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 BettyBeguiles.com, 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.