The caption for this photo reads: “92-year-old great grandmother Mrs. C. C. Adams of Hooker, Oklahoma, reversed the old saying ‘over the hills to grandma’s house’ when she decided to take her first flight via TWA Skycoach to greet part of her large family in Glendale, California for Thanksgiving Day.”
This was a publicity photo for TWA, published in the Los Angeles Examiner in November 1951. Looking past the staged elements, it is interesting to see what this spry 92 year old is wearing on her first airplane trip. Of course her outfit includes a hat, a trimmed beret style, and gloves. Her simple hoop earrings go nicely with her round “granny glasses.” She is dressed for cold weather, with a dress and cardigan under her winter coat. My eye, trained by sewing, was immediately drawn to the coat’s beautiful details. That is a bound buttonhole, a feature that you rarely see today unless you make your own clothes.
More hats! Featured in the Chicago Sun Times in November 1946, this photo shows an election polling site at a hat shop on Rush St. in downtown Chicago. The owner, Mrs. Annette Conkey, took advantage of the occasion to show off her millinery skills, placing the poll watchers in hats inspired by different nations. On the left is a Spanish style hat, next a French design, then a Chinese inspired creation, ending with a Russian style hat on the far right.
Not having much background in millinery history, I cannot vouch for the authenticity of these designs. If you ask me, though, the Chinese hat looks more Tyrolean than Asian. The Russian hat bears some similarity to the tall narrow hat worn by some Russian Cossacks. Mrs. Conkey herself has donned the Russian hat and continues her interpretation of the theme with an elaborately embroidered design on the shoulder of her jacket.
Why choose these particular countries to honor in an international hat celebration? Perhaps Mrs. Conkey was an enthusiastic supporter of the United Nations, which got underway at the end of the Second World War. France, China, and Russia were all permanent members of the Security Council. (Although that doesn’t explain the Spanish hat.) Hopes for international cooperation were still high in the immediate post war era. It would take a few more years for the Cold War to swing into gear; by then, I’ll bet that Mrs. Conkey exiled the Russian hat to the back of her closet.
“Freddy seems to have some misgivings, but my expression is certainly hopeful,” it reads on the front of this photo post card. I’m thinking that Freddy is the one in the striped suit in the front. The writer must be the happy woman to the right behind her. A stamp indicates that the photo was taken in Amsterdam, New York.
There is so much to look at in this photo, from the wide array of garments to the elaborately trimmed hats. I am guessing that it comes from the mid-1910s, when v-neck blouses finally overtook the high-necked style.
We can’t see much of the writer’s outfit beyond her light colored coat. I am puzzled by what appear to be small wings coming out of her back collar. Are they angel wings in the background? Her straw hat is turned up on the side and trimmed with what might be a piece of jewelry. Freddy wears a sharp pinstripe suit, softened with a collar in a sheer dotted fabric. She carries an umbrella or walking stick and wears a lorgnette on a ribbon. What decorates her narrow brimmed hat? At first I thought they might be badges, but I’ve decided they are floral or fruit shapes embroidered in straw.
Most puzzling is the woman on the back left. Let’s call her Ms. Cherry, from the trim on her boater style hat. While the others are dressed for the street, she is wearing a low cut black (or very dark) dress covered by a filmy blouse. Not only does she have a ribbon at her neck, but she is also has on a long black beaded necklace.
These three might just be pushing fifty. Were they relatives? Neighbors? College chums? Maybe they were a team of happy spinsters, like those described in the Tish novels.
This isn’t really much of a dress-up party, since the hostess isn’t wearing a costume and her guest only has on a Groucho Marx mask. (You can still buy one!) Still, it shows older women having a lot of fun. Who is happier–the silly guest or the wide-eyed hostess? Unlike most of my “found photos,” which I actually own, this one comes from the dark recesses of the internet. A poster on the Facebook site Mid-Century in Color found it somewhere in his feed and thought it was too good not to share. Origins unknown.
We can tell it’s the sixties because of the mask-wearing woman’s dress. That beautiful neckline is a feature of the era, as is the cut of the dress.
The black trim around the neck and arms and the spaced beads on shiny fabric mark it as a special occasion outfit. The beads look three dimensional. If they went all the way around, wouldn’t it be uncomfortable to sit down?
The hostess’s outfit is less impressive. Not only does she not wear a mask, but her dress appears to be a very ordinary shirtwaist. However, her generous drink and her gleeful expression make clear that she is ready for a good time. Obviously so is “Groucho.”
“Josie home on vacation,” reads the text on the back of the photo. It also includes the date, 1977, so helpful in analyzing style choices. Josie must be the younger woman in the middle. “Home on vacation” makes me think she might be a college student, although she looks a little older.
But never mind Josie, it is her two companions who interest me. From their faces they look as if they might be sisters, but they have very different styles. The woman on the right wears a pink shirtwaist dress, a style with a long history. Its crisp texture indicates perhaps cotton or a cotton blend. Too bad we can’t tell the exact length, but I imagine it hovering somewhere below her knees. Without the year on the back, I would have had a hard time dating her dress. She might have bought it long before the photo was taken.
The woman on the left, however, has a much more up-to-date style. She wears pants and a long vest. The outfit is right on target for the seventies, the decade that older women turned to pants in large numbers. The combination is most likely made of sturdy seventies polyester, the star fabric of the decade. With her big silver bangles and upswept hairdo, I think she looks a lot more interesting than the youngster in the middle.
What are “real clothes,” you might ask on encountering this book. As the preface explains, Smith College costume designer Kiki Smith gave the label “real clothes” to garments that were not designed as costumes but had that had somehow ended up in the college costume collection. Many were old and fragile, certainly not up to rigors of a theater performance. Instead of tossing them out, Smith realized their unique value as historical artifacts and teaching tools. She made it her mission to expand the collection. Often at her own expense, Smith sought out examples of everyday garments at yard sales and auctions. She enlisted the help of alumnae and students to expand and organize what she had found. Thus began the Smith College Historic Clothing Collection, over 4000 pieces of clothing compiled over almost five decades. It is not only a rich source of textile design and clothing construction, it forms a tactile history of what women wore from the nineteenth century to the present.
Some of the clothes come with a clear provenance, like Sylvia Plath’s Girl Scout uniform and peace activist Frances Crow’s protest poncho emblazoned with the motto “Refuse to Kill.” Others, like maids’ uniforms and house dresses, cannot be traced to distinct individuals.
With every garment, Smith provides supporting material to illustrate the object in its historic context, including old photographs, sewing patterns, and advertisements. She makes an effort to show the clothes on diverse bodies and in different settings. In the example above, she shows three rayon day dresses from the 1940s alongside a photo of a Japanese American woman in the Manzanar Detention Camp wearing a similar garment.
Rather than following a strict chronology, Smith divides the book into sections according to function—inside clothes, outside clothes, accessories, clothes for special occasions, service clothes, suits, and a final section called “pushing the boundaries,” covering outfits of women who made their own fashion rules. Those like me interested in tracing the history of women in pants will find lots of visual evidence here, from divided skirts, to gym outfits, to wartime overalls, to slack suits, to pant suits, to jeans. I was particularly enamored by the everyday treasures in the accessory section, which included Afro combs, stocking repair kits, and sleeve cuff protectors.
The stunning photos highlight telling details, like a homemade garment where in places the print was used upside down. Smith’s meticulous description of the work bodice above reveals that it was most likely made around 1860 and redesigned decades later. The lining is composed of two printed cottons from the late 19th century, torn and patched. You can learn a lot about sewing techniques if you pay careful attention. You also learn just how precious fabric used to be.
This is a book you can read over and over again, always discovering new details. Buy if you can; borrow it if you can’t. You won’t be disappointed.
A sixties wedding! The puzzle is to figure out who is marrying whom. The tall couple on the right might be the best choice, since the woman’s tiara is the biggest. Would that make the shorter couple in the middle the bridesmaid and groom? Or perhaps it was a double wedding?And what about the three older people on the left? Who is the mother of the bride?
We will never know the exact answer to these questions, but the skirt lengths tell a story there for all to see. The two young women seem to be in competition for the shortest skirt, with the one in the middle winning by a hair.
It looks like the two older woman had a hard time figuring out what rules to follow. They gave a nod to current styles, but in a more modest way. Sears catalogs from the late sixties tell a similar story. Clothes designed for young women were quite short, while those made for the older set were longer.
The older women in the wedding were a little bolder than the catalog models. They raised their skirts a little bit above their knees.
Although Ann Bonfoey Taylor was interested in fashion all of her life, and even designed her own line of ski clothes in the 1940s, it was only in the 1960s that she achieved national status as fashion tastemaker. Vogue, Life, and Town and Country did features on her wardrobe choices and she was selected as one of the One Hundred Great Beauties of the World by Harper’s Bazaar in 1967. Two interesting things stand out in this coverage. First of all, Mrs. Taylor did not gain great notoriety until she was well into her fifties. Second, she was most often featured in sports clothes, even though she had a very impressive wardrobe of haute couture dresses by the likes of Balenciaga and Givenchy.
Taylor was an avid sportswoman, with skills as an airplane pilot, horseback rider, and skier. She is credited with inventing the fanny pack, which she used to carry her makeup. As she aged she added items that she collected on world travels with her oil baron husband, who was one of the principle developers of Vail Colorado. These included an Arabian headdress, a Scottish sporran (a kind of decorated purse that clips to a belt), and military hats and helmets from all around the world. In the picture above, she is wearing the bottom part of an Evzone military outfit from Greece together with ski pants.
Many photos show her weather worn skin—the result of a life out of doors—and the traces of tan marks from her sunglasses. She wore false eyelashes even while skiing. Here are some of the fashion tips she gave to her granddaughter: Military always, but motorcycle never; polka dots and subtle prints are permissible, but never animal prints; big earrings; large cuff bracelets; pink lipstick is good, red is not.
And where is the tip to add a Greek military skirt to your ski outfit?
There are many reasons to remember the comedian Phyllis Diller (1917-2012). She was the first well-known female standup comic in America; she had a long career in television and film; and she was an enthusiastic advocate of plastic surgery—theme for another post—even winning an award from the Association of Plastic Surgeons. However, I remember her most for her whacky sense of style.
Diller didn’t begin a career in comedy until she was forty, already divorced with five children. Life in the home—cleaning, cooking, children, marriage—was the fodder for her humor. She also made constant jokes about her appearance. On stage she played up her role as an eccentric, using wild wigs, lots of makeup, and unusual clothes. In the photo above, a joke centerfold for a fishing magazine, we see many elements of her style, including boots, an exaggerated cigarette holder (she didn’t smoke), and outlandish costume jewelry. Before she died, she donated many of her outfits to the Smithsonian Institute. Take a look and be amazed.
From other photographs I have seen, Diller left off the sparkles in everyday life. She could dress up as a fairly conservative matron, but her at home look was all her own. In an interview in Redbook, she indicates that she developed a kind of uniform early on. “I’m chunky and short and I must dress very, very carefully. I finally gave up wearing skirts. I choose a flattering top and put on tight pants. Your see, if you let something that’s skinny stick out, you can fool a lot of people.” (Redbook, May 1967, p. 59) If the photo in the interview is any indication, she also added a few choice elements, including a fur coat. I would love to see what she had on her feet!
Due to family responsibilities, I’m limited in my travel these days. Therefore I’m especially grateful when the art comes to me. A show of the work of the famous American painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) recently opened at the Orange County Museum of Art. Called “It Feels Like Home,” it includes forty paintings of her family, friends, and local neighborhoods. There were also a few portraits of people outside her family circle. I went with my friend Sally Stein, a historian of photography and a photographer herself, who documented our visit.
Neel is most famous for her portraits. She painted almost all of them in her New York apartment, which doubled as her studio. On close inspection, you can see the same furniture pieces reappearing in the paintings. Nothing escaped her notice, not even pets. I was most inspired by her portraits of older women, in which clothes were just as important as faces.
The painting above, The Baron’s Aunt, is an example of how clothing influenced her portraits. While painting a picture of Baron Erik von Anckarström (a man so obscure even Google has not found him), she noticed his aunt who accompanied him to the sitting. According to the description of this painting from the exhibit “Painted Truths,” Neel asked the aunt back for a portrait of her own, asking her to wear the same clothes. In my view, the dynamic print of her outfit enlivens her face.
Over the years, Neel painted many portraits of her mother, Alice Concross Hartley Neel (1866-1954). The painting above was made just two years before her death. Neel spares us none of the debilitating effects of aging. Her mother appears to have no teeth, her hands look arthritic, and her face is lined with wrinkles. Although she wears the common attire of the aged, a heavy sweater and thick blanket, we see a bit of a print at her neck. The dark colors make a somber impression, but that triangle of color hints at her mother’s earlier life.
What do Neel’s portrait tell me about women aging? That it is precisely our wrinkles and our unique clothing choices that make us interesting.
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.