The Woman in the Marx Brothers’ Movies

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Part of the fun of Marx Brothers’ films is Groucho’s sarcastic ribbing with a rich dowager figure, a joke-filled interaction that reappears in seven films, including the classics Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and A Day at the Races.  The actress was Margaret Dumont, sometimes called the fifth Marx Brother.  Born in 1882, she was in her fifties when she played these famous roles.

In all the films, Dumont was the straight woman for Groucho’s jokes, many of which had to do with her size.  Here is one exchange from Duck Soup (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Dumont: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.

Groucho: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself! You’d better beat it; I hear they’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing!

To facilitate the jokes, Dumont dressed to emphasize her size, sporting tight and often shiny dresses clothes that made her look larger than she was.   The bigger she appeared, the more fun Groucho had knocking her down.

Posted in 1930s | 4 Comments

Made to Measure Clothing from Montgomery Ward

Montgomery Ward catalog 68, 1900. Click to enlarge

The big American catalog companies that started in the late nineteenth century—1872 for Montgomery Ward and 1888 for Sears—fueled the American ready to wear industry.  In order to supply clothing to far flung parts of the United States without easy access to goods, they used standardized sizing systems to fit a wide range of customers.

But what about those who didn’t fit the standard sizes?  That was one of the questions I had when I began looking through a full collection of Montgomery Ward catalogs housed at the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming. In the very first catalog I opened, I was intrigued to discover that the company offered made to measure clothing for women and men. “All garments will be made according to measurements sent to us, and positively cannot be returned or exchanged unless we are at fault,” the catalog copy read. “Alterations will be made at a reasonable charge.” Included in the catalog were detailed instructions on how to measure, with the offer of a free measuring tape.

Montgomery Ward catalog 68, 1900, Click to enlarge

Prices were high compared to other offerings. Model X2508 on the left above, with a bodice of shirred silk, cost $14.50.  At the same time you could buy a ready made linen suit for $4.99.  And if you wanted your custom outfit in a bust size above 46 inches (42 was the largest standard measurement), you had to pay extra.

There were only two pages of made to measure offerings this 1900 catalog. That was just a small fraction of the considerable offerings for women, including shirtwaists, skirts, suits, cloaks, and coats. Clearly custom clothing was not a large part of the company’s business—but I’m amazed they offered the service at all.

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For the Love of Circles, 1939

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I’ve just returned from a trip to Laramie Wyoming, where I spent a week looking through Montgomery Ward catalogs at the American Heritage Center.  Not everyone would call that a fun vacation, but I do!  You will see results from my research soon.

In the meantime, here is a 1939 photo of someone who liked a well coordinated outfit. Her jacket is trimmed with scallops (half circles) and embroidered with a circle and dot design  that evokes the swirly paisley print of her blouse.  She embellished the basic outfit with a necklace of round beads and a hat finished with netting decorated with small dots.  A woman with a theme!

This particular photo also comes with information on the back—an uncommon treat.  It gives the subject’s name—Grace Kissam; the date—May 1939; and the place—143 St., probably in New York City.  But what was the occasion?  Since she wears a flowery corsage, I am guessing it was a special event, like a wedding or an anniversary dinner.

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Gertrude Atherton’s Fountain of Youth

Portrait by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

What lengths would you go to in order to stay young?  In 1922, the then famous California novelist Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948) underwent an experimental x-ray treatment to her ovaries that was believed to stimulate estrogen production.  She pronounced the process a rejuvenation. This might have been the end of the story if she had not written about it in her most famous novel, Black Oxen.  More popular that Sinclair Lewis’ classic Babbit, which came out the same time, the book was even made into a movie–you can read the novel with stills from the film here.

The heroine of the novel, Marie Zattiany, was in her sixties when she had the treatment in Europe. When she returned to New York, her former friends at first did not recognize her. Marie was young looking, elegant, and sought after by younger men.  By contrast, her friends were old and wizened.  In the words of one, “At fifty, my complexion was gone, my stomach high, and I had the face of an old war horse.”  The heroine endorses the treatment not only as a way to radically improve appearance, but also to stimulate the brain. “What you call crankiness in old people, so trying to the younger generations, does not arise from natural hatefulness of disposition and a released congenital selfishness, but from atrophying glands.”(176)  Realizing that younger men were not for her, at the end of the novel Zattiany returned to Europe with a plan to save the continent from another war.

Atherton lived to the ripe old age of 89, still writing up until the end.  She certainly believed that the treatments were the reason for her intellectual and physical vigor.  Her doctor, the Viennese Eugen Steinach, was not so sure. When asked what the real secret was to staying young, he replied—heredity.

Read about Gertrude Atherton’s long career in Emily Wortis Leider’s biography, California’s Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and Her Times.

Posted in 1920s, 1930s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Exercise Classes at Century Village, 1973

In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency of US government sponsored a photo documentation project inspired in part by the efforts by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression. Called Docuamerica, the project lasted from 1972 to 1978 and focused largely on environmental issues.  However, a significant number of the photos were records of daily life, just like the earlier photos were.

One photographer, Flip Schulke, had a particular interest in older Americans.  The photo above, of women doing water exercises at the newly opened Century Retirement Community in West Palm Beach Florida, is just one of many he took at that site.  See more of his striking photos here.

Did Schulke like older women, I wondered as I looked at this photograph. He has placed the one with most unusual style at the center, a woman in a shower cap and sorely out of date sun glasses. But then I thought that perhaps he was the forerunner of Ari Seth Cohen’s photographic lens—pick the one who stands out in a sea of flowered swim caps.

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Pearls at the Picnic, 1960

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Well, here’s a reminder of how casual dress has changed.  I’m guessing that this 1960 photo is of some kind of club or church summer picnic.  All the women, middle aged and older, have shown up in summer dresses that still follow classic fifties styles. The men, who have moved away from the table, wear short sleeved shirts and khaki pants.  Not a pair of shorts or tee shirt to be seen.

Of course I’m most interested in the older woman above, not caught at her best moment.  Her dress is a neat shirtwaist print with a contrasting handkerchief in the pocket.  It has pearl button closures that match the double strand of peals she is wearing.  She has on lipstick and her hair is tightly curled. Clearly for her this was a special event, worth making a special effort.  What a shame we can’t see her shoes.

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Independence Day of the Future, 1894

Charles J. Taylor, Puck, July 4 1894. Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

If you are ever tempted to think that women’s voting rights, or women wearing pants, weren’t controversial, I urge you to look through the covers of the satirical magazine Puck at the Library of Congress. In this late nineteenth century cover, we see both issues combined.  The artist Charles J. Taylor portrays the achievement of equal rights for women as an apocalypse for men.  Above the three women ringing the bells for equal rights we see the phrase “Strike out the word male.”

This imagined new world has truly been turned upside down. Legions of uniformed women in bloomers on bicycles police the area.  The new symbol of the nation is a hen that lays eggs. And the national heroine is the first woman to wear breeches.

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We can only see the faces of two women clearly, the young and old bell ringers.  While the younger woman does not look pleasant, it is the older woman who comes in for the most satire.  Her gray hair is in unstylish, girlish ringlets, we can’t see her eyes because of her dark glasses, and her gleeful gaze looks positively diabolical.  And contrary to most evidence on contemporary fashion trends, it is the older woman who is the fashion rebel and has taken to wearing pants.

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Panta-loons by Jessie Gillespie, 1914

Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

Pants for women were an extremely controversial issue in 1914, as shown in this drawing illustrator Jessie Gillespie made for the Evening Star Sunday magazine in October, 1914. Looking through the Library of Congress’s archive of American newspapers, Chronicling America, it appears she made several satirical drawings on women’s fashion trends called “The Comedy of Clothes.”

Her witty title for this drawing, “Panta-loons,” conveys the message that the women who adopted this style of dress were crazy or else following the style leadership of clowns, who wore “the original Pantaloon.” All kinds of women come under censure here—tango dancers (a fad at the time) who switched skirts for pants, style obsessed women who followed the most avant-garde styles, following French designer Poiret, and sporty women who wore pants out riding or to the beach.  I don’t understand the reference in the lower right corner.  Is meant to imply that the pantaloon wearing young girl of earlier times had never grown up in the present?

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While most of the women depicted here look young, this protestor (one assumes for suffrage) definitely does not.  Her glasses, hair do, and double chin puts her in the older camp.  And she doesn’t wear on baggy pantaloons or bloomers; instead, her outfit looks like a tailored man’s suit. When I first looked at this drawing, I assumed that her “one touch of femininity” referred to the hat.  But at closer inspection, I think it might be her right shoe.  One step forward into the future.

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When did you get that hat? My guess—ca. 1938

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If ever there was a time for wild hats, it was the late 1930s.  Life magazine even did a special spread on hat madness in late 1937 called “Anything Goes as a Hat for a Woman.” It featured gloves, huge flowers, and gigantic bows on headgear, in addition to Schiaparelli’s famous shoe hat.  I thought the shape of the hat above resembled one called a “felt catchall.”

Life magazine, November 22 1937

So the hat in my photograph has a late 1930s look, but what about the clothes? The skirt length seemed to be from about 1938, but the straight silhouette didn’t quite fit my image of the era.

1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook. Click to enlarge

However, then I found this image from 1938 that was a close match the shape of the jacket and, to some degree, the skirt.

To add icing to the cake, Witness2Fashion featured a wonderful post on spectator shoes from that same year.  Some are similar to the ones my lady is wearing.

So I think this stylish woman was heading out to lunch around 1938. What do you say?


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The Height of Chic—Sewing Patterns for Older Women, 1938

Butterick Fashion News, April 1938. Click to enlarge

While leafing through the 16 page brochure, Butterick Fashion News from April 1938, I knew right away that this page was dedicated to patterns for older women.  What were the clues?

First of all, the drawings were different.  While other sketches showed women with page boys, these women wore their hair very close to their heads. One even has telltale lines under her eyes.

Then there were the descriptions.  Butterick 7802 was “for shorter, more mature figures,” Butterick 7799 was aimed at “mature women”; and Butterick 7815 was designed for “busy matrons.”

And finally there were the sizes.  The first two went from sizes 34 to 50 inches at the bust; the jacket and frock for busy matrons was offered in sizes 34 to 52.

Were these offerings for older women different than those made in smaller sizes?  Many variations of the two dresses on the left, with puffed sleeves and a shirred bodice, were available in sizes from size 12 up.  However, the dresses in larger sizes were less elaborate.

In addition, older and wider women were not offered the most avant-garde styles. According to the brochure copy, the innovation of the season was the Schiaperilli inspired bolero.  It was not available in the largest sizes, though.  The cute model above, Butterick 7788, was only offered in junior miss sizes 12 to 20 (bust sizes 30 to 38.) And the note the bolero clad junior miss also gets the most fabulous hat.

Posted in 1930s, General | Tagged | 1 Comment