COMBING & CURLING
When your mother combs your hair,
Here's a rhyme for you to say:
If you try it, I declare,
It will take the snarls away!
In the ocean of my hair,
Many little waves are there;
Make the comb, a little boat,
Over all the billows float;
Sail the rough and tangled tide
Till it's smooth on every side,
Till, like other little girls,
I've a sea of wavy curls!
Gelett Burgess. Goops and How to Be Them.
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:
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!
I am working on Que Sera, Sera (aka Book 3, aka Age Appropriate), which should please all my patient readers out there. The first draft of the proposal is done, as is a very rough draft of the introduction. The glaring holes in my research are now clearly and uncomfortably visible, so I am renewing my effort to connect with American women who graduated from high school in 1967. If you want to participate in what I hope will be interesting discussions about your experiences from little girl to today, you can do the following:
Join my Facebook group, The Class of 1967.
Follow my Class on 1967 profile on Instagram.
Please also share this with your high school classmates! I really want to cast a wide net!
This is so exciting! This project took a detour over a year ago as I realized that it would require not only additional research, but also some serious re-thinking of the structure of the book.
You may remember this image:
The original plan was a fairly straight-forward cultural history of clothing for women over fifty, similar to what I had done in Pink and Blue for infants and toddler clothing. But the story would not let itself be told that way.
You see, we don't start "aging" at fifty; childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age are also part of the journey. Learning to be female is not a weekend workshop or even a four-year-degree program. It is a lifelong process of being led into each life stage along a path shaped by cultural beliefs about aging and gender. So I revised the plan.
As mysteries go, this will never enjoy a BBC production. After all, it features no bodies, no stolen jewels, and no charismatic detective. Just an aging professor, dressed in well-worn L.L. Bean basics, trying to figure out what happened to the women's clothing range formerly known as "half sizes".
Half sizes were designed for "mature figures" -- women with fuller, lower busts, waists that were larger in proportion to bust and hips than "Misses" sizes, and shorter from neck to waist than "Misses" or "Women's" figures. Half sizes were seldom sleeveless, and the sleeve seam and upper arm were roomier. Skirts were usually longer than other size ranges. Shoulders were more rounded. In other words, half sizes were for postmenopausal women. Until they disappeared in the late 1980s.
So what? Why should anyone care?
Here's the thing. If sizes associated with age (half sizes) do not exist, women over fifty must select clothing from the remaining size ranges based on the size, shape and proportion of their bodies. This sounds like a good thing, but there's this reality: we are not all Helen Mirren. We are also not 20-something plus-size models. Some of look like this, or will, if we live long enough:
And so, I wonder, how did the elimination of half sizes change the ways in which older women see themselves? As baby boom women age, what options will we have, and and what will we choose?
I am tempted to post this without comment, but decided against it. This was my world as a young woman. Not just for secretaries, but for just about any woman seeking employment. The author, Ruth Millett, was not particularly conservative; she made her reputation early in her career as an advocate for working mothers during World War II. The advice she dispenses here was what we heard from our mothers, teachers, and mentors, because it was just the way things were.
I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton heard this advice at least as much as I did. Keep this in mind the next time you hear someone complain about "her voice, her clothes, her smile".
I'd hoped to find a cache of student handbooks to help me trace dress codes at the local high school, but it turns out they "don't keep those", so I am turning to the historian's best friend, microfilm. Yes, not everything is digitized and available online. I am focusing on the September issues of the daily paper, the Telegraph-Bulletin, since back in the day that's when back-to-school and back-to-school fashions were in the news. My main interest is the 1960s, when dress code conflict really took off (long hair, short skirts, etc.) but for personal interest I started with September, 1957. That's the month I left North Platte, and it was great fun to check out the TV listings and reminisce.
But I also found this, the Wednesday night, Sept. 11, paper, announcing the reveal of the display windows of all the clothing stores downtown as a special event, complete with a parade by the Senior High School band.
Of course I remember Christmas windows -- as late as the early 1990s, they were still a Big Deal in most cities. (They were also a BD in our household, since my husband worked for the display department at one of the big DC stores.)
I dimly recall going downtown to "window shop" in the evening, and I wonder if it was for this sort of event. At any rate, it's a fascinating look into fashion promotion in a place far from 7th Avenue.
There was also an article, which gave more detail and -- BONUS JACKPOT! -- a list of all the participating merchants.
Day three of my research trip was a real eye-opener. I am still settling in and feeling my way around, so what I learned was pretty random, but still interesting.
For the next few weeks, I will be visiting my old home town, North Platte, Nebraska, in search of answers to a long (and growing) list of questions. Some of the questions are personal, and I will be blogging those elsewhere. But they intersect with questions related to my current book project about women, fashion, and identity across the life course. Those questions -- and whatever answers I find -- will be posted here.
Intersectionality -- defined as "the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect" -- has played an increasingly important part in my research. Decades ago, it was sufficient to focus on gender and sexism, but the realities of discrimination and have led scholars to also incorporate racism, classism, and other oppressive ideologies into their work. My interest is in how ageism works in these mixtures.
At the same time, I am fearful of trying to take on too much -- too many variables. So this trip reduces the complexity to the intersectional life courses of white women of my own age, but with whom I share a common origin. I lived in Nebraska for the first eight years of my life, seven in the bustling railroad town of North Platte. How would my life have been different if my family had not moved to the New Jersey suburbs, and then to rural New England? What was it like to grow up in North Platte?
Specifically, I expect to begin with questions like these:
It took me a while, but I have settled on the paper topic I will be presenting (fingers crossed) at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Diego next April. Since I am in the middle of a giant research project, I had lots of choices, but this one kept calling to me. Here is the abstract I submitted. What do you think?
Women's clothing sizes are complicated. Despite decades of attempts to standardize them based on measurements, female shoppers still must navigate a confusing, chaotic system of categories, vanity sizing, and proprietary sizing schemes. In this presentation, I will add to the confusion by tracing the shifting relationship between age categories and size categories (junior, misses, and half or plus sizes, for example).
This fraught relationship dates back to Lane Bryant's maternity designs, which found a market among "stout" women, especially those over fifty. Similarly, junior sizes, once designed for the slim, high-busted figures of women in their teens and early 20s, became the size range of choice for women of any age who retained their "girlish" figures. (Thus "A size, not an age", the theme of a 1957 fashion show at Saks Fifth Avenue.)
I will discuss this quandary from the point of view of women over fifty, who must search for "age appropriate" clothing based on their body type.
I am on research leave this fall semester, working on Age Appropriate. So far, that has meant a mix of reading, very rough drafts, and daydreaming. But today I took a huge step, but reaching out to people who -- hopefully -- can help me with a vital part of my research. In just over a month, I will head to North Platte, Nebraska, the town where I lived as a little girl. The burning question on mind is, "Who would I be, if we had not moved away?"
You may wonder what this has to do with gender and fashion. So do I, sometimes. But deep inside, I know there is a connection. My journey from infancy to the edge of old age is not just temporal; it is also geographical, social, and cultural. I have reached out to the local paper, the high school I would have attended, the town library, and the church where my family worshipped. Now I just have to hope that at least some of the kids I knew stuck around.
Wish me luck!