Swing Coat, 1950s

swingcoatEverything coordinates here, from the hat to the shoes. This stylish older woman wears a swing coat (sometimes called a pyramid coat), which extends down from the shoulder out to a wide hem. It was a very popular style in the 1950s, although I have seen them most often in hip length versions.

The wonderful website vintagepatterns.wikia.com shows swing coats offered by a wide range of pattern companies, from low end Anne Adams to high end Vogue. This long coat would have required a lot of fabric—up to five yards of wide yardage depending on the size.

Butterick 6583, 1952. From Vintagepatternwikia.com

Butterick 6583, 1952. From vintagepatterns.wikia.com

All the elements in this outfit—the swing coat, the small boxy hand bag, the flying saucer hat, were popular in the early to mid 1950s. I’m guessing that she found her coat in the early part of the decade, since lengths got shorter as the years progressed.

I love the look of three quarter length sleeves, but how useful are they in a coat? Doesn’t that swath of skin between her gloves and her sleeve get cold? But this looks like a woman who put style before comfort.

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The Stretch & Sew Empire

Make it Fun and Easy, Fall/Winter 1980

Make it Fun and Easy, Fall/Winter 1980

Ann Person of Stretch & Sew was a brilliant business woman. Her franchises were a self-contained sewing empire, offering patterns, fabric, notions, and classes. On the women’s pages of local newspapers, she gained notoriety as a hugely successful entrepreneur. One 1975 article from Toledo, Ohio noted that she traveled on privately chartered jets and had her own chauffeured limousine.

Person was a pioneer in nested multi-sized patterns, all on a single sheet. Like dresses in the early twentieth century, women’s patterns were offered by bust size, usually in a range from 28 to 44 inches.  They were designed to be traced, not cut, so sewers could easily make changes if hips or bust sizes varied from standard proportions. The company offered its own tracing paper, called “Do-Sew,” along with its own elastic and fusible interfacing.

Stretch & Sew 1044, 1980

Another essential element of Stretch & Sew’s success was to make a wide range of knit fabrics available to the home sewer. The stores offered everything needed to complete the patterns, from basic knits with matching ribbing to heavier, textured types for coats and jackets.

Not all ideas succeeded. The company developed its own brand of sewing machine “designed especially for knits and crafted in Italy.” It quickly disappeared from advertising. There was Stretch & Sew magazine, called Make it Fun and Easy, modeled after magazines like Vogue Patterns. Since I only uncovered one issue from 1980, I doubt that it lasted very long. And in the era of celebrity perfumes, Person even offered her own, “Love Ann,” sold only at Stretch & Sew franchises. Plans to expand into other cosmetics never materialized.

By the 1980s, Stretch & Sew began to face financial challenges. Other pattern companies developed their own lines for knits. Changes in fashion, which favored more structured apparel and natural fibers, also undermined the company’s mission. During that decade, franchises were phased out and replaced by independent stores which were no longer restricted to the selling the brand.

When she was approaching eighty in 2004, Ann Person was inducted into the American Sewing Guild’s Hall of Fame. It was the swan song for her company, which stopped producing patterns that same year. However, you can still find them at flea markets, thrift stores, and online vendors. I recently bought pattern 1044 from 1980 on ebay that I’m planning to make this summer from a vintage knit that might well have come from a Stretch & Sew store. I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990, 2000s, General | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Ann Person of Stretch & Sew

AnnPersonMethod81Every avocation has its celebrities, and Ann Person, the founder of Stretch & Sew, was a star in the world of home sewing in the seventies and eighties. As knit clothing hit the market in a big way, she devised methods for stretchy, comfortable, and forgiving garments to be made at home

In the mid 1960s, when she was around 40, Person began to experiment with knit fabrics. Before home sewing machines had special stretch stitches, and long before home sergers, she instructed people to stretch knits as they sewed in order to create flexible seams. Soon she was publishing patterns along with a how-to book, The Ann Person Method. My copy, bought on ebay, has extensive notes by its original owner.

Person offered an irresistible package: style, economy, and speed. Her advertising stressed how easy it was to make professional looking garments in half the time as traditional sewing methods. It was the right idea at the right time.

After she opened her first store in Burns, Oregon, she and her husband decided to turn the idea into a franchise. A decade later, there were some 350 Sew & Sew stores across the country. The owners taught Person’s methods, offering an eight class series that began with tee shirts and included a fitted blazer. One fashion show in Los Angeles, co-sponsored with Harper’s Bazaar, even featured a knit tuxedo with satin lapels.

“Even you can whip up this knit shirtdress and safari suit duo in no time.”  LA Times, Feb. 20, 1975

“Even you can whip up this knit shirtdress and safari suit duo in no time.” LA Times, Feb. 20, 1975

Along the way she hired professional pattern makers who began basing their work on style leaders like Halston and Givenchy. “Some designers don’t like to see me come,” Person said in a 1974 interview. “They know that what I buy will soon be available to home sewers.”

Often described in newspapers as a “white haired grandmother,” Person always appeared in public wearing her own designs. I know many women who still have her patterns in their stashes. There’s more to come soon on the Ann Person sewing empire.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990 | Tagged , | 4 Comments

My Grandmother Madge


My maternal grandmother Madge had couture level sewing skills.  When I asked where she got them, my aunt told me she took classes in downtown Chicago.  She never rested on her laurels. I am thinking of her a lot, since my sister and I are taking a couture sewing workshop with Claire Shaeffer in Palm Springs.  I like to think of her spirit in the room with us.

During the depression, she made complete wardrobes for her three daughters, taking apart old clothes to find fabric.  One aunt told me she always had a new dress for special occasions, even if the fabric was not new.  When the youngest daughter was ready to go off to college, my grandparents had enough money to buy her a new wardrobe.  But she demanded a handmade collection just like her sisters had received.

This picture is from 1961, when she was about 62 years old.  You can see that she was able to stay right in style.  Find me that jacket, and I would wear it today.

Posted in 1960s, General | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Helena Rubinstein and the Fine Art of Photo Retouching, 1932

From Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power by Mason Klein

From Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power by Mason Klein

How did famous beauties control their image before the era of Photoshop? They had their photographs retouched. Apparently altering negatives to achieve different results is a process as old as photography itself. Because she had made herself into the image of her brand, looking beautiful was very important to Helena Rubinstein. That was easy when she was young with flawless skin, but it became more problematic as she aged. Rubinstein was sixty when famous photographer Cecil Beaton took this photo in 1932. The marks on the top version indicate the problems of age—wrinkles on the forehead, around the eyes, and near the mouth, as well as wobbles along the jaw line. In the published photograph, she looks to be in her very early middle age—quite a recommendation for her beauty products!

This photo, which was published in Vanity Fair, also shows that Rubinstein belonged to the “more is more” school of fashion. She is wearing one of her favorite designers, Schiaparelli, and enough jewelry to open a small store. According to Mason Klein’s recent study, one of her favorite sayings was “Quality is nice, but quantity makes a show.”


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An Eastern Star Event, Early 1950s

EasternStarSince fancy dress up wear is often a problem for older women, I was fascinated by this photograph of an Eastern Star event most likely taken in the early 1950s.  The Eastern Star is an affiliate organization of the Masons. Founded in the United States in the mid nineteenth century, it was open to Masons and women related to them. On the left you see the symbol of the Eastern Star. On the right, the Masonic symbol is placed above it.

The women wear many kinds of clothing, from long dresses in the front row to a striped suit in the center back. Was there no dress code? Except for one middle aged woman second to the left in the back, everyone wears short or long sleeves. Look at the variety of shoes visible in the front. Moving from left to right we can see a dressy version of the sensible shoe, a trim pump, and small slice of an open toe.

So when was this photograph taken? I am guessing in the early 1950s. The older men in front are wearing the double breasted, peak lapel suits popular in the 1940s, but still available in a 1951 Sears catalog. Younger men in the back favor the trimmer lapels that came into style in the fifties.

The women also show trends from both the forties and early fifties. I asked costume designer and fashion historian Witness2Fashion for her analysis, and she noted that the two younger women at the center wear dresses with short filmy sleeves, a style very popular in the early fifties. On the other hand, several of the older women still have forties style shoulder pads in their dresses. The short haircut many wear was also popular in the early fifties, although Witness2Fashion noted one marcel wave, which harkens back to the 1920s.  Some women don’t like change!

I found this photo in a Chicago thrift store in a folder of items from Indiana, so I’m guessing that’s where it was taken. I wonder if the gentleman in the front row ever looked at the picture and asked himself why he was wearing white socks.


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B. Smith’s Patterns for Vogue

Vogue Patterns, January/February 2001

Vogue Patterns, January/February 2001

In 2001, Vogue Patterns launched a line featuring the well known African American restaurateur, home wares designer, and media personality B. Smith. The magazine article in Vogue Patterns, “B. Smith—Sewing with Style,” explains how the collaboration came about. According to Smith, the company approached her. As someone interested in fashion—she had a career as a successful model behind her—she welcomed this chance to offer patterns that were versatile, comfortable, and flattering to many body types. She was always the model on the pattern envelops.

Although there is no mention that Smith had any experience designing clothes, the resulting patterns reflected the kinds of clothes she liked to wear, comfortable day-to-evening looks. Most came with coordinating pieces. For example, the pattern on the magazine cover included a fitted jacket, fitted top, wide palazzo pants, and a sheath dress.

Smith was fifty-one when she took this step into the pattern business. The clothes appear to be aimed at older women who liked to get dressed up. Unlike most Vogue patterns, which only went to size 18 (bust 42), hers went to size 22 (bust 46). Of the nine different pattern sets that appeared under her name, none was strictly casual. Even a knit wardrobe, Vogue 2658, came with a dress. One evening dress pattern, V2656, offered a long sleeved version, clearly a nod to the older set.


Vogue Patterns, January/February, 2001

Vogue Patterns, January/February, 2001

One of her most loved patterns included a jumpsuit, “because they move well and are an instant outfit. I wear them even when they’re not in style!” (Vogue Patterns, January/February 2001, 35) Since they are now in style again, you might look for her version, V2521, on Ebay or Etsy. A dress is also included.

In the brief online biographies I found, Smith’s collaboration with Vogue is not mentioned. These days she is known for something else entirely. She has gone public with the sad news that she is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. Be well, B. Smith.

Posted in 2000s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Three Sisters, 1882

MormonSistersSince this detailed photo includes the names of the subjects, just a little internet searching revealed that the three women were sisters. Rhoda Farnham Scammon, (1809-1896). Sarah Bracket Foss, (1899-1894) and Phebe Whittemore Woodruff (1807-1885) were born in Maine. Sarah and Phebe were early members of the Mormon community and died in Utah. I couldn’t discover if Rhoda also became a Mormon; her grave is in Kansas. Another copy of the photo, without the elaborate mounting board, is held at the Utah State Historical Society.

What are they wearing? I had to turn to the experts at Vintage Fashion Guild for help with the accessories, since my own spotty knowledge ends at 1900. According to fashion historian Jonathan Walford, they have house bonnets on their heads, “old fashioned for the 1880s but commonly worn in the 1840s-50s when these women were young.” Jonathan and Mary of The Vintage Merchant helped with their similar necklaces. They are called slide chains, used to hold watches that would fit into small pockets on their bodices. Women who needed glasses also used these chains to hold lorgnettes.

For help with their clothing, I consulted the wonderful book Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa. Rhoda Scammon and Sarah Foss were both widows when this photo was taken and their dresses were almost certainly black. Sarah’s simple dress, with dropped shoulders and most likely a gathered waist, was a style popular in the 1860s. The only decoration is dark fringe extending from the shoulder to the bodice and small tucks at the cuffs. Rhoda’s outfit is also austere, with only the underskirt beneath her high collared jacket showing some decoration. Her long jacket without a waist seam, called a Polonaise, was popular in the late 1870s.

Phebe Whittemore Woodruff wears the most elaborate outfit. Perhaps this was because her husband, Wilford Woodruff, was still alive and was a very important figure in the Mormon Church. (She was the first wife of nine. After her death he became Church President and ended the practice of plural marriage.) Her outfit has two distinctive markers for clothing in the late 1870s—the more elaborate skirt detail and the long cuffs that reach from the lower arm to the wrist. Her Polonaise jacket has a distinctive trim, perhaps gingham, repeated at her wrist and on the lower flounce of her skirt. There is a bow decoration at the center of her skirt and little rosettes at the top of the first row of trim. Her cuffs are especially fancy, with one row of dark lace like material, then the gingham, and a last row of shiny fabric.

A friend found this photo in a thrift store in the Woodland, California near Sacramento. I suspect it was originally taken in Utah, where two of the sisters lived. Did one of their descendants bring it with them to California?

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Your Cosmetic Portrait by Helena Rubinstein, 1935

Your Cosmetic Portrait by Helena Rubinstein, 1935 in Beauty is Power by Mason Klein, 2015

Your Cosmetic Portrait by Helena Rubinstein, 1935 in Beauty is Power by Mason Klein, 2014

I’ve been reading a fascinating book on beauty care expert Helena Rubinstein, Beauty is Power by Mason Klein. It is the companion volume to an exhibit of the same name that recently closed at the Jewish Museum in New York, something I would have loved to have seen.

Rubinstein was already in her mid forties when she opened up her first salon in New York, after first gaining success in Melbourne, Paris, and London. Perhaps this explains her attention to the “mature face.” Unusual for her time, she also made makeup for darker complexions. The African American dancer Josephine Baker used her foundation in a color called Crème Gypsy.

Older women might have been happy to see themselves included in the chart above that shows just where to apply rouge. However, I wondered why there was such specific advice for different facial shapes in youth, but only one for the mature face.

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Fifteen Ways to Emphasize Shortness and Stoutness, 1939

From Dress and Grooming by Estelle B. Hunter

From Dress and Grooming by Estelle B. Hunter

Although this two page spread is ostensibly about height and weight, I think the real message is to warn against eccentric dress. The woman on the right has clothes and accessories that coordinate and follow current fashion guidelines. The woman on the left, by contrast, is breaking all the fashion rules. Her clothes are too tight, her top and skirt don’t match, and her accessories do not contribute to a cohesive look. Even her posture is “awkward.” The author is resolutely against standing out in a crowd. “Clothes should provide a background for your personality; therefore they should be unobtrusive…Lack of ostentation is still an in dispensable mark of good taste, just as gaudiness is a mark of vulgarity.”(12)

Photos of eccentric older women from the early and mid twentieth century are rare. Such women must have existed, since they are described in literature and used as bad examples in books like these. Perhaps other family members chose not to take their pictures.

These days older fashion eccentrics are everywhere, it seems.  It’s not hard to guess which of these two women would be featured on Ari Seth Cohen’s blog, Advanced Style.

Posted in 1930s | Tagged , | 6 Comments