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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I puzzled over this photo for a long time. Is she an older woman or not? Her cropped hair is certainly a style favored by the young in 1928, and it looks like she might be pregnant. However, elements of her face, particularly her chin and the lines around her mouth, make me think she is older.
Perhaps it is a later pregnancy. One article I discovered said that the average age for women to have their last child in the 1920s was 42. This woman might have been on the upper side of that average, nearer to fifty. The shoes won’t help us determine her age. Those fabulous strappy shoes of the 1920s were worn by old and young alike.
Maternity dress or not, it is interesting that it has no waistline at all. If you read through this informative post on the blog Witness to Fashion, you will see that even maternity dresses had dropped waistlines in the late 1920s. Perhaps this was some kind of overdress, with the hem of another outfit peaking out from the bottom. It is possible that she made it herself, current styles be damned.
Does the soapweed yucca give us any clue to where the picture was taken? I have yucca plants in my backyard, so I originally thought might be California. It turns out I am mistaken. This plant originates in the grasslands and prairies of the US and Canada and is cultivated in many other places, so there is little chance of pinning the location down. I think she is posed to show just how tall the plant can grow.
I’m slowly forgetting all the Russian I learned in my career as a historian of the Soviet Union. However, I do remember that the proper plural of the word babushka (grandmother) is babushki. I suppose I should be glad that the photographer knew what babushka meant—it is not a term for a head scarf. In Russia it is used for any old woman, grandmother or not.
I found this photo in a collection of poems, short stories, and photographs called When I am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple, named after the famous poem. It is an inspiring collection with many wonderful pictures, but Rod Bradley is the only photographer famous enough to find a life on the internet. This one comes from a collection documenting life on Venice Beach, California.
When I first saw this photo, it was hard to guess where it was taken. It could have been on Brighton Beach in New York City or maybe even a lonely beach somewhere in Russia. The women all wear light colored coats of various vintages. Perhaps the one front and center with its giant buttons is from the sixties. Two wear headscarves (a platok in Russian), two wear hats, and one is bareheaded. Only the sandals on the left and peaking out on the right show that it is not dead winter.
How interesting that only one is looking at the photographer and none looking at one another. I imagine they came out every day just to sit in the sun, whether they had something to say or not.
I was ready to call this remake of a sari an unwelcome appropriation of traditional clothing. A South Asian woman on my block who sold her saris before she died expressed a final wish that they not be cut up into dresses.
However, in my search for sari remakes I discovered that this is a practice in South Asia as well. Why not reuse the stunning fabric in another design?
Sari fabric can be up to nine meters long. One end, called the pallu, is highly decorated and traditionally worn over the shoulder. The rest of the fabric has fewer decorative elements, but usually has a strip echoing the pallu along the side.
With some knowledge of sari fabric, I think I can see how the dress was constructed. Whoever made it placed the pallu on the bottom. The pattern of the fabric changes around the wrist, indicating a seam. The dressmaker used the remaining fabric to construct the rest of the dress, embellishing the waist, sleeve and neck with the side trim.
What was the occasion for this dress? I hope it was not for a costume party. If someone found it decades later, lets hope they reused the beautiful fabric again.
I’ve never understood clutch coats. They are meant to be open at the neck, and sometimes you even have to hold them closed with your hand if no other fastener is provided. But don’t you get cold around the neck, undermining the purpose of a coat altogether? This one might be fastened somewhere around the hips, but it still leaves her throat and a good bit of her chest exposed. Fashion—who can explain it?
Given the cut of the coat and the shape of the hat, this picture most likely was taken in the first half of the 1920s. Skirt lengths rose and fell during the decade, reaching their longest in 1923. Even so, the coat is quite long. Perhaps this older woman did not want to expose much of her ankles. And here’s another puzzle–the trim is fur and heavy looking, while the main material appears somewhat flimsy.
Given the leafy trees and thriving lawn, it certainly doesn’t look very cold out. Perhaps she is giving the coat a test run before the winter.
Greeting the New Year with a dive into water is a tradition in many parts of the world. In South America the water might be warm, while in Russia it is surely icy. Although temperatures usually hover in the sixties in a typical San Diego winter, the Pacific is a cold ocean. I suspect it took some willpower to pose for this photo.
It appears that at least two families are pictured here. The oldest looking woman stands in the center in a long bathing suit with modest trim around the neckline. She also wears a bathing cap. The younger woman to the left of her has on a more interesting outfit decorated with stripes on the bottom of her suit. Note her lace up gillie shoes, a style with no chance of coming off in the water.
At the moment this picture was taken, the adults look quite dry. Do you think they made it into the ocean?
A recent viewing of Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street made me consider the fate of Mrs. Claus (or Kringel), the often forgotten partner of Santa. Her history stretches back to the nineteenth century, but she is almost always left out of real life festivities. How many times have you seen her at the mall?
The Mrs. Claus above is an exception, appearing in a Christmas festival in Cheyenne Wyoming in the 1970s. She an exception in another way as well. When Mrs. Claus appears in advertising images, she is either fat and jolly or scantily clad and sexy. The woman above is neither. I can’t quite tell if she is old, but I like her outfit. The fur trim on her coat is a nod to traditional Santa elements, while her go-go boots place her firmly in her era. That must have been a fun parade!
If you are lucky enough to live in an area where people have come from Mexico or Central America, you might know about the Christmas tamale tradition. Although this sweet or savory confection is made for many different holidays, it is most closely associated with the Christmas season.
Tamales have their origin in Mesoamerican cultures and predate the arrival of Christianity. Making them is an elaborate process, often a group event called a Tamalada. You can see the many steps above: washing the corn husks, spreading a corn paste called masa over the husk, adding a filling of almost anything, rolling and tying the bundles, and finally steaming them on the stove. Many hands make light work.
Let’s hope the woman in the photograph above was not working all alone. You can see her tying up the bundles, a stack of corn husks in front of her. Although we know the photo was taken in 1960s, there is little to indicate the year. She wears a polka dot dress covered by a cardigan, protected below by an apron. It could be 1940, 1960, or even today.
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.