Separates and the Older Woman

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

At the beginning of the twentieth century, pretty much all American women wore separates. The shirtwaist blouse and skirt combination had a universal appeal, chosen by women of all ages, races, and class.

When the shirtwaist went out of style in the 1910s, separates didn’t return again in a big way until the 1950s. This time, though, they didn’t have the same broad reach. The older set stuck to dresses, while younger women took to the more casual styles of mix and match skirts, blouses, and pants.

In his overview of the American fashion industry at the beginning of the 1960s, The Rag Race, journalist Bernard Roshko cites an industry report noting this age divide. “Nearly all women of fifty or older consider dresses suitable for wear around the house and for recreation, summer or winter. Very few women under thirty consider dresses the suitable thing to wear for either purpose at any time of year.”(267)

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

You can see this age divide clearly in pattern magazines of the fifties. Mix and match wardrobes were big, with a single pattern offered for coordinating parts. The 1956 Butterick set above, pattern 7686, offered a skirt, blouse, toreador pants, and short sleeved coat. “By linking a matching blouse and skirt you get an all-in-one dress effect…Over any of these toss the slim coat—result, ideal Easter ensemble! For active sports or lounging, ally the print or plain top with the toreador pants.” These patterns came in Junior Miss and Misses sizes 11-18, for bust sizes 31.5 to 36.

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

Butterick Pattern Book, Spring 1956. Click to enlarge

What did Butterick offer the more amply endowed woman, one who wore “more-than-misses-sizes”? A dress.

These days, pattern magazine are filled with dresses and I’m wearing only separates. I guess now I’m behind the times.


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4 Responses to Separates and the Older Woman

  1. bellneice says:

    I noticed the slim waist and perky bust line on both pattern illustrations, even on the “more than misses” size. Although it is still hit and miss, some plus size patterns now feature plus size models. Granted, the plus size models are 6 feet tall, young and maybe a size 14. But it does give you a slightly better idea of how the finished sewing project will look.

  2. Actually, I’d say you are right in the times. I don’t know very many women these days, young or old, that wear dresses regularly. It seems like most women my age consider dresses only suitable for party wear or formal occasions, only rarely for every day. I think the exception would be the beachy type dresses that women wear in the summer, but rarely in winter.

    Personally, I don’t wear pants, but I do wear separates more in cold weather. I do wear dresses in the cold (and have a mild preference for dresses over separates, particularly in warmer weather), but it is just easier to layer separates in the winter.

  3. fabrickated says:

    Interesting, and food for thought. I think I have seen that green mix and match set before, and I like it a lot. In fact it would form a great basis for a SWAP collection. Also it is interesting how separates are associated with fashion and age. Dresses seemed to really catch on for work recently after decades of suits and blouses. For weekend wear dresses often seem a bit too dressy and formal.

  4. Lizzie says:

    My earliest memories are from 1960, and the age divide still held. My mother wore slacks and shorts for housework and casual outings, but my grandmother and her sisters always wore dresses. Though the youngest sister who was a bit of a rebel began wearing slacks as the 60s wore on.

    I seldom wear dresses, but I’m still tempted to make them. Why is that?

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