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.
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?
Most of us have heard Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" monologue from As You Like It.
All the world’s a stage,
I browsed the greeting cards at the grocery store today, and this is what I found. Except for the 40th and 50th birthday cards, they were each the only card for that birthday. There were three options for 40th birthday, and five for the fiftieth. What do you think these cards can tell us about aging culture in the United States today?
"The scary stuff about aging is real, but our fears are hugely out of proportion."
Sometimes research takes writers into territory that is not only unfamiliar, but unpleasant. The unfamiliar I can deal with, but this was the first project where I dreaded the so-called “review of literature”. As it turns out, slogging through the massive body of literature on aging and women was as miserable an experience as I’d expected, but also disappointingly familiar. This was especially true of the information on the biological aspects of human aging. “Hair sparse and grey”: check. “Skin like parchment”: check. “Fewer curves”: check. “Wrinkles”: check. My posture is pretty good so far, but I am no longer 5’ 9”. I walk more slowly, descend stairs more carefully. Less hair in “those” places, but more facial hair, though "rarely to the point of disfiguring”, as one author helpfully adds. The word “atrophy” stops me in mid-sentence and I smile. Tell me something I don’t know.
My intention in this chapter is to provide some context for the stories in the chapters that follow. For readers who, like me, have reached their seventies**, it’s old news. But in the optimistic thought that the book might be of interest to younger readers, I will try to summarize existing works on the topics of aging, gender, and fashion succinctly and practically. For serious scholars who want more, I'll provide a bibliographic essay in the appendix.
**The beginning of my chapter reviewing the literature on aging, women, and fashion. Comments and suggestions are encouraged.
*I am actually 69 and 3 months, but will be 70 by the time this gets published.
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 in response to the interest in the PBS Digital Studios video "Why was Pink for Boys and Blue for Girls?" Post your questions here and I'll try answer within 24 hours!
I know, I know. I have complained about repetitive interview questions, but the truth is that is order for people to open their minds and let go of gender stereotypes, those of us who do this work must answer those questions over and over. Besides, every once in a while, we get one of those really fun interviews with someone we can share a laugh with, along with the information.
Last May, I had one of those interviews, with Shankar Vedantam of NPR’s Hidden Brain. We met at my local mall and strolled around the kids department in Macy’s, chatting about pink and blue, pockets/no pockets, and the missing character on the boys’ Star Wars T-shirts. (Can you guess who it was?) It was a double blast because inside I was fangirling like a twelve-year old. Hidden Brain is one of my favorite podcasts: smart, well-paced, and slickly produced like an audio documentary. And Shankar Vedantam is a great interviewer and host; being on his Rolodex was a dream come true.
So enjoy the podcast episode. Bonus: now I know how Lise Eliot (Pink Brain, Blue Brain) pronounces her name.