If you have read any of Edith Wharton’s novels, you know that she was extremely interested in clothes. Lily Bart’s decline in House of Mirth is indicated when she can no longer afford to keep up with fashion. In The Custom of the Country, provincial Undine Spragg makes her way to the top of the social pyramid in large part due to her keen eye for the right outfit.
Born to a well off New York family in 1862, Wharton was a sharp dresser in her youth. She wore expensive, highly structured gowns designed by famous Parisian couturiers like Charles Worth and Jacques Doucet. According to Katherine Joslin in Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion, as she aged and gained weight she gave up her corset and welcomed the looser styles of the 1920s. Many of the photographs of Wharton in her sixties and seventies show her wearing knits.
Knits are the comfort food of clothing, allowing movement and forgiving bulges. I date America’s love affair with knits to the post World War Two era, when new artificial fibers hit the market in a big way. However, this photo serves as a reminder that older women have been reaching for their comfort clothing for a very long time.