High Jinks at the Tupperware Party, 1950s

Wouldn’t you like to know how these happy ladies constructed their hats?  Did they make them at home or did the host bring supplies? Was it a contest?  If so, surely the woman with the many layered confection topped by a propeller won the prize.

I discovered this wonderful document of housewife high jinks on the new-to-me website Rare Historical Photographs.  A number of unnamed and undated photos document the history of Tupperware.  Although invented in the early 1940s, Tupperware only took off when the female partner of the dour inventor began selling the products through home parties a decade later.  This photo makes it look fun, although not everyone is smiling. 

Looking more closely at the clothing we can see that separates were considered dressy enough for an evening out with other women.  A few wear shirtwaists, the go-to fifties style, but many are more formally dressed.  Absolutely everyone wears a hat, perhaps a requirement for this event.  Only one in the back row second from the left apparently decided to leave off the decorations, unless that is a modest Tupperware design sticking up in the back.

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Aging in Color: Ruth Adler Schnee

Photo by Jerrilee Bennet, The Gazette

Famous textile designer Ruth Adler Schnee (1923-2023) died this month at the age of 99.  She is credited with bringing textile design into the world of midcentury modernism.  The daughter of an antiquarian bookseller and a Bauhaus graduate, her family fled Germany after Kristallnacht, the open assault on German Jews by the Nazis in 1938.  They ended up in Detroit.  Adler Schnee first hoped to be a fashion designer and then an architect.  It is almost by accident that she found her real calling in textile design. 

You can trace her long career in the many eulogies published this past month.  See examples from The New York Times and from her alma mater, the Cranbrook School of Design located outside of Detroit. 

Almost as an aside, the New York Times obituary mentions that “she dressed as boldly as her designs, favoring rich colors like red, fuschia and orange.”  As you can see in the recent photos above, she kept that style all her life.  She obviously ignored the advice often given to older women to avoid bold colors and prints as one aged, turning instead to subtle grayed tones.

From Ruth Adler Schnee: Kresge Eminent Artist, The Kresge Foundation 2015

But if you saw the world in such vivid colors and textures as her textile designs reveal, why on earth would you settle for subtle?

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990, 2000s, 2010s | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Lois Alexander and the Black Fashion Museum

Most fashion museums focus on the works of famous designers and the clothes of the well-off women who supported them.  The Black Fashion Museum, which existed from 1979 to 2007, had a different mission.  Under the leadership of the visionary Lois Alexander (1916-2007) the museum aimed to highlight all the work of all Black sewers, from the humblest slave dress to haute couture creations.

Lois Alexander was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1916 and learned to sew from her mother.  She studied to be a teacher but instead moved to Washington DC and worked for the Federal Government.  While in Washington, she opened a dress store, moving into the fashion field.  In the early 1960s, she moved to New York to get a Master’s Degree in retailing.  While writing her thesis on Black store owners, she came up with the idea to accumulate the often forgotten work of Black sewers and designers.  Funded by two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, she began accumulating clothes anywhere she could find them.  A decade later, the Black Fashion Museum opened in Harlem next door to a school she also founded, the Harlem Institute of Fashion.

Alexander’s project examined all levels of the fashion field, from the high fashion of well-known designers like Ann Lowe, to Rosa Park’s homemade flowered dress that she wore to start the bus boycott in 1955, to a hand sewn apron by a child slave.  She was an archivist in the textile field, scouring private sales and auctions to rescue objects that might have otherwise been destroyed. 

Photos show that Alexander favored colorful clothes.  You can see that in the bright purple dress featured in the Ebony article, as well as the multicolored top in the picture above.  The black and white photo made in 1987, when she was 71, reveals that she didn’t give up on bold designs even as she aged.  Did she make her clothes herself?  She certainly had the skills.

The Black Fashion Museum moved to Washington DC in 1994, with Alexander’s daughter, Joyce Bailey, taking on more responsibility.  When Alexander died in 2007, her daughter donated the entire collection to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Read the fascinating story of the collection’s journey to the national museum here.

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Celebrating their 90th Birthdays, 1949

This celebratory photo marks the ninetieth birthdays of Effie Appleby and Amy Bigelow. Both were members of the Women’s Guild of the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Madison, Wisconsin, which threw a party in their honor. The photo description explains that the Women’s Guild started as a sewing circle in Appleby’s house even before the church was built. Had the two made their own clothes for the party?

The woman on the right, Amy Bigelow, wears the kind of dark print often recommended for older women. It’s hard to see the details of her dress in order to figure out if she had paid any attention to the big fashion shifts brought about by the New Look, which narrowed shoulders and lengthened hems.

Her companion on the left, Effie Appleby, wears a shirtwaist style very popular in World War Two. The broader shoulders make me suspect that she had worn this dress for many years. Or perhaps she just liked the style and made it herself for the occasion–the magic of sewing your own clothes. My favorite detail is her long pearl necklace. The way she wears it reminds me of flappers, although she was already in her sixties in the 1920s. Was this her signature piece? And the best accessory of all is her mischievous smile.

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New Year’s Eve, 1967

Where did the tradition of funny hats on New Year’s Eve come from? This shot of the the Hallberg family (from left to right–son, son’s wife, mother, father) shows that they endorse the idea enthusiastically. They all wear hats–and they are all different! The two women even wear theirs at a rakish angle. However, hats are not required. The woman in the background with a beehive hairdo probably couldn’t fit one on her head.

Even though we can only see the top half of their dresses, the younger Mrs. Hallberg (middle left) has a more modern look. She appears to wear a sleeveless sheath dress, no necklace, and dangle earrings. Her mother in law has on a lacy, perhaps beaded, confection that was probably expensive. However, her fifties hairdo, short sleeves, bejeweled eye glasses, and pearl necklace makes her look much older.

Did you also toast with champagne? I did! Have a wonderful start to the New Year!

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Mrs. Gibson in a Corset, 1911

Looking at this picture, it is easy to see why women were so happy to abandon corsets after the First World War.  The woman in the dark dress, Mrs. Francis M. Gibson, appears to be stuffed into her dress.  She is wearing an “S curve” foundation piece, which thrust the bust forward and guaranteed a small waist.  On larger breasted women they created a shelf-like chest. 

According to my quick internet research, Katherine Gibson was born in 1853, which makes her about 58 in this photo.  Although she is dressed in conservative dark colors, then considered appropriate for a woman of her age, her accessories are quite elaborate.  Look at her transparent dark gloves, waistline corsage, and ropes of beads.  Although her hat is impressive, it cannot compete with the elaborate turban on Mrs. F. D. Grant—so huge that several genies could take refuge inside!

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Redhead and Friends, early to mid-1960s

Found photo

More big red hair!  This was a lucky eBay find.  If you’re interested in discovering your own treasures, the best search term is “beehive.”  The updo is similar to the last one—a big pile of curls on top of the head.  Perhaps, as some of you suggested last time, she used a hair piece.  However, a commentator on Instagram has it on good authority from her hair dresser that Southern girls used round oatmeal boxes as a base for their elaborate creations.

When was the photo taken?  After some research, I discovered that the car is a 1957 Ford Fairlane, identified by the tail lights.  I couldn’t find any clues about the license plate, though.  I’m placing the photo in the early to mid-1960s because of the skirt lengths.  Read a fascinating post about sixties skirts from Witness to Fashion.  The redhead wears hers just up to her knee.  Her companions wear them longer.

The older women in this photo form a fascinating trio.  The white haired woman in the middle—perhaps the redhead’s mother—is the most stylishly dressed.  She has on a sheath dress that almost reaches her knees and buckled low-heeled shoes.  The two women on the outside are perhaps related to the man.  Their skirts are longer and both wear flat shoes.  The one on the left is the least up-to-date in her shirtwaist dress.  You could still find them in catalogs, but they were becoming rarer.  And apparently she didn’t care for the common advice that older women should stick to dark colors.

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Meet Tish

Since the early twentieth century author Mary Roberts Rinehart made the Washington Post this morning, I thought I would do a reprise of my favorite character of hers, the single older woman, Tish.

When I hear the old-fashioned word spinster, I think of bitter witch-like figures like Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz, a typical representative of unmarried women in American popular culture. That’s why I was so amazed to discover Tish, aka Letitia Carwell, the heroine in a series of stories and novellas by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Tish first came to life on the pages of  the Saturday Evening Post in 1910, and continued to be part of Rinehart’s repertoire until the late 1930s.

Here’s a short introduction. In her fifties, the fictional Tish leads a charmed life.  She has no money problems at all, although it is not entirely clear where her funds come from. Her two closest companions, Lizzie and Aggie, are also older and unmarried. They serve as comic foils for Tish’s many adventures—participating in car races, camping in the wilderness, riding on horseback through the Rocky Mountains, etc., etc. In each of these adventures, Tish manages to upend the expectations of her more conservative friends and unite young star-crossed lovers.

Without a family to occupy her time, Tish is a woman of enthusiasms. These include car repair, vegetarianism, Swedish movement, and hunting, to name but a few. For all these activities, she tries to find the correct new clothing. She dons a divided skirt for skating and shows up for aesthetic dancing “wearing no stays, a middy blouse and a short skirt.” (Tish, 1916). Inspired by the ideas of dress reformers, she declares “Drat a woman’s clothes, anyhow. If we had any sense we’d wear trousers.” (More Tish, 1919). It goes without saying that she advocates women’s suffrage.

There are five Tish books in all–The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Cranberry (1911); Tish: The Chronicle of Her Escapades and Excursions (1916); More Tish (1921); Tish Plays the Game (1926); and Tish Marches On (1937). I’ve only read three–time to get busy!

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The Biggest Hair, 1968

Found photo

What a historical treasure! The photo was sent to me by reader Nann Hilyard, who got it from a friend, who got it from who knows where.  The magic of the internet.

Big hair was already heading out of style when this photo was snapped, being replaced by the hippie-like locks of the youngest woman in the photo.  That didn’t stop the redhead on the left—who looks to be at least in her forties—from building up a towering creation.  It looks like she had very long hair that she simply relocated to the top of her head—a miracle of construction.  The woman in pink is perhaps her mother or much older sister.  She is the most conservatively dressed of the four, with her fifties-styled hair and matchy-matchy pastel outfit.

I’m guessing the two on the right are mother and daughter. They are clearly the hosts—after all, they are wearing slippers!  The mother also has a big hair style, but nothing compared to her guest.  Her young daughter, probably still in her teens, is the most stylishly dressed.  Ruffles and plaids were easy to find in the 1968 Sears catalog.  Even her long flowing hair appears to have a little lift in the back.

Besides showing a remarkable range of hairstyles, this photo documents the triumph of pants for American women of all ages.  The two on the left are dressed up for the occasion, showing that pants were now much more than casual at-home wear.

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The Sheer Dress at Thanksgiving

From the Facebook Group Midcentury in Color, posted by Eric Hill

No turkey on the table, but I’m guessing this must be Thanksgiving. When else is pumpkin pie the only dessert?  As is obvious from the woman who is dolloping out whipped cream, sheer dresses were not only for the old.  Her see through top reveals not only a dark slip but also the top of her bra.  I wonder if matching slips were sold with the sheer dresses.

Where is everyone?  The only one ready to eat is an older woman wearing an apron.  Maybe those on kitchen duty got first dibs on dessert.

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