A Navajo Fourth of July, 1953

Photo by Austin E. Fife, University of Utah

Whatever you wore for the Fourth of July celebration, it was probably not nearly as beautiful as this Navajo woman’s outfit.  The shirt is most likely velvet, the traditional fabric for Navajo women’s festive clothing.  It is adorned with silver buttons, beading and an array of Mercury dimes.  What a relatively inexpensive way to make a dramatic effect.  It reminds me of the Pearly Kings and Queens of London.  You can also find Navajo pearl necklaces made from Mercury dimes.  Not stopping with silver adornments, she has also worn necklaces, pins and earrings of turquoise, coral, and blue glass.

This is one of several photos the folklorist Austin E. Fife made of a Fourth of July festival in Monticello, Utah in 1953.  He and his wife Alma were famous researchers of Western American folk culture. Did they wonder at the irony of Native Americans celebrating a holiday that so profoundly changed their world?

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At the Beach, 1960s

Found photo

Are they off on a brief vacation, or is this their retirement home?  Somehow I’m guessing the latter. I don’t think they could have achieved their well-tanned look in the course of a few days.  This is some people’s idea of a retirement paradise—a pool off to the side (I’m guessing by the concrete and lounge chair) with the ocean in the back.

I’ve puzzled a lot over the woman’s outfit.  Is that a bathing suit with a skirt?  A skirt over a bathing suit? Or a low cut tank top worn over some kind of skirt/short combo?  What do you think?

But the best part of the woman’s outfit, in my view, is the bathing cap.  Yes, I think it is a cap and not her hair! Read about caps designed to mimic hair on the wonderful Vintage Traveler blog.

Fashion Clothing from the Sears Catalog, Mid 1960s

The sixties were an era of wild swim caps, and she chose one that matched her summer outfit. Maybe the pool rules required it, or perhaps she wanted to keep her hair set for a festive evening.  I imagine her as one of those swimmers who kept their heads well out of the water.

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The Birmingham Project of Dawoud Bey

All photos by Dawoud Bey, The Birmingham Project. Via the Whitney Museum

The Whitney Museum in New York City is currently showing the work of Dawoud Bey, an African American photographer with an inclusive eye.  One of his most inventive works is the Birmingham Project of 2012, commemorating 50 years since the Birmingham church bombing.  To remember the murder of six Birmingham children (the four girls inside the church and two boys outside later that day) he chose six youths from the city who were the same age as those killed.  He then paired them with adults fifty years older to give a sense of the years lost to the murders. 

He took some of the photos in the Bethel Baptist Church, a center of the local civil rights movement, and others in the Birmingham Museum of Art. At the time of the bombings in 1962, the museum was only open to African Americans on Tuesdays.

Note how he paired the faces and body language of the older and younger women. Sometimes he found echoes in their clothing, like the pleats in the first photo.  Sometimes he emphasized contrast, as in the black and white outfits above.

And what an impressive range of beautiful older black women.  It’s worth flying to New York to see these in person.

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An Old Woman Meets the President, 1976

Found photo

I’m glad that I didn’t pay a lot of money on eBay for this photo, which was listed as “artist Grandma Moses and President Ford.”  Just a minute’s research after it arrived revealed that the famous artist had been dead for fifteen years in 1976.  That will teach me…

But famous artist or not, I think this old woman has done a good job of dressing up for a special event.  She wears a Chanel-inspired suit in what looks like a knit fabric, stretching over her widow’s hump in the back.  The trim adds visual interest.  The shoes, while sensible, also look dressy enough for the occasion.  Is she wearing knotted pearls around her neck, or is the trim continued on a blouse?

None of my research skills revealed just who the lucky recipient of some sort of award is.  Maybe you will have better luck.

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An “Oriental Celebration,” 1960

Where do you stand of the issue of cultural appropriation?  You might remember the recent story of a white high school girl who was shamed for wearing a Chinese style quipao dress to her prom.  Some Asian Americans complained that “My culture is not your goddamn prom dress.”

Clearly the woman on the left, Mrs. Shelton A. McHenry, had no such qualms.  The photo, published in the Southern Californian Valley Times, was taken at a party she hosted before she and her husband set off on a round-the-world tour in 1960.  To my eye, what’s offensive is that she seems to be creating an imaginary “Orient” by combining her Chinese style dress with a Japanese hair ornament.  However, I have no objection to the dress itself, which melds a Chinese inspiration with a sixties style sheath.

I think cultural appropriation is inevitable.  The history of fashion silhouettes and textile patterns is so complex and intertwined that it is difficult to trace the origins of things.  After all, the quipao itself was a Chinese response to Western fashion.  While I would never don that style because of its tight fit, my favorite summer garment is my own home-made version of an Indian kurta.  I am happy to give credit for the inspiration—a tunic style that made its own long historical journey through Central and South Asia–but I why should I give it up?

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Flowers and the Older Women—Violets, Yes; Daisies, No

Amy J. Reeve, Practical Home Millinery, 1912

Did you know that flowers can carry messages far behind the beauty of the blossoms? I was reminded of the language of flowers in an excellent exhibit of vintage clothes at my university. The graduate student curator, Ayrika Johnson, assembled garments from the late 1800s to the 1950s, showing how florals provided not just decoration, but also hidden commentaries on what was popular and appropriate in different time periods.

Age also played a role in the language of flowers. “Some flowers, like pansies, heliotrope, violets, mignonette, and many more that will easily suggest themselves, are ‘older’ flowers more suitable for those in advanced years,” wrote Claire Laughlin in The Complete Dressmaker (New York: 1916, 331) Carolyn Perry, writing in Ladies Home Journal, had similar views. “With the coming of summer the mature woman has the same desire for flowers as have her younger sisters, but her age necessitates a more limited selection both in regard to colors and the flower themselves.  No one can correctly picture a gray-haired woman wearing daisies, buttercups or apple blossoms.” (“The Mature Woman’s Hat,” Ladies Home Journal, March 1912, 27.)

For those inclined to trim their own hats with flowers, the do-it-yourself book called Practical Home Millinery thoughtfully provided direction for making both violets and daisies, good for all age groups in the household.

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Dress Up Shoes and the Older Woman

What shoes should women wear to fancy dress up events?  Looking at the images presented in most media, it would seem that sky high heels are the preferred option.  That might be okay for the younger set, but by the time you have put a lot of miles on your feet, this solution might no longer be possible.  It’s not just a question of comfort—with all the foot problems that come with aging, many older women cannot squeeze their feet into heels.

Enter fashion rebel, Frances McDormand with her own solution.  In her early sixties, she has decided that the normal dress up standards do not apply to her.  At recent Red Carpet events, she has arrived wearing Birkenstocks—custom-designed to be sure—but not at all similar to her other female companions.

I honestly cannot remember the last time I wore high heels.  Although no one has ever invited me to appear on the Red Carpet, I do go to the theater, weddings, and other occasions that require a little sparkle.  I’ve found that my standard comfort brands—Clarks, Arche, Mephisto—work just fine.  What do you wear when you dress up?

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Mini Skirts and the Older Woman

The British designer Mary Quant is often given credit for inventing the mini skirt, that iconic clothing item of the 1960s.  Where did her ideas come from?  In her interesting book on women designers, Women of Fashion, historian Valerie Steele portrays Quant as someone driven by her disgust at how older women looked. “To me, adult appearance was very unattractive, alarming and terrifying, stilted, confined, and ugly,” Quant said. Mincing no words, she declared that her clothes were for thin and leggy girls, rather than for their staid and matronly mothers.

Mini skirts were, and remain, a controversial style.  When are women too old to wear them?  This question comes up again and again in Red Carpet commentary and also on television shows like “What Not to Wear.” That now cancelled show featured an opening sign stating “No mini skirts after 35.”   Does part of the controversy lie in the origin of the garment itself, something specifically designed to set daughters apart from their mothers?

But it is a style that will not die.  Yesterday I picked up my daughter at the airport, a sweet reunion after a year and a half of Covid induced separation.  While waiting, I noticed two older women in mini skirts.  They were also meeting their daughters, who arrived wearing pants.

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Gold Star Mothers on Memorial Day, 1924

With all the talk of road trips and crowded airports, Memorial Day is mainly known as the official start of the vacation season in the United States.  However, its original purpose was to honor war dead.  Read this fascinating articles about the African American roots of the holiday here.

The women gathered at the center of this 1924 photo were gold star mothers, meaning that they had at least one child who had died in combat.  Lest we assume that these children were men, women—young and old—died in World War One as well.

By the clothing, we can see that it was a chilly Memorial Day in 1924.  Most of the women are in coats and hats.  One even wears the ubiquitous fur scarf of the twenties. The cloche hats are quite wonderful, decorated with flowers, ribbons, feathers, and pins.

I puzzled over the hat worn by the older woman on the left, decorated with what appears to be giant polka dots from afar.  A closer look shows that they might be embroidered gold stars—so she could wear her pride and grief for all to see.

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Tanaka Designing and Tailoring School, 1925

Although the banner in the background mentions ladies and gents, I see only women and children here. I suppose the students were making both women’s and men’s clothing. The photo possibly depicts some kind of open house or graduation ceremony.  Some of the women appear to be wearing ribbons—a marker of achievement?  The participants are of all ages, from the oldest woman in black, center front, to the tiniest child standing near her. I searched through my research data bases for information on the Tanaka School, located in Seattle, but found nothing.  Perhaps it advertised in local Japanese American papers or found its clients by word of mouth.

Here is another photo showing women at work with pattern making tools.  Just what was “Mrs. Tanaka’s System”?  The tools look pretty standard from what I can see—a curved ruler, an L square and a long straight stick.  Are those tape measures that most of the women are wearing around their necks?  The teacher on the right is wearing a very long dress for 1925. 

And here, perhaps, is Mrs. Tanaka herself.  It is interesting that this banner reads “Tanaka School of Dressmaking.”  Maybe there were two different programs—one for dressmaking that used premade patterns and another for designing and tailoring, where the students gained more advanced skills. According to my Japanese speaking friend, the banner on the right commemorates ten years of the Tanaka School.

All photos were taken by the Toyo Studio, which documented Seattle’s Japanese American population.  I would love to hear from people in Seattle if any traces of these once thriving businesses remain.

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