The Evolution of the Slacks Suit in Montgomery Ward Catalogs

Montgomery Ward catalog 120, 1934. Click to enlarge

What exactly is a “slacks suit”?  It isn’t quite what we mean by a pantsuit these days, a matching pair of pants and jacket with the versatility of a man’s suit. In the 1930s, when the term emerged as a fashion concept, the slacks suit was most often a matching shirt and pant combination designed specifically for leisure wear.  Often the matching shirt had short sleeves.

I found the first mention of a slacks suit in the Montgomery Ward catalog in 1934.  The outfit came in standard misses sizes, up to a 40 inch bust, but the designs were obviously aimed at younger women.  “Smart as a college sophomore,” read the catalog copy.  The pants were described as “mannish,” but with a scarf at her neck, jewelry, and a beanie hat, the model underscored the feminine.

Montgomery Ward catalog 136, 1942. Click to enlarge

Montgomery Ward sold slacks suits at various intervals between 1934 and 1947, with offerings picking up during the war years.  The outfits above, which came with matching skirts, were described as “weekend trios.” In case you missed their playful purpose, the models were posed against sand dunes.

Montgomery Ward catalog 136, 1942. Click to enlarge

In 1942 I came across the first slacks suits in women’s sizes, with bust measurements going up to 44 inches. Apparently the audience for slack suits was expanding.  Unfortunately, the styles in larger sizes tended to be on the conservative side. No cute stripes for this group.

Montgomery Ward catalog 147, 1947. Click to enlarge

Much rarer were slack suits with matching tailored jackets, looking more like what we understand as pantsuits today. Infrequent during the war, they became more common in the immediate post war years.  They even came in women’s sizes. Where were they worn?  They seemed to promise a broader range of places where pants were acceptable attire.

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Atomic Bomb Hat, 1946

From Wikipedia Commons. Click to enlarge

What is more amazing, the cake or the hat?  This photo marks a celebration of atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in November, 1946.  In a series of blasts on the tiny Marshall island, the US government aimed to investigate the effects of the explosions on flora and fauna. It was obviously a different time in American history, when the words celebration and atomic bomb could be easily linked.  As I’m sure most of you know, the bathing suit was named after the bomb blast.

I could not find any information about the woman in the photo, the wife of Admiral William H. P. Blandy, pictured on the left.  In this photo, Blandy was in his mid-fifties.  I think his wife looks to be in her fifties also.

Apparently the photograph caused some controversy.  A letter to the editor by Navy officers to Time magazine reported that the admiral and his wife were not responsible for the cake; they merely were on hand to cut it. The hat might serve as evidence to the contrary, though.

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Florida Flapper, 1924

Florida Memory, 1924. Click to enlarge

This woman isn’t really a flapper, a term most accurately applied only to very young women. However, she has certainly embraced key elements of the 1920s style.  She wears a dropped waist dress decorated with pleats and pintucks to add interest, giving a geometric touch to the outfit.  She has added a long strong of beads, another element of twenties style.  While her hair is hidden under the hat, from the little wisps visible it does not seem like she has had it bobbed. Take a close look at her fabulous strappy shoes, a style I would happily wear today.

The photo reveals many of the problems of twenties fashion for figures that were not straight up and down. The dropped waist draws attention to a wide part of her figure, attention she probably didn’t want.  To compensate, she has added many elongating lines.  The edges of her shawl, the pleated fall on her dress, a waistline sash, and the long rope of beads all help to drawn the eye up and down.   Her black accessories–hat, necklace, shoes–have the same effect.  I’m not sure it makes her look thinner, but it really made me notice her shoes.

If you love twenties styles, be sure to check out at the fascinating blog, Witness2Fashion.

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What to Wear on a California Vacation, 1914

Special Collections, University of California Irvine. Click to enlarge.

Although this group had hiked up a small hill for the photograph, the chauffer-looking fellow in the background makes me think that they were probably traveling by car.  Some had dressed for exercise more than others.  The youngest woman, second from left, might have made it through some rough terrain with her short skirt, heavy socks, and saddle shoes.  The woman directly to her left, though, apparently had no intention of hiking. She looks like she had just left a lunch party in her hotel.

The oldest woman at the center was the most bundled up. My guess is that it was probably winter when the photo was taken.  When she heard she was making a winter trip, she brought along her warmest clothes, including a heavy coat, not imagining that a winter in California could be quite warm.

Note the array of hats, not one alike!  I think the simple, wide brimmed style in the far right was best suited for the winter sun.  But doesn’t her skirt look extremely narrow?

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Amy Vanderbilt on (and in) Pantsuits, 1971

Vanderbilt in Ladies Home Journal, January 1971

I have always considered Amy Vanderbilt (1908-1974), America’s mid-century manners maven, something of a fussbudget.  Consider her 1952 advice on evening meals: “Every woman should change for dinner, if only into a clean house dress…Fresh clothes and makeup, even if you are to be alone with the children for a simple meal, are psychologically sound and bring a needed change in the day’s pace. Fresh grooming for evening is one of the criteria of gentility.” (Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, 1952)

That’s why I was surprised to discover that she was a staunch advocate of pants and pantsuits for women in public in 1971, at a time when the practice was still somewhat controversial.  “Who’s wearing pants?” she asks. “Practically everybody. College girls and grandmothers. Nurses in white pants uniforms, lady lawyers in court and well-tailored clubwomen. In big cities pants are increasingly seen on streets and offices.”(Ladies Home Journal, January 1971, 24)

She does have a few caveats, of course.  Some restaurants refuse them, so ask ahead. Be careful with accessories. Distinguish between outfits for the street and for evening wear. Remember your femininity. Watch the fit.

But this a short list compared to her enthusiastic endorsements.  Pantsuits are appropriate for work and for evenings out, she writes.  One can even wear them to church and funerals. She would not object to a woman in a pantsuit calling on the President. “Aunt Minnie might frown, but she is more than likely already in a pantsuit herself.”

Vanderbilt obviously practiced what she preached.  The small photo accompanying the article shows her at age 63 wearing a pantsuit while talking with Jean Larriaga, the owner of Le Mistral restaurant in New York. In the article, she implies that she was trying to convince him to change his policies on pantsuits.

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Who Was Mrs. Ralston?

Ladies Home Journal, December 1901

If you have ever looked at issues of Ladies Home Journal in the early twentieth century, you probably have come across articles by one Mrs. Ralston.  She gave advice on current fashion trends for all age groups and answered questions from readers. Ralston began her work at the very end of 1901, peaking around 1910.  After that, her articles began to taper off, ending altogether after 1917.

So who was she?  I’m lucky to have many digital resources through my university, including the Women’s Magazine Archive and  Using them I was able to put together a partial picture of her life.

Born in 1870, Virginia Louis Tartter came from Washington DC to Philadelphia with her widowed mother in the 1880s.  After making a brilliant debut, she married into Philadelphia high society in 1889.  Her husband was Frances W. Ralston, a military officer and cricket player.  After her wedding, she and her husband were frequently mentioned as part of the city’s exclusive set.

But in a few years, things changed. Mrs. Ralston opened a millinery shop on the city’s fashionable Rittenhouse Square.  Marriage problems? Money problems? A desire for a creative life? The newspapers did not say.  They simply mention her great success and then in 1899 her move to Philadelphia’s biggest department store, Wanamaker’s, as a buyer.

Ladies Home Journal, March 1903. Click to enlarge

In December 1901, Ladies Home Journal introduced her as the editor of a new department of women’s clothes. “Mrs. Ralston knows the world of needs as well as the world of fashion, because it has been part of her business to study the needs of the moderate purse…As a mother, she has dressed her child; as a daughter, her mother; as a business woman, she knows what best becomes business women; a lover of pretty clothes herself, she is regarded as one of the best dressed women in the East.” (Ladies Home Journal, December 1901)

Ladies Home Journal, September 1909. Click to enlarge

Her work in the journal was extensive.  Looking through the entries, I was surprised to discover how much she wrote about sewing.  She suggested redesigns of old clothes in new styles and gave extensive advice on possible fabric choices.  Her own designs were  frequently included. At first they were just inspirational line drawings, but starting in 1905 you buy paper patterns from the journal for fifteen cents.  Bust sizes for the outfits for “elderly” women pictured above went up to 44 inches.

In 1910, at age forty, Ralston changed course again. I discovered a newspaper notice  announcing that she had formed the “Mrs. Ralston Company” with the intention of opening a millinery and sewing school. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 21, 1910) While still contributing to Ladies Home Journal, her articles became less and less frequent.

From 1910 to 1920, she faded from newspaper coverage also.  Philadelphia newspapers listed several millinery and dressmaking schools, but none bearing her name. However, in 1921, one local paper announced she had been hired as an instructor for a course in modern dress design.  “The School of Industrial Art has secured Mrs. Ralston, at present Designer for the Leading Modists, Ladies’ Tailors and Dressmakers in America and for nine years with the leading Houses of Paris” (Evening Public Ledger, Oct. 1, 1921). Had she been in Paris in the intervening years?

Mrs. Ralston’s last mention was in the New York Times on February 11, 1925.  “Mrs. Virginia Ralston, said to have been at one time connected with the Ladies Home Journal of Philadelphia and other women’s publications, was found dead today in an Atlantic City beachfront hotel.” The cause—apoplexy, or stroke. She was only 55.

Soon I’ll share Mrs. Ralston’s views on proper dress for older women.


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The Changing Seasons in Iowa, 1953

Click to enlarge

The contrast of the clothing drew me to this picture.  The family group—mother, two daughters, and son—are dressed up for chilly weather, while the two women on the left are wearing light colored summery clothing.  I’m thinking someone snapped the photo at a transitional moment, either April or September, when the weather can quickly change. (April is probably a better guess, given the flowers on the trees.)

Most of the writing on the back of the photo is covered by paper remnants left when it was ripped from a photo album.  Still legible is the place and date—Peterson Iowa, 1953. Already in the 1950s, the population of this small farming town in north west Iowa was shrinking.

The mother on the right doesn’t look like she had updated her clothing much since the forties.  Her coat has very wide shoulders and her skirt is fairly short for the time.  She has tied her kerchief close to her head.  However, her older daughter in the middle had an eye for current style. She wears cropped pants, crew socks, and perhaps tennis shoes.  Her scarf looks like it was adjusted more for color than protection.

1953 Simplicity pattern, Click to enlarge

Where did she find cropped pants in her small town, far away from any big city?  Perhaps she made them herself. She might have used this 1953 Simplicity pattern, or maybe she trimmed off the legs of some pants she already owned.  One thing is for sure–she didn’t get them from Montgomery Ward.  The company, never fashion forward, didn’t offer cropped pants (called “fancy pants”) until 1954.

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Looking Your Fashionable Age, ca. 1969

Click to enlarge

Many older women of fashion had a hard time in the 1960s.  Youth was in style and new ideas filtered up from the street rather than down from designers who might have had some sympathy for older shapes. Perhaps to give comfort to the no longer young, the Consumer Service Division of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union put out a pamphlet called “Looking your Fashionable Age.” I was fascinated to discover that the union not only made clothes, but gave advice on how to wear them. There is no date, but the original collector hand dated it 1969.

After reading lots of fashion advice books, you begin to notice common themes that don’t change much over time.  This pamphlet was full of old chestnuts: discover your personal style, pick pleasing colors, maintain good posture, and be meticulous in grooming.

Click to enlarge

But some of the tips come straight from the sixties. Embrace the stylish looser fit, advised the authors, Helen Lack and Viola Rossi. “A dress or jacket can be shaped-in in front without giving away how many inches you are around the bosom, waistline, or hipline.” (2) Shift dresses with a little flare below the waist are comfortable options for most occasions.  But leave mini skirts to the young. “The hemline brushing the knee or a little below remains as fashionable, and a desirable discretion. Lower than this is dowdy.”(7)

The pamphlet urges older women to try fashion experiments. “’Mature’ and ‘clubwomen’ are old fashion words easily associated with being afraid to change your thinking.  And that isn’t you!”  But daring could go too far.  Pants in public were probably a risky option for most, since ones body shape might not be pleasing to “viewers, (your husband, your friends, and the public.”) Instead, the authors recommend pants only for fishing trips or backyard gardening. “Other days you will flatter yourself from balmy June to September to sticking to some version of the shift or smock.” (9)

Did readers know what to do after finishing the pamphlet?  Be in style, but not too trendy; be bold, but not too brazen; please yourself, but don’t offend your viewers. I was certainly confused…

This treasure comes from the capacious files of Lizzie Bramlett.

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Claire McCardell’s Pop-Over in the Montgomery Ward Catalog

Montgomery Ward catalog 139, 1943. Click to enlarge

If any designer came to embody a streamlined, no fuss “American look” during World War Two, it was Claire McCardell.  She was famous for her innovative designs and inventive use of humble fabrics like gingham and denim. One of her most iconic dresses was the “pop-over,” a wrap around style that came with a matching attached oven mitt.

I was amazed to find McCardell pop-overs on offer not once, but twice in Montgomery Ward catalogs during World War Two.  (Unfortunately, my scans are poor, since the paper was both shiny and wrinkled.)  Unlike the Sears catalog, Montgomery Ward never used movies stars or celebrities to sell its clothes, nor did it use designers’ names.

So why did the company want to sell McCardell’s pop-over? Perhaps it was the dress’s wild popularity.  Fashion historians Kohle Yohannan and Nancy Nolf, who wrote Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism (1998), estimate that the dress sold in the hundreds of thousands. The catalog thus offered its customers a chance at popular, everyday elegance.

Montgomery Ward also negotiated a good deal.  The pop-over usually cost about two dollars more than the $4.98 catalog price.  I thought at first it was perhaps  because this was a trimmed down version.  Unlike the dress in the Metropolitan Museum collection, it has fewer buttons and no quilting.  However, the Yohannan and Nolf book shows an ad for the exact same gingham version above on sale at Lord and Taylor for $6.95.

It would be fascinating to find out how many popovers the company sold.  While it was offering the dress at a very good price, it was still a relatively expensive option for the catalog.  In the same issue, fancier looking street dresses were on sale for $2.98.

Montgomery Ward catalog 140, 1944. Click to enlarge

In the next issue, the popover appeared again, this time in plain cotton and printed chintz. But they had to share the page with Montgomery Ward’s own versions of at home wear, sold at the same price point.  Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine who would have chosen such ordinary dresses over McCardell’s classic.

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On the Ferry, 1943

Dorothea Lange, Oakland Museum. Click to enlarge

On a recent visit to relatives in the San Francisco Bay area, I went to the Oakland Museum’s exhibit, Dorothea Lange–The Politics of Seeing.  The museum is the depository of Lange’s archive, so it was a chance to see some of her lesser known photos.  The one above was new to me.  Luckily I can spare you my iphone snap, since I found it reproduced on a history site put out by the museum.

Not only was the photo unfamiliar, so was the theme.  It shows Chinese American workers heading home on the ferry that sailed between San Francisco and the giant ship building facilities across the bay in Richmond during World War Two.  I knew the war had opened up opportunities for African Americans, but had never seen evidence of new work for Chinese Americans. According to the Oakland Museum’s California history site, some 15% of the Bay Area’s shipyard workers were Chinese American. Lange is well known for documenting the fate of Japanese Americans on their way to interment camps, but this was the first of her photos I had seen that featured California’s other important Asian population.

The older Asian American woman featured above wore the outfit of a shipbuilder, with sturdy pants, a kerchief to protect her hair, and a hard hat on her knee. Enlarge the photo to see the label “labor” on her hat. Before the war she might have had a service job in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but the opening of the shipyards gave her the chance for a better paying union job. Instead of a lunch box, she carried her food in a straw basket with a plaid napkin. It’s an elegant touch to her workaday attire.

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