Phyllis Diller, Happy Eccentric

Phyllis Diller as the centerfold for Field and Stream magazine, 1973

There are many reasons to remember the comedian Phyllis Diller (1917-2012).  She was the first well-known female standup comic in America; she had a long career in television and film; and she was an enthusiastic advocate of plastic surgery—theme for another post—even winning an award from the Association of Plastic Surgeons.  However, I remember her most for her whacky sense of style.

Diller didn’t begin a career in comedy until she was forty, already divorced with five children.  Life in the home—cleaning, cooking, children, marriage—was the fodder for her humor.  She also made constant jokes about her appearance.  On stage she played up her role as an eccentric, using wild wigs, lots of makeup, and unusual clothes.  In the photo above, a joke centerfold for a fishing magazine, we see many elements of her style, including boots, an exaggerated cigarette holder (she didn’t smoke), and outlandish costume jewelry. Before she died, she donated many of her outfits to the Smithsonian Institute. Take a look and be amazed.

Redbook, May, 1967, p. 58.

From other photographs I have seen, Diller left off the sparkles in everyday life.  She could dress up as a fairly conservative matron, but her at home look was all her own. In an interview in Redbook, she indicates that she developed a kind of uniform early on.  “I’m chunky and short and I must dress very, very carefully.  I finally gave up wearing skirts. I choose a flattering top and put on tight pants.  Your see, if you let something that’s skinny stick out, you can fool a lot of people.” (Redbook, May 1967, p. 59) If the photo in the interview is any indication, she also added a few choice elements, including a fur coat.  I would love to see what she had on her feet!

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Alice Neel’s Older Women

Alice Neel, The Baron’s Aunt, 1959. Photo by Sally Stein

Due to family responsibilities, I’m limited in my travel these days.  Therefore I’m especially grateful when the art comes to me.  A show of the work of the famous American painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) recently opened at the Orange County Museum of Art.  Called “It Feels Like Home,” it includes forty paintings of her family, friends, and local neighborhoods.  There were also a few portraits of people outside her family circle.  I went with my friend Sally Stein, a historian of photography and a photographer herself, who documented our visit. 

Neel is most famous for her portraits. She painted almost all of them in her New York apartment, which doubled as her studio.  On close inspection, you can see the same furniture pieces reappearing in the paintings.  Nothing escaped her notice, not even pets.  I was most inspired by her portraits of older women, in which clothes were just as important as faces.

The painting above, The Baron’s Aunt, is an example of how clothing influenced her portraits. While painting a picture of Baron Erik von Anckarström (a man so obscure even Google has not found him), she noticed his aunt who accompanied him to the sitting.  According to the description of this painting from the exhibit “Painted Truths,” Neel asked the aunt back for a portrait of her own, asking her to wear the same clothes.  In my view, the dynamic print of her outfit enlivens her face.

Alice Neel, My Mother, 1952.  Photo by Sally Stein

Over the years, Neel painted many portraits of her mother, Alice Concross Hartley Neel (1866-1954).  The painting above was made just two years before her death.  Neel spares us none of the debilitating effects of aging.  Her mother appears to have no teeth, her hands look arthritic, and her face is lined with wrinkles.  Although she wears the common attire of the aged, a heavy sweater and thick blanket, we see a bit of a print at her neck. The dark colors make a somber impression, but that triangle of color hints at her mother’s earlier life.

What do Neel’s portrait tell me about women aging? That it is precisely our wrinkles and our unique clothing choices that make us interesting.

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Big Hair, Big Shoes 1960s

This wonderful photo was sent to me by Nann Hilyard, who has made several contributions to the blog.  Although the Silver Slipper has now relocated to Missouri, in the 1960s it was a major attraction on the Los Vegas strip.  You can read about its history here, and a charming story about the design of the famous rotating shoe here.

The woman’s big hair and shift dress with an interesting print indicate that the photo was taken in the 1960s.  Those with an extensive knowledge of the history of car designs might be able to date it more precisely by examining the tail lights in the parking lot. 

She is obviously posing to include the entirety of the Silver Slipper sign.  I puzzled over the times of the burlesque shows—10:00, 12:30, 2:30.  Was that day or night?  We can all be amazed by a 59 cent breakfast and an all you can eat buffet for $1.57 (only about $15.00 in today’s prices.) However, I was most fascinated by the offer of free nylons.  Was that dreamed up to go along with the shoe theme?

And speaking of footwear, I found it odd that in a picture of such a giant slipper the woman’s own shoes were not included in the photo.

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Labor Day Race, 1917

Photo by William Davis Hassler, Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York

I thought it might be hard to find photos of women on Labor Day doing anything but dishing up potato salad, but I was wrong.  The Digital Pubic Library of America, one of my favorite sources, had many pictures of women at Labor Day events marching, protesting, and having fun.  This one is by William Davis Hassler, a well-known chronicler of everyday life in New York City in the early twentieth century. 

Was this an impromptu race?  Some participants look better prepared than others.  The older looking woman trailing on the left seems to have on her everyday shoes, while others have on types more suitable for running.  The most fun is the older woman on the right, who probably dressed up specifically for this event.  Better experts than I inform me that she is wearing an up-to-minute style bathing suit and flat shoes, excellent attire for running.  The outfit has decorative stripes around the neckline, armholes, and down the sides.  However, with her flowered hat and big bow, she wants us to know that she doesn’t take herself that seriously.  And she’s even keeping pace with the much younger woman to her left.

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Circle Skirts and the Older Woman

Found photo

Although they are now coming back in style, circle skirts were originally a 1950s phenomenon.  Actress turned designer Juli Lynne Charlot is credited with their invention. It was her response to the New Look style that emerged after World War II.  Charlote is also credited with the creation of the poodle skirt, sometimes used as a synonym for the circle skirt.  She made one model out of felt decorated with poodles, and the fad caught on.  However, the skirt could be made out of any fabric.  See some fun examples here.

I have always associated circle skirts with teenagers because they are ones wearing them in catalogs, magazines, and old photos.  However, my found photo shows that young women were not the only ones to try the style.  It’s hard to guess the age of the woman depicted, in part because of the odd angle of the picture which favors her shoes over her face.  Clearly, though, she is no young thing. 

She is obviously dressed up, with fancy gloves, dressy shoes, and a big beaded necklace.  Did her friends think she looked stylish, or did they whisper behind her back “mutton dressed as lamb.”

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At the Beach, 1940s

Found photo

Since Labor Day is fast approaching, the official end to summer in the US, I thought I needed at least one more beach photo.  This couple certainly looks to be enjoying the sun, especially the man with his sun glasses and what looks like a big cigar. 

I’m guessing the older woman’s swimsuit is from the mid to late 1940s.  This was the era of the bared midriff, and although we can’t see all the details, there might be a bit of naked skin showing under her breast.  It certainly did not have a skirt, a common choice for older women.  The ruched bodice details were also a popular feature of the era.  Was this suit strapless, or had she tucked the halter straps away to get a better tan?

What made me think immediately of the 1940s was the woman’s Rosie-the-Riveter style headscarf.  Hats could be expensive and a wrapped scarf made for a thrifty and practical alternative. 

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Grandma and Ruth, ca. 1900

Found photo–“Grandma and Ruth” on the back

I find it hard to believe that over a century ago a grandmother would ignore the rules of proper dress in order to pose outside in her nightgown.  But then what is she wearing?  Is it perhaps a wrapper without the waist band?  Even that would be a little risqué, since wrapper dresses served somewhat like dressing gowns and were not meant to be seen outside the house.

The date of this photo is also somewhat of a mystery. The wrapper dress has a long history, becoming popular in the Victorian era and lasting well into the twentieth century. The example on the left above, from the Maine Memory Network, is dated 1895.  The McCall pattern on the right is from 1909.  Even the tricycle with its big wheels doesn’t help.  I found photos of similar models from 1880 to 1912.  I turned to my favorite expert, Lizzie Bramlett of The Vintage Traveler, for help.  Her best guess is somewhere around 1900.

Let’s imagine a story for this photo.  Ruth’s father, an amateur photographer, wants to capture a picture of his daughter on a trike that is obviously too big for her.  He calls his mother for help and she rushes out with little thought to what she is wearing.  Or was she a fashion rebel choosing comfort over rules? Little did she imagine it would be a puzzle for us over a century later.

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At the Atlantic City Boardwalk, 1920s

Found photo

I’ve never been to Atlantic City, so the distinctive features of its boardwalk are unknown to me.  However, my eBay dealer recognized them right away—the wicker push carts and the big Heisey’s Glassware sign in the background.  This older couple is posed so that both markers are in clear view.  Maybe they hoped to show all their friends exactly where they had been on vacation.

At first I thought they might be sitting on a wicker bench, but other photos show how the little carts worked.  Somewhat like a rickshaw, they had people behind them pushing.  The cart in the photo does not have a roof, unlike those below.

The Heisey’s sign helps to date the photo.  This Ohio glassware company was well known for its ubiquitous ads.  The earliest photo I have seen of the sign in Atlantic City comes from 1919, the latest from the mid-1920s. 

The older woman’s clothes look to be from the 1920s as well, with her cloche hat and loosely cut dress.  Since we see her sitting down, the waist of the dress looks close to her natural waistline.  However, I bet it was nearer to her hips when she stood.

What a happy couple!  They aren’t holding hands, but both appear to be having a fine time on their outing.

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Dog Days of Summer

Found photo

It’s hot where I live in Southern California, although I’m close enough to the ocean to get some cool breezes.  I dress for the heat in light weight pants and cotton shirts, preferably very thin Indian cotton. However, many women choose dresses for hot days.  It’s just one easy item to slip on, leaving the legs free.

The woman above has on an update of the old classic—a polka dot dress!  Her version comes in a sunny yellow.  Since the Polaroid snap shot isn’t very clear, those might in fact be tiny squares or crosses instead of dots.  Polaroid color film was introduced in 1963, which helps to date the photo.  These days we probably would quickly delete such a blurred photo, but the film was very expensive!

The cut of the dress is loose, yet not shapeless.  It looks like a transitional shape between a sheath cut and a shift dress.  That might confirm that the photo was taken sometime in the 1960s, although it is also possible that she wore this style well into the 1970s.

Is the woman the real focus of the photo? Or is it in fact the white poodle, standing proudly on the table and looking quite cool.

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Barbie Gets Old

Found Photo

In her long career, Barbie has been a lot of things—an astronaut, a teacher, a doctor, and more.  One thing she’s never been is old.  The Barbie of my day had unreal body proportions and permanently misshapen feet.  Not yet a career girl, she was always on the cusp of growing up.  Her love of pink—a color linked to girl babies—suited her quite well.  That’s why I’m dismayed by the latest bizarre fashion trend of “Barbiecore.”  I don’t consider it a color suited for adult women.  The last time I remember wearing pink I was sixteen years old.

Found photo

I’m an outlier here, though, since grown up women have long accepted a vibrant pink aesthetic.  In fact, one could argue that “Barbiecore” has always existed on the fringes of the fashion universe.  The women depicted here are too old to have played with Barbie’s Dream House. They loved pink for its own sake. I probably could have found older examples if my photo collection wasn’t mainly black and white.

Found photo

Sometimes an aging Ken even got into the groove.

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