Reader Davrie Caro sent photos of a special family gathering in San Diego. His great grandmother, second from right in the photo above, visited the United States for several months in 1992-93. The photo above shows a surprise birthday party for her daughter, Fely, in the center. Two of her other children stand at opposite ends.
Great Grandmother Caro, called Nanay Luming by her family, was born in 1919 in the shoe producing center of Marikina City in the Philippines. The mother of eight children, she took care of her family and worked outside the home, sewing the uppers of shoes. Fely was the only one of her children to make their way to the United States, forming part of the Filipino diaspora in this country.
In her early seventies in the photo above, Great Grandmother Caro is by far the most conservatively dressed. Two elements in her outfit look quite old fashioned to me—the lace collar and the small scale, dark print of her dress. These were common components of older women’s style in the early to mid- twentieth century. The lace collar was frequently recommended to older women as a way to bring soft color and texture near the face. The small, dark print was intended to make the older, wider body appear smaller. By the 1960s many older American women had given up these styles. By contrast, her daughters look much more up to date. The one on the far left wears bright separates with the big shoulder style of the era. The birthday girl in the center wears a dress with a brightly colored bold print.
But did Nanay Luming change her look for the party? Maybe she chose her dressiest and most conservative look for the special occasion. In other family photos she is dressed much more casually in brighter colors and bolder prints. In the photo on the right, where she poses with two of her cousins, all the women wear colorful large designs. Great Grandmother Caro stands on the left. Compare her colorful, big shouldered blouse to the daintier print of her party dress.
I get the sense that the bolder, brighter style represents her true self. Look at how she dressed for her own 70th birthday party back home in the Philippines. No lace collar here, and there is nothing dainty about her hot pink dress.
During the late 1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union, there was a brief thaw in the Cold War between that country and the United States. One sign of the shift was a big exhibit of American products, architecture, and fashion at Sokolniki Park in Moscow in 1959. Vice-President Richard Nixon and Pat Nixon attended on behalf of the United States.
Life magazine covered the visit and featured a cover photo of Pat Nixon among the wives of high level Soviet officials on the cover. I am fascinated by the contrasting fashion styles in this picture. Nixon, then around 47, is casually dressed in a standard outfit of American women in the 1950s, a flowered shirtwaist dress. The Soviet representatives also appear to have put some thought into their contrasting sartorial choices. Khrushchev’s wife, to Nixon’s right, looks even more casual in a geometrically patterned dress (maybe a knit) that isn’t well matched at the center seams. To her right, in the embroidered shawl, is the wife of Frol Kozlov, then considered to be Khrushchev’s second in command. She wears what might be Russian folk embroidery on the front of her dress. The only one who looks like she is dressed for a formal fifties event is the woman on the far left, Mrs. Mikoyan, wife of the head of the Supreme Soviet. In her suit, hat, and gloves, she would not be out of place at a meeting of an American charity.
Fashion was also a part of Cold War competition, and clothes were very much on the minds of the planners of the American exhibition in Moscow. Along with up-to-date kitchens and modern furniture, there was a half hour fashion show three times a day. The young American guides for the event (all Russian speakers) wore red, white and blue outfits representing “the kinds of clothes worn by everyday Americans.” I would love to have been a fly on the wall at one of the fashion shows, not only to see the styles on the runway but also how the Soviet audience reacted. If I hadn’t retired from my job as a Soviet historian, I would look into this myself.
If you think you have a pushy mother, you should read about Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Born in 1853 to a gentile Southern family in economic decline, Alva married a son of Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 1870s. With Vanderbilt money and her enormous energy, she worked her way up the New York social hierarchy. In her biggest social coup, she married off her reluctant daughter Consuela to an English duke, henceforth referring to herself as the mother of a duchess. Shortly thereafter, she divorced her husband and married her long-time paramour, Oliver Belmont, from another wealthy family. In a final twist to this amazing story, she became a supporter of the suffragist movement in the Britain and America in her later years.
No great beauty, Alva Belmont was a fashion icon because of her enormous wealth. In the 1900s, when she was in her fifties, she was a topic on society pages throughout the United States. Writers across the county speculated on what colors she would choose for her Easter dresses. Unfortunately, she did not use her position to further the American fashion industry. Instead, she bought her clothes from the finest Parisian designers.
In the 1970s, Vogue Patterns magazine did occasional features on women who sewed most of their own clothes. As an added bonus, the editors asked the women why they had chosen particular styles. What could be better for someone interested in the history of how women dressed?
The wardrobe of Yale Art History professor Ann Coffin Hanson was a focus in one of the 1978 issues. Hanson, a very important person in her field, was the first female tenured professor at Yale. Read about her life and career here. All of that, and a talented seamstress as well! At around age 57 when the article was published, she dressed with in youthful style and proudly displayed her silver hair. I was particularly drawn to this work outfit. According to the article: “Anne thinks of the coordination [here] as her favorite campus uniform. She likes the cross-campus ease of the flared bias skirt …with the soft flattery of our deep cowl jersey…and the sleek chic of our unlined drawstring jacket.” (57)
Look at the styling here—the leather belt and Frye boots make her look hipper than any professor I had in the 1970s. In fact, if we replaced the skirt with jeans, her outfit would fit right in on campus today.
One fascinating source of information on older women’s dress are dissertations written by students in Home Economics programs. One 1968 thesis by Alicia Pieper for Kent State University seems custom made for this blog. Her focus was on older women from America’s heartland, the small towns and rural areas near Canton, Ohio. She asked women over sixty five what was in their wardrobes what they wanted to wear but couldn’t find.
Pants were not among these women’s fashion choices. Mainly they wore dresses, making fine distinctions in their type and quality. At the bottom of the wardrobe pyramid were house dresses, followed by wash dresses, which were defined as “cotton or cotton blend dresses that were somewhat better quality than house dresses.” At the top were the clothes they wore to church. Most owned at least three dress-up outfits and seven or more house dresses. Their favorite color was blue, their favorite pattern a small print. They preferred three quarter length sleeves to cover their arms, with buttons in the front instead of zippers in the back.
And what did these women want to find in stores? They asked for longer dresses, going against the miniskirt trend. They longed for easy care fabrics. But most of all, they cried out for dresses with a different proportion between bust and hip than those offered in standard sizes. For these women, fit was the most important factor guiding their clothing purchases.
Since the dissertation did not include pictures, I’ve added one from my own collection. Now tell me–is she wearing a house dress, a wash dress, or a church dress?
Well known Chicana artist Yolanda Lopez died recently, bringing her unapologetically political art back into view. One of her most famous works is a triptych of herself, her mother, and her grandmother as contemporary versions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. She applied iconic elements of the Virgin’s image—the radiating light beams and starry cloak—to ordinary women. In an interview Lopez said, “I feel living, breathing women deserve the respect and love that is lavished on Guadalupe. It is time to see these hardworking women as the heroines of our daily lives.” (Feminist Studies, Spring 1994, p. 121).
Lopez’s grandmother, Victoria Franco, was the household manager of the family. She cooked, cleaned, and maintained a large vegetable garden while her own daughter earned money as a maid and garment worker. These portraits show a tired older woman in very plain cotton house dresses, pinned at the neck with modest jewelry. Her hair is pulled back into a bun and she wears old fashioned eyeglasses. There is nothing romanticized about these portraits, almost the opposite of the cheerful granny image that permeated American advertising. Nonetheless, they clearly radiate strength. It is easy to see Franco as a heroine of daily life.
A curly headed friend of mine recently posted a picture of herself as a young teen when she was trying to approximate the Vidal Sassoon-inspired geometric hairstyles of the era. Although her hair looked fairly straight in the picture, she reported that it was torture to keep it that way, a process involving copious amounts of scotch tape and clips.
The older woman in the photo above also went to great efforts to change her hair to fit the current styles, in this case making it curly instead of straight. She probably hoped she’d look like her beautician once she was done. It hope it worked. It think it looks like a good way to deliver electric shock therapy.
The back of this photo says “Simpson Sisters,” and then in another hand gives the date of 1948. Like many older women, these two happy sisters did not keep up with the latest styles. The one posed in front has on what looks like a coat from the 1930s, with very broad shoulders and a longer length. The one is back has on the shorter mid 1940s length, just then being superseded by the longer, rounded shoulder New Look.
They chose different colors and cuts for their clothing, but their shoes and hats are very similar. On their feet they wear the even popular sensible lace up oxfords. They also both have on hats with stand up bows. The twin bows make the hats look the same, but if you look closely you will see that they are not. The one is back has a bow atop a turned up brim, while her sister sports a simple hat with a small brim. I wonder if they trimmed the hats themselves, deciding on the similar bows.
Well, this much we know about Mrs. A. T. Hermann—she liked jewelry. I count one choker, two necklaces, and one pin. She must have dressed up for the photo. I imagine that the trim on her exuberant bow is made from polka dot fabric of her blouse, but it looks like dashes to me. Perhaps there is a Morse Code message hidden here.
The photo comes from the YWCA of Silicon Valley Collection. Of course in Mrs. Hermann’s day no one knew that the largely agricultural area would become an economic power house.
Can someone illuminate me on the origin and purpose of the velvet choker around the neck? It looks terribly uncomfortable.
These snapshots from the 1930s show a common color pattern for the period: older women in dark-colored dresses, with younger women in lighter ones. In photos from the era, the women’s clothes are often color coded in this way. You can often find the oldest woman by locating the darkest dress.
Such markers are a continuation of standards prevalent from the beginning of the twentieth century, when the most common color for older women’s clothing was black, even for those who weren’t widows. Older women were advised to choose dark colors, which were easier to care for and seen as slimming. We can’t see the exact color in these black and white photos; perhaps the dresses were dark blues, browns, greens or reds. But they were certainly dark.
In California today, the opposite is more likely to be the case—the young in dark clothing and the oldest women in pastels and beiges. I wonder when the switch began.
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.