What to Wear to a Picnic, 1969

Found photo

So much information on this snapshot—enough to make any historian’s heart beat faster!  We have not only the names of the picnickers and the place they were meeting, but also the exact date. 

If I’m not mistaken, this is an area called Ross Park in the Florida town of Holly Hill.  Not much looks like Florida to me, except for the tall stem of a palm tree in the background.

And do the clothes say “Florida” to you?  Grace and Jack, on the left, wear colorful outfits that I associate with the warm, touristy areas like Florida and California.  Grace, with her pink dress, white cardigan, and bluish white hair, reminds me a lot of my grandmother. 

Edith Chapman, on the other hand, definitely looks like an outsider.  There is no trace of color in her clothes, and nothing about them speaks to the styles of 1969.  She wears a hat, although hats were no longer required of the well-dressed woman, and it doesn’t even protect her from the sun.  Her black coat is long and heavy looking, and she has kept her sensible shoes.  I imagine she is an out of state visitor not used to Florida styles, and maybe not to picnics either.

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Unquilting/Requilting, 1970

This picture portrays a West Virginia coop turning old quilts into new items.  If you look carefully, it appears that the oldest woman in the back on the right is hand stitching a pillow, while the woman at the far left seems to be sewing quilt motifs on to a blanket. 

Cutting up old quilts for new clothes is in the news again, as quilted items are in style.  This has sparked a debate among quilters, seamsters, and designers about whether or not it is appropriate to use these handmade items for a different purpose.  Some makers of quilted clothing defend their practice by insisting that they are giving a new life to worn and discarded objects.  Those who oppose the practice insist that they are cutting into historically relevant pieces of women’s history.  Listen to a passionate argument against the practice, “Quilt Clothes Must Die” by quilt expert Mary Fons.

The women pictured above were in it for the money.  As the article explains, the clothes made from the quilts they cut up were popular in the fashion industry.  They only earned a dime an hour making quilts for collectors or museums, but with help from their coop they were earning $2 an hour working for fashion designers. Of course most of the profit was at the other end–eventually the patchwork mini skirt above sold for $35.

Even though the women are destructing rather than making quilts, the picture is reminiscent of an old time quilting bee.  The oldest woman, still handy with a needle, wears a simple dress, perhaps a shirtwaist style.  The middle aged women to her left also have on simple clothes, with no hint at all of current styles. The most interesting seamstress of all is the one on the far right, who looks like she might be Native American.  She is wearing a more contemporary shift dress with a bold pattern.

I’ll leave you to decide whether or not to cut up quilts for clothing.  Personally, I think we should follow Mary Fons’s suggestion.  If you want clothes made from quilts, make the quilt yourself.

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“It’s Fine for Us,” Rural Electrification Poster

Poster by Lester Beall, Library of Congress

Graphic artist Lester Beall made a series of posters in the 1930s and 1940s advertising the goals of the Rural Electrification Administration.  As the name implies, the New Deal Era program aimed to bring electricity to the countryside, which was still woefully underserved.  Beall’s posters became well known for their bold use of color and graphic design. Most featured no people all.

This one is unusual because it focuses on an older woman, who bears many elements of the older woman stereotype.  Her hair is drawn back into a bun, she wears granny glasses, her dress features a small scale print, and she has covered most of it with a big apron.  One interesting feature is her shoes, which are not the typical low heeled oxford.  Instead she has on what looks like flat short boots.

What is the machine she is operating?  It looks a bit like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Something to sterilize milk? Perhaps some of you with closer ties to farm life might enlighten me.

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Grand Opening at the Waffle Shop, 1931

Photo by Arnold Skenkner, Missouri Historical Society

I chanced upon this wonderful photo in a search for polka dresses—a favorite theme of mine.  You never know what you will find! There isn’t much of a backstory to the photo, but I imagine it was opening day at the DeBaliviere Restaurant and Waffle Shop.  A quick search reveals that it was probably located in the DeBaliviere section of St. Louis, Missouri.  The owner, in a suit, shakes hands with an older woman.  Perhaps she was the manager of the new restaurant. 

Who decided on the uniforms of the wait staff?  The workers are all young women wearing knickers, white socks, white shoes, white shirts, and some kind of ribbon or bandana around the neck.  I wonder what customers made of these outfits.  In 1931, women in pants were mainly seen on hiking trails, bicycles or beaches.  Perhaps the owner thought these bold get ups would bring in more customers.

By contrast, the manager’s look is on the conservative side.  I imagine her hair is done up in a bun at the back. She’s kept her round grannie glasses, although new shapes were emerging.  Although the polka dots are large, the pattern was beloved by the older set. The white lace around the collar only adds to the traditional look. The cut of the dress, however, is right up to the minute, with a waist line at her natural waist and a ruched piece above a fuller skirt.  And take a look at her footwear—no sensible shoes for her!

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Final Fitting, 1966

Chicago Tribune, October 3, 1966

This photograph from the Chicago Tribune shows the sewing instructor Essie Cannon, on the right, checking the fit on a coat made by Mary Davis, on the left.  Cannon was a teacher at the Midwest Senior Center in Chicago where Mrs. Davis, age 73, lived.  They were finishing up her coat for a fashion show.  I like that the coat follows the elements of the youthful sixties silhouette and yet looks completely age-appropriate on her. The dramatic turban hat might have been part of her outfit for the show. 

Although the snippet of a news story attached to the photo does not provide many details, I am guessing that Mary Davis already knew how to sew.  She probably took the class from Essie Cannon to hone her skills and learn new methods.  This is something I love about sewing—it is really a process of life-long learning.  Even the most skilled seamstresses whom I admire take classes to improve their work.

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Book Review: Worn by Sofi Thanhauser

This is a staggeringly ambitious book, evident already in the subtitle.  By “people” Thanhauser means all people, everywhere.  And by “clothing” she considers not only the sewn or knitted garments we use for protection and expression, but also the raw materials and labor that goes into making them.  In other words, she attempts a sweeping history of humanity’s relationship to cloth and clothing from the earliest times to today.  Although the historical sweep is broad, her basic question is contemporary:  How did textiles and clothing become some of the most exploitative and ecologically degrading objects on earth?

This beautifully written book is divided in sections focused around fibers—linen, cotton, silk, synthetics, and wool.  Each section has three chapters examining the history of the raw material, how it is made into fiber, and the many problems associated with turning the fiber into clothes.  For me, the most devastating section was on cotton, my favorite textile.  Thanhauser shows that there were few times in history when the cultivation of cotton was not linked to labor exploitation, from slaves in the Americas to the use of quasi slave labor in Xinjiang today.  Not only this, but most commercially grown cotton requires massive amounts of chemicals and water. 

Thanhauser traveled the world to look at how clothing is currently being made.  With few exceptions, there are no happy stories here.  We all know about the collapse of the Bangladeshi clothing factory in 2013. However, it was a shock to read about the United States’ policy of establishing export processing zones across the Caribbean and Central America.  Ostensibly a method to encourage local production, they have mainly functioned as a way to keep local wages down and exports up.

The book ends with a section on wool, a puzzling choice from a historian’s point of view.  However, she uses this part to look at small scale efforts to make fiber and clothing in non-exploitative ways.  In the process, she goes to wool festivals, tries her hand at weaving, and interviews sheep farmers who are trying to bring almost extinct varieties back to life.  This meant to be a hopeful ending.    

By making my own clothes, I am part of what Thanhauser calls “the army of the small.“ These include small farmers, weavers, knitters and sewers who are trying to find a different path.  But instead of feeling heroic or smug, instead I was depressed after finishing the book.  How can these small efforts possibly turn around the massive destruction inherent in our current system of making clothes?

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Gertrude Stein’s Philosophy of Dress

Carl van Vechten, 1934. New York Public Library

Not long ago I picked up a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a memoir of his early years in Paris.  It includes long accounts of his contact with Gertrude Stein, who helped him establish himself during the 1920s. In the section entitled, “Miss Stein Instructs,” Hemingway reveals the famous writer and collector’s attitude toward clothes. “‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she said. ‘It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort and durability, and you will have the clothes money to buy pictures.’” 

Apparently this method worked for Stein.  Hemingway called her outfits “strange steerage clothes.” With such clothes on her back, she was able to amass one of the most famous collections of modern art of her time. She combined her disinterest in dress with an amazing eye for art.

The photograph here is by American photographer Carl Van Vechten, part of a series of photos he took of Stein in 1934-1935. The portrait above was taken several years after the period that Hemingway describes, but you can see that she did not change her ideas. Completely detached from current silhouettes, maybe her steerage style was a kind of power dressing of its own. Or do I just think she looks powerful because I know who she is?

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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?

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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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