I used to think that I was the only woman in America who didn’t wear jeans, but maybe that is changing. The Washington Post recently featured an article on the decline of jeans sales during the pandemic. More and more people are turning to leggings and stretch pants, putting comfort before everything else. That means they are finally admitting to a basic truth: jeans really aren’t that comfortable.
What do I have against jeans, that most American of garments? First of all, the fabric is stiff and ungiving, at least until you have worn them for a few months. And even stretchy jeans have what I consider to be a fatal flaw—thick seams that dig into your flesh.
Many people consider elastic waistbands to be the antithesis of fine dressing. Not me. I embraced stretchy clothes once I got pregnant and never gave them up. When I returned to sewing over twenty years ago, I was overjoyed to learn that I could put elastic waistbands in every kind of pants in any fabric from silk to cotton. Constant lectures about their “mumsy” look in fashion books and style shows never convinced me to change my mind.
And now it appears that my fashion moment has come! “Jeans are cardiovascular prisons,” says one young woman quoted in the Washington Post article. I could have told her that a long time ago.
Before the summer passes us by, I thought it was high time for some bathing suits. At first I guessed this might be a Mother-Daughter snap shot, but someone has helpfully written on the back, “Mother and Etta Doey at Lake Amnicon, July 1958.” My heart always beats a little faster when I discover these notes indicating the who, when, and where of photos. In case you were wondering, Amnicon Lake is in Wisconsin and is prized for its fishing.
I’m guessing that “Mother” is on the left, since the old fashioned name Etta probably belongs to the oldest woman. The photographer’s mother has a body very like my own—smallish on the top and wider on the bottom. I wish I wore my own swim suit with similar grace. Hers is right in style–I found many similar models in the 1957 and 1958 Sears catalogs. It even has buttons down the front!
Although she wears light colors, Etta Doey has made few other alterations for the summer weather. She looks to have on a shirtwaist dress covered up with a sweater. The older you are, the colder you get. Thick stockings cover her legs and she hasn’t even changed into a white pair of sensible shoes to mark the season. But lest you find her completely old fashioned, I think that’s a camera in her hand. Too bad we don’t have the photos she took.
Although the name Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) might not be familiar today, she was a giant in her time, a leading figure in African American education and civil rights. Born to former slaves, Bethune founded a well-known school for African American girls at the beginning of the twentieth century. This grew into the co-educational Bethune Cookman University in Florida, which still exists today.
This was just the beginning of her influential career. A fighter for voting rights and women’s rights, she became Director of Negro Affairs in the Nation Youth Organization during the Roosevelt administration. She worked to get black women included into the armed forces during and after World War II. She also played a leading role in a number of national African American organizations. Read more about her here.
The undated photo above comes from Ebony, many issues which are available online through Google books. Although the photo is undated, I believe that it comes from the 1940s and documents the lasting friendship between Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt.
In my view, Bethune takes the fashion prize in this photo. At least in her mid-sixties here, she looks sharp in her tailored jacket. I love the crisp, geometric pattern of the stripes. The defined lapels—so 1940s!—draw your eyes up to her face. By contrast, Roosevelt looks a little dowdy in her lady-like droopy collar with a big bow. Wouldn’t a few stripes have helped?
Let me make a confession—I don’t like polka dots. Delving into fashion history has made me realize that I have very strong opinions about textile patterns in general. From the outset I knew I didn’t like flowered patterns. Geometric designs are more my style. But now I realize that I even have preferences within the geometric field. Give me stripes over polka dots any day.
Why this antipathy to dots? I think of small scale circles code you as dressing like a “proper old lady.” (Big dots are a different matter.) Maybe this comes from reading countless style manuals recommending small prints for older women, with polka dots near the top of the list. Or maybe it is from seeing so many photos of older women wearing dots.
On this page of offerings from the National Style Book catalog from 1914-15, polka dot dress is marked as appropriate “for mature women.”
And what is so wonderful about stripes? Of course vertical stripes have long been recommended as “slimming,” seen in the striped dress “for stout women” above. But for me, stripes are much more visually interesting. You can use them to create bold patterns of your own, like the dress on the right in the photograph above. Even the much more subdued striped dress in the catalog has an interesting use of stripes at the hem.
In her memoir Don’t Sing at the Table (2010), the best-selling author Adriana Trigiani tells a wonderful fashion anecdote from her childhood. When she was about eleven, in the late seventies, she noticed that her maternal grandmother, Lucy, only had three dresses in her closet. Not only that, but the dresses were identical navy blue polka dot silk shirtwaists with a notched collar, short sleeves, and pearl buttons. Since her grandmother was a skilled custom dressmaker, she asked about this strange wardrobe choice. Lucy, in her early eighties at the time, explained; “White polka dots on navy blue are classic. You can wear that fabric to a wedding or a funeral or a party, and it’s always just right.”(46)
Adriana was so inspired by this that when she moved to New York to start her writing career, she bought a navy blue polka dot dress of her own. At B. Altman’s she found one with short sleeves, a square collar and covered buttons. “[M]y friends are laughing as they read this because they know The Dress; they have pictures of me in it, because I wore that dress absolutely everywhere.”(46)
I suspect that was a lucky find for Adriana, since I’ve scoured the internet for photos of dark polka dot dresses from the seventies and eighties and come up with very little. Like everything else, fabric patterns go in and out of style.
Expect to see more consideration of polka dots in the future. And many thanks to Nann Hilyard for the book tip!
The Library of Congress has a series of photographs of an African American Fourth of July celebration on St. Helena Island off of South Carolina in 1939. They were taken by Marian Post Wolcott, a photographer working for the Farm Security Administration. This is most likely one of them, although it doesn’t have a detailed caption. Some are in color, rare for the time. You can see them all, and more, by searching “Wolcott Fourth of July” at the Library of Congress picture website.
I love this photo because it illustrates not only a picnic but also an art show of sorts. Most moving is the image bottom right that commemorates African American soldiers in the First World War. I knew almost nothing about this chapter of American history.
Even in this sliver of daily life, we can learn a little about fashion styles. The women who are working aren’t wearing hats, while many of those in the background eating or socializing have on some kind of head covering. Skirt lengths differ, and I would hazard a guess that the younger the woman, the shorter the skirt. Fashion was changing in 1939, and the young were changing with it.
Ever since I discovered the amazing Home Economics Archive from Cornell University, I have changed my view of this field of inquiry. Like many young women who came of age in the 1960s, I felt that Home Ec was a subject for girls who didn’t want to work outside the home. However, the women who founded the field in the early twentieth century were forging new careers for women. They went into consumer protection, hygiene, and industrial reform. Those who focused on the family provided information on child care, health, and financial services.
For African American women, Home Economics offered a chance to do community organizing while earning a salary. State-based Home Extension Services, founded in the 1910s with federal government aid, were segregated. The “Negro Sections” were usually run by college educated black women who set the agenda for their African American staff.
This 1967 photo from North Carolina State University shows a gathering of black women discussing financial issues. The young group leader, with a notebook on her lap, is surrounded by older women. Look at the wide range of clothing styles! The two oldest women, one at the far right and one in the center, are wearing more formal clothes. The one in the center (is it perhaps her living room?) has on a slim dress with a matching jacket, an up-to-date style for the sixties. The older woman at the right has on a suit and wears a hat, marking this as a special occasion. While the other women are more casually attired, their crisp dresses could easily have come from an earlier era. The young group leader really stands out here separates with a shorter skirt and her natural hair style. Fashion historians note that the sixties were a time when clothing for young women really diverged from the styles of their mothers—and we can really see that here.
Have you heard the term “art teacher chic”? Well, what about an actual artist? Take a look at this photo of multi-talented Faith Ringgold—painter, quilter, children’s book author and illustrator, writer (and I’m sure the list goes on.) Her talent and joy in life is reflected in everything she wears.
I first got to know Ringgold as a children’s book author through her wonderful Tar Beach, which I read to my daughter. A few years ago, I discovered that her mother, Wiley Posey, was a noted Harlem clothing designer. Ringgold played an important role in her mother’s career; Madame Posey returned the favor by helping her daughter in her quilting projects.
Faith Ringgold has recently been honored with a number of exhibitions around the world. Tracking down the press coverage, I noticed that she has a definite style formula: bold color, bold texture, and bold jewelry.
Here’s a style icon for some of us—in the more is more school…but not too much more. I’m not bold enough to try the whole look, but I’m inspired by the color and texture. How about you?
This beautiful photo, an eBay find, is the front of a postcard. A little research revealed that it is what is called a “real photo postcard.” Although such cards had long been in use, the Kodak company developed special paper to make such creations available to hobby photographers in 1902. The printing on the back shows that this card was made on a Kodak paper sometime between 1904 and 1918. A professional might have posed this couple, but it also could have been a friend or family member. I cropped it and made it darker here. The original had quite a bit more vine on top and it had faded to a pale sepia.
Just when between 1904 to 1918 was the photo taken? With older women, it can be hard to tell because they often wear their clothes for a long time. Her collar is high, so she certainly had not taken to (or heard of) the v-neck styles that came into style around World War One. Her skirt is off the ground, so most likely later than around 1904 when most women’s dresses were still quite long. Her sleeves have a little puff and are slightly off the shoulder, a style I have seen in fashions around 1909. So I’m guessing that the dress, if not the photo, was from sometime around that date.
Lets assume they are a married couple, but are they happily married? The husband certainly looks so. He has the pride of place, sitting comfortably in a chair. His wife, behind him in the supporting role, looks less satisfied. Of course photos only capture a moment. And perhaps the man is joyful because he has just rolled his pant legs up and is getting ready to work in the garden.
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.