That Seventies Polyester

Found photo

Was there ever another decade more closely associated with a fabric than the seventies and polyester?  I have a book featuring Sears clothing from the early 1970s, and it is simply amazing how many of the clothes are made from it—pants, shirts, dresses, sweaters, coats, and suits.  At the Whittier historical association, I even found a long evening gown made from this sturdy synthetic.

Although I am a confessed natural fiber snob (if there were only cotton and silk on earth, I would get along just fine), I still can imagine the initial appeal of polyester. Since most of the fabric came in knit form, it made movement easy.  It was sold under many different brand names—Dacron, Fortrel, Kodel and Trevira—giving the illusion of variety.  A big selling point was that it was truly wash-and-wear, not needing even the touch of an iron.  It came in a huge range of colors that never faded.  No wonder that both men and women embraced this miracle fiber.

Perhaps today we might turn up our noses at this trio of women in their polyester outfits, so carefully color coordinated.  At the time, though, they fit right in.  That long (probably polyester) scarf with the Pucci-esque print worn by the woman in the middle is another seventies touch.

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Irene Salce de Urbina in Dress-Up Sneakers, 1986

Born in Mexico in 1908, Irene Salce de Urbina moved to Texas in the 1940s with her husband and seven children.  She became a US citizen in 1963. Her husband, a minister in the Mexican Baptist Church, died in 1967. The occasion for this photo was the donation of Urbina family records to the Houston Public Library in order to document the contribution of Mexican Americans to the history of Texas.

The petite Urbina is dressed up for the event, complete with a big corsage. Her dress, perhaps a stretchy polyester, is decorated with shiny diagonal stripes. To my eye, her gleaming white sneakers stand out glaringly against her outfit. But perhaps she was simply in the vanguard, since dress up sneakers are everywhere today.

I wish I could get used to the look, which I think just seems sloppy. But maybe we all should decide that comfort is the most important thing of all.

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The Red Hat Society Lives On

Any commentary about older women and fashion in America must address the Red Hat Society, a loosely knit organization of women over fifty.  Moreover, the founder of the group, Sue Ellen Cooper, hails from my neck of the woods in Southern California.  It is primarily a social club, and members save their colorful outfits for their gatherings (called events, not meetings).  Covid brought the cancellation of recent national meetings, but the photo above of a Red Hat “prom” in West Virginia shows that things are getting started again.

The organization began in 1998.  Sue Ellen Cooper gave a friend a red hat for her fifty-fifth birthday, inspired by now well-known lines of a poem by Jenny Joseph:  “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/ With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.”  Members of the organization follow these instructions in their dress (although sometimes the hats do suit them).  There are now thousands of Red Hat groups in the US and other countries. Their mission statement calls the organization “a global society of women that supports and encourages women in their pursuit of fun, friendship, freedom, fulfillment, and fitness.” 

Earlier photos of the society events show a sea of red and purple.  I’m glad to see from the photo above that the dress code for events appears to have loosened up!  Not only are members wearing outfits of different colors, several don’t even wear hats.  And isn’t it nice to see a racially integrated women’s club? 

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Time Stands Still

How do we pick our favorite styles?  For some older women, it may have more to do with our past than our present.  At least that is a conclusion reached in Karol Blaylock’s 1999 dissertation, “Determining Apparel Style Preferences of Older women and the Age at which these Preferences Developed.” (Do you wonder where I get these exotic sources?  WorldCat—available through many libraries.) 

Blaylock surveyed over seventy women from the ages of 55 to 88 and asked them to choose their favorite styles from common looks originating from 1910s to the 1950s. Women in the 77-88 age group chose styles that were in fashion when they were in their thirties.  In other words, they did not change their preferences to keep up with trends; they stuck to styles that they had loved when they were younger.  A costumer designer I know said that in her profession they referred to this tendency as “frozen time.”

I wondered if I could find any pictorial evidence of this and remembered the artist Roz Leibowitz’s amazing collection documenting the lives of Texan twins. In this 1997 photo, these octogenarians (born 1916) wear high waisted , Hepburn-esque pants.  They were in their thirties just after World War Two, and they certainly might have worn such a style then.   

In my own case, Blaylock’s system doesn’t work perfectly.  In my thirties, I was a graduate student and a beginning professor.  As a student, I wore jeans, a style I have given up entirely.  As a young academic, I sometimes wore skirts, which I have also abandoned.  But wait—there is one wardrobe piece that has carried through.  When I was pregnant in my late thirties, I discovered stretch pants—and fell in love.  This anti-fashion element is still at the heart of my wardrobe today. 

Posted in 1940s, 1990 | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Very Colorful Kitchen

For those fond of pattern mixing, here is one for you!  We have plaids and geometrics on the walls and floors, flowers on the table and apron, a paisley dress, and a figurative drawing on the curtains.  In short, there is just about every possible pattern style along with a myriad of colors in this small kitchen scene.  No wonder my mother, who set up her own household at about this time, decided on basic white.

The colorful Pyrex mixing bowls, first introduced in 1946, give an approximate date.  I am guessing early 1950s.  While the little girls appear to be dressed up in their Mary Janes and decorated socks, the two older women look fairly casual. What was the occasion?  Maybe both women were grandmothers who happened to have their grandchildren visiting at the same time. Insert your own story here.

The older woman with (dyed?) blond hair is wearing what looks to be a house dress, something without much of a shape and a long zipper for easy dressing.  The large paisley print would have been hard to match, and whoever made it didn’t bother.  She wears sensible lace up oxfords, the choice of older women for decades in the twentieth century, along with stockings that are slightly bunched up at the ankle. 

Her friend at the mixing bowl has on a simple black dress.  It must have been her kitchen, since she is doing the mixing.  Isn’t it interesting that she chose a plain dress when her kitchen was so colorful?  She has on stockings with her comfortable sandals, but maybe it had been a long day since she has detached them from her girdle and wears them rolled down around her ankles.  And why not, when she’s at home?

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In the Pink, 1996

Found photo

Here’s a big spread for a very big celebration.  If I’m not mistaken, the cake says “Happy 95th Birthday.”  I hope a lot of people came to sample the desserts.

Our celebrant has gotten dressed up for the event—a pink broad shouldered jacket, a colorful coordinating top, a necklace, and a butterfly pin.  Was pink a favorite color?  It looks good with her rosy complexion and her white hair.  Is it a trick of the photo, or do her glasses also have a pink tinge?

Given how good she looks in this color, it is remarkable to consider that when she was born older women were told never to wear pink.  It was considered a juvenile color best suited for girls and very young women.  Fashion writers advised older women to keep black clothing as the backbone of their wardrobe, adding gray, mauve, and perhaps light blue when feeling adventurous.  How fortunate the rules have changed!

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Felipe Family Women, 1979

In family photos that span the generations you can often see how women hold on to styles that make them feel comfortable, regardless of current trends.  In this photograph of a Mexican American family in Corona, California, the three older women present three distinct moments of American style. 

The matriarch at the bottom left wears a shirtwaist style beloved by many generations of American women. Her hair is fixed in that close-to-the-head look of the 1950s. On her right, her daughter has on a flowered sheath dress with sleeves, a style made popular in the 1960s.  Even the print looks to be from the flower power era, and her hair has a Jackie Kennedy look.  The third generation, the woman in the middle, wears pants, a much more up-to-date style. That is some seriously big hair.  

The young mother in the back on the left is the only one smiling.  She looks at home in her casual separates, as if it would never occur to her in a million years to put on a dress.

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Dancing at the Senior Center, 1980

When did older women decide to give up dresses and turn to pants as their basic mode of dress?  The answer surely depends in part on location.  The City of Commerce, where this photo was taken, is in Southern California near Los Angeles.  I expect more casual clothing here.  Does that explain why only one woman out of five wears a dress in this picture? 

In general, many older women began to adopt pants for events outside the home in the 1970s, while keeping dresses for special occasions. The woman on the right, in her blue and white shirtwaist, didn’t follow this trend. Or perhaps she considered a dance at the senior center something special. Note that her shoes are also fancier that those of her compatriots.

Even among the pants wearers there are different levels of formality.  The woman in the green pantsuit is the most dressed up.  I choose the one in the front, with a short sleeved orange blouse, as the most casual.

Would anyone be wearing a dress at such an event today?

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Marcella in Milan, 1981

Found photo

Marcella could be a tourist from anywhere, but the writing on the back of this photo has a distinctly American look.  And would a European tourist be wearing what is essentially a pair sweatpants in Italy’s fashion capital?  Perhaps European readers can weigh in on this issue.

Anyway, this picture proves that athleisure is nothing new.  It is hard to imagine a more comfortable outfit to wear on vacation—a stretchy pair of pants with a matching tank top and a sweater in case you needed to cover up.  In my view, yellow is not very practical for traveling. Marcella must have been a lot neater than I am.  No spaghetti sauce stains anywhere.

Did Marcella decide to dress down for travel comfort, or did she always dress on the casual side? Whatever the answer, she was following a fashion trend.  My early 1980s edition of Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalog notes that the exercise craze that started in the 1970s spawned all kinds of exercise related clothes, even for those who never worked up a sweat. This matching outfit is a prime example. Note also her sensible shoes, which bear some similarity to sneakers.  Nothing is going to stop her from having fun.

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Joshua Tree, 1940

Found photo

Those strange shaggy bushes in the background are Joshua Trees, native to the Mojave Desert.  According to the writing on the back, this photo was taken in Joshua Tree, California in 1940s.  In those days, the plants were plentiful.  Rising heat from climate change have driven them up to higher elevations today.  And in another sign of the times, what used to be a quiet desert town has now been taken over by Air BnBs, pricing local residents out of housing. 

These two older women appear to be investigating local flora and fauna.  Something—shells? fossils? flowers?—is in their hands.  At first glance, their outfits are unexceptional–dark suits and dresses with sensible shoes. However, a closer look reveals elements that appear to be inspired by military uniforms. Just a little searching showed that the woman on the right wears what looks like a Salvation Army uniform. Compare her shoulder and neck markings to a 1939 Salvation Army photo on the right. Her companion also appears to have some kind of markings on her neckband.

Photo to the right via Calisphere

Despite her austere look, the woman on the left does make a nod to current styles with her shorter skirt. Not so her companion on the right, who couldn’t even be bothered to change her hem.

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