Meeting Madame Eta at FIT

Publicity Portrait, ca. 1945. Special Collections at FIT

Publicity Portrait, ca. 1945. Special Collections at FIT

I love archives. Show me a stack of old letters, clippings, and photographs and I get very excited—who knows what treasures might be there? When I discovered that the Hungarian-American designer Eta Hentz (aka Madame Eta) had a small archive at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, I made plans to work there on a recent visit to New York. I had been to the library several times, but had never worked in Special Collections where their archives are housed. The staff is very welcoming and helpful, but be sure to write ahead to make an appointment.

Ad for the shop “The Tailored Woman,” ca. 1936

Ad for the shop “The Tailored Woman,” ca. 1936

The Hentz archive consists of nine scrap books filled with announcements and newspaper clippings from the mid thirties to the late forties. She had been working in the New York garment industry since 1923, but her scrapbooks start with the announcement of her first solo company, Eta Inc., a decade later. The first books are mainly filled with advertising for her clothes in upscale New York shops. I discovered that in the early years, her name was often not mentioned in ads.

RenEtacompositeIn the mid 1940s, Eta changed course. She reconstituted her company, now called Ren-Eta, and hired the famous fashion publicist, Eleanor Lambert. There was literally an explosion of information about her brand from 1944 on. She was featured in the New York Times, her 1944 fall collection inspired by classical Greek designs was part of a fashion show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and short features about her work began appearing in newspapers across the United States. One scrapbook included a clipping of Eleanor Roosevelt wearing one of Eta’s Greek inspired dresses. Did the designer reverse the standard colors for the first lady, so that more dark would show than light?

With her publicist’s help, Eta established herself as a designer catering to very well off older women. Her innovation of “proportionate sizing,” where all elements of a dress were reconfigured to flatter the height and breadth of the wearer, was first mentioned in 1945. From then on it was a standard feature in articles about her. The New York department store Lord & Taylor took her on as one their designers promoting an “American Look.”

Judging the scrapbooks, 1948 was a peak year for Madame Eta. An article featuring her clothes appeared in Vogue, inspiring many newspaper articles about her line. “Smartness has nothing to do with size,” was the title of one in the Christian Science Monitor. The upscale Texas department store, Neiman Marcus, featured her clothes at a fashion show with the theme “The Woman who Never Grows Old.” Many fashion columnists recommend her dresses for mothers of the bride.

NewLookBut then, mysteriously, the record ends. What happened after 1948? The archive contains no private letters or business records that might explain what happened to Madame Eta’s line. Well, maybe there is one hint. In an article for the Cleveland Ohio News, the designer expressed her doubts about the New Look. “Madame Eta eschews full skirts completely and instead uses a gentle easy line which flatters the larger figure.” Perhaps her carefully conceived ideas about proportion did not fit with the big post war style shift.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Woman in a Shirtwaist Dress, 1967

shirtwaist67The shirtwaist dress, one that buttons in the front from the collar to the waist seam and sometimes beyond, is a popular American style that keeps going in and out of fashion. One period where it definitely wasn’t on the “what to wear list” was the 1960s, when sheath dresses ruled the fashion scene.

This older woman didn’t seem to care, though. She continued to wear this comfortable style. Where did she find it? The Sears catalog was still offering shirtwaist styles in the early 1960s, so maybe she was wearing an earlier purchase. Or maybe she made it herself.

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Betty Dorso, the Toast of Two Coasts

Vogue, April 1, 1960

Vogue, April 1, 1960

I discovered Betty McLauchlen Downey Dorso (1911-2002) on the pages of Vogue, where she was featured in a 1960 article “Applied Black-and-White.” Vogue introduced her as “Mrs. Richard Dorso, a former Vogue model and fashion editor who is now a devastating grandmother.” It took a little research to discover that her first name was Betty. She modeled in New York from 1929 until 1943. Then for over a decade, she was an editor of Glamour, a magazine aimed at the young working woman.

Undated photo, The Collection of Richard Dorso, Los Angeles Modern Auctions

Undated photo, The Collection of Richard Dorso, Los Angeles Modern Auctions

In 1955 she married art collector and television executive Richard Dorso, a second marriage for both. The couple moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1969 and opened up a popular boutique which sold clothing, furniture and art. Robert catered to men while Betty found clothes for women. She sought out young local designers and had clothing made for the store according to her own specifications. In the seventies, she became a major promoter of the Los Angeles garment industry, sponsoring fashion shows featuring local designers. “Every buyer in New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Rome has to come to out here for this show and others,” she said of a 1976 event, “California just gets better and better.” (LA Times, October 14, 1976)

Undated photo, The Collection of Richard Dorso, Los Angeles Modern Auctions

Undated photo, The Collection of Richard Dorso, Los Angeles Modern Auctions

The massive Dorso art collection was put up for sale in 2011 when Richard Dorso passed away. While the auction catalog includes many pictures of Betty and keepsakes from their life together, there is no mention of what role Betty might have played in acquiring works for the collection after they married.  Nor is there any indication if she had a hand in planning the eclectic interiors in their New York and Los Angeles homes. Betty faded from view without a mention–there was not even an obituary when she died.

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A Woman in a Kerchief, 1982

kerchief82This photo will certainly win no prizes for artistry, since one woman’s head is cut off. It’s not even clear what the intended subject is—the cakes? the kitchen set? the jello? Nonetheless, I snatched it up from a favorite ebay dealer because of the woman on the left. This is the most recent sighting I have of an older woman in a kerchief.

kerchief06I associate kerchiefs with immigrant women in the early twentieth century, especially those coming from Eastern Europe. Their headgear set them apart from their daughters, who were eager to adopt mainstream styles.

LCDelanoWomen who headed into industry during the Second World War also used kerchiefs to keep their hair out of the way while they operated machinery, as can be seen in the Jack Delano photo here. Then it was usually wrapped behind the head and tied on top, so there are no dangling strings at the neck.

Perhaps in my 1982 photo the woman had come in after working outside, not bothering to take off her kerchief before enjoying a bowl of jello. Her middle aged companion, maybe her daughter, looks quite at home in jeans.

kerchief2In this companion shot, we can document the history of the American kitchen. Note the avocado green oven matched by an avocado refrigerator, a color choice that peaked in the seventies. By the time these photos were taken, they were already going out of style.

Posted in 1900s, 1940s, 1980s | Tagged | 1 Comment

Grace and Frankie

GraceFrankie1I binge watched this Netflix series featuring two older women—my research made me do it. Here is the plot in a nutshell. Two male law partners, one stuffy (Martin Sheen as Robert Hanson) and one laid back (Sam Waterston as Sol Bergstein), have been secret lovers for decades. Once gay marriage becomes legal, they decide to marry. The show begins when they tell their wives, a retired entrepreneur in the beauty industry (Jane Fonda as Grace Hanson) and an unreformed hippie (Lily Tomlin as Frankie Bergstein), that they want divorces.

Through complex twists and turns, Grace and Frankie end up living together in a beach house in San Diego. Tension and high jinks ensue when matchy-matchy Miss Perfect (Grace) has to put up with a caftan wearing, pot smoking, vegetarian roommate who gives art classes to former convicts (Frankie).

GraceFrankie3Their contrasting wardrobes do not take much imagination. Grace/Jane Fonda sports black, pale neutrals, and tailored blouses, as well as some really tight dresses.  Frankie/Lilli Tomlin wears a lot of flowing robes, jeans, and big necklaces. Fonda dies her hair; Tomlin doesn’t.  Perhaps one of the funniest episodes is when they dress up in one another’s clothes.

Grace and Frankie women don’t face the typical problems of soon-to-be-divorced older women. They have no money issues. They don’t even want for male attention. Grace immediately attracts a hunky older boy friend and shows she can still look fabulous in a night gown. Frankie also has a chance at romance, but turns it down.

GraceFrankie2In all fairness, the show does address some of the challenges facing aging women. One episode discusses the difficulties of sex after menopause. Frankie faces discrimination when she applies for work. They both discover that young store clerks see right through them. (I was dismayed to learn that I was not the only one to note how invisibility could be a super power, but you read it here first.) Even the svelte Grace has body issues.

I will watch the second season, for research purposes. Let me state for the record, though, that I ended up being more interested in their adult children than in them.


Posted in 2010s | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Caftan and the Older Woman

Vogue Patterns, November/December 1981

Vogue Patterns, November/December 1981

These days, older women who have a little flesh on their bones are advised to steer clear of roomy dresses like caftans. Wear clothes that skim the body, the critics say, not ones that take up a lot of space.

But this wasn’t always the case. In 1981, Arlene Dahl, actress turned designer for the older set at Vogue Patterns, recommended “the Djellabah, most glamorous of caftans,” for women who wore larger sizes up to size 22. It’s worth noting that the woman chosen to model her creation was the tall and thin model Carmen dell’Orifice, who had just turned fifty.

According to Nicky Albrechtsen in her new book, Vintage Fashion Complete, the caftan (she spells it kaftan) became popular in the 1960s as part of the global bohemian trend in Western fashion. It remained in style through the 1970s. Arlene Dahl’s appropriation of the design for Vogue might be an example of older women taking a longer time to adopt trends. Then again, it might be a recognition that this style could be supremely comfortable for anyone who didn’t like tight fitting clothes.

Elizabeth Taylor in 1989, Forbes Magazine

Elizabeth Taylor in 1989, Forbes Magazine

One woman noted for her enduring love of caftans was Elizabeth Taylor, who wore them from the 1960s until she died in 2011. Her collection, with many by noted designer Thea Porter, went on auction at Christie’s after her death.

TaylorCaftanCollectionAlthough in general I don’t wear dresses, I might have made an exception for that glamorous deep orange caftan in the middle.

Posted in 1980s, 2010s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Wedding Party, 1967

WeddingParty67Are there two brides in this picture, or one bride and a very well dressed matron of honor? The back of the photo gives no clues, reading only “Gail, Bill, Barbara, Ruth, 6/10/67.” The father doesn’t look happy, but who can blame him if he had to finance two weddings in one year.

It is the mother of the bride/s who caught my attention. How does an older woman pick an outfit for such an occasion? My own daughter shows no sign of get married anytime soon, and she is hardly the white dress type, but I still worry about what I might wear. This mother decided on a lacy outfit in light turquoise. It is hard to see the structure of her dress under the sleeveless coat, but it looks like it might be a sixties style sheath dress. The exactly matching lace hat must have been sold as part of the ensemble.

Note that the two younger women have covered their arms. The young bride in white has lace down to her wrists; the one in off white has sleeves to her elbow. By contrast, the mother has chosen a sleeveless outfit. You can see quite clearly that this was not her usual choice—the top of her arm is white, while the bottom is tanner. If she had asked me, I would have told her to follow the younger women’s lead and add sleeves to her lace coat.

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

More on Madge, ca. 1951

Madge51On a recent visit to my aunt’s house, I started exploring her huge stash of family photos. Why had I never thought to do this while my uncle was still alive to share his stories? But better late than never. In the relatively well documented collection, I discovered many treasures. Most precious were a few of my maternal grandmother, the highly skilled seamstress Madge.

Here she is on the right with my aunt and two cousins. Judging from my cousins’ ages, the photo comes from 1951 or 1952, which means that Madge would have been in her early fifties. My cousins are wearing matching outfits that she most likely made. And look at her dress, surely surely her own construction, with its beautiful draped skirt, worn with stylish high heels. Perhaps my aunt was about to throw off her apron and head out to a party with everyone else.

MadgehatMy grandmother also trimmed her own hats, including this stylish model on the left above. Thanks to the excellent reference book, Vintage Hats and Bonnets by Susan Langely, I know that these were called “toy hats.” They came into fashion in 1939 and stayed popular during World War Two. This picture was probably taken on the steps of my grandparents’ home in south Chicago. I distinctly recall the African violets in the kitchen, the big carpet in the front room where I played with buttons, and my grandfather’s workshop in the basement.

I keep vivid memories of my grandmother making me a dress for an eighth grade dance. It was light green, covered with lace. How I wish I had asked her to share her skills with me!

Posted in 1940s, 1950s | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Book Review: Dressed for War by Nina Edwards

dressedforwarIf you compare a map of Europe map in 1913 to one made after the First World War, it is easy to see the explosive power of that conflict. Old empires disappeared and new countries took their place. In her insightful book Dressed for War, Nina Edwards argues that you could also see equally dramatic transformations by looking carefully at newsreels made before and after the conflict. The war profoundly changed the way people dressed. Although it is most detailed when discussing Britain, the book gives enough examples from the US, Western Europe, and Russia to give it an international flavor.

Using an impressive range of sources, from soldiers’ letters to women’s magazines, Edwards shows how the war greatly accelerated existing fashion trends. Clothing was already becoming simpler before 1914. The war made it, quite literally, more uniform. Ubiquitous uniforms influenced even those who didn’t fight. Librarians working in US military hospitals, for example, had their own uniforms. The trench coat, on every list of “must have” items these days, came from here. After the battles ended, some women argued for keeping uniforms in the workplace because of the ease of dressing. It was hard for them to return to the fashion cycle.

Postcard by British artist Fred Spurgin, from Dressed for War

Postcard by British artist Fred Spurgin, from Dressed for War

The war directly changed the color of clothing, since most of the world’s artificial dyes were made in Germany. While color returned afterwards, it sometimes had a different meaning. This was particularly true for the color black. Since so many people were in mourning, black became an everyday color, more acceptable in many social situations. She contends that the popularity of Chanel’s “little black dress” really had its origins in the war. Everyone needed such an item in her closet that could transition easily from a funeral to a dinner out.

Given my interest in older women, I was fascinated by the brief sections of the book that showed how the war intensified generational conflict. Older women, less likely to join military units, looked askance at younger women in their male inspired uniforms. One young British cook asked her employer for a reference to work in the Land Army. The older woman was scandalized, since her cook would then be wearing pants. “It means that you’ll be dressed as a man!” she exclaimed.(62) But of course it was the old who lost this battle. “It was the older generation that bore the blame for the war; fashion seemed to be for the young alone.”(176)

Punch, April 12, 1916 from Dressed for War

Punch, April 12, 1916 from Dressed for War

The war encouraged sartorial self invention. Some young women at the front fashioned their own uniforms in order to be able to stand out from civilians, especially the prostitutes that frequented battle areas. Women back home altered their clothes themselves in order to move better in the new jobs they had taken on. Even wealthy women changed their dress. The cartoon in the satirical British journal Punch above shows the well off paying to have their clothes distressed in order to look like part of the crowd.

Although Edwards’ focus is on clothes, the book shows how the war affected every aspect of daily life, from shaving implements to children’s games. Written with an eye to the telling detail, it is a fascinating read. Where else could you learn that French women made their own jewelry out of copper trench wire or that the color orange only became popular when it was renamed “tango”?

Posted in 1910s | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Summer’s End, 1950s

fenceThis seemed a good photo for the Labor Day weekend, which marks the end of summer in the United States. (Most of us have forgotten that the holiday was intended to commemorate the achievements of the labor movement.) The women wear clothing that looks transitional—sandals with sweaters. Although the photo is clearly staged, they seem to be having a good time. I hope they weren’t really planning on hiking through that rocky ground in these shoes.

Although it doesn’t have a date, I’m leaning towards the early 1950s for this photo. Their eyeglass frames, a mix of metal and plastic, are from post World War Two, when plastic really took off for glasses. I’ve found two similar ones from 1950 in a reference book.

Eyeglasses from 1950, from Spectacles and Sunglasses

Eyeglasses from 1950, from Spectacles and Sunglasses

Sears catalogs show all kinds of pants for women in the fifties, more as the decade progressed. Since these are not yet closely cut at the bottom, they probably come from earlier rather than later in the decade. I wonder where these two got theirs. The plaid on the pants worn by the woman on the right is very badly matched, so I hope she didn’t make them herself.

Butterick 5824, 1951. From

Butterick 5824, 1951. From

If I’m seeing the details correctly, both wear sweaters or loose shirts with seams down the center of the sleeve, which usually is the case with dolman sleeves. This is another distinctive feature of the late forties and early fifties. I’ll bet the striped top on the left looked very interesting when the woman stood up.

May all of you enjoy what is left of the season. I know I will–I’m heading for New York!


Posted in 1950s | Tagged , | 3 Comments