In my very first substantive blog post, written three years ago to the day, I discussed the issue of older women wearing black. My hook was a quote from Nora Ephron, in which she contended that older women did not wear black in the fifties. Her claim was surely partly in jest, but I can now say definitively that she was wrong. Since 1900, the start date of my research, older women have consistently chosen black—and the trend is still going strong.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, older women were expected to wear black. One writer in 1902 needed to encourage older women to sometimes look beyond black as a basic choice. “While black is the smartest, there is a certain shade of very dark blue, one of purple and one of gray which are in style for older people.” The Sears catalog of 1902 had pages advertising black fabric—and one specifically devoted just to black silk. I suspect that the appeal wasn’t just for mourning clothes. By 1920, a stylist in Ladies Home Journal called the older woman “a connoisseur in blacks, finding the right combinations for her needs.”
What really changed for older women is that other color choices opened up for them beyond basic black and other dark colors. Mamie Eisenhower made news because she wore pink, even though her designer, the sixty-four year old Nettie Rosenstein, had made a living popularizing the “little black dress.” Mrs. Exeter, Vogue’s imaginary fashion adviser, had a number of black outfits.
Although black has been a basic in older American women’s wardrobes at least since 1900, it is the one color that they are consistently advised against. In the opinion of many fashion experts, black creates unflattering shadows on the skin, making the old look older. Thanks to Valerie Steele’s book, The Black Dress, the earliest warning I have found cautioning older women to avoid black comes from 1892, by dress reformer Helen Ecob. In her view, no one over forty should choose this color.
Nonetheless, older women continue to wear black…and not just the late departed Nora Ephron. What is its appeal? As stylist Betty Halbreich wrote in the 1990s, black can disguise figure flaws, poor construction, and even food stains. Might I add that although not all blacks are the same, it is easier to match than other dark colors (for those of us who still care about matching). These are qualities just as advantageous in 1900 as in 2013.