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whatgrandmawore is a celebration of all-things fashion and its most iconic moments, written by Ruby-May Helms. She has a BA (Hons) in Fashion and Dress History, and an MA in the History of Design and Material Culture. She is currently in the process of applying for a PHD in design history, exploring the relationship between clothing and death. 


This blog explores fashion and dress history through the analysis of surviving garments and other material culture from museum collections. It discusses fashion theory, topical and current issues, and reviews the latest exhibitions. 


TO CONTACT: rubymayhelms@hotmail.com. 


You can follow us on our social media channels by searching for us on Instagram and Twitter.

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March 11, 2019

whatgrandmawore is pleased to welcome our first guest post from Rachel Sayers!

Within the study of fashion history, Irish dress is one of the most neglected and under-researched aspects. There have been less than ten major texts on Irish fashion to be published in the last 40 years, making writing, disseminating and researching Irish dress history difficult. Researching this blog post on Irish fashion between 1750 and 1850 has been problematic as information is limited, or extracted from other sources that are not readily available to an independent researcher like myself.  This however, has not deterred me in my research, and I hope that you find this blog post informative and enjoyable. 

Ireland in the 18th century was a predominantly rural society with a large percentage of the population working in rural areas. Clothing was made by tailors and seamstresses or within ‘cottage industries’ i.e. clothing made in small cottages across Ireland. [1] Working class women would have...

April 24, 2018

Fashioned From Nature could not have come at a more critical time.

Increased environmental awareness has finally seemed to resonate with the population. Hopefully, and crucially, it will and has made people aware of their own behaviours; how they personally impact the planet on which we live, and share. Reactions to programmes such as BBC’s Blue Planet demonstrate the outrage which is now felt towards pollutant and waste materials such as plastic. Human disasters such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 prompted a widespread reassessment of the fashion industry and called for changes to the production of fast-fashion. I doubt that there could ever be a more poignant time to hold an exhibition detailing the fashion industry’s relationship with nature and the environment. It has become vital to address and discuss humanity’s past and present manufacturing and consumption behaviours - before it is too late to reverse the catastrophic effects that the demand of fashion has on...

February 24, 2017

2009.300.3277. House of Worth Tea Gown. c1910. Silk, rhinestones and metal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The Edwardian era began with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. With the death of the longest reigning monarch at the time, Britain was at first plunged into full mourning dress. However, after the black clothes subsided, and her eldest son Edward VII took the throne, the country was introduced to an era of opulence and extravagance.

The Edwardian era is often regarded as a period of elegance and graciousness (Wilson, Taylor: 1989. 43), whilst great social change occurred in regards to the conditions of the welfare state, and demands for the voting rights for women intensified. For the upper-class lady, couture fashions were increasingly lavish. In order to maintain appearances, she would require: a large fortune (it remained expensive to dress fashionably during Edwardian times), several outfit changes throughout the day, and a team of dedicated maids to help ini...

January 27, 2017

Fashion designers are no stranger to the world of perfume.

Indeed, the couturier Paul Poiret, began producing scents after establishing his own perfumery during the 1910's, aptly naming his side-business and products after his daughter Rosine. Poiret's perfumes were the perfect accompaniment to his Orientalist and avant-garde fashion designs. They often referenced his love for Far East in both bottle design and exotic scent composition. A few years later, a certain entrepreneur called Coco Chanel in partnership with perfumer Ernest Beaux, would create a fragrance which remains as an all-time international best seller - Chanel No. 5. 

Image Credit Unknown: Paul Poiret 'La Rose de Rosine' c1912. Pinterest. 

Perfumes allow a more wider base of consumers to purchase an element of a fashion house without the hefty price tag. Most department stores are filled with the latest and classic perfumes - but this post intends to celebrate the elaborate and downright exuberant...

January 14, 2017

Last year whilst researching the dress of debutantes, I encountered a designer which I previously had little knowledge of. The name was Boué Soeurs, and the dress I uncovered was the garment pictured below: 

Above and Below Images: C.I.68.48a–e. Boué Soeurs presentation ensemble. c1928. Silk, metallic threads; silk; feathers, cellulose nitrate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

When I found the gown, I had only little information to go by. According to The Met Museum, Boué Soeurs, consisted of two individuals, who were sisters. They were renowned for detailed, intricate lace and embroidered designs. The pair and their Parisian fashion house was active from the late 19th century, and beginning of the twentieth century, up until the late 1950's. 

I searched the online collections of various museums in order to discover more about the pair. Their garments are delicate and richly adorned. Most museums had only required garments produced in the 1920's, bu...

November 11, 2016

Is fashion art? 

I have asked the question many times before, particularly in regards to the work of Japanese designers, such as Rei Kawakubo (whom The Met Museum will be focusing on as their key subject for next year's Gala), Issey Miyake, and  Yohji Yamamoto. 

I also think of designers that have placed the structure and composition of garments in the forefront of their design visions, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès ect. 

But the one designer who stands out, a man who was experimental and innovative, determined to have every garment he produced be deemed as a piece of art, with an impeccably tailored silhouette fitting his couture clients perfectly. His name - was Charles James; a British couturier who worked in both America and Britain. 

Above image: C.I.53.73. 'Clover Leaf' Charles James dress. Silk and rayon. c1953. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Charles James was born in 1906, England, to an affluent family, and a father who was disapproving o...

October 21, 2016

'Fashion consists only in extremes [...] frivolity and death.' 

'Does fashion die [...] because it can no longer keep up the tempo?' - Walter Benjamin - The Arcades Project.

The fashion system relies on a never-ending cycle of newness, spectacle, emulation and death. This is how fashion works - without the invention of new, or the recycling of previous styles, the fashion industry would not survive. 

Many theorists have tried to make sense of the fashion system. Thorstein Veblen believed that once commodities had been purchased, consumers would move on to the next trend, unsatisfied and desiring more goods which would elevate their social standing. Products, although not always functional, nor of the best quality, could be marketed in such a way that consumers would believe it was an exclusive status symbol. Exclusivity = a higher price.

Veblen also believed that the middle-classes imitated the fashions of the upper-classes. Once fashion had disseminated all the way down to the w...

October 7, 2016

“When a woman smiles, then her dress should smile too” - Madeleine Vionnet, Vionnet Website. 

After the drop-waist, raised hem, sequin dresses of the 1920's appeared, fashion dictated that by 1930, the look would disappear. As one trend is born another must die. A big misrepresentation of history, is that all women during the 1920's had a cloche hat, bobbed hair, and wore 'flapper' dresses throughout their years as emancipated women. This is not true. Of course, these styles did appear, but they were often dominated by the upper-classes until fashions were disseminated down to the working-classes, appropriately adapted for correct social circumstance and income. Not every trend seen to personify an era, is adopted by all. 

1974.261a–c. Madeleine Vionnet wedding ensemble. Silk. c1929. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The 1920's brought about enormous social change for women. However, the 1930's were also a key turning point for women's fashions. The Wall...

September 23, 2016

"I despise simplicity. It is the negation of all that is beautiful," - Norman Hartnell (Source V&A Museum, Norman Hartnell biography). 

A presentation at court to the royal family was a rite of passage for most upper-class girls during the 1920-30’s. A long lasting tradition of the British establishment, the trip to Buckingham Palace was rooted in history, beginning some 200 years prior to the interwar years, the period that lasted from 1918-1945. Presentations at court only ended in 1958, out of touch with a fast-paced, modernising world where social boundaries were slowly deteriorating.  

72.143. Norman Hartnell evening gown. Silk. c1948. The Museum of London, London, England. 

Young girls, would be put forward for invitation normally by their mothers, to courtesy in front of the ruling monarch, symbolising the beginning of the social Season. Presentations would normally occur when the debutante was 18 to 21, although other older ladies such as widows who had not been previously pr...

September 16, 2016

Germaine Émilie Krebs was born in 1903. As a young French woman, who aspired to become a sculptor, Krebs was unaware that her career was destined to be within the world of fashion, later becoming the master couturier Madame Grès. An extreme hard-worker, who kept her private life secret and away from the cameras, Grès left her mark on the world of couture, dazzling her rivals and inspiring the next generation of designers with her Grecian flowing gowns.

C.I.56.60.6a, b. Madame Grès dress. c1954. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (both images). 

At first, Grès opened her first couture house under the name of Alix. This was the start of a successful and prestigious career, with notable clients such as The Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly, and Marlene Dietrich.

By 1942 Grès had married, her title, ‘Grès,’ an anagram of her husband’s name. By now, she was developing her signature Grecian gowns, using draping techniques that worked with the fabric first rather than fr...

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