A Patented House Dress, 1915

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Click to enlarge

Since I find so many photos of older women in house dresses, I’ve become very interested in their construction. How could I resist this ingenious little flier for a patented version by the M. Alshuler Co., discovered by chance on ebay? What is so special about this model, you might ask. It “Slips on like a coat. Adjusts with two buttons. Reverses when soiled. Prevents undergarments from showing.”

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Click to enlarge

The flier opens up to show how the dress is put on. “Imagine the convenience of being able to dress in nine seconds…The ‘Utility’ Garment is in universal demand because of this happy idea of simplicity, the cleverness of the styles and the attractive material employed in the making.”

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Click to enlarge

There’s a list of the fabrics available, including ginghams, percales, crepes, plisses, challis and flannelettes. Although there is no sizing information, the manufacturer mentions that it also comes in extra stouts.

Although the flier promises that the house dress is nationally advertised, I looked   through Good Housekeeping at the Hearth Archive and the Library of Congress newspaper archive, Chronicling America, and found nothing. I did find the patent file though.

AlshulerHousedress14What was it that merited a patent for this basic wrapper style? I’m guessing it might have been the structure of the waistband, since it is so elaborately illustrated.

Posted in 1910s | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Mother and Daughter, 1925

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Click to enlarge

Given all the facial similarities, these two are obviously mother and daughter. They even have very similar hairstyles. The photo offers clear evidence of what aging does to facial features. The mother’s cheeks are sagging, the lines around her mouth are more pronounced, and her lips have thinned.

According to the penciled in date on the back of this photo, it was taken in May of 1925. That makes their clothing choices a puzzle. The daughter is dressed for summer in what might be a cotton house dress. The mother, on the other hand, looks bundled up for winter. Was she more sensitive to cold? Or did she just want to show off her coat?

Coats from 1924, Stella Blum, Everyday Fashion of the Twenties

Coats from 1924, Stella Blum, Everyday Fashions of the Twenties

The beautiful coat is cut in the surplice style so popular in the 1920s. Hers has fur trim at the collar, all the way down both sides of the front, and also at the sleeves. The main fabric has more loft than basic wool. It might have been a smooth fur as well. In her very informative book Fashions of the Roaring Twenties, Ellie Laubner says that the most popular fur trims were opossum, beaver, raccoon, rabbit, Manchurian wolf, squirrel, novelty monkey fur, and skunk. What’s your best guess here?

Posted in 1920s | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Call Me Seamstress

At work on a muslin. Photo by Bob Moeller

At work on a muslin. Photo by Bob Moeller

People who love to sew seem to have trouble deciding what to call themselves. Many home-based craftspeople use “sewer,” but that sounds better than it looks. The written version conjures up images of subterranean piping systems.

Creators of art-to-wear and couture level designs have invented the new word “sewist.” With this title, parallel to artist, they are claiming their work’s status as an art. However, this term leaves out those of us who do not have the same high skills and ambitions. I see my sewing more as a craft than an art.

For awhile, I tried using the humble yet venerable term “seamster,” which I discovered in a history book about the textile trade. In Old English it was originally applied to women, but eventually it was used for men. I liked its gender neutral connotations. Its contemporary sound was also a plus, evoking the ubiquitous “hipster.” But eventually I felt a little odd applying the term to my plus sixty year old self.

So I have come back to the tried and true—seamstress. This might evoke images of garrets, sweatshops, and tuberculosis, but the word has an impressive history. It is what my grandmother called herself. It also reflects what I do. My sewing is practical, aimed at the everyday. Of course I try to do beautiful work. However, but wearability, not perfection, is  my goal. I am not an artist with the needle, nor do I want to compare myself with highly skilled professionals.

So for now—call me seamstress.

Posted in 2010s, General | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Elizabeth Hawes’s Blue Mazurka

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

For anyone interested in the history of American fashion, Elizabeth Hawes’s witty book Fashion is Spinach should be required reading. Published in 1938, it was just republished in a paperback version by Dover.  It is also is available for free here.

Hawes was a couture designer, fashion critic, and labor activist, certainly an unusual combination. Follow her tumultuous career in Bettina Berch’s wonderful biography Radical by Design. She published many books and magazine articles, but Fashion is Spinach is her magnum opus. In it, she criticizes the cult of French design, chronicles the establishment of her couture dress business in New York, and gives a bitter sweet account of her efforts to create a line of ready-to-wear clothes.

Fashion is Spinach includes a funny letter from a client about a Hawes dress called Blue Mazurka. (Hawes liked to give her creations names, sometimes humorous.) “The first two years were fine. I loved the dress. I used to think up places to go where I wasn’t invited just so I could wear it,” wrote the owner. By the fourth year, when she tried to cycle it out of her wardrobe, her husband would request it for special occasions. “Then it got so that I couldn’t buy anything else. I would go into simple, defenseless shops and try on dress after dress and Blue Mazurka would materialize in the mirror and I would say thank you very much but I have a dress and walk out.”

Although I was unable to find a photo of Blue Mazurka, another creation called The Styx, made in 1936, can serve as a substitute. I never go to events that require formal dress, but someone with a different kind of life could easily wear this today. Wouldn’t it be perfect for an older woman who was reluctant to show her upper arms? See more of Hawes’s timeless designs on the Metropolitan Museum of Art site.

Posted in 1930s | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Group Portrait at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem

New York Public Library

New York Public Library. Click to enlarge

Although this photo was taken in Harlem in the 1950s, for a London reader it evoked memories of her Jamaican born grandmother. “Their tailored suits reminded me of how my grandmother, a Jamaican woman who moved to London in the 50s, would dress to go to our local Baptist church,” she explained, “and the ubiquitous nature of the ‘church suit’ throughout the African Diaspora.”

When I was growing up, we talked about wearing out “Sunday best” to church. I had never heard the term “church suit” before. I searched through the Berg Fashion Library, which claims to have an international and multi-racial reach, but the term didn’t come up. That’s an omission, because the church suit is an important concept in African American culture and beyond. Not only are there numerous websites devoted to them, like churchsuitsunlimited.com, but many contemporary designers focus primarily on these special occasion outfits.

What surprised me about this photo is how very dressed up some of the women are, with glistening fabrics I would have expected at a wedding or an evening affair rather than a church service. And look at their hats, elegant accessories and shoes! This brings “Sunday best” to a whole new level.

The photo is dated only to the 1950s, but unless the woman third from the left was really a fashion rebel, her short skirts moves it more to the end of the decade.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Elsé California

Fit Patterns to You, 1953

Fit Patterns to You, 1953

If you sew, you know that there has been an explosion of independent pattern companies in the past few years. Although the number of these companies is unusual, pattern lines outside of the Big Four (Butterick, McCalls, Vogue, Simplicity) are nothing new. The highly successful Stretch and Sew is just one example.

Not long ago, the Sunny Gal Sewing Studio blog introduced me to yet another of these product lines, Elsé California. I thought I would dig deeper to find out more about the creator. According to newspaper articles, Elsé Tyroler was a German born master tailor. She married an American and moved to the United States in 1950. She got started right away teaching sewing. The booklet above, found on Etsy, was already in its second edition in 1953. In it she shows basic techniques on how to alter patterns.

Los Angeles Times, January 1962

Los Angeles Times, January 1962

In the early 1960s, she started the School of Fit in Los Angeles, where she gave sewing classes. Pants became her specialty. Her 1963 book of tips, Sewing Pants for Women, announced, “Pants are here to stay. Most of us admitted that long ago. The only question is: are they staying at the Ritz, or in some cold-water flat on the back streets of fashion?” The opening illustration shows women of all ages and sizes in pants.

Sewing Pants for Women, 1963

Sewing Pants for Women, 1963

By the time her pants book came out, she was already publishing her own patterns, focusing on separates and specializing in knits. They were multi-sized, the earliest I have seen for this method. One LA Times article called her the originator of this idea. Her “All in One Pants Pattern,” for example, included hip sizes from 32 to 44.

Los Angeles Times, 1971

Los Angeles Times, 1971

She achieved local fame as the “Pants Lady,” traveling around Southern California offering classes on how to fit her patterns.

Elsé faded from view by the mid 1970s, perhaps because her ideas were taken up by bigger operations like Stretch and Sew and eventually the Big Four. But you can still find her patterns on Etsy, Ebay, and yard sales. I might look for that foolproof pattern. I would dearly love to know how to fit pants perfectly in two hours.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Political Satire by Helen Hokinson

Helen E. Hokinson, The Ladies, God Bless 'em!

Helen E. Hokinson, The Ladies, God Bless ’em! Click to enlarge

Since the presidential election season is gearing up in the US (and it seems to last forever), I thought it was time for a little political humor. So I reached back into my collections of cartoons by Helen Hokinson, who published in the New Yorker from the mid 1920s until her death in 1949. She loved to make fun of the wealthy matrons of New York City and its environs.

At first glance, her women seem to look very much the same—on the large side, older, and with conventional upscale clothes. But looking more closely at the cartoon above, you can see that that she paid attention to subtle differences. The Republican embodies the word “uptight,” with her rigid posture (probably held in by a corset) and severe coiffure. The enthusiastic Democrat could use some shape wear. She is dressed a little too young for her age, with a fluffy hairdo, flowing dress, and puffy sleeves.

Helen E. Hokinson, There Are Ladies Present

Helen E. Hokinson, There Are Ladies Present. Click to Enlarge

Following the same logic, shouldn’t we be able to pick out the Democrat here?

HokinsonStalin42And as a former historian of the Soviet Union, I had to include a favorite cartoon from 1942, when the US and USSR were allies.  Note that the observant woman wears pants.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s | Tagged | 6 Comments

The Gimbel Book: Paris, London, and American Styles, 1910


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On the website for the Thomas J. Watson Library at Metropolitan Museum Library, I browsed through the 1910 catalog for the Gimbel Brothers department store, then in Philadelphia. I had my eye out for clothes and accessories especially aimed at older women. My searches for “older,” “matron” and “elderly” turned up nothing, so I decided to search by size. Larger sizes are sometimes coded older.

The very first offerings were “tub suits,” made in washable fabrics, offered in bust sizes from 32 to 44 inches.  Since I knew that other catalogs did not always include the largest sizes, I thought perhaps these suits were designed specifically to accommodate even a busty older woman. However, as I paged on through the catalog I found that the store offered all its suits, dresses, and coats in sizes 32 to 44.


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Skirts were a different matter, though. The standard offerings came in waist sizes of 23 to 29 inches. If your waist was larger, from 30 to 35 inches, you had to pay a dollar more. Most women gain inches in their waistlines as they age, and I was a little miffed to discover that I would have to pay extra for my 32 inch waist.


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Of course, not all larger women are old; and not all older women are large. Was there anything specifically designed with the older set in mind? The only object I discovered was “toque for elderly woman,” model 7803 above. What makes this a hat specifically suited for an older woman? And why does the woman in the drawing look so young?

If you like fashion history, take some time to look through the Met’s catalog collection. Be advised, though, that the digital search feature is not entirely accurate. I looked for “elderly” and came up empty. The only way I found the “toque for elderly woman” was the old fashion way—by going through the catalog page by page.

Posted in 1910s | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Chemise and the Older Woman

Life magazine, April 14, 1958

Life magazine, April 14, 1958

We tend to think of fashion in terms of decades, but this is only a rough convenience. After all, the square shoulders of the forties ended with the New Look of 1947. And a decade later, the nipped waists of the New Look were challenged by a new shape, the chemise or sack, which hearkened back to the dropped-waisted or waistless styles of the flapper era.

The chemise–its rise, fall, and rise again–is a big topic in Bernard Roshco’s book, The Rag Race: How New York and Paris Run the Breakneck Business of Dressing American Women (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1963). In this journalistic exposé of the fashion industry, Roshco attempts to explain how and why styles come and go, as if to a mystified male audience paying the bills.

Although Parisian designers had been experimenting with new shapes for awhile, the chemise got its first big introduction into the American market in 1958. It aroused a lot of male opposition, Roshco reports. “It’s kind of like looking at a tent,” according to one young man.(173) While initially very popular especially among the young, the chemise fad did not last long. According to many fashion writers, men played a part in killing the style.

But older women also had a hand in resisting this new trend. Makers of dresses catering to the older set put out styles that were only slightly unfitted, and even these were not all that popular. “The older the customer, and the more expensive the dress she bought, the less likely it was to be a chemise.”(190)

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1958

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1958

A 1958 issue of Vogue Pattern Magazine bears this out. While the chemise was introduced elsewhere in its pages, Mrs. Exeter, the older fashion icon, stuck with shirtwaist dresses and suits with defined waistlines.

As we know, the defeat of the chemise was only temporary. It returned in a modified form in 1960s fashion. “The styles worn and popularized by Mrs. Kennedy—the loose overblouses, semi fitted jackets and coats, dresses without sleeves and with easy fitting waistline—represent the eventual triumph of the fashion disaster of the 50s, the chemise.”(220)

Posted in 1950s, 1960s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Separates and the Older Woman

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

At the beginning of the twentieth century, pretty much all American women wore separates. The shirtwaist blouse and skirt combination had a universal appeal, chosen by women of all ages, races, and class.

When the shirtwaist went out of style in the 1910s, separates didn’t return again in a big way until the 1950s. This time, though, they didn’t have the same broad reach. The older set stuck to dresses, while younger women took to the more casual styles of mix and match skirts, blouses, and pants.

In his overview of the American fashion industry at the beginning of the 1960s, The Rag Race, journalist Bernard Roshko cites an industry report noting this age divide. “Nearly all women of fifty or older consider dresses suitable for wear around the house and for recreation, summer or winter. Very few women under thirty consider dresses the suitable thing to wear for either purpose at any time of year.”(267)

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

You can see this age divide clearly in pattern magazines of the fifties. Mix and match wardrobes were big, with a single pattern offered for coordinating parts. The 1956 Butterick set above, pattern 7686, offered a skirt, blouse, toreador pants, and short sleeved coat. “By linking a matching blouse and skirt you get an all-in-one dress effect…Over any of these toss the slim coat—result, ideal Easter ensemble! For active sports or lounging, ally the print or plain top with the toreador pants.” These patterns came in Junior Miss and Misses sizes 11-18, for bust sizes 31.5 to 36.

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

What did Butterick offer the more amply endowed woman, one who wore “more-than-misses-sizes”? A dress.

These days, pattern magazine are filled with dresses and I’m wearing only separates. I guess now I’m behind the times.


Posted in 1950s | Tagged , | 4 Comments