Tag Archives: symbolic clothing

Costume Communicates

College students, Woman’s Home Companion, October 1936.

Many years ago, I finally had time to take a life drawing class. During a break, the woman next to me introduced herself. She was a psychologist. When I told her I was a costume designer, she shared this story — one that taught her the importance of dress, and how much it communicates.

When she was completing her post-graduate degree, starting to look for jobs, she was also asked to do group counseling with high school students who were having behavior problems.

As it happened, on the day of her first group session with the students she also had a very important job interview. She dressed in her best (and only) suit, with high heels she would never have worn on campus for a usual day; she got up early to do makeup and style her hair (instead of pulling it back into her usual “no-time-to-do-my hair” ponytail,) and she carried a briefcase instead of her backpack. She wanted to look as grown-up and professional as possible for the job interview.

Two dressy suits made from Butterick 7928, October 1956, Butterick Fashion News.

She went straight from the interview to her first session with the high school students. It went really well. She felt that they were glad to participate and have a chance to get help with their problems.

A week later, she went straight from attending her own university classes to the high school. That session did not go so well. The students didn’t volunteer or participate as they had. They became quiet, sullen, obviously bored. Every week, every session felt worse. The students who had been so eager were almost hostile now. The young psychologist stayed up nights trying to figure out how to get the group sessions back to that promising first day.

Finally she realized she had to deal with the problem openly; she asked, “What changed?” One girl was willing to answer:

“That first day you came, you seemed to really be interested in us; you listened to us, and we thought maybe you could help make things better. You were all dressed up, and we thought ‘Somebody important cares about us!‘ But then you saw that we was just poor kids, and the next time you came here looking just any-old-way because we didn’t matter.”

“Oh, dear god,” thought the young psychologist. It hadn’t occurred to her that dressing as what she really was — a graduate student in college — would send that signal to them. She realized that being dressed formally had given her extra authority, and built confidence that she was really a doctor. But she hadn’t considered the reverse. She had never thought to carefully explain her real status:  she was a student, like them; poor, like them.  And being honest months later — “I really needed that job, so I tried to look professional and grown-up for the interview” — didn’t help, because it still meant she hadn’t thought it was equally important to dress professionally for them — clients who didn’t pay.

It’s a sad story that has stuck with me all these years. The shaman’s feathers and paint, the doctor’s white coat, the banker’s suit: clothes establish our identity. Whatever we wear tells other people something about who we are, what they can expect from us, and how we expect to be treated. Like it or not, costume communicates.

Doctor, nurse, and baby in an ad from 1937. Delineator.

We know at a glance that this is not a family; and we know these people are trying to help the baby — because we can “read” their clothes, without any conscious thought about what is going on here. We read each other all the time.


Filed under 1930s, 1950s-1960s, Musings, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Uncategorized

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