Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How it used to be

I don't usually find the time to read the Faith and Family Live website, but I kept seeing today's feature article by Hallie Lord mentioned, so I finally went over there and read it.

And now I haven't got the good sense to keep my mouth shut.

Lord, who blogs at, writes about our grandmothers and their wardrobes. They knew certain things we don't, Lord says--do read the whole article--and were coached by their own mothers on how to dress. They looked for three simple things when choosing clothes: selection, quality, and care. They might have only purchased a couple of good things, and then had a tailor alter the pieces to fit them exactly. They cared for their clothes--though Lord doesn't mention one very necessary step in that care, the iron, which imposed its thankless drudgery on every 1930s or 1940s housewife with relentless necessity.

All of this is fine, as far as it goes. Trouble is, it doesn't go nearly far enough.

In the first place, Lord is obviously talking about a particular class of woman, the upper-middle to middle class woman, when she writes as she does about clothes. A woman below that economic status would not have been able to take all the steps Lord outlines, particularly the one involving the tailor. Such a woman already made the vast majority of her own clothes, so any alterations necessary would have been done in her own home, by herself. The number of vintage clothing patterns still available show us how common it was for a woman to buy little that she could make herself, especially in the years first following the Great Depression.

In the second place, Lord may not realize something I myself found rather shocking the first time I read it: we now live in a time when it isn't all that possible to identify, immediately and correctly, another woman's social class or economic status by how she dresses--but that time was barely beginning in the earlier parts of the 20th century. Even if a poorer woman was exceedingly skilled in the art of designing and sewing her own clothes, even if she could copy the styles created by expensive designers, the materials she could afford, especially the buttons and trimmings, would be an obvious clue to her work--and that was before anybody reached the "dead giveaways" of things like hats, stockings, gloves, shoes, and jewelry.

So the practice of buying a few items of quality rather than purchasing inferior clothes in greater numbers was as much about signifying which social class one belonged to--even in times of economic hardship--as it was about a conscious embrace of a frugal or simple lifestyle.

And in the third place, if we are talking specifically about 1940s fashions, we need to keep something in mind--rationing. During World War II rationing which included clothing items continued until 1946. It was considered patriotic to keep wearing one's older clothing instead of buying new items at every opportunity. So the careful consideration of a garment one did have to purchase was important--if it wore out too quickly, didn't flatter the purchaser, or was otherwise unsatisfactory it might be complicated or even impossible to replace it with that year's clothing allowance.

None of this is meant to say that women (and men) shouldn't dress with more care. I often think that it's time to put an end to the "sweatsuit" family of clothing options we wear in public too frequently and that many of us could do a better job of presenting ourselves to the world, at least on occasion.

But creating a rosy myth of a past where a tiny-waisted woman waltzes ecstatically in front of department store mirrors as she selects quality items no longer available to the human race isn't telling the whole story. The woman standing quietly behind her ready to hand her the next item to try on, the one in the faded black dress she bought to attend her husband's wartime funeral and then later when she applied for this job, the one whose battered hat and worn cloth coat are waiting in the employee cloakroom and prove all by themselves that she'll be hiking to the nearest bus station, not signaling a taxi, when she leaves the lights and color of the store, is a big part of the story too. And when we sigh over how "it used to be," I'd much rather we didn't leave her out of it.


Mary Poppins NOT said...

Idealizing the past has it's flaws, for sure. However, the "Less is more" idea resonates with me. Somehow the making the choice to have less is easier than being forced by circumstance to do without. Good point.

Rebecca said...

It also kind of bothered me that this author assumes that we all want to go around looking "alluring". I really don't. I don't want to look all frumpy, but I pretty much want people to notice my face--me--first, not to think first, "oh, there goes an incredibly feminine and alluring woman." That whole thing kind of gives me the willies.

PersonalFailure said...

Thank you for not idealizing the past. Too many people do that.

Your post reminds me of a MadTV sketch in which a white couple and a black couple go to dinner at an authentic 50s diner- and discover to their horror exactly how authentic it is when the black couple aren't allowed to be seated, order food or interact with the good white folk.

Lindsay said...

Perhaps the details of visiting a tailor are not accurate for every social class, but I do think that there was a definite "wisdom" that women passed down about looking your best that has been lost. I think there are many women today who would like to dress in a modest but flattering way and simply don't know how.

My own relatives were certainly NOT wealthy. Truly, poverty is a more accurate description! But I do see what she describes in old photos: women who knew what they looked best in and consistently looked their best.

Much of what she describes is still how many women in Europe, I'm guessing from the middle class as well, still dress and choose clothing. American women will so often become slaves to fashion and confuse sexiness with attractiveness, wearing clothes that don't fit them and will look dated in a year or two.

The feminist movement really did steal so much knowledge, some of it more valuable or important than other aspects. However, even acknowledging that fashion sense might not be the most detrimental loss, it is still something that many women with closets overflowing with things that they don't feel pretty in wish they could gain back. Unfortunately, it is much harder to regain knowledge lost than it would have been to maintain its passing in the first place.

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

While I agree that we shouldn't idealize the past (I groan as much as anyone at hearing white baby boomers talk about how perfect everything was in the 50's), I think that now the pendulum has swung too far the other way, where people get criticized for saying *anything* positive about the past, especially the 40's and 50's.

The salient point of Lord's post was this:

The difference, I believe, is that the women of my grandmother’s generation knew how to play to their strengths and do so without sacrificing their self-respect.

Is there any question that this is a true statement? One glance through the fashion magazines of the 40's vs. the fashion magazines of today shows just how far the average woman's self respect has flown out the window. I remember really liking one of your posts from July 2007 in which you said "We live in a culture in which young women will routinely and calculatedly starve themselves in order to look like the women on the magazine covers." I didn't take that to mean that you were over-idealizing the past; you were just pointing out that this is an issue that's a bigger deal here in our modern culture than it used to be.

Her recommendations were that women shop like the women of our grandmother's generation, using our clothing budgets -- whatever they may be -- for fewer clothes of a better quality rather than having more clothes of a lower quality, and then taking better care of our clothes. As I sit here in a worn out discount shirt from Target, pilled from too many runs in the dryer, I have to think that I would feel better if I'd bought one higher quality shirt and took care of it rather than buying those four Target shirts.

My grandmothers and great-grandmothers were poor farmers who didn't have access to fancy department stores even if they'd had the money (of the class of "the woman standing quietly behind her ready to hand her the next item to try on"), but when I see pictures of them I see that they did have a beautiful dignity to the way they dressed, because of precisely the clothing choices of selection, quality and care. The points you bring up about class differences, rationing, etc. are true and interesting, but I think they're beyond the scope of what Lord was addressing in the article.

Just my $0.02. :)

Anonymous said...

Agree w/Jennifer and Lindsay. My one granny was a refugee and the other was born into near-poverty and worked her way up to...working class? And while the better-class ladies of the time could probably spot their less-than-top-of-the-line accessories, they still looked pretty much like all those other classy, well-dressed ladies in their neighborhood. One grandmother could sew, and did self-tailor; the other just chose carefully.

But I realized how funny and incongruous it would be if I imagined any of my grandparents in jeans. It just wouldn't happen; an older house dress for gardening or floor-scrubbing (or older trousers for my grandfathers), yes, but NEVER jeans! I think that's because they knew they weren't teens, which is who jeans were for back then, They looked and acted like adults, which we could use more of today.

Of course, jeans are an entirely different concept today and don't "mean" the same thing, but take a look at clothes just 10 years ago. Sure, we already started sliding fast into the slut-look lifestyle, but just for fun, go watch some Seinfeld reruns. And take a good look at what Elaine wears. Compared to today's standards, she is extremely covered up, almost oddly so. Yes, the style of those clothes are outdated now, but it really wasn't all that long ago and look how modestly she dressed! That doesn't exist much on TV, print, etc. today.


Anonymous said...

I think the biggest difference between how women dressed (and men too really) in the 50's compared to today is that there was a different dress code in public.

Really, there's very little difference between the faded housedress or patched blouse that the average housewife did her work in all day fifty years ago and the jeans and pilled T-shirt the housewife of today wears during the day. There's a huge difference between what the 50's housewife wore to go out and what we wear today.

I did have to chuckle at the part of the article where it talked about hemlines back in the 50's being more respectable, mysterious or something (I'm too lazy to go back and find the precise quote). All I could think was that the Victorians wouldn't have thought so! ;)

--Elizabeth B.

Frita said...

One thing that is certainly true about the past is that people went to church more. And people dressed up for church. So everyone tended to have a "Sunday best" set of clothes. That whole notion of having "nice dress clothes" seems to be lost on this generation.

I agree with Lord that we would do well to recapture some of that.

Anonymous said...

You may wish to read Lord's post from July 23, 2009 at before assuming that she writes solely from an "out-of-touch" middle to upper-middle class perspective. She is not the blithely twirling woman that you portray.

You do Lord a disservice when you imply that her commitment to modesty, quality, and femininity makes her somehow indifferent to or untouched by the financial struggles of the real world. I think that she would be among the first to recognize and respect the woman in the faded black dress, who maintains her dignity in the face of adversity.

I, for one, admire Lord's ability to stay clear-sighted, but still "rosy," no matter what the circumstances.


Charlotte (Matilda) said...

The salient point of Lord's post was this:

The difference, I believe, is that the women of my grandmother’s generation knew how to play to their strengths and do so without sacrificing their self-respect.

But aside from her grandmother's personal experience, I don't see any evidence to support this.

Fashion magazines of the 1940's show women in military inspired clothing because the designers were aware that the world was at war and everyone wanted to be a soldier for the cause. The women of the 1950's wore softer lines because the men were home and designers knew that the wanted their women to be soft and pretty again. The reason women of those time periods are all dressed similarly is because that is what they were being offered by designers of the time.

Where was this knowledge and choice that Lord claims pervaded the entire feminine culture? Even those women who sewed their own clothes were at the mercy of the pattern designers. Anyone who sews today will tell you that unless you can draft your own pattern, you have a limited choice of designs that are all dictated by the style of the day.

My grandmother was not wearing empire waist dresses (which would have flattered her figure in a very modest way) when cinched waist dresses were in style. And she was sewing A-lined mini-dresses in the 1960's for her daughters adding a ruffle of lace at the bottom to try to maintain some semblance of modesty.

And let's not forget that what I grandmother's might have known obviously didn't translate well to the teens of the 60's. The rebelled against that mindset in a big way. So what does that say about the previous generation's lessons? A rebellion that big (no matter how misguided) doesn't develop in a vacuum.

Now, what the fashion industry is saying about the feminine culture today is another issue entirely.

Red Cardigan said...

I like Elizabeth B.'s comment--one reason why women could hoard their clothing dollars (and coupons) for their "out in public" outfits was because they didn't have to worry about what they wore at home--unless they were of the social class that was "at home" to callers, that is.

I also like what Matilda said: we're implying that the women of earlier ages had all sorts of selection options such that they could always flatter their own figures, etc. One thing I didn't get into in my post--not enough room--was how the fashion industry back then treated the "larger size" women. You basically got a variety of tents to choose from; I think the idea was to shame you into dieting so you could buy "real" clothes.

One final point: the cinched waist circle skirt dress that looks so "vintage" to us actually debuted in 1957. There was a "cinched waist" dress in the early 40s, but it had much less full skirts, peter-pan or similar collars, and it fell by the wayside to make room for the military-inspired fashions that came along soon after (though of course women continued to wear their older ones around the house as "housedresses").

The full-skirted, cinched waist, short-sleeved or cap-sleeved dress, as I said, was much later. By 1959 this dress made an abbreviated reappearance as the "circle skirt," and by 1963, according to a website I visited, this cinched-waist, full-skirt look had disappeared completely. The first mini-dresses arrived on the scene two years later, in 1965, though only the avant-garde were wearing them for the next year or so.

What does that mean? It means that no matter how much we'd like to romanticize the past, reality is always a bit more complicated. Some of the same fashion conscious women who were displaying their feminine charms in 1957 in the circle-skirt dress were wearing mini-dresses ten years later. We can't suppose that all their careful selection of a decade earlier just suddenly "wore off," now, can we?

Charlotte said...

I always find it disturbing when the more conservative (and usually homeschooling) set of Catholics is determined to undermine any notion of modesty and femininity that isn't decidedly frumpy in nature - whether we're talking modern day fashion or vintage fashion.

The bottom line is that rich or poor, women of the past DID dress better because off-the-rack clothing (as we know it today ala K-Mart and Kohl's) did not exist. It was well-made fashions from department stores or sew-your-own. Things WERE tailored back then - either by the store seamstress, the neighborhood seamtress, or yourself. Whether you had one dress or ten, the dress was modest, feminine, and it fit correctly. Whether or not the fabric was top of the line or the cut/style of the dress was the latest fashion wasn't the point of what Lord wrote.

The POINT was that women of yesteryear cared about their appearance in a way that does not exist today. They cared about how they came off to others - they cared that they came off to others as models of self-respecting femininity. Today, women care about how "hot" and sexual they come off. Those are 2 very different things.

(And to the person who said women were limited by sewing patterns back then - are you nuts? The sheer volume of diverse sewing patterns manufactured in the past is enough to boggle one's mind. I know - I collect and sell vintage sewing patterns on Ebay.

The idea that Lord was promoting a vision of middle-class utopia is way off the mark. Her blog has been nothing but a spirited and aesthetically-pleasing attempt at finding and promoting modest fashions that actually look FEMININE and yes, thank God, ALLURING. The jeans jumper moms refuse to accept that these aspects of fashion can exist within their pinch-nosed, worn-out frugal world. And it seems some want to deny that feminine and alluring could co-exist back in the 1940's, even while (again, rich or poor), millions of family photographs attest otherwise.

Charlotte said...

P.S. I'm Charlotte (CheekyPinkGirl), not Matilda Charlotte.

Red Cardigan said...

Anonymous coward, I've deleted your remark. You should know better than to attack me or my family personally. You want to do that--email me. And sign your real name. Then we'll talk.

Otherwise, you're obviously just projecting, so I'll pray for you.

Dawn Farias said...

I think both posts serve their own purposes (and I said as much over there, too.) The F&F post points to an ideal/philosophy and this post reminds us to balance out any undue tendency towards romanticism with a bit of realism.

For someone like me, with a history of locking onto others' opinions/suggestions with a death grip, the reality check supplied by Erin is a helpful one.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

(And to the person who said women were limited by sewing patterns back then - are you nuts? The sheer volume of diverse sewing patterns manufactured in the past is enough to boggle one's mind. I know - I collect and sell vintage sewing patterns on Ebay.

I want to clarify that my point was how patterns printed in the day were based on the fashion styles of the day. For example, if my grandmother had wanted to make a regency inspired empire waist dress in the 1950's she would have had to try to find a "vintage" pattern because she wouldn't have been able to buy one in the store and back then, there was no eBay.

Also, my argument is not a frumpy vs. feminine one. You will find no denim jumpers in my closet or tent dresses. I'd invite you to come and look because I have a feeling that once we met in person, our tones would seem less berating to each other. Maybe we could try to practice that now, in charity. My concern is what Dawn expressed so succinctly. A romanticized version of the past must be tempered with a realistic view lest it become a dangerous temptation to ignore the lessons learned from the past. The temptation to live in the past when God has clearly called us to live in this age is one I am very familiar with.

JMB said...

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned how much cheaper clothing is today than it was in the fifties, and well, even in the 70s and 80s. I'm almost 43. 30 years ago when I babysat and made $2/hr, jeans at the Gap were $40. Jeans at the Gap are still around $40 or even less if they are on sale. My sitters cost me about $10/hr. Therefore, I would have had to log in 20hrs of labor to buy a new pair of jeans, my sitters have to log in maybe 4.

I think the problem today is that there is too much retail, and too many stores, designers, manufacturers chasing the same market. We are inundated with sales, promotions, cheaply made clothing from overseas. It's crazy. I used to pack up my kids gently worn clothes for the season and save them. Then one day I thought to myself "why am I wasting valuable closet real estate in my house storing onesies that cost me $1.99 at Old Navy?" It's ludicrous. It's both a blessing and a curse to have so much choice in clothing, and to have access to cheap clothes.

Anonymous said...

And when we sigh over how "it used to be," I'd much rather we didn't leave her out of it.

Well said, Erin. I couldn't agree with you more.