Aimée Crocker Gourand–The Queen of Bohemia

Railroad and banking heiress Aimée Crocker (1864-1941) was a famous/infamous figure at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Married five times, she decided to stick with the last name of her third husband, songwriter Jackson Gourand.  They met at a Buddhist temple in New York City and became something of a power couple, known for their elaborate parties and Asian adventures.

The American press both loved and hated Crocker Gourand, with some writers admiring her adventurous spirit while others were scandalized by lack of propriety.  The Philadelphia Inquirer gave her the title of “Queen of Bohemia” in 1921.  Press coverage didn’t alter her free spirited behavior.  For example, she got her first tattoos in 1900 and proudly displayed them in public. You can see them on her arm in the photo above.  She was still getting tattoos into her sixties.

After her third husband died in 1910, she moved to Paris, where she received a warmer reception.  There in 1936 she wrote her memoir And I’d Do it All Again, which chronicled her adventures in Asia, her many love affairs, and her penchant for collecting snakes.  By the end of her life, even the Parisians found her to be a little too wild.

And how did she dress?  The top photo, taken in 1911, shows her in a somewhat conservative but expensive looking suit.  It is beautifully cut with elaborate embroidery and statement buttons.  In an unusual move, she only wears a double strand of pearls.  Her tattoos are covered up.  But apparently she could not hide her real inclinations in her choice of hat.

Posted in 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Votes for Women, 1912

These Ohio women weren’t shy about advocating for the vote.  The big sign urges men to vote for the amendment to the Ohio state constitution that would have given women state suffrage.  The amendment failed by a wide margin.  By 1912, only eight states—all in the West–had approved women’s suffrage.  Like the majority of women in the country, those in Ohio would have to wait until 1920 to win their right to vote. 

What fascinates me about this photo, in addition to the gigantic sign, is the wide array of clothing on display.  There are older looking women in dresses (or matching skirt and blouse ensembles), several in suits with long jackets, one in the standard white shirtwaist and dark skirt, and another in a mannish outfit complete with tie.  This makes me guess that these women came from a variety of backgrounds—prosperous matrons, working women, and maybe even a college girl.  And note the many hats with feathers!

This is a reminder that gaining the right to vote was the result of long struggles.  I hope we don’t forget that come November. 

Posted in 1910s | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mother’s Day, Protest Day

When you search for Mother’s Day photos, you usually find expected images—happy families, smiling mothers, and many, many flowers.  However, you also find a surprising number of protest pictures.  A protest on Mother’s Day brings special significance to causes.  If mothers were willing to exchange a day of celebration for protest, it had to be for an issue close to their hearts.

Poster from Chicago                                                 Pin meaning “Mother’s Day for Peace,” Georgia       

Pins, posters, and placards show the importance of the peace movement in Mother’s Day protests.  The woman above is demonstrating against the Reagan era program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) which aimed to expand the US’s defense system against possible nuclear attack. 

The hospital workers’ strike above is notable for its mainly Black constituency, with major participants from the Civil Rights Movement.  Women are prominently featured at the front.  And even though it’s almost twenty years earlier, note the difference in style between the older woman in Minnesota and the striking women in South Carolina.  The top woman is dressed for comfort, in sweats.  The women in South Carolina wear much more formal clothes, including a nurse in her uniform.

In case you are wondering if protests still exist on Mother’s Day, here’s one in Boston you can join.

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, General | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Study in Purple, 1968

Camilo Vergara, via Instagram

Through the miracle making machine of the internet, I’ve just discovered the work of Chilean American photographer Camilo Vergara (1940-)  He has made it his mission to photograph the poorest parts of urban America. This photo, if we are to believe the Instagram tags, was taken in Indiana in 1968 before he began his project in earnest. 

Vergara’s work focuses on the built environment and the people who inhabit and change it.  Older people are not a particular focus, but he doesn’t avoid them.  The woman in this photo looks both old and poor, signaled by her weathered face, skewed glasses, and battered hat held on by a rag.  However, she has obviously taken care to create a coordinated outfit.  The beat up hat matches her purple wool coat.  The lavender scarf echoes the shiny mother of pearl buttons.  I like to think it was the shabby beauty of this outfit that attracted his attention.

Posted in 1960s, General | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Dodie Rosekrans–Grande Dame of San Francisco

Look up the phrase “grande dame” in a dictionary and the definition you will find is “woman of influence.”  Certainly the word also implies ages–no one would think to call Taylor Swift a grande dame.  In my research the phrase also implies a hint of eccentricity.  Consider this comment in a 1935 Vogue article, “When you get to the age where current fashions bore you and seem to have very little relation to you, do as you please. Be picturesque, dramatic, and eccentric—make the most of your opportunity of being a grande dame.”

Dodie Rosekrans of San Francisco was often called a grande dame in the press.  Born into a wealthy family, she married twice into even more wealth.  She and last husband had a house in San Francisco, an estate outside the city, and villas in Paris and Venice.  The couple distributed their money generously to support San Francisco art institutions and others in New York and France.

Rosekrans had a unique fashion sense.  She wore up-to-the-minute designer creations, often the ones you see on the runway and imagine that no one on earth could wear.  In the words of John Galliano, whose career she helped launch, “She always wants to buy the pieces straight off the runway, so her collection of Dior and Galliano are all one-of-a-kind, show-stopping pieces, whereas most other couture clients go for more discreet pieces.”

Photo left by Gary Sexton; collage right from The Polygot

When she tired of her clothes, she donated them to the de Young Museum. Her unique designer pieces formed the core of the more avant-garde part of the San Francisco exhibit.  She wasn’t afraid to mix and match. The outfit on the left, part of the exhibit, combined a Galliano jacket with a Comme de Garcon skirt—not a combination I would think of.  The collage on the right shows that she actually wore it, along with a giant neck piece and bright red shoes.

Dodie Rosekrans died in 2010, but her style lives on at the de Young museum. Are you inspired?

Posted in General | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Fashioning San Francisco

Photograph by Gary Sexton

On recent a trip to the Bay Area, my cousin and I visited the current fashion exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum called “Fashioning San Francisco.”  It had an interesting organizational premise—all clothes were worn by San Franciscans themselves or purchased by upscale department store to display the latest styles.  They were donated to the museum by the owners or collectors.  It revealed wealthy society women’s love of couture fashion starting in about 1905 and stretching up to the new millennium.

French design houses are the best represented, beginning with Callot Soeurs and working up to Christian Lacroix and Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld.  There are many classics from the mid-century, especially by Dior.  By the end of the century the perspective widens to other Europeans, Asians, and even a few Americans.  Some of the names, like Frederick Gibson Bayh, who used antique Asian textiles and designed for the high end store Gumps, were new to me.

Dress by Yojhi Yamamoto, photos by Gary Sexton

My favorite dress was the one above by Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto.  The beautiful red shibori work (an elaborate tie dye technique) was three dimensional.

The most innovative part of the exhibit was an augmented reality installation that let you “try on” three of the designs digitally.  The software adjusted the dress to your body shape and arm movements.  The thinnest, widest, shortest, and tallest visitors could all see themselves in couture dresses and send copies to their phones.  You see me below in a velvet dress by Valentino.  I don’t think Vogue will be calling soon.

The exhibit lasts until August 11. The museum building itself and the Golden Gate Park setting alone are worth a visit.  If you want a detailed view of many of the dresses, take a look at couture expert Claire Shaeffer’s YouTube video.

Posted in General | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Native Daughters of the Golden West

Albany Public Library, via the Online Archive of California

I am always amazed by the number of women’s organizations that I have never heard of.  While looking through Calisphere, I discovered this photo of a 1948 meeting of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, a group that celebrates the pioneers who populated the state.  It was founded in 1889, a time of massive immigration.  I was surprised to discover that it still exists today

The only requirement to join is having been born in California.  That counts be out.  Like many Californians I was born someplace else. Although the organization now supports many different charities, one of its tasks is to keep a Pioneer Roster, documenting all settlers to the state by 1870. You would think that groups celebrating mainly white settlers would have gone out of style. 

Looking at the 1948 picture, you would think that the only women born in the state were white. Times have changed, though.  If I’m not mistaken, this 2019 photo from Stockton, California shows several Chicana faces. 

In comparing the two photos, we can see how special occasion dress has changed.  In 1948, all members were in evening gowns.  The oldest looking woman wears black, another is in white, and a few wear flowered dresses.  The sleeves of the older women in the front row are definitely longer than those of their younger colleagues.  In the 2020 photo there’s an interesting difference between the fashions of young and old.  We can’t see everyone’s bottom half clearly, but among those we can see there are more older women in pants than young ones. The dress code for this event clearly emphasized pink. 

This group is a sister organization to the Native Sons of the Golden West.  From the start, they celebrated their female constituency.  The local groups are called Parlors, not clubs.  And as is clear in both photos, flowered clothing is favored by both young and old.  That’s not surprising, since the California poppy is one of its symbols.  On their website I just discovered that April 9 is California Poppy Day. I’m sad I missed it.

Posted in 1940s, 2010s | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Flemmie Kittrell, Pioneer in Nutrition

Cornell University Library

Born in North Carolina, Flemmie Kittrell (1904-1980) has an inspiring story.  Read about her long career here.  She was eighth child of share croppers and had to earn her own money for her education.  After getting a BS at Hampton Institute in Virginia, she was accepted to the graduate program at Cornell University.  At that point, Cornell was one of premier institutions in Home Economics, then a very broad field guiding women into many areas of science.  Her dissertation was on the nutritional needs of poor children, particularly Black children. She was the first Black woman to earn a PhD at Cornell and the first Black woman in the US to get a PhD in nutrition. 

Her career after that was far reaching, working first at Bennet College and then becoming chair of the Home Economics program at Howard University in Washington DC.  It was there that she made her most important contribution to American childhood education, developing the principles that would serve as the foundation for the Head Start Program.  She also served with the US State Department and the UN to bring her ideas about childhood nutrition to countries around the world.

Howard University Archives. Kittrell is the one wearing a hat

According to one of her Howard students, she was a very proper lady who always wore skirts and dresses, never pants.  We can see this in the two pictures I found.  In the top one, from the sixties, she wears a neat suit.  In the bottom one, from the fifties, she is the only one wearing a hat. Although she encouraged play in children, she herself was quite reserved. I imagine she believed she had to look serious in order to be taken seriously. After all, she was a path breaker.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Florida Retirement Hotels in the 1970s

When photographer Flip Schulke was assigned to the federal photo project Documerica in the 1970s, he paid particular attention to the network of inexpensive retirement hotels that had blossomed in South Beach Florida.  Retirees, mainly from colder climates, could find a home in a warm spot for not too much money.  Senior communities with condominiums sprouted up in the same period, but for those without the money to buy, these places were a cheaper alterative. 

Unlike hotels with transient populations, retirement hotels offered a chance for friendship circles to take shape.  We can guess that these three woman probably didn’t know one another before they made the move South.  They certainly have different style of dress.  The woman on the right looks like she wandered down from her room in her housedress.  The one on the left is slightly more dressed up, with shoes matching her outfit.  Fanciest of all is the woman in the middle.  She has added a necklace to her outfit, along with matching shoes and handbag.

Vintage postcard

From this vintage postcard it looks like they had claimed prime front step real estate, grabbing the chairs located under the larger hotel awning.  And when it got too hot for comfort, they could head inside to the air conditioning. 

These residency hotels were eventually torn down.  Where can seniors go now for low cost retirement housing?

Posted in 1970s | Tagged | 1 Comment

Duchess of Windsor Patterns

Los Angeles Times, 1959

Perhaps you have not heard of the Spadea Pattern Company, which put out patterns by the likes of Claire McCardell and Mollie Parnis from the 1950s to the 1970s. Read about its fascinating history in Lizzie Bramlett’s Vintage Traveler blog. Along with famous designers, the company also encouraged celebrities to contribute their ideas. One was the Duchess of Windsor, aka American born Wallis Simpson, who had gained a reputation as a well-dressed older woman.

In the fall of 1959, advertisments for Duchess of Windsor patterns began appearing in newspapers. The first offerings were a set of six rather fancy styles—three cocktail dresses, one day dress, one Chanel-esqe cardigan suit, and a coat. They featured drawings that looked like the Duchess—a very slim, no-longer-young woman with dark hair and big pearls.  The last pattern I found was dated 1972.

The pattern line made good newspaper copy. Interviews made clear that Simpson did not do the technical work herself. “Endowed with taste, although lacking technical skills, the Duchess communicates her designs verbally to the company’s owner, James Spadea, and his wife,” reported the New York Times. “Sample suggestions: why not try buttoning a Chanel suit on the side, like a dentist’s jacket.” (“Windsors to Celebrate Silver Anniversary, NYT June 1, 1962) Perhaps the pattern below was the result. Note that the drawing now featured a younger looking woman.

Los Angeles Times, 1965

Sometime in the mid 1960s, Spadea published a catalog featuring 58 of Simpson’s designs.
They were all on the dressed-up side of the sixties fashion panoply–no wild cut outs, no pants suits, no short skirts. It was as if she were offering her own answer to one dilemma of the decade: what should older women wear during the “youth quake”?

Spadea pattern book, no date

It would be wonderful to get our hands on the sales figures for the Spadea company. Did the Duchess “brand” attract more buyers than the patterns of designers like Claire McCardell? Certainly the company’s ad copy cashed in her title. “The ladies adjusted their lorgnettes to see what the Duchess was wearing as she slipped off her coat… It was this beautifully shaped two piece dress.” (The Duchess of Windsor Patterns, Spadea Patterns, no date).  References to the Duchess’s “aristocratic” taste and long term standing on the Best Dressed list suffuse these descriptions. There was absolutely no hint that the Duchess was just a very lucky lady from Baltimore

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s | Tagged , , | 2 Comments