Do you remember Mrs. Exeter, Vogue’s older woman of fashion? I recently came across her again in a Vogue Pattern Book from 1962. By that time, she had all but disappeared from the fashion magazine. Apparently editors believed she was still sewing, though, and occasionally indicated patterns that they thought a stylish but not too adventurous older woman would like. “Mrs. Exeter, never fashion’s pawn, takes a cool, composed look at the possibilities of the new season,” starts a three page spread on her fall choices.
It is worth noting that none of the recommended patterns is listed among the “new shapes for Fall.” If you include the outfit portrayed in the black and white photo, Mrs. Exeter gets three suits, five dresses, and one coat for the season. The colors, when they are mentioned, are quite subdued—black, white, gray, brown, and taupe.
What kind of life would support this kind of wardrobe? I guess lots of lunches, museum visits, and women’s club meetings. She is hardly a night owl. Only one outfit, the suit with the pill box hat depicted above the second “E,” ranks as evening wear. Unless she wears a cast off dress from years back, she doesn’t do her own housecleaning. (If so, let’s hope the skirts are a little wider.) And it goes without saying that she doesn’t wear pants.
The photos taken by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information during the Great Depression and Second World War offer many insights into how ordinary Americans survived hard times. One small slice of history was recorded by photographer and later anthropologist John Collier. He went to Richmond, West Virginia to document a government program that sent unemployed young people from the area to help with the harvest in upstate New York. His photos provide a visual account of the applicants, their train trip North, and small glimpses from their life on the job.
Collier also took the time to ask local people what they thought of the program. This photo of Mrs. Burt Marshall was particularly informative. She felt that girls should not have been sent away, but that it was good for the boys “because it trains them to be good citizens and participate in the war effort.”
Don’t you wish that Collier had recorded information about her life as well? Was she a milliner? A shop owner? A customer? Surrounded by hats, why wasn’t she wearing one herself? And where did she find that boldly printed shirtwaist dress?
I find many of the photos for this blog in thrift stores, at flea markets, and on sites like eBay. Most of them are not dated, which means that I have had to teach myself how to make educated guesses about when they were made. Awhile back I asked a costume designer friend of my daughter’s to date this photo that I found at a thrift store in Western Massachusetts. In my view, costume designers are the most skilled people in the world of dress and fashion. For their work, they need a very detailed sense of fashion history and a keen understanding of how clothes were made and worn.
There was so much to learn from her analysis of the photo! She looked carefully at small details like the cuts of sleeves and the placement of pleats. She also used the husband’s mustache in her dating process. However, her most important discovery is that the photograph was made from two different negatives. She noticed that the carpet pattern beneath the husband’s feet was different than that beneath the wife and children. There is also a strange faded spot where the daughter’s hand meets her father’s. Perhaps this family was separated by continents and reunited only through the photograph.
Given my own training in Russian history, I associate the kerchief that the mother wears with Russian and Ukrainian peasant women or Orthodox Jewish women who covered their hair for religious purposes. The aprons that both mother and daughter wear also makes them look like they come from the countryside. And look at their very sturdy shoes, the kind you might wear working the fields. This older woman is either a very recent immigrant, or else she is still in her native country waiting to be united with her husband.
Why is this family eating outside on Thanksgiving, you might ask. Late November can be hot in Southern California, as the Santa Ana winds sweep in from the desert. As I write on this Thanksgiving over 100 years later, the same winds are blowing and the temperature is projected to reach into the 80s.
None of the women felt the need for jackets in this photo of the William Webb family celebrating Thanksgiving in Anaheim in 1906. Today Anaheim is home to Disneyland and there isn’t much green space left, but even in my youth there were still orchards and farmland. You can see what might be the beginning of an orchard in the background to the right. The dinner might have included house and field staff. Do you think the turkey in the foreground could have fed them all?
As far as I can tell, all of the women might be wearing the popular skirt and shirtwaist combination of the era. You can see that the style allowed for a lot of variation, with different colored shirts and even prints to liven things up. The two oldest women sit at the front of the table. As is often the case, their clothes are not quite up to date. Their upper sleeves are very full, in the style of the previous decade. I can almost hear them saying, “This is my best outfit and I’m going to wear it today.”
May you also wear what makes you happy on this festive day.
This photo introduced me to a new fashion term. Although some of the words are cut off, the writing on the back clearly reads, “I wanted you to see my new swagger coat.” Quick online research revealed that the swagger coat was a wide, loose coat that hung from the shoulders without any waist definition. It began its popularity in the early 1930s lasting well into the forties. Perhaps it got its name because it allowed the wearer lots of room to swagger around. For those of you more expert than I, just how does the swagger coat of the thirties differ from the swing coat of the fifties?
I’ve dated the photo to the early 1930s because of the length of the woman’s skirt and her shoes, which look to retain some of the fun cutouts of shoes from the twenties. Did she make the coat herself? Her pose and outfit certainly seem inspired by some of the pattern illustrations from that era, right down to the jaunty hat.
But what is she wearing under the coat? At first I thought it might be a very long belted tunic worn over another dress. Then I realized that it could be a color blocked dress with a bit of flare at the bottom, along the lines of the pattern above.
Whatever she has on underneath, she certainly looks ready to swagger out and meet any challenges that lie ahead.
In my search for images of women on Veterans Day, I quickly discovered that the most common pictures were of Gold Star mothers, women who had lost children in American wars. The group was founded in 1928 for mothers of the victims of World War One, later expanding to include other conflicts.
This remarkable newspaper shot shows Mrs. Kate Mike from the Winnebago Tribe setting off to find the grave of her son. A confused archivist dated the photo as 1920 (for group that began eight years later) and tagged it as World War Two (wrong war). A little online research shows the date was 1933. A glance at the clothes tells the same story, with the iconic cloche hats of the twenties combined with longer skirt lengths of the thirties.
We can regret the racist language here—“her son died on the warpath”—and the attempt to make her contribution of a tobacco pouch seem strange. Still I’m glad that the photographer took the time to document this brave 74 year old woman, who did not feel obliged to change her style in order to make the long journey to honor her son.
Apparently Mrs. Kate Mike became well known in some circles, and even had a doll created for her. Compliment or insult? You decide.
Photographs often document big moments in life—the wedding, the baby, the new house. A tradition in Black churches is to mark the end of mortgage payments, the moment when property finally belongs to the residents, with a mortgage burning ceremony. The unusual photo above by Black Detroit photographer Harvey C. Jackson depicts a group ceremony. In it the many residents of the Phyllis Wheatley Home, founded in the late 19th century to keep elderly women out of poor houses, hold on to strings connecting them to the mortgage document. Let’s hope the 1915 celebration took place with only the paper catching fire.
There is an interesting mix of styles here, although all are conservatively dressed for the time. Several wear the light white shirtwaist and dark skirt combination that appealed to women of all ages and social classes. It is what I consider more of a work-a-day outfit than something appropriate for a special occasion. By contrast, others are dressed to the nines in gleaming satin. Many have on the dark dresses—with or without a light lace collar—standard for older women’s apparel. Almost all have their hair up in a Gibson Girl style.
What most caught my eye were the several women in white, or at least very light colors. In popular (Caucasian oriented) style books of the era, light colors were usually recommended to younger women, or reserved for casual occasions on hot summer days. Did African American women receive different advice or develop their own rules? In this photo, the white colors gleam and lose their detail, giving their wearers an almost angelic glow. That is particularly true for the woman standing in the front. Although the details of her outfit are washed out in this photo, we can make out lace trimming at her neck and wrists, and what look like flowers at her waist and hem. It’s a very special dress for a very special day.
This might or might not be a Halloween photo. The archivists guessed yes, and on what other occasions do grown women dress up in silly outfits? I think I recognize most of the looks here. Starting from the right we have the little girl from the prairie, the old lady with the lace collar, the matchstick girl, and a downscale Letty Lynton. But just what is the woman on the far left dressed as? I would appreciate your guesses. To me it looks like she is wearing a bowler hat and carrying a cane to accessorize her bathrobe and a pair of very baggy pants.
Do you ever dress up for Halloween? I’m afraid I’ve become the grouchy old lady who leaves the porch light off.
Reader Davrie Caro sent photos of a special family gathering in San Diego. His great grandmother, second from right in the photo above, visited the United States for several months in 1992-93. The photo above shows a surprise birthday party for her daughter, Fely, in the center. Two of her other children stand at opposite ends.
Great Grandmother Caro, called Nanay Luming by her family, was born in 1919 in the shoe producing center of Marikina City in the Philippines. The mother of eight children, she took care of her family and worked outside the home, sewing the uppers of shoes. Fely was the only one of her children to make their way to the United States, forming part of the Filipino diaspora in this country.
In her early seventies in the photo above, Great Grandmother Caro is by far the most conservatively dressed. Two elements in her outfit look quite old fashioned to me—the lace collar and the small scale, dark print of her dress. These were common components of older women’s style in the early to mid- twentieth century. The lace collar was frequently recommended to older women as a way to bring soft color and texture near the face. The small, dark print was intended to make the older, wider body appear smaller. By the 1960s many older American women had given up these styles. By contrast, her daughters look much more up to date. The one on the far left wears bright separates with the big shoulder style of the era. The birthday girl in the center wears a dress with a brightly colored bold print.
But did Nanay Luming change her look for the party? Maybe she chose her dressiest and most conservative look for the special occasion. In other family photos she is dressed much more casually in brighter colors and bolder prints. In the photo on the right, where she poses with two of her cousins, all the women wear colorful large designs. Great Grandmother Caro stands on the left. Compare her colorful, big shouldered blouse to the daintier print of her party dress.
I get the sense that the bolder, brighter style represents her true self. Look at how she dressed for her own 70th birthday party back home in the Philippines. No lace collar here, and there is nothing dainty about her hot pink dress.
During the late 1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union, there was a brief thaw in the Cold War between that country and the United States. One sign of the shift was a big exhibit of American products, architecture, and fashion at Sokolniki Park in Moscow in 1959. Vice-President Richard Nixon and Pat Nixon attended on behalf of the United States.
Life magazine covered the visit and featured a cover photo of Pat Nixon among the wives of high level Soviet officials on the cover. I am fascinated by the contrasting fashion styles in this picture. Nixon, then around 47, is casually dressed in a standard outfit of American women in the 1950s, a flowered shirtwaist dress. The Soviet representatives also appear to have put some thought into their contrasting sartorial choices. Khrushchev’s wife, to Nixon’s right, looks even more casual in a geometrically patterned dress (maybe a knit) that isn’t well matched at the center seams. To her right, in the embroidered shawl, is the wife of Frol Kozlov, then considered to be Khrushchev’s second in command. She wears what might be Russian folk embroidery on the front of her dress. The only one who looks like she is dressed for a formal fifties event is the woman on the far left, Mrs. Mikoyan, wife of the head of the Supreme Soviet. In her suit, hat, and gloves, she would not be out of place at a meeting of an American charity.
Fashion was also a part of Cold War competition, and clothes were very much on the minds of the planners of the American exhibition in Moscow. Along with up-to-date kitchens and modern furniture, there was a half hour fashion show three times a day. The young American guides for the event (all Russian speakers) wore red, white and blue outfits representing “the kinds of clothes worn by everyday Americans.” I would love to have been a fly on the wall at one of the fashion shows, not only to see the styles on the runway but also how the Soviet audience reacted. If I hadn’t retired from my job as a Soviet historian, I would look into this myself.
To contribute to this collective history project, send pictures and stories about the older women in your life to firstname.lastname@example.org. The more information you can include (date, place, etc.), the better.