Hijinks at the Bowling Alley, 1950s

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Although their silly outfits don’t advertise the location, these women’s shoes and the flooring they stand on indicate that the photo was taken at a bowling alley.  Because of their costumes, it wasn’t easy to date the picture. But the expert Lizzie Bramlett felt that the picture came from the fifties, judging by their similar hair dos and make up.  If that’s the case, the woman on the far right might not be in a costume at all.

Bowling was a very popular sport for American women throughout the twentieth century.  The International Women’s Bowling Congress opened in 1916 and still holds national championships today.

Life magazine, May 5, 1947

Life magazine, May 5, 1947

If photos in Life magazine are any guide, women kept bowling well into their later years. Older bowlers wore skirts and dresses, while younger competitors put on pants. A decade later, some older women would don pants as well.

 

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The Sporting Life, ca. 1910

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

There is a long note on the back of this photo, partly obscured by black paper from where it was ripped from a photo album.  “Dear Emily,” it reads.  “Do you remember this swell crowd?”  Then the writer goes on to talk a lot about Bill, who looks a lot better after shaving off his whiskers.  According to the note, Bill is at the center of the action, teaching everyone tennis and learning how to dance.  I wonder if he is the tall man in the back on the right.

What a sporty looking crowd! Obviously it is summer time, given the white dresses and white shoes. Do you think the women really played golf or were they just using the clubs as props for the photo? The woman on the far night is wearing very flat shoes, often advertised for sports.  And although it might be hard for us to imagine women moving much in these outfits, historic photos show us that they did.

Mrs. Henry Philips, Palm Beach Florida, Vogue March 1, 1912

Mrs. Henry Philips, Palm Beach Florida, Vogue March 1, 1912

There are many clues leading me to date this photo to the early 1910s. First off is the length of most of their skirts, which show just the tops of their shoes.  Next are the hats, which turned from wide and exuberant to less dramatic in the first years of the decade. We see both styles here.

But it was really the necklines that grabbed my attention.  The “v” neckline, so common now, was introduced into ladies’ day wear around 1910.  Then it was an avant-garde style, regarded as scandalous by many who were used to the very high necklines of decades past.  In this photo the oldest women sport high necklines, while some of the younger ones wear the newer style. Corset types also appear to divide the generations.  While the older women look tightly packed in their clothes, the younger ones favor looser styles.

Were there discussions between young and old about just what was proper to wear in this group portrait?

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Opening Night at Fashion Island, 1967

The Irvine Company. Click to englarge

The Irvine Company. Click to enlarge

Fashion Island is a fancy outdoor mall in my neck of the woods. My husband, who has become interested in local history, found this photo on the Irvine Company website. Note the Mickey Mouse shaped balloons. It’s not too far from Disneyland.

I was fascinated by the older composition of the crowd—hardly a young face in the bunch. This must have been a closed party for the local businesses and community groups that supported the mall. Although the event was in September, the women are dressed for warm weather. September can be the hottest month of the year in Southern California.

Front and center are two women who show how the older set adapted to sixties styles. Their dresses are variations on the sheath dress, but not too tight. Their skirts are also not too short, and certainly several inches longer than youth fashion at the time.

The woman in white with the dropped waist and belt inspired me to take another look at older women from the 1920s. The photo on the right is cropped from a group portrait taken at a women’s club gathering in Los Angeles in 1928.

sixtiestwentiesThe structure of their outfits are similar—a belt at the dropped waist and a pleated skirt below.  I would even argue that their shoes have elements in common, both being on the conservative end of the fashion spectrum for their time. What is radically different is the stark simplicity of the sixties dress compared to the accessorized elements on the outfit from the twenties.  While I love clean lines, in this case I don’t think they are doing the woman in the sixties any favors.  The outfit accentuates her hips, while the neck tie and black and white contrast have a slimming effect on the woman from the 1920s.  Read about the long tie as an important element of twenties style in a fascinating post by Witness2Fashion.

 

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Bonnie Cashin’s Timeless Style

All photos from Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where you Find It

All photos from Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where you Find It

Some designers change their source of inspiration all the time, looking to Russia one year and Africa the next.  Others spend their lives refining basic shapes. The American designer Bonnie Cashin (1908-2000) belonged to the latter camp.  Sometimes is it only the color of her hair—white in this circa 1980 photo above—that gives you a clue to when photos of her were taken. She introduced leopard printed slim pants in the fifties and was wearing a version of them herself when she was in her seventies.

A model in Cashin pants, 1957

A model in Cashin pants, 1957

Cashin in the late 1970s

Cashin in the late 1970s

Stephanie Lake’s new book, Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where you Find It, is an exuberant overview of Cashin’s life and work. Lake shows that the main inspiration for Cashin’s designs was Asia. Known for the concept of layering, Cashin said she got the idea from San Francisco’s Chinatown, where men spoke of a “two shirt” or a “ten shirt” day.”(Lake, 96)  Her most famous cut was the Noh coat, inspired by kimono, with roomy often cut on sleeves.  She began making iterations of the coat in the fifties and continued throughout her long career.

Cashin in a Liebes shawl

Cashin in a Liebes shawl

A Cashin dress from Liebes fabric, 1960s

A Cashin dress from Liebes fabric, 1960s

Cashin’s basic design philosophy was to use simple cuts from beautiful fabric.  It is no surprise that she was a close friend of weaver Dorothy Liebes, who kept a loom at Cashin’s summer house.  Some of Cashin’s own clothes were made from Liebes’ hand woven fabric.

Stephanie Lake’s book is a beautiful introduction into Cashin’s work. She was a surrogate daughter for Cashin and inherited the designer’s vast archive, which she gave to UCLA. This study is based on that treasure trove. While I was frustrated by the book’s lack of footnotes, bibliography, and index (I’m an academic, after all), Lake has made the archive available for all of us to use. And if you have time on your hands, take a look at the Cashin photos and documents UCLA has put on line.

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Transparency in the Forties

Dazelle Foster Lowe, 1940

Dazelle Foster Lowe, 1940

My impression that older women favored transparent fabric is just that—an impression. I base it on my photo collection featuring older American women, cobbled together from found snap shots, magazine and newspaper articles, and pictures from online archives. Although it is large, I cannot claim that it is representative.

Los Angeles County Fair

Los Angeles County Fair. Click to enlarge

But left me present some examples from one decade, the 1940s, to illustrate my claim. At top is a photo of the head of the African American division of the Home Demonstration workers in North Carolina, Dazelle Foster Lowe, in a dress with a transparent bodice.  Next we see a lace maker at the Los Angeles County Fair in the 1940s with an entirely transparent dress.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Transparent arms and bodice were quite common on dresses for special occasions.  Here are three of many.

Do you have any examples to add from your family photo albums?

 

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The Fourth of July in Ohio, 1938

From the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

From the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

If you are an older woman and do not wish to display your crepey upper arms, what do you do on a hot summer day?  These three in Ashville Ohio show a common solution—pick a lightweight, transparent fabric.  The women on the left and right appear to wear dresses with a transparent upper bodice, with a dark lining or slip underneath.  We can see bits of their shoulders too.  Only the arms are visible on the woman in the middle.

From the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

From the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

The photos are by Ben Shahn, who is best known as an artist.  They are part of a series documenting a carnival like Fourth of July party in Ashville, Ohio.  There were free side shows, wrestling matches, and even a peep show where you could pay ten cents to see images of a “Nudist Colony.”  These three friends have worn their best summer dresses to the event–are they checking to see if they have the winning number in a raffle?

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Prime Time—A Feminist Journal for Older Women

March, 1976. Click to enlarge

March, 1976. Click to enlarge

When Marjory Collins lost her job in 1971 at the age of fifty-nine, she couldn’t find a new one.  Employers weren’t interested in hiring a woman of her age. Out of anger she created her own position, although one without pay. She founded a journal dedicated to women like herself who faced discrimination in later life. The magazine existed for seven years and developed sizeable subscriber base, including my university library. But without advertising or grant support, it was never economically stable.

I was able to read fourteen issues of Prime Time, dug up from the basement of a regional storage facility.  Some of the reading was quite familiar, addressing common themes of seventies era feminism.  Writers discussed the injustices of capitalist patriarchy and speculated about separatist feminist communities. They denounced the male dominated medical profession and advocated self defense.

But most of the letters and articles investigated issues I never considered when I was in my twenties. Economic survival was high on the list. Women who had lost their jobs or were divorced late in life wrote about their efforts to make ends meet. The challenge of menopause—and whether or not to take estrogen to “cure” it—was the subject of passionate debate. The most frequent theme was ageism and the particular discrimination that women faced as they aged.

PrimeTime2There isn’t much about clothing in the magazine, aside from a few denunciations of girdles, high heels, and higher prices for plus sizes. However, there is a lot about the social pressure caused by of America’s youth culture. Gray Panther founder Molly Kuhn writes, “Because society makes a fetish of being young and keeping up youthful appearances, the mythology of perennial youth is kept alive by lies, subterfuge, and self deception.” (June 1976, 7) One article on facelifts comes to the following conclusion, “The main tragedy is that it accomplishes so little, and only temporarily, and that the scars show.” (April/May 1977, 5).  Look the way you look—to paraphrase a slogan on Prime Time’s poster—was very much the message of the journal.

Prime Time was a shoestring operation, and it was Collins’ shoe.  She was editor, major writer, designer, and distributor, with most of the work done out of her New York city apartment. Her photographs were also frequent cover illustrations.  She took the one above in 1963 when she was covering the Civil Rights movement for the British newspaper The Guardian.

Wouldn’t you like to know more? Marjory Collins has a sizable archive at Harvard just waiting for the right researcher.  And if you ever come across a copy of that Prime Time poster, I’d make it worth your while if you sent it along.

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Angela Bambace, Labor Leader, Wears Vera

Kheel Center, Cornell University

Kheel Center, Cornell University

This photo from the Kheel Center’s International Ladies Garment Workers’ archive shows  the Italian American labor leader and feminist, Angela Bambace.  Born in 1898, she began working in New York City’s garment district when she was seventeen.   A formidable organizer, she is credited with opening the first women’s branch of the ILGWU in 1936.  Later she became involved in civil rights work in the South.

The Kheel Center has many photos of Bambace after she joined the executive board of the ILGWU, where she was often the only woman pictured in a group of men.  She was always beautifully dressed, as she is here.  Well into her sixties in this photo, she looks up to the minute in her boldly printed long sleeved shift dress, belted at the waist. If you look closely, you will see the distinctive signature of Vera Neumann on the dress.  Not everyone who works in and around the clothing industry is interested in fashion, but she obviously was.

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On the Porch, June 1951

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Written on the back of this large eight by ten inch photo is “Lottie and Mother, June 1 1951.”  I’m guessing that this is a birthday party or family reunion in honor of the old woman, center front.  She is surrounded by her children, grandchildren and spouses—a big clan.  The setting looks like the wide porches on Illinois farmhouses where I spent summers in my youth. The one man in the back left wearing overalls gives some credence to the farmhouse theory.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, fashion magazines and etiquette books advised older women to wear darker colors and small prints.  Those guidelines certainly don’t apply here.  The oldest woman is wearing the largest print, a light colored paisley pattern.  It is the youngest woman who has on the smallest print, the disaffected glamour girl in dots in the back row who appears to be wishing she were someplace else.

What a range of patterns here, from the classic paisley and polka dots, to novelty prints (a shamrock confection in the back; knights on horseback in the front), to florals and geometrics in between.  I tried to find facsimiles of the prints. These two swatches (approximations only) give an idea of just how colorful the gathering must have been.

patterns51In the midst of this riot of pattern and color, the older woman to the left of the grandmother has on what looks like a skirt and blouse combination in a plain fabric. Where did she get her fashion ideas?  It looks like she dropped in from another decade.

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Book Review: The Woman I Wanted to Be by Diane von Furstenberg

Journey of a Dress Exhibit, 2014. Photo by the LA Times

Journey of a Dress Exhibit, 2014. Photo by the Los Angeles Times

Back in the days when I wore dresses, I didn’t find the wrap dress very practical. When I wore it, the style was given to constant wardrobe malfunctions both on the top and the bottom. Since Diane von Furstenberg’s career is built on the wrap dress, I approached this book with some skepticism.

It is really two books in one. The first part chronicles her life story—her challenging mother, many love affairs, two marriages,  two children, and spiritual journey from an outwardly focused socialite to a more introspective woman. I did a lot of skimming.

The second half gives a frank assessment of the ups and downs of her business career, presented in three stages. Her first successes came when she was in her twenties and thought up her version of the wrap dress. Its phenomenal success brought in licensing agreements and fast expansion. In just five years, the bloated business collapsed, leaving her wealthy but unemployed.  During the second phase, she tried a number of different ventures—make up, on line shopping, a couture line.  It kept the money rolling in, but didn’t give her the recognition she wanted.  Finally in new millennium she relaunched her own clothing line, leaning once again on the wrap dress. Now she is an established feature of the American fashion scene.

Von Furstenberg is the first to admit that she had a lot of luck. She could trade on her aristocratic title, something many Americans admire. (She is a princess by marriage to the von und zu Fürstenberg family. One of many small princely families in the German speaking realm, it has not had any real political relevance since 1918.) She also had a lot of powerful contacts. But to give her credit, she came up with an excellent idea in her early days—combining a simple design with interesting prints on excellent fabric.

This book offers a mixed message on aging. On the one hand, Furstenberg writes about embracing her own aging process. She rejects plastic surgery and other radical interventions. “My image is who I am and even if I don’t always love it, I am intrigued by it and find the changes interesting.”(134) On the other hand, she judges her own success by how well her clothes resonate with young women. The clothing needs of the older women—at least those not as slim as she is–don’t get a mention.

VonFurstenbergExhibit2I attended the “Journey of a Dress” exhibit in Los Angeles in 2014, which documented the many iterations of the wrap dress. Although many people raved about it, I found the overdesigned display distracting. There were reproductions of fabric prints on the floors and the walls framing platforms filled with her iconic designs. But every so often, when I could focus on just one thing, I could appreciate that Diane von Furstenberg as an accomplished textile designer. Maybe one day we will get a glimpse into her archive of textile prints.

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