Window Shopping in Mobile, Alabama, 1956

If the Facebook page “Mid Century in Color” is any indication, most amateur photographers using color film in the US in the mid twentieth century were white—and they created an image of an all-white America.  Luckily, professional photographers of color were widening the picture of the United States in all of its colorful diversity.  One of the most famous among them was African American Gordon Parks, who got a job with the government’s photo documentation services (first the FSA and then the OWI) in the 1940s and went on to become a photographer for Life magazine after World War Two.  Read his fascinating life story here.

The photo above, “Ondria Tanner and her Grandmother Window Shopping,” was part of a photo documentary Parks made for Life in September, 1956.  Only a fraction of the photos made it into the magazine.  This particular one was not included, although there was another view.  I was drawn to the wonder of the small girl staring at the fashions on display—all on white models.  Her grandmother is very simply dressed in a white blouse and skirt.  Perhaps she was a skilled seamstress showing Ondria the possibilities for her next outfit.

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Mother’s Day at the First Christian Church, 1973

The First Christian Church of Corpus Christi, Texas decided to honor the oldest and youngest mothers in the congregation on Mother’s Day, 1973.  What a wonderful contrast between the outfits of the very old and still quite young. 

We can imagine that the motherhood of the young woman on the right might not have been planned—she looks to be in her mid-teens.  Perhaps some of the congregants tisk-tisked at her age and the length of her skirt.  She’s keeping up with trends, though, from her raised hem line to her chunky shoes.

The oldest mother, maybe in her nineties, is a woman beyond style trends.  She wears a hat, long out of fashion, perhaps out of habit or to cover her thinning chair.  Her sensible shoes might be decades old.  Although her dress has no discernable style lines, it is clearly made from a fancy fabric, perhaps a heavy lace.  I think this is how I will dress in my nineties—a simple outfit from a beloved textile.

You have wonder what they thought of each other and of this photo commemorating their special day. 

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Learning from the Facebook Group “Mid Century in Color”

Sometimes I wonder just who Facebook thinks I am, sending me links to sites about farms and baby animals.  But recently the mysterious algorithm provided something I treasure—a link to the wonderful resource Mid Century in Color: Amateur Photographic Slides and Prints, 1935-1962.  Many of the participants are posting old family photos, including a lot of “me as a baby/child” snapshots. Others have sought out old photos and slides at flea markets, which widens the scope of what you see.

What have I learned?  If you want to find out about color, slides are a much better sources than photos.  The color in old photos fade, while slides stay more color fast and show details more clearly. I’ve particularly enjoyed examining interior backgrounds, with lots of exuberant wallpaper.  How many roses do you think are in the bouquet above?

This is also a great place to learn about old cars.  Our mid-century forebearers really treasured their automobiles and feature them proudly.  For example, I found out that the shiny brown car above is 1942 Buick.

Younger people predominate, but there are plenty of grandparents depicted at holidays and important family milestones.  Sometimes you can see that the oldsters enjoyed these events more than the youngsters did.

These images certainly give a sense of an all white America, an illusion created by the people who are posting and perhaps also by those who could afford the expense of a photography habit.  The (maybe) non-white faces in the photo above are all in the background. 

But perhaps you could remedy that by adding your own mid-century photos that depict a broader American population.  It’s an open group!

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Maree’s Fashion Cycle

Many sociologists who study fashion try to determine when and for what reason people buy clothes. For a long time, the assumption was that older people tended to slow down consumption as they aged. Why? Often they have a smaller disposable income after they retire; they might have fewer events that call for specific clothing items; and some lose interest in fashion trends, deciding to stick to looks that they find comfortable.

Looking beyond the theories, how did one woman meet the challenge of changing styles over decades?  A friend recently found a collection of photos of her paternal grandmother, Maree, a well off woman who stayed fit well into her eighties.  Let’s take a look at her clothing choices.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1888, Maree married late for a woman of her generation.  She met her future husband when he went to Washington to work for the war effort during World War One.  At that time, he was a military engineer.  After the war, they moved to Boston, where he had a prosperous career. Unfortunately, he died young, in 1948, after working as head engineer on the Oak Ridge Nuclear Facility.  So Maree was both a late wife and an early widow.

The first photo shows her in Hawaii in 1952—she had the money to travel after her husband’s death.  Featured on the left, at age sixty-four she is dressed up to the minute in a New Look suit, the kind with a long slim skirt. Perhaps only her sensible shoes give an indication that she is making her fashion decisions based in part on comfort.

The second photo from 1964 shows her in Florida, where she eventually moved. Again on the left, she is less up to date here. The full skirted shirtwaist dress was more “in” during the 1950s.  Her gloves also look a little dated.  She has, however, gotten rid of her sensible shoes and is wearing white (or light colored) shoes that match her bag.  Apparently she decided that the informality of the sixties was not for her.  No hat, though.

In the final photograph from 1971, Maree is on the right. Nearing ninety, she is fit and healthy looking. At this point, she has on what looks to be a shift dress inspired by sixties fashion—a comfortable if not fashion forward choice. However, unlike the other older woman in the picture, she has on youthful looking shoes.

So what can we determine from this set of pictures?  Maree did seem to stop following the most up to date trends as she aged. In general, she stuck to more formal styles, keeping her gloves and not choosing pants.  Her clothes became progressively more comfortable—from New Look tight suit, to shirtwaist dress, to shift, but she obviously did not dress for comfort alone.  And somewhere along the way, she decided that she was not going to wear old lady shoes.

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Four Women, Four Styles

Korean American Digital Archive, University of Southern California

This photo is from a large collection collected by the Hur and Hahn families. It features Frances Hur, who I believe is second from right, and a group of friends. Unfortunately, the photos are not as well documented as one would like.  Dates, places, and names are often missing. Let that serve as another reminder to all of us to write down everything we remember about our family photos.

I’m guessing that this snapshot comes from the World War Two era given the skirt lengths and the pants worn by the woman on the left.  What was the occasion?  The three older women on the right are all in dresses, but of different styles.  One wears the ubiquitous shirtwaist, casually accessorized with a sweater.  The next one, perhaps Frances Hur, is more dressed up in a peplum styled outfit.  And the woman on the right is fanciest of all, looking like she is heading out to dinner.  Why did the woman on the left show up in pants and work shoes?

I’m going to try to put together more posts on Frances Hur Hahn using her family’s collection. It provides fascinating visual information on the life and fashion of a Korean American woman coming of age in the early twentieth century.

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Unruly Seamstresses in the 1930s

Los Angeles Daily News,1936 via Calisphere

The Works Project Administration (or WPA) is best known for funding murals and highways in the Great Depression. However, it also started programs aimed specifically at women. One was the WPA sewing project, which employed thousands women creating garments for state agencies and charities.  In Los Angeles County alone, 5,000 women held jobs in its heyday. The compensation was low, but still higher than state unemployment insurance. About half of those employed were single heads of households, with an average age of 46.  (Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1938)

These jobs were lifelines for many women, but the program in Los Angeles was unstable. It contracted and expanded many times. Each contraction inspired desperate participants to political action. Above is a photo of one such protest in late 1936. Women gathered in the lobby of the local WPA office demanding reinstatement.  

Los Angeles Herald Examiner via Calisphere

More threats inspired more protests. The photo above shows a group outside the County Supervisors’ Office in early 1938.  At that point the WPA had threatened to end the sewing program entirely unless it got more state help.  In the end, over two thirds of the seamstresses lost their jobs.  (Los Angeles Times, Feb 9, 1938.) Single women without dependents were laid off first.

What can we learn from these photos of unhappy women?  First of all you can see that the WPA was a multi racial employer—there are many Black faces here.  In the photo above, older faces far outnumber the younger ones, befitting the age profile of the larger group. The difference between young and old is quite apparent in the clothing.  The older women all wear hats, while most of the younger ones are bareheaded.  Sensible oxfords predominate over flatter shoes. In the top photo (enlarge it in the source), one younger worker even wears pants.  Although everyone is neat and tidy, only one looks well off—the young woman front and center in the 1938 photo, with her stylish hat, silky scarf, and fur collar.  Perhaps she was a reporter and not a seamstress at all.

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Strange Fur Pieces from the 1920s

Photo by E. F. Foley via

The undated photo above shows New York governor Al Smith and his wife Catherine in around 1925, judging by the length of her skirt.  That would make Catherine, born in 1875, just about fifty here. This photo makes me reassess my unflattering comments about 1920s styles and the older woman.  As we can see in this photo, Catherine didn’t have much of a waist indentation.  The dropped waist, hip oriented, styles of the twenties must have been very comfortable for her to wear.  She was a stylish dresser, judging from all the photos I have seen.  I wonder how she adapted to the more waist-centered styles of the next decade.

But my fascination here is with her fur piece, an accessory that was all the rage in the 1920s.  Usually they were made from foxes or minks, but she appears to be wearing an entire raccoon around her neck. Shaped like a live animal, it looks like it was created in a taxidermy shop rather than a furrier’s salon. Did it scare off little children?  It certainly would have scared me away.

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The Full Fancy at the Airport, 1963

Found photo

This dressed up woman has inspired me to coin a phrase—“the full fancy.”  By that I mean adding every possible fancy element to your outfit, even when the situation doesn’t necessarily call for it.  Is she going on a trip or meeting someone?  Whatever the case, she has embellished her dress and jacket with bejeweled cat eye glasses, a big necklace, bracelets, gloves and even a fur stole.  That might be a hat on her head, or perhaps an elaborate updo.  She looks ready for the opera.

What immediately drew my attention, however, were her poor feet.  Like many older women, she has swollen ankles—what happens when the blood isn’t flowing as well as it once did.  Despite this, she has put on high heeled shoes that look quite uncomfortable, even painful, to walk in.  Airport hallways are long! I hope whomever she was trying to impress was worth it. 

Now that going to the airport has become unusual, will we all start dressing up again?

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Gramie and Grampi Cut the Cake, 1960

Found photo

“Gramie and Grampi with the cake Annie made for you,” reads the message on the back of this photo.  At first I thought this might be an anniversary celebration cake for the older couple, but the caption tells a different story.  In a way I’m glad, because the pair doesn’t looked dressed up enough for a big party in their honor.

There are so many great details in this photo—the exuberant wallpaper, the photo studded TV, and what looks like a hand painted picture of a graduating couple in the background.  The clothes are also interesting.  The woman wears a fifties style double breasted shirt waist dress edged with polka dot trim at the collar, sleeves, pocket and the front facing.  A bar pin keeps the neck line opening in place.  Her belt is white, coordinating with the white polka dots.  I wonder if she sometimes wore a dark belt instead. 

Her husband also has on casual clothes, including a plaid shirt and suspenders.  Perhaps the shirt is homemade, since the pockets look unusually low.  A mistake or a custom touch? His bolo tie might give a hint to the location—it’s a male accessory I associate with the American Southwest.

Did the photographer catch the grandfather at a bad moment, or had someone just said something rude?

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Easter Bonnet Luncheon, 1961

Photo by Charles “Teenie” Harris, Carnegie Museum of Art

This photo comes from a very large archive of work by Charles “Teenie” Harris, housed at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg.  Harris was a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, a major African American newspaper in the mid twentieth century.  His newspaper photos offer a wonderful range of topics—church functions, school plays, family celebrations, and political gatherings.  In addition, Harris had his own business and made portraits, wedding photos, and shots for local businesses.  His extensive archive offers a detailed look at Black Pittsburgh life in all its complexity. 

Most likely the shot above was taken for the newspaper, featuring a gathering of a Black women’s club.  We can’t see much of their clothing, but their hats are after all the main event.  Several are the small flowered varieties I remember my grandmother wearing in the fifties.  A few, however, look more like the pillbox style of the sixties, showing that these women kept up with current styles.  And then there is the hat that looks like an upside down flower pot–a category all its own.  Had the woman in the center won the prize for the most original creation?  

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