Angela Bambace, Labor Leader, Wears Vera

Kheel Center, Cornell University

Kheel Center, Cornell University

This photo from the Kheel Center’s International Ladies Garment Workers’ archive shows  the Italian American labor leader and feminist, Angela Bambace.  Born in 1898, she began working in New York City’s garment district when she was seventeen.   A formidable organizer, she is credited with opening the first women’s branch of the ILGWU in 1936.  Later she became involved in civil rights work in the South.

The Kheel Center has many photos of Bambace after she joined the executive board of the ILGWU, where she was often the only woman pictured in a group of men.  She was always beautifully dressed, as she is here.  Well into her sixties in this photo, she looks up to the minute in her boldly printed long sleeved shift dress, belted at the waist. If you look closely, you will see the distinctive signature of Vera Neumann on the dress.  Not everyone who works in and around the clothing industry is interested in fashion, but she obviously was.

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

On the Porch, June 1951

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Written on the back of this large eight by ten inch photo is “Lottie and Mother, June 1 1951.”  I’m guessing that this is a birthday party or family reunion in honor of the old woman, center front.  She is surrounded by her children, grandchildren and spouses—a big clan.  The setting looks like the wide porches on Illinois farmhouses where I spent summers in my youth. The one man in the back left wearing overalls gives some credence to the farmhouse theory.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, fashion magazines and etiquette books advised older women to wear darker colors and small prints.  Those guidelines certainly don’t apply here.  The oldest woman is wearing the largest print, a light colored paisley pattern.  It is the youngest woman who has on the smallest print, the disaffected glamour girl in dots in the back row who appears to be wishing she were someplace else.

What a range of patterns here, from the classic paisley and polka dots, to novelty prints (a shamrock confection in the back; knights on horseback in the front), to florals and geometrics in between.  I tried to find facsimiles of the prints. These two swatches (approximations only) give an idea of just how colorful the gathering must have been.

patterns51In the midst of this riot of pattern and color, the older woman to the left of the grandmother has on what looks like a skirt and blouse combination in a plain fabric. Where did she get her fashion ideas?  It looks like she dropped in from another decade.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Book Review: The Woman I Wanted to Be by Diane von Furstenberg

Journey of a Dress Exhibit, 2014. Photo by the LA Times

Journey of a Dress Exhibit, 2014. Photo by the Los Angeles Times

Back in the days when I wore dresses, I didn’t find the wrap dress very practical. When I wore it, the style was given to constant wardrobe malfunctions both on the top and the bottom. Since Diane von Furstenberg’s career is built on the wrap dress, I approached this book with some skepticism.

It is really two books in one. The first part chronicles her life story—her challenging mother, many love affairs, two marriages,  two children, and spiritual journey from an outwardly focused socialite to a more introspective woman. I did a lot of skimming.

The second half gives a frank assessment of the ups and downs of her business career, presented in three stages. Her first successes came when she was in her twenties and thought up her version of the wrap dress. Its phenomenal success brought in licensing agreements and fast expansion. In just five years, the bloated business collapsed, leaving her wealthy but unemployed.  During the second phase, she tried a number of different ventures—make up, on line shopping, a couture line.  It kept the money rolling in, but didn’t give her the recognition she wanted.  Finally in new millennium she relaunched her own clothing line, leaning once again on the wrap dress. Now she is an established feature of the American fashion scene.

Von Furstenberg is the first to admit that she had a lot of luck. She could trade on her aristocratic title, something many Americans admire. (She is a princess by marriage to the von und zu Fürstenberg family. One of many small princely families in the German speaking realm, it has not had any real political relevance since 1918.) She also had a lot of powerful contacts. But to give her credit, she came up with an excellent idea in her early days—combining a simple design with interesting prints on excellent fabric.

This book offers a mixed message on aging. On the one hand, Furstenberg writes about embracing her own aging process. She rejects plastic surgery and other radical interventions. “My image is who I am and even if I don’t always love it, I am intrigued by it and find the changes interesting.”(134) On the other hand, she judges her own success by how well her clothes resonate with young women. The clothing needs of the older women—at least those not as slim as she is–don’t get a mention.

VonFurstenbergExhibit2I attended the “Journey of a Dress” exhibit in Los Angeles in 2014, which documented the many iterations of the wrap dress. Although many people raved about it, I found the overdesigned display distracting. There were reproductions of fabric prints on the floors and the walls framing platforms filled with her iconic designs. But every so often, when I could focus on just one thing, I could appreciate that Diane von Furstenberg as an accomplished textile designer. Maybe one day we will get a glimpse into her archive of textile prints.

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, 1990, 2000s, 2010s | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Employee Christmas Party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, 1945

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

At a local fancy flea market, the Long Beach Antique Market, I found this photo of an employee party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The image is much too large for my scanner—18 inches by 9 inches—so I can only post it in pieces.

It must have been a festive event, a celebration of the holiday and also the end of World War Two. A few people in uniforms are visible in the crowd. At the front of the room near the flag and the sparkly Christmas tree stand all the bigwigs.  I’m assuming the men are the owners and managers and a few very important staff like the head chef in his high hat.  Did the three women standing at the front also hold high positions?

What to wear to an employee party, part fun and part obligation?   Although I didn’t do a complete count, here are a few generalizations based on age. Older women were more likely to be in suits, while the younger ones wore dresses.  On average, the older women had shorter hair than the younger ones.  And while hats were scarce on the ground, it looks like older women were the ones wearing them.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

You can also see that the event was segregated, with African Americans far from the front. There are empty chairs between black and white workers to underscore the separation.

But this picture, taken from the back of the room, offers a subversive view of events. While the “important” people at the front are smashed together, those furthest from the podium are visible in much greater detail.  We can see very clearly that the African American women are beautifully dressed, with pearls, furs, and fancy open backed shoes.  In this photo, the intended status order is turned upside down.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Three Generations at the Wedding

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Often I wish that all photos came not only with dates, but also a list of names and relationships. This one came with nothing. Obviously that is the bride in the middle, but I’m not entirely sure that the young man is the groom.  It might be the bride’s brother together in an impromptu photo of her side of the family. Whoever he is, he appears to have a black eye.  Maybe the bachelor party got a little rowdy.

Three generation photos are my favorite kind, but I don’t often find them of weddings. The bride in the center wears her fifties finery well.  Note the pretty lace overlay on top of her strapless dress and her strappy shoes.  At first I thought the heels were somewhat thin for the early fifties—my best guess for this photo—but I did find similar ones in the Sears catalog for 1953.

The middle aged woman at the far right, perhaps her mother, has on a well fitting tailored suit with a flattering collar. She wears a close fitting cap or half hat with netting extending down over her face, a classic fifties style. Her eyeglasses are also of the era.  Did the photographer catch her at a bad moment, or is she also wondering about that black eye?

grandmotherThe most unusual person in the photo is the grandmother who came to the wedding in her wheelchair. She is dressed for warmth—old women get cold easily—and has covered her legs with a crocheted blanket.  It isn’t easy to see any details of her clothes, but the neckline of her dress appears to be decorated in embroidery or lace.  And to honor the occasion, she’s put bows (or are they flowers) in her hair.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Marjory Collins—Chronicling the Lives of Older Women

Library of Congress, Moravian quilting circle

Library of Congress, Moravian sewing circle

During the Second World War, Marjory Collins (1912-1985) was hired by the Office of War Information to provide a photographic record of American life on the home front. Most of her photos fit a standard mold—parades, church scenes, factories. But if you look closely, you’ll discover that she always paid close attention to what women were doing.  She was not only interested in the young women engaged in war work; she also had an eye for how older women lived during the war.

Library of Congress, Buffalo, 1943

Library of Congress, Buffalo, 1943

Her photo notes are almost as evocative as the photos.  For the quilter above, the oldest member of the Moravian sewing circle in Lititz, Pennsylvania, she tells us that the group charged one cent per yard of thread for hand quilting, with the proceeds donated to the church.  In the notes for the older woman freshening up at work, she informs us that the New York Car Wheel Company in Buffalo had only recently hired women and was still finishing up the women’s locker room.  Note that the older woman’s kerchief is tied at the top, headwrap style.

Library of Congress, Sunday School picnic

Library of Congress, Sunday School picnic

And consider this unusual shot of four women, no longer young, taken from behind at a Fourth of July picnic in 1942.  There is so much information about daily life in this picture. It shows the textile patterns, hats, hairdos, and shoes worn during the war. “Some watched while others waded,” she tells us. “The water was too shallow for swimming.”

While researching Collins, I discovered that she edited a feminist journal in the 1970s aimed at older women called Prime Time. Since I had seen so many of her photos, I wasn’t at all surprised. Best of all, I found some issues via inter library loan.  I’ll be sharing their contents soon.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Fifth Avenue, Midtown, 1964

Photo by Joel Meyerowitz

Photo by Joel Meyerowitz

Do you think these three conferred on their outfits before they headed out?  “Lets all wear our fur stoles, hats, and long gloves, and make sure that our shoes exactly match our dresses?” Or was this simply standard fare for well off older New York women in 1964?

The photo is by famous street photographer Joel Meyerowitz and recently appeared on the cover of New York magazine. A good friend, and part time Manhattan resident, knew I needed it for my blog.

1964 is just a year before Diana Vreeland pronounced the “Youth Quake.” I don’t see any elements of youth in these women’s clothes.  Their skirts are long—although not all the same length—and they are still wearing the trappings of the well dressed woman of the fifties.

Yet despite their similarities, these women do not all look alike.  In particular the one on the right is something of a free spirit. Her stole is made from a different fur–can anyone tell me what it is? The beautiful trapunto effect near the hem of her skirt lifts her dress out of the realm of the ordinary.  Note also her very long gloves and that embroidered purse with the wooden handle, a folklorish touch.  But best of all is her glorious hat, which looks like a chef’s hat which she puffed up, spun around, and wore out onto the street.

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Kay Thompson : A Pioneer in Pants

Publicity material, 1951

Publicity material by Lynton Richards Kistler , 1951

Unless you love the Eloise books or frequently watch the 1957 film Funny Face you might not know the name Kay Thompson (1909-1998).  She was a well known entertainer from the thirties on, with a long list of achievements: singer, night club performer, vocal coach, song writer, music arranger, dancer, choreographer, actress, and author.  In the fashion world, she gained brief fame as the choreographer for the Americans in the famous fashion show in Versailles in 1973 that pitted New World designers against their established French counterparts.

But here’s an accomplishment that surprised me: Thompson was a vocal advocate for women in pants. An entire chapter of a recent biography by Sam Irvin, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise (2010) is devoted to her trial blazing fashion choices. Already in the 1930s, she appeared in publicist materials for her vocal group wearing pants. When she established her career in nightclubs in the 1940s, pants were her most frequent outfit, a far cry from the slinky dresses worn by other chanteuse.  Her favorite style stopped well above the ankle, a cut that came to be called Capri pants. Thompson claimed to have thought them up herself before they became well known in the fashion world.

New York Times, 1952

Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 1952

In the early 1950s, Thompson even launched her own line of pants, produced by a subsidiary of Evan Picone and sold exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue.  Above is the only ad I found for them—looking longer and looser than the ones Thompson herself favored.  “Something magic in the cutting keeps them smooth as skin whether you sit, stand or do set-ups,” the ad copy reads.

Still from Funny Face, 1957

Still from Funny Face, 1957

According to Irwin, the pants that Audrey Hepburn wore in Funny Face were from Thompson’s line.  And Thompson, playing a high class fashion editor, wore her own pants in the film as well.

Hilary Knight's 1996 portrait of Kay Thompson for Vanity Fair.

Hilary Knight’s 1996 portrait of Kay Thompson for Vanity Fair

When Hillary Knight, the illustrator of the Eloise books, paid homage to Kay Thompson in 1996, just before her death, it’s hardly surprising that he drew her in pants.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1990 | Tagged | 5 Comments

Bad Hair Day? Try a Turban

From Eleanor Lambert: Still Here by John A. Tiffany

From Eleanor Lambert: Still Here by John A. Tiffany

One of John Tiffany’s jobs as Eleanor Lambert’s assistant was to bring turbans with him in the car when he picked her up from the hairdresser’s. She got her hair done many times a week, but apparently wasn’t always pleased with the results. If her hairdo started to fall, she covered it up with a turban. By the 1990s, she wore turbans so often that they became part of her signature look.

Why was Lambert having so many bad hair days?  Tiffany doesn’t say, but I suspect her hair was thinning. While few women go completely bald as they age, many suffer from thinning hair. This natural side effect of women aging doesn’t get much attention.

And it is not the only hair problem for the older woman.  My own hair—thick and coarse (I was once bestowed the label “horse hair” as a teen)—has grown even coarser with age.  Not only that, but I have many more willful cowlicks than ever before. When I recently tried to grow out my hair a little, I looked like the permanent resident in a wind tunnel.

Maybe it’s time to try a turban.

Posted in 1990 | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Eleanor Lambert in Moscow

From Eleanor Lambert: Still Here by John A. Tiffany

From Eleanor Lambert: Still Here by John A. Tiffany

In 1959, the US government opened a big event in Moscow—a huge exhibition designed to showcase the consumer marvels of America.  Along with kitchen appliances and a prototype computer, US fashion was on display daily.  This photo shows two controversial elements of the fashion show—the very casual clothes and the integrated runway.  Tucked away in the lower left hand corner is a tiny picture of the mastermind of the Moscow runway—fashion impresario Eleanor Lambert. She’s is her mid fifties in this picture.

MoscowLambert2Lambert (1903-2003) was a publicist for famous designers and the creator of organizations and prizes that promoted the American garment industry. Her advocacy for American fashion had a global reach. She organized fashion shows in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.  This was not her only venture to the East Bloc during the Cold War. When the Soviets staged an International Fashion Exhibition in 1967, Lambert organized the United States’ contribution.

I found this information in a recent book by John A. Tiffany, Eleanor Lambert: Still Here (2011) Tiffany was Lambert’s assistant in the 1990s and had access to her archives. His coffee table book includes documents from her files and many rare photos. It’s a big brick of a book and was hard to track down through inter-library loan.  But it is worth the effort if you are interested in how American fashion was marketed to the world.

Some time ago I bought a used copied of Lambert’s book World of Fashion, which contains information about designers and fashion schools from around the world.  I was surprised to see an informative section on fashion design and production in the Soviet Union. Now I know that she had first hand information from her travels to Moscow.

What other insights will we discover about this amazing woman when people begin to work through her newly opened archive at FIT?

Posted in 1950s | Tagged | 1 Comment