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.
When I began this project about ten years ago, I knew that it was a huge task to attempt to portray the dress of older American women in all their diversity. Although I’ve tried to include older women of color, to be honest I haven’t tried hard enough. I’m going to start changing now.
Anne Spencer (1882-1975) is best known as a poet, part of the vibrant movement in African American arts in the 1920s and 1930s known as the Harlem Renaissance. She was also a civil rights activist, librarian and gardener. During her lifetime, her home in Lynchburg Virginia was known for its open door, and she hosted many of the African American civil rights leaders and artists of her day. Today the house and garden are on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the several photographs available of her on the web, it is clear that she had a strong sense of style. In this one set in her garden in 1947, Spencer is in her mid sixties. She wears what was then called a slacks suit, a beautifully coordinated pants and jacket combination well tailored to fit her body. Note the frog closures that appear to be shaped like flowers. The wide legged pants are a practical and stylish choice for someone who loved to garden. I wonder if sewing also counted among her many skills.
I’ve been out on the street many times in my life, not because I’m brave or a savvy political organizer. No, I’ve been inspired to march when I’m angry and/or sad. Right now I’m both of those things, and ashamed as well… Surely we can do better than this.
But this time I’m not joining the crowds because I am afraid of getting sick.
If you look at the protesters on the streets these days, young faces predominate. Of course that is almost always the way—young people are the force of change, trying to shape the future that they want to live in. However, even when I marched against the Vietnam War in the sixties and seventies, there were always old people along who formed a line of continuity to past protests.
I don’t see many old faces now. The seventy-plus year old man knocked down by police in Buffalo is, from what I’ve seen, a rarity. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Are you protesting now? I’m not, and it makes me even sadder.
These days, wearing socks and sandals is often considered a fashion faux pas for women, but this wasn’t always the case. The older woman above is happily wearing the combination while playing with (or torturing?) her cat. Using the wisdom of fashion history bloggers, I identified the sandals as coming from the 1930s. They have many cut outs, a signature of the era, and have heels. By the following decade sandals were more likely to have platforms. Her dress is still quite long, so she hasn’t yet switched to the shorter lengths that came into style at the very end of thirties. Of course it’s always possible that she wore this look well into the coming decade.
How common were socks and sandals? The blog Wearing History features a catalog rendering of the combination in 1938, with the shoes looking very similar to the ones my happy cat lady has on. In the words of today’s fashion magazines, I would even say that the cat lady does it better with her cheerful stripes.
I think we should take this as a style lesson—wear socks and sandals if you want! You could even practice at home during lock down before you take it outside.
Doesn’t this 1950s snapshot call out for a story? The happy woman holding the handbag is obviously the star of the event, since she is the only one wearing a corsage. But what kind of occasion is it? A retirement party? A birthday party?
Here’s my guess. She is the long serving president of the garden club who is finally stepping down. As a sign of gratitude, or perhaps relief, the club members have given her a handbag. They knew she would like it because she was always complaining about the small size of her purse. However the woman seated directly next to her, the one with a sour look on her face, approved of the gift for another reason. You know what they say about hell and handbags…
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.