Life, August 21, 1970
The cover story for the August 21, 1970 issue of Life, “The Midi Muscles In,” relates the controversy over the introduction of the midi skirt, a below-the-knee-cousin to the down-to-the-floor maxi skirt. Backed by designers and big department stores, the new length met push back from consumers. In fact, many fashion history books see resistance to rapidly changing skirt lengths in the 1970s as the beginning of the end for fashion by dictate from above.
Department stores tried to boost sales, which were not strong, by getting all their saleswomen to wear and promote the new style. That’s what going on in this photo, a fashion show for saleswomen at Lord and Taylor. We can see by all the knees on display that the older women in the front row had not yet taken to the new style. Their facial expressions don’t look very enthusiastic, either.
“Many women, resigned to the loss of the above-the-knee-look, are taking evasive action, buying pants and pants suits, whose sale have more than doubled in a year,” the article reports. Although I can’t imagine that gray haired woman, center front, jumping into a pants suit any time soon, it is certainly in the seventies when I begin seeing photos of a lot of older women in pants.
Posted in 1970s
Tagged New York
Golden Thought, 1914 edition
In her sweeping study of the migration of African Americans from the South to the North, The Warmth of Other Suns, author Isabel Wilkerson compares the experience of black migrants from the rural South to that of immigrants from foreign countries. Like other newcomers, they needed to learn new customs in order to succeed. They also needed to get new clothes.
But how did they figure out the rules? That is one of the topics in Ladies Pages: African American Women’s Magazine and the Culture that Made Them by Noliwe M. Rooks (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.) One fascinating example is the Half-Century Magazine begun in Chicago in 1914. It featured black women on its cover and published articles on correct dress in the city using black women as models. The journal even offered a shopping service: “If you do not live in a large city with a great variety of shops, you cannot always buy whatever you want. The Half-Century Magazine with its offices in the center of Chicago’s shopping district and with Miss Jane Hudson on its staff can always help you.”(75) Ads offered “Smart Fashions for Limited Incomes.”
One of the promises of this advice literature was that of a dignified old age. The image that Rooks uses on her cover, reproduced above, comes from Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation by Professor and Mrs. J. W. Gibson. They charted a path to the prosperous black home where everyone would be well dressed and cultured. In this image, the stylishly dressed mother plays the piano; the grandmother, with her old-fashioned head covering, has time to read in leisure.
From Golden Thoughts, 1914 edition
Another illustration in Golden Thoughts makes the point even more forcefully. Women who did not stay on the straight and narrow would end up drinking on the street; those who did would find a central place in the family hearth.
Most of the photos I find are amateur family snapshots where it is sometimes hard to determine accurate color or details. This one, a color slide, is of an unusually high quality. I suspect that whoever took the picture had just as good a camera as the women posed here.
Written in pencil on the slide is “1961,” but I doubt the date. Unless these women were particularly uninterested in fashion—and all in the same way—the clothes really cry out “mid 1950s.” In fact, I found similar dresses and shoes in a reference book, Fashionable Clothing From the Sears Catalog, Mid-1950s. The dresses, with their small floral prints, look like they could have come from the Sears collection “For the Gracious Lady,” designed specifically for the older set.
The other objects fit into the fifties time frame as well. My friend Sally, who turned the slide into a jpeg, mobilized her network of experts to determine the age of the car and the cameras. The small Kodak camera on the left was made from 1954 to 1957 and the larger German one in the middle was produced from 1929 to 1956. The car is a Studebaker President from the mid 1950s and looks pretty darn new to me.
I wish I knew the story behind this image. What were these women doing out in what looks like the middle of nowhere? Why do they have such high quality camera equipment with them? And who took the photo?
Older women often don’t follow the latest styles, a phenomenon fashion historian Joan Severa calls the “fashion lag.” Doubtless there are many explanations—older people get comfortable in a certain style and don’t want to change, or they are reluctant to give up good quality clothes that still have a lot of wear left. Perhaps the simplest reason is that they don’t have enough money to stay in style. Although poverty levels for those over 65 are sinking, in the late fifties and early sixties they were the age group most likely to be poor.
In this photo the fashion lag is clearly on display. I asked the superbly skilled Jen Orsini of the blog Pintucks to help me date the photo. Jen is a long time teacher of sewing and fashion history, a costume designer, and a collector of vintage clothing. Using Life magazines, she recognized the married couple’s clothes as styles from 1963. The mother’s longer coat and very wide collar comes from the previous decade.
It was the combination of the older woman’s coat and dress that initially drew me to this photo on ebay. The pairing of plaid and flowers was jarring. It might be avant-garde today, but it is not a look I associate with older women half a century ago. I can’t help thinking that if she had owned another coat that coordinated better with her dress, she would have worn it.
The Oakland Museum
Included in the awe-inspiring book Dressed for the Photographer is this photo of feminist activist, Marietta Stow in her 1880s version of reform dress. Stow was a philanthropist and social reformer of long standing who ran for California governor in 1882 and US vice president in 1884, despite the fact that women did not yet have the vote. As a widow who had lost her inheritance in a probate court, she also advocated for women’s rights in tax and inheritance law. Clearly she was a woman ahead of her time.
Born around 1830, she would have been about fifty when she donned this striking campaign outfit. According to Joan Severa, it was a dressy garment in the standard style of around 1882, but with the skirt raised up at the waist to make room for pants below. I was fascinated that these were not frilly bloomers, but “what appear to be black satin trousers of the same leg form as men’s.” (403). Her flat boots also have a masculine touch. But all of this was to make a point on the campaign trail. Severa notes that she did not wear reform dress at home.
American Vogue, June 1948; British Vogue, July 1950
Mrs. Exeter was born on the pages of American Vogue in June 1948. A few months later, in March 1949, a parallel older lady appeared in British Vogue. The British Mrs. Exeter seems to have had a wider cultural resonance than her American counterpart. She appeared in literature and has inspired scholarly articles. My British friend Jane remembers teasing her mother about her “Mrs. Exeter style.”
Did the two figures differ? Let’s meet them at the beach and see. The subject of swimsuits was the very first one taken on by the American Mrs. Exeter in 1948. Her British cousin didn’t get to the beach until July 1950. Both admit loving the sea and use almost identical phrases to describe their experiences. “Thanks to my 33 inch waist I can stay in the water forever,” says the American Mrs. Exeter. Her cousin says the same, but only admits to a 32 inch waist (perhaps post war British austerity explains the difference.) Both seem to have plenty of money, since they solve the problem of finding well-fitting bathing suits by having them custom made.
American Vogue, June 1948; British Vogue July 1950
Whole swaths of the two articles are identical word for word, with Mrs. Exeter’s chatty style extending across the Atlantic. However, the clothes are different. The British Mrs. X wears a slightly more revealing swimsuit. But the American Mrs. X allows herself to lounge on the beach with parts of her upper arms exposed.
It isn’t easy to find British Vogue in the US. Many thanks to Jane, who emailed scans direct from the Bodleian Library in Oxford!
Although this book addresses a specific time and place—the United States from the 1840s to 1900—it contains a wealth of information useful to anyone who is interested in how photographs can be used to study the history of fashion. The research involved in this thick volume is simply breathtaking. Not only does Severa follow the minute twists and turns in fashion at the time, she and her research assistant also scoured local and state history depositories around the country for interesting photographs and often the stories to go with them.
Severa has a clear thesis: In nineteenth century America, clothes were a way to achieve respectability and social mobility. Since the social hierarchy was fluid, ordinary people dressed as well as they could afford to, following styles to the best of their ability. The right clothes helped them to move up the social scale (or to look as if they had.) As a result, the basic cuts were similar in the wardrobes of the well off and the not so well off, the urban dweller and the pioneer. (Of course, those who looked carefully could see differences in fabric quality and detail.) The outliers were the truly poor, who had no way to stay in style, and the very rich, who had the means to follow the very latest in European fashions.
How did the farm woman in New Mexico know what to wear? Severa argues that fashion magazines, like Godey’s Lady Book, were widely distributed and passed from hand to hand. Even very small towns usually had someone in the sewing trade—either a well trained dressmaker or a lesser skilled seamstress who could add stylish details to basic designs.
This book also teaches how to look more carefully at clothes in photographs. Severa was a curator for the clothing collection of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, so she has detailed knowledge of the kinds of clothes being photographed. Her eye for detail is astonishing—she looks for the cut of a sleeve, the texture of the fabric, the folds and buttons on a bodice.
There are many lessons here for the historian of twentieth century fashion. I learned that the turn toward more relaxed clothing, a hallmark of American style, was well underway in the nineteenth century. And even in the 1840s, fashion made allowance for the older figure. This is a book I will turn to again and again.
Los Angeles Times, 1922
In the era of the pencil slim, boyish flapper, plus size clothing gained a real foothold in the American clothing market. Perhaps this isn’t as much of a paradox as it seems at first glance; larger women who wanted to follow current the styles as much as possible needed special cuts and undergarments. According to Paul Nystrom’s fascinating 1928 book, The Economics of Fashion, (you can find it online here), interest in plus sizes (called stout sizes then) exploded in the 1920s. He estimates that 32% of women clothes were made in “stout” sizes.
Not only that, but Nystrom identified five different stout cuts. The regular stout was an extension of standard sizing proportions, but bigger. The long and short stouts were meant for women who were on average about three inches taller or shorter than the norm. The last two stout categories are particularly intriguing. The “stylish stout” had a bigger bust, longer waist, and smaller hips than average. The “stubby stout” had a smaller bust and bigger hips.
The Economics of Fashion, 464
Before we envy the 1920s shopper, we need to ask if these size ranges were consistent. A short search through newspaper ads and articles shows that they were not. One New York Times article, “Catering to the Stout Trade” (8/13/1922) defined the terms differently. This author called the “stylish stout” a “narrow-waisted, well-corseted woman found chiefly in the large cities.” The “stubby stout” was simply used for short women.
To make matters even more confusing, most ads didn’t differentiate between stout sizes at all. Instead, they used the most attractive label—stylish stout—and applied to any and every large sized garment. It was even a brand name.