Of course I know that baseball covers have stitches, but until I saw this photo I didn’t realize that the covers were stitched together by hand. Even today most covers are hand stitched, although the process is done in a factory. This photo shows that it was once done as piecework at home. Note the large box filled with balls pushed up against the fireplace.
The explanatory material for this photo identifies the woman as a farm worker outside the town of Tullahoma, Tennessee. Stitching baseballs was probably work she took on at night or in the winter months to bring in extra income. I wonder if other members of the family also participated in this home enterprise.
I’m fascinated by the woman’s gingham dress, which in fact might be a big dress-like apron covering up a garment below. See the little strip of a different gingham pattern peeking out at the hem. Whatever it is, I like the off center buttons running from top to bottom and the wide sleeves. And note the stitched covering for the mantle, something I have never seen before. Perhaps it was also handmade.
One common assumption about older women is that they are much less likely to keep up with current clothing trends. I notice this in my own dress. There are lots of explanations for this phenomenon. Usually older women have discovered styles that they feel comfortable in and are much less likely to want to change them. They have reached a point in their lives where impressing others with stylish clothes is not as important—if it ever was. And since poverty often rises among women as they age, perhaps they just don’t have the money to stay in style.
But of course every generalization is just that—a blanket statement that cannot cover everyone’s experience. Above we have a case in point, a woman I’m guessing to be in her late forties to early fifties who is experimenting with 1940s styles. The photo on the left is even dated—1941. The others came from the same batch of photos purchased from a favorite eBay dealer. She has clearly taken up the trend for bifurcated garments—I’m betting that what looks to be a short skirt on the right are in fact a pair of culottes.
This woman, whoever she is, has a body shape praised in contemporary films and fashion magazines, with ample breasts, a small waist, and long legs. She has decided to show off these assets through her clothes. Note how her head is tilted in the same direction in all the photos.
And how about you? Do you keep up with current styles?
September is National Sewing Month, and I’m happily turning my attention away from our fraught political climate to find photos of older women practicing this craft. The American Sewing Guild, of which I’m a member, calls sewing “an art and life skill.” The life skill part of that equation was perhaps most apparent during our terrible spring, when most of those with sewing machines were churning out masks. Now that you can buy masks in the grocery store, perhaps the art of sewing will once again bring me joy.
The photo above, estimated to be taken around 1960, shows that it is never too late to start sewing. The African American woman on the left is teaching two older women students how to lay out a pattern.
When you blow up the photo, you can even see what they are making. Laid out on the table with the fabric are instructions for an apron by Simplicity Patterns. Aprons were often offered as a beginning project back in the day when women wore a lot of them. These days a starting project is more likely to be a loose pair of pajama bottoms.
There isn’t much in their clothes that says “1960” to me, but we really can only see the teacher’s outfit in any detail. She wears what looks like a very close fitting shirtwaist decorated with an interesting shirred pocket. And did you notice all the dots? They are everywhere—the teacher’s dress, the student’s scarf and even the fabric on the table. Not a stripe to be seen.
Military-inspired fashion for women is not a new thing. But is it usually quite so literal? I’m wondering just what Melania Trump had in mind when she gave her convention speech in an outfit that looks like she got it at the Army/Navy Surplus store—or perhaps the Cuban version of the same.
This is a genuine question. For all of her flaws, and overlooking the “I don’t care, do you?” jacket, I think Melania usually chooses her clothes in an intelligent way. She referenced Jackie Kennedy at the inauguration, giving the impression that the Trump presidency would fit into standard American history. She wore French designers on her visit to France. A Korean friend of mine was impressed by her clothes when she went to Korea because she felt that Melania had made a nod to Korean designs. When she appeared at one of Trump’s state of the union speeches in a white pantsuit, she evoked the suffragist heritage of white and the feminist heritage of the pantsuit at the same time. For many watching, these were positive signals.
But why wear a military outfit at the Republican National Convention? Surely Melania knows that some people call her husband an authoritarian and worry what might happen if he wins a second term. Was she saying that she doesn’t care what they think? Was she letting us know that you can still smile under a dictatorship? Or that she, at least, can rock a Castro look if we all have to wear one?
While it’s not hard to find photos of younger women in pants from the 1940s, older women are a different matter. This woman (I’m almost positive it’s the same one—or else a very close relative) might not yet be 50, but I’m guessing she is in her forties. She wears pants with style.
These two photos are a good object lesson in how clothes can make the body’s shape appear quite different. In the photo on the left, our mystery woman looks slim and comfortable, but somewhat shapeless. In the outfit on the right, with its wide shoulders and nipped in waist, she still looks slim but also imposing. You can see why some women were/are reluctant to give up on power shoulders.
I puzzled a long time over the dates of these photos. The hair style is very 1940s, and it doesn’t change much between the two. The Hepburn style pants on the left, however, were popular already in the 1930s. The pants on the right are much slimmer fitted, heading towards to cigarette style of the early fifties. So I’m guessing that these two photos come from different ends of the decade.
What’s your guess? And do you wonder if she kept her broad shoulders well into the 1950s?
This photo shows six women honored by the Mexican American Opportunity Society, a non-profit devoted to education and economic assistance in California. It began in 1963 and still exists today. What had these six women done to be honored? Were they donors, administrators, or especially successful recipients of aid? Newspaper searches came up empty.
If not for the corsages, the women in the front don’t look all that dressed up to me. The gray haired woman bottom left right wears the outfit I most clearly associate with the seventies, a raised waist dress with a slightly peasanty look to it. Knitwear was popular in the decade, displayed front and center. And I see a the sheen of polyester to the blouse worn by the woman on the right, the most ubiquitous seventies textile.
Although fashion in the seventies was known for incorporating “ethnic elements,” I think the shawls worn by the two women in the front were not simply an on-trend accessory. Instead, I imagine a conscious decision to don something that evoked the handwoven rebozo, a historic feature of Mexican women’s dress. The ones above aren’t hand woven, but perhaps they are hand crocheted?
The stamp on the back of this photo says May 1953, although sometimes people get their pictures developed long after the fact. However, the trees indicate that it could be May. The clothing also points to a transitional season. The two women in the center are dressed in suits while the one on the right wears a short sleeved dress.
The suits are in the early fifties style—somewhat nipped at the waist with longer skirts. The older woman in the middle wears her skirts much longer than the other two, though. Looking through clothing ads from the era, I think the younger women were more up to date—as usually is the case. While all of them wear comfortable looking shoes, none of them has chosen the lace up oxford—the sensible shoe of the first half of the twentieth century. I particularly like the strappy pair worn by the woman on the left.
What do you think the woman on the right is doing? Had she brought a very large napkin for a picnic, or was she showing off the over skirt from her dress? The latter is more likely the case, but the pattern doesn’t exactly match the trim at the collar and sleeve.
Let’s make up a story, shall we? The couple on the left had come to visit the woman’s mother and sister. The sister on the right had just taken over her mother’s couture sewing salon and was showing off her skills. “But the patterns don’t quite match,” the photographer said. And the visiting sister, who had always been a bit competitive, gave a sardonic laugh.
It must be hot, because she has on a short sleeved shirt and shorts. That’s showing a lot of skin for an older woman, at least according to fashion advisors.
The clothes here are hard to date. Shorts were a popular summer item since the 1920s. Her button up sleeveless striped top is also a classic. The combination could be a 1950s separates set. Thr cat eye glasses were in style in the fifties and sixties, but many older women wore them longer because the shape gives the eyes a little lift.
Maybe the huge refrigerator can help. Side by side models existed since the forties, but they became very popular in the seventies. The extremely square shape was also typical for the decade. So I’m guessing early to mid-seventies here. This one look big enough for her to climb into the freezer side.
My own summer style is more covered up, with loose cotton pants combined with a loose cotton tops, at least elbow length. Shorts are not part of my wardrobe. How about you?
Here is a short list of Ida B. Wells’s accomplishments: school teacher, journalist, newspaper owner, anti-lynching crusader, mother of four, civil rights leader, and black women’s suffrage advocate. She filled her life (1862-1931) with more achievements than tens of other women.
There are many images of Wells, mainly as a young woman. The photo above shows her at the age of sixty-one with a shock of white hair and an elegant dark dress.
An early fighter against segregation, Wells sued the Nashville train company in 1883 for expelling her from a first class car. She gained international fame as a fighter against lynching in the South. White Southerners justified lynching as a way to protect white women from rape by black men. With extensive research, Wells proved that lynching was most often used as a way to curb African Americans’ political and economic success. Her journalism was such an embarrassment to whites that her newspaper office in Nashville was destroyed by an angry mob.
Wells not only fought against Southern white men, but also Northern white women. She eventually settled in Chicago and was actively involved in the suffrage campaign there. When a national suffrage march was planned Washington DC in 1913, her white colleagues informed her that she could march in the back with the Negro delegation. She ignored this advice and joined the marchers at the front.
I used to think that I was the only woman in America who didn’t wear jeans, but maybe that is changing. The Washington Post recently featured an article on the decline of jeans sales during the pandemic. More and more people are turning to leggings and stretch pants, putting comfort before everything else. That means they are finally admitting to a basic truth: jeans really aren’t that comfortable.
What do I have against jeans, that most American of garments? First of all, the fabric is stiff and ungiving, at least until you have worn them for a few months. And even stretchy jeans have what I consider to be a fatal flaw—thick seams that dig into your flesh.
Many people consider elastic waistbands to be the antithesis of fine dressing. Not me. I embraced stretchy clothes once I got pregnant and never gave them up. When I returned to sewing over twenty years ago, I was overjoyed to learn that I could put elastic waistbands in every kind of pants in any fabric from silk to cotton. Constant lectures about their “mumsy” look in fashion books and style shows never convinced me to change my mind.
And now it appears that my fashion moment has come! “Jeans are cardiovascular prisons,” says one young woman quoted in the Washington Post article. I could have told her that a long time ago.
To contribute to this collective history project, send pictures and stories about the older women in your life to firstname.lastname@example.org. The more information you can include (date, place, etc.), the better.