In 1943, the Office of War Information sent the young photographer Esther Bubley on a six week bus tour of the United States to document how people were living in wartime. Many of her photos show soldiers on the move, sometimes filling entire waiting rooms. However, her favorite subject was ordinary people getting from one place to another. The picture above, captured in the Chicago Greyhound station, shows three women sharing souvenirs from their vacations.
The contrast in styles between young and old is on bold display. The young woman, perhaps in her late teens or early twenties, chose pants for her bus journey. This is yet more evidence that pants were moving out of sports arenas and factories to other public venues during the war. You can see that she has on somewhat high heels with her pants, something I thought was a more recent phenomenon.
Her outfit stands in contrast to the older woman in the middle, perhaps in her fifties who has chosen a more conservative style for travel. She wears a shirtwaist dress, a coat with broad shoulders, and a hat—something a woman of her age regarded as necessary public attire. We don’t see much of the other woman’s outfit besides her Rosie-the-Riveter style head wrap, considered an acceptable hat substitute during the war.
Do you think they met on the bus? In the waiting room? Or did they know each other already?
I debated whether or not to write this post for days. Don’t we have more important things to consider than Martha Stewart in a bathing suit? However, I overcame my objections because her Sports Illustrated cover poses important questions about aging women in America today.
Being Martha Steward, aged sex symbol, takes time, money, and professional interventions. Obviously for Stewart looking good is just as much of a job as her cooking and style empires. Some of it is accomplished through sheer will power. If you have ever taken a look at her (exhausting) monthly calendar at the front of Living magazine, you will see that her mornings are filled with weight lifting, Pilates, swimming, and strenuous gardening. She drinks lot of green juice, too. All of this must account for her slim shape, with no hip shelf or menopot in sight.
However, it’s important to stress that she has a team of professionals to help. She employs exercise trainers, gets monthly facials, and has her hair dyed. Although she insists that she has had no major plastic surgery, she goes to a dermatologist twice a year for minor treatments like fillers. For the photo shoot she got a spray tan and a full body wax. So good health and discipline are not the only things she has going for her.
Is it good to know that some women can look like young beauty queens well into their eighties? Some commentators have praised Stewart’s cover shoot as aspirational, as proof that women can live up to American standards of beauty regardless of their age. However, I’m inclined to agree with Ashley Applebaum, who calls such people “super geezers.” While they certainly exist, presenting their stories as the new normal only serves to shame those without the time, money, and good health to follow in Stewart’s path. And doesn’t Stewart’s cover page just perpetuate the idea that in order to look good you need to be trim, without a wrinkle in sight?
In 1908, it was not yet clear that Los Angeles would become the megalopolis that it is today. San Francisco was the dominant city in the state at the turn of the century, but things were beginning to change. While Los Angeles was only half the size of the city to the north in 1900, it had reached parity by 1908. By the next decade, Los Angeles would surge ahead.
Services like insurance companies are one of the needs of a growing city. This wonderful photo of the Prudential Insurance Company’s summer outing is a treasure from my sewing friend, Gloria Lewis. It shows her husband’s maternal grandfather, corner left, and perhaps his mother, the little girl at the center.
Most of the women, young and middle aged, wear shirtwaists and white skirts, an indication that it’s summer. The plump young woman at the far right might have decided that a light colored skirt would not enhance her shape and therefore stuck to the official uniform of the era, a white shirt with a dark skirt.
The one woman who stands out is the oldest, third from the left. I am guessing that she is the boss’s wife. She wears a kind of jumper in a light color with white trim and a beautifully embroidered blouse underneath. Her flowered hat is less wide but much taller than those of the other women. You see at a glance her status in the group. Clothes make the woman!
In 1923 when American writer Willa Cather was fifty, the Omaha Society of Fine Arts from her home state of Nebraska put together $1000 to commission a portrait for the Omaha Public Library. By then, she was already famous, with many critically acclaimed novels to her credit, several honorary degrees, and a recent Pulitzer Prize.
Cather was in France at the time and picked the Russian artist Leon Bakst as her painter. Best known as a costume designer for the avant-garde Ballet Russes, Bakst was an unusual choice for a painting that was to hang in heartland of America.
Initially Bakst chose a green dress of Cather’s that looked like a Russian tunic. Somewhere along the way, someone changed the outfit to this wraparound style. The color changed as well. According to observers, the dress is a champagne color with a pink sash, although that is hard to see in this reproduction. She wears no jewelry at all—in fact, the book is her only accessory.
In this portrait, Cather’s looks very much like she does in photographs taken at the time. Even so, Cather was not pleased with the final product. The citizens of Omaha were outraged, calling it mediocre, valueless, crude, and a poor likeness. Some even threatened to withhold payment. To this, Cather responded that Bakst had worked hard and in good faith. But she confessed to the head of the group that had commissioned the portrait that she would never again pose for a portrait she could not destroy if she didn’t like it.
Looking at reproductions of this portrait today, it is hard to see what caused so much controversy. Was it perhaps because Cather looks so ordinary in the painting, not at all like a woman who had achieved the pinnacles of fame?
I discovered this treasure while cleaning out my mother’s house in preparation for her move to a board and care home. It features my mother’s family on the steps of their house in South Chicago. If asked, I think I could still draw a floor plan of that house and locate the china cabinet that kept my grandmother’s blue glass dishes.
The year is probably 1946 or 1947, just after World War Two. My mother is on the right, her youngest sister in the middle with long hair, and the third sister on the left. They are all still alive, with my mother set to turn 99 in July (if she makes it.) Behind her is my father, recently back from the war, in a rare glimpse of them together. He died in a car crash when I was six. Here they are either just married or just about to tie the knot.
My grandmother stands in back wearing a dark dress and what might be pearls. She was nearing fifty in this photo. Her hair and glasses stayed much the same as she aged, at least in my memory, although she did get thicker around the waist. The older woman standing in front of her is my Aunt Evelyn’s (far left) mother in law. Her dress is much more exuberant, with a large print and perhaps a ruffle at the bottom. Note also her flowery hat, perhaps chosen just for that dress. She wears gloves, as does my aunt.
My mother is now bedridden and heading downhill. It’s a pleasure to see her young–younger than I am now, younger even than my daughter. What a life she had ahead of her.
Women often get ridiculed for following fashion trends, even though lowly consumers are hardly the ones who think them up. In 1970, pretty much everyone was confused. It was the time of the great “maxi” versus “mini” confrontation, and even retailers and manufacturers didn’t know which way the wind was blowing.
At the end of a long article on the controversy, Life offered humorous tips for the fashion conscious woman. These included stockings marked with a tape measure and a Venetian blind skirt that could easily be raised and lowered. Other suggested innovations were earmuffs to cancel out criticism, a copy of Women’s Wear Daily handy on inside of ones hat, and a short wave radio antenna to receive news flashes from Paris.
And what does this have to do with older women? My research shows that the seventies were a breakthrough era for older women in pants. Many chose this wardrobe option precisely because they couldn’t figure out just what length skirt to wear.
Photos by the street photographer Angelo Abruzzo show New York in the fifties and sixties. Similar to the Chicago photographer Vivian Maier, his work was unknown during his lifetime. Later studies stress the fact that the people in his photos appear lonely and disconnected. However, I was struck by his portrayals of Blacks and whites alone together, giving a clear sense of New York as a multi-racial city. Although these two women might not be friends, they mix easily on the sidewalk, as do Black and white women on the subway in this photo here.
The main event in this picture is of course the Black woman’s hat. It must be Easter given the flowers, the basket, and the bunny. Did she come from church or from a parade? Or was she just hoping for a sign of Spring on such a chilly day that she wore her big fur coat? Even with a polka dot hat, her companion appears quite subdued in comparison. Don’t you wonder what caught their attention?
By 1937, some young women were wearing pants to play golf—but not these two. It looks like their mother had brought for a day on the course. Did she play as well? If so, she has on the wrong shoes.
What constituted sportswear for these golfers? It looks to me like they are have on knit skirts, a fabric with a lot of stretch. They also wear sweaters, the two on the left in cardigans and the one on the right in a pullover with a sporty collar. Everyone has on hats, with the one on the right—perhaps the tomboy in the family—wearing a baseball hat. They are in sturdy shoes with short socks.
The older woman is dressed very similarly to the younger ones, although her skirt is longer, her hat fancier, and her socks darker. Was she a former golfer who had given it up? And is sportswear one area where the dress of the old and young sometimes converge?
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.
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.
To contribute to this collective history project, send pictures and stories about the older women in your life to email@example.com. The more information you can include (date, place, etc.), the better.