Did this woman make a long trek up a hillside to reach the waterfall, or did she and the photographer make the trip in a car? Given her walking stick and the sliver of a sturdy shoe that you can see, I am guessing that she walked at least part of the way.
This photo was a gift from my cyber friend, Lizzie Bramlett, who has an extensive collection of vintage fashion photos in addition to vintage garments. Lizzie is an expert on the history of American sportswear and sent me a few photos featuring older women in outdoor settings. She dates this photo to the late teens or early twenties based on the clothes.
Sears Catalog, 1918
What caught my eye immediately was the woman’s divided skirt, a handy design for a long walk uphill. The fictional character Tish, popular in the same era, wore divided skirts to ride and ice skate. A 1918 Sears Catalog offered a riding ensemble with a divided skirt, complete with buttons so that its practical elements could be hidden when not needed.
The divided skirt in this photo has a triple row of tucks near the bottom, a dressy detail. When the woman stood up, the tucks would give the impression that the skirt was all of one piece. I wish I knew what she had over her shoulders—a shawl? a cape? She looks both comfortable and put together in her sylvan setting.
Posted in 1910s, 1920s
The Canadian American designer Arnold Scaasi started a successful couture design business in the 1960s, just as similar businesses were closing. His business was lucrative, with many celebrities among his clients. Nonetheless, according to the engaging book The Fashion Cycle by Irene Daria, by the late 1970s he wasn’t getting much respect from industry insiders. Fashion writers gossiped during his runway shows and made disparaging comments about his designs.
That changed when First Lady Barbara Bush chose one of his dresses for the 1989 Inaugural Ball. When he gave a show in March of that year, “This time everyone paid significantly more attention to his show, and what conversation took placed centered around guess which styles the First Lady might pick for herself.”(236)
Barbara Bush loved the gown so much that she was very reluctant to give it to the Smithsonian for their First Lady collection. And when Scaasi won the coveted Council of Fashion Designers’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, Barbara Bush was on hand to give him the award.
The Vogue archive is an amazing resource for fashion research and pleasure reading. Not only can you scroll through each and every issue from cover to cover, you can search by clothing element, designer, company, date, photographer, etc. The images are extremely high quality and can be increased and reduced at will. If you are looking for a specific designer, like I was for Jessie Franklin Turner, you won’t miss a thing if you follow all the links. As someone who began tracking down Vogue’s Mrs. Exeter the conventional way (leafing, lugging, copying) I can testify that the results from the online system are far superior.
I know that I’m lucky to have this service, but how about you? As readers have pointed out, the service is much too expensive for a normal person’s budget. However, a search in Worldcat showed that forty-seven university libraries in the US, Canada, and further afield offer this online service—and a quick look on Google revealed that this list is hardly complete. Most university libraries allow non university members to join for a fee—it varies from place to place. Armed with a library card, you can often get onto the library’s internet holdings from afar. And at least in my library system anyone can work in the library at one of the computers without any affiliation at all.
Public libraries are another avenue to explore. Those of you in New York City have access at all branch libraries! Public libraries in Cambridge Massachusetts, East Baton Rouge Parish Louisiana, and Toronto Canada all offer access. Take a look at your local resources—you might be surprised.
And if you still have no luck, try asking your library to offer this service. The powers that be are much more likely to get it if they know it will be used.
Posted in General
Lane Bryant catalog, 1930-31
One glance at a Lane Bryant catalog, and you get a sense of how the company gained a following among larger sized women. They thought of almost everything a well put together “stout” woman would need—dresses, coats, hats, jewelry, underwear and even shoes.
The 1930-31 catalog made a claim for special shoes designed for the plus sized woman who carried extra weight on her feet. Its very first offering was a lace up oxford, favored by older women throughout the decades. The appeal of this shoe for both larger and older women was in its excellent support. Lane Bryant promised extra security in the “stout arch” As the catalog copy reads, “A stout woman’s feet require ample support in the arch part of her shoes. Her feet require an extra strong steel shank to support the arch in its original position.”
Age is barely mentioned in the catalog, aside from a few references to styles for the “matronly woman” (presumably this term was not yet an insult). However, it is a safe guess that many older women who were not slim were also Lane Bryant customers. I bet they were happy to find their favorite shoe style in brown or black kid leather for only $5.95, postage included.
Posted in 1930s, General
From Women Turning Seventy by Cathleen Rountree
Although I lived stretches of my life near San Francisco (in Santa Cruz and Berkeley), I only discovered the work of San Francisco based artist Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) in a recent New York Times Magazine article marking her death. Her sculptures grace the city, and I certainly will seek them out next time I make a visit.
Born in 1926, Asawa was sent to the detention camps for Japanese Americans during World War Two. She chose to remember the positive side, like meeting practicing artists who encouraged her to become an artist herself. After the war, she attended the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she met her husband, the architect Albert Lanier. They soon moved to San Francisco and worked as independent artists while raising their six children.
Asawa’s work ethic had a lot to with her family life. She found time to create after her children had gone to bed. As she told photographer and writer Cathleen Rountree in the 1999 book On Women Turning 70, “It’s important to learn how to use your small bits of time, your five minutes, your ten minutes, your fifteen minutes. All those begin to count up, because you could save all your nickels and dimes and before you know it, you have a whole piggy bank full.”(93) She repurposed women’s crafts to make her art. Her famous wire sculptures were crocheted, and she made the model for the exuberant fountain in Union Square out of bread dough.
In addition to earning a living as an artist and raising her children, Asawa was a tireless advocate for art classes in the public schools. All of this left her little time to worry about her wardrobe. Almost all the pictures of have seen of her show her in utilitarian work clothes—a sweatshirt, dark pants or jeans, and sensible shoes. Even at fancy events, she went for the minimal, like a simple dark dress with a scarf or necklace. But then when you can make such much beauty with your hands, perhaps you don’t need beautiful clothes on your back.
Since all of American Vogue is now on line, you can trace the development of designers’ work through their advertising and coverage in the magazine. Jessie Franklin Turner did not publicize her line until 1931, at first using a minimalist message.
Vogue, August 1 1931
By the mid 1930s, she sometimes offered a longish text to explain her intentions. “This document gown suggested by a Pullaiullo portrait typifies Jessie Franklin Turner’s philosophy of clothes. She believes in distinction rather than fashion…and finds her inspiration all over the world and through the centuries” Although the ad refers to her “exquisitely subtle colors,” they are left to the imagination.
Vogue, November 1 1936
Vogue first featured Turner’s designs in 1922, tellingly in an article called “The Tide of Colour Rises.” The drawings and photos were in black and white, so her work as a gifted colorist is only apparent in the description. One dress is described as “pale peach chiffon and absinthe-yellow satin with a dash of dark green at the sash and hem.”
By the middle of the decade, the magazine offered a few colored drawings of Turner’s work, like this ensemble worn by the actress Ilka Chase (Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase’s daughter) with a dress made of shirred gold silk and a jacket of dark green Russian brocade.
Vogue, November 1 1935
This 1937 drawing explodes from the page. The outfit is described as “Arabian Nights fullness in yellow wool pyjamas printed in red and brown and covered with a red angora coat.”
Vogue, October 15 1937
But the outfit below is the one I really wanted to see in color. “Prompted by a tight East Indian jacket, by trousers from Montenegro—dinner pyjamas by Jessie Franklin Turner. The embroidered top is of yellow silk satin. The pleated trousers are magenta satin.”
Vogue, November 1 1940
What a shame that her business ended just before the advent of color photography.
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Here is a dream job—not only to design clothes, but to create the fabrics out of which they are made. That was the path of Jessie Franklin Turner (1881-1956), a pioneering American designer from the 1910s through the early1940s. Trained as an artist and sculptor, Turner traveled the world and was inspired by global textiles and clothing designs. Her specialty was the tea gown, described by fashion historian Elizabeth Ann Coleman as “an informal, unfitted garment for at-home entertaining…familiar to today’s reader under its more modern designation and form, the caftan.”
In her article “Jessie Franklin Turner: A Flight Path for Early Modern American Fashion,” (Dress, v. 25, 1998), Coleman documents how Turner used the museum collections at the Brooklyn Museum for inspiration. The steps to make to this beautiful orange tea gown from the mid 1920s is particularly well documented. The bird design was inspired by an Uzbeki textile and hand embroidered. “The embroidery was very expensive,” Turner recalled, “over $30 a yard, and the costume sold for over $400—an unheard of amount at that time.”
Turner not only had her own design studio but also owned looms in Connecticut on which to produce her own fabric. She also used textiles collected during her travels in her designs. As one 1936 ad in Vogue read, “Her special fabrics are woven to her own specifications, her exquisitely subtle colors are dyed by her own formulas.” I don’t know if I would call this particular color “subtle”–stunning is more like it.
Getty Images via the New York Times
A New York Times article published on February 10, 2014 announced that Getty Images, one of the most popular sources of stock photos, is on a mission to provide more varied photographs of women’s roles in contemporary life. Stock photography companies supply images for news stories and advertising, saving companies the cost of hiring their own photographers. Their archive of images shapes what we imagine when we hear the term “working woman,” for example. Together with LeanIn.org, Getty Images is trying to move beyond the standard stereotypes of the business woman in a suit with briefcase in hand versus the multi-tasker with laptop and baby.
This means not only a wider range of pictures of younger women and girls, but also of older women. (There are more inclusive images of men and boys as well.) I like the one that the NYT article included, a gray haired woman talking to younger co workers in a chic knit outfit.
If you go to the Getty site, you will see many pictures of older women labeled “stylish, confident seniors.” That such women exist is no surprise to anyone who takes a serious look around. But maybe this new collection will help those with more outdated images in their minds sit up and take notice. As one woman quoted in the article said, “One of the quickest ways to make people think differently about something is to change the visuals around it.”
Julia Twigg’s excellent book on fashion and age reminded of recent efforts to develop sizing systems designed for older shapes. Research is under way in many parts of the world, and it looks like the UK is far out ahead of the US in this area. The best known researcher in the United States is Ellen Goldsberry, who headed studies in the 1990s criticizing prevailing sizing systems for ignoring age as a factor in fit. You can read abstracts from these studies here and here.
Goldsberry and her colleagues describe general changes that take place in women’s bodies as they age. Even when women do not gain weight after menopause (and most do), their bodies change shape. Read it and weep: “[Women’s] muscle mass and fleshiness tend to accumulate in central and lower areas of the torso…The derriere tends to flatten, the waist thickens, the abdomen extends, the bustline lowers, the back-shoulder becomes broader, and the armesye [armhole] area enlarges due to muscle development and increased fleshiness.” This results in fit problems just about everywhere.
So what to do? She and her colleagues recommended creating new size categories designed for older women. It isn’t as easy as it sounds, since older women come in all shapes, from petite and thin to tall and round. These new categories could be identified by a special name or symbol on clothing tags. At the very least, they suggested that hang tags include the measurements for the clothes on offer, so that consumers would know just what the producer means by a size twelve.
These are good ideas, now twenty years old, but as far as I know they have not led to any major changes in the US garment industry. And this is why I sew.
Posted in 1990, 2010s, General
Don’t you wonder why “Three is a Crowd” is scratched out at the bottom of this picture? Here’s my theory—the writer thought it was a clever way to refer to a threesome until he or she remembered that the phrase is usually an insult. Anyway, at some point the owner was trying to identify family members, writing “’Mother’ Coskey, Aunt Hattie, and grandmother Casterline?” on the back. That question mark speaks volumes and should remind us all to ask our older relatives questions while they can still give us answers.
Despite the “mother” and “grandmother” identification, women on the right and left look similar in age. They are both wearing black, the most common color for older women at the beginning of the twentieth century. Mother Coskey’s dress has the sheen of a heavy silk. Her wide black belt sits at her natural waist and her high lace collar was a standard feature in the early 1900s. Grandmother Casterline wears black jacquard and doesn’t have much of a waistline left. There’s only a hint of a curved indentation underneath her chest. Although it’s hard to tell, her dress might be cut in the princess lines popular in the middle of the first decade. In the words of one fashion writer in 1906, the princess line worked well for the “fleshy matron, seeming to obliterate her bulky proportions.” (Los Angeles Herald, April 29, 1906)
Aunt Hattie, in the middle, has a very different look. Her long hair is piled forward on her head, Gibson Girl style, and she has chosen shiny stripes instead of dark solids. A distinctive belt buckle clearly marks her waist. Although she’s no spring chicken, it looks like she is doing all she can to differentiate herself from her older relatives.