Those who study fashion as consumption try to determine when and for what reason people buy clothes. For a long time, the assumption was that older people tended to buy fewer clothes as they aged. Why? Often they have a smaller disposable income after they retire; they might have fewer events that call for specific clothing items; and some lose interest in fashion trends, deciding to stick to looks that they find comfortable. These ideas are being challenged by today’s retirees, some of whom are financially well prepared for retirement and most of whom want to look young and fit.
But looking beyond the theories, how did one woman meet the challenge of changing styles over decades? A friend recently found a collection of photos of her paternal grandmother, Maree, a well off woman who stayed fit well into her eighties. Lets take a look at her clothing choices.
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1888, Maree married late for a woman of her generation. She met her future husband when she went to Washington to work for the war effort during World War One. At that time, he was a military engineer. After the war, they moved to Boston, where he had a prosperous career. Unfortunately, he died young, in 1948, after working as head engineer on the Oak Ridge Nuclear Facility. So Maree was both a late wife and an early widow.
The first photo shows her in Hawaii in 1952—she had the money to travel after her husband’s death. Featured on the left, at age sixty-four she is dressed up to the minute in a New Look suit, the kind with a long slim skirt. Perhaps only her sensible shoes give an indication that she is making her fashion decisions based in part on comfort.
The second photo from 1964 shows her in Florida, where she eventually moved. Again on the left, she is less up to the minute here. The full skirted shirtwaist dress was more “in” during the 1950s. Her gloves also look a little dated. She has, however, gotten rid of her sensible shoes and is wearing white (or light colored) shoes that match her bag. Apparently she decided that the informality of the sixties was not for her.
In the final photograph from 1971, Maree is on the right. Nearing ninety, she is fit and healthy looking. At this point, she has on what looks to be a shift dress inspired by sixties fashion—a comfortable if not fashion forward choice. However, unlike the other older woman in the picture, she has on youthful looking shoes.
So what can we determine from this set of pictures? Maree did seem to stop following the most up to date trends as she aged. In general, she stuck to more formal styles, keeping her gloves and not choosing pants. Her clothes became progressively more comfortable—from New Look tight suit, to shirtwaist dress, to shift, but she obviously did not dress for comfort alone. And somewhere along the way, she decided that she was not going to wear old lady shoes.