My Homemade Travel Wardrobe

The internet phenomenon of Me-Made-May has once again got me thinking that I should show more of my own clothes on this blog. After all, I am an older (now 66) American woman who thinks a lot about clothes.

Recently I returned from a two and a half week trip to England, Switzerland, and Germany planned around visits to old friends. For me it was a snap to pack everything I needed into a carry on bag, with plenty of room to spare for presents and purchases on the way home.  I simply followed standard advice on wardrobe planning and built everything around a color scheme—mine was navy and rust.  Everything was “me-made” except for my raincoat and one scarf.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take the time to photograph all my outfits.

I planned around two jackets, a rust cotton twill based very loosely on an old jeans jacket pattern by McCalls (out of print M 5860) and a navy textured cotton in a symmetrical moto-jacket style (Sewnsquareone Upline Jacket.) To this I added three pairs of denim pants, five knit tops that went with the jackets, and one silk/cotton shirt for dress up.  The shirt, sewn years ago, is one of my favorite makes.  It has a silk front, with cotton knit sleeves and back.

My main accessories were five scarves. I was ready for anything with these pieces. Although the pants were denim, my silk shirt dressed up well for the theater. Navy gym shoes were good for long walks.

This wardrobe was the result of several years of sewing, and I think it would be hard to put together in a short period of time. Nonetheless, I am excited to see what the seamsters on Pattern Review will come up with in the currently running challenge to sew a travel wardrobe in a month.

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The Garrison Family at Schroon Lake, 1908

Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Archives. Click to enlarge

Well known for their progressive politics, the Garrison family was involved in the abolition movement, efforts to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the fight for women’s suffrage. This photo comes from the Garrison Family collection at the Smith College archives.  It shows them gathered for a vacation at a camp in the Adirondacks in upper New York State.

Most of the women wear light colors and high collars.  Those in dark dresses are predominantly older, a common color coding for the time. The matriarch in the middle has brightened up her dark outfit with white collars and cuffs.  The woman above and to her right has on the lace collar and cap of an earlier generation.  At the bottom, second from the left, is the feminist activist Ellen Wright Garrison in an austere looking black outfit.  Her hair is drawn back into a simple bun, not piled in the front in the popular Gibson Girl style.

I would love to know more about the middle aged woman sitting next to her in what looks like a traveling coat and a man’s tie, another popular turn of the century style. She looks ready to take on the world.

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Mother’s Day in Milwaukee, 1963


Wisconsin Historical Society

I love geometrics—give me a stripe over a flower any day. Mother’s Day is a flowery holiday, and the grandmother’s and granddaughter’s head gear give nod in this direction. However, the clothes in this three generation composition have the sleek look of the best of sixties fashion. This photo comes from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website and was originally published In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with the caption “A grandmother with daughter and granddaughter. They are nicely dressed for mother’s day.” The poses were obviously staged. Were they the winner in a “Best Mother’s Day Outfits” contest, brought into the studio for a prize shot? Or were they a fantasy family, with outfits assembled by a fashion editor?

Whatever the answer, there are many elements worth our attention here. At least in Milwaukee, the ideal outfit for a special day in 1963 included hats and gloves. The grandmother’s headgear is something I associate with earlier decades, including the flowers and the veil, but her clothes are right up to date. Essentially mother and daughter are wearing the same thing, a cardigan style jacket with contrast trim–differing only in their collar treatments. I particularly like the grandmother’s style, with three quarter length sleeves, a shawl collar, and an interesting textured knit fabric.  If it came in my size, I would wear it today.

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Mother and Daughter, 1960s

In preparation for Mother’s Day, I thought I would share some favorite Mother/daughter photos. This one is of particular historic significance because it memorializes the pink plastic curlers that I remember so distinctly from my youth. Was the daughter preparing for a big night out, or did the photographer catch her partway through her morning routine?

The affection between the two is clear from their smiles and the mother’s proud hug. I love the print on the older woman’s blue paisley shift dress, which looks like it comes just to the knee. It has a wonderful collar detail, called in one contemporary recreation a “sixties funnel roll neck.”  Here’s a similar style in a Givenchy pattern from the era:

Pattern image from

In her paisley shift dress, I think the mother looks more of the era than her daughter in this particular photo. But it is the younger woman who wears the pants.

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Edith Wharton in Knits, 1920s

From Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion

If you have read any of Edith Wharton’s novels, you know that she was extremely interested in clothes.  Lily Bart’s decline in House of Mirth is indicated when she can no longer afford to keep up with fashion.  In The Custom of the Country, provincial Undine Spragg makes her way to the top of the social pyramid in large part due to her keen eye for the right outfit.

Born to a well off New York family in 1862, Wharton was a sharp dresser in her youth.  She wore expensive, highly structured gowns designed by famous Parisian couturiers like Charles Worth and Jacques Doucet.  According to Katherine Joslin in Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion, as she aged and gained weight she gave up her corset and welcomed the looser styles of the 1920s.  Many of the photographs of Wharton in her sixties and seventies show her wearing knits.

Knits are the comfort food of clothing, allowing movement and forgiving bulges. I date America’s love affair with knits to the post World War Two era, when new artificial fibers hit the market in a big way.  However, this photo serves as a reminder that older women have been reaching for their comfort clothing for a very long time.


Posted in 1920s | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Spring Suit, 1940s

I remember knitted suits from my childhood, and they evoke a kind of musty feeling for me, perhaps because they were the favorite outfit of my least favorite high school teacher.  This particular photograph comes from the very late thirties or forties, judging by the length of the skirt.  Somehow the pleated skirt and the short jacket makes the outfit look a little juvenile to my eye.

She looks a lot better sitting down, where we can also see the details of her beret and her fabulous shoes.

Such knitted outfits were made on large knitting machines, the way that fancy clothes by brands like St. John Knits still are today. However, a very experienced kniier could also make her own, like we see in this pattern here.

Perhaps this woman was not only showing off her outfit, but also her skill with the needle.

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Balenciaga and the Older Woman

From The Master of Us All by Mary Blume

There are very few couturiers I have heard of who enjoy designing for the older woman.  Famous Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga was one of them. In the recent biography The Master of Us All by Mary Blume (2013), the author makes this point repeatedly.  “The women he really liked to dress…were oddly enough small, plump, and middle-aged…They were part of his experiment in sculpting form.” (150) The not very clear photo above from the book shows him and an assistant fitting Madame Zumsteg, the wife of his Swiss textile manufacturer.

Blume cites an incident where Balenciaga was demonstrating his fitting methods to Givenchy. “There were all those dummies of Spanish women who like anyone at a certain moment in life, Spanish or not, had bent backs and sagging bosoms…And we could see the woman starting to straighten up. It was wonderful so see little by little, and just with pins, the body rebalance itself.”(139)

When styles turned to favor the youthful body in the sixties, Balenciaga did not abandon his fascination with the older female form.  As the fashion critic Kennedy Fraser wrote about a Balenciaga retrospective in 1975: “It is not that Balenciaga clothes could never be worn by young women, but, rather, that they could be worn with great distinction by those who were no longer young.” (174)

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More War Workers in Pants

Click to enlarge

My brother is engaged in a long research project on our father’s career as a navigator during the Second World War.  As a lucky spin off for me, he has been sending photos of women workers he comes across, including this line up of aircraft workers at Boeing.

Many of these government war photos were posed, and this one obviously so.  The women are lined up and all wearing the same head scarves tied at the top of their heads.  I suspect this was the photographer’s idea, since I have seen war workers wearing all kinds of headcoverings, and sometimes no headcoverings at all.

While pants predominate, there are many different kinds of outfits on display here.  The woman on the left wears overalls, some look like they are in one piece jumpsuits, others appear to be in separates. There are a range of ages and body types as well.

The woman on the far right, who might be on the older side, isn’t wearing pants at all.  It makes her look like the boss lady.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

New Archives to Explore—Textile Records at Cornell University

Palmer Mill, 1920. Click to enlarge

Not everyone gets excited when they hear the word “archive,” but I do.  And combine “archive” with “textiles” and my blood really starts rushing. Recently, the history librarian at my university sent me news that Cornell University Library has acquired records from the library of the recently closed American Textile History Museum. They include photographs, trade catalogs, textile sample books, and more. That’s good news for those of us interested in fashion, labor, business, and textile history.

What makes the news even better is that Cornell has an excellent record of putting its holdings online. I frequently turn to its comprehensive collection of home economics materials, Hearth.  Photographs and documents from the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archive are at our finger tips through the library portal and on Flickr.  I’ve used their photos from the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union many times.

The photo above is one of the 47,000 images that are moving from Massachusetts to Cornell.  What other treasures will we find?

Posted in 1920s | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Easter Parade–A Dressmaker’s View

From the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

Do you know the song “In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it”?  As the song promises, there really were Easter Parades on Fifth Avenue in New York City.  The Library of Congress’s large collection from the Bain News Service, with photos from around 1910 to the end of the 1920, has a number of photos documenting this festive fashion event.

By far my favorite is this undated photograph of a dressmaker, standing on the left, noting fashion details.  Although there were many ways for dressmakers to get information for their clients—from magazines to displays in stores—obviously on the ground research would have special value.  It could serve the function of Red Carpet events today. The dressmaker could see how the clothes and hats looked on different body shapes, hair dos, heights.

Judging from the lengths of the skirts, this undated photo comes from the mid teens.  Head coverings had shrunk from the wild Merry Widow concoctions of a few years earlier, but they still were statement pieces.

What exactly is the decoration on the dressmaker’s hat?  A bow, a wing, a butterfly? And don’t you wonder what’s on her note pad?

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