California has the reputation of a progressive blue state, but that hasn’t always been the case. As recently as 1981, the Los Angeles Community Rehabilitation Agency commissioned mural artist Barbara Carrasco to create a work to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city. When the mural, “LA History: A Mexican Perspective,” was finished, the agency refused to hang it unless she removed 14 segments from the 51 depicted. Among the scenes the agency wanted censored were the lynching of Chinese American workers, the Zoot Suit riots of 1941, and the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War Two.
When Carassco refused to make changes, the mural went into storage for decades. It made a brief reappearance for an art exhibit in 2017, but only found a permanent home at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History in 2021. Placed in the museum’s welcome center, anyone can now see it for free.
Watch this brief video of Carassco celebrating the permanent placement of her work, forty years after its creation. Her somber look in the video–dark clothes, dark hair, dark eye makeup–are emblematic of her style.
I’m not surprised to see the “Gracious Lady,” Sears’ euphemistic attempt to address the older woman, wearing a polka dot dress! A very popular print in the 1930s, polka dots were even more common for the older set. In their 1930s version, the dots were always small and appeared on a dark ground. Supposedly their dainty look disguised any figure flaws.
What were the key elements of the Gracious Lady style? The clothes were all on the conservative side. In the Fall 1938 catalog, other women got to wear clothes with colorful embroidery and soutache medallions. The gracious lady’s outfits had none of these up-to-date additions. While younger women were featured in knits and velvets, the Gracious Lady wore simple woven cloth dresses in cotton or rayon. A polka dot dress was the ultimate gracious look, especially accessorized with a lace collar and sensible shoes! You could find it in navy, black, or wine.
Renewed attention to Queen Elizabeth’s fashion choices has brought “monochromatic style” back into the fashion discussion. There is a less flattering term for it, however–“matchy matchy.” These days it’s often used as an insult for women without enough imagination to add an element of surprise to their outfit. In the sixties, however, completely color coordinated outfits were all the rage. I remember getting my shoes dyed hot pink to match my dress when I was in my step sister’s wedding.
This woman personifies the matchy matchy trend. It makes me wonder which came first. Did she buy the suit to match the shoes and bag or the other way around? Don’t you wonder what her closet looked like? Was pink her go-to color, or did she have similar matching ensembles, including shoes and bags, in a rainbow of shades? Not even the Queen, with her neutral shoes and bags, went to such an effort to color coordinate.
I’ve been avoiding the topic of the Coastal Grandmother, even though it seems a perfect subject for this blog. Why? It smacks so much of wealth and white privilege. Everything is white, from the people, to the backgrounds, to the clothes. It also seems like one of those silly invented style fads, like Barbie Core. But how often are grandmothers, aka older women, style inspirations? And how often do younger women want to follow trends supposedly associated with them?
You can find lists on line, like this one, enumerating the Coastal Grandmother’s essential elements. She cooks with organic ingredients from the farmers’ market; she gardens and probably throws pots; and she decorates her home in lush beige. One wonders what happens to the couch when the grandchildren come to visit, but then grandchildren don’t seem to be required.
It’s her clothing that interests me, though. Her style is easy to summarize: the palette is beige or white, with occasional touches of blue; she only wears natural fibers; and she looks elegant in a kind of “no style” style that centers around easy basics like big shirts, loose pants, and swishy skirts.
Avoiding the obnoxious call to consumption that always comes with these aspirational lists of style choices, there is something comforting about the Coastal Grandmother’s appeal to younger generations. We should all be trying to focus on natural fibers as much as possible, since the polyester you wear now will last long after your grandchildren die. And the easy basics of this style can easily be found at a thrift store, flea market, or even your own closet. That’s not such a bad thing. And if one expanded the color palette to include orange, some of my clothes just might fit in!
My husband comes from a small family, so he doesn’t have a vast supply of stories about wacky relatives to enliven dinner parties. One exception is his great aunt, Edith Christine Smith (1888-1968), known to the family as Auntie Chris. She would visit every Christmas bringing a big plum pudding, which no one liked. According to him and his sister, her dinner conversation consisted mainly of sharing her methods to remain regular. She never married and for them embodied stereotypical qualities of a maiden aunt, with old fashioned clothes and cantankerous ways.
My niece Jessie, the historian of my husband’s family, knew more about Auntie Chris. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she was in charge of book binding at the Brooklyn Public Library.
This photo, taken by my sister-in-law when she was nine (!), shows Auntie Chris at Jones Beach. She would have been around sixty-seven here. Her sunglasses and short sleeves appear to be her only concessions to the sunny beach environment. The dress, or skirt and top combination, is a coordinated outfit which she has dressed up with a pin–or is that a pocket with a handkerchief? No one remembers her without her sensible shoes, and this beach snap shot is no exception. But of course, the tam o’ shanter on her head takes the cake!
When it’s hot out I tend to cover up in loose clothing, choosing baggy pants and long sleeved cotton shirts. The older woman above takes the opposite approach. She opens up her body to the breeze with a sleeveless top, shorts, and a pair of rakish sunglasses. Even her sandals are minimal. Why the hat, though? It doesn’t look like it offers any coverage from the sun.
The photo is part of a series of portraits of old people made by Jack Bradley, staff photographer for the Peoria Journal Star from the 1950s through the 1970s. It has no date, but others in the series were made in the mid-1970s. Many of the subjects look lonely and down on their luck. Not this woman, though. She certainly gives the impression that she could take care of herself. Her face shows her age, but her arms and legs look muscular and fit. And she certainly has a confident sense of style.
What’s your favorite look for the dog days of summer?
According to Alison Lurie’s inventive book about fashion, The Language of Clothes, trying to dress younger than you are has long been regarded as a bad fashion move. “Since classical times, literature has been full of elderly and not-so-elderly comic characters who affect the costume and manner of youth.” While men are also the targets of ridicule, there is a well worn phrase for older women who transgress.
Helen Hokinson, cartoonist for the New York from the mid 1920s to the late 1940s, had a keen eye for the missteps of women of a certain class (and post-menopausal heft). One of her running gags shows these women trying to keep up with current fashion, often with the sly aid of a much younger saleswoman.
This cartoon comes from Hokinson’s posthumous collection The Ladies, God Bless Em! Although drawing isn’t dated, I believe it comes from the 1940s, when pants and shorts as casual attire gained popularity, especially among younger women.
The woman here is meant to look ridiculous, in her odd overall shorts combo worn with old lady shoes and elaborate jewelry. And what would the husband make of such an outfit? Detached and baffled husbands are another standing joke for Hokinson. Perhaps somewhere there is a drawing of the hapless woman showing off her outfit to her astonished spouse.
You are forgiven for not knowing who Mother Bloor (Ella Reeves Bloor, 1862-1951) is, even though she got her own page of photos in Life magazine in 1938 on the occasion of her 76th birthday. One of the United States’ most important woman labor organizers, her personal journey can be used to trace the history of the American left. Read a somewhat sanitized version of her life story in Wikipedia, or a more left leaning version in the online magazine, Jacobin. She was married many times, but never to a man named Bloor. Somehow she ended up being known with last name of a male companion from the 1920s and the honorific “Mother,” as a nod to her age.
Like other women on the left, she dressed in a conservative manner. Was this because she was not interested in clothes? Or perhaps she wanted to convince her audiences that she had more important things than fashion on her mind? It is difficult to imagine a more “old lady” style than the one pictured above, a dark dress with a small print and lace at the collar, topped with a flowered hat. If you look at the picture below, you’ll see that she wore her skirts very long, even though fashion was sending them up by 1938.
Above is a slice of now almost forgotten American history. Mother Bloor is pictured with the winners of a beauty contest held at a camp for young Communists. It serves as a reminder than the American Communist Party was a genuinely popular movement during the Great Depression, with camps, clubs, and orchestras. Although many viewed it as a threat to American democracy, there is no trace of that fear here.
I’ve been wanting to write about textile designer and manufacturer Hope Skillman (1908-1981) for a long time, but pictures of her—especially with any sense of what she wore—are hard to find. This Vogue advertisement, featuring her fabric on a dress by Claire McCardell, will have to do.
As a feminist, designer, and progressive factory owner, Hope Skillman Schary deserves to be better known. Her New York Times obituary lists her many accomplishments. Not only did she run her factory, Skillmill, with a mostly female staff, but she was an important member and one time president of the Fashion Group in New York, which advocated for women in fashion. After her retirement from the garment industry, she headed up the US National Council of Women and was vice president of the International Council of Women. What a lifetime of achievements.
If you look carefully through clothing advertisements in the forties, fifties, and sixties you will see that many big companies used her wares. Not only Townley, but also Adele Simpson, White Stag, Catalina and many more turned to her for inventive cottons. Her fabrics were included in a 1956 exhibit of American textile at the Museum of Modern Art. But what really made my heart beat faster was the fine print at the bottom of the ad above—in 1950 her fabrics were available for purchase by the yard.
For all you vintage buyers out there—please contact me immediately if you ever come across a length of Hope Skillman cotton. I’ll pay extra for orange.
In honor of summer holidays, I give you this photo of what I’m guessing was a family road trip. It could just be a Sunday outing, but only the son with his tie looks dressed up enough to have come from church. There is no date or writing on the photo.
Where was it taken? The dry hillside, which might have a fuzzy outline of a palm tree in the background, could indicate somewhere like Southern California. However, palm trees grow in a lot of places. Does anyone recognize the cutout design on the bridge?
The date also requires some guessing. The daughter’s outfit—cropped white pants and a slightly midriff-baring top—might date from the late forties or early fifties. Note also her open-toed shoes. I found an almost identical pair of peek-toe sandals in a 1950 Sears catalog.
The mother’s shirtwaist dress is harder to date, since the shirtwaist was staple of older women’s clothing for decades. Even basic styles reflect their era, though. Given the length, we can assume that it was bought or made after the 1947 realignment of fashion known as the New Look, when designers turned against the fashion restrictions of the war years. The not-too-full skirt was common in the early fifties. A 1952 Sears catalog offers a similar silhouette. It is a very plain dress, but she has dressed it up with something the neckline. Flowers? Pompoms? What’s your best guess?
To contribute to this collective history project, send pictures and stories about the older women in your life to email@example.com. The more information you can include (date, place, etc.), the better.