Friday, October 30, 2009

30 October 1955 “Questions and Answers: Part Two of Three”

Here is the second installment of my questions and answers. I really found, going through these questions, how much I have changed and really studied this year. I hope you enjoy it and please, though they are my answers, chime in with your own ideas!

  • How completely have you changed your lifestyle to accommodate the 1950’s way of life.

I changed as much was/is possible and still functional. Obviously, the use of my computer was important in order to document my project. I have found, however, that computer (though once used for entertainment) now serves as a combination typewriter/reference library.

My dress is completely vintage. I wear girdle and stockings  (no panty hose) and mainly dresses and skirts. I have one pair of dungarees (blue jeans) that I wear for work around the yard or sometimes house work. These are high waisted and I can’t believe how much MORE comfortable they are than the modern ‘low rise’ jeans.  Hats and gloves, pocket books, and hankies, all  of these are of the period and many authentic when possible. Although,  my wardrobe of handmade dresses is growing, using vintage repro patterns. I am to the point where I am trying to take a very basic bodice pattern that fits me and then I ‘make up’ the rest of the pattern. If I see a ‘style’ I like in a movie or vintage Vogue, I want to be able to copy in a way that it feels ‘inspired’ by it. I think a sewing homemaker would have most likely ventured into her own pattern making. In fact, I am sure in High School and College level Home Economics, she would have learned pattern making. 

  • Where did you source your 1950’s clothing and d├ęcor from?

A mixture of local antique/thrift stores and church sales. I also found many things on ebay (my vintage cone bra for example).

  • Has your husband joined in with the 1950’s theme?

As I said, my husband is very easy going and never wonders at what I might do next. He takes it all in stride. He is rather 1950’s in many ways, already, such as his manner of dress. He owns one pair of jeans which he rarely wears. He wears mostly ‘dress slacks’ and even cotton pants for working in the yard. He wears ties, sweater vests etc and has a very 1950’s haircut. He does not wear tennis shoes except to go running, so really he blends right in. He is also a pipe smoker and collects and uses antique typewriters, so it was rather a nice fit. We seem to find ourselves very ‘at home’ in the 1955 role of breadwinner husband and homemaker wife both in clothing and attitudes.

I think our attitudes as two educated middle class people, we are very similar to our counterparts. Though I love vintage clothes and can get rather excited about talking about petticoats and things, we have very real political discussions concerning the period, much the way I think our 1955 counterparts would have.

  • What is your knowledge on Dior’s ‘New Look’ that came out in 1947, following WWII?

belle epoch Considering Dior grew up in a fairly wealthy household and had memories of his mother and female family in the luxury of the Belle Epoch, his New Look (so dubbed by the then editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Carmel Snowharpers who exclaimed, “It’s such a new look”) seems to be his response to what he fondly recalled and what was needed after the war. The New look1 new look2 new look3

I think fashion will always look back before it looks forward. Any true innovation of fashion always has some nod to the past. roman-statues-2regency In the Regency Period, for example, the look of the classical Greek and Roman statues were copied into the Empire waist.  Napoleon, feeling akin to the Roman Emperors, affected such changes himself.

The idea of copying a previous time period you are fascinated with is not an new idea at all. Even the colors, sleeves and necklines of the 1870’s Victorian period were a direct nod to the French era of Marie Antoinette. 1870s dress  1872 worth gown marie antoinette And so Dior, after the war, wanted to give back to the world some of the beauty and femininity of the world that had been lost in the war. A world he most likely could remember in the tactile sense of youth; the rustle of the petticoat, the sway of full fabric from a small sashed waist. And I really do think that the New Look was a way to bring back some of the good that was lost after the world changed in an almost innocent way. We could leave the ideals of privilege and class in the past, but let there be beauty and femininity again. In a very simple manner he gave back a sense of luxury and innocence that had been lost.

With the restriction of fabric during the war, the look of the 1930s (which was returning to a longer skirt) certainly directed the look. There was only so much fabric.  A new silhouette was really needed in the fashion world. The hard military shoulders and knee length skirts of the war couldn’t be further away from the New Look, with its yards of full skirt, soft sloped shoulders and nipped in  waist.

What I find interesting is at this time and really only until the late 1960’s, what the fashion houses dictated as fashion would affect most people. Even if you were not wealthy, if the ‘fashion’ was a full skirt to mid calf that meant the wealthy in New York would wear a Dior original, but also the young wife in Idaho also would follow suit. That was why there was such an outrage against it by those who wanted the freedom and sensuality of the shorter skirt. When, in reality, they could have simply just worn what they liked. And THAT is the big difference in our two worlds. Today, a woman wears what she likes. And to that, I am happy. Yet, I do wish there was a return to the idea of a ‘style’ that could be set and then copied by those in their own way. Somehow it almost seems as if that allows more originality. Because, it seems when we are given the option to wear anything, we always revert back to jeans and T’s. That is fine if you choose that and it doesn’t choose you, yet I hear from women all the time how they WISH they could wear vintage, or have the nerve to wear hats. It is odd that given MORE freedom we somehow feel more restricted, odd isn’t it.

Now, I am not saying I want to put holds on anyone’s freedoms, but what I am saying, ladies, is that for those of you who long and pine for the days of beauty in clothes, you have the choice our grandmothers DID NOT! So, watch some old movies or read old vogue, look at Edith Head designs and get to sewing! The world around you can be changed. You might be the woman brave enough to wear that veiled 1950’s hat and gloves to the store, party or church and other women will think, “Oh, my, how adorable”. We always do. No matter how removed we can pretend to be from fashion as women, let’s face it, fashion has existed BECAUSE of us. Again, another powerful part of our woman’s history. We WORE the corsets and bustles and farthingales. Men may have manufactured them, but WE gave them life! Embrace it! Sometimes I feel that we as women are so powerful, but we feel the need to hide or suppress it. If it takes nerve to wear a full on 1950s outfit down to the girdle or even an 1850’s, then we can do it! You might affect the style in your own town and honestly wouldn’t you rather be thought of as having your own style than not thought of at all?

Well, I got off topic a little, I am sorry, that bit was more for my post, back to Dior and the New Look.

I have often wondered if Dior was also influenced by a very small trend that occurred right after WWI started. Many fashions then were needed to become practical. . The idea that women would suddenly need, en masse, to take over male roles of work was beyond comprehension up to this point, though we often forget that there was always a class of woman who worked hard physical labor, servants. Their role certainly became easier as fashion became less complicated, but then they slowly were done away with as the century progressed. But, fashion was for the wealthy and then the copiers of fashion, the middle class.  That is why I think the “War Crinoline” look became popular that spring of 1915. We had not yet realized what the new roles for women would entail. The fashions had become rather mannish and stark and this was a response to a need for the feminine form. When you see the fashion plates, you can easily see the new look. Particularly in this image, the navy dress and the pink dress with an overlay could probably have simply had a tight belt at the waist and been worn in 1949 as Dior’s New Look.

1915warcrinolintrend_thumb1 In the spring of 1915, however, fashion changed radically with the introduction of an outline known at the time as the 'war crinoline.' Hemlines crept upward and the skirt was now very full and bell-shaped, with wide collars and sloping shoulders.

So, this odd year of overtly feminized form of course was quickly replaced with the more practical war clothes of WWI.

So, having both grown up with ladies of high society in lush exuberant gowns and having living in Paris during the stark years of the war as well as the severe silhouette of Chanel in the 1920’s, this was really a groundbreaking look. Yet, and I am sure he was aware of it, it was highly influenced by the past. And, even the ‘war crinoline’ of 1915 is merely a reinterpretation of the 1840s-1860s Victorian period of full skirts culminating in wasp waist full skirt and sloped shoulders.

I think, much as I have found with my own project, we can and should look to the past for inspiration and ideas. In a way, those who have already lived have had to make mistakes and it is silly for us not to learn from them. Dior saw a need in both Fashion and probably in his own heart, after the devastation of the war, to a return of gentler more comforting times. The era where ladies had small waists, milled about in full gowns and sat daintily sipping tea under large hats, and thus the NEW LOOK was born. That, anyway, is how I see it.


  • What do you think of this style of clothing, with the 8-inch waist and 25 meters of material in one skirt alone?

For myself, I adore Dior’s look. I am tall and can carry a full skirt mid-calf fairly well. I do recall there being a backlash from women at the New Look because they had to cover their legs after the freedoms of the War and certainly for a shorter frame it might not be as complimentary.

Since I am living in 1955, the New Look is not so new any more. My skirts, for the most part, are very full. I actually prefer a full skirt with petticoat over the pencil skirt, though I do wear those as well. My full skirts tend to run a little closer to the knee, as would be happening now in 1955, and by 1962 you would still have that silhouette but the skirt would be just at the knee, also very flattering. Compared to the later 1960’s short straight A-ling dresses, I think the New Look is a woman’s best friend. There are many ways to hide ‘flaws’ in the New Look, while the mini dresses of the 1960’s bared all.

There is something supremely feminine in the New Look. The fall of the skirt, the way it moves and the sound of the petticoat and crinoline. Even my housedresses that I clean in are full skirted, though often worn without my petticoat, they are a joy to clean in, as I can move about freely, are very comfortable in the summer (when my girdle was only worn ‘out in public’ as I was told my ladies of the time that was correct).

What I can say to any of you who have not worn the New Look, you must try it at least once. There is something etheral about walking into a room feeling the movement of your skirt and the way it falls as you sit. It gives a lovely look, and I have to say, in it’s suit form, is very smart. I love the looks of other time periods, say the 1920’s, but if you are fuller figured, the New Look is for you!

  • What do you think this meant for women? Did you find this a form of oppression and push for conformity for women, or did you find this luxurious and ‘housewife’ ideal appropriate?

I think any intentional form of ‘oppression’ through clothes upon women is rather a modern ideal. Perhaps, other than Poiret’s hobble skirt of the teens, which literally restricted movement of the legs, fashion on women was never ‘inflicted’ in my opinion.

There were certainly those who may have suffered with the corset, probably Victorian servants in upper class households for example, but for the majority of it’s existence it was no more oppressive than a modern bra. In fact, I don’t believe it was until later Victorian (1870s-1900) that the ‘tight lacing’ of the wasp waist was really a infliction on your body.  A corset of say the Regency Period or even Victorian around 1840 was more about holding a shape to conform to the fashion. Now, I am not saying I want us to have to wear corsets or girdles, but I am saying that in the past society lived in a more patterned way. Really, any woman could have stopped wearing her corset, she was not literally being ‘forced’ into it everyday. But the moral fiber and laws of society themselves required you, if you wanted to participate, to follow those rules. Do I think those rules were set only by men, no. This is something that I think really needs further study. I am sure, for every one woman who despised her corset, there were ten ladies reveling in it. This concept that men, until the 1960’s, held us in an iron clawed grip is, to me, a farse. We have more freedoms now and I am glad for it, but we have always had the potential for those, but we chose, collectively, to focus on other aspects of our society. Women, by nature, are nurturers biologically. You have only to look at other mammals to know that. So, we tend to be the ones who quietly allow there to be serenity, to make a comfortable home to live in. What we need to realize now is that equality is not about FORGETTING or throwing away anything we think, as modern women, is servitude: such as homemaking skills! We really do a disservice to our own history in so doing.

I think there were definitely women who had tasted the freedom of the workforce during the war and did not want to go back. Certainly they would prefer a different look and actually the office look at the time was more streamlines, with fitted jackets and pencil skirts, but for the women who did want to return home, it must have been a luxury. As I said, there were many women who actually protested the New Look, but it had nothing to do with ‘men’s oppression’ and in fact most men, had they had the choice, would have not wanted it either, because really the look of the war showed much more leg! And that is another thing I have noticed about modern times. Men obviously like to see women. The new look was more about how we felt as women in being pretty. It covered us up more, but we didn’t care as we were pleasing ourselves not the men. Today, fashion seems to be akin to strippers and lingerie models. Somehow the ideal has become to be as sexy for men as possible. Now, that seems more degrading to me than getting to wear pretty dresses with frou frou and fun, which many women DO enjoy rather men do or not.

So, I can only really speculate what was really felt by the common homemaker. For me, coming from a world of jeans and very few dresses being seen except for ‘nice dinners out and parties’ it was like the joy of a little girl getting to play in her dress up box or her mother’s closet. I would think that must have been true for some women, especially war brides as I would have been. If you are lucky enough to have your husband return home, the thought of making that home, raising children, decorating, going out and looking beautiful meant a great deal to them. Even in my experiment I cannot ever fully know how it must have felt to go from your world exploding around you and the constant fear of death to the reality that you could dress up and be pretty and have parties in your new home with new things and color everywhere! It must have seemed, for many, a magical time.

  • What are your thoughts on women’s role during this era?

I think one of the main elements of my project was to see, was the primary role of women of the time as homemaker (and mother, though I do not have children) a good or bad one?  Though certainly after the war, women were expected to give up their jobs to the men and become wives, many did not or they continued working while being married.

I think what I have found is that one of the main roles of women throughout recorded history has been that of Homemaker in one way or another. It is only after this year that I am beginning to see what a treasure and important aspect this is to Women’s History. Rather we feel, by modern standards, that it was ‘enforced’ upon women, I am afraid that we are now too quick to judge. I have found that the attitude “Oh, Just a Housewife” slaps the face of all our fore sisters in the face. Our role of nurturer, nester, and all that has become homemaking is riddled with skill and accomplishment. I think now that women have CHOICES that Homemaker should still be a valid one. I also feel much of Homemaking skills should be taught to both boys and girls at a young age, as to care for oneself, to be self-sufficient in this way is important. Rather you have a husband making the income or you are single, such skills as cooking/baking, mending clothes, being budget wise, familiar with the working of appliances, making clothes etc, all these are important elements.

So, though we see the 1950’s primarily as a time that woman was a Homemaker or a nurse or schoolteacher, the children of these women were open to more careers. There were also women doctors and engineers etc. I do feel, however, that the role of woman in this era as a Homemaker should be taken more seriously. I feel that role and all it entailed could even help today in our economy and planetary crisis. The green movement could be greatly improved by following the rules of the old homemakers household, where things were reused, repaired and garbage was considered reusable, before becoming garbage. Even the ability to make more things from simple stock ingredients reduces the amount of garbage we make with packaging. I always laugh, particularly now, at bottled water. If we were to time travel to 1955 and tell them that you would have to pay for water in a bottle, I am sure they would have laughed at us. But, we aren’t laughing, we are buying it by the truckloads and many other pre-packaged things and clothing and cheap furniture and the list goes on. I think much of what we make fun of as the role of the homemaker may prove to be a solution for all if we want to seriously restrict our garbage, but unfortunately, our consumer culture does not want that, because then we will buy less, but that also means more savings for us. We really will begin to see the Homemaker’s skills as a remedy for the ills of our current economy and nation.

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