Mrs. Exeter in Sews with Vogue Patterns

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1955

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1955

Since I am interested in all things Mrs. Exeter, I recently contacted Vogue Patterns for permission to track her down in their collection of pattern magazines and catalogs.  Editor Gillian Conahan was nothing but gracious, and I got to spend a day in their archives looking for evidence of this imaginary fashion icon.  Mrs. Exeter first came to life on the pages of Vogue fashion magazine in 1948, but it was not until autumn 1955 that she made her debut in Vogue Pattern Book. According to the opening paragraph, “Her age might be a well-kept secret, her experienced way of knowing the ‘right’ neither-too-young, nor too old fashions for herself is well-known,” (29).

In over a dozen appearances in the magazine from 1955 to 1962, Mrs. Exeter emerged as a prosperous woman on the go. (Newsflash—the “active senior” is not a twenty-first century invention.) She was a grandmother, a club woman, a golfer, a gardener, and a lady who went to teas.  In 1956 she was even introduced as a woman with a nine-to-five career.  Her clothes came in sizes 12 to 44, with a very rare 46 every once in awhile. Although some of the patterns specified their suitability for the “larger, mature figure,” most do not.

Vogue Pattern Book, June/July 1955

Vogue Pattern Book, June/July 1955

Most of Mrs. Exeter’s patterns were dresses with sleeves and interesting collars. Although she favored solid colors, she did not shy away from a fuchsia coat.  I was pleased to learn that in 1957 “slim Mrs. Exeter gardens in denim trousers, shirt, and an apron or a crisp shirt and Bermuda shorts.”  (Unfortunately, there are no tips on what she should wear if she wasn’t slim.) Hers were restrained versions of current styles, without big poofs or  plunging necklines.

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1958

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1958

Mrs. Exeter had her heyday in the October/November 1958 issue, which featured ten pages of “clothes the mature woman likes.” It featured slender city dresses, neatly stated suits, shirtwaist dresses with moderate flare, gentle necklines, and full length gowns.  Although most of the clothes are presented in fashion drawings, two were modeled by Mary Welchell, a tall and slender woman in her forties.

Our heroine’s last star turn in Vogue Pattern Book was in 1961, where she was featured in offering her take on “Town and Country Looks.”  After that, she was shuffled off into special back page pattern supplement, where her clothes were combined with half size offerings. She was gone altogether by the summer of 1962.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Mrs. Exeter, a woman of restraint, faded away in the exuberant sixties.  But I was amazed to learn that she lived on in the fabric store catalogs until 1967.  Stay tuned for that story.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What to Wear in Utopia, 1915

A Reform House Dress or Tea Gown, 1902. New York Public Library

A Reform House Dress or Tea Gown, 1902. New York Public Library

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a noted writer, feminist, and sociologist at the turn of the twentieth century.  She was also an advocate of dress reform, that movement which struggled against corsets, uncomfortable clothing, and unnecessary finery.  Her views on what she regarded as the sad state of women’s clothes were laid out in a long essay, “The Dress of Women,” published in 1915 when she was fifty-five. Here she railed against hobble skirts, high heels, and big hats.

In the same year, Gilman wrote a feminist utopian novel called Herland about a society of women without men. What did they wear?  Their outfits had three components, starting with a cotton underlayer reaching to the knees, then a kind of union suit that could be made of many different fabrics, and finally either a tunic or long robe on top. Older women dressed just like younger ones, except perhaps for more elaborate outer layers; they were quite proud of their gray hair. In the words of the male narrator, “They had evolved a costume more perfect than the Chinese dress, richly beautiful when so desired, always useful, of unfailing dignity and good taste.”

I was especially intrigued by the middle layer, which sounds like something I might wear. “The second garment was fairly quilted with pockets.  They were most ingeniously arranged, so as to be convenient to the hand and not inconvenient to the body, and were so placed as at once to strengthen the garment and add decorative lines of stitching.”  Throw a silk jacket (or tunic) on top, and I would be good to go.

Posted in 1900s, 1910s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Olive Kitteridge’s Homemade Dress

geraniumsI found Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge quite by accident at my local library’s used bookstore. It examines a difficult woman growing old, starting at a tough spot in her marriage on through to widowhood. Olive is an unusual heroine. Often abrasive to her husband and son, she has a sixth sense about the troubles of children under her care when she was a teacher. She deals with stress by eating, with donuts a favorite treat. Olive is big and she’s old—and both are essential to the story.

It is always stressful when a favorite novel is put on film, and I was uneasy when HBO put out a miniseries based on the book. The four part series won many prizes, but I thought a lot was lost in translation. My biggest problem was that the short and slim actress Francis McDormand, who plays the title role, doesn’t look anything like my vision of Olive.

Let’s compare two versions of the scene where Olive makes her own dress for her son’s wedding. In the book, her fabric choice is a green muslin decorated with big red geraniums. She knows the dress doesn’t make her look slim, reflecting “right now she probably looks like a fat, dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage.” (62) Still she is wounded when she overhears her new daughter-in-law criticizing her dress. “And there is the sting of deep embarrassment, because she loves this dress. Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding; those flowers skimming over the table in her sewing room.” (70-71)

kitteridge1In the film Olive makes her own dress because she says she’s cheap, not because she loves the fabric. The final product is from a shiny white polyester-looking fabric, not green gauze, and the flower pattern isn’t nearly as bold as I imagined. And of course Francis McDormand simply can’t look big. What’s inappropriate about the dress in the film, at least from my point of view, is its poor construction. There are telltale hints of amateur dressmaking, including a mismatched print, wavy hem, and wrinkles around the neckline.

I know I should be grateful that a film about a difficult older woman was made at all.  But if you would like to meet Olive Kitteridge, I suggest you read the book.

Posted in 2000s, 2010s | Tagged | 5 Comments

Proper Clothing for the Older Woman Who Plays Golf, 1949

Harper’s Bazaar, April 1949

Harper’s Bazaar, April 1949. Click to enlarge

The post World War Two years might have been a Golden Era for the older woman of fashion. Both of America’s foremost fashion magazines, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, turned their attention to this potentially lucrative market. In 1948, Vogue introduced Mrs. Exeter, an imaginary older fashion icon who gave witty fashion tips well into the 1960s.  Not to be outdone, Harper’s Bazaar started its own advice column for the older set in 1949 called “At My Age.”

Although not nearly as fun to read as Mrs. Exeter, the “At My Age” columns offered a distinct point of view on the advantages of being older and perhaps a little richer than younger readers. Consider this long paragraph on what to wear while golfing from the April 1949 issue:

“For very good reasons, the older woman is usually smarter on the golf course than the young girl. If she’s a seasoned golfer, her hair is always tidy, held in a net so no loose ends can blow. Her visors shade her eyes (squinting makes for winkles), and some have covered crowns (the sun plays havoc with hair bluing). Her shoes are the best that money can buy, well polished, well preserved, worn with socks and silk stockings. Her cardigans are classics, or if it is summer she wears long-sleeved shirts, for at her age the upper arm should always be covered. No brilliant colors—all the misty Scotch shades or the palest British pastels, usually in monotone or in a small, muted pattern.”

Note all the strictures here—blue hair, hair nets, covered arms, silk stockings, muted colors, and expensive shoes. That’s a lot of advice, and they are not done yet.  Here’s the final warning: “And needless to state, slacks never, ever.”

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Language of Flowers for Older Women

Practical Home Millinery, 1903

Practical Home Millinery, 1903

For those of you who chafe against fashion rules and continue to wear white shoes after Labor Day, consider how lucky we are that so few rules remain.  Poking around in early twentieth century millinery books on wonderful Cornell University website Hearth, I discovered that some fashion experts had very specific ideas about the kind of hat trimmings that suited older women.

“Some flowers seem to suggest youth, while other are more suitable for the wear of older women,” wrote one commentator in 1909.  “We do not put pansies on a child’s hat, or buttercups and daisies on the hat of an elderly woman.”  (A. Ben Yusuf, The Art of Millinery, 1909).

Ladies Home Journal offered the same advice two years later.  “With the coming of summer the mature woman has the same desire for flowers as have her younger sisters, but her age necessitates a more limited selection both in regard to colors and the flower themselves.  No one can correctly picture a gray-haired woman wearing daisies, buttercups or apple blossoms.” (C. Perry, “The Mature Woman’s Hat,” June, 1911.)

So I say–put on your daisy hat to go with those white shoes!

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

Pants for Everywoman, 1966

Sears catalog, Spring/Summer 1966

Sears catalog, Spring/Summer 1966

By the mid 1960s, pants for casual wear had entered the mainstream of American fashion. I distinctly remember buying a pair of fuchsia stirrup pants in 1966, which I wore with a boxy fuchsia top covered with embroidered flowers. Ah youth!  There is no way on earth I would wear that color or style today.

The Spring/Summer Sears catalog of 1966, a gift from a friend, has pages and pages of pants for sale—stirrup pants, bell bottoms, jeans, slim pants of various lengths, and even maternity wear. The only limitation was the sizing.  Most were available in standard junior and misses sizes with hip measurements ranging from 32 to 42 inches.

But what if your hips were bigger than 42 inches, the fate of many older women? Going through the handy index for the catalog, I was pleasantly surprised to see pants on offer in women’s sizes 38 to 44, accommodating women with hip measurements from 43 to 49 inches.  Not only could larger women find stirrup pants and jeans, there were also slim pants on offer in various lengths.

Still the choices were limited compared to those given to women who wore standard sizes. Sears decided that larger women wanted only neutral colors. There were no plaids, no prints, no unusual textures, or fancy details. The denim pants above, for example, were sold only in navy and wheat to the larger set, not in checks or turquoise. And women with hips larger than 49 inches could not buy pants from Sears at all.

So is the glass half empty or half full?  And do Sears’ assumptions—that larger women wanted plain colors and no frills—reflect what these women really wanted or what the company thought they should have?

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Older Women in Pants, German Language Edition

GermanPants49Written in German on the back of this photo is a little note, “Three look on with interest while the fourth studies something else.”  (It rhymes in German.) It also comes with date stamp from the developing studio—Photohaus Barbara, IV/28/49.

There is much to marvel at here.  First of all we have an older woman not at home, at the beach, or in the forest wearing pants in 1949.  That is really early! All the other older people are dressed much more formally. Was it perhaps a retirement home where standard dress codes were relaxed?  Second, this photo is obviously from somewhere in the German speaking world.  I always assume that American women were out ahead with casual clothing, but this photo provides evidence to the contrary.  The woman in pants also has on a very casual looking animal print top.

So live and learn.  Apparently there were older pioneers in pants all around the world.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Cheerful Granny Keeps Cool, 1956

Better Homes and Gardens, June 1956

Better Homes and Gardens, June 1956

Since the weather is still hot, it’s a good time to share this ad for the Frigidaire “full house” air conditioning system featuring a cheerful granny. The text sells the central forced air system as a boon for family life, bringing “better relaxation and rest, healthier appetites, greatly reduced cleaning, increased family enjoyment twenty-four hours a day.” Although room air conditioners might help against the heat, the ad states, central air conditioning was quieter and more aesthetically pleasing.

Frigidaire3_56In this three generational household, the cheerful granny has her own room. It’s decorated in an old fashioned style with a rocking chair and an antique lamp, a stark contrast to the modern TV room on the first floor. Her clothes, a long sleeved dress with a high white collar and white cuffs, also look old fashioned compared to the outfit of the well coifed mother in the kitchen with her jaunty bow and bangle bracelets.

Everyone is smiling because they get to do what they want, even on a hot day.  Baby waves her rattle, Dad watches TV, Mom makes dinner, and the cheerful granny can knit what might be a winter sweater under the smiling portrait of dear departed granddad.

Posted in 1950s, General | Tagged , | 3 Comments

A Sewing Vacation at sewBoise

Barbie McCormick at sewBoise

Barbie McCormick at sewBoise

My sister and I are sewing and textile enthusiasts. Since we also like to travel together, we use our trips to increase our fabric collections and gain new sewing skills. About a year and half ago at a class taught by Claire Shaeffer, we met two impressive sewing professionals from Boise Idaho, Erin Retelle and Barbie McCormick.  They are the brains behind the innovative sewing school, alterations shop, and dressmaking studio called sewBoise. Erin is the owner and master planner; Barbie oversees alterations and teaches intermediate and advanced classes, while running a dressmaking business of her own.

The range of classes offered is awe inspiring, from beginning sewing to corset making.  We decided to enlist in a pattern drafting class to learn how to make a bodice pattern.  Since we both mainly wear pants, we also signed up for a pants fitting class using the Eureka pants pattern by Fit for Art.

Barbie McCormick was the teacher for both classes. If you subscribe to the sewing magazine Threads, you might recognize her name as a frequent winner in their design challenges.  A member of the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals, she has completed their Master Sewing and Design Professional certification. She also teaches classes at their national conferences.

The goal of the pattern drafting class was to make a bodice moulage, a new term for both Jill and me.  It is a French system that results in a skin tight pattern for the torso, which can then be altered for blouses and jackets. Barbie learned the method from designer and FIT instructor Kenneth King, and the class comes with a CD by King.  The process is elaborate, beginning with precise measurements. When I got home, I altered my basic top pattern using the moulage system. In the end I had a larger and lower bust dart with a closer fitting underarm.

Barbie is certified as a teacher for the Eureka pants pattern, an innovative fitting system that uses three different cuts for the back to create a better fit.  Jill and I made up the pattern closest to our measurements, had it fit by Barbie, and then made up a final version. I followed the lines of the pattern; with Barbie’s help Jill made hers with wider legs.

Jill and I at the fashion show, with Barbie in the background

Jill and I at the fashion show, with Barbie in the background

The classes took place in the sewBoise studio, a light filled converted bungalow with large drafting tables and many sewing stations.  We enjoyed seeing clients bring in suits and wedding dresses to be altered and discuss their custom garments. As an added treat, we got to show off our new pants in the semi annual fashion show sponsored by the school. Obviously we are not the greatest models, but we were proud of our work. Erin and Barbie have created a real sewing community in Boise, and we plan to go back again.

Posted in 2010s | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Dresses versus Pants–A Tale of Two Women in the 1970s

Nell Blair and Mary Murphy, 1973

Nell Blair and Mary Murphy, 1973. Click to enlarge

Reader Keri Payne sent me stories about two older relatives who had radically different styles, one always in dresses and the other always in pants.

On her mother’s side was her grandmother Nell Blair, born in 1906.  She wore muumuus and house dresses when in casual settings, while putting on nice dresses with a girdle when she received company or went outside.  Here’s Keri vivid description of her grandmother: “I’m pretty sure she made this dress [pictured on the left]–she taught me to sew as a child and sewed for herself, me and my mom all the time.  She never got her ears pierced because she was scared, so always wore clip-ons and a brooch.  She loved a pretty brooch!”  Keri doesn’t remember her Grandmother Blair ever wearing pants.

At the other end of the clothing spectrum was her Great Aunt Mary Murphy, the sister of her paternal grandmother. Widowed at an early age, she got a job as the entertainment director at a retirement home.  “Mary’s nickname was ‘Babe’ and I LOVED my Auntie Babe,” writes Keri.  “She was fabulous and always had some kind of pant suit on.” In the picture above on the right, Babe wears a nautically inspired pants outfit.  Although she doesn’t remember her exact age, Keri guesses that she was in her fifties when the photo was taken.

Keri’s stories raise tantalizing research questions.  By the 1970s, many women were turning to pants suits, including older women.  But how old exactly? My maternal grandmother was just a few years older than Keri’s and she also never wore pants outside the home (or in the home either, to my knowledge.) Do any of you know women born in the first decade of the twentieth century who switched to pants as their basic attire by the seventies?

Mary was at least a decade younger than Nell and worked outside home.  Do these factors help explain her embrace of pants suit so soon after they became acceptable street wear?

Posted in 1970s | Tagged | 8 Comments