Italian Mothers Club of Philadelphia at the New York World’s Fair

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

The dome and sphere that you see in the background of this photograph are the two most important symbols of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, so famous that they even got their own stamp.  The New York Public Library houses an extensive collection of documents and photographs from fair, including a small scrapbook with snap shots of various women’s clubs that made a point of visiting as a group. This particular club came from the heavily Italian part of South Philadelphia. Given their light weight coats and the foliage on the trees behind them, I’m guess that the photograph was probably taken in the spring of 1940. (The fair ran from April 1939 to October 1940).

I’m always interested in finding generational differences in clothing styles, but there is little to see here. While there is a range of ages in the group, from the sixty-ish woman center left to some very young women on the sides, the clothing is quite uniform. All but two young woman wear dark coats; everyone has on a hat (although only a few clutch gloves.) Coat lengths vary, but that doesn’t break down easily by age.

And look at their shoes! Most are in the sensible lace up oxfords so beloved by older women for decades. Only a few braved another kind of footwear. In his informative study The Seductive Shoe, Jonathan Walford says that the heeled oxford was a favored shoe of working women by the forties, especially nurses.(178) These Italian mothers probably didn’t work outside the home, though. I think they picked this style because it was a  comfortable, yet still dressy, walking shoe.

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4 Responses to Italian Mothers Club of Philadelphia at the New York World’s Fair

  1. Rhoda K says:

    Last year I saw some lace up oxfords, although more streamlined and dressy, narrower heels, etc. but still looked comfy. I’d definitely wear them if I were still in the workforce.

  2. I love how most of the hats are cocked at the same angle. It’s a very homogeneous group, except for the young woman in the light coat who seems youthful and modern. I always like seeing the pictures you’ve dug up, Lynn!

  3. Jen O says:

    The woman in the light colored suit and the others next to her seem to be the rare figures dressed in an up-to-date skirt length and silhouette. Typically in a group, hemlines should be fairly level, but many here seem to be holding on to their longer early 1930’s silhouette. Another hemline factor may be that these seem to be coats, an expensive and long lived wardrobe item. Usually these are worn a bit longer than suits (or the longest length possible for warmth). The wardrobe differences may be more economic than by preference.

  4. Lynn says:

    Yes, Jen, I think your are right on both counts. Coats were too expensive to update frequently, and South Philadelphia was not a well-off neighborhood. Perhaps the young woman on the right needed a new coat that year and was able to buy one that was in style.

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