When did you get that hat? My guess—ca. 1938

Click to enlarge

If ever there was a time for wild hats, it was the late 1930s.  Life magazine even did a special spread on hat madness in late 1937 called “Anything Goes as a Hat for a Woman.” It featured gloves, huge flowers, and gigantic bows on headgear, in addition to Schiaparelli’s famous shoe hat.  I thought the shape of the hat above resembled one called a “felt catchall.”

Life magazine, November 22 1937

So the hat in my photograph has a late 1930s look, but what about the clothes? The skirt length seemed to be from about 1938, but the straight silhouette didn’t quite fit my image of the era.

1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook. Click to enlarge

However, then I found this image from 1938 that was a close match the shape of the jacket and, to some degree, the skirt.

To add icing to the cake, Witness2Fashion featured a wonderful post on spectator shoes from that same year.  Some are similar to the ones my lady is wearing.

So I think this stylish woman was heading out to lunch around 1938. What do you say?


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The Height of Chic—Sewing Patterns for Older Women, 1938

Butterick Fashion News, April 1938. Click to enlarge

While leafing through the 16 page brochure, Butterick Fashion News from April 1938, I knew right away that this page was dedicated to patterns for older women.  What were the clues?

First of all, the drawings were different.  While other sketches showed women with page boys, these women wore their hair very close to their heads. One even has telltale lines under her eyes.

Then there were the descriptions.  Butterick 7802 was “for shorter, more mature figures,” Butterick 7799 was aimed at “mature women”; and Butterick 7815 was designed for “busy matrons.”

And finally there were the sizes.  The first two went from sizes 34 to 50 inches at the bust; the jacket and frock for busy matrons was offered in sizes 34 to 52.

Were these offerings for older women different than those made in smaller sizes?  Many variations of the two dresses on the left, with puffed sleeves and a shirred bodice, were available in sizes from size 12 up.  However, the dresses in larger sizes were less elaborate.

In addition, older and wider women were not offered the most avant-garde styles. According to the brochure copy, the innovation of the season was the Schiaperilli inspired bolero.  It was not available in the largest sizes, though.  The cute model above, Butterick 7788, was only offered in junior miss sizes 12 to 20 (bust sizes 30 to 38.) And the note the bolero clad junior miss also gets the most fabulous hat.

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The Eight Hour Blazer, 1980

Pattern sheet for McCall’s 7263

In 1980, McCall’s Patterns introduced a “working wardrobe” designed by Pati Palmer and Susan Pletsch.  It included a blouse with collar variations (M7233), a skirt and pant pattern (M7234), and a blazer (M7263).  The fall 1980 McCall’s pattern magazine claimed: “They will take you from the office, straight out to dinner, and do overtime on weekends.” (McCall’s Patterns, Fall 1980, 41.) All the pieces were popular, but the blazer was a runaway hit.  Women were heading into the workforce in record numbers in the eighties, and blazers were highly recommended wardrobe staples. In their sewing reference book Jackets for Real People, Marta Alto, Susan Neall, and Patti Palmer write that the pattern sold one million units in the first year of its offering.

What was different about the jacket?  First of all, any pad stitching (the hand technique that gives structure to high quality tailoring) was eliminated.  Instead, the pattern used “all fusible interfacing construction for speedy and easy tailoring.”  Second, the pattern makers recommended inserting the lining by machine, now called “bagging” the lining, rather than by hand.  And finally, they replaced welt pockets with patch pockets.

McCall’s Patterns: Sewing’s Fashion Magazine, Fall 1980

The instructions for this pattern were also different.  They included a variety of tips that sewers could use or skip as they saw fit.  “Quick tips” sped up the process; “fit tips” gave recommendations for a better fit; and “pro tips” were designed to make the jacket look more professional.  The main fit tip was to cut out the paper pattern and pin it together to check major disparities before you began to cut the fabric.  The pro tips integrated more classical tailoring techniques into the process, like hand stitching tape along the collar roll line.

These tips revolutionized the pattern industry, designer and historian historian Claire Shaeffer told me.  They changed the way that many patterns companies designed their instructions. You can see their influence on Shaeffer’s own patterns, which provide insights into how to make your garment with couture techniques or more quickly with shortcuts.

My 1980 pattern, bought on ebay, does not yet have the fit alteration lines that Palmer/Pletsch patterns are now famous for.  If you want to make a tailored jacket in a (relative) hurry, a newer version of the classic blazer, M6172, is still in print. Snatch it up before it’s gone.

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Mary Colter–Architect of the Southwest

Colter at Hovenweep National Monument, 1931. Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection.  Click to enlarge

You don’t have to spend much time at the south rim of the Grand Canyon to hear the name Mary Colter (1869-1958).  She designed Bright Angel Lodge, the Hopi House, and the Lookout Studio, which fits into the walls of the canyon as if it grew there.  If you hike down to the bottom of the canyon, the Phantom Ranch is her design.  So is the Desert View Watchtower if you travel further east.

Trained as an artist, metal smith, and architect, Mary Colter had a lifelong passion for Native American culture. After art school in San Francisco, she worked as an art teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She educated herself on Native American design and was considered expert enough to be hired for a job by the Fred Harvey Company, which was building hotels and train depots in the Southwest for the Santa Fe Railroad.  Her first assignment in 1902 was to decorate rooms in the Indian Building in Santa Fe.  After a few other limited assignments, she began to work full time for the company in 1910. During her long career, she decorated dining rooms, designed dishes for trains and restaurants, and built some of the best known structures in the American Southwest.

Colter was a perfectionist who did extensive research for each project.  In the words of one biographer, “She could teach masons how to lay adobe bricks, plasterers how to mix washes, carpenters how to fix viga joints.” (Frank Walters, Masked Gods.) She dressed as the work required, which often put her in pants.

Colter with Anna Ickes, wife of the Secretary of the Interior, 1935. Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection

When not in work clothes, Colter dressed simply, according to one of Fred Harvey’s great grandsons.  But she loved to display her large collection of Native American jewelry. “Rings on every finger, including her thumb,” Stewart Harvey remembered. “Sometimes multiple rings on a finger, and the few times that I stared at her she would bring me over and she would comment on each ring. Each ring was a treasure.”(Mary Colter, Architect of the Southwest, Arnold Berke, 268)

Before Colter died, she made arrangements for her artifact and jewelry collections to be distributed among many museums and research centers. She wanted people to see them not as evidence of her skills as a collector, but rather as documentation of the creativity of Native Americans.

If you want to learn more about this great American architect, I highly recommend Arnold Berke’s Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest.

Posted in 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Home Sewing and Fast Fashion–Thinking about Waste

A small part of my fabric stash

On the face of it, home sewing is the opposite of fast fashion.  It can take mere minutes to make a jacket in a factory; a homemade jacket takes hours if not days.  In the eighties, McCalls advertised an “eight hour” tailored jacket using short cuts and fusible interfacing. The pattern was wildly popular, but the general consensus was that it took a lot longer than eight hours to make.

Critiques about the wastefulness of fast fashion abound. However, I think it’s high time that those of us who make our own clothes to start worrying about waste.  The fabric stashes we accumulate are composed of textiles that have harmful consequences for the environment, including dangerous dyes, pesticides for crop growing, and polyester filaments that make their way into the ocean. And what happens to those stashes when we move or die? Each year my sewing guild has a yard sale with piles of fabric going for cheap, and eventually for nothing. Some of that fabric eventually ends up in land fill. Add to that the waste from cutting, from muslins, from false starts.  It all adds up.

I read a lot of sewing blogs, some by women who sew more than a garment a week.  In one recent feature, an interviewer asked one of these super seamstresses how she managed the constant stream of clothes coming into her closet.  She purged her closet regularly, this woman replied, and gave the extras to a charity shop. Are these homemade clothes any less likely to end up in the trash than clothes made in factories? They are probably better made, but also altered for her individual shape.  It is not certain that they will find appreciative buyers.

As someone who loves to sew, I know that the process brings inspiration and joy. I have my own large fabric stash. But our pleasure also has costs.  Shouldn’t the same environmental principles that apply to store bought clothes—buy less, buy higher quality, wear clothes longer—also apply to those of us who sew?

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Bi-Partisan Dressing: Posing With Big Bird

National Archives. Click to enlarge

On the US National Archive’s Flikr site, there is a folder of photographs of “notable  women,” a fairly random selection of important American women.  It’s no surprise that First Ladies form the bulk of those chosen, and that they are most often captured in contexts dealing with children. I liked these two of Pat Nixon and Hillary Clinton posing with Big Bird, the famous character from the children’s show Sesame Street.  Nixon is photographed at a reception with children in the White House; Clinton is on the set.

While they are both in suits, the cut and color of their jackets are different.  In 1970, Nixon’s double breasted suit has the man-styled cut of the coming dress for success era.  Clinton’s jacket from 1993 has a softer, more feminine collar and the bigger shoulders of the period.  Don’t you wonder if she had on pants below the jacket?

Differences aside, there are also many similarities here.  Both wear solid colored jewel tones in what looks to be a similar fabric—maybe wool crepe.  Both have colored their hair and are wearing hair styles of the moment.  While Pat Nixon has a pin as a subtle highlight, Hillary Clinton has an even more fabulous accessory—the muppet Rosita, who even matches her outfit.

First ladies have made a habit of posing with Big Bird, including Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.  Lets see what Melania Trump does.

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At the Craft Fair, mid 1970s

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These brightly colored pictures might document a women’s club charity sale. Although they have no date, I think they come from the mid 1970s. My first clue was the lime green check pantsuit worn by the woman on the right.  In the seventies, older women began to embrace the style.

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears catalog, mid 1970s

Sears carried a similar outfit in 1974.  It’s a shame that we can’t see the pants legs on the woman in green to check if she also wore bell bottoms.

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Big overshirts, like the one worn by the woman on the right, also filled the pages of Sears catalogs in the mid seventies.  Note that she is wearing dark pants with her shirt.  Might they even be jeans?

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And who can forget the caftan, a favorite seventies style? The print on the left looks Pucci inspired, something one historian of seventies fashion has called “poaching off Pucci,” (Maureen Valdes March, Seventies Fashion Fiascos, 60.)

What trends do we see here?  Some of the women at this event had kept their big hair, while others adopted a shorter style.  Polyester made big inroads into wardrobes.  And obviously pants were now acceptable attire for older women, even at a women’s club event.





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Trackwomen, 1943

National Archives. Click to enlarge

During the Second World War, women took on all kinds of jobs traditionally held by men. One was the position of “trackman,” someone who maintained railroad tracks.  The job still exists.

This photo from the Women’s Bureau at the National Archives shows five African American women of all ages at work on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.  The youngest two, at both ends, might be in their early twenties.  The oldest in the middle looks to be well into her fifties or even older. Were the crews segregated, or did only African American women get this hard job?

Following the photo, dress requirements for the job included pants, gloves, and sturdy shoes.  Three of the five women wear headscarves tied in three different ways. Since it appears to be cold, everyone has on a coat.

The real mystery is the oldest woman at the center, in a long coat with a big fur collar.  Did she wear it to work in, or had she dressed up for the photograph?

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Fashion Advice from a Fashion Photographer, 1967

Simplicity, Fall/Winter 1967

The Fall/Winter Simplicity pattern book from 1967 contains a ten page spread of fashion advice for older women from the photographer Frances McLaughlin-Gill.  I had never heard the name, but she was well known at the time for her fashion journalism. She later went to write books and make documentaries.

As a woman of a certain age (48 at the time), she gives her ideas about the new styles of the sixties that proved a challenge for some older women. “The current young spirit of fashion definitely has a place in the mature woman’s wardrobe, but each person must tone it and adapt it to her individual type and needs. A long skirt dates you. I love the short skirt, wear mine about 1” or so above my knee. The length is becoming and marvelously comfortable.”

A series of small photographs document the essay, showing McLaughlin-Gill as trim and fit. That made it easy for her to fit into regular clothing sizes.  She recommends a number of Simplicity patterns for women of her age, only one which went up to a size 20 (bust size 40 inches). On her list were knit dresses, culottes, and a pantsuit.   “The story of Mrs. McLaughlin-Gill and the pantsuit typifies her fashion outlook. ‘I wouldn’t wear it while it was a novelty,’ she says, ‘but now it is apart of the times and I love it. Same with all my clothes. Fashion is young now, and I want my clothes to be every inch today.’”(94)

A section of the magazine shows patterns offered in larger “woman” sizes and half sizes. In contradiction to the fashion spread, only dresses were available. Simplicity didn’t offer larger women the option of a pantsuit.

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Migrant Grandmother, 1938

Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

Dorothea Lange’s most famous photo is of the migrant mother, a young Oklahoma woman and her children in a farm laborer camp in California.  The migrant mother has become the iconic expression of hardship during the Great Depression.  But it was only one picture of thousands Lange took to document the era, like this migrant worker from another place and generation.

California agriculture was built on migrant labor initially coming from Mexico.  Lange’s caption for this photo reads, “Mexican grandmother who migrates with large family each year from Glendale, Arizona, following crops thru California and return. Here shown harvesting tomatoes, Santa Clara Valley, California.”  For those of you who don’t know California geography, the Santa Clara Valley is today’s Silicon Valley. This land today is probably covered with housing tracts or office parks. Although Lange calls the woman Mexican, she makes it clear that her family is firmly rooted in the United States.

Since the grandmother is picking tomatoes it is most likely summer in the Bay Area.  It can get hot in the Santa Clara Valley, so her outfit is probably put together to protect her from the sun rather than the chill.  On her head is a dark kerchief, tied African American or Rosie the Riviter style. A long, very old looking sweater guards her arms, and she wears thick stockings. Her shoes look like flat leather lace ups with cut outs on the sides, not initially intended for field work.  Most interesting is her dress, a very plain cotton style with a placket closure.  It looks similar to a loose nightgown.  The message this outfit conveys is one of practicality and poverty.

Lange wrote the captions for her own photos, and we are lucky to have the information we do.  Still, I can’t help wishing that she had written down more.  What was her name? How old was she? And just how large was her family that she traveled with up and down the length of California?

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