Mission Beach, 1926

MissionBeach26One of my big ideas when I started this blog was to launch a crowd sourcing effort; I hoped that people from around the country (and the world!) would send me photos of American older women, ideally ones with stories behind them. While this dream hasn’t been hugely successful, I have had some wonderful contributions by readers who have sent in photos and stories about favorite family members, like this lovely remembrance of Nana MacDonald and these moving Memories of Bessie.

Other friends have kept an eye out for photos in thrift stores. This great example comes from the history librarian at my university, who has built a great fashion history collection over the years. She thought of my blog while rummaging through old photos in a thrift store in Southern California. Here are two families, the Gallups and the “B”s, relaxing at Mission Beach in San Diego. As with other beach photos I’ve seen from the early twentieth century, it’s interesting how few people are dressed for the water. Only the children seem ready to brave the waves.

The two women, Mrs. G. and M.E.B., look closer to forty than fifty. It’s too bad that we can’t see their skirts or their shoes. Mrs. G., in the back, wears all white—a sure sign that this photo was taken in the summer. She has on a plain white cloche hat, shielding her face from the sun, and a v-neck dress with ruffles down the front. M.E.B. has a much fancier hat, trimmed with flowers and a gauzy fabric, but it’s on her lap not on her head. Her dark dress has a gleaming white collar and cuffs.  If you click on the photo, you can see interesting horizontal pleating on the bodice.  No bobbed hair for her.

But it’s the man in the back, H.G.B., whose clothing interests me the most. All the other adults look quite well dressed—why is he in overalls?

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Book Review—An American Style: Global Sources for New York Fashion and Textile Design, 1915-1928 by Ann Marguerite Tartsinis

American Museum of Natural History Library

American Museum of Natural History Library

When I first discovered the work of Jessie Franklin Turner, I thought she was a fashion original. Imagine having the vision to turn to museum collections as your main source of inspiration. In this short book, a companion volume to an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center in 2013-14, I discovered that Turner was not an original at all. She and many others, including the famous textile designer Ruth Reeves, were the beneficiaries of inventive outreach programs sponsored by a number of New York area museums. The institutions opened up study rooms and gave lectures in the hopes of encouraging artists to create designs based on their collections.

The most ambitious of these programs was at the American Museum of Natural History. Here the goal was to create “a national design language built upon the forms of ornament of indigenous artifacts of the Americas.”(14) Organizers shunned European sources and instead focused on Eskimo clothing, Native American beading, and Peruvian weaving techniques. They held workshops for ceramists, textile designers, and sculptors. These efforts were promoted in the fashion industry by Morris de Camp Crawford, an editor of Women’s Wear Daily, associate at the American Museum of Natural History, and collector of Peruvian textiles himself.

These attempts to make a uniquely American aesthetic flourished at the start of World War One, when many Americans believed that they could set a separate path from Europe.  But by the end of the war, one that the US eventually joined, they faltered. Instead, artists began to look far and wide for their ideas. Turner is an excellent example. The designs depicted above, made under her label Winifred Warren and shown at the 1919 Exhibition of Industrial Art, were inspired by textiles from Bukhara and ancient Coptic patterns. While they weren’t exactly what the American design movement had in mind, they certainly were beautiful, original works made in America.


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Two Sisters, Two Styles—1950s

clamdiggersAre these women twins? They certainly could be, with similar facial structures and figures. They share style preferences too—with similar hair dos, glasses, and pants with pockets.

But despite all the elements they share, the women have quite different styles. The sister on the left is subdued. She wears a monochromatic solid color scheme and has only rolled her pants up to ankle length. With her thumbs in her pocket and her dark glasses, she strikes an elegant pose for this casual outing.

Not so her sister, with who has an exuberant, even whacky style. Standing with her hands in her pockets with a wide belt at her waist, she looks like Wonder Woman from the Planet Plaid. If you examine her clothes carefully, you’ll see that the plaid on top doesn’t match the plaid on the bottom. And what stood out even more to my seamstress’s eye was that the plaids on the bottom do not match at the seam line. Could these be homemade? She has rolled up her pants so far that they look like clam diggers.

Today we appreciate the range of styles in the dress of older women—but as you can see it’s hardly a new development!

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The Cloak of Invisibility

René Magritte, The Beautiful Relations, 1967

René Magritte, The Beautiful Relations, 1967

Many older women complain about feeling invisible—no one turns a head when we walk into a room. As Linda Grant writes in The Thoughtful Dresser, “I have watched the eyes of men sweep a room and find that apart from the girl crossing her legs, over there, it is empty. After a certain age, women are invisible.  Without a sexual stimulus, many men cannot process in the visual/conceptual portion of their brains that a woman is present.”(137) Perhaps the fear of invisibility is why some women adopt eccentric clothes—the outfit calls attention to itself even if the wearer does not.

But if you look at it another way, invisibility might be a good thing. It allows you to be the observer rather than the observed. It lets you look how you want without worrying about how others perceive you. “It’s quite interesting not to be noticed because you can listen very attentively,” said British writer Doris Lessing in a 1999 interview. (Cathleen Rountree, On Women Turning 70, 38).

Think about it—in science fiction and fantasy, isn’t invisibility a super power?

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Half Sizes, Part Two: The Record in the New York Times

New York Times, August 9, 1922

New York Times, August 9, 1922

On the hunt for the origins of half sizes, I turned to the historical listings of the New York Times, available through my university library. Since New York was the center of American garment production well into the twentieth century, it’s not surprising that the city’s newspaper of record would be an excellent source. While I discovered quite a bit, I still can’t pinpoint the origin of this size range in the ready to wear industry.

If my findings are at all accurate, half sizes appear to have emerged some time in the 1910s. The first advertisement I found was from the Abraham and Straus department store dated March 19, 1916. Tucked into a fairly long listing is this information: “Specially planned suits for Large Women—Half Sizes from 42 ½ to 56. Dressy and smartly tailored suits, made specially for the large woman, upon whom they fit with the perfection of a 36 and 38 upon the slightest figure.” (Women’s clothes were then marketed by bust size.)

That same year a short informative article about specialization in the garment industry appeared. “Many of the clothing manufacturers are producing designs now that were formerly left entirely to the merchant tailors or the book houses…’Odd sizes and half sizes are not passing fads in my opinion,’ [a clothier] said.”  (“Clothing Makers Specialize,” NYT, April 28, 1916)

Classified ads were the most fun. Studded with exclamation points, these small print ads did everything they could to attract the attention of potential wholesale buyers. “Dresses—Jobbers, attention!! Our Fall line is now ready!! The House of Meyer Prince has spared no efforts in creating their new Fall showing of stylish stouts, 42 ½ to 52 ½, every size guaranteed to fit. (“Offerings to Buyers,” NYT July 13, 1925.)

From what I could glean, the charming tale about half-sizes offered in Dorée Smedley’s You Only Live Twice—where one lonely producer thought up the size range on his own—is probably not true. Here’s a surely incomplete list of the brands producing half sizes in the 1910s and 1920s: F. F. Mendels; Bernstein, Baum, Da Costa; the House of Meyer Prince; Chapleigh Stout Dresses; United Stout Dress Company; Betsy Ross Dresses; and Cohen and Whellan.

Smedley’s version makes for a better story, though, so I’m not giving up my search.

Posted in 1910s, 1920s, General | Tagged | 3 Comments

The Lace Collar Revisted—A View from the Supreme Court

Official Supreme Court Portrait, 2010

Official Supreme Court Portrait, 2010

I’ve never given much thought to the look of Supreme Court justices—you’ve seen one black robe, you’ve seen them all, right? That’s why I was surprised by Ruth Bader Ginzburg’s lace collar, added to her robe. She’s sported this addition for some time, but I only just noticed it with all the attention Ginzburg has received for her strong dissent from a recent controversial Supreme Court’s decision.

Why the collar? Apparently the first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, started the tradition. According to a report on Huffington Post, she felt that the black robe washed out the color in her face. Her male colleagues had the advantage of having their white shirts peek out from beneath the robe; a white collar gave the same effect. Ginzburg has many different collars and has even presented one to new justice Sonia Sotomayor as a gift. She chose this interesting one from South Africa for her official photograph.

It should not come as a surprise that some fashion critics dislike the lace collar, which they feel disrupts the visual unity of the court. But really, these women are following a long tradition, using lace to bring light up to their face.

Posted in 1980s, 1990, 2000s, 2010s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Sylvia–Forever Fifty

Nicole Hollander, The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama (2010)

Nicole Hollander, The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama (2010)

Have you noticed how most cartoon character never age? How Dennis the Menace, for example, has been a preschooler forever? Well, the fifty-ish Sylvia never aged either. Here’s what her creator, Nicole Hollander, wrote about her: “As I noticed the signs of aging in myself, I found I was unable to visit them on Sylvia. So while as a smoker she should have a persistent hacking cough and ugly little lines around her mouth her mouth, her skin remains as fresh and unlined as on the day she was born. Sometimes she even got thinner while retaining her unlimited appetite for donuts.” (Nicole Hollander, Tales of Graceful Aging from the Planet of Denial, 243)

Her style didn’t change, either. She ignored the big shouldered suits of the eighties, the all-black minimalism of the nineties, and even the increasingly casual nature of American dress. Maybe Sylvia should have opened up a clothing store called “Forever 50,” stocked with vintage dresses, over-sized costume jewelry, and whacky headgear. I know lots of women who would shop there.

If you love Sylvia and Nicole Hollander, you can follow them on the blog Bad Girl Chats.

Posted in 1980s, 1990, 2000s | Tagged | Leave a comment

Ida Saxton McKinley—A First Lady with Cropped Hair

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The story of First Lady Ida McKinley’s rediscovered tiara has recently hit the media, after the piece showed up on the TV show Pawn Stars. The William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton Ohio has now stepped in to purchase it through donations from Ohio citizens.

I’m not much interested in diamonds, but the story encouraged me to investigate Ida McKinley herself (1847-1906), the first First Lady of the twentieth century. She had a very difficult life. Both of her children died young and she suffered a head injury that brought on neurological damage and a form of epilepsy. By the time that her husband was elected president, she mainly appeared in public while seated in a chair.

To deal with her disabilities, McKinley cut off her hair and wore it cropped closely to her head; the elaborate hats and hairdos of the era gave her headaches. For formal events, she wore the now rediscovered tiara–two diamond wings connected by a gold band—as elegant headgear. You can see both her short hair and tiara in this beautiful 1901 photograph. By attaching feathers to the tiara, she could give the impression of a dressy up do. I wonder if the women of the 1920s who cropped their hair knew that a First Lady had proceeded them.

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Vogue Endorses Fashion Eccentrics, 1935

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Mabel Dodge Luhan, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

In article called “The Middle Ages,” (July 1, 1935) Vogue offered a long list of fashion “don’ts” for those no longer young. Here’s an abbreviated version: Don’t wear bias skirts; contrasting belts; very low necklines; bright colors; or skimpy bathing suits. Except for the warning against bright colors (what, no orange?), I was perfectly happy to follow their recommendations until I got to this piece of advice. “Beware [of] slacks and lounging pyjamas: they are unbecoming and undignified even on a boat or in the privacy of your own bedroom, unless you are very straight and slim.”

But perhaps the unnamed author got tired of coming up with restrictions. The article ends on this hopeful note: “When you get to the age where current fashions bore you and seem to have very little relation to you, do as you please. Be picturesque, dramatic, and eccentric—make the most of your opportunity of being a grande dame.”

Unfortunately, Vogue offered no illustrations of this kind of free spirit. It’s easy to find photos of eccentric older women today, but not as simple for decades past. After much searching I found a photo of writer and art aficionado Mabel Dodge Luhan, taken in 1938 when she was about sixty. Perhaps she’s not Vogue’s idea of a grande dame, but she certainly looks likes she is doing just as she pleased.

Do you have a photo of an older eccentric from an earlier era that you would like to share?

Posted in 1930s | Tagged | 2 Comments

Women’s Bible Training Class, 1910

Schomburg Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division. The New York Public Library, via the Digital Public Library of America

Schomburg Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division. The New York Public Library, via the Digital Public Library of America

If you want to find the origins of a uniquely American style of dress for women, you can start with the shirtwaist blouse and dark skirt so popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although it was worn in other countries, it was most beloved in the United States. Europeans often complained that American women travelers, clad in their Gibson Girl outfits, all looked the same.

This photo, taken from a book by African American leader Thomas O. Fuller, shows that the shirtwaist and skirt combination had interracial and inter-generational appeal. The combination could be very versatile. Several of the older women wear a dark blouse with their dark skirts, making the outfit look more like a dress. I particularly like the striped blouse worn by an older woman on the right in the front. The white collar near her face, combined with the shiny buckle on her skirt, gives the outfit a very dressy appearance.

Given the similarities, you might think there was a dress code for this Bible training class. I doubt that was the case. If the photos I have seen are at all representative, this is how most American women dressed in 1910.

Posted in 1900s, 1910s | Tagged , , | 6 Comments