Balenciaga and the Older Woman

From The Master of Us All by Mary Blume

There are very few couturiers I have heard of who enjoy designing for the older woman.  Balenciaga was one of them. In the recent biography The Master of Us All by Mary Blume (2013), the author makes this point repeatedly.  “The women he really liked to dress…were oddly enough small, plump, and middle-aged…They were part of his experiment in sculpting form.” (150) The not very clear photo above from the book shows him and an assistant fitting Madame Zumsteg, the wife of his Swiss textile manufacturer.

She cites an incident where Balenciaga was demonstrating his fitting methods to Givenchy. “There were all those dummies of Spanish women who like anyone at a certain moment in life, Spanish or not, had bent backs and sagging bosoms…And we could see the woman starting to straighten up. It was wonderful so see little by little, and just with pins, the body rebalance itself.”(139)

When styles turned to favor the youthful body in the sixties, Balenciaga did not abandon his fascination with the older female form.  As the fashion critic Kennedy Fraser wrote about a Balenciaga retrospective in 1975: “It is not that Balenciaga clothes could never be worn by young women, but, rather, that they could be worn with great distinction by those who were no longer young.” (174)

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More War Workers in Pants

Click to enlarge

My brother is engaged in a long research project on our father’s career as a navigator during the Second World War.  As a lucky spin off for me, he has been sending photos of women workers he comes across, including this line up of aircraft workers at Boeing.

Many of these government war photos were posed, and this one obviously so.  The women are lined up and all wearing the same head scarves tied at the top of their heads.  I suspect this was the photographer’s idea, since I have seen war workers wearing all kinds of headcoverings, and sometimes no headcoverings at all.

While pants predominate, there are many different kinds of outfits on display here.  The woman on the left wears overalls, some look like they are in one piece jumpsuits, others appear to be in separates. There are a range of ages and body types as well.

The woman on the far right, who might be on the older side, isn’t wearing pants at all.  It makes her look like the boss lady.

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New Archives to Explore—Textile Records at Cornell University

Palmer Mill, 1920. Click to enlarge

Not everyone gets excited when they hear the word “archive,” but I do.  And combine “archive” with “textiles” and my blood really starts rushing. Recently, the history librarian at my university sent me news that Cornell University Library has acquired records from the library of the recently closed American Textile History Museum. They include photographs, trade catalogs, textile sample books, and more. That’s good news for those of us interested in fashion, labor, business, and textile history.

What makes the news even better is that Cornell has an excellent record of putting its holdings online. I frequently turn to its comprehensive collection of home economics materials, Hearth.  Photographs and documents from the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archive are at our finger tips through the library portal and on Flickr.  I’ve used their photos from the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union many times.

The photo above is one of the 47,000 images that are moving from Massachusetts to Cornell.  What other treasures will we find?

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The Easter Parade–A Dressmaker’s View

From the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

Do you know the song “In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it”?  As the song promises, there really were Easter Parades on Fifth Avenue in New York City.  The Library of Congress’s large collection from the Bain News Service, with photos from around 1910 to the end of the 1920, has a number of photos documenting this festive fashion event.

By far my favorite is this undated photograph of a dressmaker, standing on the left, noting fashion details.  Although there were many ways for dressmakers to get information for their clients—from magazines to displays in stores—obviously on the ground research would have special value.  It could serve the function of Red Carpet events today. The dressmaker could see how the clothes and hats looked on different body shapes, hair dos, heights.

Judging from the lengths of the skirts, this undated photo comes from the mid teens.  Head coverings had shrunk from the wild Merry Widow concoctions of a few years earlier, but they still were statement pieces.

What exactly is the decoration on the dressmaker’s hat?  A bow, a wing, a butterfly? And don’t you wonder what’s on her note pad?

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A Woman in a Feathered Boa, 1920s

Feathered boas go in and out of style.  Searching on the wonderful home economics site Hearth, I found instructions on how to clean them in a housekeeping guide from 1908. You shake them out and then dip them in gasoline!  This might have made for some exciting parties when the boa got too close to an open flame.

I am guessing that this beautiful head shot comes from the 1920s, a period when feathered boas were all the rage.  For older women boas served a similar function to the fur piece, bringing softness to the face.

This woman wears an old fashioned pince-nez at a time when glasses with temple pieces had largely replaced them. I think they serve her well here, making her eyes look bigger. Her stylish long necklace is a sure marker of the twenties.  Was it her idea to wrap it many times around her neck to bring the glow of pearls closer to her face?  To show that she is a woman who cares about fashion, she either has short hair or has taken care to style her hair to look short.

I got this portrait from the incomparable Lizzie Bramlett, who sends me shots of old ladies in exchange for my photos of young ones.  A win-win!  It was obviously taken in a photo studio, and I’m wondering if some fancy hocus pocus was involved to give this older woman such incredibly smooth skin.

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Older Rosies and the Push Toward Pants

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, Library of Congress

Although it is hard to tell from this photo, the caption by Office of War Information photographer Alfred T. Palmer makes clear that this particular Rosie the Riveter is an older woman.  “A woman worker, over 60 years old, does an expert riveting job on a B-17F bomber in the Long Beach, California, plant of Douglas Aircraft Company.”  She joins my collection of older Rosies, (see here and here) who defy the common view depicting women war workers as young.

Fashion historians often state that the Second World War encouraged younger women to start wearing pants in public. Many war workers were required to wear pants for their jobs, and some found the new outfits so comfortable that they adopted the style outside the factory.

And what about the older Rosies? Did some of them also decide to expand their regular wardrobe to include pants?

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Documenting the Department Store, 1961

Ruth-Marion Baruch, Special Collections, University of California Santa Cruz. Click to enlarge

What a wonderful contrast between the shopper and the worker in this 1961 photo by Ruth-Marion Baruch.  I discovered it in the alumni magazine of my undergraduate alma mater, UC Santa Cruz.  The university was gifted the archive of Baruch and her photographer husband, Pirkle Jones.  They are best known for their political photos documenting the Black Panther movement in California, but their work is wide ranging. This particular photo is part of series by Baruch called “Illusion for Sale.”

The shopper in this photo gives the impression of being young, even though we can’t see her face.  The shoes are right-up-to-the-minute stylish.  That puts her in clear contrast to the sales woman, who is obviously older.  That woman’s shoes are designed to stand up to a day on her feet.  Note that she wears the preferred outfit of department store owner, Beatrice Auerbach—a black dress with three quarter sleeves.

In an engaging study of department stores, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, author Susan Benson notes that this was one job where older women had an advantage in the first half of the twentieth century. Most stores also had a dress code, requiring “dark, inconspicuous clothing because they liked the uniformity it gave to the store’s appearance.”(139-140) By the sixties, though, things were beginning to change.  Stores began to favor younger sales women who had a better sense of trends.  I wonder if this woman was able to keep hold of her job as the decade progressed.

Pirkle Jones, Special Collections, University of California, Santa Cruz. Click to enlarge

Baruch herself appears to have had a utilitarian approach to dress, as we can see in this cropped photo of her taken by her husband at a 1968 Black Panther rally. In her late forties here, she wears a practical skirt and top combination, a short coat, and flat shoes. There isn’t much in her outfit to indicate the time and place.  But she was there to watch, not to make a fashion statement.  Isn’t it fascinating that the assembled protesters don’t seem to be paying any attention to her at all?

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The World of Beatrice F. Auerbach

Connecticut Historical Society. Click all photos to enlarge

Beatrice Fox Auerbach (1887-1968) was not raised to become a woman of business. Born into the family that owned the G. Fox & Co. department store in Hartford Connecticut, she received the kind of finishing school education her parents believed would prepare her to become a wife and mother. When she married in 1911, her life seemed set. She had two children, advised her husband, travelled, and engaged in charity work.

All that changed when her husband died in 1927 when she was only forty. At that point, she began to take on more responsibility in the family business. When her father died a decade later, she was the logical choice to take over store management, becoming one of the few women business presidents in the country.  A progressive employer, she gave sales jobs to African Americans during World War Two and set up education and retirement funds for her employees.  She also contributed generously to the cultural life of Hartford.

The achievements of this extraordinary woman were honored in a 2015 exhibit by the Connecticut Historical Society called “Beatrice F. Auerbach: The Woman, Her Woman, and Her Wardrobe.” Curated by Laura Crow of the University of Connecticut, the exhibition illuminated the many facets of Auerbach’s life by examining her clothes.

Work dresses

Auerbach dressed for work in black, wearing dresses with three quarter length sleeves for ease of movement.  According to Crow, she had pockets added to almost all of her clothes.  To diversify the somber color of her work clothes, she added jewelry, scarves, collars, and ruffles.

Outside of the work environment, Auerbach often chose more colorful attire.  Although she replaced the original labels in her clothes with G. Fox labels, Crow was able to identify the work of many top American designers, including Hattie Carnegie, Pauline Trigére, and Adele Simpson. The green and orange silk jersey dress above is by Pucci.

As an arts lover and philanthropist, she also had an extensive collection of evening wear.  Her ensembles sometimes included textiles from her travels, like beautiful woven scarves from India.

There were also casual clothes on display, including a very small sized playsuit bought for a Bahama vacation when Auerbach was in her seventies.  Most fascinating were two impeccable man-tailored pantsuits, one from 1945 and the other from 1955.  It would be wonderful to learn just where she wore those.

Clothes make the woman—and this remarkable collection of garments gives a real sense of the multifaceted life of Beatrice Auerbach.

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Installing the Supreme Royal Matron of the Order of Amaranth

I received a lot of help for this post.  Thanks to Judith and hoppa_55, via Instagram, who suggested that I look into two organizations that were new to me—the Daughters of the Nile and the Order of the Amaranth. The Daughters of the Nile are part of the Shriners, a group tied to the Masons. The Order of the Amaranth is a high level Masonic group.  And thanks also to Dee, who estimated that the date of this event was most likely in the late forties to early fifties.

The banners are what convinced me that the photos show the Order of the Amaranth. The organization, which still exists, holds the motto of Truth, Faith, Wisdom, and Charity. Banners with these words are an important part of their ceremonies.

The straight swords are also part of the group’s symbolism. The photos apparently depict the installation of the “Supreme Royal Matron” of the organization.  They must have been among someone’s treasured possessions.

Since the only Mason I have ever known was my grandfather, I assumed that the organization did not weather the storms of the twentieth century very well.  But not so!  In some parts of the US it is still going strong.  The many women’s affiliates are an excellent place to look for photos of older women.  There are African American groups as well.  Their goal is to raise money for charity, but dressing up must be a big part of the appeal. While I would rather be a queen, “Supreme Royal Matron” doesn’t sound too shabby.

 

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Queen for a Day

Click to enlarge

But queen of what?

I found these prints in a favorite store for old photos, the Broadway Antique Mart in Chicago. Almost every visit to see my daughter includes a trip there. The pictures have been sitting in my files for over a year as I looked around for clues to explain what was going on. Finally I have to admit that I am stumped and turn to you for help.

I suspect this is some kind of membership organization like the Masons or Moose, although the costumes do not match either one of those.  The banners on display above read “Truth” and (I think) “Charity.” The leadership is obviously older.

What fascinates me is that many of the women are wearing the same style dress, a short sleeved gown with a lacy top and a kind of lace apron over the skirt.  Why is the woman in the second photo not wearing the same?  Is she being inducted into the group? Note the long gloves on all, some fingerless and some not.

The men also wear the same style suits, although it is hard to see the details.  I wonder if a special tailor/dressmaker was hired to make the clothes.

Can you help?  What is the organization?  What is the year?  Inquiring minds want to know.

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