In the early years of the twentieth century the Ladies Home Journal fashion expert, Mrs. Ralston, wrote for a wide audience. On her regular trips to Paris, she brought home news of the latest trends for the stylish set. However, she always acknowledged that the young and old might have different clothing needs.
What was an “older woman” for Mrs. Ralston? She called women of fifty “elderly.” By the time a woman reached seventy she had become an “old lady,” a term Ralston used without insult implied.
Much of Ralston’s advice had to do with ways to look slim. Although she acknowledged that some in the older set might be slender, she usually assumed that women gained weight as they aged. Her tips included ones you could find in today’s advice columns, like wearing clothes with vertical lines.
Color was a big concern. Since aging brings changes in skin tone and hair color (before hair dye was common), shades that had worked in youth might not be flattering in age. Although her advice was not always consistent, in general she leaned towards subdued colors, like pastels, beiges, and dull blues and purples. Unlike some stylists, she remained a staunch advocate of black.
While younger women could often follow current styles with ease, she advised older women to strive for dignity. That meant sticking to more conservative versions of new trends and taking care to accentuate or camouflage certain areas of the body. No tight fits, no stark color differences, no short(er) skirts, no elaborate hats. Strive for softness, rather than hard edges.
A few these strictures fell away when she wrote about women who were (for her) very old. In the article “How I Dress my Mother at Seventy,” she paid more attention to comfort than fashion. She advised soft fabrics, a loose fit, and garments that were easy to get on and off. And although she frequently told fashion conscious older women to give up bonnets, she reported that her mother wore them with pleasure. “This may sound rather stiff and too old fashioned for the ‘young-fashioned’ old women, but when you think it over you will say that a bonnet string around an old lady’s face and chin is the most becoming thing she can wear.” (Ladies Home Journal, March 1912, 29.)
I was surprised to find that many of Ralston’s guidelines to fit my own views of fashion—aim for comfort, take what you like from current offerings, and stay more on the conservative side. (No jumpsuits for me!) But her ideas on color stabbed me through the heart. “A bright, strong color can seldom be worn with any degree of becomingness by an elderly woman,” she wrote in May, 1903. Perhaps that is so, but there is no way in the world I am giving up orange.