Mrs. Williams in the Soviet Union, 1959

Mrs. Williams in Arkhangelsk, Life, July 27, 1959

Mrs. Williams in Arkhangelsk, Life, July 27, 1959

When you listen to the self generated propaganda of the baby boomer generation, you might think that we were the first group ever to grow old with our legs still working and our brains more or less intact. But of course it isn’t true. In 1959, Life magazine did a four part series on aging in America.  One article in particular, “Practical Ways to be Old and Happy” (July 27, 1959), might have been plucked from the website Senior Planet. It followed four older men and women who were having the time of their lives. Their secret—they kept active refused to “retire” in conventional ways.

In Red Square

In Red Square

Because of my background as a historian of Soviet Russia, I was particularly drawn to the story of Mrs. Andrew Murray Williams (no first name mentioned), a seventy year old  leading a tour to the Soviet Union. She began working when her husband died as a way to make ends meet. Although many of her friends disapproved, she insisted that it was a way to avoid loneliness while seeing the world.

Almost everyone on the tour, mainly women judging by the photos, was over seventy. Despite the full daytime schedule, they would go out at night as well. “When people get bored, they get tired,” she opined. She was already planning a trip around the world, her third, this time including stops in India.

In GUM, the main department store in Moscow

In GUM, the main department store in Moscow

I would love to have an inventory of her travel clothes. We see her in a Spring-like printed suit, hat, and jewelry on a bus; a dark suit, hat, and sensible shoes in Red Square; and a dark coat and hat in the department store. Her clothes betray no shift to looser styles already underway in 1959. Yet despite her slim skirt, she had no difficulties climbing up on a ledge to take photographs in Red Square. I wonder what the Soviets made of her and her older traveling companions.

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Singer Showcase, Issue 1

Fall-Winter 66

Fall-Winter, 1966

We all know that Singer makes sewing machines. But were you aware the company also ventured into the pattern business? I discovered this by chance (a favorite research method) when I came across the first issue of Singer Showcase from Fall 1966. Here’s a quote from the opening editorial: “Singer Showcase Magazine is excited about sewing. Somehow, slowly but surely in the last few years, sewing has ceased to be a necessity and has emerged as a joyous, creative activity. This magazine begins—not accidentally—at the propitious time.”(11)

Singer2_66The magazine offered something for most people who sewed: an interview with a well known designer, an overview of fabric trends, advice on fitting techniques, sewing projects for the home, and patterns for women, men and children. Most surprising was the “Singer World Designer Collection” of original sewing patterns from Paris, Rome, London, and New York. Most of the featured designers are now obscure–Hilary Huckstepp and Ann Howard of London, and Thomas Haderer of Paris. One, however, lasted in the big way—Calvin Klein of New York.

Singer3_66While Singer patterns only came in sizes 8 to 18, older and wider women were not forgotten. There was a two page spread of half size patterns from Vogue and Butterick offered in sizes 12 ½ to 22 ½, “designed especially for those who wear women’s and half-size patterns. And, all help to prove that ‘fashion’ does not mean a size range—fashion is a point of view.”(32)

I’m guessing that the company’s venture into pattern making wasn’t very lucrative. In the next issue of the magazine I found, Spring 1972, Singer patterns had already disappeared.


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Freddy and Friends, ca. 1916

FreddyThis wonderful photograph printed on a post card came with a lot of information. First of all there is the written message on the front, “Freddy seems to have some misgivings but my expression is certainly is certainly hopeful.” (The back is empty and there is evidence this was glued into an album.) Next there is the embossed photographer’s identification, A. L. Irons, Photographer, Amsterdam, N.Y.

It came with no date, though.  By looking at the suit jackets, I thought it might have been taken in the late 1900s.  When I asked for help from the experts, I learned I had looked at the wrong clues. While most women kept their suits for a long time, they changed their hats to stay in style. These hats, according to Jonathan Wolford and Barbara of Rue de la Paix on the Vintage Fashion Guild Forums, show style changes around 1915-16. In addition, Witness2fashion and Barbara pointed out that the silk dress was worn by the woman standing on the left was also typical of that time. I still have a lot to learn!

The card writer with the hopeful expression, standing to the right, wears a light colored wool suit. I am puzzled by what appear to be small wings coming out of her back collar. They are too distinct to be part of the background. The woman in front wears a sharp pinstripe suit, softened with a collar in what might be dotted Swiss cotton. She carries an umbrella and wears a lorgnette on a ribbon. It’s hard to figure out what decorates her narrow brimmed hat. At first I thought it might be badges, but after enlarging the photo I’m more inclined to say they are straw flowers.

Most puzzling is the woman on the back left with a hat abundantly adorned with cherries. While the others are dressed for the street, she is wearing a low cut black (or very dark) silk dress covered by a filmy blouse. Not only does she have a ribbon at her neck, but she also wears a long black beaded necklace.

These three might just be pushing fifty. Were they relatives? Neighbors? College chums? Maybe they were a team of happy spinsters, like those described in the Tish novels by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

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Older Women in Prints, 1939

Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota

Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota

This evocative photo of the Finnish War Orphans Sewing Circle of Cleveland, Ohio features mainly older women. For the most part, they are dressed quite conservatively in dark dresses with brooches or lace collars at their necks. Some sport a favorite discreet print of the era, the refined polka dot.

However, three in the group have bucked the trend and wear large scale prints. The one in the back, third from the left, has toned down her pattern with stripes. Two in the front row really stand out from the crowd in large scale floral prints. Not only do they ignore common fashion advice for the older set, which warns against large scale patterns. I also thought that they had reached far beyond the normal for their era, which favored small, geometric motifs.

Sears Catalog, 1938I was wrong about that last assumption, though. Take a look at the bold floral design in a 1938 Sears catalog. Maybe these two women were hoping to look more youthful with their choices. Or maybe they just liked flowers.

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“We Three in our Muumuus”

muumuu“We three in our Muumuus. My side yard and my bedroom door in the background.”

This seventies era photo cries out for a story, doesn’t it? I suspect that one of these women had retired to Hawaii and invited old friends for a visit. They all wear leis, the Hawaiian mark of welcome. The snapshot not only shows off the colorful local clothing but also her new home.

From my cursory web search, I discovered that the muumuu is the product of imperialism. They were introduced by missionaries to Hawaii in the early nineteenth century as a way to cover up the local female inhabitants. Initially they were just sack dresses, but then evolved into a kind of Mother Hubbard construction, with a yoke at the top and gathering beneath. Eventually just about any colorful long or short dress could be called a muumuu, with the name depending mainly on the brightly patterned fabric. These women’s dresses are empire style, fitted under the bust.

A year ago I spent a week in Honolulu and spent a lot of time looking for older women in muumuus. I didn’t see any. That wouldn’t have been the case in the 1970s, though. According to a 1972 article in the Los Angeles Times, “the muumuu is still the Who’s Who of fashion for the tourist in Hawaii. Everyone from little old ladies in tennis shoes to swingers shows up in a muumuu, from the blatantly patterned sack types, to flowing alii (royalty) versions, to sexy fitting numbers called angel muus.” (February 6, 1972) I’m glad that little old ladies at least receive a mention.


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“Stout Figures Present an Interesting Problem,” 1914

HomePattern2_14What is the cause for the problem of stoutness?  Aging.  That is the analysis of the editors of The Home Pattern Company 1914 Fashions Catalog, republished by Dover books. “When a woman begins to leave youthful slimness behind and sees herself going gradually plump and then plumper, and then positively stout, life is apt to seem a tragedy,” read the opening lines.  “Just at present, however, fashion is kind to the stout woman, for large waists are so much the fashion that she need not lace herself in, until her discomfort shows itself in her reddened face.” (6) The styles offer common solutions for the larger woman—vertical lines and surplice (diagonal) closures.

HomePattern3_14On another page of the catalog devoted to larger women, the advice is more specific: no pastel colors, no primary colors, no horizontal stripes. “When a woman finds herself stout, she should stop using the latest styles and instead spend many hours before her mirror to find just what lines and colors suit her best. Then she should stick to these through thick and thin, making only such changes in her clothes as will keep them up-to-date.” But most important, she should focus on her conversational skills. “Like the extremely homely woman, she should make every effort to have her disposition and conversation so pleasing and interesting that what wear she wears becomes of minor importance. (48)

HomePattern1_14Sizes for these “stout” styles went up to a bust measurement of 46 inches, only two inches larger than the standard women’s sizes. In fact, the largest item offered in the catalog was for a “smart mannish shirtwaist” aimed at working women. It went up to size 48. That’s more evidence of just how ubiquitous the skirt and shirtwaist style was for all ages and sizes in early twentieth century America.

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On the Road, ca. 1942

OntheRoad42In my rag tag photo collection, I have many snap shots of older women posing in front of cars. Often they radiate the pride of possession, but these two don’t. They also don’t give the impression of living in the trailer that we can see in the background. Were they relatives come to visit? The woman on the right looks like she might be a social worker hired to check on conditions in the campsite.

The treasure here is the bold geometric coat worn by the woman on the left. Hems were on the rise in the early forties, so it looks to be a more recent purchase than her dress.  The coat is a beauty,  with stripes running down the front and a plaid at the shoulders. Although it’s hard to tell, the full sleeves might also be a plaid, with horizontal stripes on the cuffs.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Geometrics were in style in the early forties. Some time back I hired a young costume designer/fashion historian to look through a small sample of my photo collection. She used the distinctive coat above to date the photo, discovering many similar examples from that era. Take a look at the 1942 Office of War Information photo she found of a worker in Detroit wearing a similar wide shouldered geometric coat.

As a lover of all things geometric, it would be tough for me to choose between the two coats.  If forced, however, I’d take the one in the trailer camp for its more elegant shoulders and more inventive use of stripes.

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Sheila Hicks—A Life in Textiles

Hicks in London, 2015, GBPhotos

Hicks in London, 2015, GBPhotos

As a lover of all things having to do with yarn and thread, it pains me to admit that I only learned about the famous textile artist Sheila Hicks from a recent article in the New York Times. She made news by volunteering to recreate a subtle textile wall in the lobby of the Ford Foundation offices in New York. The wall, first made in 1967, had been damaged by chemicals used in fireproofing. Hicks volunteered her time; the foundation paid for materials and assistants.

Hicks in New York, 2014, New York Times

Hicks in New York, 2014,

The monochromatic golden wall is not typical of Hicks’ work, which usually explodes with color. Born in Nebraska in 1934, Hick studied art at Yale. Most biographies list the important male painters who influenced her. This fascinating account mentions that she became intrigued with textiles by meeting the famous Bauhaus weaver Anni Albers, wife of one of her painting teachers, Joseph Albers. A study trip to Chile led her to investigate textiles around the world, including South America, Mexico, Morocco, and India.

Hicks in Philadelphia, 2011. Institute of Contemporary Art

Hicks in Philadelphia, 2011. Institute of Contemporary Art

Now in her eighties, Hicks is experiencing something of a star turn. She exhibits all around the world, more abroad than in the US. In 2010, a retrospective of the first fifty years of her work made its way around the East Coast from Massachusetts to North Carolina. I wish someone would bring it to the West Coast.

Many pictures of Hicks show her in an artist’s uniform of black. However, when she shows up for special events she often wears dazzling textiles. I would love to have a peak into her closet.

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Wrapped in the Flag, Cape Cod 1947

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photo

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photo

Usually when you hear the phrase “wrapped in the flag,” it is a metaphor for extreme patriotism. This woman took it literally. The great French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson had this to say about his photo: “This woman explained to me that the flagpole over her door was broken but ‘on such a day as this, one keeps one’s flag on one’s heart.’ I felt in her a touch of the strength and robustness of the early American pioneers.”

Perhaps he was reminded of early pioneers in part because her dress had nothing in common with the clothes of 1947. It doesn’t fit her and the style is eclectic, with its very wide collar and short puffed sleeves. Was it a hand me down? A second hand find? Or more intriguing, did she make it herself with style elements from clothes she had loved during her long life?

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All Wrapped Up

bowdressThis dress gives a whole new definition to party outfit, since the woman looks like a  wrapped package. The asymmetrical design is gathered across the left shoulder—you can see the fold beneath her large pin, and across along the left hip. While the diagonal wide ribbon is an interesting detail, it draws attention to her rounded stomach above.

I had a very difficult time dating this photo. My first guess was that it was from the 1930s—the skirt length, the wide shoulders, the rather thick heels with small platforms. However, I was unsure and so I turned to my go-to expert on dating old photos,  Jen Orsini of Pintucks. She has a great eye and a huge stash of vintage patterns, as well as a career teaching fashion history behind her. Her guess was around 1950. “Here’s why I think so,” she wrote. “Slender skirt (late 30’s through the war years would probably be more ‘A’ line and possibly shorter), small shoulder pads (there were smaller shoulder pads worn after the war–but not the extremely wide ones), hat and hair (if you look at this alone, her longer hair and hat seems to be a 50’s style).”

SimplitySideSwagJen included a January 1950 Simplicity pattern drawing to bolster her assessment. The dress on the left, #3065, came in larger women’s sizes “so clearly mature women were still wearing crepe and diagonal skirt details after the war (while the younger girls were already adopting the longer lengths and big full skirts in crisper fabric).

You can see I still have a lot to learn, but I have assembled a team of experts to help me out. Thanks, Jen!

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