The Sheer Dress at Thanksgiving

From the Facebook Group Midcentury in Color, posted by Eric Hill

No turkey on the table, but I’m guessing this must be Thanksgiving. When else is pumpkin pie the only dessert?  As is obvious from the woman who is dolloping out whipped cream, sheer dresses were not only for the old.  Her see through top reveals not only a dark slip but also the top of her bra.  I wonder if matching slips were sold with the sheer dresses.

Where is everyone?  The only one ready to eat is an older woman wearing an apron.  Maybe those on kitchen duty got first dibs on dessert.

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The Sheer Dress and the Older Woman

Found photo, “Mrs. Bryant and grandma Redford”

I’ve long been fascinated by older women in sheer dresses.  They seem paradoxical to me, revealing an older body shape at a time when many women like to disguise those extra pounds the years have brought.  But there is no doubting their popularity.  In fact, looking through Women’s Wear Daily I discovered that manufacturers designed sheer dresses specifically for this demographic.  “Navy runs sharply through this collection so that these so dark sheers have a new spring look for the mature customer for whom they were intended,” read one fashion report in late 1950.

Although not all sheer dresses for the older set were navy, it was a color often mentioned in fashion reports.  Perhaps the one above is a very dark blue, although in this photo it looks closer to black. What was the fabric? Sheer dresses were advertised in all kinds of textiles—silk, cotton, rayon, nylon, and a slew of other synthetics.

Had I judged this photo by the fashion alone, I would have probably guessed sometime in the 1950s.  But the shape of the photo itself tells a different story.  The snap shot is completely square, a telltale sign of the popular Kodak Instamatic camera.  It was not invented until 1963.  It’s just more proof that when older women find a style they love, they stick to it regardless of changing fashions.

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Armistice Day, 1922

Since today is November 11—the end date of World War One—I couldn’t help looking for photos marking the occasion.  The holiday was known as Armistice Day up until 1954, and the date still honors the end of that global conflict.

Not all Americans were in favor of going to war in 1917, and the US government struck back at dissenters particularly hard.  Just after the United States’ entry into the war, the government passed the Espionage Act that made it a crime for anyone to interfere with recruitment by the military.  Thousands of objectors were thrown in prison, including many whose only offense was speaking out against the war. Hundreds remained in jail even after the war had ended.

This photo, taken November 11, 1922, shows a group of men and women requesting amnesty for men still in jail.  They were part of a nation-wide movement.  See more photos and an explanation here.  Unfortunately, there is no precise information on the source of this image.  I’m assuming it comes from the archive of the Washington DC newspaper Evening Star

The three women are bundled up against the cold.  Note their different coat lengths.  It is the early 1920s, and skirts were already on their way up. All of these coats are on the long side for the time.  Only the woman in the middle—the youngest of the trio–shows the slightest nod to current fashions. The woman on the right is identified as Abby Scott Baker, a long-time advocate of women’s suffrage and no stranger to protests.

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Hearts on their Sleeves–The Terno in Los Angeles

“Mrs. Fame,” 1987, Los Angeles Public Library

In what contexts do immigrants wear their native dress?  For Filipina women, the most distinctive item of clothing is the terno—a dress or set of matching separates with a much extended, wing-like upper sleeve, as seen in the picture above. The terno emerged as an original design element evolving from dress codes imposed through Spanish colonialism.  While many abandoned this style as old fashioned, Filipina women in the US have used it as a marker of their identity. Contributor Davrie Caro has sent a series of interesting images of older Filipino women from the 1960s to the late 1980s collected by the Los Angeles Public Library. 

In the earliest photo, a club gathering at the horse races, none of the women wears anything approaching a terno style.  Several of the younger women are quite stylishly dressed.  Note the trimmed sheath dress in the front and the elegant outfit of the turbaned woman in the second row.  It looks like it might have been chilly outside, making the wide sleeves difficult to wear under a sweater or coat.  Although this is certainly a well-dressed group, no one is using clothes to announce their national identity.

Meeting at the Chandler Pavillion, 1972.  Los Angeles Public Library

However, in situations where it was important to show where they came from, Filipina women in Los Angeles often donned the terno.  We can see this clearly in the picture above, where Filipina club members are meeting with other women at the Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles.  It is obviously a special occasion, and the Filipina women all wear ternos.  To my eye, their outfits—in bright colors and elaborate sleeves—look much more festive than those of their Anglo counterparts. 

  “Mrs. Fame,” 1987                    Beauty pageant winner, 1989

Surely most formal occasion of all were contests among Filipinas themselves.  The two beauty pageant winners depicted here both wear ternos, almost as if it were a requirement.  Their outfits feature elaborate decorations and embroidery.  Their hair and makeup are impeccable.  Indeed Mrs. Fame, on the left, could be a stand in for Nancy Reagan, who embodied the power glamor look of the 1980s.

In these photos from the sixties to the eighties, the terno was a marker for festive wear, not at all something for everyday use.  It was also an item of clothing associated most closely with older women. 

However, in the Philippines and the diaspora today that is changing.  Young designers are reclaiming the terno as a key element of their own unique national dress. Take a look at the beautiful designs here.

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Department Store Halloween Party, 1946

Photo by Ray King of the Salt Lake Tribune

Halloween high jinks by adults is nothing new, as we can see in this photo of the Paris Company Department Store staff in 1946.  However, this fun snapshot does give us a fairly rare chance to see older women dressed in Halloween finery.

The ones in the back row have taken an easy route, dressing with full coverage in olden time outfits.  Perhaps they had them in their closets already, remnants from older relatives.  In the second row, right, one has donned a Charlie Chaplin style tramp ensemble.  And in the front row center there are two middle aged women, perhaps not yet fifty, dressed like a milk maid (or waitress?) and a cow girl.

However, the boldest one of all is in the middle row, left, in her old fashioned bathing suit.  It took a lot of courage to show so much skin, and the outlines of a plumper body under it.  Do you think these hobgoblins made their way out onto the shop floor?

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Anna May Wong, Aging

By now, everyone must have heard that Chinese American actress Anna May Wong has earned a place on American quarters.  Key elements of her famous look, including the bangs and high eyebrows, remained with her as she aged.  The photo above, taken shortly before her death in the early 1960s, shows Wong in her mid-fifties.

It wasn’t easy being the first Chinese American film star. Strict movie industry rules, as well as US anti-miscegenation laws, limited the roles Wong could play. She was the temptress or the prostitute, but she could never kiss a Caucasian on screen. Wong railed against these limitations, and even spent time in Europe where her options were somewhat greater. However, she was never cast as anything but “other.” Even in her fifties, she was “China Mary” on a Wyatt Earp episode or “Madame Liu-Tsong” the antique dealer, always dressed in some American vision of Chinese attire.

As China Mary on the Wyatt Earp Show, 1960

According to a recent biography by Graham Russel Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong: From Laudryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend, Wong gained a bad reputation in China for the skimpy costumes she had worn in early films. After going to China in the 1930s, she paid more attention to what she wore on screen. She also began to wear almost exclusively Chinese clothes in public, including bias cut silk qipao. During World War Two, she was an active fundraiser for the Chinese national cause. Fashion shows were a frequent method, featuring models wearing “skillfully adapted Chinese color combinations, motifs, and patterns to suit the American face and figure.” (Hodges, 200)

I couldn’t find many pictures of Wong in her later years. According to her biographer, at home she wore black slacks and a sweater. Too bad there are no photos of that!

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Sorry in the Sixties

Found photo

Do grown women really play the game Sorry?  I can’t quite remember the rules, since it has been about sixty plus years (no kidding) since I last played.  This was apparently an afternoon for games, with Sorry substituting for Bridge.  Maybe they sent the children outside and took over their fun.

These two older women offer different styles, although I’m not sure what the correct attire is for an afternoon of board games.  The one on the right with the cigarette is casually dressed in what appears to be a shirtwaist dress.  I hope that she isn’t the guest who discovered to her horror that she was under dressed for the occasion. Her companion, by contrast, has on a sheath dress accessorized with a necklace and earrings.  Is this her everyday outfit or did she have somewhere else to go after the game?

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Stylish Threesome

Found photo

This eBay find is almost certainly a three-generation photo, one of my favorite kinds.  The grandmother stands in the middle, with her daughter to her left and her granddaughter to the right.  It is some kind of dress up event and each woman has answered the call in her own style. Because of the halter dress on the granddaughter and the geometric sheath dress on the mother, I am guessing that the photo comes from the late sixties or early seventies. 

The grandmother abandoned the shirtwaist style so beloved of older women.  However, her dress has quite a lot of shaping, showing that she was no big fan of the more sack-like sixties styles.  Her curly hair has none of the Jackie Kennedy-esque bouffant look that her daughter favors.  Although she doesn’t wear pearls, the three strand style also evokes an earlier era.

The daughter on the left has a graphic sixties look.  I’m guessing she is in her late fifties.  Her hair is elaborately styled, most likely with a lot of hair spray.  Although she has a very elegant ring and perhaps real silver bracelets, her earrings look like plastic costume jewelry.

On the right, the granddaughter is the most up-to-date, with her halter top dress and bold color combinations.  Are those tassel earrings, in style once again?

In this picture, we not only see different styles, but also three different interpretations of party dressing.  The grandmother is the most formal.  She could wear that outfit to a wedding or a fancy evening out.  Her daughter has dressed up, but she might have just come in from a bridge party.  By contrast, the daughter looks like she is ready to head to the beach after the event is over.

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Spring in Central Park, April 1960

Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life, April 18, 1960

If you can look past the two doormen at the center of this picture, it offers an interesting overview of different clothing styles adapted by a set of older women in New York at the dawn of the 1960s. Starting from the left, we have a very old woman wearing a dress that she has probably had for decades. Sensible shoes and a broach center front complete the old lady look. Next to her, however, is someone who cares a lot about looking current. Her coat is bold, with a geometric print, and her shoes are dressy. Did she perhaps work at a business close by? The bright red trim of her coat competes with the doormen’s attire.

Then on the right we have a group of fairly conservatively dressed older women. Although their skirts are shorter and their shoes more stylish, they nonetheless adopted the common color palette recommended to the older set, with shades of blue and gray. Only one has cheered up her outfit with a red scarf. Clearly they are friends, perhaps taking a stroll after lunch. Do you think they are whispering about the woman in the checked coat?

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Barbara Carrasco’s Censored Mural

California has the reputation of a progressive blue state, but that hasn’t always been the case.  As recently as 1981, the Los Angeles Community Rehabilitation Agency commissioned mural artist Barbara Carrasco to create a work to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city. When the mural, “LA History: A Mexican Perspective,” was finished, the agency refused to hang it unless she removed 14 segments from the 51 depicted.  Among the scenes the agency wanted censored were the lynching of Chinese American workers, the Zoot Suit riots of 1941, and the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War Two. 

Japanese American internment, a section slatted for removal. KCET

When Carassco refused to make changes, the mural went into storage for decades.  It made a brief reappearance for an art exhibit in 2017, but only found a permanent home at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History in 2021.  Placed in the museum’s welcome center, anyone can now see it for free.

The mural today, KCET

Watch this brief video of Carassco celebrating the permanent placement of her work, forty years after its creation.  Her somber look in the video–dark clothes, dark hair, dark eye makeup–are emblematic of her style.

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