Fashioning San Francisco

Photograph by Gary Sexton

On recent a trip to the Bay Area, my cousin and I visited the current fashion exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum called “Fashioning San Francisco.”  It had an interesting organizational premise—all clothes were worn by San Franciscans themselves or purchased by upscale department store to display the latest styles.  They were donated to the museum by the owners or collectors.  It revealed wealthy society women’s love of couture fashion starting in about 1905 and stretching up to the new millennium.

French design houses are the best represented, beginning with Callot Soeurs and working up to Christian Lacroix and Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld.  There are many classics from the mid-century, especially by Dior.  By the end of the century the perspective widens to other Europeans, Asians, and even a few Americans.  Some of the names, like Frederick Gibson Bayh, who used antique Asian textiles and designed for the high end store Gumps, were new to me.

Dress by Yojhi Yamamoto, photos by Gary Sexton

My favorite dress was the one above by Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto.  The beautiful red shibori work (an elaborate tie dye technique) was three dimensional.

The most innovative part of the exhibit was an augmented reality installation that let you “try on” three of the designs digitally.  The software adjusted the dress to your body shape and arm movements.  The thinnest, widest, shortest, and tallest visitors could all see themselves in couture dresses and send copies to their phones.  You see me below in a velvet dress by Valentino.  I don’t think Vogue will be calling soon.

The exhibit lasts until August 11. The museum building itself and the Golden Gate Park setting alone are worth a visit.  If you want a detailed view of many of the dresses, take a look at couture expert Claire Shaeffer’s YouTube video.

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Native Daughters of the Golden West

Albany Public Library, via the Online Archive of California

I am always amazed by the number of women’s organizations that I have never heard of.  While looking through Calisphere, I discovered this photo of a 1948 meeting of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, a group that celebrates the pioneers who populated the state.  It was founded in 1889, a time of massive immigration.  I was surprised to discover that it still exists today

The only requirement to join is having been born in California.  That counts be out.  Like many Californians I was born someplace else. Although the organization now supports many different charities, one of its tasks is to keep a Pioneer Roster, documenting all settlers to the state by 1870. You would think that groups celebrating mainly white settlers would have gone out of style. 

Looking at the 1948 picture, you would think that the only women born in the state were white. Times have changed, though.  If I’m not mistaken, this 2019 photo from Stockton, California shows several Chicana faces. 

In comparing the two photos, we can see how special occasion dress has changed.  In 1948, all members were in evening gowns.  The oldest looking woman wears black, another is in white, and a few wear flowered dresses.  The sleeves of the older women in the front row are definitely longer than those of their younger colleagues.  In the 2020 photo there’s an interesting difference between the fashions of young and old.  We can’t see everyone’s bottom half clearly, but among those we can see there are more older women in pants than young ones. The dress code for this event clearly emphasized pink. 

This group is a sister organization to the Native Sons of the Golden West.  From the start, they celebrated their female constituency.  The local groups are called Parlors, not clubs.  And as is clear in both photos, flowered clothing is favored by both young and old.  That’s not surprising, since the California poppy is one of its symbols.  On their website I just discovered that April 9 is California Poppy Day. I’m sad I missed it.

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Flemmie Kittrell, Pioneer in Nutrition

Cornell University Library

Born in North Carolina, Flemmie Kittrell (1904-1980) has an inspiring story.  Read about her long career here.  She was eighth child of share croppers and had to earn her own money for her education.  After getting a BS at Hampton Institute in Virginia, she was accepted to the graduate program at Cornell University.  At that point, Cornell was one of premier institutions in Home Economics, then a very broad field guiding women into many areas of science.  Her dissertation was on the nutritional needs of poor children, particularly Black children. She was the first Black woman to earn a PhD at Cornell and the first Black woman in the US to get a PhD in nutrition. 

Her career after that was far reaching, working first at Bennet College and then becoming chair of the Home Economics program at Howard University in Washington DC.  It was there that she made her most important contribution to American childhood education, developing the principles that would serve as the foundation for the Head Start Program.  She also served with the US State Department and the UN to bring her ideas about childhood nutrition to countries around the world.

Howard University Archives. Kittrell is the one wearing a hat

According to one of her Howard students, she was a very proper lady who always wore skirts and dresses, never pants.  We can see this in the two pictures I found.  In the top one, from the sixties, she wears a neat suit.  In the bottom one, from the fifties, she is the only one wearing a hat. Although she encouraged play in children, she herself was quite reserved. I imagine she believed she had to look serious in order to be taken seriously. After all, she was a path breaker.

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Florida Retirement Hotels in the 1970s

When photographer Flip Schulke was assigned to the federal photo project Documerica in the 1970s, he paid particular attention to the network of inexpensive retirement hotels that had blossomed in South Beach Florida.  Retirees, mainly from colder climates, could find a home in a warm spot for not too much money.  Senior communities with condominiums sprouted up in the same period, but for those without the money to buy, these places were a cheaper alterative. 

Unlike hotels with transient populations, retirement hotels offered a chance for friendship circles to take shape.  We can guess that these three woman probably didn’t know one another before they made the move South.  They certainly have different style of dress.  The woman on the right looks like she wandered down from her room in her housedress.  The one on the left is slightly more dressed up, with shoes matching her outfit.  Fanciest of all is the woman in the middle.  She has added a necklace to her outfit, along with matching shoes and handbag.

Vintage postcard

From this vintage postcard it looks like they had claimed prime front step real estate, grabbing the chairs located under the larger hotel awning.  And when it got too hot for comfort, they could head inside to the air conditioning. 

These residency hotels were eventually torn down.  Where can seniors go now for low cost retirement housing?

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Duchess of Windsor Patterns

Los Angeles Times, 1959

Perhaps you have not heard of the Spadea Pattern Company, which put out patterns by the likes of Claire McCardell and Mollie Parnis from the 1950s to the 1970s. Read about its fascinating history in Lizzie Bramlett’s Vintage Traveler blog. Along with famous designers, the company also encouraged celebrities to contribute their ideas. One was the Duchess of Windsor, aka American born Wallis Simpson, who had gained a reputation as a well-dressed older woman.

In the fall of 1959, advertisments for Duchess of Windsor patterns began appearing in newspapers. The first offerings were a set of six rather fancy styles—three cocktail dresses, one day dress, one Chanel-esqe cardigan suit, and a coat. They featured drawings that looked like the Duchess—a very slim, no-longer-young woman with dark hair and big pearls.  The last pattern I found was dated 1972.

The pattern line made good newspaper copy. Interviews made clear that Simpson did not do the technical work herself. “Endowed with taste, although lacking technical skills, the Duchess communicates her designs verbally to the company’s owner, James Spadea, and his wife,” reported the New York Times. “Sample suggestions: why not try buttoning a Chanel suit on the side, like a dentist’s jacket.” (“Windsors to Celebrate Silver Anniversary, NYT June 1, 1962) Perhaps the pattern below was the result. Note that the drawing now featured a younger looking woman.

Los Angeles Times, 1965

Sometime in the mid 1960s, Spadea published a catalog featuring 58 of Simpson’s designs.
They were all on the dressed-up side of the sixties fashion panoply–no wild cut outs, no pants suits, no short skirts. It was as if she were offering her own answer to one dilemma of the decade: what should older women wear during the “youth quake”?

Spadea pattern book, no date

It would be wonderful to get our hands on the sales figures for the Spadea company. Did the Duchess “brand” attract more buyers than the patterns of designers like Claire McCardell? Certainly the company’s ad copy cashed in her title. “The ladies adjusted their lorgnettes to see what the Duchess was wearing as she slipped off her coat… It was this beautifully shaped two piece dress.” (The Duchess of Windsor Patterns, Spadea Patterns, no date).  References to the Duchess’s “aristocratic” taste and long term standing on the Best Dressed list suffuse these descriptions. There was absolutely no hint that the Duchess was just a very lucky lady from Baltimore

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Grannies on the Red Carpet, 2024

Chang Li Hua and Yi Yan Fuei at the 2024 Oscars

It’s not every day that older women can steal the show on the red carpet.  However, that was the case recently when Chang Li Hua and Yi Yan Fuei showed up in Hollywood dressed in custom Rodarte.  Vogue even took notice. They were there because their grandson, Sean Wang, was nominated for the documentary he filmed starring the two—Nai Nai and Wai Po.  It’s a short, heartwarming film.  See it if you can.

The film documents the daily lives of Wang’s paternal grandmother (Nai Nai) and maternal grandmother (Wai Po), who live together in the Bay Area.  Filmed during the pandemic when Asians were under attack, Wang gives these two old women dignity and humor. It shows them at everyday tasks, like washing dishes and hanging laundry.  They also dance, sing, and exercise, trying to keep fit and avoid falls.  Although the film has moments of “aren’t old people cute,” Wang shows his grandmothers without condescension.

Their everyday clothes, shown in the film, are not so glamorous.  Like many old people they dress for comfort and ease of movement. 

But obviously they have taken to their new roles as stars with gusto.  Even when they don’t have custom Rodarte designs, they show up for special events looking fabulous, using red as their basic theme.  The very good news is that Chang Li Hua (Wai Po), at the age of 86, is now getting new film roles.

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Regina Anderson Andrews and the Power of Libraries

Regina Anderson Andrews is on the left, New York Public Library

As a lover of both libraries and theater, it perhaps inevitable that I discovered Regina Anderson Andrews, playwright, actress, salon holder, and librarian in New York City from the 1920s to the 1960s.  Anderson (1901-1993) was born in Chicago and moved to Harlem in her early twenties.  She immediately became a participant in the cultural scene. Together with W.E.B Du Bois, she helped to found the Harlem Experimental Theater, for which she acted and wrote plays.  Her apartment became a setting for lively literary gatherings, including such important writers as Langston Hughes.  Although she does not feature in many histories of the Harlem Renaissance, her biographer Ethelene Whitmere calls her an important link between the vibrant personalities that created this cultural flowering. 

Marian Anderson and Anderson Andrews.  New York Public Library

The picture above with famous singer Marian Anderson illustrates her enduring friendships with African American artists. 

Anderson earned her living working for the New York Public Library, eventually becoming the first African American to head a local branch.  She used her position to sponsor arts programs and community gatherings, enriching the cultural life of the many different New York neighborhoods where she worked.  Her high standing in the library earned her recognition as one of the city’s most notable Black women at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. 

1955 photo, New York Public Library, with Anderson Andrews on the right

Almost all the pictures of I’ve found of Anderson Andrews as an older women show her in clothing I would call “librarian plus.”  They are conservative to a point but with something extra to make them a stand out, like the cut work on the dress in the top picture and the wonderful shoes in the photo above.  Perhaps the photo with Marian Anderson, displaying bold jewelry, is a more accurate depiction of her style.

Who helped to transform American libraries from quiet storage spaces for books into vibrant community centers?  Regina Anderson Andrews was a key player in that transformation.

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Eunice Johnson–Black Power Fashion

Ebony Magazine, via the New York Times, 1991. Eunice Johnson is in pink

It is hard to overestimate the contribution of Eunice Johnson (1916-2010) to African American fashion in the United States.  She and her husband were the founders of Ebony and Jet.  Although she worked as secretary and treasurer for the Johnson Publishing Company, early on she began to follow her passion for couture fashion.  Rather than keeping that love to herself, she shared it widely with Black audiences throughout the United States through her runway show, the Ebony Fashion Fair.  The yearly events raised money for Black hospitals, charities, and scholarships.    

Born in Selma, Alabama, Johnson moved to Chicago to get a Master’s Degree in social work.  There she met her husband and together they built up a Black publishing empire.  She started the Fashion Fair as a charity event for a friend in 1958. Eventually the road show traveled throughout the country, making some 200 stops a year. It lasted until 2009, a year before her death.

She became well acquainted with French couturiers and used her influence to champion the careers of Black models.  Pat Cleveland was one who benefited from her patronage.  Discovering that there was no suitable makeup for the models, who had to mix their own, she started the Fashion Fair Makeup line for Black skin tones and made sure that her products made their way into department stores.

Dress by Stephen Burrows featured in the Ebony Fashion Fair

She also fostered the careers of Black designers, featuring their work in her shows.  Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, and Willi Smith all earned places on her runway.

Haute couture is a luxury item and it is unlikely that many in her vast audiences ever became customers.  However, couture clothes are an art in themselves, presenting a level of craft seldom seen in stores.  Eunice Johnson offered that pleasure to Black audiences nation-wide.

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Meet Bricktop, International Star

Photo by Jack Robinson

Born in West Virginia in 1894, Ada “Bricktop” Smith gained her nickname because of her red hair. Her family soon moved to Chicago, a center of African American culture, where she started performing full time at age sixteen.  She didn’t stop until the late 1970s, a few years before her death in 1984.  As a young woman, she made a name for herself in the US and then moved to Paris in 1924. In 1926 she opened her own nightclub, “Chez Bricktop,” a gathering spot for expat American artists.  Her autobiography includes this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “My greatest claim to fame is that I discovered Bricktop before Cole Porter.”  This was the first of Bricktop’s nightclubs, which opened and closed in Rome and Mexico City, as well as New Orleans and Chicago. 

Although her many business ventures were never as successful as her first nightclub in Paris, Bricktop was a renowned jazz singer and entertainer for all of her life.  Both Cole Porter and Django Reinhardt wrote songs in her honor.  Near the end of her life, the mayor of Chicago declared an official “Bricktop Day” in admiration of her achievements.

From Bricktop by Bricktop

Most of the photos I found of Bricktop as an older woman show her in evening dress, fitting clothes for a nightclub performer.  A feather boa was often included.  Too bad I couldn’t find a picture of her with another favorite accessory, a small cigar.

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Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend Quilter

Photo by Matthew Arnold on Souls Grown Deep

I imagine most textile lovers like myself know about the Gee’s Bend quilters, a remarkable group of Black women who developed their own strikingly modern quilting style in an isolated community in Alabama.  They became so famous that their work eventually toured major American art museums and became part of their permanent collections.

One of the best known of these quilters is Mary Lee Bendolph, who creates unique geometric designs.  She has exhibited with her fellow Gee’s Bend quilters and has also been featured on her own.  In 2015, she received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Work Clothes quilt, Souls Grown Deep

Bendolph works from strips of used clothing, insisting they have a spirit in them.  Her “Work Clothes” quilt contains not only pieces of old denim, but also scraps of what must be leftovers from old house dresses, the work clothes of women.  She constructed the quilt “Ghost Pockets” entirely out of her husband’s clothing.  “That way you’ll [her husband] always be with me, always covering me.”

In most of the photos I’ve seen of Bendolph, she is wearing what look to be simple cotton clothes.  I’m wondering if she, or someone close to her, has saved the worn out pieces to make quilts.    

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