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.

Posted in Pre 1900 | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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.

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

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.

Posted in 1920s | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Mr. Thompson…Please!


“Tell me! What this coast-to-coast excitement about your new SPANDEX stretch pants?” reads this ad for Mr. Thompson pants. Instead of chiding the man for his inappropriate advances, this woman (probably on the young side, given her tiny waist) is asking him to elaborate on the success of his brand.

This ad appeared in the March 1964 issue of California Stylist, a special issue on pants. My first thought, after “You’ve got to be kidding,” was to wonder in what situation a man in a suit with French cuffs would be embracing a subordinate woman wearing magenta stretch pants. You might guess in an office mail room, but pants didn’t really make it into the white collar workplace until the next decade. And although California was known for its casual lifestyle, the editors of the magazine assert that pants were best suited “for active sports, leisure, or even entertaining.”

So tell me, where did Mr. Thompson meet his companion for their discussion about stretch pants? At a cocktail party where she is underdressed and he is overdressed? On the street as she left from lunch with friends and he was on the way to the bank? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Finding Vivian Maier

From Vivian Maier: Self Portraits, 2013

From Vivian Maier: Self Portraits, 2013

The enigmatic photographer Vivian Maier (1926-2009), whose work was discovered after she died, is the subject of this documentary by John Maloof. He is one of the two men who are working to bring her vast legacy to the public. This engaging yet troubling film shows how he tracked down her life story by sifting through the vast piles of the possessions—film, tapes, receipts, clothes—that this eccentric pack rat left behind when she died.

Maier does not emerge as a very nice person. Working most of her life as a nanny, she neglected and even mistreated some of the children under her supervision. Her major method of child care was to take her charges on outings in the city of Chicago, using the trips as opportunities for photo shoots. In the process she traumatized a number of children and parents with her choice of venues, like the killing yards at the Chicago stock yards.

Of course I was interested in what she wore. The film shows piles of items culled from her storage locker, including costume jewelry, hats, and a motley collection of front buttoned shirts. She is not remembered from her style. One commentator snidely described her as looking like a factory worker in the Soviet Union in the fifties. (As a former historian of the Soviet Union, I took umbrage. Soviet women went to great efforts to look nice.)

From Finding Vivian Maier

From Finding Vivian Maier

Maier’s many self portraits tell a different story. Although she didn’t care about current fashion, I thought she had a distinct and interesting style. Her clothes were plain but with clean, angular lines. I particularly admired how she wore her hats. In the last self portrait I found, taken when she was fifty two, she had added a large ring to dress up her outfit.

How did she live once she stopped working? The film offers no visual evidence, but the oral history does not sound pretty. She had a small apartment in northern Chicago, paid for by two of the children she had once cared for. Her neighbors, interviewed in the film, thought she was a crazy trash picker. They had no idea that she would emerge as one of the great chroniclers of their city.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, General | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Posing for the Photographer–American Indians, 1940

Museum of the City of New York

Museum of the City of New York

Photographer Alexander Alland was something of an anthropologist. An immigrant himself, he began to take photographs of “hyphenated” Americans in the late 1930s and early 1940s, at first as part of an assignment for the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 and then as an avocation. Since he worked in New York City, he had a wide range of ethnic and racial groups to choose from.

In his well-known book American Counterpoint (1943), the subjects range from Armenian-Americans to Ukrainian-Americans, with scores of others in between. An early advocate of  multi-culturalism, Alland’s goal was to show “the differences and similarities among Americans of many national and racial backgrounds.” (147) In many of the photos, family members and friends are dressed up in group-specific clothing, such as embroidered Bulgarian shirts and Scottish kilts. The photographs were staged, but Alland wanted to document folkways and customs. (I sincerely hope that they were wearing their own clothes!)

Alland was particularly interested in Native Americans, called American Indians in the book. He presents them as a unified group, without any information about their specific tribes. The picture above of three generations didn’t make it into his book, but was clearly part of the project. The older woman’s clothes look different from her younger relatives. While their tunics appear to be decorated with embroidery, hers has long twisted and beaded strands that look somewhat like macramé. She also wears pants to cover up her legs.

Museum of the City of New York

Museum of the City of New York

Did these three ever dress up like this when they weren’t posing for the photographer? Fortunately Alland also took a photo of the older woman in what I suspect was her everyday attire, here a polka dotted shirtwaist dress, a beloved style of the era. To my eye, in this picture there is nothing in her clothing or environment that identifies her as a Native American.

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

Auntie Chris at Jones Beach, 1955

AuntieChrisMy husband comes from a small family, so he doesn’t have a vast supply of stories about whacky relatives to enliven dinner parties. One exception is his great aunt, Edith Christine Smith (1888-1968), known to the family as Auntie Chris. She would visit every Christmas bringing a big plum pudding, which no one liked. According to him and his sister, her dinner conversation consisted mainly of sharing her methods to remain regular. She never married and for them embodied stereotypical qualities of a maiden aunt, with old fashioned clothes and cantankerous ways.

My niece Jessie, the family genealogist, knew more about Auntie Chris. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she was in charge of book binding at the Brooklyn Public Library.

This photo, taken by my sister-in-law when she was nine (!), shows Auntie Chris at Jones Beach. She would have been around sixty-seven here. Her sunglasses and short sleeves appear to be her only concessions to the sunny beach environment. The dress, or skirt and top combination, is a coordinated outfit which she has dressed up with a pin. No one remembers her without her sensible shoes, and this beach snap shot is no exception. But of course, the tam-o-shanter on her head takes the cake.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Dorothea Lange–Enduring Elements of Style

Photo by Rondal Partridge, 1964

Photo by Rondal Partridge, 1964

Recently an impressive documentary about this famous photographer, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, aired on PBS. The film is directed by Lange’s granddaughter, the award winning cinematographer Dyanna Taylor. There is also a companion book with the same name by Lange’s goddaughter, Elizabeth Partridge.

I admit my immediate interest was to see my friend Sally on film—she is featured as one of the experts on Lange’s life and work. Although I thought I knew something about Lange, I had a lot to learn. Her transformation from a bohemian portraitist in San Francisco to a socially engaged documentarian of the Great Depression was fascinating.

The film got me interested in Lange’s style of dress. With Sally’s help, I combed resources to trace how her clothing changed throughout her life. Essentially I discovered three phases: the bohemian style of the young portrait artist in San Francisco; the utilitarian style of the working photographer in the field during the Depression; and a merging of the two strains as Lange aged.

Date and photographer unknown

Date and photographer unknown

There aren’t many photographs of Lange when she was a young photographer, but those that do exist show a kind of dreamy style. Take a look at this undated photo, probably from the mid 1920s. She wears what looks like a velvet dress with wide cuffs and a big collar. Note the silver bracelet, some of which I think is covered up by a cuff. It was most likely her wedding bracelet from her first marriage to artist Maynard Dixon. According to Dyanna Taylor, the couple stood out even in bohemian circles in San Francisco. He favored capes and a cane; she often wore striking emerald green clothes, her hair topped with a beret.

Lange's wedding bracelet from her first marriage to Maynard Dixon. Photos by Lisa Dixon Perrin

Lange’s wedding bracelet. Photos by Lisa Dixon Perrin

In the mid 1930s, Lange began to take photographs of the social turmoil in San Francisco. She divorced her first husband and started working with the labor economist Paul Schuster Taylor. They collaborated on documenting the radical changes taking places in California agriculture brought about by the Great Depression. Soon they married and both began work for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal Agency famous for its photographs of the depression years. There are many pictures of Lange from this period, all in a simple utilitarian style—short hair, wide legged pants, a button front shirt, flat shoes, and often a head covering.

Photograph by Paul S. Taylor, 1936

Photograph by Paul S. Taylor, 1936

But despite her practical clothes, Lange wore the wedding bracelet from her first marriage and added a silver banded wedding ring from her marriage to Paul Taylor. Obviously she believed in wearing her history.

As she aged, Lange merged her bohemian and utilitarian styles. She added jewelry to her signature collection, including this distinctive silver necklace with large round beads. With a flair for dramatic presentation, in this photo she wore it with a wide belt that had buttons to match her necklace. Note the beret, long a signature piece.

Photo by Larry Colwell/Anthony Barboza/Getty Images, mid 1950s

Photo by Larry Colwell/Anthony Barboza/Getty Images, mid 1950s

In her fifties, Lange began to take global trips with Taylor, who was working as an agricultural expert for the United Nations and the US government. She used these travels to acquire more jewelry and clothes. Favorites included Egyptian bracelets, a Laotian waiter’s vest, and white dresses, like the one below, inspired by clothing she saw in Korea.

Photo by Rondal Patridge, 1960

Photo by Rondal Partridge, 1960

Lange used her signature jewelry to dress up even the simplest clothes, as in this portrait of her in a sweatshirt with her granddaughter Dyanna Taylor. She gives even an ordinary hoodie an element of style.

With granddaughter Dyanna Taylor. Photo by Paul S. Taylor, 1963

With granddaughter Dyanna Taylor. Photo by Paul S. Taylor, 1963

In 1964, Lange was invited to prepare material for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, an overdue recognition of her importance in the field of American photography. Unfortunately, she died of cancer in fall 1965. The one-person retrospective, quite unusual for a woman, opened in early 1966. I cannot help wondering what she would have worn.

Thanks to Lisa Dixon Perrin, Sally Stein, and Dyanna Taylor for help with this piece.

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, General | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Marching for the Equal Rights Amendment in Florida

Florida Memory, http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/2713

Florida Memory, http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/2713

In 1972, the US congress passed an Equal Rights Amendment that was sent to the states for ratification. It never won the requisite number of state endorsements for inclusion in the constitution. In Florida, the struggle for state approval went on for over a decade. This undated photograph from Florida Memory could come from just about anytime during the 1970s.

There’s a broad range of ages in this photo, from young children to older women. Just about every kind of clothing is represented as well. I think the long maxi skirts on the right are an odd choice for marching.

The group includes two African American women. In the front row second from left behind the banner is Gwen Cherry, the first African American woman in the Florida legislature. About fifty here, she wears white pants. In the back you can see a young African American woman, but all that is visible is her white head covering.

To the left of Cherry is a sixty- to seventy-year old woman with big sunglasses and big hair.  Is she wearing jeans with wide turned up cuffs? If so, this would be an early sighting of this classic American style on an older woman outside of a work or leisure environment. But if they aren’t jeans, she is part of a general trend toward wearing pants instead of dresses in the 1970s.

Posted in 1970s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments