Your Cosmetic Portrait by Helena Rubinstein, 1935

Your Cosmetic Portrait by Helena Rubinstein, 1935 in Beauty is Power by Mason Klein, 2015

Your Cosmetic Portrait by Helena Rubinstein, 1935 in Beauty is Power by Mason Klein, 2014

I’ve been reading a fascinating book on beauty care expert Helena Rubinstein, Beauty is Power by Mason Klein. It is the companion volume to an exhibit of the same name that recently closed at the Jewish Museum in New York, something I would have loved to have seen.

Rubinstein was already in her mid forties when she opened up her first salon in New York, after first gaining success in Melbourne, Paris, and London. Perhaps this explains her attention to the “mature face.” Unusual for her time, she also made makeup for darker complexions. The African American dancer Josephine Baker used her foundation in a color called Crème Gypsy.

Older women might have been happy to see themselves included in the chart above that shows just where to apply rouge. However, I wondered why there was such specific advice for different facial shapes in youth, but only one for the mature face.

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Fifteen Ways to Emphasize Shortness and Stoutness, 1939

From Dress and Grooming by Estelle B. Hunter

From Dress and Grooming by Estelle B. Hunter

Although this two page spread is ostensibly about height and weight, I think the real message is to warn against eccentric dress. The woman on the right has clothes and accessories that coordinate and follow current fashion guidelines. The woman on the left, by contrast, is breaking all the fashion rules. Her clothes are too tight, her top and skirt don’t match, and her accessories do not contribute to a cohesive look. Even her posture is “awkward.” The author is resolutely against standing out in a crowd. “Clothes should provide a background for your personality; therefore they should be unobtrusive…Lack of ostentation is still an in dispensable mark of good taste, just as gaudiness is a mark of vulgarity.”(12)

Photos of eccentric older women from the early and mid twentieth century are rare. Such women must have existed, since they are described in literature and used as bad examples in books like these. Perhaps other family members chose not to take their pictures.

These days older fashion eccentrics are everywhere, it seems.  It’s not hard to guess which of these two women would be featured on Ari Seth Cohen’s blog, Advanced Style.

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The New Look and the New Waist Line

NewLook49The November 1947 issue of Harper’s Bazaar was all about the New Look, that big style shift from the shorter, boxier silhouette of the World War Two era. It is the first time I really grasped the role of fashion magazines as a teaching tool. A feature called “Dear Bazaar” included a list of questions and answers designed to clear up any confusion about the change in style. To the query “What is the new look,” the editors replied: “The new look is a new shape, and that shape follows the lines of the best possible figure, emphasizing every feminine charm—the very tiny waist, the rounded bosom, the curve of the hips.”

The subsequent exchange revealed some of the anxiety on the minds of many, surely including older women who tend to gain weight at the waist. “You keep saying tiny waists. What happens when a woman simply hasn’t one?” Here’s the answer: “Every woman has a waist, and this year she must find it. She will have a lot of help from (1) the corsetieres who are making light, laced waistbands, higher girdles with shaping through the waist, and long, comfortable, bodice-brassieres; (2) wide grosgrain waistbands sewn into your dresses and skirts; (3) padding at hips and bosom, to create by contrast the optical illusion of a tiny waist; (4) waist line exercises.”

I’m not sure how old the woman is in this 1949 snapshot found in a thrift store, but she could be pushing fifty. Certainly she does not have a tiny waist, but she does have one. It is emphasized by the shape of jacket, with a broader shoulder, the curve in at the waist line, and the expansion out at the hips. Was she wearing one of the new girdles designed to help create this shape, I wonder. And was she keeping up with waist line exercises?

 

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Two Elderly African American Women, St. Augustine Florida

Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/132518

Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/132518

This beautiful photo comes from the Richard Twine collection, available at the extraordinary site, Florida Memory. Twine was an African American photographer who documented the St. Augustine neighborhood of Lincolnville, the center of black life in the city in the early twentieth century. In just over 100 photos, Twine shows a prosperous community of elegant churches, tidy houses, and comfortable parlors. There are also numerous studio photos, mainly of stylishly dressed young men and women. This photo is an anomaly. Were these unnamed women perhaps relatives?

Archivists know that the photos were made in the 1920s, but you couldn’t guess it from the clothing here. The women’s dark outfits follow the styles of previous decades. At first glance their skirt and blouse combinations seem almost identical, but there are subtle differences. The woman on the left wears an A-line skirt, perhaps with pockets on the side. Her simple blouse buttons up the front and her shoes look well worn. The woman on the right appears to be more prosperous, or maybe just more dressed up for her photograph. Her skirt is gathered at the waist and her blouse has the sheen of silk or highly-polished cotton. Note the wide hems—those skirts were made to last.

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Seventy Years Young by Emily M. Bishop

New York Times, June 15, 1907

New York Times, June 15, 1907

As you might imagine, I read a lot of books on aging. In general, the authors fall into two large camps. The pessimists contend that aging is a process of limitations; gradually we lose skills and eventually we die. The optimists argue that much of aging is in our minds; if we keep a good attitude, we can run marathons until we are one hundred. My generation, the never-say-die boomers, tends to take an optimistic view. But we didn’t invent this approach, as shown in this very optimistic volume on aging published in 1907.

The thesis of this book is that habits cause aging, and thus everyone should try to inject elements of surprise and adventure into daily life. It is possible to be old acting and stuck in your ways at forty; likewise, it is possible to be active and lively at seventy. What makes the difference, Bishop claims, is your approach to life. A seventy-years-young-person will find a new hobby, join a new club, and see new places. “Keep out of ruts—ruts of thinking, feeling, talking, acting, living! That is the physiological and psychological recipe for prolonged youngness.” (73)

Ever consistent, Bishop extends her ideas to the world of fashion as well. Dressing according to proper standards “results in the sacrifice of individuality, of simple sincerity of expression and of youthfulness,” she claims. (97) Older women should throw off their black dresses and wear more color. If they have the means, they should get rid of shabby old outfits and try a new style. Sound familiar? As a fashion adviser, Bishop was definitely ahead of her time (and maybe current writers are riffling through old books.)

My search for a photograph of Emily M. Bishop came up empty, but it wasn’t hard to find out about her life. Born in 1858, she wasn’t anywhere never seventy when she wrote this popular book, which went through numerous reprintings. (It is available from many sources on line.) Bishop was a Delsarte teacher, a system of gestures and movement that was a precursor of modern dance. She lectured about movement, health, and aging on the Chautauqua circuit, an adult education project in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. In addition, she penned home economics pamphlets and was part of the women’s suffrage movement.

Emily Bishop died in 1916, not quite making it to seventy.  I wondered what she was wearing in the last decades of her life.

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Remembering Alice Reingold

Reingold47Alice Reingold, the grandmother of a high school friend, lived the high life in Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1960s. Of a German Jewish background, she “married down” when she took up with an Eastern European Jew. He proved to be a good catch, though, working his way up from a watch repair shop in Portland Oregon to become the owner of an elegant jewelry store in Beverly Hills. They ran in fast Hollywood circles, with wide friendships in the movie industry. Her husband played poker with gangster Bugsy Siegel and Harry Warner, one of the founders of Warner Brothers.

Always impeccably dressed, Alice never went out in anything but a coordinated outfit. Dressmakers came to her house to make her clothes. Although this photo is not dated, I’m guessing that it comes from the immediate post war years given the cut of the shoulders and the length of the skirt. Note the sensible shoes and the beautiful gold broach.

How old was Alice here? My friend believes she was born around 1890, although no birth certificate was ever found. That would put her in her late fifties. Since she lived in the land of forever-young starlets, Alice was always very sensitive about her age. She instructed her grandchildren to call her “Honey” because “Grandmother” made her feel old.

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The World of Sue Burnett, 1973

SueBurnett4Sometimes research is best done on ebay, my own guilty pleasure. There I discovered that Sue Burnett patterns put out its own pattern magazine, called immodestly Basic Fashion: THE Magazine for Women who Sew. The issue I found was for Fall/Winter 1973, but there are records for them back into the 1950s.

SueBurnett5The sixty-five page magazine belies the company’s reputation as one aimed primarily at the older set. It begins with fifteen pages of “Young Originals” patterns, which cost more than other offerings. Some of these were designed by young fashion students. Although they might not be right on top of fashion trends (there were no midi skirts, for example), the styles included wide legged pants and long skirts, styles that could also be seen in the Vogue Pattern Book at the same time. Janet Lai Wong’s three piece ensemble above included a conservative looking dress, but it also had a jumpsuit, part of the seventies revival in style again today. (And tell me why—those things were never comfortable in my humble opinion.)

SueBurnett6After the “Young Originals” came eleven pages of patterns apparently aimed at all kinds of women. On offer were dresses, separates, jumpers, and even pant suit patterns. The one on the left, modeled by a woman in high platform shoes, even came in half sizes.

GraceColecompositeBut Sue Burnett did not forget her older customers and devoted six pages to patterns meant specifically for them. “Our Grace Cole Originals are designed to help the woman with the fuller figure who often has fitting problems,” the copy reads. Dresses here ranged from size 38 to 50, or bust sizes of 40 to 54, with half sizes for shorter women with a bust size from 33 to 47 inches. These styles did look dated to me, with many unbelted sheath styles harkening back to the sixties.

The magazine included instructions about specific sewing techniques, lists of helpful notions, and advice on how to mix patterns to make a coordinated wardrobe. There were also patterns for doll clothes, for children, and even a few for men. To show that Sue Burnett was keeping up with textile trends, it even offered a two page explanation on how to sew ultra suede, a quintessentially seventies fabric that is notoriously hard to sew. And there were no ads at all! For those who wanted simple patterns and good tips on sewing, this might have been a more useful magazine than Vogue Pattern Book.

My copy of Basic Fashion belonged to Anna Mae Norris.  Guessing from the discrete check marks she made next to favorite styles, she wore half sizes.

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Frumpy by Design—Famous Features Patterns

SueBurnettcompositeWhile most pattern companies try hard to keep up with current fashion, this was not the business model at Famous Feature Patterns. The company existed from the 1930s until the 1990s and sold patterns through newspapers under names like Sue Burnett and Peggy Roberts. This was only one of many companies that distributed low cost patterns through newspapers.

In her interesting book, A History of the Paper Pattern Industry, Joy Emery draws on an interview she had with the last owner of the company in 1996, the year Famous Features closed. “The styles of the patterns were consciously not high-style (even ‘frumpy’), meant for more lasting appeal,” the owner said. (79) Because the company did not care about current trends, their styles could be recycled through the decades. Except for the small changes in the waist treatment, style 8885 from 1945 is almost identical to number 8250 two decades later.

Older women were one of the target audiences for these patterns, which were inexpensive and offered in larger sizes. If someone grew attached to the “Versatile Shirtwaister” when she was in her thirties in 1945, she could make it again twenty years later in a larger size. This might be one solution to mystery of how some women seem to be wearing new clothes that are nonetheless far out of style.

AuntBette71Maybe a Sue Burnett pattern is the source of Aunt Bette’s dress in this 1971 photo.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s | Tagged | 6 Comments

Mary Boyd, Character Actor

Mary Boyd's head shot, 1950s

Mary Boyd’s head shot, 1950s

You might imagine that someone living in Southern California would have personal connections to the movie industry. Not so in my case. My nearest brush with fame is through a close friend, whose grandmother worked as a character actor in film and television in the 1950s.

Her name was Mary Boyd, 1883–1970. Born in Kentucky, she lived most of her adult life in Idaho, where she managed a garage with her husband and raised four boys. A decade after her husband died, she moved to LA in 1950 to live with one of her sons. In order to qualify for Social Security, she decided to take up acting, surely an unusual step for someone well into her sixties. She signed up for acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse and then got a contract with MGM. The highpoint of her career was a singing and dancing role as a townsperson in Brigadoon. According to my friend, the IMDb listing for her is not complete—hardly surprising for someone in very small roles. The 1967 book Who Is That? The Late, Late Viewers Guide to the Old, Old Movie Players lists her in the section of “miscellaneous ethnics” because she was so often cast as the Irish maid.

Mary Boyd and her sons

Mary Boyd and her sons

Boyd was an excellent seamstress and went to fashion shows at Bullocks Wilshire to study the latest styles. She would then come home and sew up her own versions for herself, her daughters in law, and granddaughters.

Known to her sons as “Tootsie,” Mary was no shrinking Violet. In her daily life she dressed in bright colors and prints, remembers my friend. Perhaps she made this boldly printed dress, ignoring all advice given to older, wider women to favor small patterns and soft colors. When she went out, “she would dress to the nines, with a black cocktail length dress and as much jewelry as she could fit on at once and not look ridiculous.” Mary Boyd was obviously a character, both on and off the screen.

 

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“I’m Proud to Admit I’m a Grandmother,” 1947

Harper's Bazaar, 1947

Harper’s Bazaar, 1947

Most advertisements containing grandmothers refer to their homey, family loving qualities. This is the earliest I’ve seen that praises her as a glamorous figure. It’s worth noting that this stylish grandmother appears over half a year before the birth of Mrs. Exeter in Vogue in June 1948. Maybe there was something in the post World War Two atmosphere that made people see older women as a new consumer market.

I discovered this ad in the reference room of the main library in Denver. My sister and I happily spent the better part of an afternoon thumbing  through their complete collection of Harper’s Bazaar magazines. She was looking for interesting textiles; I was on the hunt for older women.

Iphone in hand, I chose issues from 1935 (height of the Depression), 1947 (the start of the New Look), and 1960 (a fashion era I like.) I learned a lot. First of all, it’s hard to take photos of bound volumes, since the pages are apt to be curved. Any advice on how to solve this problem? Second, my record keeping techniques need work. I believe this image is from November 1947, but I cannot swear to it. Getting references wrong is akin to grand theft for a professional historian, so I need to up my game.

These days, you can stumble over piles of anti-aging creams in every supermarket. In 1947, Charles of the Ritz was in the vanguard of this beauty trend. The company no longer exists, sold first to Squibb, then to Yves St. Laurent, then to Revlon. It is mourned by many. Read through the comments on this blog post. And for the adventurous, you might want to try a new version of this cream, renamed Rejuvenessence, available on Amazon. And this isn’t the only one! Sherry Lane cosmetics offers My Essence Moisturizer, another attempt to recreate a classic.

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