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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Vacaville women addressed the latest fashions

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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What they wore was the fabric of social status

With spring truly here, we all have grown tired of dark, heavy winter clothes and are looking forward to lighter summer fashions.

Vacaville’s female population in 1885 thought no differently.

Being up-to-date on fashion played an important role in that age. The quality of fabric, nuances in cut and style, being as current as possible, were all indicators of financial and social status, and were avidly discussed wherever women gathered.

News about changes in the cut of a sleeve or the trim of a bonnet traveled via private letters from the East to the West Coast or were printed in lengthy articles in fashion magazines and the local newspaper.

The winter of 1885 seemed to have been even shorter and milder than ours was this year, judging by California Judicion’s announcement that cherries were ripe on April 4, 1885.

Discussion regarding the latest developments in spring and summer fashions appeared next to agricultural news in a lengthy article on May 2.

It was titled “Spring Dresses. Materials and Trimmings, and How They are Fashioned.”

“Cashmere of the finest twills will be used for both house and street dresses in the early spring months, and for cool days in the summer,” the article began.

“All the light shades of reseda (a grayish-green color), ashes-of roses, olive, and brown are largely imported, and are to be employed for the entire dress when it is made tailor fashion, but there are velvets of similar shades to be combined with it for more elaborate costumes.

“Gilt braiding, not merely in parallel lines, but in embroidery designs of vines for borders, or separate figures, stars, blocks, or crescents, will be the trimmings when only cashmere is used. When velvet is employed there will be fine cords and piping folds edging various parts of the corsage, while folds or bands of velvet will trim the skirt. Those who object to velvet as heavy for summer dresses will have the accessories of watered silk or of gros faille of the same shade.”

The article continued with detailed descriptions of the hard bustle style introduced only two years previously and how various pleating styles needed to look.

While simpler house dresses could be made up at home from purchased materials, the intricate work of formal dresses often needed the skilled hand of a seamstress.

Fortunately, Vacaville’s fashion-conscious ladies did not have to go to San Francisco (except for those who wanted and could afford true haute couture dresses) to purchase both the newest fabrics, trimming materials or the services of an experienced seamstress.

In 1885, Vacaville boasted a number of stores with a large selection of merchandise. First among them were the establishments of the Blum brothers and their rivals, Bamberger & Levi.

Moses Blum and his brothers emigrated from their native Alsace in 1849, eventually settling in Vacaville in 1853.

The three brothers opened and operated a general merchandising store in downtown Vacaville. Their advertisement “For Goodness Sake Don’t Say I Told You That M. Blum, Vacaville, Cal., Keeps the Largest and Finest Stock of General Merchandise In The County!” became a well-established feature in the Vacaville Reporter.

The Blum brothers also handled fresh and dried fruit for local growers and, in the next generation, established a flourishing shipping business.

Less is known about Bamberger & Levi. Their advertisement in the California Judicion on April 4, 1885, gave the impression that this was a company specializing in fine fabrics and trimmings.

“We Have Lately Received An Immense Stock Of the Latest Style of Dress Goods,” screamed the half page ad in large letters. The list continued with “Nuns Veiling in all Colors,” followed by “Crepe Muslin, Organdies, Lace Bunting, Serges, Satin Mora, Bengalese, Plaid Suitings, Beiges, Linen Lawns, French and English Lawns, Armure Sateens, Iron Alpacas”, and yes, “Cashmeres Of All Colors.”

“Our Stock of English and American Ginghams is Immense, and Of The Latest Styles and Patterns.”

Besides these fabric selection, Bamberger & Levi also carried “Hosiery, Hosiery, Hosiery,” and shoes and slippers. “We Have The Largest Stock Of Ladies’ and Children’s Shoes and Slippers and are Able to Compete with San Francisco or Any Other Place,” the advertisement continued.

Other stores such as the Pioneer Store also offered the very latest styles in fabrics to their eager customers.

Besides the general merchandise stores with their varied selection, local shoppers also patronized several milliners, such as Mrs. Williams’ establishment.

She had just received a large assortment of “The Latest Styles Of Ladies’ Spring and Summer Hats, Flowers, Wreaths, Feathers, Tips, Veiling, Lace, Ornaments and Trimmings,” to decorate a hat in any style the customer could wish for. In addition, she offered children’s hats, trimmed and untrimmed, starting at 25 cents.

She also advertised ladies’ and children’s’ underwear, wrappers, aprons, ribbons and other items, “All OF Which Will Be Sold VERY CHEAP. Ladies of Vacaville and vicinity are Respectfully invited to call and see the prices Before purchasing elsewhere.”

Vacaville businesses strove to provide their customers with a pleasurable shopping experience, followed by a visit to the customer’s favorite seamstress.

There was only one problem: Navigating the roads of downtown Vacaville did not prove easy for the adventurous shopper.

A newspaper editorial of 1884 reported that “Many of the so-called sidewalks in Vacaville are very dangerous and many are the twists and wrenchings pedestrians receive while passing over some of them. On Saturday night last, Mrs. A. Garrison while passing down Merchant Street, had one of her feet thrown completely out of joint by stepping into a hole.”