Sally Holt in Pants, 1940s

Sally Holt and Miss Meek, maybe 1942

Sally Holt and Miss Meek, maybe 1942

In response to my call for more information about older women in pants, my cyber friend Witness2Fashion sent me these photos from her aunt’s amazing collection. They feature Sally B. Holt of Pulaski Tennessee, a woman apparently in her forties, wearing pants in public. Sally came to California to visit her cousin, stationed in San Francisco. She brought with her young Miss Meek, who was engaged to her cousin’s nephew, stationed in Monterey.

Sally Holt and her cousin, maybe 1945

Sally Holt and her cousin, maybe 1945

Note that Sally is pictured in two different pants outfits. In the top photo the pants are fairly slim and the jacket trimmed. In the bottom picture, perhaps from a different trip, the pants are much wider.

Why did Sally Holt choose pants for her travels? These are questions old photos can’t answer. Was it a practical choice for a long journey across the country? Had she heard that folks out in California were more casual than those back home? Or was she a fashion rebel, taking pants to the street decades before other women of her age?

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Searching for Koko Beall

Vogue Patterns, September/October 1981

Vogue Patterns, September/October 1981

Some of my very favorite sewing patterns are by Koko Beall from the Very Easy Vogue series. Recently I came across a short feature about her in an 1981 issue of Vogue Patterns that peaked my curiosity. Here’s what I learned there and from a 1987 obituary for her husband, Joseph Beall.

I was at first surprised to learn that she was Japanese, although looking at her patterns I might have suspected it. Born in Tokyo as Koko Usui, she studied at the renowned Sugino Fashion College. She came to work at Vogue Patterns in 1961 and was the guiding force behind the new pattern series that started in 1969. “In great part, it is she you have to thank for bringing the sewing ease and fashion expertise of VERY EASY VOGUE into your life,” the unnamed author states. “Koko’s determination to put the Vogue couture reputation behind a new category of patterns that would attract and not frighten the beginning sewer, and, at the same time interest and stimulate the seasoned sewer, resulted in the birth of VERY EASY VOGUE.”(26) She left the company briefly in 1979 but then returned in 1981 as Design Director.

Beall prided herself on the fact that Very Easy Vogue patterns were original designs, not simplified versions of more complicated ones. Many well known designers contributed to the line, including Calvin Klein and Diane von Furstenberg. As far as I can tell, she began to issue patterns under her own name in the 1980s. It is the only instance I know of where an employee of Vogue Patterns got her name on the envelop.

When you search for Koko Beall on line, you find links to her patterns but no information about her life. I still have many questions. Just for starters, I did like to know when she was born, why she came to the US, and whether or not she is still alive. If you have answers, please let me know!

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990 | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Christmas Party at the Beautee-Fit Company, 1947

Los Angeles Public Library

Los Angeles Public Library

What a diverse group of women employees at the Beautee-Fit Company in Los Angeles. Most look to be Asian or Mexican American, with a few Anglos here and there. I wonder if some of the Asians were Japanese Americans just out of the internment camps. We don’t get the full effect of their holiday fashions since almost everyone is sitting down.

I found ads for Beautee-Fit beginning in the 1930s. The company made all kinds of underwear but was best known for its bras, which you can guess by the pin up style pictures on the back wall. I counted only a handful of men in the room, all standing beneath the ads. Just one woman, maybe the wife of one of the bosses, wears a hat.

BeauteeFit2Most of the workers were young, judging by this photo, but there are a few older faces in the crowd. Look at this pair, on the lower left. The elegant gray haired woman wears a simple dark dress, her hair pulled back from her face.  The woman beside her has on what might be a belted shirtwaist dress with designs that look like comets and stars.  There are very few prints in the room, and none other so bold.  It looks like she was ready to celebrate!

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Older Women in Pants–A Progress Report

A California birthday party, 1940

A California birthday party, 1940

One of the first challenges I set myself when starting this blog just over four years ago was to find out when older American women started wearing pants. Now I know that it wasn’t really a precise enough question. I needed to add Where? Why? And How Many?  Certainly a few older women already donned pants in the nineteenth century for politics, work, and sports. And I am sure that the big push towards pants during World War One also affected older women, although the visual record I’ve found shows only the young taking this step.

In photo archive I’ve collected older women started wearing pants in greater numbers in the World War Two era. The war lasted a long time and women of all ages entered jobs that required pants. Photos taken by the government’s Office of War Information document this extensively. In addition, pants had gained a lot of ground as leisure time apparel, as seen in the wonderful California birthday party photo above found by my friend Sally. So I have images of women at work and at play in pants. But did older women wear pants to the store and out on the street? I don’t have any evidence for that.

Pictures of women in pants proliferate during the 1950s, but still largely in leisure time settings. Maybe in 1959 Vida was headed out to the store, but my thrift store photo didn’t come with a story behind it.

Vida, 1959

Vida, 1959

So when did older women take to pants as their go-to clothing choice for events beyond work and play? I start seeing them around the mid 1970s, that confusing decade when skirts lengths changed often and women of all ages made the switch to pants.

1975

1975

In the seventies, French-American designer Pauline Trigère (herself then in her sixties) advocated the pantsuit as the very first thing a fashionable woman should buy. Even Vogue Pattern Magazine was showing pictures of older women in pants, offering patterns so that women could make their own

Vogue Pattern Magazine, 1977

Vogue Pattern Magazine, 1977

So here’s what I know so far.  In the US older women started wearing pants in greater numbers in the World War Two era, but the trend didn’t hit the streets until the 1970s. But there is so much more to learn. Can you help me with pictures and stories about the older women in your life?

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, General | Tagged | 6 Comments

Vogue and the “Stout” Older Woman

voguestout1Although Vogue magazine was not very sympathetic to women who carried extra pounds, there was one area where the magazine was more forgiving—the fashion dilemmas of older women. Long before the era of Mrs. Exeter, Vogue editors realized that aging was inevitable, and that it often meant putting on weight.

A case in point was an article entitled “A Guide to Chic for the Stout Older Woman,” (April 15, 1924). It featured a wealthy New York society woman named Lydia Bulkley, who was “quite short, rather stout, and very, very chic.” Although she once had the smallest waist in New York, it was now twice its former size.

But Lydia knew how to downplay her defects, which included a double chin, fleshy arms and her now over-sized waist. Instead she worked to accent her attractive eyes, hair, and feet. When styles featured sleeveless dresses, she used scarves and capes. Even though plaids were in style in 1924, she used them only to trim her hats. She also decided that bobbed hair did not suit her short neck, so she had it cut a little shorter in front to create a stylish look, while keeping it long enough to knot at the back of her head. While she avoided large scale fabrics, she often wore flashy shoes that showed off her small feet.

Although she wasn’t young, looking “youthful” was important to Lydia. “The barrier which existed between the old and the young thirty years ago is melting fast,” she opined in 1924. “Young people are older—really the debutante of today is like a rather sweet, but unusually abandoned, Ouida adventuress, and the old are younger than ever. Why, there are no elderly women! Age is a Victorian mode that will never be revived.”

I think I’ll adopt her motto as my own: “The chic older woman of today must look youthful without appearing ridiculous.” Is is too long for a tattoo?

Posted in 1920s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Miss Democracy Prepares for Thanksgiving, 1924

National Archives

National Archives

While searching for images of older women and Thanksgiving, I discovered “Miss Democracy,” a recurring character in the political cartoons of Clifford Berryman. Winner of a Pulitzer prize, Berryman is credited with creating the symbol of the teddy bear for Teddy Roosevelt, thereby launching a tradition in toys. He used Miss Democracy to represent the will of the American people, or in this case most likely American women who did the cooking on the holiday.

Much to my amazement, I couldn’t find much written about Miss Democracy except one snarky comment that called her “a giggling, befrilled, corkscrew curled spinster.” The image above is not typical—usually Miss Democracy confronted politicians in some plainspoken way. Presumably an old maid, why else would she be “Miss,” her clothes and hair style change little from decade to decade, and they are always out of style.

There is a long tradition of artists representing abstract concepts as beautiful young women—our Statue of Liberty is a prime example. But Miss Democracy is older and wrapped in out of date clothes, not Grecian robes. I am going to track her down and give a fuller report of this fascinating character, who appeared in Washington DC papers from at least 1904 to 1941.

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Book Review: Women in Clothes

Thirteen navy blazers, from Women in Clothes

Thirteen navy blazers, from Women in Clothes

Women in clothes—it’s not surprising that such a big topic would result in a very big book. This volume weighs in at over 500 pages, some of them in very small print. Edited and masterminded by three writers, Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, it’s based on extensive questionnaires they sent out to hundreds of women. The queries, which fill two and a half densely packed pages, range from the specific, “Do you care about lingerie?” to the very general, “Please describe your mind.” Over 600 women give their responses.

This is a post modern book. Instead of a grand narrative, there are many intriguing fragments made up of memoirs, poems, drawings, photographs, lists, pictures, and questionnaire responses. Sometimes more than one genre occupies a page. I read in the old fashioned way, working from front to back. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to approach it like a coffee table book that you leaf through, reading short sections at random.

It has an impressive range, including the ideas of women from many countries, races, sexualities, and ages. The contributors look at clothes from multiple points of view—from the designer’s, the garment worker’s, and the consumer’s. They examine clothes as sources of smell, tactile pleasures, and objects of memory. I was not very interested in the accounts of obsessive clothing consumption. However, I loved the photographs documenting clothing “collections,” the many things of a similar type that we buy without realizing what we are doing. How is it possible, I wondered, that someone could accumulate thirteen navy blazers? But then I was reminded of the five orange jackets and two orange coats in my own closet.

Although older women’s voices were present in the book, I felt they were underrepresented. They are mainly there as objects, not subjects. Some younger women said they admired the style of the older set (and in fact this was a query on the questionnaire), but many expressed fear and loathing about their own aging. “I’m on my way to being a sexless woman in khaki capri pants,” writes Christen Clifford. “And yes, I am being judgmental. Short gray hair, no shape, boxy bright T-shirts, sneakers. A wacky piece of jewelry. My worst nightmare.”(244)

But here’s an upbeat take away from this massive tome by young New Yorker Leora Morinis. “I admire the unapologetic. I admire women who have a sense of humor about the whole thing. I mean, about our lumpy little bodies roaming around the planet, covered in bits of woven cloth.”(455)

Posted in 2010s | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Midi and the Older Woman

Life, August 12 1970

Life, August 21, 1970

The cover story for the August 21, 1970 issue of Life, “The Midi Muscles In,” relates the controversy over the introduction of the midi skirt, a below-the-knee-cousin to the down-to-the-floor maxi skirt. Backed by designers and big department stores, the new length met push back from consumers. In fact, many fashion history books see resistance to rapidly changing skirt lengths in the 1970s as the beginning of the end for fashion by dictate from above.

Department stores tried to boost sales, which were not strong, by getting all their saleswomen to wear and promote the new style. That’s what going on in this photo, a fashion show for saleswomen at Lord and Taylor. We can see by all the knees on display that the older women in the front row had not yet taken to the new style. Their facial expressions don’t look very enthusiastic, either.

“Many women, resigned to the loss of the above-the-knee-look, are taking evasive action, buying pants and pants suits, whose sale have more than doubled in a year,” the article reports. Although I can’t imagine that gray haired woman, center front, jumping into a pants suit any time soon, it is certainly in the seventies when I begin seeing photos of a lot of older women in pants.

Posted in 1970s | Tagged | 5 Comments

Duchess of Windsor Patterns

Los Angeles Times, 1959

Los Angeles Times, 1959

In the fall of 1959, the Duchess of Windsor began putting out sewing patterns under her name for the Spadea pattern company. The first offerings were a set of six rather fancy styles: three cocktail dresses, one day dress, one Chanel-esqe cardigan suit, and a coat. They were advertised in newspapers with drawings that looked like the Duchess—a very slim, no-longer-young woman with dark hair and big pearls. By the 1960s, Spadea dropped the Duchess as their model, using much younger looking women in their drawings.  The patterns made good newspaper copy and were mentioned in many interviews in the 1960s. The very last Duchess pattern I found was from 1972.

Did she design them herself? A reporter in the New York Times noted that she didn’t have the skills to make patterns. “Endowed with taste, although lacking technical skills, the Duchess communicates her designs verbally to the company’s owner, James Spadea, and his wife. Sample suggestions: why not try buttoning a Chanel suit on the side, like a dentist’s jacket?” (“Windsors to Celebrate Silver Anniversary, New York Times, June 1, 1962) Perhaps the pattern below was the result.

Los Angeles Times, 1965

Los Angeles Times, 1965

In a conversation with Lizzie Bramlett, the Spadeas’s daughter, Anne Spadea Combs, confirmed that the ideas for the patterns all came from the Duchess. Her many biographers note her interest in dress design. She determined the shape and fabric of her first (of three) wedding dresses and several other outfits for important occasions.

It would be wonderful to get our hands on the sales figures for the Spadea company. Did the Duchess “brand” attract more buyers than the patterns of designers like Claire McCardell? Certainly the company’s ad copy cashed in her title. “The ladies adjusted their lorgnettes to see what the Duchess was wearing as she slipped off her coat… It was this beautifully shaped two piece dress.” (The Duchess of Windsor Patterns, Spadea Patterns, no date). References to the Duchess’s “aristocratic” taste and long term standing on the Best Dressed list suffused these descriptions.

Although the Duchess was well into her sixties when she began working for Spadea, her patterns gave little attention to the changing shape of the older body. Most were offered in standard ready to wear sizes. The pattern book I have contains 45 different designs, but only three came in larger half sizes.

The Duchess of Windsor Patterns

The Duchess of Windsor Patterns

Was there a distinctive “Windsor look”? I have only seen a fraction of the estimated 200 to 300 patterns she did for Spadea, so I don’t have all the evidence. But based on what I have seen, there are certain reoccurring elements. Many have pockets, something I favor myself. She often placed them cleverly inside of princess seams. In fact, so many of her outfits had princess seams that I wondered if this was another way that she tried to lay claim to royalty.

 

Posted in 1950s, 1960s | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Dress and Culture in the Great Migration

Golden Thought, 1914 edition

Golden Thought, 1914 edition

In her sweeping study of the migration of African Americans from the South to the North, The Warmth of Other Suns, author Isabel Wilkerson compares the experience of black migrants from the rural South to that of immigrants from foreign countries. Like other newcomers, they needed to learn new customs in order to succeed. They also needed to get new clothes.

But how did they figure out the rules? That is one of the topics in Ladies Pages: African American Women’s Magazine and the Culture that Made Them by Noliwe M. Rooks (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.) One fascinating example is the Half-Century Magazine begun in Chicago in 1914. It featured black women on its cover and published articles on correct dress in the city using black women as models. The journal even offered a shopping service: “If you do not live in a large city with a great variety of shops, you cannot always buy whatever you want. The Half-Century Magazine with its offices in the center of Chicago’s shopping district and with Miss Jane Hudson on its staff can always help you.”(75) Ads offered “Smart Fashions for Limited Incomes.”

One of the promises of this advice literature was that of a dignified old age. The image that Rooks uses on her cover, reproduced above, comes from Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation by Professor and Mrs. J. W. Gibson. They charted a path to the prosperous black home where everyone would be well dressed and cultured. In this image, the stylishly dressed mother plays the piano; the grandmother, with her old-fashioned head covering, has time to read in leisure.

From Golden Thoughts, 1914 edition

From Golden Thoughts, 1914 edition

Another illustration in Golden Thoughts makes the point even more forcefully. Women who did not stay on the straight and narrow would end up drinking on the street; those who did would find a central place in the family hearth.

Posted in 1900s, 1910s | Tagged , | 2 Comments