A Very Colorful Kitchen

For those fond of pattern mixing, here is one for you!  We have plaids and geometrics on the walls and floors, flowers on the table and apron, a paisley dress, and a figurative drawing on the curtains.  In short, there is just about every possible pattern style along with a myriad of colors in this small kitchen scene.  No wonder my mother, who set up her own household at about this time, decided on basic white.

The colorful Pyrex mixing bowls, first introduced in 1946, give an approximate date.  I am guessing early 1950s.  While the little girls appear to be dressed up in their Mary Janes and decorated socks, the two older women look fairly casual. What was the occasion?  Maybe both women were grandmothers who happened to have their grandchildren visiting at the same time. Insert your own story here.

The older woman with (dyed?) blond hair is wearing what looks to be a house dress, something without much of a shape and a long zipper for easy dressing.  The large paisley print would have been hard to match, and whoever made it didn’t bother.  She wears sensible lace up oxfords, the choice of older women for decades in the twentieth century, along with stockings that are slightly bunched up at the ankle. 

Her friend at the mixing bowl has on a simple black dress.  It must have been her kitchen, since she is doing the mixing.  Isn’t it interesting that she chose a plain dress when her kitchen was so colorful?  She has on stockings with her comfortable sandals, but maybe it had been a long day since she has detached them from her girdle and wears them rolled down around her ankles.  And why not, when she’s at home?

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In the Pink, 1996

Found photo

Here’s a big spread for a very big celebration.  If I’m not mistaken, the cake says “Happy 95th Birthday.”  I hope a lot of people came to sample the desserts.

Our celebrant has gotten dressed up for the event—a pink broad shouldered jacket, a colorful coordinating top, a necklace, and a butterfly pin.  Was pink a favorite color?  It looks good with her rosy complexion and her white hair.  Is it a trick of the photo, or do her glasses also have a pink tinge?

Given how good she looks in this color, it is remarkable to consider that when she was born older women were told never to wear pink.  It was considered a juvenile color best suited for girls and very young women.  Fashion writers advised older women to keep black clothing as the backbone of their wardrobe, adding gray, mauve, and perhaps light blue when feeling adventurous.  How fortunate the rules have changed!

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Felipe Family Women, 1979

In family photos that span the generations you can often see how women hold on to styles that make them feel comfortable, regardless of current trends.  In this photograph of a Mexican American family in Corona, California, the three older women present three distinct moments of American style. 

The matriarch at the bottom left wears a shirtwaist style beloved by many generations of American women. Her hair is fixed in that close-to-the-head look of the 1950s. On her right, her daughter has on a flowered sheath dress with sleeves, a style made popular in the 1960s.  Even the print looks to be from the flower power era, and her hair has a Jackie Kennedy look.  The third generation, the woman in the middle, wears pants, a much more up-to-date style. That is some seriously big hair.  

The young mother in the back on the left is the only one smiling.  She looks at home in her casual separates, as if it would never occur to her in a million years to put on a dress.

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Dancing at the Senior Center, 1980

When did older women decide to give up dresses and turn to pants as their basic mode of dress?  The answer surely depends in part on location.  The City of Commerce, where this photo was taken, is in Southern California near Los Angeles.  I expect more casual clothing here.  Does that explain why only one woman out of five wears a dress in this picture? 

In general, many older women began to adopt pants for events outside the home in the 1970s, while keeping dresses for special occasions. The woman on the right, in her blue and white shirtwaist, didn’t follow this trend. Or perhaps she considered a dance at the senior center something special. Note that her shoes are also fancier that those of her compatriots.

Even among the pants wearers there are different levels of formality.  The woman in the green pantsuit is the most dressed up.  I choose the one in the front, with a short sleeved orange blouse, as the most casual.

Would anyone be wearing a dress at such an event today?

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Marcella in Milan, 1981

Found photo

Marcella could be a tourist from anywhere, but the writing on the back of this photo has a distinctly American look.  And would a European tourist be wearing what is essentially a pair sweatpants in Italy’s fashion capital?  Perhaps European readers can weigh in on this issue.

Anyway, this picture proves that athleisure is nothing new.  It is hard to imagine a more comfortable outfit to wear on vacation—a stretchy pair of pants with a matching tank top and a sweater in case you needed to cover up.  In my view, yellow is not very practical for traveling. Marcella must have been a lot neater than I am.  No spaghetti sauce stains anywhere.

Did Marcella decide to dress down for travel comfort, or did she always dress on the casual side? Whatever the answer, she was following a fashion trend.  My early 1980s edition of Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalog notes that the exercise craze that started in the 1970s spawned all kinds of exercise related clothes, even for those who never worked up a sweat. This matching outfit is a prime example. Note also her sensible shoes, which bear some similarity to sneakers.  Nothing is going to stop her from having fun.

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Joshua Tree, 1940

Found photo

Those strange shaggy bushes in the background are Joshua Trees, native to the Mojave Desert.  According to the writing on the back, this photo was taken in Joshua Tree, California in 1940s.  In those days, the plants were plentiful.  Rising heat from climate change have driven them up to higher elevations today.  And in another sign of the times, what used to be a quiet desert town has now been taken over by Air BnBs, pricing local residents out of housing. 

These two older women appear to be investigating local flora and fauna.  Something—shells? fossils? flowers?—is in their hands.  At first glance, their outfits are unexceptional–dark suits and dresses with sensible shoes. However, a closer look reveals elements that appear to be inspired by military uniforms. Just a little searching showed that the woman on the right wears what looks like a Salvation Army uniform. Compare her shoulder and neck markings to a 1939 Salvation Army photo on the right. Her companion also appears to have some kind of markings on her neckband.

Photo to the right via Calisphere

Despite her austere look, the woman on the left does make a nod to current styles with her shorter skirt. Not so her companion on the right, who couldn’t even be bothered to change her hem.

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Sunkist Group Photo in Orange, 1961

Orange Public Library via Calisphere

The city of Orange–located in Orange County, California–is named after citrus. When I grew up in the fifties, there were still orange groves everywhere. No surprise that the major citrus company, Sunkist, had a big packing plant there. Today the orange groves are gone and the packing plant has been converted into an upscale food hub–a sign of the times.

As befits a big workplace, there are many different styles of clothing on display here.  Casual clothes predominate among the men, including many overalls. There is only one man in a suit—the big boss one suspects.

Many of the women, including older women, are in pants, which makes sense if they worked packing oranges.  Age isn’t the determining factor. Note several older women in the front row in pants and one on the far right even in capris. Others wear dresses or skirt and blouse combinations, more suitable for the office staff. Or do you think some wore dresses in the packing plant? Maybe the shoes are a better indication of their jobs. Several wear dresses and what look like tennis shoes, not something I often see on the older crowd in the early sixties.

Those in dresses mainly wear the full-skirted look of the 1950s, but a few (like the one on the far right in the front) have slimmed down the width of their skirts, anticipating on the sleeker styles that will become so popular later in the decade. But I imagine it would be pretty hard to pack oranges in a sheath dress.

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The Navy Blue Suit

Found photo

Reader and contributor Nann Hilyard recently sent me a page from the humorous book Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana by Susan Jonas and Marilyn Nissenson.  Among their list of things gone the way of the milkman is the navy blue suit. Until the 1960s, fashion advertising announced each year’s version with expressive details. “Not Last Year’s Suit, with its ‘below-the-knees-heaviness’ and ‘pointedly slim’ pleats, but This Year’s Suit, with the ‘new more-hat silhouette’ or the ‘frisky, almost giddy kickiness of the schoolgirl,’” they write. (97) We can see a 1957 version in the photo above.  The woman appears to have dyed her hair to match.

In my sporadic reading of Women’s Wear Daily from the twenties to the fifties, fashion writers often recommended navy blue as the must-have base color for Spring, an idea that is new to me.  Perhaps it was seen was more colorful—and thus more Spring-like—than black, brown, or grey. 

Most of my photo collection before the sixties is in black and white, so it is hard to trace whether or not older women embraced this idea.

Found photo

But who knows?  Perhaps the cheerful woman above was also wearing a new navy blue suit for Spring. Lest you confuse the season, it even has flower embellishments on the sides.

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Ukrainian American Women, 1938

Sheldon Dick, Farm Security Administration Photo, Library of Congress

According to the caption, this photo documents a political meeting of Ukrainian American women in 1938.  What was it about?  Politics in their homeland?  It was before the start of the Second World War, but after the Great Famine of the early 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians.  Of course, they could also have been discussing local affairs in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

I found this photo as a way to talk about the horrific war in Ukraine. It’s difficult to convey my fear and sorrow as someone who has spent most of her adult life studying the old Soviet Union. My archives were in Moscow, which means I know a lot of Moscovites. Everyone of them opposes the war.  Why aren’t they out on the streets, you ask.  Because they know what the government can do to them. Where would you be if protests led to jail and risked your very livelihood? Even those who took the mild step of signing petitions against the war have lost their jobs.  I have grave doubts that any even the most draconian sanctions will lead to regime change. In fact, I see no happy ending to this conflict for either country—and I fear it will last years.  I am heartsick.  In the meantime, I am doing what most people are doing—sending money to help Ukraine

But let’s turn to these cheerful older Ukrainian American women out for an evening of political discussion a few years before their homeland was turned into a major battlefield of the Second World War. Skirts were already getting shorter in 1938, but this older set had not taken to the style.  The woman on the left might be wearing an embroidered shirt—an emblem of Ukrainian identity.  We can only see the dark coat of the woman on the right.  However, the smiling woman in the middle decided on a cheerful printed dress that looks like a variation on polka dots.  Is she getting out her knitting or her lipstick? 

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Mother at the Old Farm

Found photo

The polka dot dress! 

I think of this as the archetypal dress of the 1930s, when polka dots were everywhere.  This particular outfit has some fancy details.  The dress itself appears to have a halter strap around the neck—or is it trim over netting?  On top she wears a short jacket with puffy sleeves made from sheer fabric.  This is clearly a dress up outfit for some special occasion, underscored by the big bouquet on her chest. She wears a hat at a jaunty angle, adding to the dark and light theme.

Written on the back is “Mother at the Old Farm,” with a printer’s mark from Minneapolis, Minnesota.  What does “Old Farm” mean exactly?  Had the family acquired new property, or had they moved to the city and left country life behind?

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