Category Archives: Musings

Mutton Dressed as Lamb?

Youthful puffed sleeves, McCall’s pattern 4547 circa 1975.

Last month, I received a letter which posed some interesting questions about fashion and age:

“I would like to ask you a question: In which era did the idea develop
that women after a certain age are not supposed to wear very feminine
designs such as puffed sleeves, slim waists, lots of lace, pastel
colours or patterns with flowers? As far as I know, there have almost in
every era been ideas about what women are supposed to wear at which age.
I know designs from the 1930s and 1940s showing dresses for different
ages, with wider waists for elder ladies. But I guess this just
corresponds to larger sizes, and probably a slim lady of 70 years could
then have worn dresses with slim waists.

“Anyway, it must have been an era when feminine designs were considered
attractive and youthful – perhaps the 1950s?

“I am 39 years old and I cannot imagine myself not wanting to wear these
designs anymore, when I will be older….”

Well, I can start by noting that men have been making fun of older women who didn’t dress their age for a long time.

Padded bottoms from Pinterest. 18th c. cartoon.

Historically, and in cartoons and literature (mostly made by men,) older women who dress as if they were sexy young things are ridiculed. The British expression (going back at least 200 years) for such a woman is “Mutton dressed as lamb.”

(A mutton is a fully mature sheep. Mutton chops have a strong, gamy taste and smell that lamb chops do not have. On the day when Lizzie Borden did or did not murder her parents, her breakfast was cold mutton soup….)

I.e., mutton dressed as lamb is not a good thing to be.

The old woman at left is ridiculed for attempting to dress as a young woman. Note the old man with a young beauty at far right….

The blog “Americanagefashion” is devoted to the topic of clothing for American women over 55.

“Dressing your age” is a thorny problem. The goal of using makeup and dressing to express your personality is always to look like your current self at your best. If we cling to the fashions and hair and makeup styles that made us look our best when we were 18 or 25, eventually we will look ridiculous to people who are actually that age.

Do Adjust Your Makeup

The idea is NOT to look like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Maybelline ad, April 1929. My Aunt Dot still had a marcel wave in 1980.

In the 1980s, I used to see women on the bus who were still applying their makeup as they did in 1929.

Maybelline ad, December 1929.

Thinly penciled dark eyebrows (unrelated to hair color,) coal black eyeliner and tons of mascara (often applied badly, because they couldn’t see well without glasses [I now have this problem, myself,] dark red lips in a Cupid’s bow (extending far above their upper lip line) — these were women who were living in the past, and sadly oblivious to the changes in their faces and to the fact that “the fashion in faces” changes, too.

After teaching so many actors how to do an “age makeup” (including one actor in his 60s who was playing a 90 year old man,) I’m all too aware of the changes that come with age.  Cartilage continues to grow, so old people’s noses are often larger than they once were. Our lips tend to turn in with age, making them appear thinner. The space between the nose and upper lip may seem longer, and our eyebrows get closer to our eyes. The flesh above the eyes gets puffy and sometimes sags until it touches our eyelashes. In some cases, it impairs our vision. Some of us get under-eye bags or dark areas. Uneven skin tones and blotches may appear. (And I haven’t even mentioned how hard it is to apply eye makeup to wrinkled skin….) At 75, I currently need a 15X magnifying mirror to see what I’m doing, and that means I won’t see both eyes at the same time until I finish and put on my glasses. Often, I have to do some correcting to make both eyes look symmetrical!)

In short, we have to take a fresh look at ourselves every few years, and learn to apply makeup to the face we have now, not the face we remember.

Do Rethink Your Wardrobe Occasionally

As for dressing at sixty as you dressed at 27, well, if you always preferred classic styles and modest hemlines, you’ll probably be fine. (And I do consider jeans and shirts or knit tops to be as classic as suits and dresses.) However, extreme fashions don’t always age well.

Really wide padded shoulders from Givenchy. Vogue 2303, 1989.

I had some really flattering clothes in the 1980s & early 90s. But I gained 12 lbs one year, and by the time those clothes fit again, their huge shoulder pads were laughable. I could not possibly wear them to work — not when my job was telling other people —  actors — what to wear!

On the Other Hand

We’re probably lucky to be in an almost-anything-goes fashion era now, when hem length is not rigidly fixed, and mixing vintage and new is OK. Also, a woman with confidence and joie de vivre can often break the rules and look fabulous.

Twenty years ago, I was was waiting for a light to change when I saw a man and a woman walking together with their backs to me. She was wearing a black, brimmed hat (maybe crocheted?) with a black mini-dress, black hose, and knee high black suede boots. Her shining platinum blonde hair hung half-way to her waist. She was the embodiment of prosperous Hippie chic, circa 1967 -68. Suddenly she took a few dance steps, flung out her arms and twirled around. When I saw her face, I realized that her hair was not platinum. It was silver-white. She was a happy, smiling woman in her sixties. She was lively, flirtatious, and beautiful. She was breaking some of the “rules:” ‘dress your age, not younger’ and ‘don’t wear the styles that you wore when you were young.’ She was very attractive — because she was confident and joyous. Ari Seth Cohen would have photographed her if he saw her.

When and Why Dress in Black?

But to get back to the “when” part of the question, I have a lot of conjectures, and allowance for different cultural attitudes must be made. (E.g., are widows allowed to remarry in your culture? Is wearing trousers modest or immodest behavior in your country? Etc.) Also, many people are uncomfortable thinking of their parents and grandparents as sexually active….

Discouraging older women from wearing pastel colors or brightly flowered textiles may go back to Victorian/Edwardian mourning customs. By the time a woman was fifty, there was a very good chance that someone in her immediate family had died within the year. Grandparents, parents, aunt & uncles, possibly her husband…. Since wearing plain, black clothing for a year after the death of a close relative was customary, some women never got out of mourning. First a grandparent, then a parent, perhaps a sister or a child, …. Consequently, many older women just wore black all the time. I attended a church-sponsored Greek Picnic in the 1960s, and all the older women were wearing black. So were some teenagers.

[Lavender was the one pastel worn by Victorians and Edwardians while transitioning from black mourning to normal dress. But “lavender and old lace” were associated with age.]

Poor women don’t have a lot of clothing, so once they dyed all their clothes black after a death, they wore them until they wore out.

As for slim waists, I don’t think older women ever padded them! However, our bodies do change, and a thickening of the waist and loss of height are common. Multiple childbirths will also change a woman’s figure. Lynn Mally at Americanagefashion.com has written a lot about “half sizes” for aging female bodies.

When you’re older and you lose weight, it may come off in unexpected places. Even though I dropped many pounds a few years ago, my formerly hourglass waist is now bigger in relation to my hips and bust than it ever was before age 60 — but I had to alter some sagging trousers in back because my butt had disappeared!

Short puffy sleeves from Woman’s Home Companion, March 1936.

As for sleeves, many older women are self-conscious about our “bat wings:” just read a bit of this blog and you’ll know why older women prefer longer sleeves to sleeves that show our upper arms. When I lost 40 pounds at age 13, my skin shrank to fit immediately. Ditto when I lost weight at 40. But after a lifetime of gaining and losing weight, we can’t expect that automatic skin shrinkage in our 60s and 70s.  Now, if I want to fill out the loose skin on my arms, I need to build some muscles! So — short puffy sleeves lose their appeal. And elbow length puffy sleeves just remind me of the 1980s….

Laura Ashley pattern 8432 for McCall’s, dated 1983.  Been there, done that….

Of course, sex appeal comes into this problem. I’m old, now; but I have never consciously dressed with the hope of picking up a stranger and having sex with him that night. In fact, whenever a clearly intoxicated man “hit on me” at a party or in public, I usually wondered what I had done to send the wrong signal. (I usually concluded that he must have been wearing “Beer Goggles,” because I generally wore clothes that were entirely appropriate for office work or teaching school. My rare low-cut dress was strictly for parties at friends’ houses.)  So, how does a woman in her 60s or 70s dress “sexy” without seeming ridiculous? Well, I didn’t try to dress sexy in my 20s, so I’m not qualified to tell you how to do it at 75!  That said, good grooming, a positive attitude, and a sincere interest in the other person are always attractive…. but those qualities attract friends. Sexual attraction may be a different problem.

A book that helped me adjust to my changing role was Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style. I loved the first book he did, although by the time he made the film, some of his favorites (women with plenty of money) became stars who started to overshadow the many women who looked fabulous on a limited budget. Wearing fabulous and massive jewelry isn’t an option for most of us.

But a positive attitude doesn’t cost a cent.

 

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Filed under 1700s, 1800s-1830s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Edwardian fashions, Late Victorian fashions, Makeup & Lipstick, Musings

Thinking About Bad Apples

“Argy-Bargy,” watercolor by Susan Grote.

When I was making this painting, years ago, I was concentrating on choosing the right paint colors to layer to capture the green of the apples. But another part of my mind was thinking, “That apple in the corner is in BIG trouble.”

Recently, we’ve seen people on TV talking about “a few bad apples,” as if they were nothing to worry about. And that got me thinking about the origin of the expression, and about the importance of apples in the past.

I’m old enough to remember when fresh fruit was seasonal. We didn’t have fruits raised on the other side of the equator flown in to our local supermarket. Ordinary families didn’t get to eat strawberries in the fall, or tomatoes and melons in the dead of winter.

Back in the fifties, strawberries marked the coming of summer for me. In May, some gardeners we knew proudly offered me the chance to pick a few ripe ones, and my parents often drove fifteen or twenty miles to a “pick your own” strawberry farm. We picked a couple of lugs. because strawberries were only available for a few weeks. If you wanted that delicious, summery taste later in the year, you ate the strawberry jams or preserves that you had made in early summer.

What we now call “stone fruits” were also available, each in turn, during the summer. Peaches and apricots, easily bruised, were gorged on, then canned or made into jam and jelly. We canned cherries, too. We ate juicy plums while they were in season. (A dried prune is delicious, but nothing like the plum it came from.) Supermarket pears are now bred (like tomatoes) to survive shipping and storage, but pears used to be so delicate that each was wrapped in tissue paper and cradled in a special cardboard box, every pear in its own little nest.

Freezers were small in the fifties — big enough to hold two trays of ice cubes, a quart of ice cream, and eventually, a few “TV Dinners” — the first popular frozen meals for home consumption. But frozen fruit? Not really.

There were times, in the winter and early spring, when you might long for a fresh peach — but there weren’t any. The gift of a “Christmas orange” was special, because in relatively frost-free states like California and Florida, oranges ripened in December, and were shipped all over the States by train and truck. Fresh fruit in December! It was a rare, special treat.

Which brings me to the importance of apples. There were thousands of apple varieties, many with special properties. People ate Macintosh and Red Delicious; sour green “Pippin” apples were prized for baking into pies because they had a low water content (and the pie wouldn’t shrink much or get soggy.) Golden Delicious were good for making baked apples, and Granny Smiths were not too tart to be “eating apples,” but also good in pies. Those were just the popular supermarket apples. Gravensteins made excellent cider and applesauce. Other apples were valued because they lasted! Unlike the soft fruits (peaches, apricots, etc.) some apple varieties could be stored and eaten for months! Fresh fruit you could eat all winter! (The BBC gardening channel says that apple species which ripen in November may last though March if properly stored.)

People might store their apples in attics or cellars or barns: cool, dry, dark places. If you stored them properly, by the end of February when you got tired of eating meat, bread, and root vegetables, you could have a fresh apple  —  even apple pies! Apples were shipped all over the world in barrels — a treatment that no peach would survive!

And this is where we come to the old expression, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.”

People noticed that one rotten apple would spread the rot to every apple touching it. If you didn’t find the rotting apple and get it — and the other apples contaminated by mold spores — out of your stored apples in time, the rot would eventually ruin them all.

That is why the apples chosen to be put into winter storage had to be carefully examined first; any flaw, like a bruise or a bird-peck, disqualified the apple, because it would rot and contaminate the others. (The BBC recommends storing apples with space between them so they don’t touch, or wrapping each apple in newspaper.)

And you couldn’t just store your apples, close the attic door, and expect to find them perfect when you needed one. Your stored apples had to be examined carefully every ten days or so.** Each apple was looked at, handled gently to avoid bruising, and any sign of “going bad” — damage or a rotten spot — meant that apple had to be removed immediately. (You could use it for some other purpose, but you couldn’t leave it to contaminate others.)

So, anyone who says “just a few rotten apples,” meaning “there’s no big problem” simply doesn’t understand the metaphor.

I don’t know how anyone can watch the slow death of George Floyd at the hands of four policemen and not admit that our police need to be better trained, and more accountable to civilian review boards. How many “excessive use of force” complaints have to accumulate before the officer is removed from public contact and given better training?  I have served on juries several times, and each time I was inspired by how hard a disparate *** group of people — none of whom wanted to be there — strove to render a fair judgment. If civilians can be trusted to do justice in civil and criminal trials, they can be trusted to do justice to our peace officers, most of whom are routinely asked to work overtime to the point of exhaustion, often for pay that doesn’t even allow them to live in the community they police. American police rarely get training in de-escalating a bad situation. They are expected to deal with the mentally ill — but without medical training. They are expected to resolve domestic disputes — but without special training. This is not necessarily the case in other countries. Heavily armed police are also not the norm everywhere. Of course, the United States has more guns than citizens — no wonder our police have to wear bulletproof vests.

But there is growing evidence that Black and other non- white Americans are more likely to end up dead after a police encounter than I am. And their lives matter. We are “equal under the law.” I’m a non-religious person living in a secular country, but passages of the Bible leap into my mind as often as passages of Shakespeare. Every time I see a photo of a group “taking a knee” in support of Black Lives Matter, I half expect the photo to be captioned “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” ****

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Peaceable assembly, seeking redress for grievances — that’s as American as…. Apple pie.

Watercolor by Susan Grote.

 

** I believe I first read this in a book from the library — and no search has enabled me to find it again! I think it was a book written, by a woman then in her eighties, about ordinary life in the early 20th century. She explained things like how they dried laundry indoors in wet winter weather. One memory was that she would be scolded as a lazy and wasteful girl if she ever broke open an egg for cooking and neglected to run her finger around inside the shell to get every last drop of albumin out of it. I, too, was taught to do that — and only broke the habit when American eggs began to harbor salmonella.

*** American juries are not diverse enough, but we can fix that….

**** I studied the Douay-Rheims Bible rather than the King James translation, which uses the word “righteousness” instead of “justice”.

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Filed under 1950s-1960s, Musings

Recommended Reading: Seeing Through Clothes, by Anne Hollander

NOTE: This post is illustrated with many drawings and paintings of nude figures. If you would be offended, Please Stop Reading NOW!

I put off writing about this very influential book (first published in 1978) because I don’t currently have a copy. I kept buying Seeing Through Clothes in paperback and giving it away to friends! (And my public library is currently closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.) (For a range of other opinions and reviews of Seeing Through Clothes, click here.)

Artist drawing a model while using a grid. By Albrecht Durer, via Wikimedia. From a book published in 1538.

For costume (and art) historians, Hollander’s book is fascinating because one of her chief topics is the difficulty of ever “seeing” a person or image without screening what we see through our own cultural bias. To some extent, we automatically “correct” a human face or body as we draw it, to conform to our learned ideas of beauty. We usually realize that “fashion figures” — and especially editorial drawings — are exaggerated. But even “realistic” drawings of human beings can be influenced by current fashions.

About Life Drawing
My own two bits: Remember, we don’t just see with our eyes; we see with our brains. The lens of the eye turns the image upside down; our brains turn the image right side up, and also interpret what we’re looking at. For example, many years ago a small part of my retina was damaged. The eye doctor assured me that my brain would be able to “fill in” the tiny blank near the center of vision in my right eye — and after a few weeks, it did. It’s like a computer program deducing from other clues what “belongs” in the blank spot.
If my brain does something that complex without my being aware of it, imagine how powerfully our learned, cultural conceptions of beauty (or normalcy) may be re-interpreting what we see.

Sketch from a Life Drawing class. I didn’t intend to generalize her face as if I were making a fashion sketch, but that’s what I did.

I have also spent many hours in “life study” art classes, so I do know something about the process of drawing or painting the human body from a live model. David Hockney has pointed out that we are always drawing from memory; we look at the model, and then we have to look at the paper when we make our marks: a few seconds looking, a few seconds drawing; repeat; repeat; repeat…. Yes, artists do practice “blind drawing,” i.e., looking at the model without looking at the drawing they are making. This practice teaches them to match the speed of their pencil moving across the paper to the speed of their eye traveling along the object. It’s hard, especially since our glance normally skips rapidly from place to place. But few artists do all their drawing by this method. In practice, we look; we draw the tiny bit we remember; repeat.

The apparently pregnant belly and wide hips of the woman at left (drawn by Durer, 1493) echoes the fashion silhouette of the 1400s, painted by Van Eyck. (1434.)

Since I can’t share the images from Hollander’s book, I’ll fill in with a few of my own — and “Thank you!” to all the museums now making paintings available online! (For images not in public domain, I linked to them, so please do follow the links.)

Hollander uses many paintings from Western culture to support her thesis. Nudes are especially interesting, because — once she points it out — we can see that artists working from a live model will unconsciously adjust the figure to reflect the silhouette of current fashions. Waists become as narrow as if the model were wearing a corset. This painting from the 1840s reminds me that the full skirt (below a tiny waist) covered big bottoms and hips. (Plumpness was admired, to some extent.)

Tiny waist, wide hips. Fashion plate from Casey Collection, dated May 1840.

Busts sometimes become impossibly high — again reflecting the influence of the corset. (We might quibble that wearing a corset from childhood on will deform the body somewhat, but not in defiance of gravity!) Nude hips may also become wider or narrower as fashion dictates.

Dress dated 1747, from Metropolitan Museum collection. The corset pushes the bust up, flattens the bottom of the breasts, and elongates the waist.

The torso may be lengthened to match an 18th century fashion silhouette, as in this painting. Note the distance between the high breasts and the waist. In the two “Graces” at the sides, the lower body, hidden by 18th century skirts, is not nearly as slender as the upper torso. Also, take a good look at the breast of the woman at left. It might as well be corseted.

Detail of The Three Graces by Carl van Loo, dated 1765. Public domain in US et al, via wikimedia.

Legs may be longer, shoulders may droop, depending on the ideal “beauty” of the era. There are fashions in faces, too. Full, natural eyebrows go in and out of fashion. Mouths are sometimes exaggeratedly full (as now) or tiny and heart shaped, as in the early Victorian period or the 1920s.

Tiny, “Cupid’s Bow” lips, from a Kleenex ad, 1925.

My mother with “Cupid’s Bow” lips. 1920s.

Once wearing makeup became respectable, women could alter their natural lip shape and eyebrows. Even the fashion in faces is subject to change.

All this influence of fashion on drawing is important for costume historians, because we only have about 190 years of photographs for research. Before that, everything we see in historical research was filtered through an artist’s eyes. [And the cost of being painted means we mostly see rich people. There’s a problem with accuracy there, too: if the portrait does not show the sitter as he or she wants to be seen, the consequences for the painter of kings and queens and dictators can be more serious than just not getting paid!]

Contemporary image of the Queen of the Eglinton Tournament, 1839. Click here to see it larger.

One especially obvious era when secondary sources cannot be trusted is the Early Victorian period. There was a great interest in the Middle Ages because of the very popular novels of Sir Walter Scott, especially Ivanhoe, set in the reign of Richard Lionheart. The Eglinton Tournament of 1839 was an excuse for members of the upper classes to commission costumes to wear for the re-enacted Tournament and to many costume balls. Many aristocrats had their portraits painted while wearing fancy dress. (Click here for Victoria and Albert in “medieval” dress.)

Detail of 1839 Tournament of Eglinton. Note the Victorian silhouettes, hairstyles, and ruffles. (Not to mention kilts….)

The Queen of the Tournament and her attendants (behind her) wear gowns with the drooping shoulders of 1839.

Evening dress fashion plate; May 1840.

Many “great houses” now open to the public contain portraits which were painted ( or “restored”) in the Victorian period. This portrait of Louisa Anne Berenson was painted in 1859-1860. It’s a Victorian idea of Renaissance dress — not to be mistaken for a primary source in 16th century costume research!

Some 19th century actors strove for authentic costuming, but they didn’t have access to the research materials we have today. And adaptations were made to keep the actor looking attractive to the audience, as defined by contemporary styles. Here is an evening gown from 1824:

1824 fashion plate from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum.

The high waist and long, relatively narrow skirt with a decorative band around the bottom influenced the following costume illustration for a Tudor queen; in 1828, Sara Siddons (who retired in 1812) was illustrated in the role of  Queen Catherine, wife of Henry VIII, in Shakespeare’s play.

Mrs. Siddons as Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England, divorced by Henry VIII circa 1529.

Portraits of Catherine made during her lifetime do not show a high waistline, even through she was rather portly.

Costumes for the theatre sometimes show bizarre adaptation to fashions: to conform to Victorian notions of modesty, Mrs. Charles Kean wore a hoop or crinoline under her “Roman” costumes! Here she is playing Lady Macbeth in 1858. ( The historic Macbeth died in 1057. No crinolines!) **

Mrs. Charles Kean plays Lady Macbeth opposite her husband, Charles Kean. The Keans were proud of their historic accuracy…. 1858; public domain image.

Click here for a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots painted in her lifetime; this is how she was portrayed in 1885.

If Dover’s Historic Costume in Pictures sometimes looks a little “off” to you, consider that its plates were drawn between 1861 and 1890.

** The subject of costumes for Shakespeare’s plays is long and complex. After all, “Contemporary dress” can mean “contemporary with the date when the play was written, [Macbeth circa 1606]” or “contemporary with the date when the play is set, [Macbeth circa 1050]” or even “contemporary as in ‘right now.’ ”  [modern dress.]”  I gave a lecture on how Shakespeare’s plays were costumed over four centuries for a meeting of the Costume Society in Ashland, Oregon, many years ago. If I am ever able to convert my slides into digital form, I may post it here, someday!

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Filed under 1800s-1830s, 1920s-1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 16th century, Costumes for the 18th Century, Musings, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade

Viewing Recommendation: Craft in America

"Portrait of a Textile Worker;" art quilt by Terese Agnew. Image from tardart.com

“Portrait of a Textile Worker;” art quilt by Terese Agnew. Image from tardart.com

One of my favorite, most relaxing series to watch is Craft in America, a PBS show that visits four different artists/craftpersons in each episode. To my delight (and heaven knows why) many episodes are currently available on YouTube!

I just watched (for the third or fourth time in several years) the episode “Craft in America: THREADS.” A feast for the eyes and food for the brain: artist Faith Ringgold’s quilt/paintings ( I see new details every time,  and she is an extraordinary teacher with stories to share;) weaver Randall Darwell and his partner Brian Murphy (the colors! the textures! the partnership!) fiber artist Consuelo Jiminez Underwood (weaving with safety pins, and wire, and a message for our times;) and quilter Terese Agnew, whose “Portrait of a Textile Worker” I wrote about here.  Agnew uses a traditional form (quilting, piecing and embroidery) to make beautiful textile art with thought-provoking content. (In one quilt, cedar waxwings congregating in a parking lot were the inspiration — but the employees crossing the parking lot have pink slips in their pockets, because that’s what happened to them while she was making the quilt.)

I was one of the thousands who sent Agnew an envelope full of clothing labels…

https://witness2fashion.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/img_0036.jpg

… which she stitched together to make “Portrait of a Textile Worker;” the finished quilt measures 98 by 110 inches. This photo gives you an idea of its size:

Teres Agnew with "Portrait of a Textile Worker;" from article about Craft in America series, SFgate.com

Terese Agnew with “Portrait of a Textile Worker;” from an article about the Craft in America series, at SFgate.com

I’ve been sheltering in place for over a month now; armchair travel, beautiful, hand crafted things, and inspiring conversation come to me via Craft in America.

Even episodes featuring crafts that don’t usually excite me (like furniture making or wrought iron making) are a trip out of myself — something different, something new, and something inspiring.

Did I mention beauty?  The work of  Chugach Aleut jewelry artist Denise Wallace is a good example of where Craft in America may take you. Wallace is featured in Craft in America: COMMUNITY.  Find a complete list of episodes at Craft in America or, for episodes you can watch  on YouTube, here.

Note: I do wish the episode titles gave more detail about content (Is Terese Agnew in THREADS or in QUILT? — Is Denise Wallace in LANDSCAPE or ORIGINS or COMMUNITY? but that’s a quibble.)

 

 

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Filed under Exhibitions & Museums, Musings, Uncategorized

Book Recommendation: Three Books by Ruth Gordon, plus Vanity Fair

I am indulging an old addiction by re-reading all of Ruth Gordon’s non-fiction books. Most people know her from the movie Harold and Maude, (in which she is perfectly cast!) but she was already a well-known stage actress. (She started in 1915, flunked out of drama school, wouldn’t give up; by the 1930s she was a huge hit in London and on Broadway; she gave 1,078 performances as Dolly Gallagher Levi in The Matchmaker, and was nominated for a Tony award in 1956.)
She was a playwright (selling an autobiographical play to MGM for $100,000 in 1952 — it’s called The Actress, and Spencer Tracy plays her father;) a screenwriter (5 Oscar nominations with her husband Garson Kanin, including the Tracy/Hepburn comedies like Adam’s Rib.)
And she won her first Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in Rosemary’s Baby in 1968-69. (She was 72 years old; she’d been acting since 1915.)  Accepting it, she said, “I can’t tell ya how encouragin’ a thing like this is….) See her acceptance speech here:
She published three books in her 70s and 80s; won an Emmy when she was 83 ….  In other words, a good role model for all of us!
I want some of her zest for life to rub off on me. (And her memory for funny stories. Among her many, many friends: Harpo Marx, Thornton Wilder, Charles Laughton, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Dorothy Parker, Walter Matthau …. A lot of laughter!)

Typical story: In the 1910s, Ruth was still a nobody, but she was friends with a Broadway star who asked her to keep her company on the way to a movie audition. The would-be movie actress was asked to improvise a scene. She was shown a movie set which contained a table with a vase of flowers, a letter, and a pistol. As Ruth described the try-out, (I’m paraphrasing:) The actress enters the room. She goes to the table. She sees the letter. She opens the letter. It’s bad news. It’s terrible news! She sees the gun. She picks up the gun. She shoots the letter.

And she didn’t get the part! I guess the studio already had a comedienne.

Another story: When Gordon was a Broadway star herself and a member of the Algonquin Round Table (along with writers and wits  Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker…,) she was also a friend of silent movie and stage star Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy. The Gish sisters were living in an apartment in New York. The apartment was on an upper floor, and the Gish sisters had a pet parrot. Its wings were clipped, so it was free to wander around indoors. One summer day, they forgot that the window was open and let the parrot out of his cage. It hopped on to a chair, then on to the table, and then, to their horror, it hopped up on the windowsill and flew out the window — and immediately realized that it couldn’t fly.

“Oh, dear!” it cried, flapping its wings,
                                                                      “OH dear!,”
                                                                                                 “OOOOH DEAR!” all the way down.

Luckily it landed on a canvas-covered truck, rode to New Jersey, and was returned to the Gish sisters, a sadder but wiser bird.

Top left, Ruth Gordon, with Raymond Massie and Pauline Lord on Broadway in Ethan Frome, 1936. Photo by Steichen from Vanity Fair.

But I don’t read Gordon’s autobiographical books just for the laughs. She writes as if the reader is an old friend, so reading her is like chatting over lunch with a fabulous friend who is wise and shrewd and full of stories, with 80 years of life experience and still interested in everything.
She’s very honest about her life — triumphs and failures, happy memories and regrets. Her first husband died when he was only 36; (she was several years younger.) Later, after an affair with a married man,  she chose to raise her illegitimate son, rather than pretend he was adopted, as other stars did in the same situation. She was often broke, embarrassed by owing money to her more successful friends. When she was successful — as an actor and a writer — she wore couture and loved it. (Of course she wrote about the experience of shopping couture; the pink satin gown she wore while accepting her Oscar was a Givenchy.)
She has total recall of every dress her mother made for her or that she wore early in her career. (And I wonder, exactly what was “tango-colored” in 1913?)
But she also writes about poverty in her teens, when she and her factory-worker father sold everything — including her few childhood books — to pay for her mother’s care after a stroke. Struggling to get a start in her acting career, she was hungry enough to consider the “casting couch” route. If you want to know what it was like to tour with a play that opened in a different city every day, Ruth can tell you. (Some hotels didn’t accept actors, so she claimed to be a traveling saleswoman for Onyx Hosiery.)

Onyx Hosiery ad, 1910.

She made headlines during World War II:
“‘Actress forty-six marries film director thirty.” Her husband said he liked the headline. “If it said ‘Actress forty-five’ a lot of people would say ‘She’s fifty if she’s a day,’ but when an actress says she’s forty-six, you have to believe her.” It was a long, happy, successful marriage and writing collaboration. And the snappy exchange of dialogue in those Spencer Tracy/Kathrine Hepburn movies was the work of Ruth Gordon and her husband, Garson Kanin. (Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, etc.)
Incidentally, the only award she usually mentions was that Oscar in 1969.  In 1915, The American Academy of Dramatic Arts told her “Don’t come back. You don’t show any promise.” In 1968, they asked her to come back to give her an Award for Achievement and to make a speech to the students. Boy, did she!
Here’s Ruth:
“I think what it takes is don’t give up! DON’T GIVE UP! Just don’t give up and that sounds like a put-down, but it isn’t. And it sounds as though it’s easy and it isn’t. DON’T GIVE UP! I learned that at the Academy and it was all I did learn. It wasn’t what my father paid four hundred dollars [tuition] for, but it may be the best lesson I was ever taught. DON’T GIVE UP! …. At the end of the year [Mr. Sargent] said, “Don’t come back. You don’t show any promise….”
I was scared. I was scared I wouldn’t find out how to be an actress because in that year the school hadn’t taught me. I’m smart and I can learn, but the school hadn’t given me a clue. Four hundred dollars and all I got for it was fright, because even to myself I didn’t show any promise….  ‘Don’t come back,’ he said. That’s a terrible thing, you could drop dead…. You could kill yourself…. You could give up….
Or you could learn something. Isn’t that what we came to the Academy for? So I learned something and what I learned here was and is DON’T GIVE UP…. When somebody says to you,”You’re not pretty enough,” “You’re too tall,” You’re too short,” “Your personality’s not what we’re looking for,” DON’T GIVE UP!’ “
I bet she enjoyed saying every word of that! And she said a lot more, too…
“Most every moment along the way takes courage. Courage is like a strain of yoghurt culture, if you have some you can have some more.” (From An Open Book.)
Start by reading My Side, her autobiography. Published in 1976, available in paperback or hardback. Her style is conversational; she skips from topic to topic and memory to memory as if she was chatting with you, but once I decided to go with her flow, it was wonderful! And, if you want to know more about shooting movies, Ruth tells you the details of filming Harold and Maude.
Next, An Open Book,  published in 1980. (It includes that lecture at The Academy.}

Then, if you’re hungry for more,   Myself Among Others , published in 1971. You probably haven’t heard of many of the early 20th century celebrities Gordon knew well and writes about. Luckily for me, I bought an anthology of articles and celebrity photos from Vanity Fair magazine in the 1920s when I was a teenager in 1960 and didn’t own many other books. This photo of Leslie Howard permanently warped my idea of “an attractive man.”

How to wear a top hat, white tie, and tails: Leslie Howard photographed by Steichen for Vanity Fair, 1934.

Not only did this book prepare me for many of the plays I have designed costumes for, it acted as my first door into a different era, with jokes and essays by many writers and critics who were household names in the 1920s and 1930s.  If you love those decades, it’s full of photos and articles — not about the 1920s and 1930s but from the 1920s and 1930s. Many copies are available online, from under $4.

So, in addition to Ruth Gordon’s various memoirs,  I also recommend Vanity Fair: A Cavalcade of the 1920s and 1930s, edited by Cleveland Amory and Frederic Bradlee.

Clara Bow, photographed by Dyer for Vanity Fair in 1928.

And if you haven’t seen Ruth Gordon at work as an actress, forgive Harold and Maude for being so “Seventies” and just watch a genius at work. (It’s on YouTube and on Prime.) A big part of acting is listening — I just watched a brief clip and now I want to watch the whole movie again. Gordon also gave a Golden Globe-winning (and Oscar nominated) performance as Daisy Clover’s mentally ill mother in Inside Daisy Clover. (1966) It is not a good movie, but Gordon is truthful and real in every scene she has.

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Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, 1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Men's Formalwear & Evening, Musings

Nose Shapers, 1920s

Detail of ad from Motion Picture Magazine, Dec 1921.

My local newspaper regularly runs large ads from a plastic surgery clinic, showing before and after photos. The ads that annoy me the most are ones suggesting that a tiny, turned-up nose on women is preferable to an “ethnic” nose — regardless of how it would relate to her other features.

This focus on the “perfect” nose isn’t new. I found ads for two competing “nose shapers” in the same issue of this Motion Picture Magazine from December, 1921.

Which is the “Before” and which is the “After?” Trilety ad from Motion Picture Magazine, Dec. 1921.

Other ads for the Trilety Nose Shaper clarify the problem: Pug noses were not in fashion with M. Trilety.

Ad from Motion Pictures Magazine, 1923. (To be fair, actor Michael Caine*** has also advised that no one wants to see inside your nostrils in a close-up on the giant screen.)

Trilety nose shaper ad, Motion Picture Magazine, 1923.

The Anita Nose Adjuster was not specifically concerned with pug noses:

Anita Nose Adjuster ad, December 1921. Motion Pictures Magazine.

“Refined features attract; misshapen features repel. Such is nature’s law. If your nose is ill-shaped, you can make it perfect with ANITA NOSE ADJUSTER. In a few weeks in the privacy of your own home and without interfering with your daily occupation, ANITA NOSE ADJUSTER shapes while you sleep — quickly, painlessly, permanently and inexpensively. There are many inferior imitations, but the ANITA NOSE ADJUSTER is the ORIGINAL and ONLY comfortable adjuster highly recommended by physicians for fractured or mis-shaped noses. Write to-day for free booklet, “Happy Days Ahead.” No obligations.

“SPECIAL SIZES FOR CHILDREN.”

Another Trilety ad from Motion Picture Magazine, 1923.

More from the “How the Shape of My Nose Delayed My Success” Trilety Nose Shaper ad, 1923.

Model 25 “has six adjustable pressure regulators, is made of light polished metal, is firm and fits every nose comfortably. The inside is upholstered with a fine chamois skin and no metal parts come in contact with the skin. Thousands of unsolicited Testimonials ….”

It’s incredible how long this company lasted, considering its offer of “your money refunded if you are not satisfied.”

One of the concepts that got me through my teen years was the realization that there is a difference between being pretty and being beautiful. The bust of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin shows a woman who is beautiful by the standards of almost any nation and era.  Many girls are pretty, at least for a brief time when they have youth and health working for them. But mere prettiness is much more common than beauty, which may require a certain amount of maturity and experience of life. Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn were inspiring to me in the 1960s, because they were beautiful, rather than pretty. They didn’t have blonde hair or tiny, turned-up noses, or perfectly regular features. They were not “cute.” Neither was Greta Garbo. Maybe confidence, and feeling comfortable being who you are, is more important than trying to conform to “the norm.” Josephine Baker from St. Louis, MO, made herself the most glamourous woman in Paris — couturiers sent her free dresses and begged her to wear them.  Would Frida Kahlo have been more beautiful with a tiny nose and plucked eyebrows?

*** Sir Michael Caine has written more than one book about acting on film, as well as making an entertaining Video in which he explains why a simple thing like smoking a cigarette while delivering lines in a movie is much harder than you’d think.

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Filed under 1920s, Cosmetics, Beauty Products, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture

Failed Fashion? Fichus,1920

A collar resembling an 18th c. fichu is the focus of this dress pattern from 1920.

Sometimes a style appears that captures the mood of the times, and it becomes a dominant fashion. But sometimes a fashion misfires (wrong time, wrong look.) Example: The fichu dresses of 1920.

Another fichu dress pattern from 1920.

In 1920, young people had experienced the deaths and injuries of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic, which killed young, healthy people rather than the old. “The Lost Generation” wasn’t in the mood for a return to the 18th century.

A “Martha Washington costume” from Butterick, 1924.

A scarf (fichu) was long enough to cross in front and tie in back. 1792, Met Museum costume plate.

The late 18th century fichus helped to cover the breasts which were pushed into view by the combination of stays and low necklines.

The 18th c. fichu could be tucked into the bodice, Met Museum Fashion plate collection.

A fichu crossed in front and tied in back, 1792. Metropolitan Museum Fashion Plates Collection.

This tight-waisted, busty mode would not seem to have much in common with the nineteen twenties.

A fichu crossed in front and tied in back, 1793. Metropolitan Museum collection.

However, we can’t discount the possible influence of popular culture in 1920, such as novels and movies set in the late 1700s, like A Tale of Two Cities, which was filmed in 1911 and 1917. For whatever reason, Butterick thought women might like to wear fichu dresses in 1920.

The fichu/collar is part of the dress. Butterick 2408, June 1920.

Two dresses from June, 1920. Delineator.

Styles that tied in back, or were heavily ruffled, were not unusual in 1920.

Non-fichu styles from Butterick, summer of 1920. (Chi-chi balls on the left?)

Butterick 2364, a fichu dress from May, 1920.

This one has a three-layered skirt.

The waistline was in flux in 1920: sometimes near the natural waist, and sometimes very low-waisted.

Butterick 2470 ties its fichu at a low waist.

This graduation dress for teens 14 to 19 ties its fichu near the natural waist.

Two illustrations of Butterick 2408. On the left, the dropped waist is emphasized with trim.

Butterick 2192 has a fichu-shaped collar, but in darker colors.

Butterick 2192 was illustrated in February 1920…

…and again —  in color — in March, 1920.

The fichu also appeared on this dress for girls:

Butterick 2202 from March 1920.

Sometimes the fichu is referred to as a surplice, and sometimes (as here) what seems to me to be a surplice closing is called a fichu! [“Fashion is spinach.”]

Butterick offered this fichu dress pattern in 1922:

Butterick 3720 from June 1922.

This could mean that Butterick had some success with its 1920 fichu dress patterns after all….  (Also, another film of Tale of Two Cities was released in 1922….) The waist on 1922 pattern 3729 — like the other dresses on the same page — is definitely low.

Three Butterick patterns from June, 1922.

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Filed under 1920s, Children's Vintage styles, Musings

Stocking Memories, 1958 to 1960

Stockings and a girdle from Sears catalog for Fall 1958.

When I started high school around 1958, we wore stockings for dress-up occasions. Usually, those stockings had a seam up the back.

Seamed stockings from Sears, Spring 1960.

(Pantyhose became available in 1959, or so the internet tells me. Seamless nylon or rayon stockings were available — briefly — in the 1940s, but in 1958, seams were the norm for me and the adult women I knew.)

Seamless stockings advertised in Vogue, Aug. 15, 1943.

Of course, stockings are still available and worn by many women, but pantyhose have dominated the market for about 50 years now.

So, for those who never had the dubious pleasure of buying stockings in the 1950s….

A run in her stocking; Lux soap ad from October 1937. Runs looked the same in 1960: a hole with unraveled knit stocking above and below it.

At the Stocking Counter

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about stockings circa 1958 was how many choices you had to make. Faced with the stocking counter — at a department store or even a “five and dime store” — you would see rows and rows of distinctive shallow boxes, each originally holding 6 pairs of stockings. The pairs were separated by layers of tissue; you could buy one pair, incurring the barely concealed scorn of the clerk who waited on you, or two or three pairs of matching stockings (if you could afford them.) Buying the whole box was a wonderful extravagance. Stockings were so fragile that the clerks sometimes wore gloves.

For a young teen, it was a confusing process. You needed to know your size, your “proportion,” the denier, the color, “seam or no-seam,” reinforced heel and toe or sandal foot, knit or “run stop”mesh….

1958 stocking size chart from the Sears catalog.

“What size?” Stockings came in seven sizes. Your stocking size was related to your shoe size, but it wasn’t the same as your shoe size. [Shoes used to come in many sizes and widths, from AAAA (very narrow) to EEE (very wide.)  I wore a shoe size 7 1/2, B width, with a (double) AA heel [Yes, you could buy a wide shoe size with a narrow heel, or many other variations.] As you can imagine, shoe stores had to carry almost as much stock as stocking counters.]

In 1958, your stocking size depended on your shoe size and your shoe width: shoe size 7, width B = stocking size 10.

However, stockings were usually held up by garters (aka suspenders) attached to a garter belt or girdle.

Garter belts, Sears 1958. Also (more accurately) called suspender belts in England.

Top left is a girdle; all the others are panty-girdles. Notice that your stocking top would need to come quite high on the thigh to attach to these garters.

Stockings attach high on the leg, with one garter in front and one in back on this panty-girdle. Sears, 1958.

The suspender part was somewhat adjustable in length, but you had to buy stockings that were long enough to reach the garter comfortably.

Proportioned Stockings for tall women; Sears, 1958. “The extra length reduces garter pull and strain…”

Finding the right proportioned stocking for your height and weight. Sears chart, 1958.  At Sears, your four proportion choices were “petite, shapely, classic, or tall.” (7 sizes x 4 lengths = 28 choices!)

There were so many size variations because 1950s’ stockings did not have much “stretch.” To answer the question “What size?” you needed to know your stocking size and your “pattern” or proportion. (Or you could tell the clerk your height and weight.)

If you wanted long enough stockings, you might have to pay more.

Sears, 1958. The cheaper stockings came in 15 or 30 denier weight, but only one length.

College memory: A friend named Mary was standing in the doorway when my roommate said, “Mary, your stockings are all wrinkled around your ankles.” Mary said, “I’m not wearing stockings. My ankles are sagging.”

Before modern stretch knits, stockings might bag or sag. Worse, if the reinforced top wasn’t high enough, when you knelt down the pull of the suspender could put too much strain on the knee, and your stocking would run or “pop.” Cheap stockings didn’t come in a full range of lengths, so I sometimes came out of church with one or both knees bulging out of big holes in my stockings. All those sizes were necessary because stockings were not very stretchy.

Stocking runs: a tiny hole would unravel the stocking both up and down your leg. This was still true in the 1960s. Lux soap claimed to improve stockings’ elasticity. Ad from 1936.

The stocking clerk might ask, “What weight?” This meant, not your own weight, but the amount of sheerness or strength you needed in the stocking. Light weight 15 denier was very sheer. 30 denier was more durable for everyday wear, and even thicker stockings were available.

“Seams or seamless?” My first stockings had seams, but the seams on the soles of my feet sometimes gave me blisters, so once I discovered seamless stockings, I always bought those. Seamless stockings were available in 1958, but I didn’t discover them for a couple of years. (A vertical seam up the back would have been more flattering to my sturdy legs, but limping on blisters didn’t improve my looks or disposition, so I chose comfort over vanity.) Besides, it’s maddening to be down to your last two intact stockings when you’re dressing for work and find that one of them has a seam and the other doesn’t.

Seamed stockings with reinforced heel and toe (and a seam under the ball of your foot.) Sears, Spring of 1958.

“Reinforced toe and heel? Sandal heel? Sheer foot?” If you wore pumps, then you could buy longer-lasting stockings with reinforced heels and toes. (Toenails or rough heels were hard on stockings.) However, by the 1940s many women wore open-toed or strap-heeled shoes, making the less durable options necessary.

Nude heel or reinforced heel in seamless stockings, Sears, 1958.

“Run stop or regular?” Runs were always a problem. A tiny snag from a chair or a fingernail would start a run racing up and down your leg. Many women kept a bottle of clear nail polish in their purse or desk drawers, because it was the only thing that could stop a run from progressing. If you dabbed a bit on the run before it passed the hem of your skirt, then the stocking might be salvaged enough for future wear. Otherwise, sheer stockings couldn’t be mended. One reason for always buying several identical pairs at the same time: as long as you had two stockings that matched, you could wear them. Once you were down to one stocking, you would probably never find a matching color or knit again, (too many brands, too many choices) so the final stocking might as well be tossed out.

Rayon mesh stockings from Sears, 1944. “Lockstitch resists runs, snags.”

Run-proof stockings were usually a mesh knit. They did get holes, but they didn’t get runs. The holes, however,  kept getting bigger….

Mesh stockings did not run, but they did get holes. And the weave was rather coarse and noticeable. Sears’ seamless mesh stockings from 1942.

“What color?” Stocking manufacturers and fashion magazines urged women to buy stockings to match every outfit. However, the woman on a budget often stuck to one or two shades. We all had drawers full of not-qute-matching stockings (usually kept in a padded box within the drawer.) Sticking to just one color matching your skin tone (or the healthy tan color you wished your legs were) was the economical choice. However, those black or dark stockings for evening were so temptingly glamourous….

Stockings from Sears to match your skin tone or your dress. 1959 catalog.

If you bought the last pairs of stockings in the box, or the whole box (six pairs,) you would be given the box itself, and therefore you would know the brand and color when you needed to buy more stockings a few weeks later.  Otherwise, stockings were simply wrapped in tissue. It was easy to forget where you bought them, the brand, and the name of the color, so your supply of single, unmatched, surviving stockings continued to grow. (One maker’s “nude” or “taupe” was rarely the same as another’s, and “suntan” could mean anything from light golden brown (in expensive brands) to orange (cheaper brands) ….

One Christmas in the Sixties, my father gave me a nightgown set that I didn’t need, so I took it back to Macy’s and exchanged it for a dozen pairs of stockings — two whole boxes! I had several blissful months of not worrying whether I had a pair of stockings that matched. Such luxury!

Next: The Pantyhose Revolution and Supermarket Stockings.

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Filed under 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Girdles, Hosiery, Hosiery, Hosiery & Stockings, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc

Seamless Stockings in 1930

Seamed stockings from Sears, Roebuck catalog, 1939.

Every costume design job is an opportunity to do more research, but there are some things that are just part of your general knowledge. For example, when I was hired to costume a college production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, which takes place in 1937, I automatically put the adult female characters in seamed stockings.

I was surprised recently when I came across this image from 1930:

Seamless stockings could be purchased at department stores in 1930! This image is from Delineator, May 1930.

I simply hadn’t come across this information before, so I checked another source: the Sears, Roebuck catalogs. There they were:

“No-Seam” hosiery for women, Sears Roebuck catalog, Fall 1930, p. 171.

No-Seam stockings text, Sears catalog, Fall 1930.

And another source….

From a fashion editorial about accessories, Delineator, September 1930.

There are some typos in the original text, as you can see, but corrected, it says, “I made a new discovery a few days ago — stockings needn’t have seams in order to fit. You may remember the old seamless stockings … which went into Grecian drapery at the ankles after their first contact with soap and water. The new Guildmode hose is knitted in a special way so that it fits just as snugly as a full fashioned stocking. It is dull [matte] and very sheer.”

“Full-fashioned” meant stockings which were shaped like the outline of a leg, curving in at the ankle, and gradually curving out over the calf area.

Before stretchier knits became available, the seam at the back was necessary for a good fit. Full-fashioned stocking illustration from Sears, 1958.

A short history: Knitted stockings have been around for hundreds of years. The simple knitted tube naturally stretched — somewhat — to the shape of the leg, but a seam up the back permitted a closer fit.  As stockings became more sheer (and more visible under short skirts) in the Nineteen Twenties, women became aware of the way the vertical seam up the back created a slenderizing line on their legs.

https://witness2fashion.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/hosiery-nov-1928-mar-1929-apr-1929-may-1929.jpg

Gordon Hosiery ads from Delineator, Nov. 1928 through May 1929.

Seams and pointed heels made these stockings flattering. Sears, Fall of 1939.

“Notice how they follow the natural shadows of the ankle — to give you slenderness and grace.”

Skirt hems went down and then up again in the Nineteen Thirties, but seamed stockings were so much a part of normal dress that women couldn’t give up that seam line even when silk or nylon stockings became unavailable during World War II.

There were no nylon or silk stockings available from Sears in 1944 because nylon and silk were needed for the war. Sears catalog index, Spring 1944.

In Spring of 1945, before the War ended,  Sears offered these un-glamourous cotton stockings. Three pairs were guaranteed to last you three months. (I.e., you would have two wearable stockings left.)

But, back to the Thirties:

Chiffon [sheer] and Service Weight stockings from Sears, Fall 1930.

Seamed rayon stockings from Sears, Fall 1930. Rayon, a synthetic fabric based on cellulose, was cheaper than silk.

At the first dress rehearsal of Brighton Beach Memoirs, the director knelt down beside my chair and whispered, “Are those seams on their stockings?” He was clearly delighted. I whispered back, “Well, stockings with seams are too expensive for our budget,** so I taught the actresses to do it the 1940s’ way: we drew ‘seams’ up the backs of their hose with an eyebrow pencil.” (The lines didn’t come out completely when we washed their sheer tights, so they just had to retrace the previous line for the next performance.)

At first, I thought the director was impressed by the seamed stockings because I was much more detail-oriented than my predecessor. Later I realized that anyone who was a teen-aged boy in the 1950s probably feels a certain nostalgia for seamed stockings, which, along with high heels and garter belts, were often seen on pin-up girls.

This 1950s’ stocking ad, shared by Sally Edelstein at Envisioning the American Dream, shows the sex appeal of seamed stockings.

Being allowed to wear high heels (or even kitten heels,) and sheer stockings held up by a garter belt was a rite of passage for girls of my generation. (I think that my first heels and stockings were required for a school field trip to the ballet [or opera?] circa 1958, when I was in 8th or 9th grade.)

Garter belts, seamed stockings, high heels, and a bouffant “crinoline” petticoat in 1958: “Today I am a woman!”

At thirteen, I was finally old enough to ask, “Are my seams straight?”

To return to my costume design for Brighton Beach Memoirs, would this new (to me) information about the existence of seamless stockings*** in 1930 have made any difference? No, because the characters in the play are struggling financially, and because they are not fashionable women. They would have worn inexpensive stockings — probably cotton, rayon, or “service weight.”

Service weight silk stockings were not as sheer as “chiffon” ones. Sears, Fall 1930.

I settled for using sheer tights with added seams because at the time of the production that was the most affordable option. Also, in college productions, most of the actors are younger than the characters they play. The two “mothers” were actually about twenty years old, and the teenaged daughters were also played by twenty year old actresses. Putting the mothers in seamed stockings and the daughters in bobby socks helped to establish an age difference.

More of my own “Garter Belt and Seamed Stockings” Memoirs to come….

** Some very good costume shop supervisors have told me that a seam can be added to inexpensive modern hosiery with an overlock sewing machine, but I haven’t tried it myself.

*** If you need a research topic, note that some of the images make reference to seamless stockings earlier than 1930.

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Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, Hosiery, Hosiery, Hosiery & Stockings, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Vintage Accessories

Curling Iron Memories

A curling iron like this one was not heated with electricity. Illustration from Delineator, February 1934.

A curled hair style with ringlets over the ears, from 1838. From La Mode, in the Casey Collection.

Novelist and fashion historian Mimi Mathews has written another wonderful post about Victorian women’s hairstyles and beauty products. Click here for her latest, and then follow the links at the bottom of that post for the answer to many other “how did they do that?” questions about beauty and hair styling products from the 1800s.

In 1920, Silmerine hair curling liquid, applied with a toothbrush, was used to set curls in women’s hair.

Ad for Liquid Silmerine hair setting lotion, 1920. It could probably be used to set hair in rag curls.**  The chemicals it contained varied, but some would have been cousins to the Victorian hair preparations Mimi Matthews researched.

The Silmerine ad says that “You’ll never again use the hair destroying heated iron.”

I have personal knowledge of the heated curling irons — sometimes called curling tongs — like the ones below, because my mother used them on me almost daily until I was about eight years old.

An old fashioned curling iron (in three sizes) from  An Illustrated History of Hairstyles, by Marian I. Doyle.

Ad for the Lorain gas stove, 1926. The stove we had in the 1940s was similar.

This kind of curling iron didn’t plug into an electric outlet; my mother turned up the flames on one burner of the gas stove in our kitchen and stuck the metal part of the tongs into the fire for a while.  (Our curling iron had wooden handles.)  I was sent to the bathroom to bring her several sheets of toilet paper. I sat on a stool in the middle of the kitchen. If the curling iron curled the paper, but did not burn it, it was ready for my hair. (Our toilet paper was not soft and quilted.)

I hated the ordeal of the curling iron, and I hated having to wear a bow in my hair to school every day, too. This picture is probably 1952 or 1953 — and these curls were not in style!

Girls in the combined 2nd & 3rd grade class, Redwood City, CA, 1952-53. Only one (me) with long sausage curls. My best friend, Arleen, wasn’t fussed over; her Mom had 5 daughters to get off to school.

Once I started school and discovered that other girls — like my friend Arleen — did not have long ringlets, this daily ordeal became an ongoing battle. I hated it. But my mother’s idea of how her perfect child should look was unshakeable. We fought, I cried, I begged, but I was only allowed to leave for school once — that I remember — without being curled with that hated hot iron. (I remember skipping with joy, and then feeling the ringlets bounce into their usual shape before I had gone half a block.)

My mother frequently told me, “You have to suffer to be beautiful.”  I doubt that the saying originally referred to curling irons.

[I should make it clear that I wasn’t especially afraid of getting burned, although my squirming must have made it more likely. Getting snarls combed out of my hair was worse, as my mother got increasingly exasperated with me. It was the whole, time-consuming, pointless (to me) process that I hated.  At least I often got out of the house with just a brushing and a barette on the weekends.]

Once, I was allowed to stay overnight with my Uncle Mel and his beautiful wife, Irene. Aunt Irene had naturally bright red hair that fell in waves to below her waist. She coiled her thick braids on top of her head for the office, but one night Uncle Mel brought me to her house just after she had washed her hair. She was sitting on the sofa in a pale blue satin robe, brushing her red hair as it dried. It was so long she could sit on it. She told me about having her hair set with rags when she was a girl my age, and that night she offered to give me rag curl.** In the morning, when she brushed my hair, I was amazed and happy to have curls without any pain! I told my mother about this wonderful way we could stop using the curling iron. She wasn’t impressed — and I was never allowed to stay overnight with Aunt Irene again.

My mother as a teenager, with her own Mary Pickford curls.

Maybe Mary Pickford was to blame for our battles about the curling iron.  And Shirley Temple.

I was an only child, born after twelve years of marriage to parents who were forty years old. My mother had had a long time to dream about the child she hoped for. I honestly don’t think it ever occurred to her that her child, and especially her daughter, would not be exactly like her — a perfectible extension of herself. She was always surprised — and saddened or angered — by every sign that I was my father’s daughter, too. I remember her disappointment when she discovered that my skin, even where the sun never touched it, was not as milky white as hers, but halfway between the whiteness of hers and the cream-white of his.  And the lunch when she suddenly exclaimed, “Dammit, Charles! She’s got your mouth!” (instead of her shapely one.)  My mother was so worried that I would take after his family and be taller than the boys in my class, that she lied about my age and enrolled me in first grade instead of kindergarten. I heard her tell a friend that she had decided to do it after driving past a school and seeing my older cousin in the playground with other children: “She looked like a G**-dammed giraffe!”  So instead of being the youngest child in kindergarten, I was (secretly) the youngest child in first grade and in every grade until high school.  It was lucky that reading came easily to me, and I had plenty of experience in being quiet and obedient, so my first teachers never realized that I was so young in other ways.

My mother had been pretty and popular; she loved to dance; so she never noticed that I was bookish and uncoordinated. I certainly never asked to be entered in a Beautiful Baby contest!

“Crowned Supreme Royal Princess Better Baby Show, Dec. 7, 1947.” I hope I didn’t wear the cape and tinsel crown to the contest! (She was sure I’d win.)

I came in second, but she made this outfit and put this picture on her Christmas cards. (The trophy said that I was “99 1/2 % perfect….)

She was certainly proud of me — or, proud of herself for having me. Relatives have told me that she treated me like a doll. She kept me dressed in frilly dresses that she washed and ironed and starched, and changed twice a day. (I got my first pair of jeans when I stayed with her mother, because Uncle Mel said Grandma was too old to cook and clean and look after a child AND do all that extra laundry.) I was completely happy at Grandma’s house. And Grandma didn’t try to turn me into Shirley Temple or Mary Pickford.

Mary Pickford shows her famous long curls in this ad for Pompeiian face cream. Delineator, November 1917.

In the 1920s, movie star Mary Pickford played little girls with long curls well into her thirties. Here she is in “Little Annie Rooney” in 1925. Pickford was born in 1892, and was only five feet tall. (She was also a formidable movie producer.) It was big news when she finally bobbed her hair in 1928, partly because she wanted to play an adult role for a change.

She would have been a megastar when my mother was a teenager.  (Pickford made 51 silent movies in 1910 alone!) These pictures of hairstyles for girls from 1917 show the kind of ringlets Pickford wore, probably achieved with a curling iron. Did my mother always dream of having a child who looked like these girls?

Hair styles for girls, Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1917.

Hair in ringlets; Ladies Home Journal, November 1917.

Girl with ringlets, Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1917.

The disadvantage of curling irons was that you couldn’t curl the hair closest to your scalp — the hot iron would burn you.

My 1920s’ curling iron ringlets, done in the late 1940s.

Ringlets from 1924. Delineator, May 1924.

The Pickford influence can be seen in these fashion illustrations from 1924, when my mother was twenty.

Fashion illustrations of girls, Delineator, February 1924.

Perhaps my mother formed her idea of the perfect little girl back then, although she was forty when she finally had a baby. That’s a long time, but she still had her curling iron and knew how to use it….

My curling iron curls, late 1940s.

By 1933, when my parents were married, there was a new super-star named Shirley Temple, age 5. Shirley was famous for her curls, although hers were shorter than Mary Pickford’s.

Shirley Temple in Rags to Riches, 1933. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shirley Temple could sing. I could sing.   Shirley Temple could tap dance. I suffered through lessons in “Tap, Ballet, and Acrobatics.” Shirley Temple had a full head of curls. Click here for a picture of Shirley Temple in Curly Top (1935.) And I was given a permanent wave as soon as the beautician said I was old enough ….

These curls were the result of a permanent wave, although they needed to be kept in shape with a curling iron.

What I remember about this trip to the beauty parlor was how incredibly heavy the rollers were.

This is what getting a permanent looked like in 1932. The process was similar when I was a child in the late 1940s.

This Nestle home permanent machine had only one curling device. It took “a few” hours!

But the professional Nestle machine could curl a whole head in an hour … or three….

Professional Nestle permanent waving machine, from  An Illustrated History of Hairstyles, by Marian I. Doyle.

I was fortunate that the home permanent arrived around 1950. The smell was so terrible that my mother once took me to the Saturday matinee show at the movies just to get that smell out of the house! Ah, Peter Pan in 1953! My one happy memory associated with those hated curls.

There were other, much more serious problems poisoning our relationship,  but I sometimes wonder: if my mother had known that she would die when I was nine, would we still have spent morning after morning after morning fighting about my hair?

[Sorry to write such a personal post, but I mention this as something for other mothers to think about….]

** Putting your hair up in rags required some strips of clean cloth four or five inches long. You wrapped your moistened hair around a finger, slid the finger out, put the rag strip through the center of the coil, and tied it. No hairpins were needed. And you didn’t have to sleep on wire rollers, as we did in the 1960s. Sleeping on rollers should have proved that suffering doesn’t guarantee beauty!)

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