Frances Willard Rides a Bike, 1894

Frances Willard House Museum and Archives

As a retired academic and woman of a certain age, Google is not my first choice for historical research. When I was looking for images of older women on bicycles recently, I turned to my preferred archival and library sites and found nothing.  But then I followed the suggestion of reader Anne S. and tried a Google image search.  There I discovered many photos of noted feminist activist and temperance movement leader Frances Willard (1839-1898), who took up bicycle riding in her fifties.  Not only that, she wrote a memoir about her experience called A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle.

Willard was the driving force behind the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, a social cause that it is difficult to empathize with today.  In the late nineteenth century, however, it was linked to a number of different reform movements that still have resonance, including women’s education, women’s suffrage, and fair wages for working women.  Willard was a tireless advocate for all of these causes.

Frances Willard House Museum and Archive

Suffering from poor health in her fifties, she decided that bicycle riding would be a means of healthy exercise and cheap transportation.  In her memoir, she made many comparisons between bicycle riding and horse riding.  She even gave her bicycle a name—Gladys.

Among her many avocations, Willard also believed in dress reform.  She was not a fashion radical, like Dr. Mary Walker.  Instead, she adjusted her clothing by choosing  a shorter skirt.  “January 20th 1894 will always be a red letter bicycle day,” she wrote in A Wheel Within in Wheel. “I mounted and started off alone… Gladys was no longer a mystery; I had learned all her kinks, had put a bridle in her teeth, and touched her smartly with the whip of victory.”

Posted in Pre 1900 | Tagged | 2 Comments

At the Trailer Park, 1948

“Mother 1948 with Susie Cat at Hooker Oaks Trailer Park,” it reads in a shaky hand on the back of this photo.  Although I was unable to find a location with that precise name, there was a Shady Oaks campsite in Chino, California operating in 1948; nearby was a tree called the Hooker Oak.

Given the many of photos I have of older women at camp sites, they must have been a popular vacation destination.  Usually (although not always) I find them in dresses or skirts. Not this woman, though.  Another photo gives more detail of our happy cat lady’s slim cut pants.

Women’s trousers were getting slimmer legs by the late 1940s, as you can see in Witness2Fashion’s post on slack suits here. However, these look even narrower than popular patterns at the time.

Another unusual style choice are her high top sneakers or basketball shoes, something I have never seen on an older woman in the forties before.  If you substituted the button up white blouse for a t-shirt, she would fit right in at a campsite today.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Visiting the Texollini Factory

Samples of Texolinni fabric. Click to enlarge

One of the members of my American Sewing Guild group organized a field trip to a local textile mill specializing in knits called Texollini.  According to our guide, Merchandizing Director Sherry Wood, the plant is one of the few vertically integrated plants left on the West Coast.  Fabric is knitted, dyed, and printed all in one facility.

Knitting machines and yarn spools

It was a real education in the planning, technology, and skill needed to produce textiles.  Texollini knits in the round on huge machines, using yarns from all over the world.  We paid close attention to the creation of two different textiles, one a very fine knit most likely for lingerie, and another adding lycra for stretch.  The machines operate automatically, but it takes hours of skilled labor to thread them.  They can knit polyester, rayons, cotton, wool, linen, and even cashmere in a variety of textures.

A dyeing machine

After watching the knitted tubes split open, washed, and dried, we moved on to the dying facility.  Here long swaths of fabric fed into machines that looked a little like submarines. The dying process takes hours to complete. Afterward the dye bath is filtered for harmful chemicals before it is put into the sewage system.

The plant includes a good sized quality control section, where dyes are first developed.  They produce samples that are tested for color, shrinkage, stretch, and piling.  Once the customer is satisfied, a full order goes into production.

Printing cylinders

Texollini knits to order. On the day we were there, we saw plain jersey polyester fabric knitted and dyed. Unfortunately nothing was being printed, but the big rotary screen printing machines were on view.  Thousands of cylinders are stored on site to print unique designs; clients can also use the design staff to create new patterns.

Seeing the laborious creation process for textiles made me rethink my sewing habits.  It takes so much time and effort to produce fabric, I’m going to take extra care when I use it.

Posted in 2010s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Politics of Valentine’s Day

University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. Click to enlarge

So you thought Valentine’s Day was all about candy and flowers?  During the early twentieth century, when women’s suffrage was a hotly debated topic in America, even this seemingly apolitical holiday sparked satire.

In this 1907 anti suffrage postcard, the artist shows a suffragette in a disheveled looking outfit, with an ill fitting coat, an asymmetrical skirt, and a lot of leg showing.  Is the implication that if suffragettes dressed better, they might get more support.  Although the figure has on a skirt, her hat, coat and big pin make me think that Dr. Mary Walker might have been the inspiration.

Posted in 1900s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Dr. Mary Walker, A Pioneer in Pants

Photo from the 1860s on the left and one from after 1878 on the right

Next time you worry that it might take a long time to reach your goals, consider the case of Dr. Mary Walker (1832-1919)–physician, feminist, and dress reformer. She worked her entire life to gain equal pay and suffrage, along with the right for women to dress as they pleased. For her, these issues were intertwined.  Walker died just before American women gained the right to vote, and we still don’t enjoy equal pay for equal work. It took a full century after Walker started wearing pants full time in the late 1870s for women to be able to wear them to work. Maybe in another century, all her goals—including respect for transgender people–will have been achieved.

Walker was born into the dress reform movement, a cause endorsed by both of her parents. In her youth and middle age, she wore a bloomer outfit featuring a short skirt with pants underneath. In this garb she attended medical school and worked as a doctor for the Union cause during the Civil War. Her dress constantly got her into trouble. It was used by congressmen of both political parties as a reason to deny her a government pension for her war service, even though she had been awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor.  She was accosted on the street and even arrested for her chosen style.

In the mid 1870s, Walker abandoned the dress part of the bloomer outfit altogether and started wearing pants and a frock coat. She also gave up feminine hairstyles, hats, and frills. Her most recent biographer, Sharon M. Harris, doesn’t offer any explanation for this extraordinary move in her study Dr. Mary Walker:An American Radical (2009).  Perhaps Walker decided that if she was going to be criticized for her clothes anyway, she might as well dress as she pleased.

Walker in 1911, Library of Congress

She continued to call her style “reform dress,” not men’s dress.  It was a changeless look.  She kept all the elements–straight legged pants, frock coat, and top hat–for the rest of her life, always accessorized with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

By the early twentieth century, Walker began to win praise from the press, which had hounded her in her youth and middle age. A 1911 headline in the Washington Post asserted that Walker, “whose ideas on garb were subject of rough jest the world over, lives to see many of them adopted” (Washington Post, September 10, 1911).

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

Puck’s Greeting to the New Year, 1898

Puck, January 5, 1898, Click to enlarge

The satirical magazine Puck was not always nice to the new woman of the late nineteenth century.  In this drawing, however, she is presented as a breath of fresh air, bringing flowers and a taste of Spring. It is the old woman, all in black and heading for the denuded forest, who is a symbol of gloom.

Usually the old and new are played by men in New Year’s drawings.  Here two women—on bicycles no less—get the starring roles.  Perhaps the cartoonist, S. D. Ehrhart, was making a joke about just how ubiquitous women on bicycles were.  The old woman makes her exit in an old fashioned bonnet and long skirts. The young woman rides in wearing a stylish hat and a very short skirt with leggings underneath.  Viewers get a provocative look up her legs.

This drawing was a caricature, with only a faint relationship to current styles.  In fact, most “wheelwomen” tried their hardest to make sure that their skirts didn’t ride up in front.  And, despite much searching, I have yet to see a photo of an old women on a bicycle.  Maybe you have one to share?

Posted in Pre 1900 | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Fur and the Older Woman in the 1920s

As I learned during a winter in Moscow with a borrowed muskrat coat, the primary reason to wear fur is to keep warm.  But in advice literature aimed at older women, fur was said to possess additional magic features.  Its texture brought a softness to the face and its expense signaled that the older woman had the means to buy something nice for herself.

These photos come from the 1920s, a period when fur became widely popular. Probably because it was the least expensive option, I have seen fur most often as collars on coats. Both the younger and older women in the photo above might have fur collars, but it is much easier to see on Mrs. Allcorn’s plaid clutch coat.

Sometimes the coats included fur cuffs as well, as in this 1925 photo of a mother and daughter.

Fur pieces (then called fur scarves) were very popular in the 1920s. “The entire animal came complete with legs, a tail, and a head featuring beady glass eyes and a spring tension mouth,” writes fashion historian Ellie Laubner. “Furs were nonchalantly draped over the shoulder of a dress or suit. They could then be fastened by snapping two of the feet together or by squeezing the clothespin style mouth to make the animal grip its leg.” (Fashions of the Roaring Twenties, 80) My grandmother was still wearing this style in the late 1940s.

The most expensive option was a full fur coat, a big ticket wardrobe item.  This 1929 photo of eighty year old Mrs. Augusta Day shows her adorned in some kind of plush fur from her head to below her knees.

Although fur was certainly not the prerogative of the older crowd, gatherings of well off older women with the time to join clubs sometimes could look like a fur convention.  This photo of a Women’s Christian Temperance Union gathering in 1922 shows fur in all its manifestations in collars, neck pieces, and full coats.  The women without fur look somewhat underdressed.

Women without much money could pick furs of lesser value.  I discovered that muskrat was the budget choice in the 1920s.  It might not be fancy, but I can testify that it stands up to a Russian winter.

Posted in 1920s | Tagged | 3 Comments

Grandmothers in Kerchiefs at Ellis Island

New York Public Library. Click to enlarge

Immigrants and refugees are on my mind, so I sought out images from Ellis Island taken by the great American photographer Lewis Hine.  These particular photos come from the New York Public Library. The old women traveled to the US from different places.  The one on left the arrived from newly formed Czechoslovakia; the one on the right came from Italy.  The woman in the middle is identified only as “Jewish.” The picture was originally taken in 1905, so it is safe to assume that she was part of the great migration from the Russian empire in the wake of pogroms.

When I was growing up, it was common to call a kerchief that tied under the chin a “babushka.”  As it happens, babushka means “grandmother” in Russian.  How fitting that these three grandmothers are all wearing the same headgear.  I hope they found happy homes.

Posted in 1920s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

“That Woman” Clothing from Marlo Thomas

Yesterday’s New York Times had a story about a new clothing line started by actress and feminist activist Marlo Thomas.  It was a fun read but I didn’t learn much about the clothes, so I decided to look into it on my own.

Thomas calls her line “That Woman,” a reference to her hit television show “That Girl” which ran from 1966 to 1971.  Her target audience is women over forty.  In an interview with People magazine she said that “Stores today either give the older shopper a choice of looking like my granddaughter or my grandmother. So I thought, I’m just going to do it myself.”

What does she think the older woman needs?  Certainly comfort.  Except for one woven jacket, the clothes are all knits. The skirt and pants have pull-on waists.  The one sixties-inspired dress goes on over the head.  They need functionality too—the simply styled clothes all mix and match. Thomas likes color, and her tops come in navy, pink, turquoise, and red. Because she wants her clothes to be “a little bit flirty,” several of the tops show a little skin.  Her philosophy—be covered, but not covered up. She is often photographed in a lace up top from the line that shows a bit of cleavage.

After taking a closer look at the clothes on the HSN site, I was surprised at how ordinary they were.  Except for the dress, I didn’t see all that much difference between Thomas’s line and the other clothes sold on the network. That isn’t too surprising, since the average HSN shopper is 59 years old. The fabric didn’t inspire me either. Polyester predominates in the pants and jackets. The tops are cotton and rayon blends.

But there is something refreshing about a line that states so boldly that it targets the older woman. Thomas’s size structure backs her up, with all styles in a range from XS (a 32” bust) to 3X (a 53” bust.)  And lets face it, these day it isn’t all that easy to fit a color blocked sixties style dress no matter where you look.

Posted in 2010s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A Georgia Grandmother in Pants, ca. 1934

Mrs. Rudolf Fast, Lakewood Heights, Georgia, 1934. Click to enlarge

What we call pants today were once known by many other names—bloomers, knickers, knickerbockers, trousers, and even pajamas.  I was reminded of the latter name by a 1931 Vogue article “Pyjamas—When Are They Worn?” The article uses the term pyjamas  interchangeably with trousers.

That sent me on a search for women in pyjamas/pajamas on my favorite site for historical photos, the Digital Public Library of America.  The site collects links from many local sources. Amidst the pictures of sleepwear was this photo of a Georgia grandmother with her granddaughters decked out in what looks to be jumpsuits, one piece garments with legs.  I’ll bet that they are all home made.

I don’t think Mrs. Rudolph Fast’s outfit was intended as sleepwear, since it included big pockets, gathered sleeves, and an embellishment down the front that looks like a zipper. (?!) The details on the little girls’ outfits also indicate that they were probably meant to be seen outside of bed.

Was Mrs. Fast a fashion rebel?  Did she venture outside her yard in her inventive outfit?  The 1931 Vogue article praised the newness of this style. “When you are dressed in a dress, after all, you are dressed in the same manner as your grandmothers and great-grandmothers have dressed for centuries. The lady in pyjamas is as new as flight, as skyscrapers, as television.”(Vogue, June 1, 1931, 110)

Posted in 1930s | Tagged , , | 1 Comment