Those Polyester Sixties?

California Stylist, June 1966

California Stylist, June 1966

Although synthetics began to make their way into American clothing after World War Two, I have always thought that they did not really triumph until the 1970s.  All those leisure suits and disco outfits in bright, indestructible fabric seemed to mark the victory of polyester and its cousins over natural fibers.

However, a June 1966 issue of California Stylist, magazine of record for the West Coast garment industry, has made me question my assumption. Almost 2/3 of the 66 fashion ads mention synthetics. Fortrell had an eight page spread showing how different designers used the textile. An editorial tucked into the back offered this frightening prediction: “By 1970, it is believed, over one billion pounds of polyester fiber will be consumed annually.”

I began to wonder if the synthetic fiber industry hadn’t financed this particular issue of the magazine.  To get another point of view, I thumbed through my Sears catalog reference books on the sixties hunting for fiber content.  I found very little wool, a respectable amount of cotton (corduroy was well represented), but also quite a bit of nylon, acrylic, acetate, polyester, and blends. These books feature just a small sample of the company’s offerings, but there were enough synthetics to make me think that maybe California Stylist wasn’t all wrong.

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs, Mid 1960s

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs, Mid 1960s

Might there have been a generational split between those who wore synthetics and those who didn’t? The few ads in California Stylist featuring clothes that might have appealed to the older crowd—suit and coats instead of mini-skirts—were made in cotton and wool.  But the Sears catalog doesn’t bear this out.  There even the clothes for an older demographic were mainly made from synthetics.

So do I need to change my mind?

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Headwrap and African American Culture

From Bruce Davidson, Time of Change: Civil Rights Photographs, 1961-1965

From Bruce Davidson, Time of Change: Civil Rights Photographs, 1961-1965

This early 1960s photo comes from a collection by then New York Times photographer Bruce Davidson, who documented the Civil Rights struggles of that era.  While many of the exquisite photographs in the book show marches and confrontations, quite a few depict everyday life both in New York and the rural South.

This photo caught my eye because of the woman’s head covering, a kind of kerchief but tied in a different way than you see in photos of Caucasian women. With just a little searching I discovered interesting scholarship on the meaning of the headwrap in African American life.

According to historian Helen Bradley Griebel, the headwrap (also called a turban, head handkerchief, or head rag) had it origins in sub-Saharan African. It became a fixed feature of Southern culture during slavery, since many laws required enslaved women to wear a headwrap as a visible symbol of their status. After emancipation, some women rejected this style of head covering because of its ties to slavery; others embraced it because of its links to Africa and its place in their daily lives.

The distinctive feature of the African American headwrap is the way it is tied.  While the kerchief is usually fastened under the chin or in the back, the headwrap is knotted above the forehead, drawing attention to the face.  “The African American headwrap thus works as a regal coronet, drawing the onlookers gaze up, rather than down.” (Griebel).

An exaggeration?  This older woman is obviously poor, standing on a rundown porch in mismatched separates and scuffed shoes. But her face, crowned by the headwrap, has a regal gaze.

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , | 8 Comments

A Look Inside my Closet

My jackets with scarves

My jackets with scarves. Click to enlarge

I don’t participate in the social media phenomenon called “Me Made May,” where sewers from around the world show off their homemade clothes.  Since I sew most of what I wear, I figure there’s nothing special about May for me.

But inspired by Lizzie Bramlett, as I often am, I thought a closer analysis of my closet was in order. Do I overestimate how many clothes I’ve made?  To find out, I did an inventory of what I’ve bought new, what used, and what I’ve made myself.  And since sewing alone will not save the planet, I paid attention to which of my homemade items came from recycled textiles.

There are a  grand total of 64 clothing pieces in my closet–and that’s everything I own. Long before the Kondo method, I was an energetic closet purger.  To be honest, though,  there are piles of fabric in other closets waiting to be transformed into clothes.

Knit Tops

Some of my knit Tops

You won’t find any dresses or jumpsuits in my closet. I have a uniform style of dress consisting of just three kinds of clothes, an outer layer (usually a jacket), a top, and pants. Iris Apfel would call it boring, but it works for me.  In the late fall, winter, and spring my outfits consist of an outer layer, a knit top, and usually knit pants.  In the long Southern California summer, from June to late October, I wear woven pants and a woven top. When I want to jazz things up, I add a scarf (I own 32).

The used items in my wardrobe mainly come from eBay—except for an occasional nip and tuck I wear them just as I receive them in the mail; the “recycled” clothes come either from fabric bought at yard sales or used clothes that I cut up and remake.

Here is the breakdown of my possessions. I have 21 outer layer pieces, including 18 jackets.  Of these, 5 are used and 5 recycled.  My collection of tops, 30 in all, include 10 recycled creations, 2 used and 2 new.  Although I wear knit pants more often, I was surprised to learn that my pants collection is evenly divided between knits and woven.  Three of my 12 pairs were bought new, 1 bought used.

What’s my environmental record?  Only 6% of my clothes were bought new, 11% bought used, and the rest made by me–83% of everything I own. Of the clothes I made, 23% were constructed of recycled textiles.  Not bad!  But I could do better.

What’s in your closet?

Posted in 2010s | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Way they Wear their Hats, 1934

click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Well, I must admit that the person I love the most in this August 1934 photo is the gamesome boy front left in his white sailor pants, white shirt, and large white beret.  But all of these well dressed summer people are a joy to look at. Where are they going? To the beach? A picnic? The horse races?

hatlover2The oldest woman, second from the right in the middle, might be in her fifties.  She wears a very common textile pattern for the older set, the small print/polka dot.  Her dress might be an open eyelet pattern, lined with a slip. Her white lace collar is also a frequent element in the repertoire of older women.  But accessories make the outfit here.  She has livened up the ordinary look with white dangle earrings, a white bangle bracelet and possibly rings on several fingers.  Her white straw hat is worn at a tilt.

Perhaps the message of this photo is that everyone almost anyone looks better in a hat–and every hat looks better when worn with a little attitude.

Posted in 1930s | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Oscar de la Renta and the Older Woman

Dress made for Annette de la Renta, 2005

Dress made for Annette de la Renta, 2005

The Oscar de la Renta fashion exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco has one unusual element: perhaps half of the clothes on display came from the collections of contemporary women.  A good portion of these were red carpet dresses worn by celebrities, like Taylor Swift and Rihanna.  When I visited, that room was the most crowded.

Laura Bush’s inauguration coat from 2002, in front of a cotton dress

Laura Bush’s inauguration coat from 2002, in front of a cotton dress

However, there were also a significant number of clothes from the closets of important socialites, First Ladies, and fashion leaders, all wealthy women of a certain age.  These included a stunning fur collared coat owned by Anna Wintour, a sequined and embroidered ensemble for San Francisco socialite Ann Getty, and many dresses made for de la Renta’s wife, Annette. Some of my favorites were designed for First Lady Laura Bush, including her subtly embroidered cashmere coat worn on inauguration day, 2005.

The first room included some day looks, but the main focus of the exhibit was elaborate evening wear. The fabrics were sumptuous—hammered silks, brocades, velvet, lace.  On top of this elegant foundation often came piles of of embellishment, including elaborate beading, embroidery, feathers, and fur.  For de la Renta, elegance is obviously not refusal. This is a different kind of “power dressing” designed to broadcast wealth and social status at a glance.

Central Asian inspired ikat coat

Central Asian inspired ikat coat

Was there anything at the show I might have worn?  Even the “haute hippie” caftans from the 1960s were too elaborate for my Plain Jane style.  I wanted to remove the bejeweled collars and gold trim and just revel in the fabric. But if you forced my hand, I would take the Central Asian inspired ikat coat above.  I’d get rid of the pearls, make it shorter, and wear with something besides pale green silk pants.  As you can see, I am not an Oscar de la Renta kind of woman.  But I would take the fabric scraps from his workroom floor any day.

Posted in 2000s, 2010s | Tagged | 7 Comments

A Cheerful Granny on the Phone, 1958

Ladies Home Journal, November 1958

Ladies Home Journal, November 1958.  Click to enlarge

It has been a long time since I have written about the Cheerful Granny, a staple of American advertising in the mid-twentieth century. I knew it was time for an update when Jen Orsini of the blog Pintucks sent me this prime example from a 1958 issue of the Ladies Home Journal.

In these ads, older women are typically pushing big ticket consumer items, often with a grandchild on the scene. Here Bell Telephone is selling the idea of casual out of town phone chats. Long distance calls used to be very expensive, saved only for emergencies and special occasions. This ad is urging the older couple to “find out if everyone is well, talk over plans, get all the family news.” It’s implied that there are happy grandchildren  on the other end of the line.

Our cheerful granny wears what looks like a cotton shirtwaist dress, a typical at home outfit for women of every age in the fifties. I find it interesting that she is given very few visible markers of age. Her hair is gray and there are subtle lines around her eyes; otherwise her hairstyle, makeup, and outfit are quite youthful. We know she is supposed to be a grandmother because of the text and her older looking husband behind her.

The ad is selling the telephone as an aid to a happy retirement.  It might not matter so much if the kids have moved away if you can afford to call and “brighten up the whole day.”

Posted in 1950s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Checkered Past, 1982

Helen Levitt, 1982. Museum of Modern Art

Helen Levitt, 1982. Museum of Modern Art

Native New Yorker Helen Levitt (1913-2009) made her reputation by capturing candid moments on the streets of her city. Today she is regarded as one of the forerunners of modern street photography. Take a look at the large collection of her work at the Museum of Modern Art.

My husband found this photo and knew right away that I would love the interplay of patterns.  Did she spend time in front of a mirror putting on the tweedy knitted cap in a spiral pattern, adding the checked skirt, and topping it off with a jacket in yet another check?  How serendipitous that Helen Levitt had her camera in hand when the woman hailed a New York checkered cab.

Is the woman older? Without a look at her face, there is no way to say for sure.  I think she is, though, because of the rounded shape of her back.

Posted in 1980s, General | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

What to Wear on Elephants, 1979

From Lizzie Bramlett. Click to enlarge

From Lizzie Bramlett. Click to enlarge

How fitting that this photo of three women adventurers was sent to me by Lizzie Bramlett of the blog The Vintage Traveler.  Lizzie has sent me many snapshots, but this is by far the most exotic.

A handwritten message on the back of the photo reads, “Just before we climbed aboard for the Jungle game drive, Tiger Tops Nepal, Oct. ’79.”  Tiger Tops still exists, and there are still elephant safaris.

On display are three styles of travel dressing by older women—“just the basics” on the left, “adding bright details” in the middle, and “I love color and I don’t mind being looked at” on the right.

The woman with the simplest style wears a white turtle neck, olive green pants, and dark loafers, a travel friendly combination.  The adventurer in the middle has moved a little beyond the basics. Her colorful shirt has a woven pattern in blues and red; she adds red shoes or sandals with a woven front like huaraches.

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalog, Late Seventies

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalog, Late Seventies

But our gaze is inevitably drawn to the woman on the right, who has decided to stand out in a crowd in her lime green pants and jacket. Since it’s the seventies, there is a very good chance that the combo is made of polyester, like the pants suits above from Sears sold in 1977.  To underscore her love of color, she has added a brightly striped top and a green hat. The one utilitarian touch is her white sneakers.

Pierre Cardin sunglasses, 1960s, from Spectacles and Sunglasses

Pierre Cardin sunglasses, 1960s, from Spectacles and Sunglasses

But who would spend time looking at her feet when she has on those fabulous sunglasses, in the round style favored by so many older women today. They were an unusual shape for the seventies, when big squareish styles were common.  Her pair has a sixties look, a distant cousin to this avant-garde creation by Pierre Cardin.  If Ari Seth Cohen of Advanced Style fame had been on this safari, we can guess which one of these women  would photograph.

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

The Sheath versus the Shirtwaist in the 1960s


1964.  Click all photos to enlarge

Unless fashion doesn’t interest you at all, you must have noticed that the shirtwaist dress—now often called a shirt dress—is back in style. I have an irrational dislike for this  beloved classic of American design, which has always seemed dowdy to me. After some amateur self diagnosis, I think I have figured out why.

sheathcompositeWhen I first began to notice fashion styles in the 1960s, sheath dresses were all the rage. Many older women embraced the new style. My own grandmother, pictured on the left, was one of the early adapters.

shirtwaistcompositeBut if my photo collection is any indication, a majority of older women stuck with their comfortable shirtwaists, which had become almost a uniform for American women in the 1950s. Because it was mainly older women I saw in these out-of-style dresses, I coded  shirtwaist as “old.”

Now I am old myself and have nothing but respect for those women of the sixties who resisted fickle fashion for a style that felt comfortable.  I also know that fashion ideas are constantly recycled, changing meanings in the process.

altuzarra2Will I change my mind about the shirtwaist now that I can buy this Altuzarra striped silk version for $1900 at Neiman Marcus? I don’t think so.

Posted in 1960s, 2010s | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Carmen Dell’Orefice—“The Quintessential Vogue Woman”

Vogue Patterns, March/April 1998

Vogue Patterns, March/April 1998. Click to enlarge

With all the fuss in the press recently about older models in the fashion world, you would think this issue was only invented in the new millennium. However, product lines aimed at the older set have long tried to find beautiful women of a certain age to sell their goods.  One of the most successful is Carmen Dell’Orefice (1931-), who started modeling with Vogue magazine when she was in her teens. Today in her eighties, she still sometimes walks the runway.

I first recognized Dell’Orefice on the cover of Vogue Patterns in 1960.  She started showing up again in the 1980s, when she was in her fifties, modeling clothes aimed at older women. Although she had a figure that most of us would envy, her once auburn hair was turning white.  When the Vogue Woman Collection was launched in the 1990s, she was a frequent model for the line.

Vogue Patterns, January/February 1997

Vogue Patterns, January/February 1997. Click to enlarge

In 1997, Donna Gould did a piece for the magazine called “Carmen!” with the subtitle “She is, quite simply, the quintessential Vogue Woman.”  In it we learn that she herself is a seamstress, “sewing with Vogue Patterns for so long that she can cut basic pieces without using a pattern.” In the article, she comments that she was able to wear a green chiffon dress that she had made in the 1960s to a recent evening event.  “If something as right on you originally,” she is quoted as saying, “then it will always look right.”  (Yes, if it still fits, I thought.)

And why is there no Carmen Dell-Orifice, or someone like her, in Vogue Patterns today?

Posted in 1990 | Tagged | 3 Comments