Book Review: American Style and Spirit

Sewing implements from the Roddis collection, photograph by Doug Mindell

How do we know what people wore in the past?  There are many places to look—family photographs, letters, receipts, and of course the clothes themselves.

Now imagine if you had all of these things and more, including pattern books, tear sheets from magazines, and a sewing stash. That is the case with the Roddis family of central Wisconsin. Everyone cared about clothes and one remarkable family member, Augusta Roddis, was a packrat with a large house to fill. This led to a unique collection of documents and clothing that is the basis for the book American Style and Spirit: Fashions and Lives of the Roddis Family, 1850-1995.

The book is more than a companion volume for the clothing exhibit now at the Henry Ford Museum. It is an intimate history of a well-off, well-educated small town family spanning the twentieth century. We learn how the family made its money, educated its children, and contributed to the community.  We also discover how and where they shopped and their philosophy of dress.

Catherine Roddis, 1948

Two characters emerge most clearly in this study—the family matriarch, Catherine Prindle Roddis (1882-1964) and her daughter Augusta Roddis (1916-2011). Catherine came from a thrifty Methodist family and had excellent sewing skills. Even as the Roddis family became wealthy after World War Two, she did not change her approach to clothes—look to current styles, but stay on the conservative side so you can wear items long as possible. The records show that she wore the white lace dress pictured above many times over a period of at least seven years.

Augusta’s dress by Louis Féraud, 1985. Photograph by Jane L. Bradbury

Her daughter Augusta was the keeper of the family archive. Passionately interested in clothes, she spent $35 on a designer dress in 1934 in the midst of the Depression, which would be worth about $485.00 today. On a trip to Paris after the war, she bought twenty pairs of gloves. But she also made her purchases with an eye to the future. Twenty years later she was still wearing the gloves. As she aged, her tastes became more conservative, favoring high necklines and long sleeves.  But she still indulged in statement pieces, like the swishy bright blue bias cut dress bought when she was in her late sixties.

This book is a visual treat and an antidote to America’s current throw-away approach to clothes. It is also an introduction to a treasure trove of documents, now housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, that could be used for many a research project.  To name one tantalizing example—Augusta’s four sisters all took to wearing pants, but she never did. Perhaps the family letters could help to explain why.

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Older Women in Pants–the Research Agenda

Click to enlarge

This British postcard from around 1910 makes fun of older women, current fashions, and women’s suffrage all at the same time.  But how accurate was it?  Were there older women in harem pants, or other kinds of bifurcated garments, appearing in public in the early decades of the twentieth century?

I am fascinated by this question.  Up until now, I have let random pictures tell the story.  But I have decided take a more systematic approach, reading up on the history of American women who chose to break with the assumption that pants were only for men.  For European American women, the process started in the mid nineteenth century with the Bloomer outfit.  Public censure made this a short lived as a wider trend, but did some stick with it? And were there others like the famous/infamous Dr. Mary Walker who abandoned women’s clothes altogether? By looking more closely at biographies of such women, I hope to get a better sense of how many older women were willing to take this step and the price they paid for their decision.

This doesn’t mean that I have given up on photographs, though.  If you know of any pictures of American women over fifty who choose to wear pants before the 1970s, I would love to see them!

Posted in 1910s, General, Pre 1900 | Tagged | 1 Comment

“We Are Getting There Fast,” 1895

Frederick Burr Opper, Puck, December 25, 1895. Click to enlarge

When women took up bicycles in a big way in the 1890s, it resulted in a kind of moral panic in the media about the potential effects of women wearing bloomers (or what we would today call knickerbockers.)  Women took to the wheel because a new design made bikes easier to ride with skirts, but it was still an awkward affair. Historians of dress have shown that only a small minority of women riders solved the problem by donning some version of pants.  Nonetheless, this was enough to spark a storm of caricatures in the media.

For conservative commentators, pants on women meant the complete reversal of gender roles.  We see that in this cartoon.  The text at the bottom reads: Stern Parent—“Willy, isn’t that Miss Bloomers going soon? – it’s nearly eleven o’clock!” / Son—“Yes, Mama; she’s just saying good night!”  The women here have taken on men’s role.  Miss Bloomer, who is taller than the boy, is the suitor.  And it is the mother, not the father, who chides her son to get inside.

Click to enlarge

I loved this cartoon for its depiction of the mother.  It is usually young women who are presented in disruptive fashions, but in this drawing the mother is also in bloomers. Moreover, she has a copy of “The Advanced Woman” in her hands.  The artist Frederick Burr Opper portrayed his vision of a world turned upside down where all women, young and old, had abandoned their traditional roles.

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Cold Legs, Warm Heart

“Snow the Winter of ’79,” it reads on the back of this snapshot.  Lets hope she had someone helping her shovel her walk.

Our woman was bundled up against the cold, putting on an old fur coat (maybe from the forties), a fur hat, and snow boots.  But my attention was immediately drawn to that foot or so of leg covered only by stockings.  In the many decades between the rise of skirt lengths and the acceptability of women wearing pants most of the time, winter dressing presented a big problem.  How did legs stay warm?

Posted in 1970s | Tagged | 5 Comments

Home for the Holidays, 1962

This trio of photos come from collector extraordinaire Lizzie Bramlett.  They document a Christmas celebration on a family farm in 1962, complete with red barns and grandchildren. The flat empty fields in the background give no clue to the location.  It could be just about anywhere in the United States or Canada.  It certainly evokes memories of visits to my grandparents who retired to farm country in central Illinois.

In this first photo is the grandmother wearing pants outdoors or just very thick leggings?  There is no snow on the ground, but it looks plenty cold. She made sure her legs were warm.

Once indoors, she clearly thought that dresses were the correct attire.  Although fashion was shifting to a slimmer cut, she was comfortable in full skirts. We see below that she favored sheer stockings as well.

And here she is with her two grandsons, looking as happy as can be.  Perhaps this was a special occasion dress, with a shiny looking fabric.  The skirt appears to have many gores.  Did she choose the reddish sweater with the green dress to evoke a Christmas theme?

I am guessing that she was a knitter and made her two cardigans.  Maybe she even knit the sweaters for her grandsons.

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Carolyn Schnurer’s Flight to India

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click all images to enlarge

If you like to travel, envy the life of mid century American designer Carolyn Schnurer (1908-1998). During World War Two, she convinced the British Overseas Air Company, the department store Peck and Peck, and a number of American textile manufacturers to sponsor trips to exotic locations around the world. When she returned from each adventure, she created a clothing collection inspired by what she had seen.

In late 1950, she unveiled her new collection “Flight to India” at the Brooklyn Museum. You might think with all the research tools that we have at our finger tips these days, it would be easy to figure out all the pieces.  Not so.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a number of designs, which originally came from the Brooklyn Museum, along with samples of the textiles she created. Vogue documented some of the collection.  I also searched through any number of local newspapers, which added pieces I didn’t find elsewhere.  But nowhere did I come across a complete list.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Schnurer was well known for using foreign textiles as an inspiration for American manufacturing.  In this regard, she was following a well known path forged by others working with the Brooklyn Museum. She was unusual in that she collaborated with a number of different American firms, including Dan Rivers, Fuller, ABC Fabrics, Galey and Lord, and Celenase.  Her textile designs were covered enthusiastically by the new journal American Fabrics.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The designer also won praise for her ability to translate elements of foreign design into shapes that American women wanted to wear. As one unnamed New York Times writer commented, “The fashions that result from the Schnurer expeditions are never of the costumey variety; foreign influence is there but expressed subtly.  It is seen in the fabric designs, for Carolyn Schnurer works closely with manufacturers of materials.  She brings them new colors, weaves, textures from remote lands to be quickly translated into types adaptable to the clothes American women love.” (NYT June 1 1953.)

Pottstown Mercury, January 18, 1951

Pottstown Mercury, January 18, 1951

I used a trial subscription to to discover how the collection was presented to Middle America.  With all the colorful fabric Schnurer designed, I was disappointed to see that it was a simple white outfit that captured the most attention. “Dote on the dhoti,” reads the ad copy. “Our daring, baring, two piece swim suit.”

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The Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing

anokhi5My most vivid memory of India is a visit to the Anokhi Museum outside of Jaipur.  Anokhi is a company and foundation dedicated to preserving hand block printing techniques.  The museum, a rebuilt former mansion, is filled with beautiful examples of this old process. You see the different kinds of blocks used, learn about the dyes, and follow the elaborate steps it takes to transform a plain piece of white cloth into a multi colored beauty.

anokhi2The day my group visited, two master craftsmen were showing their skills.  I first watched a block maker carefully etching a design on a plane of teak.  Note his armory of small chisels.

anokhi4Then we witnessed the printing process itself.  In four steps, an artisan made us each small handkerchief sized samples. The tools were simple—fabric, blocks, dye, and a small piece of newspaper to cover parts where he didn’t want the dye to go.  He made it look simple, but there was a lot of precision involved.

anokhi6And here is the final product, more precious to me than anything I bought.

Anokhi has stores all over India, where you can buy clothes, scarves, bedding, and table wares.  But if you can’t make the trip, you can also find their beautiful products online.

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Colors in India

Click all photos to enlarge

Click all photos to enlarge

You don’t see much black in India.  Women’s clothes vibrate with beautiful colors.  The combinations and pattern mixes can be surprising and inspiring. You get the idea from this photo of an older and a younger woman taken from the back.  The sari of the woman on the left combines a bright fuchsia with pale green, with a hint of blue in the gold trim; on the right big checks are worn with circles.

I felt inhibited about taking many photographs of women (although their daughters took plenty of me!)  These all come from Mumbai, from the very last day of my trip.

bombay2Combinations of orange, red, pink, and yellow were everywhere.

bombay4And this woman, enjoying the sun at the Gateway to India, did not think it was enough to wear her brownish red sari trimmed with gold and cobalt blue.  She added green bangles to the outfit.

bombay5Mumbai is a thriving global city, and I wondered if I wasn’t seeing some evidence of the sari’s eventual demise.  There were many mother daughter pairs like the one above where the mother wore her beautiful sari, while the daughter would have been at home at any American college campus.  What will these young women wear with their daughters in twenty years time?

Posted in 2010s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Winner of the Christmas Home Decorating Contest, 1956

Judging by these prize-winning Christmas decorations, things were simpler back in 1956.  These days, houses are lit from top to toe; such a modest display would not even merit a passing glance. But in the mid fifties they were enough to win Mrs. Ruth Bass a clock radio in Madison, Wisconsin.

Mrs. Bass looks like she was brought out for a quick snap shot with her prize, without even time to put on a hat or gloves.  But I’ll bet that the clock radio found a place of pride in her house.

I’m back from my trip and will be posting again regularly starting Tuesday.

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An Evening in India

Los Angeles Public Library. Click to enlarge

Los Angeles Public Library. Click to enlarge

Charity balls have always confused me.  If everyone donated the time and money that it takes to plan and participate, wouldn’t that benefit the charity more?  But then we wouldn’t have photographs like the one above.

This staged shot was early publicity for the 1960 ball by the “Remember Me” charity of Los Angeles. It raised money for children with mental disabilities, or “retarded children” in the terminology of the time.  According to the LA Times, the organization was known for “sponsoring one of the most decorative benefits in this area.” There was a different theme each year—and the one chosen for 1960 was “An Evening in India.”

Here we see two older women draping a younger one in a sari.  The woman on the left wears a shirtwaist style dress, a beloved style in the fifties, dressed up in a silk satin looking fabric. The one on the right wears a very dark dress in a slimmer cut, anticipating the sheath dresses of the coming decade. The beautiful sari at the center shows the keen interest in Indian textiles in post World War Two America. I’ve written about it before here and here.

I chose this particular photo because I’m leaving for a two week trip to India today!  I probably won’t be blogging again until after Christmas, but you can follow me on instagram, @americanagefashion.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments