From the Archives: Mary Brooks Picken, Stylist to the Older Woman

marybrookspickenFor those of us who are interested in the history of sewing in America, Mary Brooks Picken is a real celebrity.  In the 1920s, she ran the “Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences,” a correspondence school that taught women how to sew, do alterations, and make a living with their skills.  She went on to teach at Columbia University and helped to found the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Perhaps the best known of her ninety plus books is the Singer Sewing Book, first published in 1949. Find more information about her here.

I first discovered Picken through a random search on one of my favorite on-line research sources, Cornell University’s amazing web resource Hearth, which stands for “Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, History.”  Collected on this site is a wealth of sewing books, as well as important journals in the home economics field.  A search for older women and fashion turned up two of Picken’s books from the 1920s, Dress and Look Slender (1924) and Harmony in Dress (1925).

Like the fictional Mrs. Exeter, Picken urges older women to take an interest in clothes.  “The older you grow, the more urgent is your need for clothes that will make you look smart and attractive, especially if you are even one pound overweight. Dress to suit your circumstances and needs, of course, but never forget to dress appropriately to the occasion as well as to your figure and always with a keen appreciation of youth.”

In her guidelines on color, she tries to get older women to move away from basic black.  Only those women whose skin is “still youthful” are advised to wear this stark color.  Otherwise she recommends navy blue as a base.   Her other recommendations are dark greens, grays, browns, and reds.  “Brilliant, hard, cold colors should be avoided by the mature woman…For instance, pure blue, red, or yellow as seen in the spectrum, grass green, the popular golf red, and similar colors that are launched forth nearly every season as being ‘the latest thing’ are so strong that they rob the wearer of all the natural color of skin hair, and eyes.”  I wonder what she would think about my passionate love of orange.

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One Response to From the Archives: Mary Brooks Picken, Stylist to the Older Woman

  1. You are a genius. I love this lady and am slowly (and painstakingly) putting together a collection of her stuff for download. The illustrations are beautiful and the information within is presented in a very forthright and bull-shit free business-like tone. How awesome would it be to have books like available now (I mean in bookshops without having to give people aneurysms on ebay that is..) XD

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