Black Friday, 1995

Los Angeles Public Library. Click to enlarge

There are many stories about the origins of “Black Friday” in the US.  Despite the checkered past of the term, these days it means big bargains in outlet stores and malls, a kind of shopping frenzy to kick off the Christmas season.

My daughter once had a friend whose family made an event of Black Friday shopping.  They got up at the crack of dawn and planned their strategy for the day, counting their bargains once they had finished.

Had the Filipino-American family above also planned their outing?  It must have been a lot of work just keeping track of the children. The men don’t look too happy, but the smiles on the women–especially the grandmother on the right–appear genuine.  She also might be the only one whose clothes weren’t bought at a mall.

Just so you know—I make it a point to stay home on Black Friday.

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Turkey Shopping in Boston, 1952

From the Digital Commonwealth via the Digital Public Library of America. Click to enlarge

After World War Two, American women began to expand the places where they felt comfortable wearing pants.  For the most part, grocery shopping was not on the fashion advisors’ list of proper places for such casual attire.  However, this perhaps middle aged woman was photographed wearing pants at the Quincy Market in Boston in 1952. The photographer even got her to pose with the bird slung across her back to indicate the sporty nature of the turkey hunt. And take a look at her shoes—no old lady Oxfords for her.

From the Digital Commonwealth via the Digital Public Library of America. Click to enlarge

But lest you think all shoppers in Boston had gone casual, here is another shot at the same store.  This woman dressed up for her turkey shopping with hat, coat, and gloves.

Perhaps the woman in the top photo was a store employee, posing for a joke shot with the local press photographer.  Whatever the case, the places where women could be seen in pants was expanding.

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Blanche’s Retirement Party, 1971

Click to enlarge

Time: 1971.  Place:  Data Products.  Event: A party for Blanche.  This much is clear from the notes on the backs of eight color photos I bought on ebay.  After looking at them for awhile, I think it is a good guess that they document a retirement party.  Blanche is the oldest person in all the photos.  In one she is shown shaking hands with someone who looks like the big boss and accepting a large envelope—perhaps a ticket for a Parisian vacation in gratitude for her hard work?

But lets move on to the clothes.  Data Products, wherever it was, had an older, mainly female, integrated work force. Blanche is by far the most conservatively dressed of all the women visible in the photos, with her beige jumper and white top. Her cat-eye glasses are no longer at the forefront of eye wear styles.  She doesn’t dye her hair.

Some of her coworkers have a bolder fashion sense. I am particularly drawn to the woman in the striped dress above, who looks to be in her fifties.  The contrast of horizontal stripes on the top and vertical on the bottom is interesting. The dress is short—just above her knees. Probably it is made of old style indestructible polyester, so it might still be available at a thrift store near you.

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The group photo is not a great shot, but you can see two older looking women in pants!  The one in the foreground wears white pants and a red sweater.  An African American woman in the back is wearing dark blue pants and a light colored tailored blouse.  This was clearly a place that had permissive dress code, if it had one at all.  Too bad that there was no formal group shot of everyone lined up so we could compare and contrast their clothes.

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Mother of the Bride, 1947

John and Bessie McHugh at their daughter Marge’s wedding, October 18, 1947. Click to enlarge

The Mother of the Bride dress above, worn by Bessie McHugh, is a good example of post war fashion on the eve of the “New Look.” The skirt it is longer than the length fixed during World War Two, which was regulated to hit just below the knee in order to save fabric.  The draped panel on the front is another example of fabric exuberance. As the very knowledgeable Jen Orsini pointed by, one big difference between immediate post war styles and Dior’s designs was the hand of the fabric.  Dresses in the immediate post war period were made of drapey fabric, while Dior’s designs were often made of stiffer textiles that held their shape.

Simplicity 1830, 1946. Click to enlarge

Bessie is probably in her late forties or early fifties here.  She has another figure style sometimes seen on older women—the missing waist.  Did she have her well fitting dress made for her? Did she make it herself?  The Simplicity pattern on the right above from 1946 has some similar lines.

Refashioner extraordinaire Eimear Greaney from Ireland sent me this photo.  Her relative John McHugh emigrated from Ireland to the United States, joining the vast Irish American community.  My great grandmother and grandfather were among them.  I have many more photos from Eimear to share. Stay tuned.


Posted in 1940s | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Two Body Types for Older Women

Click to enlarge

Judging by the one young man and the glimpses of cars and architecture in the background, I am guessing that this photo was taken sometime the mid sixties. This flea market find was most likely a press photo for a charity event. The seller told me that the man in the middle was possibly Walter Knott, founder of Knott’s Berry Farm and head of the Orange County John Birch Society.

But I am here about the women.  If it is the sixties, their clothes are nowhere near in style. Their skirts are too long and their dresses follow the shirtwaist silhouette of the previous decade.  While their clothes did not keep up with the times, their bodies show typical signs of aging.

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The African American woman on the right has very large chest, what used to be called a “matronly figure.”  Her breasts have dropped and her waist has risen. By the gap in her buttons, you can clearly see that the dress does not fit correctly.  She perhaps could have gone up a size for a better fit on top, but then the waist probably would have been too big.

Click to enlarge

The white woman in the middle has forward sloping shoulders.  If we could see her back, I would not be surprised to find a widow’s hump.  Her sloping shoulders and posture give her chest a sunken look.  Even though she is thin, she has a “menopot.” I’m guessing that she bought her dress to fit her waist, and then ended up with lots of extra fabric on top.  Her coat looks like it is pulling forward because of her extended back.

You might just overlook these two as old fashioned women, but if you can see beyond their clothes you can discover similar body shapes around you today. That’s why many older women say that their clothes don’t fit–and it’s a really good reason to take up sewing.


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How New was the “New Look”?

Left: Dior in Vogue, March 1, 1948. Right: Vogue Pattern Book, Oct/Nov 1946. Click to enlarge

In many fashion histories, the “New Look” introduced by Christian Dior in 1948 is portrayed as nothing short of a revolution.  With his famous collection featuring soft shoulders, nipped waists, full skirts, and longer lengths, he singlehandedly ended prevailing World War Two styles featuring boxy shapes and shorter skirts.

Left: Dior in Vogue, Sept. 15, 1948. Right: Vogue Pattern Book, Oct/Nov 1946. Click to enlarge

But how new were these ideas? I recently bought the October/November 1946 issue of Vogue Pattern Book and could see clear antecedents to Dior’s style upset.  While it is true that skirts weren’t as long as two years later, and shoulders were still fairly broad, there was an obvious nipped waist and a real emphasis on the hips. Skirts were heading down as well.  And while I saw no big full skirts in 1946, Dior’s collection two years later included slim suits as well.

Vogue Pattern Book, Oct/Nov 1946. Click to enlarge

In this overview of the essential new elements of 1946 style, there are several details that would disappear two years later, particularly the normal armhole, with its well padded shoulder. However others, like the padded hip, became a central element of Dior’s New Look.

I write this on November 7, 2017, exactly one hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution.  I studied this event for most of my adult life.  At first I was attracted to the ruptures that it caused, but the more I looked the more continuities I could see.  Revolutions aren’t built from nothing, not even fashion revolutions.

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The War on Pants for Women, 1972

Ladies Home Journal, March 1972. Click to enlarge

When women began wearing pants in public, they faced ferocious criticism.  I am used to biting comments well into the 1960s. “There are fortunate girls (usually under the age of fifteen) who look well in tight trousers; but I have seen so many bulging bottoms in Capri pants, shorts, levis and jeans that I’ve grown positively to dislike the whole trouser family–in public,” wrote costume designer Edith Head in The Dress Doctor in 1959.

However, I was surprised to learn that the criticism continued into the seventies, when pants had become common attire for women of all ages.  In Ladies Home Journal I came across this interesting critique of ads put out by the chain store Ohrbach’s.

At the time, Ohrbach’s was known for its witty advertising. (I couldn’t find stand alone examples of the ads above despite long searching). The ad on the left focuses more on body shaming than age, although the model is obviously not young. “Liberated ladies, don’t get upset. Ohrbach’s is definitely not opposed to pants for women,” the ad copy states. “But we don’t think pants are right for everyone…So if you are not sure that pants are right for you, come in and try on a pair.  See how you look from the front. See how you look from the side. And then do us all a favor and see how you look from the rear.”

In the second ad to the right, age is front and center. “Ohrbach’s doesn’t try to sell everybody the same style.  We know that a mother can’t always wear the same clothes as her daughter wears. And vice versa. So we make sure we have the right look for each of them.”

I have never thought of Ladies Home Journal as a source of up-to-date style advice, but in this instance the magazine went out of its way to show that pants could indeed be for everyone.  The editors put the wider woman into a long tunic with pants, covering up her hips.  And they dressed the trim older woman on the right in a sporty pantsuit.  “A woman of 40 will never look 30 dressing like 20—but she’s still not over the hill. Teenage fashions are fine for your teenagers,” the editors comment. “Avoid them, but you still don’t have to dress like the dowager queen.”

Posted in 1970s | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Who Said Halloween is Only for Kids?

Valley Times photo via the Los Angeles Public Library. Click to enlarge

Here is proof that the Halloween has been a multi-generational event for quite some time.  This posed photo was published under the title above in 1961. It documents planning for a party by the “Fun after Forty Club” in Burbank, just outside of Los Angeles proper. The two on the left are married, but you wouldn’t know it from the glances they are casting in other directions.

Although the sheath was coming into style in 1961, the two women wear popular fifties silhouettes with close fitting bodices and fuller skirts.  I wish we could see the clasps on the men’s bolo ties better.  I’m betting that the one on the left is a skull.

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Mrs. Ralston’s Fashion Advice for Older Women

Ladies Home Journal, March 1912. Click to enlarge

In the early years of the twentieth century the Ladies Home Journal fashion expert, Mrs. Ralston, wrote for a wide audience.  On her regular trips to Paris, she brought home news of the latest trends for the stylish set. However, she always acknowledged that the young and old might have different clothing needs.

What was an “older woman” for Mrs. Ralston?  She called women of fifty “elderly.”  By the time a woman reached seventy she had become an “old lady,” a term Ralston used without insult implied.

Much of Ralston’s advice had to do with ways to look slim. Although she acknowledged that some in the older set might be slender, she usually assumed that women gained weight as they aged.  Her tips included ones you could find in today’s advice columns, like wearing clothes with vertical lines.

Color was a big concern. Since aging brings changes in skin tone and hair color (before hair dye was common), shades that had worked in youth might not be flattering in age.  Although her advice was not always consistent, in general she leaned towards subdued colors, like pastels, beiges, and dull blues and purples.  Unlike some stylists, she remained a staunch advocate of black.

While younger women could often follow current styles with ease, she advised older women to strive for dignity. That meant sticking to more conservative versions of new trends and taking care to accentuate or camouflage certain areas of the body.  No tight fits, no stark color differences, no short(er) skirts, no elaborate hats.  Strive for softness, rather than hard edges.

A few these strictures fell away when she wrote about women who were (for her) very old. In the article “How I Dress my Mother at Seventy,” she paid more attention to comfort than fashion.  She advised soft fabrics, a loose fit, and garments that were easy to get on and off.  And although she frequently told fashion conscious older women to give up bonnets, she reported that her mother wore them with pleasure. “This may sound rather stiff and too old fashioned for the ‘young-fashioned’ old women, but when you think it over you will say that a bonnet string around an old lady’s face and chin is the most becoming thing she can wear.” (Ladies Home Journal, March 1912, 29.)

I was surprised to find that many of Ralston’s guidelines to fit my own views of fashion—aim for comfort, take what you like from current offerings, and stay more on the conservative side.  (No jumpsuits for me!) But her ideas on color stabbed me through the heart. “A bright, strong color can seldom be worn with any degree of becomingness by an elderly woman,” she wrote in May, 1903.  Perhaps that is so, but there is no way in the world I am giving up orange.



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Building a Better House Dress, 1952

Fashion Frocks, 1952. Click to enlarge

If you have spent any time bemoaning the fact that ordinary clothes don’t fit older women’s bodies, you are not alone.  I have found complaints stretching back to 1900, the start date of my research, and I am sure that it would be easy to find earlier examples without looking very hard.

The search for a better fit for older figures is also not new.  If you look through the fascinating Journal of Home Economics (available on the website Hearth) you can find many studies where researchers address this problem. One interesting example, published in 1951, is “The Design and Construction of House Dresses for the Mature Figure.”

To figure out what to change, researchers asked women what they wanted in an ideal house dress. Women over fifty responded that they looked for dresses that were suitable for shopping and entertaining friends as well as housework, even if that meant they were harder to clean.  They wanted big, practical pockets close to the waist.  A common complaint from older women was that the arms fit too tightly on most dresses, which made it hard to tackle household chores.  However, they did not want to substitute sleeveless styles because “they preferred to cover the upper arm for the sake of appearance.”

The clever home economists came up with a proposed style with longer arms and a bias gusset (an inset cut on the diagonal) under the arm in order to ease movement.  As far as I know, the idea never made it into wide scale production—I suspect because it would have cost a lot more than $2.98.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged | 1 Comment