Mary Boyd, Character Actor

Mary Boyd's head shot, 1950s

Mary Boyd’s head shot, 1950s

You might imagine that someone living in Southern California would have personal connections to the movie industry. Not so in my case. My nearest brush with fame is through a close friend, whose grandmother worked as a character actor in film and television in the 1950s.

Her name was Mary Boyd, 1883–1970. Born in Kentucky, she lived most of her adult life in Idaho, where she managed a garage with her husband and raised four boys. A decade after her husband died, she moved to LA in 1950 to live with one of her sons. In order to qualify for Social Security, she decided to take up acting, surely an unusual step for someone well into her sixties. She signed up for acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse and then got a contract with MGM. The highpoint of her career was a singing and dancing role as a townsperson in Brigadoon. According to my friend, the IMDb listing for her is not complete—hardly surprising for someone in very small roles. The 1967 book Who Is That? The Late, Late Viewers Guide to the Old, Old Movie Players lists her in the section of “miscellaneous ethnics” because she was so often cast as the Irish maid.

Mary Boyd and her sons

Mary Boyd and her sons

Boyd was an excellent seamstress and went to fashion shows at Bullocks Wilshire to study the latest styles. She would then come home and sew up her own versions for herself, her daughters in law, and granddaughters.

Known to her sons as “Tootsie,” Mary was no shrinking Violet. In her daily life she dressed in bright colors and prints, remembers my friend. Perhaps she made this boldly printed dress, ignoring all advice given to older, wider women to favor small patterns and soft colors. When she went out, “she would dress to the nines, with a black cocktail length dress and as much jewelry as she could fit on at once and not look ridiculous.” Mary Boyd was obviously a character, both on and off the screen.


Posted in 1950s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

“I’m Proud to Admit I’m a Grandmother,” 1947

Harper's Bazaar, 1947

Harper’s Bazaar, 1947

Most advertisements containing grandmothers refer to their homey, family loving qualities. This is the earliest I’ve seen that praises her as a glamorous figure. It’s worth noting that this stylish grandmother appears over half a year before the birth of Mrs. Exeter in Vogue in June 1948. Maybe there was something in the post World War Two atmosphere that made people see older women as a new consumer market.

I discovered this ad in the reference room of the main library in Denver. My sister and I happily spent the better part of an afternoon thumbing  through their complete collection of Harper’s Bazaar magazines. She was looking for interesting textiles; I was on the hunt for older women.

Iphone in hand, I chose issues from 1935 (height of the Depression), 1947 (the start of the New Look), and 1960 (a fashion era I like.) I learned a lot. First of all, it’s hard to take photos of bound volumes, since the pages are apt to be curved. Any advice on how to solve this problem? Second, my record keeping techniques need work. I believe this image is from November 1947, but I cannot swear to it. Getting references wrong is akin to grand theft for a professional historian, so I need to up my game.

These days, you can stumble over piles of anti-aging creams in every supermarket. In 1947, Charles of the Ritz was in the vanguard of this beauty trend. The company no longer exists, sold first to Squibb, then to Yves St. Laurent, then to Revlon. It is mourned by many. Read through the comments on this blog post. And for the adventurous, you might want to try a new version of this cream, renamed Rejuvenessence, available on Amazon. And this isn’t the only one! Sherry Lane cosmetics offers My Essence Moisturizer, another attempt to recreate a classic.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

A Fashion Show at Neusteter’s Department Store in Denver

Neusteters’ Collection Archive, History Colorado

Neusteter’s Collection Archive, History Colorado

One of the joys of city living, in my suburban view, is the element of serendipity. I just returned from a fun filled week at my sister’s in Denver, where we ran across an unexpected exhibit of fashion photography at main public library downtown. It included  photos from the archives of the now defunct Neusteter’s Department Store, which used to be the premier spot for fashion in the region. Although the store is no more, its photographic archive is now held in the History Colorado Museum. What a great source for a local history project!

Fashion shows were part of the services that elegant old department stores provided. They were both a place to catch up on current fashion trends, and a venue to see and be seen. From this particular shot, it looks like the women in attendance were older, prosperous, and content with conventional styles. Only the woman in front, perhaps in her sixties, stands out from the crowd. Wearing the stunned look of a recent face lift and a boldly printed dress, she’s appears to be the only one who might be ready to try the patterned coat on the model.

There’s no date on the photo, but I’m guessing late sixties or early seventies because of the skirt lengths, the textiles, and the hair.  What do you think?

Posted in 1960s, 1970s | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Mema’s Grandmother, 1954

Oma2_54A German reader and sewing blogger, Mema, sent me a photo of three generations of her family taken in 1954. She is in her eighty year old grandmother’s arms, with her laughing mother in the background. They lived in a small town in the western part of what was then West Germany. Her grandmother ran a farm when she was younger. Once she was widowed she moved in with one of her sons and helped him manage his restaurant and inn until she died at 86.

Mema writes that all old women looked like her grandmother when she was growing up. “The black dress, the hair style with a bun at the back, the sturdy shoes were all typical of that time and place. The widows wore black.” Those whose husbands were still alive wore similar dresses, but in lighter colors.

The outfit looked old fashioned to me. Were there eighty old year American women in the early 1950s who looked similar?

OmaCompositeThe answer is yes! Mema’s grandmother is featured on the left, in her black dress, granny glasses, and sensible shoes. On the right is “Aunt Nellie, who was 80 years old on December 24, 1952,” a snap shot from my photo stash. Aunt Nellie has the same hairstyle and glasses. Her sensible shoes appear to have small heels and she wears transparent stockings instead of black ones. Her dress has the sheen of silk (it might be her birthday, after all) but I’m guessing that is black. Their poses and even their furniture look very similar.  Might there be an international language of dress for the “old old” in the fifties?

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Eight Basic Styles of Pants, 1964

California Stylist, March 1964

California Stylist, March 1964

Have you ever wondered what to call pants of different lengths? The March 1964 issue of California Stylist provided this helpful chart for eight different styles. (Click on the image for a bigger version.) How interesting that they measured the length from the waist. I would have thought measurements from the ground or the inseam would have been more accurate. Obviously none of these markers would have helped the very tall or very short.

The subtle distinctions between styles surprised me—the Bermuda short four inches longer than the Jamaica short, for example, and the Pedal Pusher three inches longer than the Deck pant. Note also that the full length slacks do not come anywhere near the floor. Capri pants are described as the best selling style. The longer length, in a bell bottom, was a “novelty look.”

Although this doesn’t have any direct relevance to older women, it adds another element to consider when evaluating what they wore. Did older women wait to switch to pants in the seventies in part because they got longer?

Posted in 1960s | Tagged | 7 Comments

Three Generations, 1910s

threegenerationsThis family configuration, an older mother living with one of her children, is fairly common in old American photos. In his moving book Being Mortal, Atul Gawande states that over sixty percent of people over the age of sixty-five lived with their children in the early twentieth century; by 1975 that figure had shrunk to fifteen percent. With her position in the front row, this photo shows the mother/mother-in-law as an important family member.

We get a very good look at the older woman’s clothes here. At first glance I thought that this was a casual outfit for a formal photo—a blouse and skirt combination. Perhaps the skirt had a matching jacket for street wear, like these Sears “extra sized suits” from 1913, which she had left off for this interior photo.

Sears catalog, Spring 1913

Sears catalog, Spring 1913

The blouse has fancy details. The stripes form chevrons in front and it has interesting tucks at the shoulders. I still can’t quite figure out how that wing shaped lace piece was attached. Did the blouse have a low neckline filled in by a kind of inset? Note the cameo at her neck and the fringed velvet bag on her lap. When she stood up, the skirt’s seams would give slenderizing vertical lines.

Perhaps I’m imaging it, but I can’t help seeing tensions in the family dynamic on display. The older woman is in the front, yet moved off to the side. Neither she nor her daughter-in-law looks happy.

Thanks to my photo scout Sally for finding this at a Los Angeles yard sale.


Posted in 1910s | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Book Review: I’ll Drink to That by Betty Halbreich

HalbreichDrinkThis might be one of the most persuasive books ever written on the importance of working outside the home. Betty Halbreich traces her transformation from a timid young woman into a celebrity fashion consultant for the luxury store Bergdorf Goodman. By her own account, she was a limited and anxious woman before she started working. With a large household staff to take care of her family, her life was filled mainly with shopping in order to impress her equally privileged friends. Even though she felt trapped in her marriage, when her husband finally left she attempted suicide, spending six weeks in psychiatric clinic. Working saved her life.

Through the help of friends, she began to find jobs in the fashion industry. With little work experience, she got hired because of her personal style. That was her main qualification for work at Bergdorf’s, she says. “My appearance, the way I paired a print or tied a blouse, gave the illusion of confidence and mastery.”(112) Once there, she carved out a position as a personal shopper and consultant for costume designers.

Not many octogenarians know as much about luxury fashion as Halbreich. She rails against designers who have jettisoned sleeves in dresses and those who only make clothes in small sizes. “While fashion was supposed to boost the self esteem of women by cloaking them in beautiful things, it seemed to me that its new aim was quite the opposite. Lovely older women were punished for not spending every waking minute in the gym, wasting away on a juice fast, or endangering their lives with liposuction.”(213)

Unfortunately, Halbreich tells us little about her own fashion choices. There isn’t a single picture of her and nothing to indicate how her own style changed as she aged. My advice—get this book from the library and read it with a big glass of wine or your drink of choice. Halbreich favors vodka.

Posted in 2010s | Tagged | 5 Comments

Vogue Pattern Book and the Older Woman

Vogue Pattern Book, July/August, 1982

Vogue Pattern Book, July/August, 1982

In 1980, the Vogue Pattern Book introduced former movie star Arlene Dahl as a fashion adviser to older women. Then in her mid fifties, she had left acting behind and reinvented herself as a beauty consultant. For the next few years, the magazine published regular articles where Dahl offered fashion tips (“soft hats, bold jewelry”) and recommended patterns she felt were best suited for “mature” women. “If you wear sizes 8 to 22, keep In Vogue with Irene Dahl,” captions read.

Dahl was not the only older woman featured in the magazine. Gray haired models showed off designer looks from Bill Blass and patterns from the Very Easy Vogue series. They were especially well represented in the “Sizing Up” line of half-sized clothing. Several issues included features about real life seamstresses who worked with Vogue Patterns, often older women with established careers.

Why did Vogue Patterns decide to reach out to the older woman? Luckily I was able to get in touch with Polly Roberts, who was the very young editor of the magazine in the early eighties. She told me that the magazine was responding to letters from older customers who felt that the look of the magazine had become too young. They couldn’t see themselves in many of the clothes on offer.

Vogue Pattern Book, January/February 1984

Vogue Pattern Book, January/February 1984

According to Roberts, the company realized that a shift in the sewing community was underway. As more and more young women entered the workforce to build careers, they had less time to sew. But older customers still did, and they deserved more attention. As a result, the magazine shifted focus. The editors hired older models, styling their clothes in more conservative ways. In order not to leave younger readers behind, they also showed how the same pattern could be reinterpreted for many ages with simple changes in fabric and accessories.

What a difference from Vogue Patterns of today, where there’s rarely a gray hair or crinkled eye to be seen! Maybe we should start writing letters…

Posted in 1980s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Jo Copeland and her Daughter

From Mommy Dressing by Lois Gould

From Mommy Dressing by Lois Gould

What was it like to be a glamorous society woman in New York from the thirties to the fifties? Lois Gould’s memoir Mommy Dressing: A Love Story after a Fashion gives us a taste of that world. The book is about her mother, designer Jo Copeland, who made clothes for well off women with lives filled with luncheons, meetings, and dinners on the town. Although Copeland worked all day as the sole designer for the firm Pattullo, she spent her evenings out wearing her own beautiful designs.

Although not well known today, Jo Copeland was a major figure in American fashion. Her initial inspiration came from Paris, where she traveled twice a year for shows, taking her entire wardrobe with her in several big trunks. “The rational was simple: she never knew what sudden event might demand the one pink chiffon scarf she’d left behind.”(98-99) But during World War Two, when the US was cut off from European fashion, Copeland came into her own. Her designs were meant to fit the lives of busy women who went right from daytime engagements to evenings out.  She was best known for a dress and jacket combination, a “two piece suit,” that could “turn into a sparkling dinner dress with the flick of a collarless jacket.”(172)

This book is a story of mismatched lives—the daughter needy, the mother cold; the daughter a future novelist, the mother who bought books by the yard for decoration. But in the end, it does turn into “a love story, after a fashion,” as the subtitle says. Listen to Gould’s description of her mother dressing: “The thought that informed each decision, the agonizing reappraisals, the luminous effort of the final whole, the impossibility that the whole would have been right on any other body, any other performer of style, or with any single element omitted–it was all like higher mathematics. It took me half a lifetime more to acknowledge that this was also my mother’s life’s work, and that it too was a work of art. By the time I knew this, it was too late to tell her.”(88-89)

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Remembering Mrs. Fessenden

rim2A few months ago I reconnected with a high school friend via Facebook, which has led into a swirl of teenage memories.  She recently posted a photo of our school’s honor society for the 1966-67 academic year. It wasn’t the shock of my sixteen year old self (on the very far left in the photo below) that caught my attention. Instead it was the faculty sponsor, my English teacher Mrs. Fessenden.

rim1How old was she in this photo? At the time she seemed ancient, but I now guess she was probably in her early sixties. Her carefully coifed hair was a steel gray and her neck showed the sagging ridges of age. Her conservative outfits, like this knit suit with round pearl buttons, were carefully coordinated; her skirts fell well below her knees. Her eyeglasses, with their heavy top rims, were straight out of the 1950s.

Mrs. Fessenden’s husband was a Presbyterian minister and she solicited openly for new congregants during class. She didn’t like anything vaguely improper and refused to let me write a book report on Catcher in the Rye. But what sticks in my mind the most were her spelling tests, where she required that the assigned words be used in full sentences. I can still remember those weekly challenges demanding, for example, that we use the word penultimate in a dependent clause.

I do not remember her with affection, but she certainly helped me to learn good English grammar. Thanks to her I can easily tell a sentence from a dependent clause, a skill that can no longer be taken for granted. Rest in peace, Edith Fessenden.

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , | 2 Comments