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?
When I started this project, I envisioned it simply as a history of clothing for women over fifty. But the more I read, and learned, and thought, the more it wanted to become more complicated. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Letters to my Son, wrote that “race is the child of racism”, meaning that the creation of racial categories and markers is the result of a desire to explain one group’s claims to power over another, not vice versa. This resonates with me, beyond his original meaning. Could it be that the ways we define and delineate age is the child of our fear of the death and decline? We can say that “age is just a number”, but who really believes it? Our awareness of our own mortality has resulted in our construction of age categories and generational labels, each of them loaded with meaning.
So what are these ages of life? Most of us have heard Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" monologue from As You Like It, which begins:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Shakespeare’s ages are very decidedly gendered, except for the first (the mewling infant) and the last (second childishness…sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”) Between those endpoints, the schoolboy becomes the lover, then the soldier and the judge. Decline begins in the sixth stage, “lean and slippered pantaloon”, which is not a garment but a comic character from Italian commedia dell'arte, an aging man clinging in vain to the last vestiges of youth. Shakespeare did not invent these images; there are earlier examples dating back to ancient Greece, although sometimes the number of ages are fewer. By medieval times, the number seven was commonplace.
There are also many versions of the “seven ages of woman”, which helpfully reveal the interplay between age and gender. For example, Hans Baldung’s 1545 painting (above) portrays the middle five stages in the nude, only their hair and headdresses hinting at social status. The baby girl is clothed, and the oldest woman is hidden behind another figure. It is a study in the physical changes in a woman’s body over the life course. In the centuries since Shakespeare and Baldung’s time, not much has changed. Men’s lives are delineated by occupations (and they get to wear clothes!); women’s journeys are marked by biological events: puberty, motherhood, menopause. One author points it rather pointedly: Instead of "government or commerce, war or exploration, science or even the arts", woman's fulfillment...her eagerness, her interest has always been directed toward...the perfection of her femininity". (My marginal note is simply, “Wow!”) Only two characteristics of their stories are similar. First, the least gendered stages of life are the same: infancy and very old age. Second, The first through the fifth ages are described in progressive or positive terms, with the decline narrative beginning in the sixth. Apparently, men and women begin to go “over the hill” at about the same points in their lives.
Which leads me to ponder: Where am I in this journey? Definitely sixth age, with the seventh hidden in the fog, or perhaps crouching like a stripper in my next birthday cake. Where are you? What are the markers that you noticed along the way that told you that an age border had been crossed?
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'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!