Portrait with Chair, ca. 1910

Michael Francis Blake, Duke Digital Repository. Click to enlarge

This dignified portrait of an older African American woman comes from the studio of the photographer Michael Francis Blake in Charleston, South Carolina. According to the records at Duke University, most of his customers were black.  The studio was apparently a modest affair with a plain backdrop. The wooden chair pictured above is often the only prop.

I’ve changed the color of photo and darkened it a little so you can see more of the detail of this older woman’s clothing.  Duke gives the approximate date range for the photo as between 1910 and 1918. Her shirtwaist and skirt combination were standard apparel for American women of all ages and races in 1910. By 1918, it would have been out of fashion.

The skirt appears to have six gores, a common shape.  Her white shirt has a high collar and what looks like a lace insert in the front.  It’s hard to tell because of imperfections in the photo.  It’s also hard to judge whether or not it buttons down the front.

For me, this portrait is an example of the power of “less is more.”  She wears the simplest of all outfits. Her accessories are also quite simple, including a beautiful belt buckle, a two stand necklace, and drop earrings.  But these minimal details combined together create real elegance.

Posted in 1910s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Hand Sewing, 1942

Howard Liberman, Office of War Information, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

In honor of Black History Month, I’m seeking out photos of older black women.  This beautiful portrait of a woman doing hand sewing has been on my radar for a long time.  It is one of a series of photos taken by government photographer Howard Liberman at the Quartermaster Corps in Philadelphia.

The photo caption reads: “The nimble fingers of many American women are now contributing to the war effort in various quartermaster corps depots. This elderly woman is handstitching sleeves on an army overcoat.”  You would be wrong if you thought she was assigned to a menial task. Hand sewing provides much more accuracy than machine sewing, and setting sleeves is difficult and precise work. This unnamed seamstress was probably highly skilled.

And take a close look at the dress she is wearing.  It has an interesting diagonal line that runs from the top center button to the side.

Technical drawing of the popover dress via the blog Pintucks. Click to enlarge

This would have something in common with the McCardell popover dress, although the buttons run down the center and the sleeves are different.

Sharp eyed reader Kai Jones has another idea, speculating that it is a shirtwaist style with a self fabric tie at the neck. The diagonal line you see so clearly is the edge of one of the ties.

Whatever the structure, I wonder if our skilled seamstress designed the dress herself.

Posted in 1940s | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

About Pantsuits, Not Politics

The American media is abuzz with interpretations of what Melania Trump might have meant by donning a white pantsuit to her husband’s first State of the Union speech.  If you want to read a particularly clever analysis, try the article by the New York Times’ fashion reporter, Vanessa Friedman.

Speculation is fun, but what interests me is the fact that she was wearing a pantsuit at all.  I see this as another breakthrough for women in pants. In general, American First Ladies have a more restrictive dress code than other women in politics.  While many congresswomen have shown up to the annual speech in pantsuits, as far as I can see this is the first time a First Lady has done so. (Please correct me if I’m wrong).

There was a lot of bad fashion press when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Chancellor Angela Merkel, both wearing pantsuits.  Suzy Menkes called them “two political war horses who have won the right to wear what they want—which in their cases meant obliterating their femininity so that their clothes became as unremarkable as the guys.” (“Boy Meets Girl,” New York Times, February 28, 2010).  She doubted that a pantsuit could ever be remade into an attractive garment for a woman.

But none of the commentaries I have read about our new First Lady’s choice of clothing attacks the idea of the pantsuit itself.  We can speculate on the reasons—Melania Trump signals her femininity with her long hair, big makeup, high heels; she is much younger than “political war horses” who have made their mark with pantsuits in the past; her version is fashion forward and could never be confused with a man’s suit.  But maybe, just maybe, it shows that the pantsuit is finally safe for all women to wear in almost all situations.  I’m looking for it at the next inauguration ball.

Posted in 2010s | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Older Women in Pants, Mid-Century Edition

1946. Click to enlarge

It isn’t easy to find photos of older women in pants before World War Two, although I am doing my best to uncover them.  After the Second World War, the numbers climb.  We can credit the same explanation often given for younger women adopting this style. Older women also wore pants for their war jobs—see here and here.  At least some must have decided to continue this practical mode of dressing in work and leisure situations.  It’s hard to imagine the woman above, who looks like she had lots to do on the dock, showing up in a skirt.

Anne Spencer, 1947. Click to enlarge.

This photo of Anne Spencer, renowned writer, gardener and Civil Rights activist, show practical pants in the garden.

1948. Click to enlarge

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The three above are just a sampling of my photos showing women camping, hiking, and relaxing in pants.

What about more public situations?

Boston, 1952. Click to enlarge

1959. Click to enlarge

The Boston area shopper headed to the market in pants in 1952, and the free spirit Vida looks as if she is off to meet friends at a coffee shop in 1959.

Obviously this is just a random collection. It’s only in the seventies that older women take to pants in large numbers and photos become much easier to find.  But a very slow trend is already emerging in the post war era. It will finally end in someone like me, who owns not a single skirt or dress.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s | Tagged | 1 Comment

Turbans and the Older Woman

Arlington Heights Memorial Library via the Digital Public Library of America. Click to enlarge

Do you associate certain kinds of hats with certain age groups?  At the beginning of the twenty century, the bonnet tied under the chin was linked to older women.  For me, it is the turban that I associate with this age group.  (I’m using the term turban to refer to a structured hat, not a tied kerchief, like Rosie the Riveter’s.  Not everyone follows my usage, as can be seen in this ad.)

Florence Hendrickson of Arlington Heights Illinois wore a turban to her women’s group meeting in 1962 perhaps with the intent to look dramatic and stand out in a crowd.  Not only is her turban high, but it is decorated with a sparkly pin.

Wayne State University Library via DPLA. Click to enlarge

Famous blue singer Sippie Wallace from Detroit looks to have used her gauzy turban in the same way.  In both cases, quite a bit of the women’s hair (or wig) still shows.

Click to enlarge

In other cases, older women might have turned to turbans to cover up their hair almost entirely. The woman above has only a few curls visible in front. It would be a quick solution for those having a bad hair day, but who still wanted to look a little dressy.

Click to enlarge

In this mother/daughter photo, the younger woman doesn’t wear a hat at all, while her mother is mostly covered up.  Are those spangles on her turban, or just a reflection from shiny fabric?

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Eleanor Lambert, publicist for clothing lines, went to the hairdresser almost every day.  Anytime she didn’t like the results, she put on a turban.  In the photo above, not a bit of her own hair shows.

Fashion advertisements and drawings often show young women in turbans. But in the photos of turbans on actual people, I find the style skews old.  What do you think?

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990 | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Bowling Club, 1962

Los Angeles Times. Click to enlarge

“Members of the Fifty and Over Bowling Club cheer as team member Ann Queen makes her strike.” So read the caption in the Herald Examiner newspaper when this photo as published in 1962.  There’s lots to see here.  The women still wore the short hair styles of the fifties–no Kennedy bouffants for them.  Ms. Queen dressed in pants, with bowling shoes, just the outfit to make a strike.  However the woman standing to the right of her appears to have on a skirt, although it’s hard to see.  Was she even a member? Her shirt looks to be a different cut and color. Too bad we have no indication of what the other woman member was wearing aside from the club logo.

And for all of you vintage collectors–I’d give a lot for one of those shirts.

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Tobé Coller Davis–the First Lady of Fashion Forecasting

Tobé Coller Davis and Sylvia Porter, ca. 1957. Click to enlarge

If you read about the history of the American garment industry, it doesn’t take long to come across the name Tobé Coller Davis (1888-1962).  After a varied career in clothing companies and department stores, she opened a fashion forecasting company in the 1920s. Today she is widely regarded as the founder of that lucrative industry in the United States.

I found an account of Tobé’s life quite by accident in the book The Fashion Director by Elaine Jabenis. Born to Jewish immigrants in Milwaukee in 1888, her given name was Taube, which means dove in German.  Her father was in the garment industry. The family moved to New York around 1910, but her father’s new business didn’t take off.  By 1914 Taube went out to work on her own, gaining experience in a wide range of jobs including a brief stint as a custom dressmaker.  In 1918, she was hired as advertising director for the Franklin Simon department store.  Here she learned skills that would serve her well in her own company—follow fashion news, keep an eye on Paris styles, and observe what the most fashionable women were wearing.

When did Taube become Tobé? It must have been before she launched her company, Tobé and Associates, in 1927.  Beginning with just four clients, she put out a weekly newsletter predicting which of the new French fashion trends would make inroads into the American market. Expanding her reach, she started a yearly event called “The Fashion Forum” in 1929, a three day seminar of lectures and demonstrations about fashion trends and advertising techniques.  The business boomed.

Good Housekeeping, 1938. Click to enlarge

By the mid thirties—in the midst of the depression–she had over 100 clients. She renamed her company Tobé—her first name alone apparently enough—and moved to the poshest part of Fifth Avenue.  The ad above calls her America’s “style dictator.”

Red Book, 1938

In 1937 she and Julia Coburn, then editor of Ladies Home Journal, founded the Tobé- Coburn School for Fashion Careers. An innovation at the time, it was designed to train women to take on executive positions in department stores and fashion companies.  Maybe one day I’ll take a look at the school’s archives, housed at the New York Public Library.

In the fifties, she also started to write syndicated fashion columns for newspapers called “Tobe Says.” (Perhaps newspapers couldn’t be bothered to add the accent mark.)  I discovered one published in early 1961 called “It is Your Duty to Stay Young.”  Did older women find it reassuring? “The trick is to look young but not ridiculous. Don’t pretend to be twenty if you’re in that indeterminate middle age that stretches from forty to seventy, for there’s a modern way of looking young no matter what your age.  It begins with your hairdo, your skin, and particularly your skirt length this season.”

It’s not easy finding photos of Tobé, so it’s hard to say if she followed her own advice.  The large press photo above was like taken in 1957, when Tobé was approaching seventy.  Her skin is certainly beautiful, but I wouldn’t say her style looks particularly young.  She wears many markers of a well off older woman—a dress with a raised waist (perhaps to disguise a menopot), a flowery hat, and beautiful pearls.

But who needs youth if you have energy?  Tobé founded an industry and a legacy. The fashion report and the school she started (now refocused and renamed) still exist today.

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, General | Tagged , | Leave a comment

California Beach Party, 1933

Click to enlarge

This looks like a fun party.  Even though it was 1933, and alcohol was still officially banned in the US, note the wine bottle in the background and the cups raised high.  The setting is Half Moon Bay, California, on the coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz.  Like many beach towns, Half Moon Bay had its share of rum runners during Prohibition, so maybe they were celebrating a recent delivery.

Susan from the blog Witness2Fashion sent me this snap from her amazing stash of family photos. These were friends of her parents, people who knew how to have fun with or without alcohol, she wrote.

The photo is a study in contrasts between old and young, formal and informal, dark and light.  The breakdown is by age, rather than gender.  For both women and men, the older generation wore dark, dressy, out of date clothes, in contrast to the light colored, light hearted and casual outfits of the younger set.

The contrast is particularly extreme for the women. The two young ones sported casual, trendy beach attire. On the far right, the woman had on what looks like a wide divided skirt, almost transparent, and a sweatshirt with a cartoon character on the front.  (Susan observed that it looks like the character Jiggs from the comic strip Bringing Up Father.) The young woman in the middle wore wide legged trousers and a sweatshirt, which might also be emblazoned with a cartoon character—perhaps Jiggs’ wife Maggie, speculated Susan.  She wasn’t even wearing shoes.  Neither of these two would look out of place on a California beach today.

However, the grandmother holding the baby might have strolled in from a different fashion universe, or at least a different decade. She was in full 1920s attire, with her clutch coat, cloche hat, and black stockings.  Everything was black except for her coat collar. Since she had turned her back to most of the young people, I thought at first her plan was to rescue the baby from this band of happy revelers.

I wonder what the photographer, there in the shadows, was wearing.


Posted in 1930s | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Considering the Matron

Vogue, March 15 1914. Click to enlarge

You don’t see the word matron much anymore, but it was an important term of reference in fashion writing in the early twentieth century.  Since I’m fascinated by synonyms (and euphemisms) for “old,” I used the search engines for women’s magazines to see how usage has evolved.

Writers and advertisers at the beginning of the twentieth century used the word “matron” like we use the word “woman” today.  It meant a grown up female, as opposed to a girl or a maid. Magazines employed identifying adjectives to make differentiations within the group—young matron, middle aged matron, and elderly matron.

While matron started as a neutral term, the adjective “matronly” already had a slightly pejorative tone.  As you can see in the illustration above, the “matronly” figure was something that was best disguised.

Vogue, February 15 1936. Click to enlarge

Vogue turned against the matron earlier than other women’s magazines. While there were still a few “young matrons” in 1930s, writers started to avoid the term as something sadly associated with old age.  The 1936 article “No More Matrons,” focused on clothes that did not immediately identify the wearer as “old.” And a decade later when Vogue launched Mrs. Exeter, its older woman of fashion, the term “matron” was never used.

Good Housekeeping, October 1955. Click to enlarge

It took longer for matron to disappear from mass market magazines like Good Housekeeping.  By the forties, however, it was most frequently used in advertisements paired with “young.”  In Ladies Home Journal, the main source of the word was in the column “There’s a Man in the House” by Harlan Miller. From the forties to the sixties, he  offered tales from suburbia where matrons were almost always fussy married ladies of years.

While one could still proudly be a matron in the early twentieth century, it was never a good thing to be matronly.  Today, “matron” appears primarily in the context of weddings; matronly—except as the highest insult—has all but disappeared.

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Bessie McHugh from her Thirties to her Sixties


“On a steamer going to Catalina, June 25, 1934. That was the way we celebrated Our Anniversary.” So reads the message on the back of this romantic photo.  It depicts John McHugh, born in Ireland in 1889, and his wife Bessie, born in Illinois in 1896.  I suspect it celebrates their twentieth wedding anniversary. By that time they had had five children. It  is one of a stack of photos sent to me by Eimear Greaney documenting the life of her distant cousin John and his wife.

On their anniversary cruise, the two looked elegant in their white outfits.  They must have been well off to afford the trip from their home in Chicago in the midst of the Great Depression.  Bessie, here around 38, wore a drapey dress with a high waist and a gored skirt. The matching long jacket, quite the style in 1934, lengthened her shape. I would love to have a better look at the wide trim at her neckline. Or is it a scarf?

1936. Click to enlarge

In 1936, Bessie and John were again on a cruise—perhaps for another celebration. Bessie was now around forty. She wore what looks like a wool suit with a peplum, a decorative belt, and an A-line skirt.  Peplums were part of “the new scheme of things,” according to Vogue magazine in 1936, so Bessie was right in style. The poor fit of the bodice drew attention to her full bust. Her shoes were sensible, but two toned to give them a little interest.


There were no pictures of Bessie again until 1947 at her daughter Margie’s wedding.  Even though the New Look had taken some of the fashion world by storm early in the year, Bessie was not converted.  Her dress, with its draped front, looks very much like a style I found in the Vogue Pattern Book for 1946.  Maybe she had found her dress well before the wedding and did not see the need to change.

1950. Click to enlarge

Three years later, in 1950, Bessie was snapped at the wedding of a friend’s daughter. We can’t see the bottom of the dress, but it is clear that Bessie decided to emphasize her chest with an elaborately ruched bodice.  The scooped neckline and corsage bring attention to her face.


The first color photo was from 1958, when John and Bessie took a trip to Dublin.  Her beige coat appears to be the favored swing shape of the era.  Although she had on the short white gloves I clearly remember from my childhood, she wore no hat.


In this final picture, Bessie and John were at home in Chicago at Christmas time, 1962.  Bessie, at 66, had gone completely gray.  Her simple dress made nods to current fashion.  The blue print looks abstract and the shape a simple sheath with a belted waist. Compared to her other outfits, it is a little plain.  However, this was the first time we have seen her at home.

So here are the clothes of a prosperous American woman in mid-twentieth century middle America over three decades.  She followed the twists and turns of fashion, but not slavishly and always with consideration of her full figure.

Thanks to Eimear for the photos and to Familysearch.org, a comprehensive (and free!) site, for the genealogical information.


Posted in 1950s | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments