Goldie, August 1955

Goldie55In perfect Palmer penmanship, the caption on the back of this photo reads, “Goldie at Sam o Set Aug 1955.” Given Goldie’s contented expression and glorious tan, I thought this would be the perfect photograph to celebrate the end of summer.

In an on line search, I found a Sam-o-Set resort in Maine, founded in 1925 and still in existence today. That might be where this photo was taken, although the resort is on a lake and this looks more like a rocky ocean beach to me.

It’s not easy to find pictures of older women in bathing suits. I suspect that many refused to be photographed or else destroyed the evidence later. But Goldie seems to have no such qualms. Her strapless bathing suit, with its very tight girdle-like design, is right in style. I found a 1953 photo of a young Florida beauty wearing a similar look.

May we all be so happy in our own skins.

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Book Review: Toss the Gloss by Andrea Q. Robinson

TossGlossBeauty how-to books always make me tired. In this witty advice book for women over fifty, Andrea Robinson claims that your entire beauty routine shouldn’t take more than ten minutes. Considering that her eye make up list alone has nine steps and includes five different products and five specialized tools, I don’t see how she beats the clock. And since my everyday routine takes about thirty seconds—wash face and apply sunscreen—ten minutes is still a long time.

I’m probably not the intended audience for this book, but even au naturel types like me can learn from her insider view of the beauty industry. She gives general advice about anti-aging products for older skin, telling which ones work (only a few) and which ones don’t (most of the rest.) For those who use a lot of makeup, she warns against products she thinks further age older skin, including powder foundation, liquid eyeliner, and bold red lipstick.

Unlike many writers on aging, Robinson has an upbeat tone. Her goal, she says, is to make you look like yourself, only better; she has no plans to make you over into your daughter. According to her, the best tools to look good can be bought over the counter, and you don’t even need to go to a department store to find them. In her lists of recommended products, she always includes brands that you can find in a grocery store.

If you read carefully, though, you will discover that Robinson employs much more than makeup in her own beauty regime. She uses hormone replace therapy, has had a face lift, and gets regular filler injections from a dermatologist. Most of her preferred products don’t come from the drug store. A glance at her press photo tells you that she looks a lot younger than your average fifty year old. For me, this undercut her advice about loving yourself as you are.

What did I learn? Since I sometimes go beyond sunscreen for special events, I discovered better brands to try and entirely new makeup categories to consider. Just to be clear, though, I don’t think my first purchase will be an eyelid primer.


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Country Mouse, City Mice

idiosyncraticsAlthough I come from the vast suburban expanse of Southern California, I felt very much like a country mouse when I met the idiosyncratic fashionistas on the streets of New York. Well known in certain circles for their own blog and their frequent appearance on Ari Seth Cohen’s site, these two women have their own distinctive style. It includes asymmetrical clothing designs, unusual eyeglasses, bright colors, big jewelry, and quirky hats. (Their outfits are described here.) Everything about me looks plain in comparison—my monochromatic outfit (heavily creased because of the heat), my workaday sunhat, my lack of jewelry.

I knew that eccentric dressers draw attention, but I hadn’t considered just how much until I met these women on the street. When I spotted them, they were surrounded by a small crowd of people attracted to their outfits. These admirers knew nothing of their internet fame, but could tell that they were witnessing something unusual. And remember this all took place on the very crowded sidewalks of New York.

Will I change my style after this encounter? Probably not, but I am looking around for another hat. Or maybe I should just paint this one orange.

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Charles James’s Coats

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1945

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1945

On a recent trip to New York, I caught the tail end of the much acclaimed Charles James exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. The show, which mainly featured James’s gowns, was a technological wonder. Many of the clothes were documented in elaborate digital displays that showed the garments’ history, inspiration, and structure. The exhibit organizers were able to trace the designs in such detail because of the depth of the Charles James archive. It includes not only finished garments, but also drawings, patterns, muslins (early versions made out of inexpensive fabric), and other records that show how the clothes were made. To preserve the garments, and perhaps to make all the technological wizardly easier to see, the two main exhibit rooms were very dark.

James is most famous for his elaborate evening gowns. But what I loved best, both here and in the much smaller Chicago show, were the coats. This red coat, called the “lyre coat,” was featured in the digital displays. According to the exhibit documentation, “The beautiful lyre-shaped front seaming of this coat functions simultaneously as a decorative motif and a structural device. But the essence of James’s ingenious engineering is seen at the back, where the shoulder panel is cut in one with the side panel of the skirt.” You can see the elaborate structure of this simple looking coat in the pattern.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1945

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1945

I am certainly revealing my twentieth century soul when I say that my favorite part of the exhibit was a small well-lit room filled with items from the extensive James archive—pages of notes from a planned autobiography, pattern pieces, dress forms, and experimental projects. It is here, rather than in the fancy digital displays, that I really got a sense of  Charles James at work.

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Half Sizes, Part 4: What Not to Wear

Evelyn Veronica Mason

Evelyn Veronica Mason

Evelyn Veronica Mason had a low opinion of ready to wear clothing for shorter, wider women. In her Master’s thesis “A Study of the Clothing Needs of Women who Wear Half-Size Dresses,” (University of Rhode Island, 1964), she chided clothing manufacturers for ignoring the specific needs of half-sized women. She felt that the dress above was one example of poor design, created for thinner women and then remade as a half size. According to Mason, it had many flaws: the open neckline and short sleeves showed too much skin (“much flesh exposure can be objectionable in mature women”), it was too short (“mature legs are not usually shapely enough to expose”); the textile pattern was too bold; and the gathered waist added girth.

Evelyn Veronica Mason

Evelyn Veronica Mason

Instead, she offered her own vision of an appropriate summer dress for a half-sized woman of the 1960s. It featured a v neck to “carry the eyes toward the center of the figure and away from the figure outline” and many vertical lines “that skim the waistline and break up large expanses of figure.” Avoiding any impression of horizontal lines, she envisioned this dress in solids and small scale prints. Those colored bits are actual swatches of fabric, something I’ve never seen in a thesis before.

Given the choice, I would take her dress over the alternative. But judging by its complicated piecing, it likely would have cost more than the first version. Would the half size woman of the sixties have chosen style over cost?

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The Cheerful Granny at Christmas, 1957

Life, December 2, 1957

Life, December 2, 1957

PennysGranny57Pictured with family members and used to promote  household products, the Cheerful Granny was a staple of the American advertising industry in the early to mid twentieth century. I was drawn to this advertisement for the chain store Penney’s because it appears to depict a three generation family, although I suppose that granny could have been visiting for the holidays. (Please excuse my less than perfect composite of a two page spread.) The granny has no special job except to display her gift, a super suede washable electric blanket. Only the father has a different role here, acting as Santa for his very large family. Of course he also sports a Penny’s product—a Towncraft pima cotton shirt available for $2.98.

Do we need anymore evidence of the pastel fifties than this ad? While beatniks might have been wearing black, the females in this family are content with light blue, shades of apricot, and sage green. The grandmother’s pale blue bathrobe seems designed to bring out her blue gray hair. She is very well turned out for a Christmas morning. Not only is her hair done, but she has even managed to put on jewelry.

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Marion Dorn—From Stripes to Flowers

House and Garden, May 1947

House and Garden, May 1947

One beneficiary of the design classes at the American Museum of Natural History was Marion Dorn (1896-1964), who went on to make a career as a designer of textiles and carpets. She credited the classes with starting her career. By 1934, she was so well known in Britain that one journalist referred to her as “the architect of floors,” which is also the title of the illuminating biography by Christine Boydell (1996).

Born in San Francisco and educated at Stanford, Dorn at first intended to become a painter. Soon she turned to the potentially more lucrative field of textile design. While in New York, she tried her hand at batik, continuing with this method during a two year stint in Paris. But once she arrived in Britain in 1923, she was ready to branch out into woven textiles and carpets. At first she worked with small manufacturers, but by the mid 1930s she was so successful she could contract with large companies. Known for her geometric, abstract designs, Dorn was a favorite of modern architects.

When the Battle of Britain started in 1940, Dorn followed the advice of the US government and returned to the United States. There she had to start her career all over again. No purist, she changed her designs to match changing styles and American tastes. By the late 1940s, there were few traces left of the stripes, dots, and chevrons of the 1930s.

As a lover of all things geometric, I was disappointed to see Dorn surrounded by her designs of flowers, leaves and sailing ships in this photo by Horst that appeared in House and Garden in May 1947. Around 51 here, she is all in black, including black gloves. Was it Horst’s idea to make a dramatic contrast between her monochromatic look at the colorful textiles she designed?


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Bullock’s Determines Fashion Personality Types, 1920s

Los Angeles Times, November 1928

Los Angeles Times, November 1928

Have you ever taken one of those quizzes to determine your fashion personality? I always end up an awkward mix of sporty (for pants), flamboyant/artistic (for orange), and tailored (for jackets)—not exactly a scientific formula. But according to the fascinating book The Economics of Fashion by Paul Nystrom (1929), some department stores really did think these descriptions had predictive value and used them to categorize their customers and merchandise.

Nystrom tells how Los Angeles’s premier department store, Bullock’s, developed six types of “general but quite dependable” (479) fashion personalities in the 1920s. Here’s a summary:

1)     Romantic—a slender, youthful type favoring delicate colors, taffeta, and parasols.

2)     Statuesque—tall with blonde or white hair, with a love of black velvet, picture hats, and luxurious fabrics.

3)     Artistic—with dark hair and dark eyes, a love of vivid colors, peasant necklines, and bizarre jewelry

4)     Picturesque—a woman with blue or gray eyes and fluffy hair, “or a gray haired woman who is not too dignified.” Delicate coloring, soft fabrics, no eccentricity.

5)     Modern—sleek, boyish, “just now shingle bobbed.”

6)     Conventional—not really a type but a kind of insecure person, a young woman who doesn’t know herself, “the older woman too stout to dare the type things she once could wear. The economical dress. The more than one season hat.”(480)

Some of these types—romantic, artistic, modern—are similar to those you can find today. Although I expect such categories to be shaped by current assumptions about income, ethnicity, age, etc., I was surprised by the close association of personality and hair color/style. Couldn’t the dark haired woman be statuesque? The “fluffy haired” woman dramatic? What about red heads?

And even though Bullock’s catered to a well off crowd, wouldn’t the majority of their customers still fall into that huge grab bag of category six?


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On the Farm, 1910s

farm3Although these photographs are of the same woman, they are of very different quality. In the picture on the right, developed in sepia tones, we can make out what looks like a simple cotton checked dress, one that could have easily have been made at home. On the left, the light parts are so overexposed that almost no details of her full apron and collared dress are clear. Based on the length of her skirts, I guess both snapshots were taken sometime in the 1910s.

What caught my eye was the shawl, a clothing piece I don’t often find in old photographs. I’ve mainly seen them in pictures of women in immigrant communities, like Louis Hine’s famous photos of the New York’s Lower East Side. There shawls were probably an inexpensive substitute for coats.

But that’s not the case here. Posed on her airy front porch, this woman looks like she picked her striped and fringed shawl for its style, not its cost.

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Half Sizes, Part 3–The Martha Manning Brand

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Although I don’t yet know when or how half sizes were invented, by the 1940s there were a number of clothing lines devoted to the older, shorter, wider woman. One of the best known was Martha Manning, a clothing company based in St. Louis. That their target groups was older women is clear from the language of their ads. “Martha Manning designs women’s dresses with a flattering air…Creates a youthful YOU.”

The company began in 1939, so this photo documents its early steps into department stores. I’m assuming that the women standing, mainly in lighter colors, are models. Those sitting, wearing dark colors, are the potential customers. You can see how the designers used tried-and-true methods for slimming down the figure—color blocking, vertical lines, drapey fabric, soft folds. The company also made some dresses in regular sizes, shown by the few young models on the right.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the garment industry in St. Louis was mainly associated with youthful fashion. However, as the New York Times fashion writer Virginia Pope pointed out, the city’s manufacturers excelled in many types of specialty sizes, including junior, tall, petite, and half sizes. She notes that Martha Manning was part of a large operation called Forest City Manufacturing that also made the junior brand Doris Dodson and the sportswear brand Glen Echo. (“Accent on Youth in St. Louis Togs,” New York Times, March 17, 1951.)

Vogue, September 1, 1958

Vogue, September 1, 1958

Martha Manning was not a budget brand. It advertised extensively in Vogue, beginning in 1941 and ending in 1965. Vogue editors returned the love, mentioning the brand fairly often in fashion layouts. Moreover, stylist to the older woman, Mrs. Exeter, endorsed Martha Manning styles four times in the 1950s. Here’s one 1958 example: “A secret that Mrs. E. discovered years ago: a soft coloured (violet’s the news here) jersey dress cut in two easy parts is one of a woman’s best friends in fashion. This, by Martha Manning, in Alamac’s Thalspun jersey of Orlon-and-wool; $25. Half sizes.”

If I’m not mistaken, the model playing Mrs. Exeter in the photo above is the globe trotting Mary Whelchel.

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