its authoritative weight from the many interviews conducted by the author with people who knew the Fitzgeralds. Nancy Milford also had access to many diaries, letters, and manuscripts written by the couple.

Most interesting about Zelda is the depth that it gives to a woman who has become almost caricatured by popular culture. Few people haven’t heard of Zelda Fitzgerald. Those who have typically identify her with the ‘flapper’ lifestyle – drinking, partying, indulging in sexual promiscuity. While Zelda’s role in the development of the flapper is undeniable and her partying with Scott is legendary, there is so much more to this very three-dimensional woman than general knowledge would suggest.

Scott and Zelda

Zelda and Scott on the cover of Hearst’s International Magazine (1923).

The biography tracks Zelda throughout her life. From her early years as a southern Belle in Montgomery, Alabama, to her first meeting with Scott in 1918. Milford describes Zelda’s daredevil approach to life and her total fearlessness. This lines up with what we know of Zelda following her marriage to Scott Fitzgerald in 1920 – the complete abandon with which they appeared to live their lives in New York, cast in the role of popular celebrities following publication of Scott’s first novel This Side of Paradise. Their wildness put them in the spotlight on a constant basis, making them the near total embodiment of what Scott Fitzgerald would himself term ‘the Jazz Age’. Milford does a great job of depicting this period, as well as the ensuing trips to Europe.

Where the book has a tougher time, however, is in relating the facts of Zelda’s mental illness. Zelda was, according to the book, diagnosed with schizophrenia while the couple were still abroad in Europe. It is this diagnosis that would follow Zelda throughout her life, back to the US, and into a number of institutions. Undoubtedly, there was something incredibly troubling in Zelda Fitzgerald (other sources suggest that she more likely suffered from a form of manic depression). Nancy Milford describes Zelda’s struggles with asserting her own identity in the face of Scott’s success – her attempts to write and, subsequently, to become a professional ballet dancer in her late 20s. It was while committed to an excessive and obsessive programme of dance training that Zelda had her initial ‘breakdown’ and was institutionalised. However, Milford’s biography has suffered criticisms of censorship. In Sally Cline’s biography of Zelda – Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise – Cline suggests that Zelda and Scott’s only child, their daughter Scottie, was vigilant in her attempts to keep certain pieces of information out of earlier biographies. According to Cline, Scottie – despite giving her permission for the publication of Milford’s book – actively requested that certain parts of it be removed.  Cline also indicates that she had to work hard to obtain access to medical records previously restricted to researchers.

The extent to which Milford’s biography was censored is uncertain. However, it is clearly the case that – since the book’s publication in the 1970s – a new degree of accessibility to Zelda’s life and a renewed interest in her legacy have emerged. Milford’s biography introduces us to a fully realised and, at times, intimidating portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald. We get to see Zelda the tomboy, Zelda the beauty, Zelda the author, Zelda the painter, Zelda the wife, and Zelda the mother. In none of these capacities is Zelda unflawed or completely accomplished. Instead, Milford shows each of these separate identities as an individual site of turmoil for Zelda. In Milford’s portrayal, these separate facets of Zelda’s personality cumulatively dwarf the comparatively short time that Zelda spent in New York as Zelda the flapper. Instead, we end up with a picture of Zelda as a truly multifaceted and multitalented woman – a women who worked relentlessly to establish her own identity, separate from the almost domineering narcissism of her husband. This battle was one into which her struggles with mental illness would ultimately enter and was a battle that would, sadly, end without resolution.

Zelda

Zelda (1920) in a knickerbocker suit that outraged people in the South.

There is obviously so much more to this story than I am describing here. If you have any interest in the 1920s, whether literary or lifestyle, I would highly suggest picking up Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. It will undoubtedly shake up any preconceptions you have about the woman so infamously associated with the Roaring ’20s. While the biography will likely never escape accusations of censorship – and should be read with appropriate scrutiny because of this – it still stands up as an incredibly well-researched and well-written account of a woman who so defied social conventions. After finishing Zelda, I was left with a truly unexpected appreciation for this heroine of popular culture. It is fitting that, as she spent her life searching for an identity and a legacy, Zelda Fitzgerald would be a figure who, almost 70 years after her death, we would be relentlessly seeking to understand and claim as our own.


If you want to get hold of a copy of Zelda by Nancy Milford, it’s available on Amazon UK and Amazon US I bought mine on Kindle. Sidenote: the Kindle version isn’t great. There are lots of typos and formatting issues with separating quotes from the body of the text. If you can purchase a paper copy, I would recommend it!

If you’ve read or plan on reading the book – or just have some general thoughts – add a comment to the post. I’d love to hear from you!