Lace, 1976

Imogen Cunningham, After Ninety

Imogen Cunningham, After Ninety

Renowned San Francisco photographer Imogen Cunningham has an answer for what tattoos can come to look like on older bodies. “It looks like lace, doesn’t it?”

This remarkable photo comes from Cunningham’s book, After Ninety (University of Washington Press, 1977), which includes portraits of over eighty nonagenarians from all walks of life. This woman, Irene “Bobby” Libarry, had been a carnival performer. Cunningham herself was in her nineties when she took this photo in 1976. She died that same year.

Photographer Margaretta Mitchell, who wrote the introduction for this posthumously published book, made these observations about Cunningham’s views on aging. “Never having been considered a beauty herself, Imogen had long ago accepted her face…She wanted that freedom from the vanity of physical beauty for those she photographed. It could be said that through her portraits she wanted others to deal with this acceptance as she herself had.” (18) Or perhaps she had developed an eye for a different kind of beauty. When looking at this woman, some might see faded old markings on stretched out skin. Cunningham saw lace.

Posted in 1970s | Tagged | 3 Comments

Mrs. Exeter Sews Again

Vogue Pattern Book, August/September 1961

Vogue Pattern Book, August/September 1961

In 1961, Mrs. Exeter was fading from the pages Vogue magazine, where she had first been introduced in 1948. She only appeared three times that year, once to explain why she needed two long evening dresses, once to show off dresses with sleeves, and once to lay out her fashion principles. (In a nut shell—choose clothes with a firm, but not hard outline; look for an easy fit over the diaphragm; and disguise areas that easily reveal age, especially the upper arms.)

But while she was disappearing from the fashion magazine, Mrs. Exeter was still a lively presence in Vogue Pattern Book, one of my very favorite sources for fashion and sewing history. The August/September 1961 issue devoted four pages to patterns deemed suitable for this older fashion plate. Called “Mrs. Exeter’s Two Fashion Worlds,” two pages presented clothes that “fit perfectly into a country-to-suburban background.” Another two pages featured outfits for “brisk-paced city living.”

What kind of patterns did Mrs. Exeter favor? In general, they were those offered in larger sizes. Her clothes came in sizes 12 to 20 (bust sizes 32 to 40), with a few offered up to size 42 (a 44 inch bust.) Other patterns in the magazine typically had a range from 10 to 18 (bust sizes from 31 to 38). All of Mrs. Exeter’s outfits had sleeves, while many clothes in the smaller sizes did not. With the exception of one shirtwaist dress, Mrs. Exeter favored a slim line, without gathers or pleats. And perhaps it goes without saying that only the college girl got to wear pants. They did not figure in Mrs. Exeter’s fashion universe at all.

MrsXchecks61But lest it you think that Mrs. Exeter was a fashion conservative, take a closer look at what she wore to walk her dog—a check skirt combined with a floral print top. This is by far the boldest combination of prints in the entire magazine. Between you and me, I don’t think  Mrs. Exeter would have been caught dead in such an outfit.

Posted in 1960s, General | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

City Mother—Dorothy Chandler


Dorothy Chandler in front of her pavilion,

In December 2014, Los Angeles celebrated fifty years of its Music Center, a cultural complex at the heart of the city. The brains behind its creation was Dorothy Buffum Chandler (1901-1997). Although never elected to any public office, she nonetheless shaped the urban environment in powerful ways.

Daughter of the founder of the Buffum department store chain, Dorothy was called “Buff” by her friends. She married Norman Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, whom she met while a student at Stanford University. In her mid forties, she began working at the Times and also got involved in fundraising for the arts. Her passion was music, and her first big mission was to save the outdoor music space, the Hollywood Bowl. After proving to be a genius in getting money, she set her sights on the creation of a permanent home for the LA symphony. Her goal was to put Los Angeles on the map as a global cultural center. According to an LA city councilwoman at the time, “She believed you didn’t have a major city unless you had major arts.”


Ernest Debs, Dorothy Chandler, and S. Mark and Amelia Taper with Music Center model,

Beginning in the 1950s, Chandler used all the methods available to wealthy society women to raise money for her project. She threw big parties for celebrities; negotiated with the city council; and strong-armed wealthy Angelinos from all areas of the city, people who didn’t have much to do with each other, into opening up their pocket books. Apparently her signature move was to return checks with a handwritten note, “You can do better.” The donors always did.

The result of this effort was a cultural center that included a music venue, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and two theater spaces, the Ahmanson Theater and the Mark Taper Forum. In recent years, the cultural venues in the area have expanded to include Disney Hall, Red Cat Theatre, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the brand new Broad Art Museum.


Chandler at Opening NIght, Life magazine

It’s not all that easy to find photographs of Chandler, surprising given her very public life. She was always dressed for the occasion in a proper, conservative style. But why should we assume that all department store heiresses would be clothes horses? City building was more her style. I wonder if there are any unsung city mothers where you live?

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Vera in Blue

Vera Thompson Waldo, 1966

Vera Thompson Waldo, 1966

My friend Jen Orsini, who wears a lot of hats (fashion historian, blogger, vintage clothing dealer, costumer designer), sent me these photos of her paternal grandmother, Vera Thompson Waldo. She and her husband moved to the LA area from Wisconsin in the early 1920s, when they were around thirty. Jen’s grandfather worked in department stores; her grandmother, with a college degree in music, became involved in a variety of music groups. They built a small home in the hills of Eagle Rock near Pasadena in the 1930s, where they lived for the rest of their lives. You can see their view of the LA basin in the photo above.

Jen1In this photo, taken in the early 1930s, Vera was around forty. She wore a solid colored dress cut from a drapey fabric. I was particularly taken with the interesting neckline, something you can see in all of the photos.

Jen2_3These two photos were taken around 1944, when Jen’s father volunteered for the Navy.  Vera was around fifty and her dress was right in style, as was her softly tailored suit. Note the neckline emphasis again and her stylish shoes.

Jen4When Jen’s father graduated from college in 1948, Vera kept up with fashion in her New Look length suit. Her longer suit jacket combined with a slim skirt gave her a trim look. She would be in her mid fifties here, but that didn’t stop her from wearing very high heels to the big day. Her beautifully shaped collar once again brings emphasis to her face. Jen’s mother is on the left, bare headed and bare handed. She looks much more casual than her mother-in-law, who has on a hat and gloves.

Jen6Jen guesses that the photo above with her father was probably taken on Mother’s Day 1966. For the first time we see Vera in color wearing blue, a favorite choice because it matched her eyes.  She found a elegant solution to sixties fashion, which favored young body types.  While following a stylish sixties neckline on top, she chose a skirt type more flattering to a fuller figure that the shift dresses of that era.

And in the opening photo above, also from 1966, Vera wears a light blue suit by Davidow, a luxury designer often compared to Chanel.  Jen has several posts about Davidow on her blog.  The suit was a special gift from Jen’s parents for her to wear to her 50th college reunion.

Vera kept up with fashion throughout her life, but she discovered ways to do it that fit her changing body shape. She kept a life long interest in interesting necklines and stylish footwear–no sensible shoes for her!  And note her very exert posture, even in her seventies. Her secret—a long line corset worn throughout her adult years.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Can We Talk About Bodies?

DidionSince several fashion lines have chosen older women as their public face, the most recent being Joan Didion for Céline, some fashion writers have decided that it’s finally hip to be old. That’s why I appreciated yesterday’s New York Times article by Vanessa Friedman, “On Age, Talking a Good Game” (online as “Fashion’s Two Faced Relationship with Age”). At the end, she brings up an often overlooked fact: aging brings changes to body shapes, and no amount of youthful spirit or adventurousness on the part of older consumers will change that fact.

Let me talk about my own body. I spend a lot of time trying to stay fit, with walking, yoga, and exercise classes. There are no sugary snacks in my kitchen and I eat a lot of vegetables. Nonetheless, in the last twenty years I have gained ten pounds and shrunk one inch. My back has expanded and my breasts have gotten bigger (talk about irony) and fallen further down my chest. My waist has risen and I now have a little pot belly, something I never had before. On my backside, my derriere has flattened and sunk lower towards my knees.

What does all this mean? Quite simply that clothing designed for the proportions of younger bodies do not fit well. Jackets pull across the back. Pants that fit across the hips don’t fit at the waist…and I could go on and on.

Unless designers start thinking about how our bodies change as we age, their beautiful clothes won’t fit an older demographic. As Friedman says, “If there really is a new market class of 60- and 70- and 80-year olds with disposable incomes and minds of their own, perhaps it’s time that fashion, and designers, grappled with their needs.”

Or we could all just make our own clothes.

Posted in 2010s | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Gracious Lady from Sears

Sears catalog, Fall 1936

Sears catalog, Fall 1936

A key item on my research wish list was to find a searchable version of the entire Sears catalog on line. And now I have, for a price. The extensive website, used by genealogists everywhere, has just acquired a digital version of all issues from 1896-1993. I thought the $20 monthly fee was very reasonable, especially since entire Sears catalogs are hard to find, and very expensive if you want to buy them.

My quest was to discover the origins of the Sears “Gracious Lady,” the term the company applied to clothing and accessories aimed at older women from the 1930s to the 1960s.  She first appeared in the fall 1936 anniversary issue, marking fifty years of the catalog. The cover featured a young couple leafing through the catalog, with an older couple in the background. Inside the model who had posed to the cover, one Anne Williams, discussed her outfit. “For the cover I chose this charming Trimline dress.” It came in purple, navy, or black in bust sizes up to 50 inches. The collar had a detachable jabot. According to the ad copy, “The dress itself is becoming alike to the young and not so young.” And Sears kindly goes on to recommend a hat to complete the outfit.

Sears catalog, Fall 1939

Sears catalog, Fall 1936

She appeared once more in the Jubilee issue to sell more lace collars. Once again the text emphasizes that these recommendations were not just for the older set. “My daughter seems to like it too, for she has borrowed it several times when I need it most.”

Sears catalog, Fall 1936

Sears catalog, Fall 1936

In future issues the “Gracious Lady” became a clothing type, not a real woman with a name. Stay tuned for more.

Posted in 1930s | Tagged | 3 Comments

Madame Willi Posey

Willi Posey, left, at her fiftieth birthday party. From We Flew Over the Bridge by Faith Ringgold

Willi Posey, left, at her fiftieth birthday party. From We Flew Over the Bridge by Faith Ringgold

Willi Posey Jones Morrison (1907-1981), mother of the author and artist Faith Ringgold, was a late starter in the fashion business. After raising two daughters and working for a children’s garment manufacturer, she decided to become a fashion designer in the late 1940s. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and opened up her Harlem business as Madame Willi Posey.

I learned about Madame Posey in Faith Ringgold’s autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge (1995). Ringgold relates what it took to launch a career in fashion in Harlem in the fifties and sixties. Her mother publicized her skills by staging fashion shows, the first in 1950. Eventually she collaborated with other Harlem designers and milliners in more elaborate affairs. Faith served as emcee and occasional model for the shows.

Madam Posey specialized in weddings. In the sixties she went to Africa and began making the African inspired ensembles so popular during that decade. Later she branched out to make clothes for older women. “She could cut a pattern from a person’s measurements that would fit like a glove,” writes Ringgold. “Mother could make a person who might otherwise be difficult to fit look great.”(75)

In the seventies, Posey began help her daughter make soft sculptures and textile frames for her paintings. One of her last acts was to collaborate on a quilt with Ringgold called “Faces of Harlem.” Learn more about Madame Posey and her famous daughter here.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

New Year’s Eve in Fort Lauderdale, 1969

Photo by Roy Erickson

Photo by Roy Erickson

Wouldn’t it be fun to know this band’s name and the venue where they were playing? The record from Florida Memory doesn’t say, and I turned up nothing online. The two women left and middle are nowhere near fifty, but the one on the right might be edging up near my arbitrary cut off age for the “older woman.” Was this her lifelong career or a sideline, I wonder?

My five years of piano lessons didn’t leave me with much musical knowledge. Initially I thought that a band made up of an accordion, guitar, and bass was a strange combination, but it turns out to be pretty common. Maybe it’s good for polka music.

These are not matching girl group style outfits, although they seem to be the same light color. The accordion player in the middle has on a dress made of stiffer fabric with a high neckline—I’m guessing it helped to support the weight of her instrument.

A glance at the clock shows that it was only 9:30 when this photo was taken—still plenty of time for champagne!

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Season’s Greetings from Birdie Parsons, 1944

Georgetown County Library, South Carolina

Georgetown County Library, South Carolina

In my experience, Christmas cards with photos usually depict parents and children, or just the children in the household. This is only the second one I’ve seen showing an older woman alone. I discovered it on the Digital Public Library of America, which linked to the local archive in South Carolina where the photo is held. The record included a lot of information about Birdie L. Parsons (1873-1958), and it was easy to find more about her family on line.

Birdie was a widow living in the small South Carolina town of Andrews. Her husband, Arthur King Parsons, was a local business man who had died several years before this photo was taken.

On the back of the card she wrote “taken on my 71st birthday.” The card has no date, but since she was born in mid October of 1873, simple arithmetic gives us the year 1944. She dressed up for her birthday, with a hat and a corsage. However, her coat was not the fashionable knee length of the war years. Either she was very thrifty or uninterested in current styles. But if she kept the coat just a few years longer, the length would have been in fashion again!

Today in the United States some conservative Christian commentators oppose the use of “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” But this card shows that Season’s Greetings has been in use for quite some time. (Birdie, by the way, was a Methodist.)

Let me offer Season’s Greetings to all of you!

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

East Coast, West Coast

Edna Woolman Chase and Ilka Chase, photo by Alexander Liberman, 1946. Getty Images

Edna Woolman Chase and Ilka Chase. Photo by Alexander Liberman, 1946. Getty Images

Long time Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase didn’t like California designers. Here is the evidence I discovered in a March 1948 letter to her daughter, Ilka Chase. “I saw Bergdorf’s collection of Irene’s things and really dearie, I have concluded after seeing Adrian’s creations and now Irene’s I am more than ever convinced that East is East and West is West and I’d just as soon they didn’t meet.”

What did she have against California? I looked through articles covering Adrian and Irene in the Vogue online archive during the 1940s and there were no glaringly insulting comments. However, their clothes made news mainly because of the starlet or wealthy socialite wearing them, not because of the designers’ skills or vision.

Vogue’s description of California clothes had a hint of condescension. Take one 1940 article, “Origin—New York; Origin—California,” as an example. The New York designer Jesse Franklin Turner received accolades as a “designer with an instinct for harmonious lines and a passion for rare fabrics from all over the world.” Poor Irene, by contrast, was written off as someone “to whom film stars go for clothes.”

But don’t you think Edna Chase, in her somber and proper outfit depicted above, could have used a dash of California color?

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments