Lou Hoover at the Sewing Machine, 1932

Associated Press. Click to enlarge

Associated Press. Click to enlarge

A sucker for anything sewing related, I snatched up this ebay photo of Lou Hoover (1874-1944), wife of Herbert Hoover. I had never given Herbert Hoover’s wife any thought, but just a little research on the First Ladies website reveals an interesting life. Highly educated, she received a BA in Geology from Stanford University, the first woman to do so from that institution.

This photograph from September 1932 shows her sewing “clothes for the needy” at the Red Cross headquarters in Washington DC.  Like her husband, Lou Hoover did not believe in direct government involvement to help the poor, but she did favor philanthropic efforts. Just a few months after the photo was taken, the Hoovers would be ousted from the White House for their hands off approach to the Great Depression.

And what was she wearing?  It looks like a dress with a long skirt, quite in tune with the fashion shifts from the late 1920s to the early 1930s.  Covered with a small print, the dress has an interesting sleeve detail.  She wears a matching cloche hat.  Although most closely associated with the 1920s, the cloche continued in popularity well into the thirties.

Lou Hoover was known as a stylish dresser, insisting on American made clothes. In 1932, she began wearing only cotton in an effort to promote the American cotton industry. One can’t help wonder if it was also a ploy to appeal to average voters.

She was involved in many causes, but is best known for her advocacy of the Girl Scouts. After leaving the White House in 1933, she took over the national presidency.  Under her watch, the Girl Scouts started their famous cookie drive. Indirectly, we have her to thank for the Thin Mint.

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Girl Group, 1955

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This photograph calls out for a story, and here is mine. The most dressed up woman in the photo, the one wearing a white hat and big beads, is a small town girl who went to New York to work for Mademoiselle magazine.  She has come home to see old friends at an evening gathering.  The woman on the right, perhaps the hostess, is enjoying one of her contributions to the magazine.

Given the two pairs of white shoes on view, we know for sure it’s summer.  The woman on the left, in a checked sleeveless shirtwaist dress, wears white lace up oxfords, the summer shoes of choice for many older women.  The one on the right wears a similar outfit, but with sandals instead.

The guest of honor appears to come from a different fashion universe, or at least a different climate. Her dress has longer sleeves and what looks like a fuller skirt.  She alone is in a hat, a popular small style called a half hat.  Her jewelry, a chunky necklace and matching earrings, stands out more. And let’s not overlook those fancy open-toed high heels.

I’d love to hear your interpretation of picture.  And what do you think they are drinking?

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Advice on Aging from Glinda the Good

The cover of With Powder on my Nose

The cover of With Powder on my Nose

The 1959 advice book, With Powder on my Nose, was written by Billie Burke (1884-1970), the actress who played the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz.  Although Burke never refers to the famous role, her tone bears some of the sparkly optimism of everyone’s favorite witch. How on earth did I find this treasure? My friend and collector extraordinaire, Lizzie Bramlett, rescued it from a Goodwill bin.

Burke is just one in a long (and growing) line of aging celebrities who offer their tricks for staying young.  She was seventy-five when the book came out, with her long career on the stage, in radio and in films all but over.

The emphasis on old fashioned femininity dates the book a lot. Burke was the widow of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the inventor of the Ziegfeld Follies. She learned to look past his many affairs, and advises other women to do the same.  It is only worth making a fuss if it looks like he is going to leave you, she says. A woman should put her husband first, doing all she can to please him. That includes getting up early to put on makeup and fix her hair so he only sees her at her best. “One of the main reasons for divorce isn’t a statistic yet. It’s sloppy women. Men will stick to fat ones, skinny ones, old ones, and forked-tongue ones. We all know that. But they won’t cling to gals who are messes.”(35)

But much of her advice for older women has a more modern feel. She recommends that widows find their own interests to avoid meddling in their children’s lives. If at all possible they should live on their own. She endorses an active exercise program, and gives advice on how to make your own weights for strength training. The best facelift, in her view, is standing on your head.

The section on proper dress for the older set is written by Hollywood costume designer Renié Conoly. Her advice is to dress with some flair, not hiding in “the dreadful anonymity of the small print dress.” (124) The most important feature of any outfit is the neckline, which should have some softness to it.  She is certainly no fan of eccentricity. “When in doubt, strive to be elegant. This is most often achieved by being conservative.”(127)

burke59_2Conoly doesn’t condemn wearing pants or shorts outright. However she does think they belong mainly in the home. She is particularly concerned with shorts, which she thinks often look unattractive from the back. Even slacks require caution. “In general, they, too, should be restricted to home unless you are able to maintain a really lithe, whistle-inspiring figure.”(134)

Why read these old advice books, you might ask.  As a historian, I am interested in how this genre has changed over time.  At the turn of the twentieth century, for example, older women were often told to wear lavender, a dignified, soft color.  Burke says to avoid the color entirely.  It does nothing for the skin, she reasons.  I suspect she also thought it looked “old.”

I am also interested in what hasn’t changed. So many contemporary writers assume that older women today are the first to address how to stay healthy and active late in life.  This book shows that it’s not true. In 1959, Billie Burke was lifting weights, standing on her head, and encouraging older women to take more control over their lives. That’s good advice at any time.

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Thanksgiving in Milwaukee, 1960

University of Wisconsin, Madison

University of Wisconsin, Madison. Click to enlarge.

This photo documents a Thanksgiving dinner for 400 put on by the Pioneer Telephone Company in Milwaukee in 1960.  Are the women (and a few men) all telephone workers, or do the guests include needy community members invited for a festive dinner?

Although it was taken in late 1960, the image shows few signs of the fashion revolution already underway.  Most of these middle aged and older women wear their hair close to the head.  Only the African American woman at the center looks like she might have been inspired by the bigger bouffant styles worn by Jackie Kennedy.  The shirtwaist dress  prevails or skirt and blouse combinations that have a similar silhouette. The beloved bedazzled cat eye glasses frames of the fifties are still on display.

But the real focus should be on the gesture at the center.  Don’t we need this now?

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Older Women in Pants, Bonner Montana

University of Montana Library. Click to enlarge

University of Montana Library. Click to enlarge

This photo comes from the University of Montana, via the Digital Public Library of America.  Note that all the women, from young to old, are in pants.  We know a lot about the snapshot, including the location (Bonner, Montana), the photographer (Jack Demmons), and the names of some of the people. Unfortunately there is no date and nothing to tell us just what was going on. Did these women typically dress in pants, or was there some special event that inspired their outfits?

While the younger women in the photo are in jeans, the two older ones in glasses are wearing coordinated pants outfits, called “slacks suits,” that were popular during World War Two.

University of Wisconsin digital media. Click to enlarge

University of Wisconsin digital media. Click to enlarge

Such an outfit is on display in this photo of a department store window in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1942, certainly evidence that such styles were in wide distribution.



They also might have sewn their own, made possible by this 1942 Simplicity pattern.

I have always associated slack suits with younger women, perhaps because they were fashion forward at the time.  But this photo is evidence older women also saw the practicality of these new styles.  While the outfits were most likely bought or made during World War Two, this photo might be from after the war.  Note that the top worn by the woman on the right doesn’t fit that well anymore.


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On the Street in Chinatown, ca. 1900

Photograph by Arnold Genthe, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

Photograph by Arnold Genthe, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

When did women in the United States start wearing pants on the street?  It depends on where you look.  This picture from San Francisco’s Chinatown shows that pants were common attire for women of Chinese descent at the turn of the twentieth century.

To learn more about Chinese women’s clothing, friends put me in contact with Antonia Finnane, an expert in the field. She informed me that pants with a tunic or jacket were standard dress for rural and non elite women in China from the fifteenth century onward.  In Southern China, where most of these immigrants came from, pants outfits were standard on the street. When they came to the United States, the women continued the tradition.

The San Francisco based photographer Arnold Genthe chronicled San Francisco’s Chinatown before the 1906 earthquake.  In this particular shot, he caught the contrast between standard American fashions and the Chinese style.  Eventually pants came to have plebian connotations, says Finnane, and Chinese American women would leave them behind as they rose in social status.

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Power Dressing at the Telephone Switchboard, 1930s

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This photo shows a stark contrast in dress between the apparent supervisor, standing up with her hands behind her back, and the women working the switchboard.  In a dark skirt topped by a white shirt with cuffs, the supervisor looks like she is adopting elements of a man’s suit.  The women are all in dresses, except perhaps the one of the far right whose clothes are partly hidden.

It is hard to guess ages here, but perhaps the supervisor is in her forties.  At least a few of the women, like the one second from the left, is possibly older than she is.  The supervisor’s outfit looks old fashioned, like she adopted elements from the shirtwaist styles earlier in the century.  But she certainly communicates through her clothes just exactly who is in charge.

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You Can Keep Your Hat On

click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

How do women in positions of power establish their authority in a work environment?  These days it is done through clothes, but it used to be done with hats.

I’ve read many memoirs about women editors at fashion magazines being told to wear a hat to work; it set them apart from the secretaries.  Perhaps that is what is going on in this photograph.

Given the prevalence of shirtwaists and shorter skirts, I estimate that it was taken in the 1910s.  The piles of books in the background suggest that it might be a publishing house or bookstore. All of the fresh faced young women are bareheaded, while the older woman in the back row wears a hat.  Perhaps she was the bookkeeper or manager of this cheerful young crew.  In this case, age and status went together.  But one can imagine a situation where a younger woman was supervising an older staff.  In that case, the hat would have shown anyone who was in charge.

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Women Voting, 1944

Photograph by George D. McConnell, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin

Photograph by George D. McConnell, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin

This imaginative photograph comes from the 1944 presidential election. Voting took place as American troops were still fighting in Europe and Asia. Sitting President Franklin D. Roosevelt won 81% of the popular vote.  Such a landslide is unthinkable in today’s divided America.

What can we tell about these four women just by their skirt lengths and their shoes?  Only one, on the far right, was a true fashion plate.  Her skirt is stylishly short and she wears shoes with an open toe and open back out on the street in early November.  Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase hated this trend, but obviously this woman was not paying attention.  The woman to the far left was perhaps on the younger side.  Her shoes are almost flat, her skirt hovers around her knee, and we can see a slice of a very trim body.  I suspect that the woman second from the left is the oldest, judging by her sensible shoes and very long coat.

I filled out my vote-by-mail ballot in my bathrobe sitting at the kitchen table.  Styles have changed, but the importance of voting has not.

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Older Women in Jeans, 1939

thewomen39These days well-fitting jeans are on style lists for all women, regardless of their ages.  When did they start to be part of older women’s clothing choices?

The 1939 movie The Women featured an older woman in jeans, the much married and often divorced Countess de Lave. She was played by the actress Mary Boland, who was then in her late fifties. Part of the film was set at a ranch outside Reno where the major characters in the film had gone to await their divorces.  Their clothing changed from elegant dresses to Western wear. According to James Sullivan’s interesting book Jeans: The Cultural History of an American Icon, this was meant to illustrate the then-popular dude ranch style.

The older and rounder Countess chose the most extreme version of this look in her close fitting jeans, studded forearm bands, and pearls.  Was this meant to serve as a warning for older viewers?  Don’t try this at home?  Or did the Countess inspire some in the audience to put together their own fanciful dude ranch look?

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