Are you keeping a Covid diary? I tried writing down what I accomplished every day, but the repetition of “sew masks, walk, read mystery book” became boring fast. For me, the real document of this pandemic is my hair.
After decades of hair dye, I am finally beginning to see the natural color of my hair. I’m cutting it myself, with the help of my husband. As a seamstress, I’m not afraid of scissors and my curly hair is quite forgiving. And I have an easy goal—cut off the red. Maybe once the red is gone it will be a bigger challenge.
In the photo on the left from mid-April there is still quite a lot of red, with the gray visible at the roots. In the photo on the right, taken May 19, red is still visible at many of the tips, but gray is taking over. Most surprising to me is that there is a lot of brown still there near my neck. Like most people of my age, my hair isn’t yet gray all over.
Every morning I have a surprise when I look in the mirror. I think of myself as a red head—a decades- long delusion–and am stunned to see that it isn’t true anymore. Will I still look good in my red-head wardrobe when all of this is over? Will I immediately dye my hair again once salons are open? Stay tuned.
I opened up the New York Times wellness briefing today to discover that Jane Brody, turning 79, had been working at the newspaper for forty years. That’s just about as long as I have been reading her columns. We started subscribing to the paper when my husband and I moved to Manhattan in 1981 so that he could take a job at Columbia University. The job didn’t last long, but our loyalty to the newspaper did. We are still reading, even though we’ve been in California for over thirty years. All that time I’ve followed Brody through her many phases as cooking maven, exercise coach, and now advisor for the older set.
I’m not sure if I have ever consciously acted on Brody’s advice, but I do know that my life has changed in ways that she has recommended. I used to eat meat; now I almost never do. Even chicken is a fairly rare dish at dinner. I used to exercise sporadically; now I am a pretty big exercise fanatic. These are trends that Brody has endorsed and I now claim as my own.
But Brody also irritates me. When she writes about her own life the tone is often, “If you would live like me, everything would be better.” When I think about her columns, the word “just” comes to mind. Need to lose weight? Just eat vegetables! Having trouble with your knees? Just start swimming! Need to get out and walk? Just get a dog! Finding it hard to negotiate the stairs in your walk up apartment? Just move to the suburbs! If any of these things were easy (or cheap) we would all be a lot thinner and healthier.
Today’s column is a perfect example. She acknowledges that many people are having trouble getting motivated during the current pandemic. The solution? Look for internal, not external, motivational factors to discover what is meaningful to you. The grand gesture is probably not possible right now, so find smaller things to express your values. Worried about the end of the world? Just make soup for your widowed neighbor!
This is sage, almost saccharine advice. But can such baby steps really conquer the fear and uncertainty that surrounds us now? My family is meaningful to me, but I still don’t know when I can safely move my mother into a care facility or when I’ll see my daughter again. I’ve already made masks for them, but I’m still worried. Perhaps it is a failure in my character, but making masks for strangers hasn’t filled the void.
What trips have you given up this summer? I had two planned, one to see my daughter in the Boston area and another to visit an old friend in England. As a financially stable woman nearing 70, I am in what sociologists of aging call the “go go years.” From ages 65 to 75, relatively good health makes travel attractive. This is followed by the “go slow” years from 75 to 85, ending with the “no go” years beyond that. Like everything else, the corona virus has redefined these categories. We are all “no go” for now.
Lest you think that oldster tourism was a product of post-World War Two prosperity, I offer you this 1938 photo of visitors to Zion National Park in Utah. It is part of a series of photos taken of Western national parks by one Charles Ford. Were they for sale, I wonder, or an effort by the parks to document their services?
As you can see, many of these visitors are getting up in years. By the looks of them, at least five women in the front are well into their sixties. Even if I couldn’t see their faces, I could probably guess who was older just by their clothes. Their outfits are darker and more formal than those of younger tourists. In fact, the older women do not seem to have made any adjustment to their surroundings, looking like they might have been plucked off a city street. Lace collars are well represented. At first I wondered how they made it around the park in their sensible street shoes, but in some photos a bus is visible.
Don’t you wonder what they made of the bold young woman in jodhpurs out in front?
As I continue thinking about things we can’t do now, I bring you this photo of what must be a college graduation day. My guess is that it comes from the mid to late 1950s. The photo is an old peel apart Polaroid. You can see telltale streaks from the chemicals at the top. Cameras to make these black and white Polaroid pictures were very popular in the fifties. By the 1960s, color Polaroids emerged. It was a big innovation at the time, but I prefer the black and white ones. The color photos fade horribly over time.
The graduate on the left doesn’t look too happy, and neither does her mother on the right. One disadvantage of Polaroid pictures is that some trigger happy photographers didn’t take time to compose their shots. The only cheerful person is the older sister/younger aunt/best friend in the middle. Perhaps she and the photographer had a special rapport.
Everyone is dressed up for the big day—you can see suits, hats and gloves in the fuzzy background. The mother wears a fancy shirtwaist dress in white or some other light color. Her hat and gloves complement the rest of her outfit. Notice the touch of lace at her collar and the broach at the v-neckline. These are classic elements of a conservative, older woman style.
What do you imagine is in the oblong box in the mother’s hand? A watch? A pen set? Or maybe a string of pearls.
There won’t be a senior prom for many this year, so this 1959 photo seems especially poignant. The daughter is all gussied up—is it the actual day of the prom or was she just posing to document the dress? It is a filly concoction, strapless with gathered ruffles across the breast. The main body appears to be some kind of dark brocade, with a layered tulle petticoat underneath. Did she make it herself? Or perhaps her mother did, standing proudly next to her?
The fit and flare style was no longer the height of fashion, but I found plenty of similar dresses in the 1959 Sears catalog.
The mother has also stuck to a 1950s classic. No chemises or experimental shapes for her. Instead, she has chosen a button up shirtwaist dress. Sears offered a wide array of these dresses in all sizes and price points in 1959.
Although she looks quite casual next to her daughter, I think the mother also dressed up a little for the photo. Note the pretty collar and decorative bow.
This is what the cover of my copy of The 1950s in Vogue looks like—no book title, no author, and no indication of the fact that the book is actually about Vogue editor, Jessica Daves. Perhaps this is a new innovation in book design, but at first I wondered if the library had ordered the right book.
The cover does serve a purpose, though, showing that author Rebecca Tuite intends to invoke the spirit of Vogue in the 1950s. Rich in photography, the book is also big in size. Coming in at 11”x14”, the size of an old Vogue magazine, it fits on none of my many bookshelves. The paper is glossy and the reproductions are gorgeous. If you are missing the feeling of elegant old Vogue editions, you can find it here.
Vogue editor Jessica Daves is the real subject of this book. Officially she held the position from 1952-1962, although in her book Ready Made Miracle Daves claims the role already in 1948, when Edna Chase was stepping back from the job. Sandwiched in between founding editor Chase and the flamboyant Diana Vreeland, Daves has been praised primarily for her business skills. A very mean obituary in the New York Times quoted someone describing her as “a portly woman with a face like a baked apple.”
Tuite sets the record straight. Not only did Daves balance the books at Vogue, she also began to realign the magazine away from Parisian couture and toward well-made ready to wear. In addition, she augmented coverage of culture and daily life, expanding sections on literature and art while also launching new sections on travel and home design. An avid reader of Vogue could learn about Ruth Asawa’s sculptures and Lorraine Hansberry’s plays, while also following trends in at-home entertaining. The target audience was still the very well off, but Daves believed that good style was a matter of training the eye, not padding the wallet. Her educational approach lost out when the magazine took a turn toward youth and flamboyance under Vreeland.
There is a section on Mrs. Exeter and I’m proud to say that my article was cited. According to Tuite, Mrs. Exeter was a group project, beloved by the editorial staff. Both Chase and Daves endorsed her. Junior editor Virginia Thaw was responsible for the copy–I wonder if she also wrote the witty first person entries. Tuite speculates that Daves herself was the inspiration for the double chinned, cheerful version of Mrs. Exeter in the 1951 Rene Bouché drawing above.
The book is an amalgam of a beautiful coffee table book and a serious scholarly volume. Since I was reading for its scholarly content, I found the size somewhat unwieldy. But you can’t beat it for sheer beauty. If you are interested in the fashion and culture of the fifties, not to mention Vogue magazine itself, be sure to take a look.
Passenger air travel was already well established by the 1950s, so it is unlikely that this prosperous looking couple was making their first trip in 1955. These were the days when people still dressed up to travel. With his broad shouldered suit and big cigar, the husband looks like a captain of industry used to having the world at his feet. His wife appears more surprised and pleased by the occasion. She made a real effort, adding a corsage to the obligatory hat and gloves. Her heels are quite high—no sensible shoes for her.
Was it maybe an anniversary trip? Or a special outing to visit grandchildren across the country? You can learn about their aircraft, a DC 7, here.
Wanderlust inspired me to pick this photo from my large stash of possible entries. In these days of lock down, I was quite excited to walk to my local Trader Joe’s for a few supplies this week. Standing in front of an airplane ready for a trip into the sky—what a dream!
If you follow a lot of sewing blogs, you’ll know that some people have used the new reality to ramp up their sewing practice. Not me. I was already in a sewing slump before Covid 19 changed our lives. Standard patterns weren’t coming out well, and my efforts to create a better fitting pants block had stalled. Then came the lock down and I wondered why I should make more clothes when I had plenty for my quarantined life. I don’t know about you, but this global pause has made me grapple with what “enough” means.
What about sewing for others? At first I resisted the mask making frenzy, wondering if it was not just a kind of feel good make-work, covering up our general lack of preparedness with homemade bandages. But as it became clear that we were in this for the long haul, I have also revved up my sewing machine. First I made masks for family and friends; now I’m sewing for the university hospital.
I can’t say that this activity brings me joy. Although I’m following the hospital guidelines, it is hard for me to imagine that my hand crafted creations are as effective as something made by professionals from materials designed specifically for this purpose. The masks seem more like good luck charms than real protection in a crisis.
I don’t know what color my hair is because I have been dyeing it for about 25 years. Clearly it is some kind of gray, but what kind? A beautiful silver color like my 95 year old mother? A kind of pepper and salt, like many of my friends in their late sixties and early seventies?
Through high school, my hair was blond. In college it turned a kind of auburn. By the time I reached my thirties, it was an ordinary brown. In my forties I decided to become the red head I had always wanted to be. My first adventures were with home color kits and even the mud-like henna. The results were sometimes hilarious. As my income rose, I turned to the professionals who were able to create the same color every time. It was so convincing that I began to think it was real.
Well, now the jig is up. To be honest, I’m kind of curious. What color is my hair? Watch this space.
Are you wearing your mask? These residents of Mission Court in Pasadena California are all abiding by the rules. As luck would have it, I found a Wikipedia entry for the small apartment complex, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. These small Mission Revival style courtyard bungalows are a common feature of Southern California architecture of the era. The complex had eighteen apartment in all, so these aren’t the only residents. However, a good portion of the occupants were apparently older.
What about these older women’s style? In general they look quite conservative. Except for the younger looking woman in the back, all have long hair worn swept back or up into a bun, a much more tamer look the short cuts that were coming into fashion. Many wear high collars. Already before the war the open collar was coming into style, but these women stayed with a covered up look. The shortest white haired woman in the middle has on a shirtwaist and dark skirt. Although this style was most popular at least a decade before, her shirt does seem to be open at the neck. We have the best view of the outfit on the right—a dark colored dress worn with a high white collar. I found similar looking dresses in the 1912 Sears catalog.
To me the most chilling thing about this photo is the date—February 1919. These people probably had been wearing masks for a long time. And perhaps we will too.
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.