What to Wear on Elephants, 1979

From Lizzie Bramlett. Click to enlarge

From Lizzie Bramlett. Click to enlarge

How fitting that this photo of three women adventurers was sent to me by Lizzie Bramlett of the blog The Vintage Traveler.  Lizzie has sent me many snapshots, but this is by far the most exotic.

A handwritten message on the back of the photo reads, “Just before we climbed aboard for the Jungle game drive, Tiger Tops Nepal, Oct. ’79.”  Tiger Tops still exists, and there are still elephant safaris.

On display are three styles of travel dressing by older women—“just the basics” on the left, “adding bright details” in the middle, and “I love color and I don’t mind being looked at” on the right.

The woman with the simplest style wears a white turtle neck, olive green pants, and dark loafers, a travel friendly combination.  The adventurer in the middle has moved a little beyond the basics. Her colorful shirt has a woven pattern in blues and red; she adds red shoes or sandals with a woven front like huaraches.

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalog, Late Seventies

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalog, Late Seventies

But our gaze is inevitably drawn to the woman on the right, who has decided to stand out in a crowd in her lime green pants and jacket. Since it’s the seventies, there is a very good chance that the combo is made of polyester, like the pants suits above from Sears sold in 1977.  To underscore her love of color, she has added a brightly striped top and a green hat. The one utilitarian touch is her white sneakers.

Pierre Cardin sunglasses, 1960s, from Spectacles and Sunglasses

Pierre Cardin sunglasses, 1960s, from Spectacles and Sunglasses

But who would spend time looking at her feet when she has on those fabulous sunglasses, in the round style favored by so many older women today. They were an unusual shape for the seventies, when big squareish styles were common.  Her pair has a sixties look, a distant cousin to this avant-garde creation by Pierre Cardin.  If Ari Seth Cohen of Advanced Style fame had been on this safari, we can guess which one of these women  would photograph.

Posted in 1970s | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Sheath versus the Shirtwaist in the 1960s


1964.  Click all photos to enlarge

Unless fashion doesn’t interest you at all, you must have noticed that the shirtwaist dress—now often called a shirt dress—is back in style. I have an irrational dislike for this  beloved classic of American design, which has always seemed dowdy to me. After some amateur self diagnosis, I think I have figured out why.

sheathcompositeWhen I first began to notice fashion styles in the 1960s, sheath dresses were all the rage. Many older women embraced the new style. My own grandmother, pictured on the left, was one of the early adapters.

shirtwaistcompositeBut if my photo collection is any indication, a majority of older women stuck with their comfortable shirtwaists, which had become almost a uniform for American women in the 1950s. Because it was mainly older women I saw in these out-of-style dresses, I coded  shirtwaist as “old.”

Now I am old myself and have nothing but respect for those women of the sixties who resisted fickle fashion for a style that felt comfortable.  I also know that fashion ideas are constantly recycled, changing meanings in the process.

altuzarra2Will I change my mind about the shirtwaist now that I can buy this Altuzarra striped silk version for $1900 at Neiman Marcus? I don’t think so.

Posted in 1960s, 2010s | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Carmen Dell’Orefice—“The Quintessential Vogue Woman”

Vogue Patterns, March/April 1998

Vogue Patterns, March/April 1998. Click to enlarge

With all the fuss in the press recently about older models in the fashion world, you would think this issue was only invented in the new millennium. However, product lines aimed at the older set have long tried to find beautiful women of a certain age to sell their goods.  One of the most successful is Carmen Dell’Orefice (1931-), who started modeling with Vogue magazine when she was in her teens. Today in her eighties, she still sometimes walks the runway.

I first recognized Dell’Orefice on the cover of Vogue Patterns in 1960.  She started showing up again in the 1980s, when she was in her fifties, modeling clothes aimed at older women. Although she had a figure that most of us would envy, her once auburn hair was turning white.  When the Vogue Woman Collection was launched in the 1990s, she was a frequent model for the line.

Vogue Patterns, January/February 1997

Vogue Patterns, January/February 1997. Click to enlarge

In 1997, Donna Gould did a piece for the magazine called “Carmen!” with the subtitle “She is, quite simply, the quintessential Vogue Woman.”  In it we learn that she herself is a seamstress, “sewing with Vogue Patterns for so long that she can cut basic pieces without using a pattern.” In the article, she comments that she was able to wear a green chiffon dress that she had made in the 1960s to a recent evening event.  “If something as right on you originally,” she is quoted as saying, “then it will always look right.”  (Yes, if it still fits, I thought.)

And why is there no Carmen Dell-Orifice, or someone like her, in Vogue Patterns today?

Posted in 1990 | Tagged | 3 Comments

The Vogue Woman Collection

Vogue Patterns, March/April 1993

Vogue Patterns, March/April 1993

At various points in its long history, the Vogue Pattern Company turned its attention to its older customers. However, it was only in the 1993s that it launched a pattern line designed specifically to address aging figures—the Vogue Woman Collection. “Generated by the largest consumer interest to date, this collection addresses the fashion and fit concerns of the modern woman who is 40 and older.”(Vogue Patterns, March/April 1993, 34)

What made this pattern line different different?  First of all, the directions were printed with larger type, something I’m sure that older readers appreciated. The patterns themselves had features designed to fit older bodies. These included adjustments for lower bust lines; sleeves with a looser fit; more neckline coverage; attention to rounded backs; waistline skimming silhouettes, along with elastic insertion in most waistbands; and lower body camouflage, including long tops over narrow bottoms.  The magazine claimed that its examples of finished garments would give older women ideas about the softer surfaces and hues that “play[ed] up greys and silvery hair shades.”(95)  They were offered in sizes from 8 to 24.

The magazine used three models to exemplify the age range of the new patterns, with the brunette on the right showing the clothes on 40ish women, the dyed blond in the middle representing women in their fifties, and the silver haired woman standing in for those in their sixties and beyond.  The oldest model, Lillian Marcusson, appears to carry a little more weight around the middle.  She was singled out in the write up of the new line, including a feature on how she prepared for the photo shoot.

VogueWoman93_8Several of the pattern envelops also featured Marcusson on the cover, offering the promise that these patterns really were designed with the older woman in mind.

The last reference I have to the Vogue Woman Collection is from 2004.  This summer, I’m hoping to get permission to work in the archives at McCalls Patterns, which owns Vogue, Butterick, and McCalls. I have a lot of questions to investigate, including just when (and why) this collection ended.

Posted in 1990 | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Fancy Dress Up Oxfords

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

My husband is a very casual dresser. Except when going to the theater, he doesn’t dress up much. In fact, his idea of special occasion clothes are black jeans, a newish t-shirt, and something he calls “fancy dress up sneakers.”

I thought of that phrase when I saw this photo of a family gathering from the late forties or early fifties. The older woman, third from right, is wearing sensible shoes, but with a twist—a lace up style with an open toe and cut out leather or mesh.  Take a closer look.

FancyOxfords2The lacey shoes go perfectly with her dark dress and its beautiful sheer insert.

I looked for something similar, but only came up with a much inferior version from a Sears catalog in 1951.

Fashionable clothing from the Sears Catalog: Early 1950s

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalog: Early 1950s

What was the event, I wonder–perhaps a family reunion or anniversary party?  One thing is for sure–the older woman and her younger companion in the shiny skirt are the best dressed in the bunch.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged | 3 Comments

Donna Karan in the Black

Associated Press

Associated Press, 2015

I’ve never bought anything by American designer Donna Karan—her clothes are far above my price range.  But after reading her new autobiography, My Journey, I think I might have been influenced by her approach to clothing. In the late eighties, when I was working full time and had a young child, I developed a basic uniform based on black. The foundation was a pair of black pants, either trouser style or more often the pull on kind. I combined this with a simple shirt and jacket, either a black shirt with a colorful jacket or a colored shirt with a black jacket.  I’m not sure I was aware of Karan’s black based “seven easy pieces” made for her line Donna Karan New York. It must been in the air, though, since I had created “three easy pieces” of my own.

Vogue Sept 1, 1985

Donna Karan New York in Vogue, Sept. 1, 1985

By any standard, Karan has led a charmed life as a fashion designer.  She worked as Anne Klein’s main assistant and took over the brand with Louis Dell’Ollio when Klein died an early death from cancer in 1974.  At that point Karan was only twenty six years old. She stayed for eleven years, When she decided to launch her own line in 1985, she received generous backing from Anne Klein’s owners. Her company went on to become a megabrand, with a more casual line, DKNY, a menswear line, and innumerable spinoffs into make up, fragrances, leather goods, etc.  In the process, she won pretty much every award the fashion industry has to offer.  In 2004, at the young age of 55, she received the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement award.

Karan is best known for her love of black, a topic that she brings up many times in her memoir.  “Black. The color that does it all. It’s sophisticated, says New York, looks good on everyone, goes seamlessly from day into evening, matches everything, doesn’t get dirty, travels well, sets a canvas for jewelry, erases extra pounds, and allows a woman’s skin and personality to shine. Do I need to go on? I will anyway. You never regret buying a good black piece. It is timeless, seasonless, and ageless, and it looks right anywhere in the world. To me, it’s a uniform you put on and don’t have to talk about again.” (139)

I gave up wearing black about ten years ago—the color was getting me down. But Karan, now in her mid sixties, never changed her mind. For her, black is ageless–her signature look remains all black clothes with big statement jewelry.

Urban Zen, 2016

Urban Zen, 2016

Just last year, Karan stepped down from the brand that bears her name. These days she has a new enterprise called Urban Zen, which focuses on fashion, health, and philanthropy.  The clothes are looser with a lot of drape.  They feature muted colors and even a few prints.  But since Karan is in charge, there is still a lot of black.

Posted in 1980s, 1990, 2000s, 2010s | Tagged , | 9 Comments

The Sweet Flypaper of Life


All photos from the book. Click to enlarge

A cultural milestone in the African American community, the picture book The Sweet Flypaper of Life was a collaboration between noted photographer Roy DeCarava and the writer Langston Hughes. In 1952, DeCarvara became the first African American to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship.  He used the money to photograph his Harlem neighborhood, hoping to put out a book of photos. Publishing houses weren’t interested until his friend Langston Hughes came up with the idea of writing a story around a selection of the photographs. The result was a slim volume printed on cheap paper that went on to become a huge best seller.  It won praise as the first collection of photographs to offer a respectful insider’s look at African American life.

The narrator of the fictional text is a woman in her seventies, Sister Mary Bradley, who was ailing and been called to heaven but refused to go. “I done got my feet caught up in the sweet flypaper of life—and I’ll de dogged if I want to get loose.” The text and photos narrate life in her extended family and community. They also underscore how important older women are to life in Harlem.

Sister Mary herself is a caretaker for her family, especially for her wayward adult grandson, Rodney.  She says, “I done rid a million subway cars and went back and forth to work a million days for that Rodney.”  The photos show other women making that trek.

deCarava2There are dignified older women holding court in their apartments

DeCarava4and beautifully dressed to attend church.

deCarava3But it isn’t until the very last page that we get to see a photo of Sister Mary Bradley herself.

deCarava55Long out of print, copies of the book are prized collectors’ items.  Look for this treasure at your local library.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged , | 3 Comments

On a Treasure Hunt at the Chicago History Museum

Montgomery Ward staff magazine Forward, Nov./Dec. 1923

Montgomery Ward staff magazine Forward, Nov./Dec. 1923

Working in an archive is like looking for vintage treasures in an overstuffed warehouse.  You might have some idea of what you want to find, but you need to keep an open mind.  Since my daughter lives in Chicago, I visit there several times a year.  On a recent trip, I decided to take a look at the Montgomery Ward archives held at the Chicago History Museum. They included corporate records, staff magazines, and information about how the catalog was put together.  My hope was that I might be able to find something about the famous designer Anne Swainson, who gave the catalog and many of Montgomery Ward’s products their modern look from 1931 to 1955.

Other than the text of the short speech, I found nothing on Swainson.  There was very little on how the company designed and sold its clothes, either.  (However, there were several pamphlets on how to sell air conditioners and refrigerators.)  The staff magazine, Forward, was there in bound versions from the 1920s.  It held a lot of information on the lives of young staff members, but older women were scarce on the ground.

My one treasure from an afternoon’s hunt—this 1923 photo of the company’s elite.  In the front are the two company matriarchs, Ellen Cobb Thorne and Elizabeth Montgomery Ward, the wives of the founders. In the back row is the second generation.  The two older women wear long evening clothes made of luxurious textiles.  Mrs. Thorne’s dark dress has an old fashioned cut; it looks to be a silk moiré trimmed with lace at the throat and wrists. Mrs. Montgomery Ward dress is a more up-to-date style made of a rich velvet with ruching at the cuffs and waist.  I wonder what the young working girls featured elsewhere in the magazine made of these wealthy matrons.

Posted in 1920s | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

At Busch Gardens, 1926

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

There have been many Busch Gardens in the United States, but I was surprised to learn that the original one was in Pasadena, California. It was located on the grounds of the winter home of Aldophus Busch, who owned the famous beer company Anheuser-Busch.  The park existed from 1906-1937 and was a major tourist attraction. Many films were made on the extensive grounds, including parts of Gone with the Wind.

In this 1926 photo taken at the gardens, you can see Busch’s mansion, “Ivy Wall,” in the background. The two older women pictured wear light colored dress, typical for the summertime. While the shape does nothing for their figures, they certainly look cool.

Both of these dresses look a little long for the styles of 1926, when fashionable lengths were just below the knee.  However, it was typical for older women to favor longer lengths. Both women also wear dark stockings, while younger women of the era had moved on to lighter colors. But there are youthful elements to their outfits as well, including the small ruffles at the sleeves and neckline of the dress on the left and the modified sailor collar featured on the right, something I’ve seen most often in clothes for teens. Their cloche hats are exuberantly decorated with flowers, so exuberantly that I wonder if they did the work themselves. I’m sorry we can’t take a peak underneath the hats to see if they had bobbed their hair.

Posted in 1920s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Ceil Chapman Sells Washing Machines

Better Homes and Gardens, October 1956

Better Homes and Gardens, October 1956. Click to enlarge

You would think that automatic washing machines would be an easy sell, since they saved so much work.  However, if the ads I saw in four issues of Better Homes and Gardens from 1956 were any indication, women took a lot of convincing. According to the magazine’s own statistics, only 38% of their readers owned an automatic washer.  Even less, 15.5%, owned a dryer.

Cost must have been a big impediment.  According to US Department of Commerce Statistics, the median income for men in 1956 was $3600.00.  One deluxe washer and dryer set cost almost $500 dollars in 1953. But if you read the ads carefully, worries about quality were also a concern.

In this advertisement for a Philco washer, high fashion designer Ceil Chapman is brought in to endorse the new technology.  She is billed as a “famous fashion designer and fabric expert,” and it is the latter category that gets most of the attention.  In the ad copy, Chapman reassures women that the new Philco washer would safely handle the new miracle fibers and blends without harmful strain. At the same time it could get even the dirtiest work clothes clean.

Chapman5Chapman, in her mid forties in this photo, was best known as a designer of deluxe evening wear for celebrities. She does not appear to be someone who did her own laundry–take a look at those pearls. I will bet that she didn’t put any of her own dresses into a washing machine. Would most Better Homes and Gardens readers recognize her name?  And would they notice that she has a pencil, not a cigarette, in her hand?

Posted in 1950s | Tagged , | 3 Comments