First, a quick apology. It's been a long, long time since I last posted. The semester swallowed me up pretty quickly after I finished the book draft. But now I am back and will be posting more regularly.
It's a rare occasion when someone throws a birthday party for a dress. But in the case of Diane Von Furstenberg's 1974 wrap dress, it is well-deserved. The adjective "iconic" is abused and overused, but certainly appropriate in this case.
When 22-year-old Diane Von Furstenberg arrived in the United States in 1968, she found a chaotic, disappointing mix of "hippie clothes, designer clothes and drip-dry polyester". There was nothing, she believed, for young mothers or working women, and she felt there was an untapped market for “simple sexy little dresses” that were comfortable, easy to care for and figure-flattering. The result was her unstructured dress with its modest length and sexy slit was, which she modelled herself in a full-page ad in Women's Wear Daily, captioned "Feel like a woman. Wear a dress." The gigantically successful jersey frock was seen everywhere, whether in the original version or any of the many knock-offs, and is credited with wooing women away from pantsuits. I owned two: an imitation version bought on sale at the department store where I worked, and one I sewed myself.
The DVF wrap dress was influential because it was not just great design, it was also perfectly timed, . Women’s fashions were acquiring a vintage sensuality, propelled by nostalgia for the 1930s in popular culture and design. I believe that Von Furstenberg also found the elusive "sweet spot" between clothing that was flattering and empowering.
I can't resist sharing my favorite warning about the dangers of pants for women, from none other than physician Robert Bradley, author of the very-popular Husband-Coached Childbirth.
I strongly feel that the current rash of vaginal infections is related to women dressing in men's-style clothing. I'm an old square who thinks women look graceful and feminine in long skirts with lace and frills to accentuate their femininity. Pioneer women wore long skirts with no underclothes--at least for working--and had far fewer bladder infections than modern women who wear slacks, especially tight, rigid denims, and panty hose. In addition, the exercises of squatting and tailor sitting can be performed so much more easily in a large, loose skirt than in tight-fitting slacks.
This was a popular "science-based"argument in the 1960s and 70s for why women should not wear pants. (Strangely, it was not used to discourage us from wearing underpants!) Later studies found trousers innocent on all charges; instead the major culprits were nylon panties and pantyhose.
If you asked someone in the fashion industry, unisex was a fad that came and went in one year: 1968. For that brief moment, the fashion press hailed gender blending as the wave of the future, and department stores created special sections for unisex fashions. Most of these boutiques had closed by 1969. However, in the more mainstream realm of Sears, Roebuck catalogs and major sewing patterns, “his ‘n hers” clothing – mostly casual shirts, sweaters and outerwear – persisted through the late 1970s. The difference between avant-garde unisex and the later version is the distinction between boundary-defying designs, often modeled by androgynous-looking models, and a less-threatening variation, worn by attractive heterosexual couples.
Also: one more chapter to go! Huzzah!!!
I am still drafting the context chapter of the book, and thankfully, it is beginning to make sense. Or at least I think it is, so I'll post a bit here are see what y'all think. Don't be shy!
This comes after a paragraph about the inability of sex researchers to take into account their own culturally-induced biases. I use the familiar metaphor of the fish trying to understand water, which is often used to describe the difficulties encountered when we try to examine our own culture.
Reformers, advocates and activists working to expand civil rights were essentially trying to change the dimensions of the fishbowl. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States of America offer definitions of human rights that initially promised more than they delivered to many people living within our borders. The civil rights movements in our history have been efforts to include people who had been excluded from the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit if happiness” offered in 1776 and the guarantee of “equal protection under the law” added in 1868. This may seem heady, serious stuff for a book on fashion, but it was the civil rights movement that made clothing and hair into national, contentious issues. Much of the fashion controversies centered on issues of gender expression and gender equality, which raised different questions for women and men, and for adults and children.
Many of the initial questions were seemingly trivial. Why can’t girls wear slacks to school? Why must men always wear ties, which seem to serve no practical purpose? Why do so many dresses button or zip up the back? Why can’t a boy wear his hair long just like the Beatles? Why do I have to wear white gloves and a hat just to go shopping downtown? Why is it cute to be a tomboy but not a sissy? If these sound like children’s questions, maybe it’s because at first they were. I remember puzzling over these and many other rules when I was growing up. The answers were even more puzzling – and annoying! “That’s just the way it is.” “Because I said so.” Culture, and the authority of grownups. In the 1960s, the Baby boom generation started to question more and push back harder, along with some allies in older generations. They were aided and abetted by a consumer culture that may have been more interested in their buying power than in cultural and political change.
I've noticed a shift in the mid-1960s away from something I will call “personality dressing”, which is the common women’s magazine trope that asks, “What kind of woman are you?” and then offers style and grooming advice based on the responses. For example, in 1965 Seventeen featured “Personality types and the clothes that go with them” using the categories “dainty vs sturdy”, “dramatic vs demure”, and “dignified vs vivacious for three pairs of outfits. A fragrance ad in 1968 offers a short quiz and three choices, “romantic”, “modern”, and “feminine”. I've seen other writers describe what replaced personality dressing as “event dressing”, but I feel that the “moment dressing” is more descriptive. In the late 1960s and 1970s, there were many choices (minis, midis, maxis, pant suits, jeans, menswear, peasant, vintage...) and plenty of women opted for an extremely varied wardrobe
Which outfit came out of the closet depended not only on the event or occasion, but the woman’s mood at the moment as well. The significance of this is that mood dressing was a rejection of an essentialist view that women came in a few, easily categorized varieties. Like the W-O-M-A-N in the Enjoli perfume commercial who can “bring home the bacon, cook it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man”, the woman of the 1970s could do anything, or least dress for anything.
That's my take, anyway. What's yours?
I turned 13 in 1962. Before I graduated from high school, three books hit the bestseller lists, each offering a completely different, competing view of what sort of woman I should try to be. Let the authors speak for themselves:
When a man thinks of a married woman, no matter how lovely she is, he must inevitably picture her greeting her husband at the door with a martini or warmer welcome, fixing little children's lunches or scrubbing them down because they've fallen into a mudhole. She is somebody else's wife and somebody else's mother.
When a man thinks of a single woman, he pictures her alone in her apartment, smooth legs sheathed in pink silk Capri pants, lying tantalizingly among dozens of satin cushions, trying to read but not very successfully, for he is in that room–filling her thoughts, her dreams, her life.
Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl, 1962
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange starring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shop for groceries, match slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, she furred Cub Scouts and brownies, lay beside her husband at night–she was afraid to even ask herself the silent question–“ is this all?”
Betty Friedan, The feminine mystique, 1963
Never before in history has there been a generation of women so disillusioned, disappointed, and unhappy marriage is in our times. Many feel that married life does not offer what they had hoped and dreamed it would. Some feel neglected, unappreciated, and often unlocked. When they search for answers, they feel lost in a sea of darkness. Some are resigned to this condition, but others still hope and search for answers.
There are, of course many women who have achieved a high level of happiness, but in many cases it is not the happiness of which they once dreamed, and it falls short of their goals. They feel a need for a richer, fuller life. They, too, need light and understanding.
Helen B. Andelin, Fascinating Womanhood, 1965
I hasten to say that although I didn't read any of them, the ideas each author advocated swirled around me throughout my high school and college years. (And they are all still in print fifty years later, which is telling.) Which woman should I be? Helen Gurley Brown's independent, sexy, young single girl? Betty Friedan’s liberated woman with a career and perhaps an equally liberated husband? Or Helen Andelin’s domestic goddess, realizing her power by cultivating her femininity?
When faced with a multiple choice test, the young women of the 60s and 70s tried to turn it into an essay exam.
I've been collecting dozens -- no, make that hundreds -- of images as part of my research and I want to share them with you all, because they are fun, thought-provoking and even astonishing.
They are all here on my new Tumblr, Gender Mystique
The concept of age compression, or kids getting older younger (KGOY), has been controversial for years. I just caught an example of this from the Sears catalogs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On the left, you see an image of the Junior section of their spring 1967 catalog, which features popular model Colleen Corby
(born in1947) in an outfit that in style and sizing is aimed at young women in the high school-college age range. In short, for younger women about her age. In 1970 Sears introduced their young teens line called "The Lemon Frog Shop", sizes 6J to 18J, and described as perfect for girls from 11 to 14 years of age. Who do we see? Why, there's Colleen Corby at the far left, now in her early 20s. Colby was a popular model for girls about her age in the 1960s. What effect does her appearance have, when she is modeling clothing for girls 10 years younger?
Everyone who knows fashion has heard of Carnaby Street, the crucible of youth style during the "Youth Quake" of the 1960s. But how about King's Road in Chelsea, which Rodney Bennett-England dubbed "the perfect microcosm of contemporary British male fashion"?
In 1968, that bastion of American middle-brow style, debuted its King's Road collection for young men. It's not Chelsea, but it will do. The King's Road fashions are pretty much the high water mark of the flood of "peacock styles" in mainstream fashion. These examples of "total color harmony" are from the spring, 1970 catalog. More to come, I promise!
And here is a TV ad
from 1973. Football stars wear them, so you know they are manly!
Need to get your own? There's Ebay
How could I not like 1974?
And if you were feeling down, all you had to do was spend a few minutes in the men's section of your local department store.