A fashionista I am not, and never have been. In fact, you might even say I’ve been out of step when it comes to fashion. But I wouldn’t say I’m a fashion rebel, either.
My parents, who emigrated separately from Europe to the U.S. in 1954, grew up in war-torn Germany. Food, clothing and money were scarce, so thriftiness was part of the fabric of their lives. They believed in buying well-made clothing you did not have to replace often. As I grew taller, hems were let out until there wasn’t any fabric left and skirts inched halfway up my thighs. Both of my younger brothers wore Lederhosen (leather shorts with suspenders) during their grade school years because they wore like iron. As for their school slacks, as they outgrew them I sliced off the legs at the knees, turning them into summer shorts, and hemmed them. Those were some of my earliest sewing lessons.
My younger brother, Mark, and I were probably three and fours years old, respectively, in this photo from the late 1950s. In this photo I’m wearing a sun dress and he is wearing Lederhosen, styles we continued to wear often through the years.
My dad sometimes rented a Cessna to fly recreationally. I’m wearing a dress, while Mark wears his Lederhosen, as we stand in front of the plane my dad flew that day in the 1950s.
Back in the 1960s, girls were not allowed to wear slacks to school, so dresses and skirts were normal, everyday wear. Most of my friends wore dresses in the early 1960s, about the time I was in kindergarten. In the birthday photo below, I am wearing a smocked-bodice dress with back ties, a style that was pretty common at the time, as well as a pair of Keds® tennis shoes. Amazingly, Keds® are still around.
I’m the one holding up a pair of bloomers I received for my birthday, which even in those days was unfashionable. I tucked them away in a drawer, and never wore them.
When I started second grade, my family relocated to southern California from Wisconsin for about four-and-a-half years before returning to the Midwest. While my friends wore mini-skirts, T-shirts and white go-go boots or “tennies,” I wore skirt-suits, white bobby socks, and Mary Ann-style buckle-strap shoes with chunky flat black heels, or white patent leather saddle shoes. There was a powder-blue, jewel-neck jacket in a knit fabric that coordinated with a blue-and-white pleated skirt. The outer pleats were blue; the inner pleats were white, and the pleats flared as you walked, making you look a little bit like a barber pole—except that the stripes were vertical. Exactly like it was another skirt-suit in pink and white. There was a red skirt-suit whose jacket and sleeves were edged in black piping, and a red velveteen jumper with a coordinating white Peter Pan-collar blouse. Every four days, I repeated the series. I’m sure I looked like a little girl straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
I was nine years old, and my baby brother, Rick, had just celebrated his first birthday when this photo was taken. I’m wearing a sailor-collar knit top with a pleated skirt, along with a pair of white sneakers. Take a look at those doubled-up braids–Princess Leia, here I come! It’s Christmas 1964, a little too cool–even in California–for my other brother to wear his Lederhosen. But his leather shorts got a workout every summer!
By the time middle school arrived in the late 1960s/early 1970s, dress codes loosened up in the Milwaukee area, where we lived. Girls were allowed to wear culottes (split-skirts), later called gauchos. This gave way to jeans and carpenter-style pants—white denim slacks with loops in them to hold imaginary tradesman tools, paired up with wooden-heeled clogs or Dr. Scholl’s sandals. For the most part, however, I continued to wear skirts, dresses, and nylon hosiery held up by garters midway up my thighs. I blessed the day that pantyhose came out. I didn’t own a pair of slacks until the high school lifesaving class I took required you to use a pair of slacks as a flotation device by tying the openings shut and blowing air into them while you were in the swimming pool. I’ll bet that’s not a technique taught anymore!
During December of my senior year in high school, I began working at Gimbels Department Store as a “flyer,” which means that when you show up for work, you work wherever you’re needed—usually in a different department each time. For the first time, I earned enough money to be able to afford, occasionally, to buy clothing that matched my own tastes. And finally, daringly, I bought some slacks that I sometimes wore to school.
This is my high school newspaper staff, of which I was one of the editors. On the bottom stair are four students–three girls and one guy. I’m the second student from the left, wearing a pair of wool slacks to which I was allergic. I don’t know what I was thinking! The year is 1974.
When college began, I wore slacks a little more frequently—especially during cold Wisconsin winters—but it was still the basic litany of skirts and dresses—old habits die hard—and they caught the eye of my then boyfriend, now husband, 41 years ago. Quite frankly, I stood out as being different, even in early adulthood.
This photo is likely from 1980 or 1981–very early in our marriage. I don’t know if we’re dressed up to go to dinner or to church, but I know I wore this dress to work as well.
In the mid-1980s, I was still wearing dresses both at work and at home. Although eyeglass frames aren’t quite this large right now, they’re beginning to return to this shape.
There was a period in my early adult life when I sewed many of my clothes not only because I enjoyed sewing but because it was cheaper to make them than buy them. I made the dress in the engagement photo below, as well as my own wedding gown, for example.
John traded a Navy ROTC scholarship in college for four years of service as a Naval Weapons Officer. During college, his ROTC unit held Naval balls, where everyone dressed up. I made my own gowns. This circa 1977 peach crepe gown was based on a Vogue pattern. We got engaged on the date of the ball.
I wore a gown and veil I sewed when we got married in 1979. This McCall’s pattern was supposed to include a train, but I couldn’t get it to fit right, and John suggested I just leave it off. Perfect solution, since I’m don’t enjoy fussy clothes!
Sewing my own clothes started a habit of accumulating patterns that—if I had kept all of them—would provide a fashion history from the 1970s to the early 2000s. The earliest of these patterns have disappeared over the years, however, so all that’s left in my collection are patterns from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Because my size and shape have changed—thanks to time, motherhood and menopause—I no longer can use these patterns, most of which have never been opened. But retro styles are apparently popular these days, so I have recently begun listing them in my third Etsy shop, 2nd Chance Treasures. Even if you don’t sew, you might enjoy seeing vintage styles from 20 to 25 years ago. Here’s a selection I discovered from 1991 to 1995.
Butterick 5693. Misses’ Mock Wrap Front Jumper & Top. Circa 1991.
Butterick 6407 by J. G. Hook. Misses’/Misses’ Petite Vest, Shirt & Shorts. Circa 1992.
Butterick 6689 by Leslie Faye. Misses’/Misses’ Petite Vest & Dress. Circa 1993.
New Look (Simplicity) 6248. Misses’ Princess Line Dress, Ankle Length, with Flared Skirt & Short Sleeves. Circa 1994.
Butterick 3975. Misses’ Dress & Jumpsuit. Circa 1995.
What always strikes me is that many styles come back full circle. You welcome some of them, and others amuse you because you wouldn’t wear them if you were paid to do so! Mini-skirts, midi-skirts, and maxi-skirts—and the peasant-style blouses that are popular today—are come-again fashions that were all worn on and off during the 1960s and 1970s . . . and tie-dye fashions have their origins in the same period.
How have the styles you worn changed over the years? Which ones do you miss, and which ones will you never wear again?
By the way, these days I usually wear slacks, and comfort rules the day.
© 2015 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.