The Persistence of Fashion

While looking through some family photos, I found a few good examples of the persistence of fashion — a reminder of the variety that can be found within a historical period.

Fashion doesn’t change overnight — and it changes very slowly for some people. There is a theory called “the persistence of fashion” which accounts for the fact that clothing which is twenty or even thirty years out of date can be seen in many illustrations and photographs.

Story illustration, Woman's Home Companion, Feb. 1936. Thw Woman on the right demonstrates the persistence of an older fashion.

Story illustration, Woman’s Home Companion, Feb. 1936. The hem length of the woman on the right, about right for 1917 or 1923, demonstrates the persistence of an older fashion.

In the 20th century, the persistence of fashion was often associated with older women. (An older man wearing a suit that is twenty years out of date is barely noticeable, because men’s styles change very slowly — and some styles for men have changed very little since the nineteenth century.)

But, in the 20th century, it was older women who were usually depicted as clinging to the styles of their youth — or, at least, of their middle age.

Jeanette Albers, Mrs. McLeod, and Nan Mc Leod, mid-1920's.

“Jeanette Albers, Mrs. McLeod, and Nan McLeod,” late 1920’s.

Mrs. McLeod doesn’t look impoverished, but her dress is probably several years old. (Hems this long were last in style  in 1923.) Jeanette Albers (left) has a hem which barely reaches her knees, suggesting 1927 or later. Nan McLeod (right) has a more conservative — or possibly two or three year old — outfit. It reminds me of this Chanel suit from January 1925 — which was not short.

Three generations. Probably World War I era, or a little later.

Three generations. This picture was in an album, and dated 1921.

Although the youngest woman wears a mid-calf skirt appropriate for teenagers, her mother and grandmother wear much longer dresses — the plaid one could have been seen on a wagon train; she’s dressed like the 19th century prairie pioneers!

Wearing out-of-date styles is sometimes caused by a lack of money, or a body that cannot be made to conform to the current fashion ideal, or conservatism and/or prudery, or the expectations of the local community (the wife of a small-town businessman had to dress “respectably.”) Ageism is also a factor — an older woman who dressed to compete with marriageable younger women was called “mutton dressed as lamb.” [Note: a mutton chop, which comes from a fully grown sheep, does not taste like a lamb chop….]

I captured these two late fifties’ dresses from a clip of the Groucho Marx quiz show, You Bet Your Life. The older woman, a schoolteacher, is wearing a longish, conservative 1950’s dress, probably new, but not very different in style from what she would have worn in the 1930’s. The other woman is a teenager in flat shoes (“flats”) and a full-skirted knee-length dress.

Teacher and teen-aged girl on You Bet Your Life. The oder wman has a longer skirt, sensible high heels, and longer sleeves. 1950s.

Teacher and teen-aged girl on You Bet Your Life, probably 1960. The older woman has a longer skirt, sensible high heels, and 3/4 sleeves that cover her arms. This episode is copyright 1961, the show’s last season.

Female contestants on You Bet Your Life, a TV quiz show which ran throughout the 1950s.

Female contestants on You Bet Your Life, a TV quiz show which ran from 1950 to 1960.

Mothers and grandmothers were not encouraged to present themselves as sexually attractive.

Persistence of Fashion: an Advertisement for Sealy Mattresses, Delineator, Sept. 1917.

Persistence of Fashion in an advertisement for Sealy Mattresses, Delineator, Sept. 1917. The younger woman wears a V-neck blouse, a relatively new fashion in 1917, but the older woman wears a high, 1890’s style collar.

The reasons for the persistence of fashion among older women are many. Magazine illustrations and advertisements make it clear that among prosperous older women, many who could afford to keep up with changing styles chose to have their new clothing made with the high collars and low hemlines of a previous decade. Sewing  patterns from 1918 allowed a choice of neckline.

Illustration of a restaurant, Delineator, Oct. 1924. Notice the persistence of fashion on the older woman in the foreground.

Illustration of women in a restaurant, Delineator, Oct. 1924. The young women are very stylish, with bare arms and necks. Notice the persistence of an earlier fashion on the older woman in the foreground.

The waitress in the background, and the young women in the foreground, are dressed for 1924.

The waitress in the background, and the young women in the foreground, are dressed for 1924, but the older woman would not be out of place in 1910.

The older woman has the hairstyle and the high-waisted dress of the previous decade, although she is clearly a prosperous member of the middle class. She is comfortable wearing an older style that she feels is becoming to her.

The woman on the left in this photograph is dressed up and proud of it — in new-looking clothes that are ten years out of date.

Helen Taylor in 1915. The young woman on the right is not wearing a shorter skirt because she is a girl, but because it is the fashionable length.

Left: Mrs. Taylor and Helen Taylor in 1915. The young woman on the right is not wearing a shorter skirt because she is a child, but because it is the fashionable ankle-baring length.

Obviously, it is not lack of money that prevents this hostess from dressing in the current fashion:

This lady, with her butler at her side, could afford to dress in chic clothes -- but she chooses not to. May, 1932 illustration by W. Morgan.

This lady, with her butler at her side, could afford to dress in chic clothes, like the lady on the right — but she chooses not to. May, 1932, illustration by W. Morgan.

The older woman’s long skirt is a relic of 1923 — or even earlier. She is conservative in hair and hem.

I found this interesting example of the persistence of fashion in an article about women who volunteered to sew for soldiers during World War I:

Full mourning -- circa 1898 -- in a photo from 1917. Ladies Home Journal, Nov., p. 22.

One woman wears “full mourning”– circa 1898 — in a photo taken in 1917. Ladies’ Home Journal, November, p. 22. Poor woman — has she been in mourning for 19 years? [Edit: 9/10/16: Christina reminds me that this woman may be mourning a son lost in the early months of WW I; I failed to consider naval losses.]

Mourning costumes, 1898, from Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper's Bazar.

Mourning costumes, 1898, from Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazar.

The widow’s bonnet had a long black veil which could be pulled over the face for privacy, or to hide tear-swollen eyes. It’s a little surprising to see that Jacqueline Kennedy wore one at President Kennedy’s funeral — but it was over her normal pillbox hat.

Another extraordinary hold-over appears on the right in this photo:

Persistence of fashion: Right, a turn of the century dress beside a dress from the early 1920s.

Persistence of fashion: Right, a turn of the century dress (or “wrapper”?) beside a dress from the late teens or early 1920s. The older woman has shortened her dress to walking length for housework — or to expose her shoes, which look new. Her throat is exposed, too, so this is a fairly new dress made in an older style, and worn over petticoats!

The Lack of Ready-to-Wear Clothing and the Persistence of Fashion

Today, we take the existence of “off-the-rack” ready-to-wear clothing in a range of sizes for granted. If we need a new coat, we go to a store and buy one, from a range of prices to fit most budgets.

That was not possible until the latter part of the 19th century.  Suiting Everyone, published by the Smithsonian, was the book that made me aware of the importance of the U.S. Civil War (which ended in 1865) in developing the standardization of sizes. The urgent demand for hundreds of thousands of military uniforms, plus the development of industrial sewing machines, created a need for statistics about human measurements — and the war supplied them. For the first time it was possible to predict that a man with a 44 inch chest was statistically likely to have a 38 inch waist, and a man with a 38 inch chest was likely to have a 32 inch waist. Related back and sleeve lengths could also be calculated. [This is not to say that Civil War uniforms fit well!]

Elizabeth Ewing’s History of 20th Century Fashion makes it clear that standardized sizes for women happened later in England than in the U.S.; she says large-scale production of ready-to-wear in the early 20th century happened in America about ten years earlier than in Britain. (p. 122.) There, at the turn of the century, “The only dresses which were ready-made were those produced for window display.” (p. 40) At least one London department store would make up a dress, fully trimmed, and leave the back seam open, for easy “fitting” to the customer. [Note: this is the worst way to alter a dress!] Of course, the simplification of styles and the relaxed fit of women’s wear in the 1910’s and 1920’s made mass-produced clothing for women much easier to sell. A snug fit in the torso was not needed.

Unfitted styles like these, from Delineator, Sept. 1924, made ready-to-wear for women easier to manufacture and sell.

Unfitted styles like these, from Delineator, Sept. 1924, made ready-to-wear for women easier to manufacture and sell.

Before the 1860’s, most fitted clothing was custom made. If you could not afford to have your dresses and coats made for you, or make them yourself, second-hand clothing was all you could find. Sometimes, clothes had been passed through a long line of used clothing sellers and pawnbrokers. “The rag trade” was a literal description of the end of the line. The very poor wore rags. It was a “perk” of body servants in upper class houses to be given their masters’ and mistresses’ old and damaged clothing — sometimes after removing the re-usable trims and lace. The servants could not wear luxurious clothing themselves — at least, not where their employers could catch them in it — so it was sold. And sold, worn, pawned, sold, worn, and sold again. I recommend Diana de Marly’s book, Working Dress for an overview of what was and was not available ready-made before the late 1800’s. Ewing’s book discusses the earliest mass-produced items for women.

Clearly, the lack of ready-to-wear clothing at affordable prices used to have something to do with the persistence of fashion. However, there is a psychological element, as well.

As an older woman myself, I have lots of ten-year-old clothing in my closet. I haven’t reached the alarming proportions of my [Edited from “once beautiful” on 9/5/16] once fashionable great-grandmother, on the right, below:

Three generations, probably about 1910.

Three generations, probably about 1910. The woman on the right has clearly lost all interest in current fashion — and in corsets.

… but I have always worn classic,  straight-legged slacks. Sadly, I have them in sizes 12 through 16…. As I get closer to a healthy BMI, some barely-worn size twelves will return to the front of the closet. I’ll wear them, even if they were bought several years ago. [

Old Body, New Ideas

I’m retired. I don’t have to dress to impress anybody, because I no longer have a job telling other people how to dress. I no longer need to read WWD or fashion magazines, because I no longer design modern dress plays. I used to “shop” for a living (for clothing and fabrics,) so I don’t think of shopping as entertainment. Long ago, I met — and married — “Mr. Right,” so the fantasy of finding the perfect dress — “the one that will make me beautiful” — is over.

When I need something specific, like a new raincoat with a zip-out wool lining, I go to Nordstrom, just as I did when I was working. When I needed a dressy pair of water-and-snow-proof boots for a January vacation in New York City, I paid full price willingly — for the most expensive pair of shoes I have ever bought. (The vacation included reservations at a lot of good restaurants, plus an opera, plays, etc.) But in general I’m now much more likely to shop at Ross than at a major department store. When you prefer simple, classic styles in neutral colors, “last season” and “this season” aren’t very relevant. (And budget is a consideration — I am always saving up for a trip to Europe.)

Like the older women in these photos, I reject some new styles on sight. I’m not going to be buying any leggings or jeggings or any other tight-at-the ankle trousers, because I know from experience that, in them, I look really broad in the beam. I’ve been shopping for myself for 60 years; I know what to avoid by now. I already know what colors I should never wear (like yellow,) and which styles are most flattering to my narrow shoulders and wide hips. Plus, I am trying to get rid of “things,” not acquire them.

Buy Less, but Buy Better.

I admire people who try to limit their purchases of new clothing for ethical reasons. The excellent documentary The True Cost is a real eye-opener. In fact, it has me shopping for organic cottons — and it convinced me they are worth the price. Here’s a good idea: “Buy less, but buy better –” Better quality, and better for the world.

I realize I may end up as an example of the persistence of fashion, because I don’t own any up-to-the-minute fashions. But Fashion doesn’t own me.

It's the 1930s. The woman on far right is wearing trousers. Her mother, far left, wears a sunbonnet.

It’s the 1930s. The woman on far right is even wearing trousers. Her mother, far left, wears a sunbonnet.

Sunbonnets are a very old head covering, although the one on the left uses early 20th century fabric.

Sunbonnets are a very old form of head covering. And they protect the back of your neck. The Met has a corded sunbonnet slightly similar to the tan one — dated 1840.


Filed under 1830s -1860s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1950s-1960s, Costumes for the 19th century, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, vintage photographs, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes

24 responses to “The Persistence of Fashion

  1. onyxnoir

    The unintentioned fat shaming in this made me sad. Your grandmother was STILL a beautiful woman, even after gaining a few pounds. I would hardly call her proportions ‘alarming’.

    • You have a point — as a person who was first put on a medical diet at age 11, and one who still struggles to stay at a healthy weight for medical reasons, I do see clinical obesity as “alarming.” But you are right; I also see my great-grandmother, with her slumped shoulders and sad expression, as a person who is losing interest in life, not just fashion. Struggle and grief and physical pain can do that; I didn’t mean to criticize her — just to point out that she was once interested in fashion, but lost that interest.

    • I want to thank you again for your thoughtful comment — I did some careless writing, and referred to “my once beautiful great grandmother” when what I should have said (and meant) is “my once fashionable great-grandmother.” I am a compulsive proofreader, but I missed that poor word-choice, and that correction will be made.

      • onyxnoir

        No problem. I was fairly certain that you didn’t mean to sound quite so ‘down’ on your great-grandmother as the original comment was reading to me.
        And I love your blog, by the way. You cover eras of fashion that I’ve done very reading on myself, and I’ve learned a lot from reading it.

      • onyxnoir

        …’very LITTLE reading on myself.’ Whoops.

  2. I love this blog, even though i don’t often comment. Yellow? Like, who can wear yellow? Only if its far away from your face!

    Sunbonnets are like those foreign legion hats with the neck flap, pretty good idea.

    There is one other thing that makes women dress in out of style or old clothing, which is a love of vintage fashion. In the 60’s when i was a young woman i loved to wear clothes from the twenties and thirties and even my granny’s castoff clunky shoes. I still love vintage fashion from those periods and wear it occasionally but being vintage myself i must take care that people don’t think i bought it new.

    You jave inspired me to go through my big pile of family photos and see who is wearing what.

    • Thanks. Women who wear vintage styles with flair always look chic to me — but I agree about not wearing the styles that we wore already in the sixties — or the eighties — without mixing them up a bit. I admired two twenty-ish women wearing a mix of vintage fashions downtown a while ago, and realized that if I wore what they were wearing, complete with sexy, tousseled just-out-of-bed hairstyles, I would not look like one of the women in Advanced Age. I would look like I had forgotten to brush my hair.

  3. Gia

    Yet another great post!!
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, as I do everything on your blog!

  4. I’m glad to know that there is a technical term for what I study, although “the persistence of fashion” is a little confusing. Maybe “the persistence of older styles”? Your post made me think about how much of the current fashion advice to older women is about overcoming some of the obstacles to change that you list–try a new hair style, an unfamiliar look, etc. But maybe those of us who stick with the tried and true do more to save the planet than the young trend setters.

    • I thought of you — and AmericanAgeFashion while writing it! I didn’t make up the expression — I first learned it in relation to women who were still wearing the thin, penciled eyebrows and other makeup of the 1930’s (Some were still around in the 70s.) It really means the tendency to get “stuck” in a look you like and stop adjusting to newer fashions — so it’s a “fashion” that “persists.”

  5. DinahW

    Another excellent post – thank you.

    I don’t think you have mentioned an important factors – “comfort” !

    By comfort I mean psychological comfort, not physical comfort. My late father-in-law was uncomfortable leaving the house without a tie around his neck. It took my mother a lot of courage to meet people without wearing a girdle. Older people continue to wear clothes that give psychological comfort -regardless of physical comfort. It’s what they were brought up.


    • Bonnie groves poppe

      My grandmother, born in 1876 and died in 1974, always wore a corset. Not laced up tightly, but it was there, it would have been like leaving your underpants home to have foregone the corset. When i was in my early 20’s we all wore panty girdles to hold uo our nylons (panty hose were too expensive) when dressed for work. I felt a bit odd when i swapped mine out for a garter belt. I probably weighed a hundred pounds and surely did not ned a girdle!

      • DinahW

        Hi Bonnie!
        In your reply you say “like leaving your underpants home”. I agree with you, but my teenage grand daughters would not agree with us old ‘uns! They wear jeans without any underanything….and why not? Sanitary protection is minute today compared with what I had as a teenager. Sorry not directly related to the subject post, but it shows that medicine, technology, morality and fashion are all intertwined.

        No one’s mentioned bras? How many women complain about them, but absolutely refuse to be seen without one. Of course if you say “I wear a bra for personal comfort” that it exactly what our grandmothers would say about their corsets? Unfortunately, being bra less sends all sorts of social messages – but that’s society for you. Ditto 19 century women being corsetless.

      • My folks always told me not to wear worn-out underwear (or a slip strap mended with a safety-pin) because “What if you got in an accident and they took you to the hospital? Everyone would see your awful underwear!” I can report from experience that, when you get to the hospital after an accident, they cut your clothes off with scissors — so much for that argument for wearing your best!

    • You’re right about not feeling “properly dressed.” I never saw my father-in-law leave the house without a hat — even in his nineties.

  6. Or as the Seinfeld episode had it (I think this is how it goes) he got off the style train at a particular stop and never got back on!

  7. Another amazing, interesting post!

    I know this might not directly have to do with “the persistence of fashion”, but I do remember my great grandmother, who was born in the late 1800’s, telling my mom (again and again ’cause she’d forget she told you) that as a young girl living on a farm in Kansas she saw Conestoga wagons roll through the town. That was a mode of transportation at least 40 years old when she saw them in the beginning of the 20th century. Not just fashion but other circles also have a certain “persistence” of the past styles I suppose – just a thought!

    • My history-reading husband (and Time Life books) reminds that the middle of the U.S. was still being settled in the 1880s — (and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, The Long Winter was about the great blizzard of 1880-81. My father once mentioned that his parents came to California with their possessions loaded into a wagon in the late 1890’s. So your Great-grand-mother was not exaggerating!

  8. Christina

    The photo of the woman in full mourning is interesting because of the context. The style of the hat and veil is of the period. Mourning period was two years. Mourning attire became a little more decorative as the phases of mourning advanced. Perhaps this woman is mourning a son who died in The Great War? As to Jackie Kennedy she may have chosen the mourning veil style as a reference to her position – Queen Elizabeth, her mother and her sister all wore mourning veils at the funeral of King George Vl and also because of the Roman Catholic tradition of wearing black veils.

    • Thanks for the background on royal funerals — Mrs. Kennedy was very good at understanding her role as First Lady, even in shock and deep grief. I think the woman pictured sewing while wearing deep mourning is not likely to be mourning an American WWI soldier because the picture must have been taken earlier than Nov. 1917 in order for it to appear in the November issue. (The first American combat fatalities in Europe occurred in early November.) However, she may well be mourning a son, not a husband — or a European combatant. Perhaps she was British or French, or Belgian, or …. On a cheerier note, at my house we have been re-watching the British Jeeves and Wooster series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. The costume design is excellent, and the most rigid and intimidating older women, like Bertie’s formidable aunts, are frequently dressed in clothing of the WW I era, while the youthful cast members are costumed in 1920’s and 1930’s styles. Bertie Wooster’s most sympathetic Aunt wears up-to-date clothing. Clever costume design by Dany Everett.

  9. Christina

    The date of first American soldier who died in combat was indeed in November 1917 but from April 1 1917 to December 31 the US lost 116,516 soldiers and members of the navy and marine corps lost at sea.

    The photo just seemed to illustrate an interesting story.

    • Thank you! I am familiar with the WW I Army post near the town where I grew up, which did not send many soldiers to the front; I was very ignorant of these other losses. What a terrible war — and far from the last one….

  10. Pingback: WW1 Armistice Centenary – Suffragette Station | Ukulele Allsorts

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