Why is this family eating outside on Thanksgiving, you might ask. Late November can be hot in Southern California, as the Santa Ana winds sweep in from the desert. As I write on this Thanksgiving over 100 years later, the same winds are blowing and the temperature is projected to reach into the 80s.
None of the women felt the need for jackets in this photo of the William Webb family celebrating Thanksgiving in Anaheim in 1906. Today Anaheim is home to Disneyland and there isn’t much green space left, but even in my youth there were still orchards and farmland. You can see what might be the beginning of an orchard in the background to the right. The dinner might have included house and field staff. Do you think the turkey in the foreground could have fed them all?
As far as I can tell, all of the women might be wearing the popular skirt and shirtwaist combination of the era. You can see that the style allowed for a lot of variation, with different colored shirts and even prints to liven things up. The two oldest women sit at the front of the table. As is often the case, their clothes are not quite up to date. Their upper sleeves are very full, in the style of the previous decade. I can almost hear them saying, “This is my best outfit and I’m going to wear it today.”
May you also wear what makes you happy on this festive day.
This photo introduced me to a new fashion term. Although some of the words are cut off, the writing on the back clearly reads, “I wanted you to see my new swagger coat.” Quick online research revealed that the swagger coat was a wide, loose coat that hung from the shoulders without any waist definition. It began its popularity in the early 1930s lasting well into the forties. Perhaps it got its name because it allowed the wearer lots of room to swagger around. For those of you more expert than I, just how does the swagger coat of the thirties differ from the swing coat of the fifties?
I’ve dated the photo to the early 1930s because of the length of the woman’s skirt and her shoes, which look to retain some of the fun cutouts of shoes from the twenties. Did she make the coat herself? Her pose and outfit certainly seem inspired by some of the pattern illustrations from that era, right down to the jaunty hat.
But what is she wearing under the coat? At first I thought it might be a very long belted tunic worn over another dress. Then I realized that it could be a color blocked dress with a bit of flare at the bottom, along the lines of the pattern above.
Whatever she has on underneath, she certainly looks ready to swagger out and meet any challenges that lie ahead.
In my search for images of women on Veterans Day, I quickly discovered that the most common pictures were of Gold Star mothers, women who had lost children in American wars. The group was founded in 1928 for mothers of the victims of World War One, later expanding to include other conflicts.
This remarkable newspaper shot shows Mrs. Kate Mike from the Winnebago Tribe setting off to find the grave of her son. A confused archivist dated the photo as 1920 (for group that began eight years later) and tagged it as World War Two (wrong war). A little online research shows the date was 1933. A glance at the clothes tells the same story, with the iconic cloche hats of the twenties combined with longer skirt lengths of the thirties.
We can regret the racist language here—“her son died on the warpath”—and the attempt to make her contribution of a tobacco pouch seem strange. Still I’m glad that the photographer took the time to document this brave 74 year old woman, who did not feel obliged to change her style in order to make the long journey to honor her son.
Apparently Mrs. Kate Mike became well known in some circles, and even had a doll created for her. Compliment or insult? You decide.
Photographs often document big moments in life—the wedding, the baby, the new house. A tradition in Black churches is to mark the end of mortgage payments, the moment when property finally belongs to the residents, with a mortgage burning ceremony. The unusual photo above by Black Detroit photographer Harvey C. Jackson depicts a group ceremony. In it the many residents of the Phyllis Wheatley Home, founded in the late 19th century to keep elderly women out of poor houses, hold on to strings connecting them to the mortgage document. Let’s hope the 1915 celebration took place with only the paper catching fire.
There is an interesting mix of styles here, although all are conservatively dressed for the time. Several wear the light white shirtwaist and dark skirt combination that appealed to women of all ages and social classes. It is what I consider more of a work-a-day outfit than something appropriate for a special occasion. By contrast, others are dressed to the nines in gleaming satin. Many have on the dark dresses—with or without a light lace collar—standard for older women’s apparel. Almost all have their hair up in a Gibson Girl style.
What most caught my eye were the several women in white, or at least very light colors. In popular (Caucasian oriented) style books of the era, light colors were usually recommended to younger women, or reserved for casual occasions on hot summer days. Did African American women receive different advice or develop their own rules? In this photo, the white colors gleam and lose their detail, giving their wearers an almost angelic glow. That is particularly true for the woman standing in the front. Although the details of her outfit are washed out in this photo, we can make out lace trimming at her neck and wrists, and what look like flowers at her waist and hem. It’s a very special dress for a very special day.
This might or might not be a Halloween photo. The archivists guessed yes, and on what other occasions do grown women dress up in silly outfits? I think I recognize most of the looks here. Starting from the right we have the little girl from the prairie, the old lady with the lace collar, the matchstick girl, and a downscale Letty Lynton. But just what is the woman on the far left dressed as? I would appreciate your guesses. To me it looks like she is wearing a bowler hat and carrying a cane to accessorize her bathrobe and a pair of very baggy pants.
Do you ever dress up for Halloween? I’m afraid I’ve become the grouchy old lady who leaves the porch light off.
Reader Davrie Caro sent photos of a special family gathering in San Diego. His great grandmother, second from right in the photo above, visited the United States for several months in 1992-93. The photo above shows a surprise birthday party for her daughter, Fely, in the center. Two of her other children stand at opposite ends.
Great Grandmother Caro, called Nanay Luming by her family, was born in 1919 in the shoe producing center of Marikina City in the Philippines. The mother of eight children, she took care of her family and worked outside the home, sewing the uppers of shoes. Fely was the only one of her children to make their way to the United States, forming part of the Filipino diaspora in this country.
In her early seventies in the photo above, Great Grandmother Caro is by far the most conservatively dressed. Two elements in her outfit look quite old fashioned to me—the lace collar and the small scale, dark print of her dress. These were common components of older women’s style in the early to mid- twentieth century. The lace collar was frequently recommended to older women as a way to bring soft color and texture near the face. The small, dark print was intended to make the older, wider body appear smaller. By the 1960s many older American women had given up these styles. By contrast, her daughters look much more up to date. The one on the far left wears bright separates with the big shoulder style of the era. The birthday girl in the center wears a dress with a brightly colored bold print.
But did Nanay Luming change her look for the party? Maybe she chose her dressiest and most conservative look for the special occasion. In other family photos she is dressed much more casually in brighter colors and bolder prints. In the photo on the right, where she poses with two of her cousins, all the women wear colorful large designs. Great Grandmother Caro stands on the left. Compare her colorful, big shouldered blouse to the daintier print of her party dress.
I get the sense that the bolder, brighter style represents her true self. Look at how she dressed for her own 70th birthday party back home in the Philippines. No lace collar here, and there is nothing dainty about her hot pink dress.
During the late 1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union, there was a brief thaw in the Cold War between that country and the United States. One sign of the shift was a big exhibit of American products, architecture, and fashion at Sokolniki Park in Moscow in 1959. Vice-President Richard Nixon and Pat Nixon attended on behalf of the United States.
Life magazine covered the visit and featured a cover photo of Pat Nixon among the wives of high level Soviet officials on the cover. I am fascinated by the contrasting fashion styles in this picture. Nixon, then around 47, is casually dressed in a standard outfit of American women in the 1950s, a flowered shirtwaist dress. The Soviet representatives also appear to have put some thought into their contrasting sartorial choices. Khrushchev’s wife, to Nixon’s right, looks even more casual in a geometrically patterned dress (maybe a knit) that isn’t well matched at the center seams. To her right, in the embroidered shawl, is the wife of Frol Kozlov, then considered to be Khrushchev’s second in command. She wears what might be Russian folk embroidery on the front of her dress. The only one who looks like she is dressed for a formal fifties event is the woman on the far left, Mrs. Mikoyan, wife of the head of the Supreme Soviet. In her suit, hat, and gloves, she would not be out of place at a meeting of an American charity.
Fashion was also a part of Cold War competition, and clothes were very much on the minds of the planners of the American exhibition in Moscow. Along with up-to-date kitchens and modern furniture, there was a half hour fashion show three times a day. The young American guides for the event (all Russian speakers) wore red, white and blue outfits representing “the kinds of clothes worn by everyday Americans.” I would love to have been a fly on the wall at one of the fashion shows, not only to see the styles on the runway but also how the Soviet audience reacted. If I hadn’t retired from my job as a Soviet historian, I would look into this myself.
If you think you have a pushy mother, you should read about Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Born in 1853 to a gentile Southern family in economic decline, Alva married a son of Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 1870s. With Vanderbilt money and her enormous energy, she worked her way up the New York social hierarchy. In her biggest social coup, she married off her reluctant daughter Consuela to an English duke, henceforth referring to herself as the mother of a duchess. Shortly thereafter, she divorced her husband and married her long-time paramour, Oliver Belmont, from another wealthy family. In a final twist to this amazing story, she became a supporter of the suffragist movement in the Britain and America in her later years.
No great beauty, Alva Belmont was a fashion icon because of her enormous wealth. In the 1900s, when she was in her fifties, she was a topic on society pages throughout the United States. Writers across the county speculated on what colors she would choose for her Easter dresses. Unfortunately, she did not use her position to further the American fashion industry. Instead, she bought her clothes from the finest Parisian designers.
In the 1970s, Vogue Patterns magazine did occasional features on women who sewed most of their own clothes. As an added bonus, the editors asked the women why they had chosen particular styles. What could be better for someone interested in the history of how women dressed?
The wardrobe of Yale Art History professor Ann Coffin Hanson was a focus in one of the 1978 issues. Hanson, a very important person in her field, was the first female tenured professor at Yale. Read about her life and career here. All of that, and a talented seamstress as well! At around age 57 when the article was published, she dressed with in youthful style and proudly displayed her silver hair. I was particularly drawn to this work outfit. According to the article: “Anne thinks of the coordination [here] as her favorite campus uniform. She likes the cross-campus ease of the flared bias skirt …with the soft flattery of our deep cowl jersey…and the sleek chic of our unlined drawstring jacket.” (57)
Look at the styling here—the leather belt and Frye boots make her look hipper than any professor I had in the 1970s. In fact, if we replaced the skirt with jeans, her outfit would fit right in on campus today.
One fascinating source of information on older women’s dress are dissertations written by students in Home Economics programs. One 1968 thesis by Alicia Pieper for Kent State University seems custom made for this blog. Her focus was on older women from America’s heartland, the small towns and rural areas near Canton, Ohio. She asked women over sixty five what was in their wardrobes what they wanted to wear but couldn’t find.
Pants were not among these women’s fashion choices. Mainly they wore dresses, making fine distinctions in their type and quality. At the bottom of the wardrobe pyramid were house dresses, followed by wash dresses, which were defined as “cotton or cotton blend dresses that were somewhat better quality than house dresses.” At the top were the clothes they wore to church. Most owned at least three dress-up outfits and seven or more house dresses. Their favorite color was blue, their favorite pattern a small print. They preferred three quarter length sleeves to cover their arms, with buttons in the front instead of zippers in the back.
And what did these women want to find in stores? They asked for longer dresses, going against the miniskirt trend. They longed for easy care fabrics. But most of all, they cried out for dresses with a different proportion between bust and hip than those offered in standard sizes. For these women, fit was the most important factor guiding their clothing purchases.
Since the dissertation did not include pictures, I’ve added one from my own collection. Now tell me–is she wearing a house dress, a wash dress, or a church dress?
To contribute to this collective history project, send pictures and stories about the older women in your life to firstname.lastname@example.org. The more information you can include (date, place, etc.), the better.