The Dog Days of Summer

Photo by Jack Bradley, Special Collections, Bradley University

When it’s hot out I tend to cover up in loose clothing, choosing baggy pants and long sleeved cotton shirts.  The older woman above takes the opposite approach.  She opens up her body to the breeze with a sleeveless top, shorts, and a pair of rakish sunglasses. Even her sandals are minimal.  Why the hat, though?  It doesn’t look like it offers any coverage from the sun.

The photo is part of a series of portraits of old people made by Jack Bradley, staff photographer for the Peoria Journal Star from the 1950s through the 1970s. It has no date, but others in the series were made in the mid-1970s.  Many of the subjects look lonely and down on their luck. Not this woman, though. She certainly gives the impression that she could take care of herself.  Her face shows her age, but her arms and legs look muscular and fit.  And she certainly has a confident sense of style.

What’s your favorite look for the dog days of summer?

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Mutton Dressed as Lamb–Helen Hokinson’s View

Helen Hokinson, The Ladies, God Bless Em!

According to Alison Lurie’s inventive book about fashion, The Language of Clothes, trying to dress younger than you are has long been regarded as a bad fashion move.  “Since classical times, literature has been full of elderly and not-so-elderly comic characters who affect the costume and manner of youth.”  While men are also the targets of ridicule, there is a well worn phrase for older women who transgress.

Helen Hokinson, cartoonist for the New York from the mid 1920s to the late 1940s, had a keen eye for the missteps of women of a certain class (and post-menopausal heft).  One of her running gags shows these women trying to keep up with current fashion, often with the sly aid of a much younger saleswoman.

This cartoon comes from Hokinson’s posthumous collection The Ladies, God Bless Em!  Although drawing isn’t dated, I believe it comes from the 1940s, when pants and shorts as casual attire gained popularity, especially among younger women.

The woman here is meant to look ridiculous, in her odd overall shorts combo worn with old lady shoes and elaborate jewelry.  And what would the husband make of such an outfit?  Detached and baffled husbands are another standing joke for Hokinson.  Perhaps somewhere there is a drawing of the hapless woman showing off her outfit to her astonished spouse.

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Mother Bloor in Life Magazine, 1938

You are forgiven for not knowing who Mother Bloor (Ella Reeves Bloor, 1862-1951) is, even though she got her own page of photos in Life magazine in 1938 on the occasion of her 76th birthday.  One of the United States’ most important woman labor organizers, her personal journey can be used to trace the history of the American left.  Read a somewhat sanitized version of her life story in Wikipedia, or a more left leaning version in the online magazine, Jacobin.  She was married many times, but never to a man named Bloor.  Somehow she ended up being known with last name of a male companion from the 1920s and the honorific “Mother,” as a nod to her age.

Like other women on the left, she dressed in a conservative manner.  Was this because she was not interested in clothes?  Or perhaps she wanted to convince her audiences that she had more important things than fashion on her mind?  It is difficult to imagine a more “old lady” style than the one pictured above, a dark dress with a small print and lace at the collar, topped with a flowered hat.  If you look at the picture below, you’ll see that she wore her skirts very long, even though fashion was sending them up by 1938.

Above is a slice of now almost forgotten American history.  Mother Bloor is pictured with the winners of a beauty contest held at a camp for young Communists.  It serves as a reminder than the American Communist Party was a genuinely popular movement during the Great Depression, with camps, clubs, and orchestras.  Although many viewed it as a threat to American democracy, there is no trace of that fear here.   

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Hope Skillman Fabrics

Vogue, January 1, 1950

I’ve been wanting to write about textile designer and manufacturer Hope Skillman (1908-1981) for a long time, but pictures of her—especially with any sense of what she wore—are hard to find.  This Vogue advertisement, featuring her fabric on a dress by Claire McCardell, will have to do.

As a feminist, designer, and progressive factory owner, Hope Skillman Schary deserves to be better known.  Her New York Times obituary lists her many accomplishments.  Not only did she run her factory, Skillmill, with a mostly female staff, but she was an important member and one time president of the Fashion Group in New York, which advocated for women in fashion.  After her retirement from the garment industry, she headed up the US National Council of Women and was vice president of the International Council of Women.  What a lifetime of achievements.

If you look carefully through clothing advertisements in the forties, fifties, and sixties you will see that many big companies used her wares.  Not only Townley, but also Adele Simpson, White Stag, Catalina and many more turned to her for inventive cottons.  Her fabrics were included in a 1956 exhibit of American textile at the Museum of Modern Art.  But what really made my heart beat faster was the fine print at the bottom of the ad above—in 1950 her fabrics were available for purchase by the yard.

For all you vintage buyers out there—please contact me immediately if you ever come across a length of Hope Skillman cotton.  I’ll pay extra for orange.

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Family Road Trip

Found photo

In honor of summer holidays, I give you this photo of what I’m guessing was a family road trip.  It could just be a Sunday outing, but only the son with his tie looks dressed up enough to have come from church.  There is no date or writing on the photo. 

Where was it taken?  The dry hillside, which might have a fuzzy outline of a palm tree in the background, could indicate somewhere like Southern California.  However, palm trees grow in a lot of places.  Does anyone recognize the cutout design on the bridge?

The date also requires some guessing.  The daughter’s outfit—cropped white pants and a slightly midriff-baring top—might date from the late forties or early fifties.  Note also her open-toed shoes.  I found an almost identical pair of peek-toe sandals in a 1950 Sears catalog.

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalog, Early 1950s

The mother’s shirtwaist dress is harder to date, since the shirtwaist was staple of older women’s clothing for decades.  Even basic styles reflect their era, though. Given the length, we can assume that it was bought or made after the 1947 realignment of fashion known as the New Look, when designers turned against the fashion restrictions of the war years.  The not-too-full skirt was common in the early fifties.  A 1952 Sears catalog offers a similar silhouette. It is a very plain dress, but she has dressed it up with something the neckline. Flowers? Pompoms? What’s your best guess?

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Big Hair at the Grand Canyon, 1972

Found photo

That’s a pretty elaborate hairdo for a vacation outing, but some people put in a lot of effort to look good no matter what the occasion.  This very cheerful woman was not following current hairstyles, which had moved on to the long and loose or the short and sculpted.  But she had found a look she liked and was sticking to it. 

Her clothes are more current.  It looks like she is wearing polyester pants. More seventies polyester of the stiff, indestructible variety!  The pants are now probably sitting in a land fill somewhere, never to decompose.  Vests were also in style in the early seventies.  Hers has a very subtle plaid.  After wondering what on earth she was holding (a small animal?) I figured out that it was actually her purse with the bottom showing. 

I imagine this is a happy retired couple checking must-see locations off their bucket list. Who is taking the photo?  Maybe one of their children.

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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. 

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