Judy’s Pixie


My post on the store Judy’s evoked many memories from women who grew up in California in the sixties and seventies.  One was my sister, Jill. She saved this silk twill Judy’s scarf from the mid 1960s bought with her allowance and baby sitting money. Instead of a tag, it was stamped with the Judy’s logo, a pixie in a striped shirt and black pants. Conceived in the 1940s, the pixie never changed throughout the store’s existence.

Where are all the Judy’s scarves now?  Those of you who are frequent flea markets and thrift stores might look for this pixie logo.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s | Tagged | 2 Comments

Judy’s—A California Store for Young (and a few Older) Women

Los Angeles Times, 1982

Los Angeles Times, 1982

Inspired by Jen Orsini of the blog Pintucks, I checked out the memoir of Marcia Israel-Curly (1920-2004), founder of a chain of California fashion stores called Judy’s. Her book, Defying the Odds: Sharing the Lessons I learned as a Pioneer Entrepreneur, tells how she opened her first small store aimed at young women in 1946.  She called it “Judy’s,” inspired by Judy Garland. Early on, she developed the store’s distinctive trademark, a slim girlish figure in a striped turtle neck and pants. (She calls it a pixie.) It appeared in most ads and on all the packaging–I would recognize it anywhere.

Most women who grew up in Southern California in the sixties and seventies probably remember Judy’s, which eventually had a string of seventy stores. They had a fun atmosphere and unusual displays, showing different wardrobe options pinned up on the walls. Since many of the products were unique to Judy’s (about 50% in 1964), it was also a place to discover styles that you couldn’t find elsewhere.

Although Judy’s was aimed at youth, my aunt also shopped there. Apparently she was not alone. “The majority of our devoted customers were actually between 17 and 45, but because women were staying young looking longer, the high end stretched to 55 or even more for style-conscious women,” she writes. (200) This older demographic caused her some soul searching in the sixties, when mini skirts came into style. The store didn’t want to lose its core audience, but also wanted to hold on to older customers. “As a compromise we designed and produced for each store and small quantity of a trouser-type pants with a young-looking shirt and cardigan sweater, all matching. Interestingly, after two more fabulous years of minis, trousers did become a fashion statement, and as always Judy’s was first.”(211)

I was skeptical about some of her claims to originality.  For example, she takes credit for popularizing five-pocket Levis for young women, worn with the hems rolled up.  But you can see teenagers in Life magazine wearing this style two years before the store opened.

What Judy’s did accomplish was to solidify the youthful direction of fashion in the sixties. A segment of older women, hoping to keep up with the times, found inspiration in a store intended for their daughters.

Undated photo from Defying the Odds

Undated photo from Defying the Odds

Thanks to Judy’s, Marcia Israel-Curly became a wealthy woman.  She took up philanthropy, founded a cancer center, and was offered a guest professorship in business at the University of Southern California.  In pictures, she is always immaculately dressed.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t mention where she bought her clothes.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, General | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Cheerful Grannies Dance

Women’s Day, November 26, 1991

Women’s Day, November 26, 1991. Click to enlarge

The image of the cheerful granny, used in the past to sell big ticket items like refrigerators, was completely transformed in this 1991 advertisement for exercise routines.  In this case, Beverly Gemigniani, founder of the group, was selling something that she made herself.

According to an enthusiastic account in the how-to book 100 Best Retirement Businesses, Gemigniani got involved in the aerobics world when she and her husband moved to Arizona in the 1980s. She soon discovered exercise routines were not geared to the needs of older women, so she decided to make that her focus.  It turned out to be a lucrative market. By the mid eighties, she moved beyond exercise classes to form a traveling dance troupe that performed at local events like county fairs.  The group hired an agent and by the early nineties they had appeared on TV shows, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and even at the Bush I White House.

The video enterprise (there were three in all) started in the late eighties. It brought the Dancin’ Grannies into households across America. Following the conventions of the time, they dressed in high cut tight spandex leotards with socks and gym shoes–think Jane Fonda, only older. When I searched for information about the videos on line, I found a lot of snide comments of the “can you believe this” variety.  Perhaps it was the name, the matching outfits, or the coordinated routines—you can find them on Youtube—that look a little like water ballet on the ground. But if you think about it another way, the Dancin’ Grannies were in the vanguard of the senior fitness movement.

Posted in 1980s, 1990 | Tagged | 3 Comments

Nina McElmore—Putting Punch in the Power Suit

The Washington Post

The Washington Post

Pantsuits make news. Recently my sister sent me the link to this exuberant video of New York artists wearing all kinds of pantsuits in a flash mob dance for Hillary in Union Square.

On the same Washington Post page as the video was an interview with Nina McElmore, a designer who has made the power suit her life’s work. A trio of heavy hitters—Hillary Clinton, Janet Yellen, and Elizabeth Warren–all wear her clothes.  McElmore describes her creations as meeting the “needs of senior professional and executive women and women who are active in their communities.”  Fashion reporter Robin Givhen, who conducted the interview, describes her as the “go-to liaison between the fashion community and some of the nation’s most powerful women.”

McElmore was a former executive for Liz Claiborne and she sees herself as continuing the company’s original mission.  Liz Claiborne aimed to clothe younger women entering the job market; McElmore’s target audience is older women who have made it to the top.  The clothes aren’t cheap, around $800 for a jacket.  But they are made in the US from natural fibers and cost less than equivalent designer brands.

The essential element for any woman who wants to convey authority is a jacket, according to McElmore.  Hers have narrow shoulders, a slightly defined waist and sleeves with cuffs that can be rolled up. There is room in the back and sleeves for motion. One signature element is a collar that can be worn down or up. The up position radiates confidence, she claims.

While women need suits, they don’t have to look like men.  Most of her clothes come in colors and she doesn’t make many jackets in solid black. Black dulls many skin tones, she says. Color helps women stand out in the room.

Getty Images

Getty Images

I noticed that McElmore wears her jackets with dark (probably black) pants, the same way Elizabeth Warren wears them. Hillary, on the other hand, usually has on a monochrome ensemble with matching jacket, top, and pants. I like the mismatched look better.

Back when I was still teaching, I never entered the classroom without a jacket. It gave me authority, protection, and handy pockets.  Too bad I didn’t know about the collar trick.

Posted in 2010s | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Gibson Girl’s Mother, 1900

From Gibson and his America

From The Gibson Girl and her America

The Gibson Girl is an American archetype–a tall, slim young woman with a big head of hair and an athletic disposition.  She was artist Charles Dana Gibson’s most famous creation.  However, he also drew other social types. In a collection of Gibson’s drawings, The Gibson Girl and her America (Dover, 1969), the editor Edmund Vincent Gillon, Jr. reveals the artist’s wide range. Included here are immigrants, foreigners, tourists, artists, and even a few women of ill repute.  A frequent object of his pen was the Gibson Girl’s mother.

While gorgeous young women are at the center of most of the drawings in this collection, there are enough representations of older women to make some generalizations.  The drawing here is typical. While the girl is tall and sleek, the woman is short and broad. While the girl wears very little ornamentation (who needs it when you are so beautiful?), the woman adds trimmings to her clothes and hair.

What I found most interesting were the color choices made in their clothes. The Gibson Girl is drawn in black, while her mother here and in other settings is often in lighter colors.  This reverses what I have often seen in photographs from the era, and goes against most fashion advice for the older set at the time. Did Gibson choose this color contrast to underscore the slim figure of the girl and broader frame of her mother? Or did this really represent the color choices of women in the circles where he moved?

Posted in 1900s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Maggie Kuhn–Fierce

Philadelphia Inquirer, 1975

Philadelphia Inquirer, 1975

When Maggie Kuhn (1905-1995) was forced to retire once she turned sixty-five, her coworkers gave her a sewing machine.  They had seriously misjudged her retirement plans.  Kuhn had worked as an organizer all her life, first developing programs for working women in the YWCA and then involved in social justice issues for the Presbyterian Church. Instead of staying home, Kuhn decided to start a new organization advocating better lives for older Americans.  With a little tongue in cheek, she called her new group  the Gray Panthers. Her aim was not just to advocate for older citizens, but to transform society to value the aged.

If you ever feel discouraged by the aging process, I suggest you read Maggie Kuhn’s autobiography, No Stone Unturned. It shows a woman of tremendous energy and creativity who refused to accept that aging meant moving out of the mainstream of life.  She disliked special homes for the elderly, advocating inter-generational housing. Her own home in Philadelphia was open to generations of students, who helped care for her disabled brother and eventually for her. She was a fierce opponent of mandatory retirement, arguing that people above the age of sixty five still had much to contribute to the workforce.  She likened the Gray Panthers to early feminist organizations, organizing this time around the issue of ageism.

In her memoir, Kuhn talks frankly about sex.  She had affairs while in college and throughout her working life, but decided never to marry. When she was in her seventies, she had a year long relationship with a man fifty years her junior.  One of her big complaints was that society viewed older people as sexless.

With Johnny Carson, 1974 From No Stone Unturned

With Johnny Carson, 1974. From No Stone Unturned

Many photos of Kuhn in later life show her dressed in what we might call old lady outfits, with long dark dresses, grannie glasses, and her hair drawn back into a bun. But in her memoir she reveals that she loved clothes, especially hats. Well into her eighties, she would go on shopping sprees with her younger housemates.  Kuhn knew that clothes had the power to shape people’s perceptions.  When she appeared before conservative groups in the fifties and sixties she took care to wear a prim hat.  She used her more conventional outfits to disarm people. When she appeared on the Johnny Carson show, for example, her clothes made him expect a sweet old lady. Instead, she used her time to attack his comic stereotypes of the aged.

Kuhn was not part of the “forever young” contingent.  She disapproved of altering your appearance to look younger (no hair dye, no plastic surgery) and talked frankly about the disabilities that came with age. When President Gerald Ford called her a “young lady,” she answered, “Mr. President, I am not a young lady. I’m an old woman.”  (143) Old people are old, she said. For her that was nothing to be ashamed of.

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, 1990 | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Ann Frity and Daughters, 1926

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

You can really see the family resemblance in this photo of Ann Firty and her three daughters—Bell, Gertrude and Wynn.  All the relevant family information is penciled on the back of this snapshot, as well as the location of Quincy, Massachusetts.

If I had to make guesses about the daughters’ personalities based on their clothes, I would say that Bell is restrained and organized, Gertrude quite a flirt, and Wynn a tomboy.  Given her bushy hair (so like my own) and tailored jacket, Wynn is definitely my favorite.

But we are here about the Mother, Ann.  She is an excellent example of what fashion historian Joan Severa calls “the fashion lag,” the fact that older women often don’t keep up with current styles. (There are apparently many terms for this concept.  Witness to Fashion calls it “the persistence of fashion.”) Her hair looks like she has pulled it to the back, not cut it short like her daughters. Her dark dress with its dropped waist is probably from the 1920s, but the length shows it to be from the very beginning of the decade. Her daughters are up to date, but she is not. Why didn’t she just hem her dress? Perhaps she decided that the shorter length was just too daring, or maybe she had no faith that styles would stay short for long.

shoes1What I love most about Ann’s outfit are her strappy shoes, so much more interesting than her daughters’ choices. In his book The Seductive Shoe, fashion historian Jonathan Walford writes that woven and plaited leather shoes with straps became popular in the 1920s.  Ann’s look almost like hauraches. Find me those shoes and I would wear them today.

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

Mrs. Exeter in the Vogue Pattern Catalog

Vogue catalog, January 1956

Vogue catalog, January 1956

The stylish Mrs. Exeter never had her own pattern line—more’s the pity, I say.  But for older women who wanted a quick reference guide to patterns that might flatter their figures, Vogue pattern catalogs started to include a “Mrs. Exeter” section in January, 1956. The fashion photographs in the catalog came straight out of Vogue magazine, like the one above from the October 15, 1955 issue. The models were tall and thin, but they did give the impression that they might be over fifty.

Vogue catalog, January 1956

Vogue catalog, January 1956

The labeling, “Mrs. Exeter Sizes 42-44-46,” was a little confusing since many patterns started at a size 12 or 14, and not all went up to 46.

Vogue catalog, December 1962 and March 1965

Vogue catalog, December 1962 and March 1965

In the early 1960s, two big transitions changed the look of the catalog. First, the Vogue Pattern company was taken over by Butterick Patterns. That marked the end of photographs of an elegant Mrs. Exeter coming from Vogue magazine.  Second, the company finally began to offer half size patterns, a size range best suited to the older figure. The catalog tab now read “Mrs. Exeter 12 to 44; Half Sizes 12 ½ to 24 ½.”

Vogue catalog, January 1967

Vogue catalog, January 1967

I was amazed to discover that the Mrs. Exeter section in the catalog lasted until 1967.  That’s a good five years after our older icon disappeared from Vogue magazine and from Vogue Pattern Book! Did she have a large enough following that pattern buyers did not need to be reminded of who she was?

Sadly, no one replaced Mrs. Exeter. After early 1967, the catalog tab simply read “Women’s sizes,” and featured clothes at the large end of the pattern range.  The idea that there might be special lines that appealed to the older figure, regardless of size, had disappeared. It would take Vogue Patterns some time to begin designing specifically for the older woman again.

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

Pants Party, 1934

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This picture needs its own short story, or maybe its own novel. At the center is a young man with some sort of hanging logo for the radio station KTRB. He is surrounded by women young and old, many wearing pants. (There is one other young man in the back.) The inscription at the bottom is hard to read.  Maybe “Girls of Devon West B.” What is your best guess?

The radio station was easy to find.  KTRB opened in 1933 in Modesto, a town located in California’s Central Valley. It quickly moved to the bigger market of San Francisco the following year. This 1934 photo was probably taken in San Francisco, a city with a well established Asian American population. That helps to explain the multi-racial participants, with one the young Asian American front left. The embroidered silken Chinese outfit worn by an Anglo woman front right could easily been bought in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

McCalls 8690 and Marian Martin 9899. Images from vintagepatterns.wikia.com

McCalls 8690 and Marian Martin 9899. Images from vintagepatterns.wikia.com

We see several kinds of pants outfits here, including the popular sailor style and what I guess are matching top and bottom sets in prints that end up looking like beach pajamas.

girls3If looks don’t deceive me, an older woman in the back row might also have on pants.  I think there are cuffs just visible in the shadows by her feet.

But the mystery of the pants party remains. Was it an after work get together with a dress code? Or better yet, perhaps the cast party for the radio drama “The Girls of Devon West B,” featuring the stylish women of San Francisco? Perhaps you will have better luck solving this riddle.

Posted in 1930s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Mrs. Exeter in Sews with Vogue Patterns

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1955

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1955

Since I am interested in all things Mrs. Exeter, I recently contacted Vogue Patterns for permission to track her down in their collection of pattern magazines and catalogs.  Editor Gillian Conahan was nothing but gracious, and I got to spend a day in their archives looking for evidence of this imaginary fashion icon.  Mrs. Exeter first came to life on the pages of Vogue fashion magazine in 1948, but it was not until autumn 1955 that she made her debut in Vogue Pattern Book. According to the opening paragraph, “Her age might be a well-kept secret, her experienced way of knowing the ‘right’ neither-too-young, nor too old fashions for herself is well-known,” (29).

In over a dozen appearances in the magazine from 1955 to 1962, Mrs. Exeter emerged as a prosperous woman on the go. (Newsflash—the “active senior” is not a twenty-first century invention.) She was a grandmother, a club woman, a golfer, a gardener, and a lady who went to teas.  In 1956 she was even introduced as a woman with a nine-to-five career.  Her clothes came in sizes 12 to 44, with a very rare 46 every once in awhile. Although some of the patterns specified their suitability for the “larger, mature figure,” most do not.

Vogue Pattern Book, June/July 1955

Vogue Pattern Book, June/July 1955

Most of Mrs. Exeter’s patterns were dresses with sleeves and interesting collars. Although she favored solid colors, she did not shy away from a fuchsia coat.  I was pleased to learn that in 1957 “slim Mrs. Exeter gardens in denim trousers, shirt, and an apron or a crisp shirt and Bermuda shorts.”  (Unfortunately, there are no tips on what she should wear if she wasn’t slim.) Hers were restrained versions of current styles, without big poofs or  plunging necklines.

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1958

Vogue Pattern Book, October/November 1958

Mrs. Exeter had her heyday in the October/November 1958 issue, which featured ten pages of “clothes the mature woman likes.” It featured slender city dresses, neatly stated suits, shirtwaist dresses with moderate flare, gentle necklines, and full length gowns.  Although most of the clothes are presented in fashion drawings, two were modeled by Mary Welchell, a tall and slender woman in her forties.

Our heroine’s last star turn in Vogue Pattern Book was in 1961, where she was featured in offering her take on “Town and Country Looks.”  After that, she was shuffled off into special back page pattern supplement, where her clothes were combined with half size offerings. She was gone altogether by the summer of 1962.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Mrs. Exeter, a woman of restraint, faded away in the exuberant sixties.  But I was amazed to learn that she lived on in the fabric store catalogs until 1967.  Stay tuned for that story.

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