Vogue Pattern Book and the Older Woman

Vogue Pattern Book, July/August, 1982

Vogue Pattern Book, July/August, 1982

In 1980, the Vogue Pattern Book introduced former movie star Arlene Dahl as a fashion adviser to older women. Then in her mid fifties, she had left acting behind and reinvented herself as a beauty consultant. For the next few years, the magazine published regular articles where Dahl offered fashion tips (“soft hats, bold jewelry”) and recommended patterns she felt were best suited for “mature” women. “If you wear sizes 8 to 22, keep In Vogue with Irene Dahl,” captions read.

Dahl was not the only older woman featured in the magazine. Gray haired models showed off designer looks from Bill Blass and patterns from the Very Easy Vogue series. They were especially well represented in the “Sizing Up” line of half-sized clothing. Several issues included features about real life seamstresses who worked with Vogue Patterns, often older women with established careers.

Why did Vogue Patterns decide to reach out to the older woman? Luckily I was able to get in touch with Polly Roberts, who was the very young editor of the magazine in the early eighties. She told me that the magazine was responding to letters from older customers who felt that the look of the magazine had become too young. They couldn’t see themselves in many of the clothes on offer.

Vogue Pattern Book, January/February 1984

Vogue Pattern Book, January/February 1984

According to Roberts, the company realized that a shift in the sewing community was underway. As more and more young women entered the workforce to build careers, they had less time to sew. But older customers still did, and they deserved more attention. As a result, the magazine shifted focus. The editors hired older models, styling their clothes in more conservative ways. In order not to leave younger readers behind, they also showed how the same pattern could be reinterpreted for many ages with simple changes in fabric and accessories.

What a difference from Vogue Patterns of today, where there’s rarely a gray hair or crinkled eye to be seen! Maybe we should start writing letters…

Posted in 1980s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Jo Copeland and her Daughter

From Mommy Dressing by Lois Gould

From Mommy Dressing by Lois Gould

What was it like to be a glamorous society woman in New York from the thirties to the fifties? Lois Gould’s memoir Mommy Dressing: A Love Story after a Fashion gives us a taste of that world. The book is about her mother, designer Jo Copeland, who made clothes for well off women with lives filled with luncheons, meetings, and dinners on the town. Although Copeland worked all day as the sole designer for the firm Pattullo, she spent her evenings out wearing her own beautiful designs.

Although not well known today, Jo Copeland was a major figure in American fashion. Her initial inspiration came from Paris, where she traveled twice a year for shows, taking her entire wardrobe with her in several big trunks. “The rational was simple: she never knew what sudden event might demand the one pink chiffon scarf she’d left behind.”(98-99) But during World War Two, when the US was cut off from European fashion, Copeland came into her own. Her designs were meant to fit the lives of busy women who went right from daytime engagements to evenings out.  She was best known for a dress and jacket combination, a “two piece suit,” that could “turn into a sparkling dinner dress with the flick of a collarless jacket.”(172)

This book is a story of mismatched lives—the daughter needy, the mother cold; the daughter a future novelist, the mother who bought books by the yard for decoration. But in the end, it does turn into “a love story, after a fashion,” as the subtitle says. Listen to Gould’s description of her mother dressing: “The thought that informed each decision, the agonizing reappraisals, the luminous effort of the final whole, the impossibility that the whole would have been right on any other body, any other performer of style, or with any single element omitted–it was all like higher mathematics. It took me half a lifetime more to acknowledge that this was also my mother’s life’s work, and that it too was a work of art. By the time I knew this, it was too late to tell her.”(88-89)

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Remembering Mrs. Fessenden

rim2A few months ago I reconnected with a high school friend via Facebook, which has led into a swirl of teenage memories.  She recently posted a photo of our school’s honor society for the 1966-67 academic year. It wasn’t the shock of my sixteen year old self (on the very far left in the photo below) that caught my attention. Instead it was the faculty sponsor, my English teacher Mrs. Fessenden.

rim1How old was she in this photo? At the time she seemed ancient, but I now guess she was probably in her early sixties. Her carefully coifed hair was a steel gray and her neck showed the sagging ridges of age. Her conservative outfits, like this knit suit with round pearl buttons, were carefully coordinated; her skirts fell well below her knees. Her eyeglasses, with their heavy top rims, were straight out of the 1950s.

Mrs. Fessenden’s husband was a Presbyterian minister and she solicited openly for new congregants during class. She didn’t like anything vaguely improper and refused to let me write a book report on Catcher in the Rye. But what sticks in my mind the most were her spelling tests, where she required that the assigned words be used in full sentences. I can still remember those weekly challenges demanding, for example, that we use the word penultimate in a dependent clause.

I do not remember her with affection, but she certainly helped me to learn good English grammar. Thanks to her I can easily tell a sentence from a dependent clause, a skill that can no longer be taken for granted. Rest in peace, Edith Fessenden.

Posted in 1960s | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Madam C. J. Walker’s Empire of Hair

Madam C. J. Walker, center, with some of her agents, 1918

Madam C. J. Walker, center, with some of her agents, 1918

Sarah Breedlove, the woman who became Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919), was born in poverty in the rural South.  Working her way up from washerwoman, she became one the most successful entrepreneurs of the early twentieth century. She did it by developing an amazingly successful line of hair products for African American women. Some criticized her for selling hair straighteners, but she insisted that her creams and shampoos were designed to strengthen and grow hair.

CJWalker1There were many similar hair care products on the market, but Madam C. J. Walker was a genius at promotion. She traveled the country, encouraging black women to set up salons to sell her products. Her advertisements appeared in all major black journals and newspapers. In addition, she started beauty schools to teach her hair care methods. Her company employed tens of thousands of beauty agents, offering black women a chance to earn good salaries.

With YMCA supporters, 1913

With YMCA supporters, 1913

Not content simply to become wealthy, Walker got involved in many political and philanthropic causes. She supported black schools and colleges, gave money to churches and supported clubs for African American youth. She campaigned for civil rights, especially anti-lynching campaigns. A heroine for both black capitalists and social activists, in 1998 she was given her own commemorative stamp.

Madam C. J. Walker dressed in an elegant style and was never shy about showing off her  gorgeous head of hair. To learn more about this fascinating woman, take a look her great great granddaughter’s biography, On her own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles (2001).


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Outfitting the Gracious Lady

Sears catalog, Fall 1956

Sears catalog, Fall 1956

When Sears introduced the “Gracious Lady,” its distinctive name for the older female market, it was not venturing into new territory. Before 1936 the company had already developed goods designed for the older set, using terms like “mature women” and “conservative women.” In essence, the “Gracious Lady” was Sears’ attempt to find a pleasing euphemism for “old.”

But what surprised me in my search through the collected Sears catalogs was how little the Gracious Lady could buy. She could find several dresses in most catalogs and until 1946 she could pick out a frilly lace collar. Gracious Lady hats were on offer until 1956, and every once there were coats specifically designed for her. But there were no Gracious Lady corsets or Gracious Lady shoes, although might expect the beloved lace up oxford to be targeted to this demographic.

Even more mysterious are the fluctuations in the Gracious Lady brand. Some seasons the older woman had a lot to choose from. Other times pickings were slim. In 1946, for example, she could only buy two hats and a collar. Her last good year was 1956, after which she disappeared for a decade. She a made brief return in 1966-67, but by then she had lost her gray hair and no longer looked old.

Sears catalog, Fall 1967

Sears catalog, Fall 1967

Did Sears give up on the older woman after this? No, there was one last rebranding effort in 1970-71 with the birth of the “Gracious Woman.” Stay tuned.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | Tagged | 3 Comments

Great Grandmother Kate, 1936

GreatGrandmotherKate36I was lucky to find notes of the back of this thrift store photo—“Great Grandmother Kate Isiater,” in one handwriting and “July 22, 1936” in another. Without the date, I would have had a hard time determining the era of this photo. Her dress isn’t much help. There’s a belt at the middle, but it’s hard to tell where it hits, and the angle of photo doesn’t reveal the full the length.

This great grandmother is perhaps in her eighties or more. She might be missing a few teeth, given the look of her jaw, and her hands appear to be arthritic. Her hair is completely white and thinning. She needs a cane to walk. I wonder if she got into her dress by herself or if she needed help.

Recently I’ve been reading a hard hitting book on aging, Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby.   In it she distinguishes between the “young old,” those in their sixties and seventies, and the “old old” in their eighties and beyond. Today’s “young old” from the baby boomer generation seem to think that they will never know infirmity. But the “old old” struggle with impediments to easy movement as well as diseases like Alzheimer’s that target the aged. Her message is bracing—no matter how many stairs you climb or vegetables you eat, limitations brought on by aging will likely catch up with you if you live long enough.

Kate is certainly one of the “old old.” She looks quite poised and dignified, but I wonder what kind of struggle it took before she settled down on that park bench.

Posted in 1930s | 4 Comments

Ida’s Style

IdaSixtiesBelow Michelle Braverman, of the blog Allways in Fashion, remembers her mother, Ida Ruskin.

If I could describe my mother’s fashion life in one word it would be disciplined. While that may sound strict, the thoughtful restraint she showed in dress served her well as she handled life’s twists and turns. Her two favorite expressions were, “God helps those who help themselves” and “No use crying over spilled milk”.

My mother was not born a beauty but became beautiful as she matured. She was trimmer and more stylish in her 50s than as a young wife and mother. And she never let herself go. One of my last memories before her death at age 89 is bringing new blouses to the nursing home for her approval. There she was something of a fashion star, known for always wearing a tailored skirt and sophisticated print blouse. And my grief after her death was never greater than when I would spot a blouse I knew she would have loved. How many people mourn their mothers at TJ Maxx?

But let’s back track. Free association…

She favored tailored separates— shirts or blouses or jersey tops, pencil or a-line skirts, dressmaker suits. She was not a “boyfriend” anything or a “girlie” anything. She liked a “good cloth coat” and small pieces of costume jewelry and couldn’t care a fig about precious jewels.

She knew how to tie a scarf, a trick I never mastered. She used the girl scout knot.

She put her stockings on with an old soft pair of white gloves so they wouldn’t run.

In her 40s (divorced and working as a private secretary) she started a subscription to Vogue (and cancelled Better Homes & Gardens). She never lusted for anything except a red leather clutch she saw in Vogue in the spring of 1954. My sister and I chipped in and bought it for her. It was $10.

IdaSpectatorsShe liked brown and white or navy and white spectator heels in summer. At some point these were replaced by black patent leather (probably when spectators were no more).

She never wore old clothes to do chores. She didn’t own any. Everything was in good condition (mended if need be), clean and pressed. That meant wearing a housedress for housework with sometimes an apron over that.

I never remember her wearing black. Her basic color would be brown in fall/winter and navy in spring/summer.

In the ’60s she had a color epiphany and wore kelly green or bright yellow. She had a little more fun with fashion after that.

She moved to New York City in her 50s and retired from her office job at 62, began dressmaking for editors at Condé Nast and for an ad agency with a fabric account. She worked part time at Lord & Taylor and discovered her wanderlust. She planned travel wardrobes as thoroughly as itineraries.

She wore pants first in the late 1960s when she began going on cruises. They were not for day. Her pants were evening slacks, and I suspect she never felt comfortable in them— or on the cruises.

She never met a leopard she didn’t love. She once had a leopard belt made from the genuine animal— about 3 inches wide with a square leather buckle. It’s stunning; I have it but can’t bear to wear the real thing.

She purchased shoes, gloves, girdles and bras (custom made by Edith Lances as she was hard to fit) and bought nightgowns but sewed everything else, even her bathing suit.

One of my fondest memories was of the two of us spending a weekend sewing. We’d cut, mark and baste on Saturday and sew all day Sunday. The machine was in the hall, the ironing board in the kitchen. Meals were taken on the run, but we were each wearing new outfits on Monday.

Shoes played a major role in her life. She met my father as she saw him working in a shoe store and finally went in to try him on for size. She wore 7 1/2 AAAA, very hard to find, so she was always looking for shoes (not more husbands). And shoes did her in. She tripped on a sidewalk in New York City and broke her foot badly. It never healed and put her in Enna Jetticks and a lot of pain thereafter. She was wearing beautiful Delman pumps at the time, so padded for comfort that her foot barely sat in the shoe. She was 75. If I learned anything from that, it is to wear flats.

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Rosa Parks–A Lady and a Rebel

Rosa Parks at 50, 1963

Rosa Parks at 50, 1963

The common school book story of Rosa Parks (1913-2005) is incorrect. She was not an unassuming, weary seamstress who one day got mad and refused to move to the back of the bus. Instead, she was a longtime activist in the fight against segregation. These insights into her life history are emerging once again as the Library of Congress makes public a large collection of her manuscripts and photos.

At work in Detroit, 1976. Photo by Andrew Sachs

Parks, second from right, at work in Detroit in 1976. Photo by Andrew Sachs

But perhaps Parks’ lady-like appearance contributed to the old story. She wore the same hairstyle for decades, her long hair pulled back and braided on the top of her head. Despite changing fashions she kept her sense of proper attire, which included a hat and gloves for dressy events. I have never seen a photograph of her in any kind of casual clothes; even in the depth of the Detroit winter she wore dresses instead of pants.

At home in Detroit, 1988

At home in Detroit, 1988

These days we tend to think that people wear their hearts—and their ideologies—on their sleeves. We imagine that we can separate artists from accountants at a glance. But Rosa Parks reminds us that isn’t always the case. She didn’t look like a rebel, but she was one.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Book Review: 70s Fashion Fiascos by Maureen Valdes Marsh

Marsh2006Although the silly title to this book may have boosted sales, I think it does a disservice to the contents. Maureen Valdes Marsh does insert her share of “weren’t folks quaint in the past” comments. But behind this is serious research, illustrated by photographs from Montgomery Ward’s and other catalogs. You can find images on Walsh’s Pinterest page.

Divided into eight short chapters, the book examines major trends in seventies fashion, like the explosion of polyester, the move toward more colorful menswear, and the rise of the platform shoe. I was particularly interested in her examination of how the pantsuit for women went main stream. From her I learned about the “pants-in” of that decade. She convinced me that daily newspapers can be an excellent source for studying this fashion shift—pantsuits quite literally made headlines.

Another surprise was the diversity of the catalog models, particularly in menswear. Stylish black men with discrete Afros modeled leisure suits, dance clothes, rakish hats, and platform shoes. Young black women posed with white models in polyester shirtwaists. There were no older women, but perhaps Marsh wasn’t looking for them.

My 2006 edition of this book, first published in 1996, includes a fairly current short list of vintage clothing dealers. While the bibliography is skimpy, I did discover two fabulous treasures. An archive for Montgomery Ward is held at the University of Wyoming, while Southern Methodist University has records from JC Penneys from its 1902 until 2004.   I can already see some research trips in my future.

Thanks for the gift, Jen!

Posted in 1970s | Tagged | 3 Comments

LuAnn in the Battle for Pants, 1971

LuAnn70Today we take pants for granted—I do not own a single dress. But this story by reader LuAnn reminds us that it was not always the case.

She writes: “One snowy cold day in January of 1971, I wore a pant outfit (slacks and matching vest) to teach school. The principal disapproved and wrote up a formal complaint, to which I responded. Eventually the Teachers Union established guidelines designating the wearing of a matching pant suit permissible—no slacks with blouse or sweater. I was happy with this decision, wearing many woolen pant suits that I had sewn the rest of that year. When I tell my granddaughters this story, they think I should be in some Hall of Fame for Women’s Rights. Little do they know what other repressive rules existed. When I finished my teaching career staff members were wearing jeans and sweats. My how times have changed!”

She was 32 in this photo, earning her Master’s Degree while teaching and raising two children. Although she sewed most of her clothes, she purchased this outfit a local department store in Toledo Ohio.

Her story was not unusual for the time. During the 1970s, many American working women staged protests against restrictive dress codes. Women at CBS in New York, for example, violated rules en masse in order to get the company to change its policies. They called their action a “pants-in,” evoking the sit-ins of that era, and won. (“Pants-Ban Tempest at CBS,” New York Times, January 21, 1970.) Some employers found a way to back down gracefully. Although President Nixon had publicly denounced women wearing pants, the White House changed its dress code in 1973. (“White House Lifts Ban on Women in Pants,” New York Times, November 26, 1973.)  The reason given—the energy crisis. It was a lot warmer to wear a pants suit to work than a dress.

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