The Fashion Lag on the Small Screen

Have you discovered the new Masterpiece series Indian Summers, broadcast on PBS? Set in India in the early 1930s, the show examines the rise of the Indian independence movement set against a backdrop of British privilege. If you like Indian textiles, it is treat.

One of the main characters, Cynthia, is a malevolent older woman who runs a club for the British in the Himalayan vacation town of Simla. Her main goal is to beat back any move toward Indian autonomy. Although many of her clothes are made from local textiles, they do not follow the styles of the thirties. In a wonderful slide show, costume designer Nic Ede tells why in a clear explanation of the fashion lag:

“Because [the actress Julie Walters] is playing a woman in her early 60s, we decided that the time that she felt most comfortable was about 1924, when she was in her early 50s, with the loose, low waistlines and the longer hems. I just wanted to make her look as though she had given up on fashion to a certain extent because she had found a period that suited her and stayed with it, which of course a lot of women in that period did, particularly older women. They stuck with that, with a period that suited them and they were probably at their happiest.”


You can see his use of a sari in the outfit above.

Ede makes it sound like the fashion lag is a thing of the past when he says that fixing on a certain style was what “a lot of women in that period did, particularly older women.”

But has really gone away? Do you know women who have “given up on fashion” because they have found a period that suits them?

Posted in 1930s, 2010s | Tagged | 6 Comments

A Thanksgiving Menu, 1905

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

Not an older woman, but too wonderful not to share. This is from the Buttolph menu collection at the New York Public Library, found via the Digital Public Library website. The menu comes from the Planter’s Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. Unfortunately, only the cover was saved, so we don’t know what they had for dinner along with their turkey.

For once the “pouter pigeon silhouette” created by the S-bend corset has found a good purpose. Or should we call it the turkey silhouette? And look at the daring length of her skirt, anticipating fashion two decades later.

May you have a festive holiday!

Posted in 1900s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Three Generations, 1920s

threegenerationsThree generation photos are some of my very favorites because they offer a chance to see how different age groups interpreted, or ignored, current styles. This might be a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter, although the faces are quite fuzzy. Judging by the skirt lengths and dropped waists of the women center and right, the photo is most likely from the early 1920s before skirts began to rise around 1925.

The young woman on the right looks quite up to date. She wears the hat of the decade, a cloche. Her elegant t-strap shoes have a high heel. The show stopper is her beautiful coat with an elaborate border trim, perhaps embroidered or made to look as if embroidered. Too bad we can’t see the colors here.

The middle aged woman in the center has elements of old and new. She is keeping up with fashion with her dropped waist coat. Her bicorne hat was not the shape of the moment, but was often seen in the twenties. Although it’s hard to make out her shoes against her dark stockings, they appear to have the characteristic twenties straps. However, her dark dress, almost reaching her ankles, looks like it comes from an earlier era.

The clothes of the oldest woman on the left show no trace of the twenties. She is at a disadvantage in this threesome, since she is not dressed for the outdoors. The apron gives her a very high waist and obscures much of the dress. But the high neck, the cut of the bodice, and the shape of the sleeves give it an old fashioned look. The shoes, an oxford style, look old and worn.

Fashion historian Joan Severa calls the tendency of older women (and men) to wear outdated clothes the “fashion lag.” We can speculate why the oldest woman here looks so old fashioned. Many women wore old clothes to clean, and she looks like she was just interrupted doing household chores. Or maybe she decided that the loose shapes of the twenties were not for her.

Posted in 1920s | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Annie Peck in Knickerbockers

When did older women give up their skirts? The oldest photo I have in my collection is from the 1940s. However, fashion historian Lizzie Bramlett recently wrote about an older woman who made history by hiking in knickerbockers in the 1890s.

The adventurer was Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935). One of the first women to enroll at the University of Michigan, she got a degree in Classics and taught Latin at Purdue University and Smith College. She began climbing mountains in earnest in her forties, and soon left her academic post to earn her living as a public lecturer. In addition to her explorations, she was also an active suffragette.

Women had climbed the Matterhorn before, but Peck was the first to document doing it without a skirt in 1895. Her knickerbockers, which she presented solely as a safety feature, made more news than her climb. “She made the knickerbockers and leggings herself,” reads the lead in one New York Times account. (“Miss Peck, the Mountain Climber,” NYT, 1/16/1898).

New York Times, October 9, 1904

New York Times, October 9, 1904

After tackling mountains in Europe and North America, in her fifties Peck began climbing  the Andes. It took her five tries to reach the summit of Mount Huascarán in Peru, an adventure chronicled in her 1911 book A Search for the Apex of America. For these climbs she augmented her knickerbockers with an eskimo suit borrowed from the Museum of Natural History. (A Search for the Apex, 1911, 5).  Although she hired the guides and financed the trip, she admits to doing all the cooking.

In interviews and newspaper features, Peck always insisted that her move to pants was for safety, not to challenge social norms. Unfortunately, she became something of a fashion scold in her old age, complaining about how young women dressed in the 1920s. “Certainly [knickerbockers] are more modest than the knee-length dresses of today, with no more substantial coverings for the legs than transparent silk stockings!” (“Dean of Women Mountain Climbers,” Daily Eagle, 2/27/1927)

Posted in 1900s, Pre 1900 | Tagged | 1 Comment

Bowling Banquet, 1962

bowlingbanquet62Although Vogue editor Diana Vreeland didn’t invent the term “youth quake” until 1965, clothing styles had begun changing in favor of the young and slim already by the turn of the decade. What would the not-so-young and not-so-slim woman wear now?

This woman, officiating at a bowling banquet (I kid you not—it is written on the back of the photo) wears a mix of old and new. The top of her dress is fitted like a then-stylish sheath, while the bottom is fuller and features voluminous pockets. It’s too bad that we can’t see how long her skirt is. Her hair looks dyed and elaborately permed and she has a set of pearls at her throat. She not at all afraid to show her toned, tanned arms.

She looks like someone who had a lot of fun with her clothes. Doesn’t that print look a little like bowling balls?

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Dots and Flowers, 1930s

PolkaDotWhen I bought this photo from a favorite ebay dealer, I thought that I would be sharing yet another example of older women’s love of polka dots in the 1930s. But on more careful inspection I discovered that these are not polka dots at all. Instead, they are slightly irregular white flowers on a dark background.

The dress has a geometric insert at the low hip, a common feature in the dresses of the early 1930s. The costume designer Witness2Fashion has written extensively on how this style was inspired by the great French designer Vionnet. You can see how closely this dress follows the lines of  one offered in a 1931 Sears catalog.

Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs

Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs

This particular dress looks homemade, since there are many ripples where the bottom skirt meets the hip piece. Little care was taken to arrange the textile pattern attractively. What puzzles me most, though, is the second piece that stretches from the high hip to the waist. Maybe the original dress was lengthened with an extra piece as skirts lengthened in mid 1930s?

Her jacket also intrigues me. It is tightly cuffed at the wrist, making me think that the fabric might be some kind of knit. It has the sheen of silk, though. What it your best guess of how this little jacket was made?

Posted in 1930s | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Looking Back and Going Forward

Vogue Patterns, December/January 2016

Vogue Patterns, December/January 2016

While innocently eating my lunch and paging through the most recent issue of Vogue Patterns, I discovered this very nice write up of my blog. What a surprise! It came at a propitious time, since my first blog post was almost exactly five years ago.

When I started this blog, I was still working full time as a history professor at the University of California, Irvine. (The town is halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego). My original research field was early Soviet history with a focus on Soviet culture. I gave courses in Russian history and European history, but in the last years of my employment I branched out into American history. My favorite new area of research was American fashion history, which I taught the last five years before I retired in 2011.

Since academics are always looking for the next book project, I had begun research for a book on older American women and fashion beginning in 1900. It’s a huge topic and I was struggling to figure out an organizational structure. My husband, also a historian, urged me to start a blog instead. This format is such a good fit for me. It lets me do what I love most—research and writing. As an added bonus, my husband helps a lot by suggesting new topics, acting as an editor, and working as my on site photographer.

Is the blog format dying? Many people are now speculating that new platforms, like Instagram, will take its place. I’m a big fan of Instagram, but it doesn’t have the mixture of images and text that makes blogs so compelling. So I intend to continue blogging for a long time to come. Why not take part? If there is an interesting older woman in your life, share her story here.

Posted in General | Tagged | 9 Comments

Jessica Daves and Mrs. Exeter

DavesIf you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know my fascination with Mrs. Exeter, Vogue magazine’s style icon for the older set. I long to know who thought up this funny and influential character. Since septuagenarian Edna Woolman Chase was editor-in-chief of Vogue at the time, I assumed she must have had something to do with it. But it turns out my assumption was wrong.

While rereading Ready Made Miracle: The Story of American Fashion for the Millions by Chase’s successor, Jessica Daves, I came across this line: “Mrs. Chase retired as active editor [of Vogue] in 1946, but remained close to the staff until her death in 1957. Jessica Daves became editor in 1946.”(190) I immediately went to the Vogue archive and discovered this was true. On the masthead of the July 1, 1946 issue, Chase earns a place listed far up at the top as editor-in-chief of American, British, and French Vogue, but Daves is listed as editor of American Vogue. (She became editor-in-chief in 1952)

This puts Daves in charge when Mrs. Exeter arrived on the scene! This new scenario makes sense in many ways. Daves took over in the summer of 1946, and Mrs. Exeter arrived two years later. She was in her mid fifties at the time, Mrs. Exeter’s age, while Chase was twenty years older. Finally, Mrs. Exeter died when Daves was replaced by Diana Vreeland in 1963.

You can be forgiven for not knowing who Jessica Daves was, since she has not gotten a lot of love in fashion history books. Grace Mirabella, who succeeded Vreeland, had this to say about her: “In addition to her big legs and wide feet, she had bad hair, and a short round body, and in her early sixties she looked the way somebody in her late seventies might today…In her obituary, the New York Times quoted an erstwhile friend who said, ‘She was a portly woman with a face that resembled a baked apple, and if she wore custom dresses, they looked like ready-to-wear.’”(Grace Mirabella, In and Out of Vogue, 72). Ouch.

Daves has left few traces on the web, and some of what exists is inaccurate. Read this amusing/sad account by her great niece on several misidentified photos. And stay tuned for more on Jessica Daves in the future. I love a mystery.

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

Halloween in Covina, 1979

Los Angeles Public Library

Los Angeles Public Library

It’s not as hard to find pictures of older women in Halloween costumes as you might think. Of course they are not on the streets trick-or-treating; instead, look for them at Halloween parties.

The Los Angeles Public Library provides a rather cryptic caption for this photo– “Dorothy and Eleanor’s families get-together for a Halloween party in Covina. Eleanor is kneeling, 2nd from the right. Dorothy is behind her, holding 2 apples.” But who are Dorothy and Eleanor? After looking through other library records, my guess is that they are the Latina twins, Dorothy and Eleanor Holway, originally from East LA. Their family photos were part of the library’s “Shades of LA” exhibit which documented the ethnic diversity of Southern California.

There is a good range of costumes here, moving from the classic—clowns and Mickey Mouse—to the obscure. Just what is the woman front left supposed to be in her blond wig and fur collar? Orphan Annie, but older? I welcome your thoughts. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)

Eleanor appears as a classic Indian princess, perhaps with real Native American jewelry. Her twin Dorothy doesn’t seem to have dressed up at all, unless we consider the apples as part of a costume.

Posted in 1970s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Anna May Wong, Aging

Wong60At the recent blockbuster show, “China through the Looking Glass” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, one room was devoted to the Chinese American actress, Anna May Wong (1905-1961). “In terms of shaping Western fantasies of China,” reads the Met’s own explanatory material, “no figure has had a greater impact on fashion than the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong.” The exhibit featured several of her best known costumes, including a tightly fitted black dress decorated with a huge sequined dragon. After reading a recent biography Anna May Wong: From Laudryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, I wondered what Wong would have made of the display since she fought most of her life to counteract the dragon lady image of her films.

As China Mary on the Wyatt Earp show, 1960

As China Mary on the Wyatt Earp show, 1960

It wasn’t easy being the first Chinese American film star. Strict movie industry rules, as well as US laws against interracial marriage, limited the roles Wong could play. She was the temptress or the prostitute, but she could never kiss a Caucasian on screen. Wong railed against these limitations, and even spent time in Europe where her options were somewhat greater. However, she was never cast as anything but “other.” Even in her fifties, she was “China Mary” on a Wyatt Earp episode or “Madame Liu-Tsong” the antique dealer, always dressed in some version of Chinese attire.

In her youth, Wong gained a bad reputation in China for her indecent roles and skimpy costumes. After going to China in the 1930s, she paid more attention to what she wore on screen. She also began to wear almost exclusively Chinese clothes in public, including bias cut silk qipao. During World War Two, she was an active fundraiser for the Chinese national cause. She staged fashion shows to raise money, featuring models wearing “skillfully adapted Chinese color combinations, motifs, and patterns to suit the American face and figure.” (Hodges, 200)

It was hard to find pictures of Wong in her fifties. The opening photo is a publicity shot for her last film, Portrait in Black, where she had a small role as the Chinese American housekeeper. Her clothes clearly have a Chinese influence—note the knot closures. Note also her added accessories—cat eye reading glasses and a fur coat.

According to her biographer, at home she wore black slacks and a sweater. Too bad there are no public photos of that.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments