Studying American decorative arts as a graduate student introduced me to the wonderful world of archives. In that sphere, inventory records and account books reveal a wealth of information about pricing structures and client bases. Fashion, too, provides a similar opportunity to dig into company histories through archival records. The surge of heritage based lines opening the potential of proper historic digging in creating new products.
Chris Olberding has the enviable position of working with the Gitman archives. Not surprisingly, this material forms the basis for Gitman Vintage. Given my interests, it should also not surprise that I wanted to pick Olberding’s brain about the riches of Gitman. What follows is a discussion about how the archive informs his work and inspires his own interest in the garment trade.
Tell me how you got interested in fabrics and involved with Gitman.
Oddly, I always liked fabric from a dilettante’s perspective: “That’s good; that’s good; that works.” You know the deal – it just looks right. But in fact it was books and history that got me re-engaged in thinking about fabrics. After all, my background is in literature and the way the Gitman Vintage line has developed reminds me of good old archival research as a graduate student. After I unearthed a veritable treasure trove of old line-books, dating back to 1979, at the Gitman factory (luckily stored in a cedar-lined closet) and found my home in a nearby fabric library, the next step was (and still is) figuring out how to put a cohesive story together — a studied selective appropriation of the past for the present. Or, you could say that my interest really isn’t so much in fabrics as much as it is in how fabrics of Gitman’s past can look surprisingly present. Is this not the same model for New Historicism? But I digress… Usually I go by what I like and what I see people gravitating towards. Traveling helps here… Florence, Paris and Tokyo, as well as trips to my home town of Minneapolis and always the factory. I love the interplay between beautifully quirky and traditionally safe colors; patterns, simple and odd; the play of surface and depth, both with different weights of oxford cloths and chambrays; and the touch or tactility of moving from 40s to 30s single-brushed to 2-side brushed flannels. Tweaking the design by 20% zoom in or out is also fun. You have to land on the right effect. Then there’s the old-line books. Sometimes you have the repeat of the fabric right there; other times you need to make an aesthetic decision since the swatch of fabric doesn’t give you a repeat.
You mention putting the story together – the appropriation of past for present use – and I wonder about the starting point for this process. Is the story a single shirt? A collection? Being an object historian, I can easily see it going either way.
It was the spring/summer 1982 line book and a series of small fabric clips that did it. You can view the book on our website, but to see it in person is the real deal. In fact, I have the book with me now in Tokyo — it’s a great way to tell the story. The book juxtaposed with a shirt that I made from one of the small fabric clips neatly encapsulates the origins of the collection.
It’s such a simple book. Not unlike, really, any other related to a specific trade. However, the fascinating thing about shirt making is the convergence of several trades – weaving, sewing, cutting, pattern making – and how it fits into a finished garment. What have you learned through the archives about these steps and how they work into the Gitman Story?
Good question. Weaving? The process itself I’m a bit removed from, although I have learned about my favorite cloth, Oxford, and its coarser kind of weave in dyed and undyed threads that when combined together, make a soft, but hard-wearing shirt. We used to make a double-weight Oxford which I introduced for AW09 and I’m currently working on dying just the warp yarn for an AW10 fabric. Sewing these fabrics, however, are a bit more difficult to sew, especially in joining the collar. Cutting and pattern making are fairly straightforward as all of the models I used have been around for sometime. I did change up the body spec, making a higher arm hole and narrower sleeve – that was necessary as the old model looked too voluminous. The most interesting aspect of cutting/sewing could probably be best told by the cutters and sewers, e.g. what it’s like to work with difficult fabric, how to turn a collar or cuff on a pattern that isn’t cooperative, how to make a collar sit just so, or how to properly align a split yoke. When considering all of this, it’s interesting how the archive isn’t archive at all for them, but rather a continuum in their day-to-day. I’ve learned at a distance simply by observing.
Tell me a little more about taking what you’ve encountered in the archives and making it feel current. With all the rage for “heritage” you raise a good point, being that not all of us like the actual look of some older models. The archive becomes a guide (clearly), but to what point it has also worked for you as a “history of fashion” source, teaching you about the cuts of old and perhaps even leading to improvement based on the included information?
What do they say about the new? It’s the good forgotten old. When looking through the line books, say of AW1982 in mapping out AW2010, I always have an eye for both continuity (the importance of staples like oxford, pinpoint oxford, chambray) and the odd fabric form the past that looks oddly now: heavy tweed, crazy candy stripes. Some how these selections work; sometimes they don’t. I always keep the models straightforward, since that’s what we’ve always done: button-down collar, short collar, round collar, tab collar; a short placket, a 10-pleat formal and a western model. The only thing that was crucial to change was the cut of the old. Whereas the past models were literally voluminous in fit, now, with a more tailored frame of mind, we created a narrower sleeve, higher armhole, more contoured line through the chest and tightened up the yoke. Improving on the fit was key — a nice improvement. To be pithy: fabric is synchronic; fit is diachronic.
I’d like to finish with a simple question – What is your favorite fabric and why?
Oxford cloth is like your favorite denim — broken in and worn, it only becomes better over time. Cotton madras in the summer breathes well, as does our lightweight chambray, and both look and feel better over time. In short, three of my favorites. My favorite fabric for Gitman is our historically versatile pinpoint Oxford — a combination of poplin and Oxford. Light, yet structured. But my personal favorite is still Sea Island. It is woven from a greater number of threads than poplin, which gives the material an incredible feel. Commonly referred to as 140s 2-ply (meaning 140 threads per inch), when this fabric has a stripe or check in the material, it has clearer definition and deeper, stronger colors, particularly suited for not inconspicuous patterns. It is also incredibly durable. My favorite shirt in fact is a short sleeve Sea Island madras from Gitman, circa 2000. Worn almost weekly from June to August for the last 10 years, it still beams its colors at me from my shirt shelf. Look for it again.