Does this Hat Make my Head Look Big?

Montgomery Ward catalog 105, 1926. Click to enlarge

Staring in 1900, almost every Montgomery Ward catalog I paged through offered hats designed specifically for older women.  At first I noticed only the random hat, when words like “mature” or “elderly” caught my eye.  But by the 1910s catalogs began to have special pages devoted to older women’s millinery needs.  What made a hat suitable for the more “mature”?  I didn’t do a systematic comparison, but they seemed to be less flamboyant than other headgear on offer. There were fewer flowers and feathers and often a more subdued color scheme.

Montgomery Ward catalog 128, 1938. Click to enlarge

Then beginning in the mid 1920s, I began to notice a puzzling change.  Hats on pages aimed at “mature women” were also advertised as being available in larger sizes.  Each catalog had several pages of hats, but only those aimed at older women came in larger sizes.

Why link old heads and large heads? Surely it can’t be because the editors thought head sizes got bigger with age. I’ve done a lot of reading on the body changes that take place with the aging process; expanding head size is not one of them.

Montgomery Ward catalog 147, 1947. Click to enlarge

Was the assumption that the more subdued styles that suited the older crowd would also appeal to those with bigger heads?

Or did the editors want to deal with two niche markets at once, getting the old and the large out of the way at the same time?

I turn to you for your ideas on this puzzling marketing strategy.  And while we’re at it, just why is the term fathead an insult?


Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s | Tagged | 4 Comments

“Is the Trousers Skirt So Foolish?”

Ladies Home Journal, June 1911. Click to enlarge

The question above, posed by the Ladies Home Journal fashion writer Mrs. Ralston, was apparently a controversial one in 1911.  I’ll write more about Ralston later; for now it is enough to know that she was an important arbiter of taste in the magazine from 1902 to 1917. In mid 1911, she began her page long article begging her readers for patience, since “the overwhelming consensus of opinion seems to swing distinctly against the trousers skirt for women.”(34)

But the trousers skirt, where the trousers were largely hidden by the skirt, had precedents in fashion history, she argued.  There were “pantelets, worn by our grandmothers,” long bloomers that were visible under large hoop skirts. In addition, many women now used a divided skirt, which hid pants underneath, for horseback riding.

Beyond this, the trousers skirt had a distinct practical advantage, Mrs. Ralston argued.  They were very practical for walking in the countryside and for athletic purposes. The wearer did not need to bother with under petticoats or separate bloomers under a skirt.

Such an outfit was also useful for the “business girl,” who was out and about all day in all kinds of weather.  The trousers underneath made it easier to lift the skirt modestly; narrow trousers were also easier to keep dry than elaborate underskirts.

Although she came in favor of this new fashion trend, it was clear that Mrs. Ralston felt  she was taking a bold stance.  She repeated continually that the trousers skirt was acceptable only in some situations, and only when the “trousers” part was largely hidden. She had nothing but contempt for the recent fad of harem trousers, where the bifurcated nature of the pants was in full view.  This trend she deemed “retrograde,” “immodest,” and “unfeminine.”

Isn’t it a shame that the journal didn’t publish letters to the editor? I wonder what her readers thought.

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Patterns of the Times Click to enlarge

At the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s, the fashion editor of the New York Times, Virginia Pope, sponsored a series of patterns that were written up and advertised in the newspaper.  Published by the Advance Pattern Company, many of them were by unnamed pattern makers.  However, there was also a limited series of American Designer Patterns.  According to Wade Laboissonniere in Blueprints of Fashion: Home Sewing Patterns of the 1950s, the series was the brain child of Pope and the head designer of the Advance Pattern Company, Kathleen Hammond.

Many well-known designers of the era, like Pauline Trigère and Anne Fogarty, made patterns for the series.  Pope wrote the newspaper copy.  She suggested possible fabrics and styling, paying great attention to the appropriate occasion where the outfit might be worn.  Her writing was a combination of style advice and etiquette tips. With an eye to the broadest possible audience, she featured patterns for children, teens, and women of all ages.

Beginning in 1950, Pope devoted an article every month to one of the American designers featured in the Advance series.  The very first of these focused on Bonnie Cashin’s design for a toga cape, blouse and skirt.  In addition to a detailed discussion of the pattern, Pope offered space for Cashin’s fashion philosophy. “Above all, she wants to ‘contribute to the ‘figure of today.’ She thinks of clothes in terms of simplicity and directness, and of their relationship to space, line and color.  Hers is an architectural approach.”

As an older woman herself, born in 1885, she sometimes gave her views on suitable outfits for “mature women.”  In one 1952 feature on “Styles for Mature Figures,” she described a full-skirted dress in the following way: “The open neck is cut high enough to accommodate the fuller figure.  Many women will be pleased to know that this pattern also comes in women’s half sizes.”  The article also featured a front buttoned shorts length playsuit (or jump suit) with a matching skirt.  “The playsuit,” she writes, “is a neat and trim-looking fashion for wear in the house or garden, or for participating in sports.  When occasion demands, the skirt may be buttoned on quickly and easily.”  Note that she wanted to make sure that her readers knew not to wear the playsuit to the grocery store.

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

Older Women in Pants—Photos from the Teens and Twenties

San Jose State University Archives, via Calisphere. Click to enlarge

My favorite topic of all time is tracing the history of older American women in pants.  It was only in the 1970s that older women adopted pants in great numbers, but that does not mean that some didn’t try the style before then.  Just like their younger counterparts, some older women adopted this practical attire for work and leisure.  Slowly I am amassing a collection of photos to document this.

Above we see a woman machine worker in a practical pair of overalls.  The archive at San Jose State University gives the date as 1915, but offers no information on the woman or the factory. These might have been men’s wear, adapted to her work environment.

Special Collections, University of California Irvine, 1924. Click to enlarge

And in a collection of vacation scrapbooks I found this wonderful hand tinted photo of an older couple marveling at a yucca plant while on a trip to California.  The woman is dressed in either knickerbockers with a matching shirt or a pair of dungarees. She could have found either in a Montgomery Ward catalog.

Now if I could just find a photo of an older woman in beach pajamas!

Posted in 1910s, 1920s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

At the Breakers Bath House, ca. 1906

Click to enlarge

This photo postcard has a 1900s look about it, but historical events allow me to date it more precisely.  According to printed information on the back, it was taken at a photo studio at the Breakers Bath House in Galveston, Texas.  Brief internet searching revealed that the bath house was built in 1906 and destroyed by a hurricane three years later.  Although the hurricane ripped through the city’s bath houses, it was nothing like the mega storm on the Gulf of Mexico right now.

Note that all the females in this three (or maybe four?) generation photo wear the same style dress, probably supplied by the bathhouse.  You can even see the name of the establishment very clearly on the stockings of the woman in the middle.  They pose against a painted background and I wonder if the foursome actually made it to the water.

My friend Anne discovered this treasure in her parents’ basement in Laramie, Wyoming.  That’s a long way from Texas.  Her parents must have brought it with them from their home state when they moved north after World War Two.  Who were these four? She doesn’t know, and the back of the postcard is empty.

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Pajama Party

Montgomery Ward catalog 115, 1931. Click to enlarge

Two of my favorite blogs, The Vintage Traveler and Witness2fashion, have been investigating the pajama craze in the 1920s recently. I thought it would be interesting to examine the record in the world of down market catalogs

The fashion forward woman in the first half of the twentieth century probably did not turn to Montgomery Ward for her clothes.  One case in point is the trend for stylish pajamas intended to be worn  outside of the bedroom.  In Vogue magazine I saw the first feature illustrating a black velvet set clearly designed for evening wear in 1918. (“Paris Openings are Keyed to Victory,” Vogue October 1, 1918.) By the 1920s the magazine published numerous articles on where to show up in these stylish pants outfits.  One 1925 article, “The Pyjama: Once a Novelty, Is Now an Established Mode,” determined three different kinds of pajamas—one for sleeping, one for lounging, and one for the beach. “In fact, every hour of the day now has some use for this gay mode.” (Vogue, March 15, 1925, 102)

However, it wasn’t until the next decade that Montgomery Ward catalogs started to offer pajamas on their lingerie pages.  Some were in cotton flannel, obviously for sleeping.  But others in cotton and rayon, with one to three pieces, were clearly designed for outside of the bedroom.

Montgomery Ward catalog 117, 1932. Click to enlarge

While most of the outfits came in standard bust sizes 30-44, in 1932 one pajama set was to fit larger women, up to bust size 52. “Work in them, sleep in them, they are always comfortable.”

Montgomery Ward catalog 118, 1933. Click to enlarge

Ward’s made no specific mention of outside activities until 1933, when one ad had a definite maritime theme.

So the Montgomery Ward company took a very long time to follow the pajama trend.  Once it did, though, it gave customers a real bargain. In one Vogue ad, the upscale New York department store Bonwit Teller offered a three piece rayon jersey pajama outfit in 1931 for $49.50.  The most expensive offering in the catalog in the same year was $2.00.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a look at these two outfits to compare the quality?

Posted in 1920s, 1930s | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Colors for the Mature Woman, 1920s

Click to enlarge

This small pamphlet comes from the Women’s Institute, a correspondent school for sewing, millinery, and cooking, run by the famous Mary Brooks Picken.  Thanks to Lizzie Bramlett for sending it on from her large collection.  On one side it offers a chart of the best colors mainly for white women (although maybe the “olive brunette” would encompass Latinas).  On the other side is a long testimonial on how the sewing school changed one woman’s life, along with an application form. There is no date, but the drawings place it firmly in the 1920s.

I was overjoyed to see that the long list of “types” included two slots for the mature woman.

Click to enlarge

While other types were defined by hair color, mature women with gray or white hair only had two choices—“fair skinned.” or “sallow.”  I was puzzled by the “sallow” description—what is a complexion without color? Translating the color recommendations into current categories, I am going to take “sallow” to mean warm colored skin, and fair-skinned to mean cool.

So what colors suited the older woman in this 1920s list? There were many restrictions.  The cool toned older woman was warned against black unless she wore white or ecru at her face.  She could only wear dark browns and greens.  She was advised to choose blue grays and dull purples.  No reds suited her.  Only the palest yellows and pinks should go into her closet.

But the poor sallow toned older woman, a category to which I belong, was the saddest of all the categories.  She could not wear brown, green, or yellow.  The others colors were extremely restricted—only cream white, only midnight navy, only dull purple with some lilac accents, and only old rose.

And did you notice that only a handful of types, young or old, got to wear orange? (Thanks to Carol from Denver, I discovered oranges in the yellow category.) I was surprised not only because I love this color, but also because the blog Witness2Fashion has shown that orange was very popular in the twenties. See here, here, and here.  Apparently the Woman’s Institute was on a campaign to change current tastes in color.

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Half Sizes Part 5: The Record in Montgomery Ward Catalogs

Montgomery Ward catalog 107, 1927. Click to enlarge

I’ve long been fascinated by the category of “half-sizes,” a term now associated with clothing for shorter and wider women.  But until the US government issued standardized sizing guidelines in the 1950s, the term “half size” could mean just about anything.

What did it mean for Montgomery Ward?  I first saw the term in 1927 used for “coats for little women.” Here the only difference between half sizes and normal sizes was a woman’s height.  We might now call these “petite sizes,” where the cut was made with the smaller woman in mind.  “No need for alterations—for the sleeves are shorter than average and the length in exact accord.”   The size number was related to bust size.  If your bust measured 46 inches, you would choose size 45 ½.

Half size dresses didn’t come for two more years.  Here the promise was the same—the clothes’ proportions would flatter the shorter woman.  “They are designed for the smaller figure—a little shorter in skirt and sleeve, a little higher at the hipline—every detail exactly right!

Montgomery Ward catalog 114, 1931. Click to enlarge

In 1931, an ad for half size dresses even used the word “petite.”  Here Ward’s tried out new sizing numbers.  A woman with a 46 inch bust now had to choose a size 26 1/2.

Montgomery Ward catalog 118, 1934. Click to enlarge

By 1934, however, the company’s conception of the half size began to change.  This size range now aimed to fit women who not only found regular sizes too long, but who had other fit issues as well.  “Don’t worry if the dresses you buy are usually too long in the skirt, in the bust and through the arms, and from shoulder to waist,” the ad copy promised. Half sizes would address all of those issues.  The fashion drawings changed as well, depicting women who looked older than in the first half size advertisements.

Montgomery Ward catalog 127, 1937. Click to enlarge

Three years later, Ward’s half size category completed its transformation from one intended simply for shorter women to one designed to fix other fit problems.  The catalog listed the attributes of the size range: a higher waist, broader hips, roomier armholes, and shorter sleeves.  They were, as the ad copy read, “betwixt and between” women’s sizes and extra (or stout) sizes.  And the new cut just happened to accommodate the kinds of body changes most women experience as they age.  This concept of the “half size” is the one that was codified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1958.



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Miss Allen in 1955

Click to enlarge

Although I know nothing about the woman depicted in this photo, beyond her name and the date noted on the back, I am quite certain that she was a free spirit.  Her dress is a very interesting shape, fitted through the bust, waist, and high hip and then opening up into a fuller skirt along a curved seam.  It’s a different cut from the two dominant silhouettes of the early to mid 1950s, either a slim skirt or a full skirt starting at the waist.

Advance pattern 6051 via

I like to imagine that she made this cheerful dotted dress herself.  A 1952 pattern from Advance has a somewhat similar shape.  Perhaps Miss Allen herself came up with the idea of the high cuffed sleeves that look like small wings.

Be sure to enlarge the image so you can see the great care Miss Allen took with her jewelry. To go with the dots on her dress, she chose range of accessories made from round beads. Take a look at the long 1920s-looking pearl necklace, the beaded bangle, and the very large beaded earrings. To complete the theme, it looks like she also has on a very large cocktail ring.  Although she is not wearing the newly stylish high heels of the fifties, she is also not in the sensible shoes so beloved of her age group. She does not look at all like the Mrs. Exeter-style of older woman, who always dressed in a subdued version of the latest fashion.  Instead, she has found her own way.

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Pants for Women in Montgomery Ward Catalogs, 1907-1924

Montgomery Ward catalog 76, 1907

When did Montgomery Ward begin offering pants designed for women?  The first mention I found (and I could have easily missed some) had to do with horseback riding.  In 1907, you could buy a custom made divided skirt “for cross saddle horseback riding.”  Technically this was not yet a pair of pants, but the bifurcated skirt allowed women more flexibility in riding. As a custom made item, it could come in any size.

Montgomery Ward catalog 79, 1910

Three years later, the company had a half page ad featuring custom made riding outfits, including a pair of riding breeches “to be worn with a divided skirt.”

Montgomery Ward catalog 84, 1916. Click to enlarge

By 1916, there were drawings of women wearing these riding breeches without the skirt over them, a big step forward in the depiction of women in pants. And as you can see in the ad, the idea of “riding” had been expanded to bicycle riding. These outfits were no longer custom made, and on this page were primarily offered in smaller sizes.  The breeches, for example, only went up to a size 30 inch waist.

But these were leisure time activities.  What about work clothes for women?

Montgomery Ward catalog 90, 1918. Click to enlarge

Ads for overalls began in 1918, after the United States had entered the First World War.  These ready to wear outfits were listed on pages of “practical work clothes for women.” They came in both misses and women’s sizes.  In the image above, there is direct reference to the war.  The work suit was designed “for all who do war work as well as for those women who are taking men’s places on the farm and elsewhere,” a reference to the “farmerettes.”

Montgomery Ward catalog 102, 1924. Click to enlarge

Overalls continued to pop up on work clothes pages throughout the 1920s.  But in 1924, I discovered them also listed as sportswear! Now called overalls, not work suits, the catalog gave detailed description of their construction as well as suggestions for possible venues to wear them. “Durable khaki overalls for the woman who works outside or drives a car. They are strong and well made, but roomy enough to give you unusual freedom. Made with drop seat, deep patch pockets, and elastic at the ankle… Also for camping and touring.”

Posted in 1900s, 1910s, 1920s | Tagged , , | 1 Comment