“Great Lakes—David and Mother, 1948” is written in faint ink on the front of this photo. It evokes a lot of questions. Why was it taken from the back? Had David been in the Navy during the war, or did he sign up afterwards? Was this a short leave, or was he coming home for good?
In fact, though, I asked none of these questions when I bought the photo. Instead, I was fascinated by the mother’s rear view. It looks a lot like mine. Although I haven’t gained any weight in the last twenty years, my body is shaped very differently than it used to be. My hip fat has migrated upwards, close to my waist, forming what I call a “hip shelf.” I’m fascinated by this feature of many older women’s bodies.
I thought that I had invented this term, but of course I didn’t. Some on line sites discuss the wide high hip as the main characteristic of a common body shape. Perhaps. But I’ll bet that is much more common among older women than younger ones. Perhaps I should seek out photos documented my rear view as it’s changed over time. That would be an education.
What do you with your travel souvenirs after you get home? For me the trick is finding something that I will actually use, something that will remind me in a glance that I had been away. This couple (Grace and Bill Schnoberger according to the photo) obviously loaded up on some stereotypical knickknacks after a trip to Mexico. They are proudly displaying them here, but I doubt that the big sombrero entered Grace’s hat collection or that the plaster bull found a place in their living room.
If you look closely, though, you will see that Grace is wearing silver Mexican jewelry–earrings, a necklace (partially hidden by the hat band), and two bracelets. It’s hard to see the detail and probably the pieces are not valuable collectables from Taxco, Mexico’s silver capital. But if she kept wearing them after this photo session, it does show that Grace had found elements of Mexican handicrafts to enliven her style.
These three women have captured the look of polished sportswear. Thanks to some sainted family historian, I have a lot of details about the snapshot. It was taken in Belmar, New Jersey in July 1960. Although the handwriting isn’t entirely clear, I think that Dorothy Hatler is on the left, Callender Holdes in the middle, and Di Gay on the right. Willie Gay stands in the back.
Belmar is a small town on the Atlantic coast, a popular vacation spot. Maybe Willie and Di rented a house for a vacation and invited friends over. Maybe one of them lived there. Whatever the situation, they look well prepared for summer fun.
And look at the array of bifurcated garments! According to this handy guide published in California Stylist in 1964, Dorothy on the left wears Bermuda shorts, Callender in the center has on pedal pushers, and Di on the right wears slacks.
Don’t their outfits look contemporary? The tie waist/knot waist shirt worn by Dorothy and Callender has made a fashion reappearance and Di’s statement sleeves are right in style. They would certainly fit in on the streets of Southern California today.
Although this is an advertisement rather than a real life snapshot, I love the contrast in clothing depicted between the generations. The Library of Congress gives the date as 1965-1980, a very big range, and I couldn’t find it reproduced in any popular magazines. If you have better luck, let me know. However, the clothing on all the participants makes me think this was made sometime in the mid to late seventies. The barely legible subtext—“Anything without it is either non-union or non-American”– points to the seventies as well. That was the decade when off shore manufacturing began in earnest for the US garment industry.
The grandmother figure on the left wears a loosely fitting belted dress with a fairly long hem. Her long hair is caught up in a bun. The look is elegant but conservative, and you can certainly tell that she has the wider waistline most women get as they age.
The daughter/mother depicted next is dressed like a working woman of the late seventies with her blazer and pussy bow blouse. John Malloy’s influential Dress for Success came out in 1975. Can’t you see her as a school teacher in comfortable shoes for all day wear? Her daughter wears a jumpsuit and sneakers, an outfit right in style today. The only clothes that defies time are those on the little girl.
A reader from Colorado sent this wonderful photo along with a story, my favorite kind of contribution. Center and right are two sisters, with facial shapes, hair styles and eye glasses looking very much the same.
However, the similarity ends there. The sister in the middle is a Midwestern farm wife visiting her younger sibling in Oregon. She wears a shirtwaist, the uniform of older women in the fifties, along with a pair of sensible shoes. The dress is not without its charm, trimmed with dots along the pockets at the hips and chest. Nonetheless she looks old fashioned next to her West Coast sister who has on slacks, a knit shirt, and tennis shoes. It shows that style is geographic as well as generational. Don’t you wonder what they through of one another?
On the left is the daughter/niece from Oregon. Although she also has on pants, she seems to be trying very hard to look cooler than her mother. Don’t the sunglasses do the trick?
In the US, most of us have probably come across a bridge or a trail that was built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Depression Era government sponsored employment agency. Not only did the program build bridges and sponsor arts programs, it also put women to work sewing. The participants were taught to use sewing machines and and then tasked to make clothing, bedding, and other items that were distributed to hospitals and charities. The Milwaukee Handicraft Project, which included sewing, rug making, and textile design, is particularly well documented.
This 1936 photo shows a racially integrated group of women hard at work. From their faces, it looks like that they range in ages from their thirties at least up into their sixties. You get the best view of their work when looking at the African American woman at the center of the photo. She appears to be constructing either a full apron or a house dress.
These women were likely the main providers for themselves and their families—single women, widows, or wives of husbands who were unable to work. They are all dressed neatly in simple dresses, some with aprons. Four women have on identical white dresses and caps. Were they perhaps nurses or members of a religious order?
I would love to know the story of the oldest looking woman in the photo, third from the left in the second row. While most of the other women have their hair in stylish short waves, she wears her gray tresses pulled back into a bun. Her round granny glasses also mark her as older than her sewing companions. She is hard at work at a time in her life when many others might have hoped to take it easy.
Celebrity endorsements are nothing new. Here’s a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt, then in her mid seventies, with a needle in her hand. She is meant to be sewing in the new label for the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. It was part of the 1959 publicity campaign by the union to rebrand its products as a way to combat the expansion of garment production to the non-union South. Read the fascinating story here. Although union labels had existed before, this is the beginning of the iconic label and the “look for the union label” jingle that many of us remember from our childhood.
What exactly is Eleanor Roosevelt sewing? It looks like a large white collar. Might that be why the women closest to her have on white collars? Although the photo is surely staged, the crowd looks genuinely enthusiastic, including young and old. There are even a few non-white faces in the background.
In the Republican version of the pose, New York State First Lady, Mary Rockefeller, sews on a label. She’s surrounded by men, Ed Koch and Nelson Rockefeller among them. Unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, she really looks like she knows what to do with a needle. Note her little hat—so 1950s.
One could make snarky comments about the photos—the diverse crowd of men and women around the Democrat compared to the wall of white men surrounding the Republican. However, I choose to see a more positive message. Isn’t it wonderful that politicians of both parties could unite around the issue of fair wages for garment workers?
Home sewing can be an isolating activity, but not if you take your work outside. I wonder what the woman on the left is doing. Darning? Hemming? Making a couture outfit by hand? Whatever it is, she has a friend to keep her company. Her companion has brought along a book to read when the seamstress is concentrating on her work.
The photo comes from Philadelphia, a city where I lived very happily in the mid-eighties while teaching at Temple University. The school is located in North Philadelphia in a neighborhood that looks very much like the one pictured here. Someone thoughtfully put in a bench that is raised up a little, making it more comfortable for older people to use.
There is no trace of seventies fashion in the older woman’s dress, a shirtwaist style that would have looked fine a decade before. Don’t you think she made it herself, cleverly planning out the interesting placement of stripes?
Of course I know that baseball covers have stitches, but until I saw this photo I didn’t realize that the covers were stitched together by hand. Even today most covers are hand stitched, although the process is done in a factory. This photo shows that it was once done as piecework at home. Note the large box filled with balls pushed up against the fireplace.
The explanatory material for this photo identifies the woman as a farm worker outside the town of Tullahoma, Tennessee. Stitching baseballs was probably work she took on at night or in the winter months to bring in extra income. I wonder if other members of the family also participated in this home enterprise.
I’m fascinated by the woman’s gingham dress, which in fact might be a big dress-like apron covering up a garment below. See the little strip of a different gingham pattern peeking out at the hem. Whatever it is, I like the off center buttons running from top to bottom and the wide sleeves. And note the stitched covering for the mantle, something I have never seen before. Perhaps it was also handmade.
One common assumption about older women is that they are much less likely to keep up with current clothing trends. I notice this in my own dress. There are lots of explanations for this phenomenon. Usually older women have discovered styles that they feel comfortable in and are much less likely to want to change them. They have reached a point in their lives where impressing others with stylish clothes is not as important—if it ever was. And since poverty often rises among women as they age, perhaps they just don’t have the money to stay in style.
But of course every generalization is just that—a blanket statement that cannot cover everyone’s experience. Above we have a case in point, a woman I’m guessing to be in her late forties to early fifties who is experimenting with 1940s styles. The photo on the left is even dated—1941. The others came from the same batch of photos purchased from a favorite eBay dealer. She has clearly taken up the trend for bifurcated garments—I’m betting that what looks to be a short skirt on the right are in fact a pair of culottes.
This woman, whoever she is, has a body shape praised in contemporary films and fashion magazines, with ample breasts, a small waist, and long legs. She has decided to show off these assets through her clothes. Note how her head is tilted in the same direction in all the photos.
And how about you? Do you keep up with current styles?
To contribute to this collective history project, send pictures and stories about the older women in your life to firstname.lastname@example.org. The more information you can include (date, place, etc.), the better.