A Granny in a Granny Dress

grannydressDo you remember the long dresses of the late 1960s and early 1970s, brought to us courtesy of the hippies? In my circle, they were called granny dresses, especially if they involved any kind of frills or lace. Despite the name, these were the almost exclusively worn by young women who wished to look dreamy and comfortable. Sometimes they were homemade out of Indian bedspreads.

But here we have what looks to be a real grandmother wearing a long granny dress. Her hairstyle is from the sixties, but the photo could be from the early seventies as well. (It would be helpful if I could place the print on her granddaughter’s outfit.) The dress has a yoke at the top and is gathered underneath, a style sometimes called a Mother Hubbard. Looking through her crocheted sweater, which comes from an earlier era, it appears to have short sleeves. My guess is that the fabric printed, not really patch work.

Was she following fashion, or did she come up with this solution on her own as a way to feel comfortable in her wheelchair?

Posted in 1960s, 1970s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Virginia Pope—An American Original

Photograph by Arnold Newman

Photograph by Arnold Newman

Where is the biography of Virginia Pope (1885-1978), longtime fashion editor for the New York Times and one of America’s foremost fashion promoters? Pope came from money and it took a long time for her to find her calling as a fashion writer. Born in Chicago, she tried out many occupations before coming to the Times: Hull House worker, Red Cross volunteer, translator, and Broadway dancer. A bird lover, she opened a “Birds’ Hospital and Sanatorium” which at one time had more than five hundred patients. (“Bird Pets of Society Have Their Own Hotel,” NYT, August 12, 1923,). She was forty-eight years old when she assumed the fashion beat.

Like Dorothy Shaver, she helped to establish the global reputation of American designers. Pope fought to have designers mentioned by name in the Times. In 1942 she started an elaborate New York fashion show, “Fashions of the Times,” which focused on American design. Organized to show the “far-reaching democracy of American fashion” (“War-Time Changes in Fashion Shown,” NYT, October 7, 1942) the first show featured “tin salvaging” slacks in corduroy as well as a gown by Hattie Carnegie. In the late 1940s, she began promoting the American pattern industry as well. You could write a good history of New York fashion just from her articles alone.

Sam Falk, New York Times

Sam Falk, New York Times

Pope cut a wide swath through the American fashion industry, winning many awards and accolades. When she received an award for Outstanding Support for American Design from American Fashion Designers, Inc. in 1952, Dorothy Shaver pronounced that she was “one who sees fashion as part of the basic aspect of living.” (NYT, Nov. 4, 1954) She was one of the founders of the New York Fashion Group and the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Ebony, September 1961

Ebony, September 1961

It isn’t easy to find good photographs of Virginia Pope. Here’s what I could discover about her style. She was always dressed very properly, with pristine white gloves and what Bill Cunningham called “rakish hats” on top of her blue tinted hair. In her Times obituary she is quoted as saying she was a “drunkard about hats,” unable to purge her collection of hundreds. (NYT, January 17, 1978)

Where is the Virginia Pope archive? Her letters to designers? Her personal correspondence? Her hat collection? Since Cathy Horyn, another former fashion writer for the Times, is planning a book on the newspaper’s fashion coverage, perhaps we will learn more about this remarkable woman soon.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Grandmother King, Hood Rubber, Watertown Massachusetts

HoodRubberThis fascinating photo was a lucky find at Flounce Vintage in Los Angeles. The owner thought it was set in a laundry; my guess was a garment factory. Neither of us was right. The key to the mystery was on the back: “Grandmother King (white hair between the two men) Hood Rubber Company Watertown.”

It wasn’t hard to find company records, housed in the Baker Library at Harvard University. Hood Rubber existed from 1896 to 1929, when it was bought out by the big rubber company, B. F. Goodrich. Here’s a description from the archive: “The main product of the company was footwear, principally sneakers. It also manufactured rubber boots and leather shoes and boots in smaller quantities. Several models of the Hood rubber boots were used by French, British, and American armed forces during World War I.” The company had very progressive employee benefits, including a dentist on site.

HoodRubber2There’s an interesting mix of work clothing depicted here. The men are in their undershirts—perhaps they were the haulers of those big bales in the background. The young women wear white shirtwaists with dark aprons over their skirts. Given their Gibson-girl-like hair styles and high collars, I am guessing this photo was taken closer to 1900 than 1910. Grandmother King has on a dark blouse with stripes or narrow lace on the bias. Her age and her dressier outfit give her an air of authority over the other workers. Might she have supervised the men as well?

What exactly went on in this room, with its wall of windows, high work tables, and piles of fabric on the side? Since Hood Rubber made sneakers, perhaps the canvas bodies for the shoes were cut out here.

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Italian Mothers Club of Philadelphia at the New York World’s Fair

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

The dome and sphere that you see in the background of this photograph are the two most important symbols of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, so famous that they even got their own stamp.  The New York Public Library houses an extensive collection of documents and photographs from fair, including a small scrapbook with snap shots of various women’s clubs that made a point of visiting as a group. This particular club came from the heavily Italian part of South Philadelphia. Given their light weight coats and the foliage on the trees behind them, I’m guess that the photograph was probably taken in the spring of 1940. (The fair ran from April 1939 to October 1940).

I’m always interested in finding generational differences in clothing styles, but there is little to see here. While there is a range of ages in the group, from the sixty-ish woman center left to some very young women on the sides, the clothing is quite uniform. All but two young woman wear dark coats; everyone has on a hat (although only a few clutch gloves.) Coat lengths vary, but that doesn’t break down easily by age.

And look at their shoes! Most are in the sensible lace up oxfords so beloved by older women for decades. Only a few braved another kind of footwear. In his informative study The Seductive Shoe, Jonathan Walford says that the heeled oxford was a favored shoe of working women by the forties, especially nurses.(178) These Italian mothers probably didn’t work outside the home, though. I think they picked this style because it was a  comfortable, yet still dressy, walking shoe.

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Heading Out, 1928

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

This beautiful portrait by Florida botanist J. K. Small shows an older woman and child on the steps of their house. I found it on the website Florida Memory. Since Small mainly took photographs of the flora of the Everglades, I would love to know why this small family group caught his eye.

Where are these two headed in their dressy outfits? Maybe they are going to a party or a church picnic. Both are dressed all in white, including white stockings. Another version of this photo shows the older woman in a white straw hat.

The little girl wears the current fashion of the twenties, a dropped waist dress complete with cloche hat. Note her bloomer underwear barely visible and the garters holding up her stockings. She clutches a tiny square purse (or lunchbox?) just in front of the cat.

It’s hard to see the details on the older woman’s dress because the white is over exposed.   But this looks to me like a long shift dress, either without a defined waistline or one high up below her chest. It’s a look that I have seen on other older women in the 1920s. Perhaps she decided that a dropped waist didn’t look good her—it rarely flattered an older shape. Or perhaps she didn’t have interest or the money to keep up with current trends.

Posted in 1920s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

California Stylist: A Trade Magazine for the West Coast Garment Industry

California Stylist, October 1964

California Stylist, October 1964

The California garment industry began expanding in leaps and bounds in the 1930s, and the magazine California Stylist (1937-1971) was there to document the process. I first discovered it while doing research in the Irene Saltern archive, which contained issues that featured her work. It is now extremely rare; according to World Cat, only the Los Angeles County Museum Library contains a near full run of the journal. It was able to find three issues from 1964 on ebay, but they were pricey.

Featuring only women’s clothing California Stylist was one of four periodicals put out by California Fashion Publications. (There was another one for menswear). Despite the California title, the journal also covered other West Coast production areas, like Portland Oregon. Filled with advertisements by garment manufacturers and fabric producers, it also had features on current fashion. The intended audience appears to have been department store and boutique buyers.

The October 1964 issue featured suits. I was drawn to the older looking woman on the cover, with her extreme make up and odd hat. (Is it just me, or does that look like a fancy shower cap?) Writers were eager to emphasize that a California suit was different than those made elsewhere: “A way of life called forth a particular styling effort, and the California suit was born. Characteristically slim and elegant, pacing so many new trends, relying on color and lightweight fabrics and fresh new ideas, this concept has an identifiable look wherever it travels in the world.” (88) In the fourteen page feature on suits, I was surprised by the dressed up look of the models. Over half of them wore hats (although no more shower caps); all but one wore gloves.

CalStylistPantSuit64But one thing really caught by eye, an ad by Oscar Beverly Hills featuring a “tailored slack suit for street wear.” Wouldn’t you say that this was a predecessor of the pant suit? I would love to know if it caught on.


Posted in 1960s | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

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.


Posted in 2010s | Tagged | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , | 4 Comments