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 , | 1 Comment

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 | 7 Comments

Are You a Natural Fiber Snob?

CoraRecently I’ve been logging the contents of my fabric stash into a new i-phone app called Cora.  It takes some time because you need to measure each piece and fill out a list of questions. I now know that of the 38 pieces in my main sewing closet (and there are other closets), 17 are cotton, 15 are silk, and 4 are linen. Only one cut, bought for exercise pants, is mainly polyester.

Yes, I am a natural fiber snob. Usually ashamed of my prejudices, I have worn this one like a badge of honor. What is behind it?  And does it make sense?

The main reason I avoid polyester is because it makes me sweat. Recently I made a knit top from a 50/50 cotton polyester blend. Wearing it was like having a sweat lodge on my back. Many women who sew praise the breathability of new synthetic blends, but I have not been inspired to carry out a systematic check.

I am also convinced that natural fibers are better for the environment. This might be up for discussion, though. Polyester isn’t biodegradable, but pretty much nothing decomposes in densely packed landfills. And while cotton feels wonderful against the skin, conventional cotton farming uses a heavy load of pesticides and lots of water. Unless you pay for the organic variety, you probably aren’t reducing your carbon footprint.

There are costs in maintenance as well.  I iron my woven shirts and pants, while many synthetics are wash and wear. Some people send their silk and linen to the cleaners, adding to their environmental load.

So what do you think?  Beyond simple preference, are there good reasons to be a natural fiber snob?

Posted in 2010s | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Auto Camping in Dennisport, 1936

From the Library of Congress

From the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

This photo by the Farm Security Administration photographer Carl Mydans is part of a series about an auto camp on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Car camping began as a popular vacation option in the 1910s, according to this fascinating article in the Smithsonian magazine. While most campers were vacationers, during the Depression some moved into mobile homes for good. I wonder if the people depicted in Mydans’ series were permanent or temporary residents.

The older woman in front wears a printed dress with lace trim.  The loose sleeves make me think it might have been a house dress.  She has added a beret at a jaunty angle, and very worn saddle shoes with socks. Is she reading the newspaper or using it to clean fish? Her older companion on the right wears a solid colored dress in a typical thirties style. It looks like she has added a pin over the top button for modesty, or perhaps to replace a missing button.  Her head covering is one that I associate with golfing, a combination visor and head wrap.

It is early September in this picture, and the younger woman in the center has already put on a sweater.  Where will they be when the weather really turns cold?

Posted in 1930s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Ella at the Summer House, 1955

Ella55Some of us throw all of our family photos into a drawer and forget to label them (or whatever the digital equivalent would be.)  Others scribble down basic information, often illegibly.  It is the truly rare individual who offers as much information as is typed (!) on the back of this picture.  Here is the notation in full:

“Mrs. Roy Schmidt, nee Ella Florence Wilson, formerly Mrs. Alfred Ahrens, taken by Chester on Tuesday afternoon Sept. 27th, 1955 at the summer home of Ella and Roy at Ringwood Borough, New Jersey.  Ella born 4.23.1906.”

What amazes me about this photo is how contemporary Ella looks. Her flat shoes, dark cropped pants, white sweater and striped boat neck tee shirt  (or inset) could easily be worn on the street today.  Of course these were casual vacation clothes for Ella, most likely different that what she wore in her everyday life.

Who were her fashion inspirations?  It couldn’t have been Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face because the film wouldn’t come out for two more years.  However she made her choices, Ella at fifty looks young at heart.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Teddi Winograd and Teddi of California

All photos From My Life in Pictures by Teddi Winograd

All photos From My Life in Pictures by Teddi Winograd

Just when I think that I have a basic knowledge of California sportswear, I discover something new. The brand Teddi of California, started in 1962, was featured in the June 1966 issue of California Stylist.  It was already doing big business and remained a feature of the California fashion scene for decades.

Teddi Winograd (1919-2007) already had a long career in fashion when she and her husband moved from the East Coast to start their own business. Her specialty had been blouses, and that was the first focus of Teddi of California. Later the company expanded to include all kinds of women’s sportswear and a plus size line.

In her chatty autobiography, Chit Chat This ‘n That: The Rocky Road to Success, (2000) Winograd credits the success of her company to her background as a sales representative.  She learned to listen to buyers and to department store sales staff.  Rather than following fashion trends, she followed sales figures.  A version of a ruffled collared blouse stayed in the company’s collection for two decades. She also listened to the garment stitchers to discover how improvements could be made.  The company was a progressive employer, offering pensions and support for college plans.

Teddi Day at the May Company

Teddi Day at the May Company

Teddi Winograd’s personal aesthetic, which leaned towards color and print, was a good match for California styles.  She was her own best model. Company ads in Southern California newspapers show that she made personal appearance in department stores.  By the 1970s, big chains like the May Company were hosting “Teddi Days,” where she would come to show her new line.

Early on, the company added a plus sized line called Lady Winn at the suggestion of a sales woman. It eventually represented a third of the company’s sales. Teddi Winograd also kept a close eye on the specific needs of older women. One dress was nicknamed the Menopause Special because its long ties were handy to use as fans during hot flashes.  (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an image for this!)

WinogradBlouseThe side tie shirt, pictured above, was very popular with the older set.  “I discovered why it sold so well,” she writes in My Life in Pictures. “First, it had a cap sleeve that covered an often unflattering part of a woman’s under arm. Secondly, it had a cowl neck which covered the third wrinkle of a woman’s throat. Most importantly, the side-tie camouflaged a protruding tummy.” (154).

The Winograds retained control of their company until the late eighties, when production began to move to China. Dealing with department stores became more cut throat. She tells a funny/sad story of an instance where the Broadway department store copied one of her best selling designs.  By the time it arrived from China, the trend had passed. Incredibly, a Broadway manager asked Teddi of California to pay to take the blouses back.  Instead of trying to adapt, Teddi and her husband Sam got out of the business. The company finally closed in 2003.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Remembering Alice Coachman, Olympian

photograph by xxx

Photograph by Damon Winter

Alice Coachman was the first African American woman to win a gold medal, a feat she accomplished in the high jump in London in 1948.  She died in 2012.  In the New York Times photograph above she is dressed in exercise gear, but other photos show that she that had a great style in street clothes.


Coachman grew up in segregated Georgia and was prohibited from using public sports facilities.  Recognized early for her athletic abilities in track and field, she got training at historically black schools—first at the Tuskegee Institute High School and then at Albany State University. In 1948, she was the only American woman to win a gold medal.

Alice Coachman did not continue her career in track and field.  Instead, she became a high school teacher and raised a family.  She also started a foundation to help young athletes dreaming of Olympic careers.  That’s a life well lived, I’d say.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , | 5 Comments

The New Look and the Older Woman

VPFall47The October/November issue of the Vogue Pattern Book was all about the New Look. The opening article, “The Changing Silhouette,” listed major shifts in styles: more naturally shaped shoulders with less padding; a nipped waistline; and an emphasis on the hips with artificial padding, pleats, peplums and/or pockets.  Skirts shapes would be either wide or narrow.

What did this mean for older women whose figures had changed over time?  The rounded shoulders and larger hips might not have posed much of a problem, since these are common shifts with aging. Achieving a small looking waistline most likely been the biggest challenge.  A wider waist, the “menopot,” occurs for most women by their fifties.

The Vogue Pattern Company was not designing specifically for older women in 1947 and the vast majority of the offerings in the fall magazine came in bust sizes 30 to 38. However, the company did produce a few patterns in larger bust sizes that might have intended for older and wider readers.  I looked for outfits that went up to at least a bust size 44. Then I tried to figure out what these designs had in common.

Conservative Styles

Conservative Styles

Some of the most conservative clothes—those that had changed minimally from earlier styles—came in the largest sizes.  This included a shirtwaist dress, offered in sizes 30-46.  There were several very boxy coats that seemed only a bit longer than earlier styles but otherwise not very “new” to my eye, like this raglan sleeved, double breasted model that came in sizes 30-44.

Slim Suits

Slim Suits

New Look designs had two basic skirt styles, one very full and the other much narrower.  The designs in larger sizes favored slim skirts that had minimal or no extra features at the hips. The belted model 6141 came in sizes 34-46; the notched collar suit in sizes 30-44. Perhaps pattern makers felt that older women on the heavier side had enough curves of their own.

Emphasis on the Face

Emphasis on the Face

The rounder shoulder of the New Look created a dilemma those without small waists.  How was it possible to give the illusion of an hourglass shape without broad shoulders to help out? The clothes in larger sizes had bodice and collar features that drew the eye up to the face, doing some of the same work. Pattern 6196 came in sizes 34-44; 6132 came in sizes 32-46.

Fit for a Queen

Fit for a Queen

But lest you think that the larger woman was disadvantaged by this collection, I thought some of most elegant looks came in larger sizes.  I imagine the designers considering what a wealthy New York society matron might like to wear when coming up with these styles.

This is guess work on my part, but it was interesting to imagine how a style shift not necessarily friendly to the older figure could be made to work.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Adjusting to the New Look, 1947

Vogue Pattern Book, October-November, 1947

Vogue Pattern Book, October-November, 1947. Click to enlarge

For thrifty women who wanted to stay in style, the radical shift in silhouette brought about by the 1947 New Look must have represented a real dilemma.  What to do with all the perfectly good clothes from the recent past that were suddenly not the right shape?

This La Mode button ad from the October-November issue of Vogue Pattern Book suggested a novel solution.  “A pleated flounce of faille buttoned on the hem of last year’s wool or silk dress will usher in the new length and give it the Paris stamp! At the neck, a Bertha flounce, fashion’s newest fancy!” It is interesting that the company addressed itself not only to longer skirt lengths, but also shifts in shoulder shapes.

I think the final result looks more Native American than Parisian, but it does make the skirt longer and creates a distant echo of some of the new bodice shapes like the one below.

Vogue Pattern Book, October-November, 1947

Vogue Pattern Book, October-November, 1947

Surprisingly, the La Mode button ad was the only place in the magazine that addressed the idea of altering old styles for new.  I found this surprising, since Vogue Pattern Book readers were presumably the ones most likely to have the skills to make such changes.

Making over old styles was not easy, as a Life magazine article about Hollywood costume shops makes clear.  In “The ‘New Look’ for Old Clothes,” the writer elaborates the steps necessary to do a convincing job.

Life, September 15, 1947

Life, September 15, 1947

The suit alterations were particularly complicated. “Front and back pleats in the skirt were unstitched, making it a 36 inch tube.  Then the skirt was turned upside down.  Three unpressed pleats were made at each hip.  Side seams were tapered to give the new tulip look.”  (It’s not clear where the extra length came from.)  Maybe after reading this, skilled seamstresses decided it might just be easier to start for scratch.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , | 4 Comments