Tag Archives: Language of Clothes

Musings, Jan 2015: on Corsets, Mini Skirts, Bloomers, etc.

I’ve been getting some wonderful comments on older posts, so I want to share some related pictures.

Twentieth Century Corsets for Girls:

Girl's corset, 1917. Perry, Dame & Co. Catalog, Dover Books.

Girl’s corset, 1917. Perry, Dame & Co. Catalog, Dover Books.

“10A19:  Girl’s flexible corset waist with light, flexible boning. Designed to hold the immature figure within trim lines without in any way binding it. . . . Sizes 18 to 30. [Misses’ corset waists should be ordered 2 inches less that your waist measurement over your dress — p.146.] A corset waist every girl should have. 79 cents.”

This girl’s corset was sold by Perry, Dame & Company, in their 1917 catalog.

Dinah found photos online of more corsets for girls — not from the turn of the century, but from a Sears catalog dated 1923! The image is in Google online, so the number of times it can be viewed is limited. Instead of using a link, I found it by doing a google search for the words “sears corset for girls 1923 Olian.” The image is from  JoAnne Olian’s Children’s Fashions 1900-1950.) [Caution: My McAfee Secure Search says do not click on the Sears Catalogs Online links — there may be security issues! ]

How to Sit in a Mini Skirt:

Nancy N remembered many of the disadvantages of wearing a miniskirt.

“I wore my hems somewhere between the mid knee and micro mini length — long enough so that when you sat down your underwear wasn’t sitting on the chair! Then I discovered how flattering the extra long midi was, so it DIDNT hit the fattest part of the calf. Short skirts were cute but such a challenge .. What to do climbing stairs in the mall? Sitting for long stretches with your knees together is tiring! And bending down to file papers all day is no fun. Thank god for the pantsuit!”

One discomfort was that you had to sit with your knees clamped firmly together. This photo of a group of Sea Scouts shows the [more modest end of ] the range of problems miniskirts caused:

Sea Scouts, post 601, 1968. Photo by Bill Owens, from Alison Lurie's book, The Language of Clothes.

Sea Scouts, California Post 601, 1968. Photo by Bill Owens, from Alison Lurie’s book, The Language of Clothes. Note that the girls are wearing an officially approved uniform — usually more conservative than teenagers’ ordinary dress.

In the 1960s, I thought of this as “the candidate’s wife” problem; when a woman in a short skirt sits on a raised platform, with her knees or ankles at the eye level of the audience, she has to sit very carefully. These young women seated at the far right are not yet ready for the campaign trail:

How not to sit in a miniskirt. Photo by Bill Owens, 1968.

How not to sit in a miniskirt. Photo by Bill Owens, 1968.

The girls in the center have crossed their legs at the knees, which is  also not wise if you’re sitting higher than the audience — unless you want them to see up your skirt to the hip:

Sitting like this hides your crotch but sometimes exposes your stocking tops.

Sitting like this would hide your crotch, but sometimes exposed your stocking tops, your garters, or worse, your thigh control panty girdle.

Sitting correctly: Knees together, ankles crosses.

Sitting correctly: Knees together, ankles crossed, skirt tucked under your thighs.

These girls have mastered the basics of sitting in public in a miniskirt. The more advanced miniskirt posture requires you to also sit at a slight angle, so your crossed ankles are not directly under your knees. Tucking your crossed feet under the chair tilts your knees and thighs downward, too.

Members of the Kennedy clan demonstrate graceful sitting here. Scroll down to the group pictures.

The Scandalous Can-Can

Dinah also made some interesting points in a different comment on Underpinning the Twenties — about how difficult it was for parents raised in the 1890s to accept the fashions of the 1920s, which were so radically different from their own corseted and restrictive youth. Also, she mentions that [like the young women above] Victorian women dancing the can-can had to cross their raised leg — because they were wearing crotchless bloomers. These are more formally called “open drawers;”

Open drawers, circa 1860, illustration from Ewing's Fashion in Underwear.

Open drawers, circa 1860, illustration from Ewing’s Fashion in Underwear.

A pair of open drawers that belonged to Queen Victoria were sold at auction for over 6,000 pounds in 2014 (read the article in Victoriana  here ); this article in the Telegraph shows some of her underwear, now given “national designated status.” These garments date from the 1890s, when the queen had a very large circumference.

Women in Gym Bloomers Allowed in Golden Gate Park: 1915

College girls doing farm work in their gym bloomers and middy blouses, Oct. 1918. Delineator.

College girls doing farm work in their gym bloomers and middy blouses, Oct. 1918. Delineator.

The San Francisco Chronicle runs an article every Sunday called The Wayback Machine,  by Johnny Miller, who goes through “the archives of 25, 50, 75, and 100 years ago to bring us glimpses of the past.” On January 4, 2015, he found this article from January 8, 1915, heralding the end of the bloomer ban:

“As far as the Park Commissioner is concerned, ‘the bloomer girls’ will be allowed to play ball in Golden Gate Park, notwithstanding Mrs. Grundy to the contrary. For some time these young misses have been an attraction on the park diamonds where they could be depended upon to put on a stirring game. And then Mrs. Grundy appeared on the scene and the games ceased. But now they will resume for the park Commission sees no harm in young girls, attired in their gymnasium suits, disporting on the park greens.”

More college girls doing farm work in their gymnasium outfits, 1918.

More college girls doing farm work in their gymnasium outfits, 1918.

A less sexually provocative outfit would be hard to imagine. Perhaps the fact that the female baseball players’ stocking-clad legs were visible was the reason “Mrs. Grundy” objected to games in Golden Gate Park in 1915.

That brings us back to Dinah’s comments about the conflict between Victorian adults and their 20th century offspring:

“Another problem was that in the 1920s there was a break from the 19 century view that even adult children must do as their parents dictated. The fact that adult young girls were ignoring their mother’s advice about proper corsetry was in itself terrible. Do the sums – a 21 year old girl in 1925 would have been born in 1904, to say a mother aged 25; The mother would have been born in 1879. When the mother was a teenager in the 1890s the wasp waist was in full swing. She probably expected the same rigid and tight corset for her daughter?”

Thanks to all you wonderful readers who share your knowledge and keep these conversations going!


Filed under 1860s -1870s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1960s-1970s, Corsets, Corsets & Corselettes, Costumes for the 19th century, Girdles, Hosiery & Stockings, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Sportswear, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Uniforms and Work Clothes, vintage photographs, Women in Trousers

A Book I Need to Read Again: The Language of Clothes

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the popularity of striped coats in 1924.

Two striped coats from 1924, Delineator magazine.

Two striped coats from 1924, Delineator magazine.

This week I found this photo in Alison Lurie’s book The Language of Clothesillustrated with images assembled by Doris Palca.

A British fashion photograph of motoring and sports coart, 1924, from The Language of Clothes, by Alison Lurie.

A British fashion photograph of motoring and sports coats, 1924, from The Language of Clothes, by Alison Lurie.

The Language of Clothes, by Alison Lurie, 1981

I was de-accessioning my library, and had listed this book on Amazon, but I didn’t have to read more than a few sentences to realize that I want to read it again. Lurie’s observations about fashion are perceptive, very well-written and often very amusing. Her comment on these coats is:

striped 20s coats lurie p 74777“Women entered the second decade of the twentieth century shaped like hourglasses and came out of it shaped like rolls of carpet.”

When I was teaching, I always stressed that “Costume communicates.” We all speak the language of clothes, and we constantly make judgements based on our reading of what other people wear. Lurie’s book is about the subtle statements and psychological impulses behind our clothing choices, with chapters on “Clothing as a Sign System,” “Youth and Age,” Fashion and Status,” “Fashion and Sex,” and many other topics that explore the clothes we usually take for granted. Her comments on the fashions of the 1920s, in the chapter “Fashion and Time,” interested me particularly, because I have been thinking many of the same thoughts while looking through pattern illustrations of the twenties — but Lurie anticipated my ideas by thirty years.

And she writes really well, so that there is a lot of information packed into her seemingly effortless prose.

Dressing as Children: Thoughts on 1920s Styles

After summarizing several theories about why women minimized their breasts and hips in the twenties, Lurie reminds us that . . .

Child's drop-waisted dress, late 1880s, from Dress, The Jenness-Miller Magazine.

Child’s drop-waisted dress, late 1880s, from Dress, The Jenness-Miller Magazine.

“It has been sugested that women were asserting their new-won rights by dressing like men; or, alternatively, that they were trying to replace the young males who had died in World War I.

“…But a glance at contemporary photographs and films shows that women in the 1920s did not look like men, but rather like children — the little girls they had been ten to twenty years earlier….

“…And although [the flapper] might have the figure of an adolescent boy, her face was that of a small child: round and soft, with a turned-up nose, saucer eyes, and a “bee-stung” mouth.

I have been noticing that patterns for young women, aged 15 to 20 —  i.e., ‘flappers’ — were illustrated with very round-headed, big-eyed, baby-like heads, like the prototypical flapper cartoon character, Betty Boop.

Betty Boop, and fashion illustrations of women aged 15 to 20; Delineator, 1924.

Betty Boop, and fashion illustrations of women aged 15 to 20; Delineator, 1924.

Illustrations of a teenager and an adult woman wearing the same hat pattern, 1925. Delineator magazine.

Illustrations of a teenager and an adult woman wearing hats made from the same pattern, 1925. Delineator magazine.

Very large eyes, spaced far apart, in a round — rather than oval — head, with a tiny nose and “rosebud lips;” those are the traits associated with an infant’s head.

Middy blouse for athletic events; Jan. 1925.

Middy blouse for athletic events; Jan. 1925.

Alison Lurie goes on to say, “One popular style of the 1920s was the dress cut to look like a shirt, with an outsize collar and floppy bow tie of the kind seen on little boys ten or twenty years earlier. [See above, left.] Another favorite was the Peter Pan collar, named after [the boy who] . . . was chiefly famous for his refusal to grow up. . . . Middy blouses and skirts were now worn by grown women as well as children, and the ankle-strap button shoes or “Mary Janes” once traditional for little girls became, with the addition of a Cuban heel, the classic female style of the twenties.”



“I Won’t Grow Up”

My own observation is that dresses considered suitable for little girls aged 8 to 15 (or younger) in the early 1920s became the adult fashions of the later 1920s. When adult women were still wearing mid-calf-length skirts, in 1924, 12-year-old girls were wearing skirts that came just to the knee. Two years later, adult women — not just ‘flappers’ — were wearing knee-length skirts. The curves of a sexually mature female body were suppressed, or at least de-emphasized. The ideal may have been a ‘boyish’ figure, but it was also the figure of a little girl, too young for adult responsibilities, but insisting upon adult freedom of behavior.

Dresses for Girls 8 to 15, 1924; Woman's dress, 1928

Dresses for Girls 8 to 15, 1924; Woman’s dress, 1928


Young girl's dress, 1924; Dresses for ladies, 1928. Butterick patterns illustrations.

Young girl’s dress, 1924; Dresses for ladies, 1928. Butterick pattern illustrations.

Earlier in the century, young women looked forward to the day when they could “put up” their hair and let down their hems. By 1925, women were reverting to schoolgirl clothing styles: dropped waist lines, short skirts, pullover dresses, and middy-type blouses worn outside their skirts rather than tucked in (a look previously only seen on gym suits and children’s outfits.) Here’s another example of a child’s dress influencing the adult dress on the right:

Girl's dress with smocking, 1924; woman's dress with smocking, 1926.

Girl’s dress, 1924; women’s dresses, 1926. Butterick pattern illustrations.

At least, The Language of Clothes got me thinking more deeply about fashion trends. I’m looking forward to reading it straight through– but it’s hard not to skip ahead to such enticing topics as “Sexual Signals:  The Old Handbag,” and the underlying meanings of “Color and Pattern.” It’s available in used hardcover for about $10 plus shipping.








Filed under 1920s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Children's Vintage styles, Coats, Hats, Shoes, Vintage patterns, vintage photographs, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes