Lukas Hartmann: tag type
Gin Tonic Sportswear
This text originated in connection with the idea of a book project on those small, fascinating, sometimes ugly, but sometimes beautifully designed tiny pieces of material that are sewn into items of clothing and inform us about the owner, the manufacturer, the model and the size, that may consist of care and washing instructions and that provide information about the materials used. And that are so often removed immediately after purchasing an item of clothing because they can be so horribly scratchy. During the course of my research, I was amazed to discover that this appears to be a topic that has hardly been looked into, that has barely been noticed in terms of textile history and that is just waiting to be discovered. This also means that, so far, I have come across virtually no utilisable literature – although I may simply have been on the wrong track…
I found some consolation in the fact that I am not completely alone in my research when I came across a website that deals with the history of boys’ clothing: "... A HBC [History of Boys’ Clothing] reader informs us that the Pittsfield Weaving Co. in Pittsfield, New Hampshire is trying to find the date of the first woven label. They inform us, "We know that my great grandfather was doing designs involving labels around 1910, and have found a person with a dress dated 1863, much earlier than 1910 obviously, that has a label in it. Finding a label in clothing that can be dated seems to be the best route right now. Any information to offer?" Unfortunately as HBC work mostly with magazines and photographs, we don't often get to see the labels in the clothes that we discuss. We would of course be very interested in adding information about labels to our discussion of various garments. If any ones knows of earlier labels, and surely there must be some from Europe, we would be pleased to convey the information to the inquirer." (www.histclo.hispeed.com/style)
From this perspective, this article is also an attempt to obtain further information for my project. I do not yet know whether this project will be more of a historical paper with an appendix about the design of clothing labels or more of an essay on design with a historical synopsis. Both approaches would be fascinating.
From birth to death…
"We are born naked…" ... but most of us usually come into contact with our first labels extremely quickly. First of all, however, as is common in many birth clinics, there is the clearly visible wristband that has no hidden typography and that bears the most important information about the newborn baby: name, date and time of birth, length, weight and gender.
After their first bath, the little ones are dressed in clothes bearing a label of some kind. From that day onwards, these little pieces of material accompany us until the day we die and sometimes even further.
However, a biographical approach in a book about clothes labels – from Babygro to burial shirt so to speak (I have not yet looked into the issue of whether burial shirt producers sew labels into their items) – represents just one option. A different, historical approach would be to follow the history of marking clothes, while a third option could tackle the topic in terms of style and design history, possibly also with particular consideration of typographical elements.
From Titus Torius to IPM
Who was Titus Torius? All we know about him is that, at the time of the birth of Christ, either he was stationed in Basel as a Roman legionnaire or he rode through Basel and was possibly also buried in the city. We know that he existed because of a small luggage or clothes tag that was found during excavation work underneath the Basel Cathedral. This is early evidence of labelling one’s own clothing (a similar principle is still used in the Swiss Army today with the difference being that today the small round tags are made of plastic and – because of the long string used to tie them to clothes hooks – are called "white mice").
Many people will have memories from their youth of small fabric name-tapes being sewn into their clothes on the occasion of school camps, scout camps, etc. Usually made of red thread woven into a narrow white strip of material and often bearing only the initials of the child in question, these tapes frequently ensured that socks, for example, found their way back to their rightful owner at the end of a camp.
These small fabric name-tapes that allocate an item of clothing to a person form a special group and are not particularly rich in terms of design. I have only mentioned them here because indications of ownership are probably the oldest markings and thus the earliest evidence of hidden typography in clothing.
From individual pieces to mass production
According to the sources I have consulted so far, the history of the clothes label per se starts in the mid-nineteenth century "... when they were first seen on fine quality garments designed and made by expert tailors and dressmakers for the wealthy classes of the time. They constituted a guarantee that the garment was a unique creation." (Sirotti, Giuseppe. Fashion Labels and Tags. Modena, 2000)
The development of actual clothes factories in the early twentieth century led to standardised sizes and models. Well-known couturiers no longer worked for individual customers, but instead developed their prêt à porter collections. Both developments are reflected in clothes labels. Standardisation meant that, in addition to the manufacturing company, the size and the model were also listed on the label, and – this is interesting from a design and a social point of view – the couturier labels differed depending on whether they were being used for individual pieces or for a prêt à porter collection: "Selon le textile employé, le graphisme de la griffe, qui peut dans certains cas être la reproduction même de la signature du couturier, sa couleur, sa taille, on peut en savoir plus; cette remarque vaut surtout pour l’époque où les couturiers ont créé des départements de prêt à porter (...) sous réserve de l’emploi d’une griffe de nature différente pour éviter la contrefaçon. C’est par exemple le cas de Schiaparelli, dont de médiocres modèles de prêt à porter du début des années 60, présentent une jolie griffe rose shocking, aisément reconnaissable tandis que la griffe de haute couture, d’allure beaucoup plus modeste, ne se modifie guère de 1935 à 1954, date de fermeture du salon de haute couture." ("Based on the fabric used, the graphics of the label, which can – in certain cases – be the reproduction of the couturier’s signature itself, its colour and size, it is possible to find out more about it. This comment applies in particular to the era when couturiers created departments of prêt à porter clothes (...) subject to the use of a different type of label to prevent counterfeiting. This can be seen, for example, in the case of Schiaparelli, whose mediocre prêt à porter models from the beginning of the sixties bore a pretty, shocking pink label, which was easily recognisable, while the haute couture label, which looked much more modest, hardly changed between 1935 and 1954, the year when the haute couture salon closed.") (Musée de la mode et du costume, 1986, p. 243) So, there was a shocking pink, clearly visible label for Elsa Schiaparelli’s "mediocre" prêt à porter models, whilst her haute couture label was extremely discreet.
Thus, during the 20th century, the clothes label developed from a certificate of authenticity, an actual fabric seal bearing witness to the work of the couturier and the uniqueness of the product, into a production label providing information about the manufacturer and, possibly, the model line and size. While early labels bore only the name and possibly the address of the couturier, once mass production in actual factories started, the names of the companies in question were sewn in. Increasing globalisation then brought about the shift from clothes factories that purchase and process the fabrics themselves to brands that produce in a wide range of manufacturing locations, which tend to be as cheap as possible, and simply have their brand sewn in.
From the inside to the outside
American jeans brands can be used as an example of a further trend that can be discerned in Europe from the mid-twentieth century onwards and that pursues the path already embarked on by Lacoste with its crocodile, namely that of applying the label to the outside of clothing as a sign of a lifestyle. This trend has taken on a strange form recently: individuals have become walking advertising columns and thus field service employees of certain labels, whilst – ironically – paying for their job themselves, which leads to the question of who or what is consuming whom or what: "What makes the contemporary label completely different is that it does not merely show who produced the item, or that the item itself has been exclusively created for one privileged person; rather, it speaks of the consumers themselves and the cultural and behavioural context to which they adhere. Nowadays, labels and indeed, the whole world of labelling constitute a signpost that the consumer embraces certain values and believes in a lifestyle which is idealised and then identified in a trademark." (Sirotti, Giuseppe. Fashion Labels and Tags. Modena, 2000).
From international to local
Over the past few years, interestingly designed labels from smaller design ateliers have brought new impetus to the world of labels. Examples here are the Swiss brands "Zimtstern" (cinnamon star), "Sterneföifi" (star five, a kind of Swiss curse, like: damn it all!), "Alprausch" (Alpine intoxication), "Tarzan" and "Erfolg" (success), which already show playfulness and imagination in their choice of names. The fact that they usually appear in only a limited geographical area gives young purchasers of clothes, in particular, the possibility of standing out from run-of-the-mill fashion by buying and wearing smaller and lesser-known labels – although peer pressure to wear the "right" T-shirt can also be fairly strong locally.
The fact that the original couturier label has not become extinct can be seen in the often lovingly designed labels of small fashion ateliers. This will not change as long as there are people with the necessary financial background – or as long as individuals want to treat themselves to something special, even if it is only once in a lifetime.
Washing and care instructions plus material indications
A further special group within clothes labels consists of washing and care instructions plus indications of the fibres used. At the same time, they are a sign, on the one hand, of changed means of production and increasing globalisation and, on the other hand, of the development of new textile fibres. National and international laws and regulations oblige manufacturers to declare their products, while the manufacturers for their part protect themselves against claims for damage by means of careful washing and care instructions. Here, the development of whole series of pictograms is interesting from a design point of view – let us take Woolmark as a representative example.
It would also be worthwhile investigating the texts, words and compositions used for the labels, which are, in part, marked by idiosyncratic, sometimes maybe also unintentional humour. This is the case for an item of women’s underwear bearing a "Cottonland" brand label and a "100% polyester" material label, for an item of the "Maidenform" brand with the label "Sweet Nothings" and for a company appearing under the brand "120% lino". Finally, the connection between gin and tonic and sportswear remains a mystery to me…
One of my favourite labels of all, however, stems from the young "Sterneföifi" design atelier. It bears Swiss German washing instructions in a T-shirt for teenagers: "Mundartchleidli. Frag’s Mami wie wäsche". (Dialect: "clothes. Ask Mum how to wash them".)
Lukas Hartmann is from Basel, Switzerland. Apprenticed as a type compositor, he studied German philology and history at university followed by Museology. Since 1997 Lukas has co-owned hartmann, bopp ag, gestalter und konzepter, a Basle design studio. He publishes Schweizerische Typografische Monatsblätter/Swiss Typographic Magazine.