My Great Great Grandmother, Mary Wade

Family photo

It’s not often you get such a clear picture of an old relative.  My aunt discovered this photo when she was moving.  In my grandmother’s handwriting on the back it says “My grandmother Wade.”  Given all the online sleuthing tools available, it was a just few short steps to trace back from my grandmother to her grandmother, Mary Wade, born in 1851. 

According to the 1880 census, Mary Wade lived in Daviess County, Indiana.  She was four years older than her farmer husband, David.  Her fourth child, Bertha, married in 1898 and gave birth to my grandmother a year after the wedding.  After another child was born, Bertha died.  Mary Wade took care of my grandmother and her brother at times while they were growing up. Her status as a farmer’s wife doesn’t tell us much about her—even today that job could mean almost anything, from poverty to prosperity.  She looks more on the prosperous side here, though.

The Delineator, September, 1920. From Witness to Fashion

I’m guessing that the photo comes from the early 1920s, which would put Mary Wade in her early seventies. Surplice necklines were a fashionable style in the 1920s, and frequently recommended for older women.  The blog Witness to Fashion shows a 1920 Butterick sewing pattern with many common elements to her dress above, with a pronounced collar and slightly dropped waist. Mary’s long string of beads, wrapped about her neck, are another 1920s detail.

I don’t feel any sense of kinship looking at Mary Wade. However, finding an ancestor looking hale and hearty into her seventies is not a bad legacy to claim.

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Kamala Harris, Plain and Fancy

Vogue, via the Washington Post

By now you have probably heard about the dust up over Vogue’s February issue featuring Kamala Harris on the cover. According to Vogue, both photos, shot by African American photographer Tyler Mitchell, were approved for publication.  The more casual look won out. However, Harris’s team insists that they voiced a preference for the photo on the left, where Harris appears in the kind of power suit beloved by women in high places.

What’s the difference? In the photo on the right, we see Harris dressed as she often was on the campaign trail.  Although she still wears one of her signature necklaces and a fitted jacket, the rest of the look is casual.  She combines dressed up elements with short skinny jeans and Converse sneakers, an essential element of her campaign uniform.  The side bar proclaims: “By the People, For the People. The United States of Fashion.”  This implies that the magazine intends to use Harris as an example of the new trends in casual fashion brought about in part by the pandemic.  The background colors, pink and green, are those of her college sorority.

The photo on the left is a more traditional portrayal of a powerful woman.  Harris still wears a jacket, a white shirt, and a necklace.  In this case, though, the power suit, the position of her arms, and the gold background convey authority.  What’s new here is not the fashion but the fact that a woman of color is in a position of authority.  The subtitle conveys this as well.  Kamala Harris represents the New America. What is new is her gender and her color.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour defends the magazine’s choice, saying that the more informal photo makes Harris more approachable.  Critics like the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah claim it is disrespectful. “[I]n a world where strong Black women are often maligned as intimidating and unfeminine, the image Vogue chose reduced Harris just as she is taking her rightful place at the heights of American power.”

What’s more important about Harris, her fashion sense or her political authority?  If Vogue wanted to show how Harris embodies current trends, then the editors picked the right photo.  However, if they wanted to reinforce her unique historical role as the first female Vice President of the nation, they made the wrong choice. I stand with the critics on this one. The new administration, and Harris in particular, need all the help they can get–even from a fashion magazine.

What’s your view?

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Pattern Mixing, Early 20th Century Edition

A quick glance at fashion pages these days shows that pattern mixing–combing gingham with florals or dots with plaids–is on trend right now. You might think it is all part of the “anything goes” style philosophy of the current era. However, this photo from the 1900s shows that pattern mixing is nothing new. Here a sad looking older woman combines a plaid scarf with a vaguely floral print. Of course we don’t know why. Maybe her neck was cold and the scarf was close at hand.

Do you mix patterns when you dress? Not me. As a minimalist, I have always found the final results much too busy. Now I don’t have to say that it’s because I’m too old fashioned .

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Treasure and Trash on Pinterest


Photograph by Clifton R. Adams via Raleighvintage.blogspot.com

I have given up on Pinterest many times.  After getting recommendations from friends and sewing teachers, I’ve tried to assemble various “collections” of things that inspire me.  Each time I have delved into that chaotic bundle of images, I have given up in dismay at the odd mix of advertisements, inaccurate labeling, and outright nonsense. Perhaps because I’m a historian and need to know where images come from, I’m astonished how rarely Pinterest users document the source of their subject material.

But there is treasure among the trash.  Recently I gave Pinterest another chance and discovered something truly wonderful—original color pictures from the 1920s.  Looking specifically for older women, I found the shot above taken in an azalea garden in Florida.  Doesn’t she look elegant, with her pale blue dress, her parasol, her long necklace, and her t-strap shoes?

Links on the pin led me to a blog post that even had information about the photographer, Clifton R. Adams, who worked for the National Geographic from 1920-1934.  The magazine was a pioneer in using new Autochrome color film technology beginning in the 1910s.  There is still a lot I would like to know, the kind of questions historians ask: When was the picture taken? Was it published in the magazine? And where can I find an archive of Adams’s work?  But for now I’m just glad that Pinterest came through for me.   Feast your eyes on these wonderful images here (of Britain) and here (of the US).

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Funny Hats on New Year’s Eve, 1970

I wish I had a funny hat and a collection of friends to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  Given my love of champagne, or similar bubbly beverages, it is a favorite holiday of mine.  At this party, sponsored by music mogul Berry Gordy, it looks like you could choose a hat to identify either with royalty or jesters. 

I’m ashamed to say that I had to look up Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, when I came across a series of photos of his crowded party held in Los Angeles in 1970.  His entire family was part of his music empire.  In this photo to the right of the smashing Diana Ross is his sister, Esther Gordy, a big name is Motown music, and his mother, Bertha Gordy.

Diana Ross is wearing an elegant pantsuit, still fashion forward in 1970, and Esther Gordy might be in one as well.  However, Bertha Gordy decided on a long dress instead.  As far as I can tell, it is an unusual design featuring a black and white paisley underdress covered with a sheer magenta wrap.  Was the choke collar part of the dress?  Of her two hat options she chose a crown, well suited for the family matriarch.  At around age seventy two here, she looks radiant and ready to ring in the New Year.

A toast to all of you! The new year has to be better than the last one.

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Holiday Greetings from Ida Arneson, 1957

Found photo

Is anyone named Ida anymore?  It might be due for a comeback.

This card was a lucky eBay find combing two favorite elements—an unlikely Christmas greeting and a sewing theme.  I suspect Mrs. Ida Arneson is a widow, since there is no man in the picture.  Given the last names, she is probably part of the great Scandinavian diaspora in the US.

But help me out here—what exactly is she doing?  Sewing aprons by hand?  We see a pile of gingham something, what appears to be an ironing board, and a spool of thread.  She must have taken sewing very seriously to have chosen this photo for her Christmas card. And doesn’t it look like she’s still in her bathrobe? It’s almost a Covid theme.

Whatever your passions, have a wonderful holiday!

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Christmas in Minidoka, 1943

When Japanese Americans were removed from their homes by presidential order in 1942, they were sent to a number of concentration camps for the duration of World War Two.  One was Minidoka, located near the town of Hunt, Idaho.  Taken by the War Relocation Authority, this picture comes with a cheerful caption: “Through kind donations from thoughtful friends all over the United States, a happy and merry Christmas will be possible for the children of Hunt. Thousands of presents have been sent in day after day.”  Let’s hope that at least a few of the friends sending presents were the prisoners’ white neighbors.

In this photo, it looks like the older women of the camp were responsible for much of the present sorting.  Did the two on the right bring aprons with them when they were taken from their homes? A variety of headgear is on display—a snood, a hat, and a Rosie-the Riveter style scarf.  We can see a clear contrast between the younger woman center left and her older colleagues.  She has short hair, while most of the older women have long hair done up in buns. She also wears a bright print, while the older women are in somber colors.

Don’t you wonder what the gifts were?   

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Big Birthday, Big Cake–1961

When this photo appeared in the Valley Times in 1961, the accompanying text read, “Five generations of the Prince family were on hand to help celebrate the 90th birthday of Mrs. Emma E. Prince, a woman who honeymooned to the San Fernando Valley in 1893 and decided to stay.”

I love the generational story told in the clothes.  Emma Prince wears a shirtwaist style dress, and so does her daughter to her right.  (She looks very much like my own grandmother, Madge.)  Although I’ve been known to criticize polka dots, I love the crisp look of the daughter’s dress as well as the generous pockets.

While the older women stuck to the shirtwaist style so popular with their age group, the granddaughter and and her own daughter both chose sheath dresses, a more fashion forward look.  The great granddaughter, in her simple black sheath, looks the most modern of all.  She is also the only one without a necklace.  Did she decided to go with simplicity, or did her kids tug her necklace too often to make it a practical choice?

That is one big cake! 

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Say It With Flowers, 1958

HolliePoint’s Family Photo

Standing out like a canary among the pigeons, the woman in the yellow dress catches our eye.  With her light colored hair, bare arms, and fit and flair dress, she looks a lot younger than her companions to the left.  I think she dressed for maximum impact, accentuating the flowered pattern on her dress with a big flower behind (or on?) her ear.  The textile print featuring big bouquets is very young looking, something you might expect a teenager to wear.

In this second photo, the contrast is not so extreme.  We see that she’s not all that much younger than her companions.  Her hair looks to be a natural silver, not a dyed blond.  And even though she’s slimmer than the other women, her figure still shows some of the natural signs of aging.

Her wardrobe choices broke many fashion rules given to older women at the time, something you can easily see in comparison with her companions.  They have covered their arms and stick to darker hues.  By contrast, she has chosen a light color, a sleeveless style, and a fairly loud print.  Do you think the other women gossiped behind her back, wishing that she would act her age?

Many thanks to Jennifer from HolliePoint Vintage for sharing this family photo with me.  Her mother Carolyn was at this summer party in Hutchinson, Kansas. Unfortunately she was much too young to remember the colorful mystery woman.

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Toasting Thanksgiving, 1947

You wonder what they had to be so thankful for in 1947.  Were they still toasting the end of World War Two, or was it some private milestone?  I know I will be lifting at least a few glasses to celebrate the conclusion of this long election season.

Alcohol aside, it is hard to know what is more eye-catching in this photo, the man’s striking tie or the woman’s ruched dress.  Thanks to The Vintage Dancer, I know the man’s tie was right in style.  After the war, men’s ties got short, wide, and wild.  The one above checks all the boxes.

However, since this blog is about women, let’s concentrate on the fabulous slim dress that this middle aged woman wears.  She is right in style with her longer dress length, the New Look inaugurated by Dior only a few months before.  What fascinates me is the long line of ruching (a kind of gathering) down the side of the dress.  In my resources for the 1940s, I couldn’t find a similar example.  I discovered many ruched bodices, a technique that adds volume to the bust.  However, probably only a rail thin woman like the one above would risk a long line of ruching over her hips.  Maybe she designed it herself.

However you celebrate your Thanksgiving, I hope it is happy and safe.

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