Mother and Daughter, Late 1920s

Click to enlarge

Was there ever a crueler fashion era for the older woman than the 1920s?  The preferred fashion shape made a woman with a matronly figure look like a big stuffed block or triangle.  The daughter on the left, whose dress dates from around 1926 or 1927 judging by the length, has at least chosen a solid color with vertical pleats which has a slimming effect.

Her mother, on the other hand, seems to have picked out a dress specifically designed to accentuate her wide hips.  The dots are bigger on the bottom than on the top, drawing the eye down.  And that belt buckle, placed almost at the widest part of her hips, is calling out for attention.

The mother purchased her much longer dress earlier in the decade.  Maybe she decided that fashion was no longer worth following.

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The Panama-Pacific Exhibition, Part Two: The Shirtwaist


From the Getty Center. Click to enlarge

While some women dressed for the Panama Exhibit as if going to a party, others chose everyday wear. To the left of the fancy matrons in the middle of the photo are three older women wearing shirtwaist and skirt combinations.

The shirtwaist style was an American original. Launched in the 1890s, it dominated American women’s dress for almost two decades. Many historians of American fashion consider it an indication of American women’s love of relative informality and practicality. My friend Alice, who studies professional women in the newspaper industry, calls the shirtwaist and skirt combination the “New Woman” costume.

By 1915,  this beloved look was on its way out.  At the start of the decade, the fashion forward abandoned it for dresses with higher waistlines.  By the twenties, the waistline would drop much lower or disappear altogether.

What does the shirtwaist say about these women who wore it to this special event in 1915?  They probably chose something comfortable and familiar, a style that had served them well in the past.  However, they had dressed up their outfits with special details–note the ruffled collars and pins to mark the occasion.

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The Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, 1915—Part One: The Elegant Matron

From the Getty Center. Click to enlarge

This is a reposting from the early years of my blog.

This panoramic photo comes from the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair, known as the Panama Pacific International Exhibition because it celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal.  My resourceful friend Sally discovered it while doing research at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.  It isn’t clear why these people gathered together for such a large group photo—maybe it was a club or society of some kind?  (Sally even scoffed when I asked—“We are lucky to know as much as we do,” she said.)

There are at least three different styles for older women on display here—the elegant matron style, the older shirtwaist style, and a more fashion forward silhouette.  I’m going to talk about them one by one.

In a detail from the center of the photo you can see the elegant matron style.  Seated at the visual center of the picture, these two women must have been important.  Their black dresses are conservative, but the details are very elegant.  The woman on the left wears a top made of lace netting; the one on the right has on a gown trimmed with wide lace.  Both have touches of white near their faces.

They appear to be following this fashion advice: “As a rule, the older matron or grandmother who is wealthy grows increasingly elegant in a conservative way.  Because she is a woman of leisure she need consider only social needs in planning her wardrobe and is usually clad in the finest of laces, silks, and furs.”

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At the Overlook, Late 1910s

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Tourist photos interest me because they can show a kind of transitional clothing.  Most likely people do not dress in their best clothes, since travel brings challenges.  However, they are also often heading out into public and do not pick their most casual attire.  (That is until today, when some happily head to the airport in their pajama pants.)

Montgomery Ward catalog 87, 1917. Click to enlarge

The cut of this older woman’s suit follows the styles of around 1916-1917.  Her flat boater hat was not at the height of fashion at the time and the simple ribbon trim looks austere compared to some of the trimmings of era.  Her fur shawl places her more on the dressed up side of tourist clothing.  But I think her garments look well worn, perhaps taken from the back of her closet.  Look at the pronounced hemline on the skirt, as if it had been laundered many times.  The jacket has well-used baggy pockets.

Although I’m sure there are many similar views, this might be the overlook from Bright Angel Lodge on the south side of the Grand Canyon.  When the photo was taken, tourists could reach the area by train. Did she just pose for the photo, or did she spend some time walking the rim?  Too bad we can’t see her shoes—they might have provided an answer.


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The Jumpsuit—A Style that Will Not Die

Alyson Walsh, Click to enlarge

You might have noticed that the jump suit, a one piece long armed garment with pants, is back in style.  An older fashion blogger I follow, Alyson Walsh, has declared it her favorite look.  Sewing patterns for jumpsuits abound.

I remember wearing a short version when I was in high school back in the sixties.  It was an inconvenient outfit, hard to get in and out of when nature called.  I, for one, will never sacrifice convenience for style.  But apparently many women will, or perhaps they just have much better bladders.

Known then as an overall suit, this garment first gained wide popularity during and after the First World War.  You can imagine some of its appeal, since there was only one piece to keep track of.  It covered most of the body and had with no separate shirt to come untucked.  Catalog companies offered overall suits as an outfit for work at home and on the farm well into the 1920s.

Montgomery Ward catalogs, 1941, 1942, 1944. Click to enlarge

A big revival came during the Second World War.  Montgomery Ward consistently offered this style on its “work wear” pages, called by many different names—mechanic’s suit, “greasy monkey” suit, and coveralls.  The latter term stuck for over a decade.

Sports Illustrated, May 19, 1958

In the 1950s, the coverall took a fashion turn.  American designer Anne Fogarty called the style one of the best results of the Second World War.  She was not the only one who came to see the once humble work outfit as a fashion item.  During the decade Vogue magazine showed many stylish coveralls designed for leisure and entertaining, a few even sporting well known designer names like Tom Brigance.

Vogue, May 1, 1969. Click to enlarge

When did the coverall become the jumpsuit in American fashion vocabulary?  A search through the databases of American fashion magazines indicates that the transition came sometime in the sixties, when the garment made its move to the center stage of trendy fashion. “Tori Richard does a jumpsuit that jumps,” reads the ad above.  It sounds much better than “a coverall that covers.” The old name came to be used mainly with children’s clothes.

Since the sixties, the jumpsuit has moved in and out of style.  Vogue’s coverage went up in the seventies, and peaked in the eighties. Then the jumpsuit’s fashion reputation started to fade.

McCalls Patterns 7444. Click to enlarge

That is until now.  Jumpsuits are back again, even among older women who must have had better experiences than I did in the past.  It’s the fashion piece that will not die.





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Black Friday, 1995

Los Angeles Public Library. Click to enlarge

There are many stories about the origins of “Black Friday” in the US.  Despite the checkered past of the term, these days it means big bargains in outlet stores and malls, a kind of shopping frenzy to kick off the Christmas season.

My daughter once had a friend whose family made an event of Black Friday shopping.  They got up at the crack of dawn and planned their strategy for the day, counting their bargains once they had finished.

Had the Filipino-American family above also planned their outing?  It must have been a lot of work just keeping track of the children. The men don’t look too happy, but the smiles on the women–especially the grandmother on the right–appear genuine.  She also might be the only one whose clothes weren’t bought at a mall.

Just so you know—I make it a point to stay home on Black Friday.

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Turkey Shopping in Boston, 1952

From the Digital Commonwealth via the Digital Public Library of America. Click to enlarge

After World War Two, American women began to expand the places where they felt comfortable wearing pants.  For the most part, grocery shopping was not on the fashion advisors’ list of proper places for such casual attire.  However, this perhaps middle aged woman was photographed wearing pants at the Quincy Market in Boston in 1952. The photographer even got her to pose with the bird slung across her back to indicate the sporty nature of the turkey hunt. And take a look at her shoes—no old lady Oxfords for her.

From the Digital Commonwealth via the Digital Public Library of America. Click to enlarge

But lest you think all shoppers in Boston had gone casual, here is another shot at the same store.  This woman dressed up for her turkey shopping with hat, coat, and gloves.

Perhaps the woman in the top photo was a store employee, posing for a joke shot with the local press photographer.  Whatever the case, the places where women could be seen in pants was expanding.

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Blanche’s Retirement Party, 1971

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Time: 1971.  Place:  Data Products.  Event: A party for Blanche.  This much is clear from the notes on the backs of eight color photos I bought on ebay.  After looking at them for awhile, I think it is a good guess that they document a retirement party.  Blanche is the oldest person in all the photos.  In one she is shown shaking hands with someone who looks like the big boss and accepting a large envelope—perhaps a ticket for a Parisian vacation in gratitude for her hard work?

But lets move on to the clothes.  Data Products, wherever it was, had an older, mainly female, integrated work force. Blanche is by far the most conservatively dressed of all the women visible in the photos, with her beige jumper and white top. Her cat-eye glasses are no longer at the forefront of eye wear styles.  She doesn’t dye her hair.

Some of her coworkers have a bolder fashion sense. I am particularly drawn to the woman in the striped dress above, who looks to be in her fifties.  The contrast of horizontal stripes on the top and vertical on the bottom is interesting. The dress is short—just above her knees. Probably it is made of old style indestructible polyester, so it might still be available at a thrift store near you.

Click to enlarge

The group photo is not a great shot, but you can see two older looking women in pants!  The one in the foreground wears white pants and a red sweater.  An African American woman in the back is wearing dark blue pants and a light colored tailored blouse.  This was clearly a place that had permissive dress code, if it had one at all.  Too bad that there was no formal group shot of everyone lined up so we could compare and contrast their clothes.

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Mother of the Bride, 1947

John and Bessie McHugh at their daughter Marge’s wedding, October 18, 1947. Click to enlarge

The Mother of the Bride dress above, worn by Bessie McHugh, is a good example of post war fashion on the eve of the “New Look.” The skirt it is longer than the length fixed during World War Two, which was regulated to hit just below the knee in order to save fabric.  The draped panel on the front is another example of fabric exuberance. As the very knowledgeable Jen Orsini pointed by, one big difference between immediate post war styles and Dior’s designs was the hand of the fabric.  Dresses in the immediate post war period were made of drapey fabric, while Dior’s designs were often made of stiffer textiles that held their shape.

Simplicity 1830, 1946. Click to enlarge

Bessie is probably in her late forties or early fifties here.  She has another figure style sometimes seen on older women—the missing waist.  Did she have her well fitting dress made for her? Did she make it herself?  The Simplicity pattern on the right above from 1946 has some similar lines.

Refashioner extraordinaire Eimear Greaney from Ireland sent me this photo.  Her relative John McHugh emigrated from Ireland to the United States, joining the vast Irish American community.  My great grandmother and grandfather were among them.  I have many more photos from Eimear to share. Stay tuned.


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Two Body Types for Older Women

Click to enlarge

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.

Click to enlarge

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.

Click to enlarge

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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