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.

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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 , | 6 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

At the Train Tracks, Mid-Century

CameraCar61Most of the photos I find are amateur family snapshots where it is sometimes hard to determine accurate color or details. This one, a color slide, is of an unusually high quality. I suspect that whoever took the picture had just as good a camera as the women posed here.

Written in pencil on the slide is “1961,” but I doubt the date. Unless these women were particularly uninterested in fashion—and all in the same way—the clothes really cry out “mid 1950s.” In fact, I found similar dresses and shoes in a reference book, Fashionable Clothing From the Sears Catalog, Mid-1950s.  The dresses, with their small floral prints, look like they could have come from the Sears collection “For the Gracious Lady,” designed specifically for the older set.

The other objects fit into the fifties time frame as well. My friend Sally, who turned the slide into a jpeg, mobilized her network of experts to determine the age of the car and the cameras. The small Kodak camera on the left was made from 1954 to 1957 and the larger German one in the middle was produced from 1929 to 1956. The car is a Studebaker President from the mid 1950s and looks pretty darn new to me.

I wish I knew the story behind this image. What were these women doing out in what looks like the middle of nowhere? Why do they have such high quality camera equipment with them? And who took the photo?

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The Duchess of Windsor: Older Icon of the Fifties and Sixties

Looking over excerpts from her memoir, 1956. Corbis

Looking over excerpts from her memoir, 1956. Corbis

I am not a fan of the Duchess of Windsor, American born Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson (1896-1986). As far as I’m concerned, her biggest achievement was getting the Nazi sympathizer Edward VIII off the throne.

But my opinion notwithstanding, the Duchess of Windsor was a highly visible fashion icon for millions of American women. Already famous in the world of high fashion, in the mid 1950s she made a concerted effort to reach out to the average woman. Her 1956 memoir, The Heart Has its Reasons, was quite popular in the US and parts of it were serialized in McCall’s magazine. For women who sewed, she began to offer dress patterns in 1959 for the inventive sewing pattern company, Spadea. (I’ll write more about her patterns soon.) In addition, she wrote short columns for McCall’s and a number of newspapers on beauty, fashion, and entertaining.

In her fashion writing the Duchess, owner of a king’s ransom of jewels, presented herself as a populist. “Today many women are well dressed, even those without large bank accounts. The kind of wardrobe a woman chooses depends on her way of life, her inclinations, her figure. The only thing it doesn’t depend on, in fact, is money!” (“Here are my Designs for Dressing Well,” Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1959) Her ideas were unexceptional for the time—dress for the life you lead, don’t over- or under dress, and spend a lot of time shopping for items that will last several years.

Although the Duchess was well into her sixties when she started giving out fashion advice in print, she rarely mentioned age. Only when broaching the sensitive topic of pants and shorts did she draw a clear line between young and old. She allowed pants for everyone at home or on vacation (although “a woman must have the figure of a mannequin to carry off trousers with grace.”) But in her view, only young, busy mothers got to wear pants shopping. And “certainly no woman my age should venture forth in bikinis or shorts, or any woman even 30 years younger, unless her figure is superb.” (“The Duchess of Windsor Tell How to Stay in Style,” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1960)

A decade later she abandoned her own advice, even donning hot pants. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I was unable to find a photo on her in those.

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

The Fashion Lag in Plaid, ca. 1963

plaidcoatOlder women often don’t follow the latest styles, a phenomenon fashion historian Joan Severa calls the “fashion lag.” Doubtless there are many explanations—older people get comfortable in a certain style and don’t want to change, or they are reluctant to give up good quality clothes that still have a lot of wear left. Perhaps the simplest reason is that they don’t have enough money to stay in style. Although poverty levels for those over 65 are sinking, in the late fifties and early sixties they were the age group most likely to be poor.

In this photo the fashion lag is clearly on display. I asked the superbly skilled Jen Orsini of the blog Pintucks to help me date the photo. Jen is a long time teacher of sewing and fashion history, a costume designer, and a collector of vintage clothing. Using Life magazines, she recognized the married couple’s clothes as styles from 1963. The mother’s longer coat and very wide collar comes from the previous decade.

It was the combination of the older woman’s coat and dress that initially drew me to this photo on ebay. The pairing of plaid and flowers was jarring. It might be avant-garde today, but it is not a look I associate with older women half a century ago. I can’t help thinking that if she had owned another coat that coordinated better with her dress, she would have worn it.

Posted in 1960s | Tagged | 3 Comments

Older Women in Pants—the Prequel

The Oakland Museum

The Oakland Museum

Included in the awe-inspiring book Dressed for the Photographer is this photo of feminist activist, Marietta Stow in her 1880s version of reform dress. Stow was a philanthropist and social reformer of long standing who ran for California governor in 1882 and US vice president in 1884, despite the fact that women did not yet have the vote. As a widow who had lost her inheritance in a probate court, she also advocated for women’s rights in tax and inheritance law. Clearly she was a woman ahead of her time.

Born around 1830, she would have been about fifty when she donned this striking campaign outfit. According to Joan Severa, it was a dressy garment in the standard style of around 1882, but with the skirt raised up at the waist to make room for pants below. I was fascinated that these were not frilly bloomers, but “what appear to be black satin trousers of the same leg form as men’s.” (403). Her flat boots also have a masculine touch. But all of this was to make a point on the campaign trail. Severa notes that she did not wear reform dress at home.

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Mrs. Exeter, Part Seventeen: Her British Cousin

American Vogue, June 1948; British Vogue, July 1950

American Vogue, June 1948; British Vogue, July 1950

Mrs. Exeter was born on the pages of American Vogue in June 1948. A few months later, in March 1949, a parallel older lady appeared in British Vogue. The British Mrs. Exeter seems to have had a wider cultural resonance than her American counterpart. She appeared in literature and has inspired scholarly articles. My British friend Jane remembers teasing her mother about her “Mrs. Exeter style.”

Did the two figures differ? Let’s meet them at the beach and see. The subject of swimsuits was the very first one taken on by the American Mrs. Exeter in 1948. Her British cousin didn’t get to the beach until July 1950. Both admit loving the sea and use almost identical phrases to describe their experiences. “Thanks to my 33 inch waist I can stay in the water forever,” says the American Mrs. Exeter. Her cousin says the same, but only admits to a 32 inch waist (perhaps post war British austerity explains the difference.) Both seem to have plenty of money, since they solve the problem of finding well-fitting bathing suits by having them custom made.

American Vogue, June 1948; British Vogue July 1950

American Vogue, June 1948; British Vogue July 1950

Whole swaths of the two articles are identical word for word, with Mrs. Exeter’s chatty style extending across the Atlantic. However, the clothes are different. The British Mrs. X wears a slightly more revealing swimsuit. But the American Mrs. X allows herself to lounge on the beach with parts of her upper arms exposed.

It isn’t easy to find British Vogue in the US. Many thanks to Jane, who emailed scans direct from the Bodleian Library in Oxford!

Posted in 1940s, 1950s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa

severaAlthough this book addresses a specific time and place—the United States from the 1840s to 1900—it contains a wealth of information useful to anyone who is interested in how photographs can be used to study the history of fashion. The research involved in this thick volume is simply breathtaking. Not only does Severa follow the minute twists and turns in fashion at the time, she and her research assistant also scoured local and state history depositories around the country for interesting photographs and often the stories to go with them.

Severa has a clear thesis: In nineteenth century America, clothes were a way to achieve respectability and social mobility. Since the social hierarchy was fluid, ordinary people dressed as well as they could afford to, following styles to the best of their ability. The right clothes helped them to move up the social scale (or to look as if they had.) As a result, the basic cuts were similar in the wardrobes of the well off and the not so well off, the urban dweller and the pioneer. (Of course, those who looked carefully could see differences in fabric quality and detail.) The outliers were the truly poor, who had no way to stay in style, and the very rich, who had the means to follow the very latest in European fashions.

How did the farm woman in New Mexico know what to wear? Severa argues that fashion magazines, like Godey’s Lady Book, were widely distributed and passed from hand to hand. Even very small towns usually had someone in the sewing trade—either a well trained dressmaker or a lesser skilled seamstress who could add stylish details to basic designs.

This book also teaches how to look more carefully at clothes in photographs. Severa was a curator for the clothing collection of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, so she has detailed knowledge of the kinds of clothes being photographed. Her eye for detail is astonishing—she looks for the cut of a sleeve, the texture of the fabric, the folds and buttons on a bodice.

There are many lessons here for the historian of twentieth century fashion. I learned that the turn toward more relaxed clothing, a hallmark of American style, was well underway in the nineteenth century. And even in the 1840s, fashion made allowance for the older figure. This is a book I will turn to again and again.

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Stylish Stout in the 1920s

Los Angeles Times, 1922

Los Angeles Times, 1922

In the era of the pencil slim, boyish flapper, plus size clothing gained a real foothold in the American clothing market. Perhaps this isn’t as much of a paradox as it seems at first glance; larger women who wanted to follow current the styles as much as possible needed special cuts and undergarments. According to Paul Nystrom’s fascinating 1928 book, The Economics of Fashion, (you can find it online here), interest in plus sizes (called stout sizes then) exploded in the 1920s. He estimates that 32% of women clothes were made in “stout” sizes.

Not only that, but Nystrom identified five different stout cuts. The regular stout was an extension of standard sizing proportions, but bigger. The long and short stouts were meant for women who were on average about three inches taller or shorter than the norm. The last two stout categories are particularly intriguing. The “stylish stout” had a bigger bust, longer waist, and smaller hips than average. The “stubby stout” had a smaller bust and bigger hips.

The Economics of Fashion, 464

The Economics of Fashion, 464

Before we envy the 1920s shopper, we need to ask if these size ranges were consistent. A short search through newspaper ads and articles shows that they were not. One New York Times article, “Catering to the Stout Trade” (8/13/1922) defined the terms differently. This author called the “stylish stout” a “narrow-waisted, well-corseted woman found chiefly in the large cities.” The “stubby stout” was simply used for short women.

To make matters even more confusing, most ads didn’t differentiate between stout sizes at all. Instead, they used the most attractive label—stylish stout—and applied to any and every large sized garment. It was even a brand name.

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