The generous 3-inch hems, on the other hand, were awesome.
I have been doing a close content analysis of the kids’ clothes in Sears catalogs from the 1950s. Two elements of little girl dressing stand out in my memory as I look at these catalogs. First, the back closures. I was well into elementary school before I could completely dress myself, thanks to the standard design of school frocks: buttons in the back, with a self fabric sash, requiring my mother’s assistance every morning. Out of the 324 dresses in the 1950-1954 Sears catalogs, only 27 did not fasten in back. And then there are pockets. Less 15% of the 324 have pockets, all of them barely large enough for a child’s hand. A few do offer a matching “hankie bag” hanging from its belt loop. I am struggling to remember where I kept my handkerchief when I went to school with the sniffles.
The generous 3-inch hems, on the other hand, were awesome.
Dress-up and play (Draft from the 50s chapter in my book)
“His and hers” sex roles went beyond clothing. Toys, games, books, sports (or lack thereof) and just about everything else in our surroundings in the 1950s were coded “male” or “female”. But actual little girls could — and did — cross that boundary. We played with our brothers’ trains and joined the neighborhood gang for rounds of tag and Red Rover. And we played hours of cowboys and Indians in full regalia complete with toy six-shooters.
Dress-up play is probably as old as clothing itself. We have ample evidence of the joy that children take in borrowing adult hats, shoes, and other items, and experimenting with grown-up cosmetics. Parents’ Magazine suggested “simple dress-up clothes” for children from two to four years, and reassured parents that “cross-dressing at this age was not a cause for concern. From four to eight years, their list includes more specific costumes based on occupations (fireman, nurse) and cowboy outfits. Of all of these, cowboy and western-styled clothing was far and away the most popular, and had been for a generation.
While a child could play the part just by adding a bandanna and wide-brimmed hat to any play clothes, ready-made cowboy suits, complete with hat, guns, and sometimes even a lariat, were the gold standard, at least in my neighborhood. These had been available from mail order companies like Sears and Montgomery Ward since the early twentieth century, along with military styles. The earliest ones were intended for boys, but girls’ versions - cowgirls and “Indian princesses” soon appeared as well. Movie cowboys like Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers loaned their names and signatures to some of the “styles”, and the synergy of Saturday western matinees and dress-up play proved to be a powerful sales boost. Television only increased their influence. By 1951, fan clubs like Hopalong Cassidy’s Troopers and Roy Rogers Rider Club boasted memberships in the millions. Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans were the brand ambassadors for Sears western wear through the 1970s.
While the prewar styles were designed for school-aged children, Baby Boom toddlers were included as well. There were also many more girls’ outfits, which, unlike earlier styles, offered trousers as well as skirts, and toy guns as well. (Oddly, two-gun holsters were more commonly found in boys’ outfits.) Like other play clothes, these western styles came in deep colors - red, brown, navy - never pastels.
Which leads me to my story of The Best Christmas Ever, the year I got exactly what I asked for: a cowboy suit with a two-gun holster. I remember being asked more than once -though not by whom - “don’t you want a cowgirl outfit?”, and vehemently repeating “A COWBOY SUIT WITH A TWO-GUN HOLSTER”. Christmas Eve, when we usually got new winter pajamas, I got the vest and pants, in black cotton twill with white vinyl fringe. Christmas morning, under the tree and not wrapped (Santa-style, in my family), was the two-gun holster, complete with shiny six-shooters and extra caps. I can only imagine the parental discussion that produced this miracle, and wish I had asked them when I had the chance. But I got what I longed for, and the memory remains bright over sixty years later.
Why, oh why did I think this book would be easy, much less fun? It was going to be a history of clothing for older women, Age Appropriate, that would trace the evolution of sensible shoes, Lane Bryant, and mother of the bride dressing. Instead it has turned until a story I want to tell yet don’t see clearly even as I burrow more and deeply into the primary source literature. I call it a generational sartorial autobiography: a life story told through the changing fashions of the last seventy years.
And today, sitting in the library, I found tears running down my face. I had written a bit, revised a bit, done a quick online search for a promising source, and studied the images I have already collected for the chapter on childhood. It wasn’t frustration that brought on the tears, it was the question I had been pushing away for the last several weeks. Was my mother happy being a woman? According to the advice literature I have been researching, she was bombarded with the message that it was her duty to raise me to love my sex and to embrace femininity. Failure meant a masculinized daughter destined for confusion and unhappiness.
She died twenty-two years ago this month, so I can’t ask her. Instead, I look at my childhood self and ask, “Was I happy to be a girl? Did I look forward to becoming a woman, a wife, a mother?” The honest answer is “not really”, but I want to reassure my mother that it was not her fault. .
Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with being female. But fitting into the cultural idea of “girl” never suited me as a child, and as an adult, I rarely think of myself as a “woman”, except when ordering clothes or choosing a public restroom. Mostly I just go through my days and weeks being me; I am more aware of being white than female, and that’s not saying much. Deep inside, I truly believe that the “problem”, to the extent that there is one, is not me, or the way my mother raised me, but illfitting cultural and societal expectations.
I am in in the midst of reading “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex” (1947), an anti-feminist bestseller that lays out the solution for “the woman problem” (which was considered by the authors to be at the root of every societal ill since the Industrial Revolution). Women must embrace their roles as mothers and homemakers, and society and government must support them in these roles. To say that it is infuriating is an understatement, but it is also sad. It is a tragedy that my mother’s generation was told that they should find complete fulfillment in being a wife and mother, and that to do otherwise was neurotic. And it shakes me to the core that my mother tried her best to instill those lessons in me, all the while not truly believing it was right. Because I don’t think she was happy being a “woman”, either.
So that’s where I am. And in the meantime there is the book I am trying to write. Not to be confused with the book that is trying to be written.
It's been a very busy and productive couple of weeks for me, mostly spent in the university library. Right now the main effort is on the years of my girlhood -- specifically from 1949 to 1961 -- but the chronology is the only thing that is sharply focused. I have been reading children's etiquette books, Seventeen from 1961, and Parent's Magazine. I have also looked at Brownie and Intermediate Girl Scout handbooks from the 1950s. Here's a taste of what I found:
The most important thing I have learned so far is that “hegemony” is not singular; cultural forces push and pull at us from many directions, and take many forms. There was no single message about our sex and what was expected of us because of it. There were many. Nor are all influences external to ourselves. Even as children, we produce our own beliefs and mythologies, some connected to the stories told to us by our elders, some colored by media, or religion, or any of a myriad other influences.
This is why it is so important to study the marketplace AND the market, the consumers AND what they consumed. This is why my own story was not enough, why I have to find others in my cohort, similar enough to me in age and race to understand the full complexity of this process.
If you are an American white woman born in 1949 or from the high school class of 1967, and willing to be interviewed for this project, send me a note through the "contact" link.
The Popular Culture Association conference is about a month away, and I am not nearly where I hoped I would be. (This is typical.) The working title of the abstract was “Learning to be Female” but the chapter is now tentatively titled “From Female to Feminine”, which is closer to what I am envisioning. an excerpt:
Learning to be female is a lifelong process of education, being guided into each new stage of life along a cultural path shaped by beliefs about aging, class, and race as well as gender. We learn to continually measure our selves against socially-constructed and learned images of the female and standards of femininity.
So far, I have collected and examined images of girls’ clothing from Sears catalogs (1949-1959) and etiquette books from the same era, including those written for children. I have begun to gather information about Halloween costumes and clothing used for dress up play. Still to be done:
What am I leaving out? What sources would be useful and what questions do I need to be asking?
A long time ago (sometime in the 1980s), I gave a paper at a regional Costume Society of America meeting. I can't remember the topic, and it isn't even listed on my CV. Only one thing stands out in my memory: I was introduced by Richard Martin, at that time one of the brightest stars in the fashion studies firmament. Only one year my senior, Richard was an established curator and scholar, producing several blockbuster exhibits a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He had graduated from college the same year I graduated from high school, and earned two master's degrees while I was still waiting tables. In short, he was brilliant. He was also gracious and generous; there are many "stars" in academic fields who are willing to lower themselves to occasional brief appearances at conferences, where they hang out with the other stars and ignore everyone else. Richard was not that person.
So it was that Richard Martin (THE Richard Martin) was at a regional meeting presiding over a session of papers by junior scholars and graduate students. I was probably the most senior presenter, but still an assistant professor; my very first article about boys' clothing and gender had just been published in Dress. And he introduced me not just with a list of my degrees and positions, but a description of my work. WHICH HE CLEARLY HAD READ. And he called me an iconoclast. On my secret, imaginary business cards ever since, is the line "Richard Martin called me an iconoclast".
Yesterday I got this message via Linkedin from Rob Smith, founder of The Phluid Project, a gender-free store in New York.
I’m working on a Ted X talk on why do we gender clothing. I want to thank you for your work and insight.
It’s extremely helpful as I finesse my language around this topic.
I opened The Phluid Project a year ago with the mission to eliminate gender barriers and restrictions around fashion.
For me, and many others, you are an icon.
So: iconoclast icon? Iconic iconoclast? I think what it means is "don't stop". So I won't!
As part of my current research, I have been looking at Halloween and dress-up costumes from the 1950s. For the life of me, I can't remember ANY of my Halloween costumes, except for a store-bought (very flimsy) Disney Snow White costume I wore in 1957. Does anyone have memories of what they wore for trick or treat? Even better, photos?
By "dress-up" costumes, I mean clothes worn for pretend play. These could be your parents' shoes, a cowboy outfit, or a store-bought or homemade costume. Mostly, I was a cowboy, it being the 1950s. What were you?
I have been reading etiquette books from the 1950s and 1960s. (Some aimed at children, some at teens.) A few are clearly school textbooks from health or home ec classes. I did not expect there to be so many etiquette books for children, and I sure didn’t expect so many to have been published in 1955. I was six, just beginning elementary school, and apparently the publishing world was already tapping into my parents’ anxieties about my future. I should say “my mother’s anxieties”, because it was Esther Barraclough who bought Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt’s books and consulted them before every unfamiliar social occasion. But before Emily and Amy, there were books just for me.
The books written for children emphasize manners (ways of behaving), with less detail about the rules of etiquette. They also address both boys and girls, usually equally. The desired behaviors - kindness, empathy, respect for elders - are illustrated regardless of gender. The one exception I have found so far is Being Nice is Lots of Fun (1955), which has twice as many male characters as female ones. The boys are also depicted negatively twice as often as the girls, exhibiting such behaviors as dawdling, crankiness, roughhousing, selfishness, stubbornness, and poor hygiene. The girls’ sins are fewer: grabbing things without asking, talking too much, and messiness, which is apparently so terrible that “Messie Bessie” appears in three of the book’s story poems.
More gendered advice kicks in with works for preteens and teens, along with more attention to the rules of etiquette. Most of the books for this age group either emphasize advice for girls or are specifically directed at them. In fact, only one of the nearly thirty books I consulted was primarily aimed at teenaged boys. I will discuss advice for this age group in a separate column.
In the meantime, enjoy this slide show of images from the children’s etiquette books.
My mother, bless her heart, tried hard to make me into a lady. Raised "genteel poor" (a preacher's kid in a family of ten), she relied on both Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt for insights into middle-class norms. My brother and I also read The Goops, though more for fun than guidance. The Goops offered this to little tangle-prone moppets like myself:
COMBING & CURLING
My mother didn't recite Burgess as she yanked the comb through my disobedient curls or poked my scalp with bobby pins during the Saturday night hair-setting ritual. She said, "You must suffer to be beautiful". That lesson would eventually apply to pointy-toed shoes, high heels, girdles and bras. And that was just for starters.
But at some point, I stopped believing that. There's grooming, and there's pain, and I am old enough to know the difference!
Lisa Selin Davis writes in a New York Times op-ed:
Forty-five-year-old women need a version of “the talk,” because our bodies are changing in ways that are both really weird and really uncomfortable.
I am not sure how I would have reacted to an article like this in my forties. I was still consuming the message that aging could be resisted, and having a kid in elementary school meant that most of my parental peers were in their thirties. Presbyopia had set in, and I was staving off bifocals with contacts and reading glasses.
My mother had just turned seventy, which made me uneasy around her. Part of that was wondering when I would join the "sandwich generation" as her caretaker, and part of it was what I now realize was aversion to her aging body. That's hard for me to admit, especially now that I am closing in on seventy myself. When I looked at Mom then, I searched her face for the young woman I remembered. And when I looked at my own face, it was comforting to still recognize myself. "But someday", I would think, "I will see an old woman and wonder who that is."
Like puberty, menopause has its highs and lows. And both have their promises for life-altering transformations. There are subtractions and additions, narrowings and deepenings. All in all, I'd say it's an interesting journey. In fact, more interesting than puberty. "Weird and uncomfortable"? Yes, but also amazingly fascinating.