Kate Hahn's Forgotten Fashion: An Illustrated Faux History Of Outrageous Trends And Their Untimely Demise is a romp through fashion and social history, recounted through (faux) once-celebrated fads, from the Sidesaddle Motoring Coat of 1903 to the Hood-olo of 2005. Here, in honor of the new season of Mad Men (the show is set later, but the milieu is similar), is a mid-century selection, with illustrations by Andraé Gonzalo of Project Runway fame.
Four O’clock Dress, 1957
Not a day dress, and not an evening gown, this toga-like garment was worn by mid-century American housewives during the single, lonely, long-shadowed hour after the pot roast was placed in the oven but before a husband’s key was heard in the front door. Made of light-reflecting fabrics such as satin or sharkskin, in bright period colors like Miami-limeade, Flamingo-pink, or Navajo-turquoise, it was meant to provoke optimism in the wearer.
The dress was held in place at the shoulder with a clasp which doubled as a makeup compact. This opened to reveal a more risqué shade of rouge than would be worn at other times of day. Each “Foursie” also had secret inner pockets to hide the tools of whatever vice occupied the otherwise abject and idle afternoon. Contents often included miniature gin bottles, marijuana joints, or palm-sized erotic novels.
Worn only in affluent suburbs reached by the commuter trains of New York City, the Four O’clock Dress was the concept of Jacques Brevi, a French couturier who trained in the Paris atelier of Hubert de Givenchy but came to the United States in the middle 1950s. Soon disillusioned with the grime of the bongo-playing milieu of the Lower East Side, he decamped to the affluent suburb of Bronxville, which, he wrote to a friend, was: “paradise with Cadillacs” but one that he feared was not safe from the “dirty fingers of Nihilism.”
Brevi set to work preserving his suburban haven by creating a dress that would, “if not give meaning to life, then distract from the fact that there is none.” He imported the brilliantly colored material from the finest Italian mills, hired students from Sarah Lawrence as seamstresses, and sold his creations in at least seven shops in Westchester County. The distinct rustling sound of the brilliant togas became known in better neighborhoods as “the laughter of the dresses,” as Technicolor Athenas emerged from their houses and congregated on cherry-blossom drenched front lawns to trade hits of Indonesian reefer, sip Crème de Menthe, and read aloud from annotated bootleg copies of Tropic of Cancer.
Soon, the women began to expand the secret sartorial compartments to include heavier items such as law books and manifestos. Brevi warned that the garments were not designed for this, and would not be able to withstand it. In April of 1957, his prediction came true when New Haven resident Carol Jones weighed down her chartreuse “Foursie” with copies of Atlas Shrugged and a 300-page letter to the editor of the Westchester County Times espousing individual freedom. The inner pocket ripped, and the contents fell and crushed several of her toes, leaving her prone and unconscious from pain in her foyer.
The next day, the incident was reported in the very paper in which Carol had wished to publish her letter. Her husband, Charles Jones was quoted as saying: “A man should not come home to the smell of burning dinner. I blame these glorified bed sheets.” Clippings of the story were found on the pillows of most Westchester housewives. The Four O’clock Dress was soon known as the “divorce dress” and sales plummeted. Brevi wrote to a friend, “I suppose I will once again pull up my silver tent stakes and take the circus of my life elsewhere.” He moved to Vermont, where he made sandals.
Note: In areas closer to Manhattan, the garment was known as the Three-thirty Dress as the commuter trains arrived earlier.
For a limited time, you can order a copy of Forgotten Fashion, signed by Kate and Andraé, for $9.95 plus shipping. Order it here no later than Labor Day, September 7—a great gift for your favorite fashionista! Greetings A&L Daily Readers: In your honor, we've extended the deadline for orders to Friday, September 18. But the sooner we receive your order, the easier it will be to get your book signed. Thanks!
Kit's post on big vs. small dog glamour got me thinking about all those celebrity Chihuahuas and Shih Tzus. I've always felt that there's a certain kind of grace to big, sleek dogs, like this Great Dane pictured with Coco Chanel at La Pausa, the late designer’s estate on the Med. A large, well-groomed dog conveys power and elegance. Small dogs, on the other hand, have always seemed to me more impish and cute than sophisticated. So how is it that all these lapdogs became associated with the rich and fabulous?
I speculated that this would be a recent affiliation, sparked by Us Weekly spreads featuring toy pooches cradled under the bejeweled arms of blond starlets, or peeking out of the designer bag-of-the-moment. If not that recent, then I thought possibly the glamour of the small dog was imported sometime in the early 20th century through the American infatuation with all things Paris (a city that loves its dogs so much it built them their own swanky cemetery). But as it turns out, the relationship is much older and deeper than I could have imagined.
The poshness of lapdogs dates back at least 2000 years to ancient China, where the Pekingese breed was beloved by members of the Chinese Imperial court. In fact, it was so exclusive that anyone else was forbidden from owning one. The Peke was bred small to fit inside the sleeves of a man’s robe (therein to do what is anyone’s guess) and it has retained its status remarkably well; the breed was still popular in the time of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), who kept packs of them in her palace and even wrote them a poem.
Other little dogs have had similarly privileged standing over the years. The ancestor to Chihuahuas like Paris Hilton’s Tinkerbell was associated with royal Aztecs, who believed it had mystical powers. The Papillon was among several breeds of toy dogs coveted by European royals of the 15th century, and features prominently in paintings of the French royal court at the time. The Bichon Frise, another breed adored by French royalty, found this association to be unfortunate during the French revolution; their owners deposed, these royal dogs found themselves on the streets, saved only by a sharp wit that allowed them to learn tricks and join the circus. And before its association with Charlotte York on Sex and the City, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel long had pride of place in the British royal family. King Charles II, the dog’s namesake, was so enamored of the breed that he enacted a law that the spaniel could not be refused entry anywhere in the United Kingdom, an edict that remains on the books even today.
Lapdogs originated as status symbols in the same way that pale skin or healthy plumpness did — they signified that you were of a class that did not need to work for a living, that your existence was defined by leisure and plenty. While other species of dogs were kept for digging, hunting, or herding, lapdogs’ only “work” involved looking good and being cute. This difference is no longer relevant, now that few dogs of any size still work for their kibble, but the aura persists. It has also been suggested that lapdogs were kept through the years for warmth, a plausible enticement even for today’s scantily clad, waifish celebs, and to attract fleas from their owners, a motive we can only hope that high-class hygiene has made obsolete.
[Images: Coco Chanel with dog from Baudot, Francois. A Century of Fashion London: Thames & Hudson, 1999. Chinese Scroll of Women Playing with Pekingese, Tang Dynasty, 8th C. Painting of Louis XIV and Family with Papillon dog, attributed to Nicolas de Lagrilliere, 1710-1715.]
Commenting on Virginia’s recent post on glamour and the multiplicity of desire, belle de ville wrote, “Circa 1969 I saw a page teenage magazine on how dress like a weekend hippy...and I begged my mother for that outfit.” This caused Kit Pollard to wonder about the “modern hipster aesthetic,” as she felt that in some ways “it’s purposeful anti-glamour.” I confess that I’m not sure what the “modern hipster aesthetic” is or was, but for some reason her question made me think about the battles that were often fought over hair in the 60s. (At right is a photo of me and my then-fiancée, now wife, in 1968.)
My parents decided that how I wore my hair was not worth fighting about (other things were). Thus I went through flattops, a Fabian-inspired pompadour, and a James-Dean cut with little comment from my parents. To me the opinions that mattered were held by the girls I was dating or wanted to date. This photo was taken after a concert when I was in graduate school, and I’m wearing the tuxedo I performed in. A beard and mustache were uncommon for orchestral musicians, but I adored a woman (and still do) who liked me in a beard and mustache at that moment in time—so there I am. (I had probably grown the beard to try an “alienated artist” look.)
In contrast, for my fiancée and her parents, hair and clothing had for years been battle issues. Like many of her friends, she had wanted long hair all through high school, but almost none of their parents would allow it. Many parents at that time saw hairstyles as ideological issues, and, for many of them, long hair conjured up images of debauched Beatniks and hippies. To my future wife, the thought of coffee-house poetry and female folk-singers with long straight hair had seemed intellectual and exciting. Sadly, any effort to grow her hair longer had been literally cut short by a forced trip to a hair salon. Only after leaving for college could she start growing the long hair she desired. Questions of hair length, shoe styles, skirt lengths—such things had often been the cause for battles that she had usually lost while living at home. (As you would expect, her parents disliked both her longer hair and my beard.)
In this tumultuous period of history, as America divided over our involvement in the Vietnam War, some people saw hairstyles as ideological statements, whether intended to be or not. Are hairstyles no longer an issue now? Or in some households is the way that teenage children want to wear their hair still cause for household warfare?
In 1863 Abraham Lincoln made a famous speech at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg that began: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The phrase “four score and seven years” was not normal speech for the time. This was a momentous occasion, and Lincoln used it to deliver a short, highly-poetic speech that would cause many people to rededicate themselves to winning the war. His use of the words “our,” “we,” and “us” throughout the speech is masterful.
In Sin and Syntax Constance Hale wrote that, “When occasions call for eloquence, you need poetry, not Plain English.” But using a high style requires preparation, work, and the ability to be comfortable with style. At the moment we have a president and a first lady who are comfortable with eloquence and style. This is not always the case.
Dwight Eisenhower used to hold rambling press conferences with what might be called the “well-meaning, befuddled-uncle” style. Oliver Jensen, a reporter who covered the White House during the 1950s, suggested that if Eisenhower had written the Gettysburg address it might have begun: “I haven’t checked these figures but 87 years ago I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain European areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement...”
I can imagine George W. Bush, in his down-home style having said something like, “A while back our folks decided that in America we ought to treat other folks as if they were just as good as us.”
All his life Lincoln understood that he was not a handsome man, and frequently mocked himself as being ugly. But as he aged, he understood that he could look presidential. As Harold Holzer wrote for U.S. News and World Report about the image at left, a portrait done by Mathew Brady:
There, Lincoln discovered the power of his own image. At Mathew Brady's plush Broadway gallery, he posed for a brilliantly arranged portrait that softened the harsh lines in his face and emphasized his powerful frame against the evocative backdrop of a classical pillar and a pile of thick books. Brady transformed the prairie politician into a statesman. Widely copied and distributed during a presidential campaign in which, true to the tradition of the time, Lincoln did no campaigning of his own, the picture became his surrogate before image-starved voters. Months later, the victor acknowledged: “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.” He had come to understand that images, no less important than words, could make or break political reputations.
In Analyzing Prose Richard Lanham wrote:
We all want to put on the style. It is part of presenting our public self, like getting dressed up for a party. Often, when we actually get to the party all gussied-up, we’ll take great pains not to act that way, to show that the high style hasn’t really changed us, that we’re still just folks....We are, we like to think, what we are, whether in public or in private. No back-stage/front-stage difference divides our lives. This is an illusion, but we cherish it.
Unless we are used to it, we can have difficulty with style. I have often noticed the unease that many women seem to demonstrate when accepting a compliment on their appearance when they dress up. Instead of gracefully thanking whoever told them that they or their outfit look great, they often deflect the compliment by saying things like “Oh, I got this on sale,” or “I’ve had this for years,” or (to a close friend) “Does it look too tight right here?” Or you see women relentlessly adjusting their shoulder straps or frequently tugging at some part of their outfit. Such responses and actions seem to imply either that they themselves don’t feel their outfit is all that special, or that they are insecure about how they look and feel in it. Such demurring and fidgeting can greatly undermine the effectiveness of an outfit.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg address has been much studied, and it’s effectiveness was not accidental. As Civil War scholar Shelby Foote remarked, “Lincoln was highly intelligent. Almost everything he did was calculated for effect.” Some suggested sources for various aspects of Lincoln’s address have been Pericles’ famous Funeral Speech (431 BC), Lincoln’s mastery of the language of the King James Bible, a sermon by Theodore Parker, and a speech by Daniel Webster.
Lincoln was used to making such speeches. He had been making remarkably eloquent speeches for years. So when he spoke at Gettysburg, he did so with assurance. When you’re going for high style, appearing comfortable and assured is a vital aspect of the overall effect.
[Tina Fey arrives to present at the 81st Annual Academy Awards® at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, CA Sunday, February 22, 2009 airing live on the ABC Television Network. Michael Yada / ©A.M.P.A.S. Used with permission.]
In a new exhibit, the French Musée National de la Renaissance
has assembled quite a collection of Renaissance toilet items
, including this luxurious set of 16th-century beauty tools. When grooming was a luxury, its tools were as well. In fact, the difficulty of making grooming tools cheaply was one reason that good grooming itself was a mark of social status. (Here's a page of links
to photos of Medieval and Renaissance combs carved from ivory or bone.)
The ideal of a lady's luxurious vanity set lingered into the 20th century. My grandmother owned a typical version: a matching silver brush and hand mirror. If you search online, you can still find new silver-plated cosmetic brushes
like these, but the more-elaborate
sets will be vintage. (Check out this nail set
.) The photos advertising them reveal a downside to such luxury: tarnish
Nowadays, toilette is a routine chore, to be accomplished with efficiency. Accessories aren't meant as treasures or heirlooms but as useful tools, to be replaced when something better comes along. The most glamorous presentations of beauty tools promise not luxury but order: Buy this organizer
, they suggest, and you'll finally get all that bathroom clutter under control.
[Photo: Coffret-nécessaire de toilette, Mathias Walbaum, circa 1595-1600. Musée historique, Bâle © Bâle, musée Historique / photo : HMB M. Babey.]
For high school-aged girls across America, late spring means one thing: prom time. For most, the season really probably started months – even years ago – with careful perusal of dresses in magazines and intense discussion of who’s going with whom and “OMG will I get a date??!?”
The big day arrives with corsages and manicures and hair appointments and limousines – all the trappings of grown-up red carpet glamour, tried out for the first time by 17 and 18-year olds anxious to grow up.
A rite of passage in many ways, all of the rituals and excitement surrounding the prom give most kids their first brush with adult glamour. Reared on princess mythology, girls finally get to don their own ball gowns and be perceived not just as little girls, but as something close to grown women.
The end-of-high-school dance as we know it didn’t emerge until the 1930’s or ‘40s (and really took hold in the ‘50s), but “proms,” short for promenade, most likely began in the U.S. during the late 19th century. Originally dances held at Northeastern colleges to celebrate the end of senior year, the first proms were modeled on formal debutante balls and designed to help young adults learn social skills and etiquette.
Though today’s dances, with their fancy dresses and fancier cars, often seem to be less about etiquette and more about showing off, the prom is one glamour-related tradition that hasn’t strayed too much from its original roots. It’s still about learning how to get dressed up and how to act (or not act). Even MTV, not exactly a network famous for portraying teenagers in their most flattering, mannerly light, uses prom as an opportunity to offer a bit of practical grooming and etiquette advice.
The biggest lesson my own prom taught me wasn’t about manners or social graces. Instead, it was that sometimes, the most glamorous part of the evening occurs before the event even begins. My memories of the prom are good ones, from start to finish, but my memories of finding and buying my prom dress are even better. At my grandmother’s insistence, I took a day off school and she and my mom and I drove from Annapolis to D.C., to find stores that carry something other than boat shoes and polo shirts.
After several fruitless hours and a nice lunch, we ended up in the cocktail dresses at the Neiman Marcus on Wisconsin Avenue, where I found an amazing dress that was somehow both sophisticated and age appropriate (though it was definitely not designed with prom in mind). Buying that dress was the culmination of a lot of daydreams. It was also practice for a lot of future shopping, including for a wedding dress.
Trying that dress on for the first time, and again to show it off to friends and family, I felt as glamorous as any 17-year old girl possibly can. When the big day arrived, and my hair was up and my nails were painted and I’d replaced my Chapstick with lipstick, the glamour reached fever pitch. But it wasn’t sustainable and I’m not sure that the reality of the evening could’ve possibly lived up to the fantasy. And that's OK. Part of the allure of glamour is that it’s fleeting.
That’s me in the picture, by the way (or the back of my dress, at least) and my high school boyfriend/prom date next to me. We're outside my parents’ house enjoying prom’s own version of the red carpet, the pre-dance rush of flashbulbs and corsages.
And the dress now? It’s hanging in my closet. I’m sure it’ll never fit me again, but I just can’t part with it. Too many memories, and too many lessons. Plus, it's really, really pretty.
The distanced gaze of models as they walk the runway is fascinating. Their elevated position appears to give them status (just as elevated thrones, raised platforms, and having subjects bow gave rulers status). Models on the runaway generally gaze above their audience, thus seeming too uninterested in anyone below their position to bother to look down at them.
Russian model Sasha Pivovarova, seen here in an Armani ad, has self-described her gaze as influenced by the images in silent films and as being “ice cold and unreachable, like the stare of a sniper.”
To fully appreciate the significance of that remark it helps know that in World War II Russia trained 2,000 women snipers, only 500 of which survived the fighting. One of them, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, has been listed as one of the top ten snipers of all time. During the war she had 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers. Russia issued two postage stamps in her honor, and in the best known photograph of her with her rifle (shown below), she appears both strikingly attractive and as relentless in purpose as one would have to be to achieve that many kills.
Other famous Russian women snipers include Roza Shanina (a sweet-looking kindergarten teacher turned sniper), Tanya Baramzina (who was brutally tortured and executed when captured), and Nina Alexeyevna Lobkovskaya (who commanded a company of women snipers). Russian and Soviet women have been awarded medals in some of the most hazardous combat assignments, including scouts, snipers, and fighter pilots.
Thus when Sasha Pivovarova mentions the stare of a sniper, she may well be referencing images such as this one of Lyudmila Pavlichenko (most likely one of the publicity photos taken of her). Here was a woman who was extremely successful in the glamorous wartime role of sniper. The role is glamorous partly because snipers tend to work alone, or in teams of two (shooter and spotter). And partly because there is something fascinating about a sniper’s patience, stealthiness, self-control, and cold-blooded ability to kill from great distances. Snipers have been the subject of numerous novels and films. Her first day in combat Pablichenko could not bring herself to shoot until the young soldier next to her was shot and killed. After that she said, “Nothing could stop me.” Pavlichencko’s fame as a sniper eventually became so great that she was pulled out of combat so that she could be sent to Canada and the United States for publicity. She was the first Soviet citizen to be received by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Any special “looks” that models repeatedly use can make them candidates for both emulation and parody. The facial poses of male models was parodied by Ben Stiller in Zoolander. (See Ben Stiller being Derek Zoolander in a commercial.) His “patented” look was named “Blue Steel” (and was identical to his other looks). To practice your Blue Steel has become an insider joke among models, and one web site tells how to do it, while at the same time complaining about seeing it commonly used by celebrities.
An irony in the name “Blue Steel” is that it references the bluing process that is used to provide rust protection to steel gun barrels, as well as to reduce the glare from the barrel. Perhaps the name emphasizes the sense of cold hardness that we sometimes feel when looking at photographs of models and actors. There is also the suggestion of danger. Sasha Pivovarova describes herself a smiling person in real life, but when she uses her sniper stare there is a feeling that if she did condescend to look your way, she could, if she chose to, kill you without hesitation.
Although I can think of silent film actresses who could project this quality (Louise Brooks, for example), the platinum blond quality of the Armani ad brings to mind actress Jean Harlow. Although she often sparred with her male costars using wit and laughter, she could look deadly when she wanted to.
The poster seems less like an ad for the Bolshoi, however, than for Moscow—propaganda presenting the ideal of a cosmopolitan capital of grace, beauty, and high culture. For whom was it intended? Not foreign tourists, certainly, since they wouldn’t have understood the Russian. Yet to a provincial Russian, the poster’s glamour would have presented a cruelly tantalizing prospect. Under Soviet rule, movement to Moscow was strictly limited
, and even today internal passports
restrict free migration to the capital. “You can only see this in Moscow” is the promise of life somewhere over the rainbow, ideal but unattainable.
As a historical matter, the image probably derives from the portrayal of the Virgin Mary as Virgo Lactans
, suckling her son and thus emphasizing the full humanity of the Incarnation. (One of the earliest portrayals of Mary, the Virgo Lactans itself mirrors the iconography of Isis nursing Horus
But why did a nursing mother seem appropriate as an emblem of Charity? Hanna Rosin's recent Atlantic article
, "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" (like many headlines, this one overstates the author's actual argument), offers a clue:
Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.
Breast-feeding, in other words, is a real pain and, thus, a generous act of sustenance, an appropriate metaphor for Charity. As Rosin's article makes clear, it is decidedly unglamorous--though pro-nursing propagandists sometimes make it so.
So does this beautiful image of Caritas from Filippino Lippi's Strozzi Chapel frescos in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Young, sexy, and serene, with adorable, well-behaved children and suggestive flowing tresses, Caritas hardly makes nursing--or, by implication, good deeds--seem like a sacrifice. For Strozzi women, it wasn't. As art historian Jonathan Nelson, an expert on Filippino Lippi, pointed out to me, Renaissance viewers would have seen the portrait not as a mother but as a wet nurse. As in so many instances, the key to maintaining real-world glamour is having good help.
As DeepGlamour’s newest mother (my son is two and a half), I do a lot of thinking about the way having a child has affected my capacity for glamour – usually at the same time I’m worrying that my jeans are veering rapidly into “mom” territory. Like DG interviewee Maureen Kelly, I find myself paying close attention to the glamorous moms out there.
A while back, Virginia wrote about the original glamorous mom, Mary, full of serenity and grace. A generation ago, mothers like Jackie Kennedy captured the public’s imagination. Kennedy’s iconic beauty and elegance stood in sharp contrast to other glamorous female icons of the era, most noticeably, Marilyn Monroe (Mad Men’s fictional ad wizards immortalized this difference in their proposed campaign for Playtex bras, asking ‘Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?’).
Today’s noticeably glamorous mother figures, celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, and (my favorite) India Hicks, are less pure examples of saintly motherhood and more reallife mixtures of fabulous woman and loving mom.
With all of these ideals of glamorous motherhood, it’s difficult to choose one as best, though I do lean towards the modern mix. For me, having a child has sharpened the distinctions between real life and glamorous fantasy. Where in my pre-kid life, dressing up for dinner or a night out was a regular, run-of-the-mill event, these days, on the occasions I have to dress up, put on heels and makeup and something other than eau de Play-Doh, I’m especially conscious of how I look and feel. I lay it on a little thicker. My heels are getting higher and my perfume’s getting stronger – but my skirts are getting just a little bit longer, too.
Maybe that’s the luxury of being a modern mother – we get to be Jackie, but have our Marilyn, too.
[Image: Dyna Moe's depiction of the Jackie vs. Marilyn campaign. Used with permission.]