In the 1920s, makers of plus size clothing, what was then called “stoutwear,” invented different names and sizes for different kinds of larger bodies. A big breasted figure with a relatively small waist was named a “stylish stout.” It was certainly better than the name given to shorter plus size women—the “stubby stout.”
The older woman on the right certainly fits in the stylish stout category. I’m imagining that she was on summer vacation but didn’t want to appear on the beach in a bathing suit. Since she still wanted to catch some sun, she wore a shirtwaist dress with short sleeves. The light colored fabric was a nod to the summer weather. Her large bust makes her waist look tiny. Why the handbag? Perhaps she was on her way to the store.
And is the voluptuous young woman on the left her daughter? If so, we can perhaps see how the daughter’s figure might look in a few decades.
This almost looks like a staged photo for an older adult fitness magazine, if such a thing existed in the 1940s. Perhaps, though, it was just evidence of a fun beach day among family and friends.
Given the high-waisted pants, the short top, and the oxford shoes, I’m fairly sure this photo was taken in the mid to late forties. The pants look to be without pleats, pockets, or a belt; the short blouson style top apparently has a surplice structure for extra movement. I like to think she found common sewing patterns and then made alterations to make them more exercise friendly. The shoes look like plain white leather oxfords. Or do you think perhaps they are canvas?
Staged or not, this photo reminds us not to make sweeping generalizations about historical health and fashion trends. Some older women happily turned to pants in the 1940s, and those who paid attention to exercise are also nothing new.
This portrait looks quite old fashioned, but it was made in the early 1960s by the Ninomayo Photography Studio in Los Angeles. Located in Los Angeles’s Japan Town, this Japanese American business began in the 1920s and shut down during the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War Two. It started up again after the war and continued into the 1980s. A treasure trove of studio photographs was recently discovered and is being digitized by the California State University, Dominguez Hills. Read about it here.
Most of the portraits made by the studio were of the Japanese American residents of Los Angeles. Going by the last name “Tom” and the clothing of the woman, however, this couple is most likely of Chinese origin. How very interesting that she wears pants with her tunic, a dress style abandoned by many Chinese American women as they adapted to American fashions. Obviously this older woman didn’t need to wait until the 1970s to make her turn to pants.
I would love to know more about where the picture was taken. None of the other studio backdrops I have seen portrayed this imagined Asian theme. Perhaps it was taken in a cultural center. Doesn’t the man’s suit, even though out of style, contrast sharply with the woman’s work-a-day look? But perhaps there are elegant details in her outfit that I can’t see.
Whatever you wore for the Fourth of July celebration, it was probably not nearly as beautiful as this Navajo woman’s outfit. The shirt is most likely velvet, the traditional fabric for Navajo women’s festive clothing. It is adorned with silver buttons, beading and an array of Mercury dimes. What a relatively inexpensive way to make a dramatic effect. It reminds me of the Pearly Kings and Queens of London. You can also find Navajo pearl necklaces made from Mercury dimes. Not stopping with silver adornments, she has also worn necklaces, pins and earrings of turquoise, coral, and blue glass.
This is one of several photos the folklorist Austin E. Fife made of a Fourth of July festival in Monticello, Utah in 1953. He and his wife Alma were famous researchers of Western American folk culture. Did they wonder at the irony of Native Americans celebrating a holiday that so profoundly changed their world?
Are they off on a brief vacation, or is this their retirement home? Somehow I’m guessing the latter. I don’t think they could have achieved their well-tanned look in the course of a few days. This is some people’s idea of a retirement paradise—a pool off to the side (I’m guessing by the concrete and lounge chair) with the ocean in the back.
I’ve puzzled a lot over the woman’s outfit. Is that a bathing suit with a skirt? A skirt over a bathing suit? Or a low cut tank top worn over some kind of skirt/short combo? What do you think?
But the best part of the woman’s outfit, in my view, is the bathing cap. Yes, I think it is a cap and not her hair! Read about caps designed to mimic hair on the wonderful Vintage Traveler blog.
The sixties were an era of wild swim caps, and she chose one that matched her summer outfit. Maybe the pool rules required it, or perhaps she wanted to keep her hair set for a festive evening. I imagine her as one of those swimmers who kept their heads well out of the water.
The Whitney Museum in New York City is currently showing the work of Dawoud Bey, an African American photographer with an inclusive eye. One of his most inventive works is the Birmingham Project of 2012, commemorating 50 years since the Birmingham church bombing. To remember the murder of six Birmingham children (the four girls inside the church and two boys outside later that day) he chose six youths from the city who were the same age as those killed. He then paired them with adults fifty years older to give a sense of the years lost to the murders.
He took some of the photos in the Bethel Baptist Church, a center of the local civil rights movement, and others in the Birmingham Museum of Art. At the time of the bombings in 1962, the museum was only open to African Americans on Tuesdays.
Note how he paired the faces and body language of the older and younger women. Sometimes he found echoes in their clothing, like the pleats in the first photo. Sometimes he emphasized contrast, as in the black and white outfits above.
And what an impressive range of beautiful older black women. It’s worth flying to New York to see these in person.
I’m glad that I didn’t pay a lot of money on eBay for this photo, which was listed as “artist Grandma Moses and President Ford.” Just a minute’s research after it arrived revealed that the famous artist had been dead for fifteen years in 1976. That will teach me…
But famous artist or not, I think this old woman has done a good job of dressing up for a special event. She wears a Chanel-inspired suit in what looks like a knit fabric, stretching over her widow’s hump in the back. The trim adds visual interest. The shoes, while sensible, also look dressy enough for the occasion. Is she wearing knotted pearls around her neck, or is the trim continued on a blouse?
None of my research skills revealed just who the lucky recipient of some sort of award is. Maybe you will have better luck.
Where do you stand of the issue of cultural appropriation? You might remember the recent story of a white high school girl who was shamed for wearing a Chinese style quipao dress to her prom. Some Asian Americans complained that “My culture is not your goddamn prom dress.”
Clearly the woman on the left, Mrs. Shelton A. McHenry, had no such qualms. The photo, published in the Southern Californian Valley Times, was taken at a party she hosted before she and her husband set off on a round-the-world tour in 1960. To my eye, what’s offensive is that she seems to be creating an imaginary “Orient” by combining her Chinese style dress with a Japanese hair ornament. However, I have no objection to the dress itself, which melds a Chinese inspiration with a sixties style sheath.
I think cultural appropriation is inevitable. The history of fashion silhouettes and textile patterns is so complex and intertwined that it is difficult to trace the origins of things. After all, the quipao itself was a Chinese response to Western fashion. While I would never don that style because of its tight fit, my favorite summer garment is my own home-made version of an Indian kurta. I am happy to give credit for the inspiration—a tunic style that made its own long historical journey through Central and South Asia–but I why should I give it up?
Did you know that flowers can carry messages far behind the beauty of the blossoms? I was reminded of the language of flowers in an excellent exhibit of vintage clothes at my university. The graduate student curator, Ayrika Johnson, assembled garments from the late 1800s to the 1950s, showing how florals provided not just decoration, but also hidden commentaries on what was popular and appropriate in different time periods.
Age also played a role in the language of flowers. “Some flowers, like pansies, heliotrope, violets, mignonette, and many more that will easily suggest themselves, are ‘older’ flowers more suitable for those in advanced years,” wrote Claire Laughlin in The Complete Dressmaker (New York: 1916, 331) Carolyn Perry, writing in Ladies Home Journal, had similar views. “With the coming of summer the mature woman has the same desire for flowers as have her younger sisters, but her age necessitates a more limited selection both in regard to colors and the flower themselves. No one can correctly picture a gray-haired woman wearing daisies, buttercups or apple blossoms.” (“The Mature Woman’s Hat,” Ladies Home Journal, March 1912, 27.)
For those inclined to trim their own hats with flowers, the do-it-yourself book called Practical Home Millinery thoughtfully provided direction for making both violets and daisies, good for all age groups in the household.
What shoes should women wear to fancy dress up events? Looking at the images presented in most media, it would seem that sky high heels are the preferred option. That might be okay for the younger set, but by the time you have put a lot of miles on your feet, this solution might no longer be possible. It’s not just a question of comfort—with all the foot problems that come with aging, many older women cannot squeeze their feet into heels.
Enter fashion rebel, Frances McDormand with her own solution. In her early sixties, she has decided that the normal dress up standards do not apply to her. At recent Red Carpet events, she has arrived wearing Birkenstocks—custom-designed to be sure—but not at all similar to her other female companions.
I honestly cannot remember the last time I wore high heels. Although no one has ever invited me to appear on the Red Carpet, I do go to the theater, weddings, and other occasions that require a little sparkle. I’ve found that my standard comfort brands—Clarks, Arche, Mephisto—work just fine. What do you wear when you dress up?
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.