Thursday, August 21, 2014

Crossing America by Bicycle

On August 23, 2014 from 11am to 12:30pm at the San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin Street in the lower level Latino-Hispanic Meeting Rooms, we will be having a very unusual event.

Mike Woods is a structural engineer who has lived in San Francisco since 2000. Most days he can be found at his desk, drawing and performing calculations for floodgates, tunnels, and bridges. In high school, he used to ride from library to library to find books and explore his home state of Massachusetts.

On June 1, 2013, after very little exercise, but much planning, he mounted his bicycle and began a 4,257-mile ride from San Francisco to Boston. He will discuss the process of planning and then riding for in 55 days. Long days of up to 120-miles could be expected for this out-of-shape rider with bad knees.

Mike will bring the actual bicycle, as well as the 100 items of gear that he took on his trip.

All Library programs are free and open to the public.  Supported by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Extreme Fashion: A Survey of Women's Fashion, pt. 2

Extreme Style: A Survey of Women’s Fashion continues to be on display in the Art, Music and Recreation Center on the 4th floor of the Main Library through mid-October.

Earlier blog entry: Extreme Style: A Survey of Women’s Fashion, pt. 1 (August 3, 2014)

Swimming suit 1885 - source: Etching and Engraving Picture File

19th century swimwear and tennis wear: When women first began to swim, beaches were strictly segregated between men and women. Even so, modesty was the goal with style not much of a consideration. The first swimsuits were far from practical or comfortable; ladies went as far as to sew lead weights into the hem of the "bathing gown" to prevent the dress from floating up and exposing their (stocking covered) legs. Bathing costumes were made of a heavy wool flannel that absorbed pounds of water. When women began playing tennis in the late 1800s, they basically just wore their everyday clothing. Some of the more aggressive players raised their hemlines a few inches for better mobility.

 A Perfect Health Corset Superior to all Others - source: Etching and Engraving Picture File

Corsets: Corsets were in style for centuries. The shapes changed in order to modify the body to conform to whatever idealized figure was in style. The materials changed from iron to steel to whalebone. They were worn by all economic classes and all ages. There were even special styles designed to be worn while sleeping. In the Victorian era girls as young as one year old were put in corsets. They were said to improve a girl’s posture and health, although there is no word on why a boy’s health did not require the same garment.

Panniers: 17th-18th c. The French word pannier translates as basket, and the understructures to support this style were originally made of woven wicker baskets tied to the waist. Doors were reconfigured and armless chairs were designed in response to the fashion.

Cage Crinolines or Hoop Skirts: When metal cage crinolines were patented in 1856 they were an immediate hit. Women were overjoyed with this invention because it meant they could eliminate the six heavy petticoats they had been wearing to achieve the ultra-full skirted look then in style. After the cage was adopted, skirts became even fuller, often using 20 yards of fabric. At the height of their popularity enough steel was produced in Sheffield, England to make half a million hoops in one week. The crinoline knew no class differences and was adopted simultaneously by all, with only the quality of the crinoline material changing. The inflatable rubber crinoline, an attempt to reduce the weight of steel hoops, was a short-lived fad that never really caught on.

Bustles: In the mid to late 19th century the circular hoop skirt shifted until all of the fullness was in the back. This major change in silhouette in such a short time is attributed to the influence of Charles Frederick Worth, the world’s first

Couturier. Professional fashion designers are so central to our understanding of style that it is hard to believe that they’ve only been dominant for a short time. Worth revolutionized the business of dressmaking. He opened The House of Worth in Paris in 1871, and began the custom of presenting seasonal collections of his own designs. He was also the first to put labels into the clothing he manufactured. As other couturiers appeared the desire for new styles became a demand for new styles.

Hobble skirts: During the first decade of the 1900s, just as women began demanding more freedom and equal rights, one of the most restrictive fashions of the twentieth century came into style. This was the hobble skirt, a slim, ankle-length skirt that grew narrower from the hips to the hem. Popular between 1905 and 1910, the hobble skirt was so tight at the ankles that the woman wearing it could only walk in very short steps. Horses are hobbled by tying their front legs together with a short rope to keep them from running away. The hobble skirt was named after this. Women who wore the skirt often wore a special contraption underneath it. The hobble garter was a band made of two loops of fabric attached to each leg just below the knee. The bands were connected by a short strip of cloth preventing the wearer from accidentally taking a normal stride and ripping the fashionable skirt.

Chopines: Developed in the early sixteenth century in Venice, the high-platformed shoe called the chopine had both a practical and symbolic function. It was designed to protect the foot from irregularly paved and wet or muddy streets, but the enhancement of stature also played a role. The wearer literally wanted to stand out in a crowd. The chopine's height introduced an awkwardness and instability in a woman that required her to rely on an attendant to help her walk. While most examples are between three and five inches tall, more extreme versions rose to over 18 inches.

Platform Shoes: 20th and 21st century descendants of the Chopine became fashionable in the 1940’s, 1970’s and the first decade of the 21st century. The silhouettes from each era are remarkably similar.
Xray foot in stiletto - source: Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed by Harold Koda

Stilettos & High Heels: 16th – 21st centuries at various times. High heels were first worn by men in the 16th century to help secure the foot in a stirrup for horseback riding. Women soon adopted them and high heels have cycled in and out of fashion ever since.


How do we strive to stay stylish today? Will anything we wear be considered extreme in 100 years? Compared to the historical fashions pictured here our clothing seems so practical and simple. But maybe there are a few styles that could be questionable in a century or two? A short and highly opinionated list might include some of these.

Washed, distressed and pre-ripped pants. Tattoos. Bikinis too small to swim in. Modifying the body through implants. Logo T-shirts advertising the store that sold you the T-shirt. The idealized bodies of the past, shaped by corsets, padded shoulders, or extreme bustles do look odd. Will future generations question our ideal figure represented by fashion models who are taller than 99% of American women, with an average body mass index officially in the anorexic range?

As new fashions are continually designed our perceptions of beauty will continually adapt. Our pursuit of the next beautiful extreme is the one thing that remains constant.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Offbeat Movie Musicals of the 60s

Image source: IMDB

Musical films have been popular genre since the inauguration of sound film in the late 1920s.  While the 1960s were a decade of change and upheaval, the movie musical continued and changed with the times.  We are pleased to present a month of musicals that may not often received public screenings.

August 7 · Gay Purr-ee (G 86 min. 1962)

In this animated musical, Judy Garland voices Mewsette, a French country cat in 1890s Paris. Songs by Wizard of Oz songwriting team Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

August 14 · Bells Are Ringing (NR 126 min. 1960)

Judy Holiday plays a telephone operator who becomes involved in the lives of her customers.  Includes songs by Jule Style, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

August 21 · Fastest Guitar Alive (NR 87 min. 1967)

Roy Orbison is a singing and guitar playing spy who steals gold from the San Francisco mint during the waning days of the Confederacy. (No subtitles available on this film)

August 28 · Robin and the 7 Hoods (NR 123 min. 1964)

The “Rat Pack” (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin) and Bing Crosby rob from the rich and give to the poor in gangland Chicago of the 1920s. Songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.

All program at the San Francisco Public Library are free and open to the public.  These programs receive financial support from the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library

All films are shown with captions when possible to assist our deaf and hard of hearing patrons.

To receive monthly e-mail about upcoming programs, please send a request to

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Extreme Style: A Survey of Women’s Fashion

 image source: San Francisco Public Library Etching and Engraving Picture File

Extreme Style: A Survey of Women’s Fashion is a display in the Art, Music and Recreation Center on the 4th floor of the Main Library. It will be available to view through mid-October.

It was extremely stylish, now it’s just extreme. According to Oscar Wilde, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” The perception of beauty is always subjective. What is considered the height of fashion looks ridiculous after it predictably, goes out of style.

Self-adornment is found in every culture. Evidence shows that people began wearing clothing up to 500,000 years ago. Images of people wearing clothing have been found in 20,000 year-old cave paintings. In western civilization, being fashionable in the way we now understand it began sometime in the 14th century. Increased trade and travel, technological breakthroughs in textiles, the growth of a middle class and the beginnings of disposable income all converged in this era. The result was that women began to create and follow fashion.

Towards the middle of the 19th century the rate at which the fashionable silhouette changed accelerated. The invention of the home sewing machine and the increasing popularity of paper patterns encouraged home dress-making during this time. Concurrently, periodicals, especially fashion magazines intended for women became popular. By the 20th century the pace of change in the fashionable silhouette grew ever more rapid as the expanding fashion industry, in conjunction with new forms of media, became more effective at stimulating demand for a constant flow of new styles (read more about this at "Women's fashions of the Victorian era").

In the first part of this entry we’ll focus on styles from the head to the waist. Our next entry will discuss the waist to the feet. Listing extreme styles chronologically is another approach, but as you’ll see, some styles and silhouettes cycle in and out of fashion, in some cases centuries apart. It’s also fascinating to compare the extremes of proportion within one article of dress. For example, the hoop skirt to the hobble skirt.

Working our way from top to toe, here are just some of the more extreme styles that women have chosen in their quest to be fashionable.

Hennins, Horned Headdresses and Caged Headdresses: 15th c. Europe. Sumptuary laws limited the height of the cone-shaped hats called Hennins to 24” for the aristocracy, while princesses could wear Hennins up to 36” high. Doorways were adjusted to accommodate the fashion. Eyebrows and hairlines were plucked to increase the illusion of height. Horned Headdresses were stuffed, and Caged Headdresses were wired to maintain their shapes.

image source: San Francisco Public Library Etching and Engraving Picture File

Enormous Hats: 1780’s and early 20th century. These looks coincided with two of the big hair eras. The thought was that a big hat balanced the hair style and created a pleasing proportion. Big hats provided plenty of room for decoration. Edwardian hats were often adorned with a full variety of waxed fruit, yards of ribbon and net, or full nests of stuffed birds.

Extreme Hair: 1700’s, 1800’s and 20th century (1910s, 1940s, 1960s and 1980s). For women without enough hair to achieve the look there were always other options. Padding, false hair, wire cages, hairspray, teasing and extreme chemical treatments. It’s an impressive comment on creativity that all of the different “Big Hair” eras look unique.

Ruff collars: 16th century. The more extreme versions were reserved for the aristocracy, but variations of pleated, starched or wired collars were worn by the middle class as well.

Taxidermy Fur Stoles: In the early 20th century, mink and fox stoles often included the full animal- head, tail and all four legs. One popular way to wear this style was to attach a fastener under the animal’s jaw and then clip it to the tail. This gave the appearance that the animal was biting its own tail.

Shoulder Pads: During World War II, women’s fashion took on a militaristic look. Shoulder pads helped to support this tailored, masculine style. When shoulder pads came back in the 1980’s they began as a retro reinterpretation of that 1940’s style. The 80’s pads seemed to take on a life of their own though, as they grew to truly enormous sizes. The theory was that broad shoulders made the hips look smaller.

Oversized Sleeves: Popular from about 1825 until 1840, the “gigot” sleeve was full at the top and tighter toward the wrist. By the mid-1830s the enlarged top cap was sagging with its own enormity. In order to support these massive sleeves, women resorted to filling them with stiffened buckram undersleeves, whalebone hoops or large feather-filled pads. Enormous sleeves became popular again in the Victorian era around the turn of the twentieth century. They reappeared briefly in the 1930s as a precursor to the shoulder pads of the 1940’s.

Stuffed Birds and Feathers for hats and accessories: At the height of the “Plume Boom” in the early part of the 20th century the business of killing birds for the millinery trade was practiced on a large scale, involving the deaths of hundreds of millions of birds in many parts of the world. By the turn of the 20th century, this trade had nearly eliminated egrets in the US, and populations of numerous other bird species around the globe were also approaching extinction. Reports of “murderous millinery” atrocities led to the formation of the first Audubon societies. Soon, many American women wore “Audubonnets”, the term given to the non-feathered hats.

Sentimental Jewelry: 19th and early 20th centuries. Also known as mourning jewelry, ornaments made from human hair grew out of the desire to keep a part of a loved one close to the wearer. Hair was woven and knotted to make brooches, bracelets, watch chains, earrings and necklaces. Exceptionally skillful crafters also created large landscapes from hair that were framed and displayed. The Civil War and Queen Victoria’s strict mourning customs helped popularize hair jewelry.