(L) Ceil Chapman fitting Marilyn Monroe. / (R) Marilyn wears Ceil Chapman's floor-length off-white crepe gown with ruching at the hips and sleeves for photographer Philippe Halsman's photo session (which garnered her first LIFE cover on April 7, 1952).
Editor's note: One of my goals for 2016 was to continue to help spread and share our love and knowledge of why this little world of vintage loveliness that I have created amongst these web pages even exists. Beyond posting pretty pictures and editorials and sharing stories of days gone by, everything I do with my team really springs from my great love of the vintage that I source and find all around the world. It is at heart, all about vintage, and yet sometimes I feel that with all the other aspects that go into running this blog and the site that I can get caught up in so many things that take away from the simple act of my love of the great designers and their creations. To offset that, I have decided to highlight one of the designers whose work I love each week. This is not intended as a comprehensive biography but rather bits and pieces of what I have learned through my years in this business, along with some examples of the work and pieces I have in my shop. It is my little weekly love tribute to someone from the past and I hope you enjoy this new addition to our blog. xx Cherie
The best thing that can happen to any designer or brand is to have some insanely famous girl become addicted to what you do and wear it everywhere. That is exactly what happened between Ceil Chapman and Marilyn Monroe, making Chapman a must own label then and now. One of my favorite dresses I have in the shop is that little blue beaded number that is remarkably like the version worn by Marilyn in 1954.
Ceil Chapman is the American designer of classic cocktail and party dresses who successfully took the revered Christian Dior "New Look" haute couture designs that most woman could not even hope to afford and reworked them into designs that American woman could attain. She won the Coty American Fashion Critic's Award in 1945, the John Wanamaker Award, Foley's "Golden Year" Award, and the Strawbridge and Clothier seal of confidence, for creative contribution in the area of American fashion. In 1955, she won the Mademoiselle Merit Award, after a poll asking college girls to cite the country's most popular designer for the young. She won by a landslide.
Chapman’s career began with the brand Her Ladyship Gowns, a label she started with Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Furness around 1940. While the company was short lived, Ceil Chapman's career was most certainly not. She moved on from there to designing under her own name from the mid-1940s to the mid-sixties when her label dissolved due to financial difficulties. In the Wikipedia entry on Chapman we get a glimpse of just how much of an impact her work had culturally during this time period, dressing some of the most famous women of her time:
"Ceil Chapman was reportedly Marilyn Monroe's favorite fashion designer. She provided the trousseau for Elizabeth Taylor's 1950 wedding to Conrad "Nicky" Hilton. Other celebrity clients included Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson, Grace Kelly and Aretha Franklin. Chapman worked on Marie McDonald's wardrobe for the 1963 film Promises! Promises!" Also in the Wikepedia entry is this charming little story: "In 1952, Betty Furness appeared at a function wearing a Ceil Chapman dress. Ms. Chapman was also there, wearing an identical dress. She reportedly "sashayed back to the powder room, checked the jacket part of the dress, removed the big organza bow at the neckline, and returned looking absolutely different."
While not necessarily the most progressive design wise, Chapman was known for her consistent commitment to flattering styles, exquisite materials, and quality garment construction. In other words she made women look really, really good. Even now 50 or so years later her designs feel fresh and clean. The market for her designs have steadily risen in price as pieces get harder and harder to find. Once you do buy one and try it on and realize what they do to your body, it's kind of hard not to get hooked on them. Sometimes when I go to a buying appointment a client will have an entire rack of them and not one of them will be offered up for sale. No matter how much I beg.
Chapman used really great fabrics - silks, jerseys, silk chiffon's and taffeta's, crisp and polished cottons as well as metallic and lurex fabrics. Onto these she often embellished her pieces with beading, lace and sequin work and most pieces are a combination of machine and hand finish. A classic Chapman will be draped and ruched in a way to highlight a girl's curves or to create curves where there are none. They are just kind of wonderful really.
My one caveat when looking for and buying Chapman pieces is to be really careful when you buy or find a silk piece. I think she may have used or bought some of her silks from a manufacturer that used the old techniques of weighted silk because sometimes I have found that as they age they literally shatter and fall apart - or this happens when it is sent out to be cleaned. I have no proof of this or reference but am simply passing on my experience as someone who has found and bought a lot of her pieces. It is just something to know and be aware of. If you are buying a Chapman dress from me it is kind of a non-issue because have every single piece of vintage that comes into the studio is cleaned before it goes onto the site or into my archives. By the time it gets to one of my clients we both know that risk is minimal or non-existent as it has already stood up to proper cleaning. I know this because I have lost a few Chapman dresses to shattering and have cried every single time. (Very below is a good explanation of that technique in case you are curious).
The bottom line is that Ceil Chapman is all kinds of wonderful. I love the pieces I have in the shop right now and will always look for more examples of her work for you. If she was good enough for Marilyn she is good enough for me.
Marilyn Monroe, wearing a Ceil Chapman design, performing for the U.S troops in Korea, February 1954.
Ceil Chapman Dress Patents (1958 & 1956)
(L) Jean Patchett in a dress by Ceil Chapman, photograph by Julius Garfinckel, 1954 / (R) Audrey Hepburn in a yellow gown by Ceil Chapman, photo by Richard Avedon for Harper's Bazaar, 1952.
(L) Marilyn photographed by Bob Beerman, 1950 / Barbara Mullen in beautifully draped evening gown by Ceil Chapman, photo by Toni Frissell, Washington D.C., Vogue, October 1, 1952.
Photo by Irving Penn for Vogue, November 1956. Model wears a Ceil Chapman design. Click here to read the original blog post that this image appeared in >
Elizabeth Taylor in Ceil Chapman designs.
Marilyn Monroe in Ceil Chapman.
“Weighting” is a textile manufacturing practice peculiar to silk manufacturing and involves the application of metallic salts to add body, luster and physical weight to silk fabric. The reason for adding metals to silk fabric is to increase the weight of the fabric and, because silk fabric sells by the pound, the extra weight increases the selling price of the fabric. Generally, only the finer and more expensive reeled silks are weighted rather than the less costly spun silks By means of weighting the manufacturer can increase the weight of silk by 3 to 4 times.
Weighting is done by immersing the silk in a solution rich in tannin, then transferred to iron or tin baths, then washed. Weighting causes the fabric to lose its strength as soon as the weighting is applied. Heavily weighted silk must be made into garments as soon as it is made. Spots develop in the dyes. Saltwater, perspiration and tears cause spots to be formed which seems as if the silk is eaten by acids. Sunlight also attacks weighted silk and can cause silk to fall to pieces.
The silk industry makes a distinction between pure-dye silk and weighted silk. In the pure-dye process, the silk is colored with dye, and may be finished with water-soluble substances such as starch, glue, sugar, or gelatin. But it is not weighted. If weighting is not executed properly, it can decrease the longevity of the fabric by causing it to lose much of its strength and durability, so pure-dye silk is considered the superior product."