Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Most Romantic Accessory Under the Sun

QUESTION: I love fashion accessories. Recently, I purchased a beautiful antique parasol from a vintage clothing booth at a local antique show. It’s covered in lace and has an ivory handle. Other than they’re a cousin of the umbrella, what can you tell me about the history of these romantic fashion accessories?
ANSWER: Parasols go back almost 5,000 years to ancient Egypt. Then as in their heyday during the late 18th and 19th centuries, they shielded women from the sun. In fact, the word literally means "for sun" in Spanish.

The umbrella as we know it first gained favor in England as a way for women to shield themselves from English rain. English umbrella makers first constructed them of oiled silk which made them extremely heavy and difficult to open when wet. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that French umbrella makers transformed this mundane accessory into the parasol, one of romantic beauty. It’s name literally means “for the sun.”

Traditionally ladies had accessorized their outfits with delicate cane walking sticks, but during the 18th century, they replaced them with the more fashionable and useful parasol.

As the popularity of the parasol grew so too did its ornamentation. Until 1800, the fabric used on parasols was mostly green to cast a complementary shadow over the bearer's face so that a woman’s overly flushed complexion might appear fashionably pale. After this period of restraint, parasols became sumptuous with canopies adorned with laces, ruffles and fringes. Parasol makers replaced utilitarian wooden handles with costly ones made from porcelain, ivory, or ebony, enriched with elaborate carvings and inlays of mother of pearl, gems, and precious metals.

By the Victorian era the parasol was an essential accessory for ladies. Many had parasols made to match the fabric of their dresses, while the truly fashionable even had fans made to match their parasols. The length of the handle and shaft, the number of spokes and the diameter of the canopy, at one stage no larger than a handkerchief, were constantly shifting with changes in fashion. But in 1852, Samuel Fox, the founder of the English Steels Company, had a surplus of steel stays used in making corsets. Fox had the idea of using his steel stays in place of wooden or bone ribs, thus reducing the weight of parasols and improving their opening and durability.

To Victorian women, an unblemished complexion was essential to their concept of beauty. Like fans, parasols became part of the Victorian feminine mystique and even developed their own secret language useful for flirting.

Parasols were as a much a part of a well-dressed lady's outfit as were her gloves, hat, shoes and stockings. A fashionable lady carried a different parasol for each outfit. They became popular gifts for men to give their lady.

By the dawning of the 20th century, wide-brimmed hats became fashionable and women no longer needed parasols to protect complexions. Parasols eventually disappeared during the 1920's, when a tanned complexion replaced pale skin as a status symbol.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

For U.S.A. Britain and Democracy

QUESTION: I have a teapot that has been passed down from my grandmother to my mother and now to me. It’s not just any old teapot, but a unique one with the words “For U.S.A. Britain and Democracy handpainted on the lid. My mother said that my grandmother bought it in 1940 but no one seems to know why it has this phrase on the lid. The teapot is glossy black with little flowers painted on it. And on its bottom is what looks like a golden pretzel with a lion and the British flag and the words “World War II. Made in England. Escorted to United States by the Allied Fleets.” Can you tell me anything about my teapot?

ANSWER: You’ve got a unique piece of World War II memorabilia. English potteries produced teapots such as yours, decorated with black glaze and simple, hand-painted flowers, during World War II as part of a fundraising program to provide money, equipment, and supplies necessary for Britain's war effort.

From 1939 to 1945, the United States and Canada provided escort ships to convoys of merchant marine vessels carrying massive cargoes to England. Many never made it across the North Atlantic and instead lie beneath the waves, the victims of German U-boat attacks. Once the ships arrived safely in England, British dock workers unloaded them and refilled them with English ceramic ware which served as ballast for their return trip. On arrival in America the ships full of teapots and other goods would be unloaded and distributed to merchants who sold them as a way of helping to pay for the convoy costs.

Staffordshire potteries produced these teapots by the hundreds during World War II. Women decorated these five-inch tall, black/brown, Rockingham glazed teapots with hand painted pink, orange, yellow, and green flowers, highlighted by a purple bow. They hand painted the words “ For U.S.A. Britain and Democracy” or just “For England and Democracy” on the lid, which they edged in gold. Painted in gold on the bottom are the words “World War II. Made in England. Escorted to USA by Royal Navy” or as in your case “by Allied Fleets.” The pretzel-shaped, three-loop, twisted, gold rope, known as a Stafford or Staffordshire Knot, is the symbol used by potteries in Staffordshire, England since the 1840s. Within the knot is a British flag and a lion.

Legend says that Winston Churchill chose the teapot for this special duty since it had become a symbol of Britain to many Americans. He insisted that “For England and Democracy” be painted on the lid because this was the shared goal of both the U.S. and England. In the beginning, the overall aim of the teapots, specifically made to appeal to Americans, was to help earn their support. At that time, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were undecided if the U.S. should join England in fighting the Germans.

Today, these teaports sell online for $40 to $45, although some go as high as $150.