Two Body Types for Older Women

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Judging by the one young man and the glimpses of cars and architecture in the background, I am guessing that this photo was taken sometime the mid sixties. This flea market find was most likely a press photo for a charity event. The seller told me that the man in the middle was possibly Walter Knott, founder of Knott’s Berry Farm and head of the Orange County John Birch Society.

But I am here about the women.  If it is the sixties, their clothes are nowhere near in style. Their skirts are too long and their dresses follow the shirtwaist silhouette of the previous decade.  While their clothes did not keep up with the times, their bodies show typical signs of aging.

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The African American woman on the right has very large chest, what used to be called a “matronly figure.”  Her breasts have dropped and her waist has risen. By the gap in her buttons, you can clearly see that the dress does not fit correctly.  She perhaps could have gone up a size for a better fit on top, but then the waist probably would have been too big.

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The white woman in the middle has forward sloping shoulders.  If we could see her back, I would not be surprised to find a widow’s hump.  Her sloping shoulders and posture give her chest a sunken look.  Even though she is thin, she has a “menopot.” I’m guessing that she bought her dress to fit her waist, and then ended up with lots of extra fabric on top.  Her coat looks like it is pulling forward because of her extended back.

You might just overlook these two as old fashioned women, but if you can see beyond their clothes you can discover similar body shapes around you today. That’s why many older women say that their clothes don’t fit–and it’s a really good reason to take up sewing.


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How New was the “New Look”?

Left: Dior in Vogue, March 1, 1948. Right: Vogue Pattern Book, Oct/Nov 1946. Click to enlarge

In many fashion histories, the “New Look” introduced by Christian Dior in 1948 is portrayed as nothing short of a revolution.  With his famous collection featuring soft shoulders, nipped waists, full skirts, and longer lengths, he singlehandedly ended prevailing World War Two styles featuring boxy shapes and shorter skirts.

Left: Dior in Vogue, Sept. 15, 1948. Right: Vogue Pattern Book, Oct/Nov 1946. Click to enlarge

But how new were these ideas? I recently bought the October/November 1946 issue of Vogue Pattern Book and could see clear antecedents to Dior’s style upset.  While it is true that skirts weren’t as long as two years later, and shoulders were still fairly broad, there was an obvious nipped waist and a real emphasis on the hips. Skirts were heading down as well.  And while I saw no big full skirts in 1946, Dior’s collection two years later included slim suits as well.

Vogue Pattern Book, Oct/Nov 1946. Click to enlarge

In this overview of the essential new elements of 1946 style, there are several details that would disappear two years later, particularly the normal armhole, with its well padded shoulder. However others, like the padded hip, became a central element of Dior’s New Look.

I write this on November 7, 2017, exactly one hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution.  I studied this event for most of my adult life.  At first I was attracted to the ruptures that it caused, but the more I looked the more continuities I could see.  Revolutions aren’t built from nothing, not even fashion revolutions.

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The War on Pants for Women, 1972

Ladies Home Journal, March 1972. Click to enlarge

When women began wearing pants in public, they faced ferocious criticism.  I am used to biting comments well into the 1960s. “There are fortunate girls (usually under the age of fifteen) who look well in tight trousers; but I have seen so many bulging bottoms in Capri pants, shorts, levis and jeans that I’ve grown positively to dislike the whole trouser family–in public,” wrote costume designer Edith Head in The Dress Doctor in 1959.

However, I was surprised to learn that the criticism continued into the seventies, when pants had become common attire for women of all ages.  In Ladies Home Journal I came across this interesting critique of ads put out by the chain store Ohrbach’s.

At the time, Ohrbach’s was known for its witty advertising. (I couldn’t find stand alone examples of the ads above despite long searching). The ad on the left focuses more on body shaming than age, although the model is obviously not young. “Liberated ladies, don’t get upset. Ohrbach’s is definitely not opposed to pants for women,” the ad copy states. “But we don’t think pants are right for everyone…So if you are not sure that pants are right for you, come in and try on a pair.  See how you look from the front. See how you look from the side. And then do us all a favor and see how you look from the rear.”

In the second ad to the right, age is front and center. “Ohrbach’s doesn’t try to sell everybody the same style.  We know that a mother can’t always wear the same clothes as her daughter wears. And vice versa. So we make sure we have the right look for each of them.”

I have never thought of Ladies Home Journal as a source of up-to-date style advice, but in this instance the magazine went out of its way to show that pants could indeed be for everyone.  The editors put the wider woman into a long tunic with pants, covering up her hips.  And they dressed the trim older woman on the right in a sporty pantsuit.  “A woman of 40 will never look 30 dressing like 20—but she’s still not over the hill. Teenage fashions are fine for your teenagers,” the editors comment. “Avoid them, but you still don’t have to dress like the dowager queen.”

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Who Said Halloween is Only for Kids?

Valley Times photo via the Los Angeles Public Library. Click to enlarge

Here is proof that the Halloween has been a multi-generational event for quite some time.  This posed photo was published under the title above in 1961. It documents planning for a party by the “Fun after Forty Club” in Burbank, just outside of Los Angeles proper. The two on the left are married, but you wouldn’t know it from the glances they are casting in other directions.

Although the sheath was coming into style in 1961, the two women wear popular fifties silhouettes with close fitting bodices and fuller skirts.  I wish we could see the clasps on the men’s bolo ties better.  I’m betting that the one on the left is a skull.

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Mrs. Ralston’s Fashion Advice for Older Women

Ladies Home Journal, March 1912. Click to enlarge

In the early years of the twentieth century the Ladies Home Journal fashion expert, Mrs. Ralston, wrote for a wide audience.  On her regular trips to Paris, she brought home news of the latest trends for the stylish set. However, she always acknowledged that the young and old might have different clothing needs.

What was an “older woman” for Mrs. Ralston?  She called women of fifty “elderly.”  By the time a woman reached seventy she had become an “old lady,” a term Ralston used without insult implied.

Much of Ralston’s advice had to do with ways to look slim. Although she acknowledged that some in the older set might be slender, she usually assumed that women gained weight as they aged.  Her tips included ones you could find in today’s advice columns, like wearing clothes with vertical lines.

Color was a big concern. Since aging brings changes in skin tone and hair color (before hair dye was common), shades that had worked in youth might not be flattering in age.  Although her advice was not always consistent, in general she leaned towards subdued colors, like pastels, beiges, and dull blues and purples.  Unlike some stylists, she remained a staunch advocate of black.

While younger women could often follow current styles with ease, she advised older women to strive for dignity. That meant sticking to more conservative versions of new trends and taking care to accentuate or camouflage certain areas of the body.  No tight fits, no stark color differences, no short(er) skirts, no elaborate hats.  Strive for softness, rather than hard edges.

A few these strictures fell away when she wrote about women who were (for her) very old. In the article “How I Dress my Mother at Seventy,” she paid more attention to comfort than fashion.  She advised soft fabrics, a loose fit, and garments that were easy to get on and off.  And although she frequently told fashion conscious older women to give up bonnets, she reported that her mother wore them with pleasure. “This may sound rather stiff and too old fashioned for the ‘young-fashioned’ old women, but when you think it over you will say that a bonnet string around an old lady’s face and chin is the most becoming thing she can wear.” (Ladies Home Journal, March 1912, 29.)

I was surprised to find that many of Ralston’s guidelines to fit my own views of fashion—aim for comfort, take what you like from current offerings, and stay more on the conservative side.  (No jumpsuits for me!) But her ideas on color stabbed me through the heart. “A bright, strong color can seldom be worn with any degree of becomingness by an elderly woman,” she wrote in May, 1903.  Perhaps that is so, but there is no way in the world I am giving up orange.



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Building a Better House Dress, 1952

Fashion Frocks, 1952. Click to enlarge

If you have spent any time bemoaning the fact that ordinary clothes don’t fit older women’s bodies, you are not alone.  I have found complaints stretching back to 1900, the start date of my research, and I am sure that it would be easy to find earlier examples without looking very hard.

The search for a better fit for older figures is also not new.  If you look through the fascinating Journal of Home Economics (available on the website Hearth) you can find many studies where researchers address this problem. One interesting example, published in 1951, is “The Design and Construction of House Dresses for the Mature Figure.”

To figure out what to change, researchers asked women what they wanted in an ideal house dress. Women over fifty responded that they looked for dresses that were suitable for shopping and entertaining friends as well as housework, even if that meant they were harder to clean.  They wanted big, practical pockets close to the waist.  A common complaint from older women was that the arms fit too tightly on most dresses, which made it hard to tackle household chores.  However, they did not want to substitute sleeveless styles because “they preferred to cover the upper arm for the sake of appearance.”

The clever home economists came up with a proposed style with longer arms and a bias gusset (an inset cut on the diagonal) under the arm in order to ease movement.  As far as I know, the idea never made it into wide scale production—I suspect because it would have cost a lot more than $2.98.

Posted in 1950s | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Evolution of the Slacks Suit in Montgomery Ward Catalogs

Montgomery Ward catalog 120, 1934. Click to enlarge

What exactly is a “slacks suit”?  It isn’t quite what we mean by a pantsuit these days, a matching pair of pants and jacket with the versatility of a man’s suit. In the 1930s, when the term emerged as a fashion concept, the slacks suit was most often a matching shirt and pant combination designed specifically for leisure wear.  Often the matching shirt had short sleeves.

I found the first mention of a slacks suit in the Montgomery Ward catalog in 1934.  The outfit came in standard misses sizes, up to a 40 inch bust, but the designs were obviously aimed at younger women.  “Smart as a college sophomore,” read the catalog copy.  The pants were described as “mannish,” but with a scarf at her neck, jewelry, and a beanie hat, the model underscored the feminine.

Montgomery Ward catalog 136, 1942. Click to enlarge

Montgomery Ward sold slacks suits at various intervals between 1934 and 1947, with offerings picking up during the war years.  The outfits above, which came with matching skirts, were described as “weekend trios.” In case you missed their playful purpose, the models were posed against sand dunes.

Montgomery Ward catalog 136, 1942. Click to enlarge

In 1942 I came across the first slacks suits in women’s sizes, with bust measurements going up to 44 inches. Apparently the audience for slack suits was expanding.  Unfortunately, the styles in larger sizes tended to be on the conservative side. No cute stripes for this group.

Montgomery Ward catalog 147, 1947. Click to enlarge

Much rarer were slack suits with matching tailored jackets, looking more like what we understand as pantsuits today. Infrequent during the war, they became more common in the immediate post war years.  They even came in women’s sizes. Where were they worn?  They seemed to promise a broader range of places where pants were acceptable attire.

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Atomic Bomb Hat, 1946

From Wikipedia Commons. Click to enlarge

What is more amazing, the cake or the hat?  This photo marks a celebration of atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in November, 1946.  In a series of blasts on the tiny Marshall island, the US government aimed to investigate the effects of the explosions on flora and fauna. It was obviously a different time in American history, when the words celebration and atomic bomb could be easily linked.  As I’m sure most of you know, the bathing suit was named after the bomb blast.

I could not find any information about the woman in the photo, the wife of Admiral William H. P. Blandy, pictured on the left.  In this photo, Blandy was in his mid-fifties.  I think his wife looks to be in her fifties also.

Apparently the photograph caused some controversy.  A letter to the editor by Navy officers to Time magazine reported that the admiral and his wife were not responsible for the cake; they merely were on hand to cut it. The hat might serve as evidence to the contrary, though.

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Florida Flapper, 1924

Florida Memory, 1924. Click to enlarge

This woman isn’t really a flapper, a term most accurately applied only to very young women. However, she has certainly embraced key elements of the 1920s style.  She wears a dropped waist dress decorated with pleats and pintucks to add interest, giving a geometric touch to the outfit.  She has added a long strong of beads, another element of twenties style.  While her hair is hidden under the hat, from the little wisps visible it does not seem like she has had it bobbed. Take a close look at her fabulous strappy shoes, a style I would happily wear today.

The photo reveals many of the problems of twenties fashion for figures that were not straight up and down. The dropped waist draws attention to a wide part of her figure, attention she probably didn’t want.  To compensate, she has added many elongating lines.  The edges of her shawl, the pleated fall on her dress, a waistline sash, and the long rope of beads all help to drawn the eye up and down.   Her black accessories–hat, necklace, shoes–have the same effect.  I’m not sure it makes her look thinner, but it really made me notice her shoes.

If you love twenties styles, be sure to check out at the fascinating blog, Witness2Fashion.

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What to Wear on a California Vacation, 1914

Special Collections, University of California Irvine. Click to enlarge.

Although this group had hiked up a small hill for the photograph, the chauffer-looking fellow in the background makes me think that they were probably traveling by car.  Some had dressed for exercise more than others.  The youngest woman, second from left, might have made it through some rough terrain with her short skirt, heavy socks, and saddle shoes.  The woman directly to her left, though, apparently had no intention of hiking. She looks like she had just left a lunch party in her hotel.

The oldest woman at the center was the most bundled up. My guess is that it was probably winter when the photo was taken.  When she heard she was making a winter trip, she brought along her warmest clothes, including a heavy coat, not imagining that a winter in California could be quite warm.

Note the array of hats, not one alike!  I think the simple, wide brimmed style in the far right was best suited for the winter sun.  But doesn’t her skirt look extremely narrow?

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