A Uniform for the Old–A Lace Collar on a Black Dress

Ben Shahn, Farm Security Administration, 1935. Library of Congress.

Last week’s photo reminded me that the black dress with a lace collar served as a kind of uniform for the old in the first half of the twentieth century.  The outfit combines two elements deemed necessary in any older woman’s closet—a black (or very dark) dress and a bit of white around the face. The photo above shows two women, one old and the other even older, wearing this “uniform” in Natchez Mississippi in 1935.

I didn’t have to look far in my collection of snapshots to find similar photos starting in the early 1900s and extending into the 1940.

Why the preference for black?  One 1904 article explained it in terms of mourning.  “That black best becomes many older women is well, because so many, while perhaps not wearing deep mourning, are yet so in the habit of having black gowns during many years that they never ‘feel right’ in colors.” (Harper’s Bazaar, October 1904, 971).  Dark colors were considered slimming, and basic items in black could last many years and even get made over for older women on a budget.

And why lace?  Any light colored fabric would have the same effect of bringing light to the face.  Lace, however, added a touch of luxury. 

These photos span over four decades. Do you know of any that show the tradition lasting even longer?

This entry was posted in 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Uniform for the Old–A Lace Collar on a Black Dress

  1. bellneice says:

    When I collected old clothes (I don’t any more) I would often find yellowed lace collars of various sizes and levels of decoration for sale. I never knew how someone would use an unattached collar. Now I realize what they were for. You could use the same collar on any dress you owned.

  2. MarilynH says:

    The detachable collars protected the dress, which was not laundered very often, from oils and dirt from the face and neck. The rest of the dress was protected by the underwear and detachable cuffs.

  3. Val says:

    My grandmother wore dark dresses (usually dark blue) with white lace collars, up until her death at 84 in the mid 1960s. As far as I can tell this was a style that women wore when they were younger so they just continued to do so when they got older as, I suspect, most of us do. Do you not still love some of the fashions from your youth or early twenties and still wear some of them? I know I do.

    What appears in monochrome photos to be black is often not. In fact, sometimes it’s not even a particularly dark colour. But the most common colours of these dresses will have been blue, green and maroon. Occasionally you’ll find an older woman wearing a very bright colour – such as red – which appears black in a monochrome photo. If you can, have a look for autochromes which are some of the earliest colour photos and see the sorts of colours people are wearing in them – you may be surprised. Also, if you have any access to a digital graphics program, try desaturating (removing colour) from any modern colour photo that has a range of very bright colours – for instance flowers n bloom in sunshine – and see what happens when the photo becomes monochrome. Again, I think you’ll be surprised! 🙂

  4. Lynn says:

    What an interesting comment about color. I am going to try your experiment!

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