I have posted before about fan and hankie and parasol flirtations that can supposedly be used to speak across a ballroom floor to engage a suitor. However, these were really just marketing opportunities by makers of the products, starting in the 1850s when George Duvelleroy, a Parisian fan maker, invented fan language and printed it up on cards. Here is a new one I had never heard of – hats. I found this undated reprint, probably from the early 20th century, online.
I created a bit of a brouhaha on the FHM facebook page yesterday. I posted about the word ‘sewist’ with a reference to a New York Times (NYT) article on male sewers. The article was introduced with the tagline “The word “sewist” — an increasingly popular gender-neutral term for people who sew — appeared for the first time in The Times yesterday, as noted by the Twitter bot @NYT_first_said.” I took this statement to suggest two things. Firstly, that the word was created and/or becoming popular because it was gender-neutral and secondly, that the NYT were taking credit for being the first paper to print the word, thereby coining it into English language etymology.
I asked readers on the FHM facebook page if they felt other words to describe sewing were sexist. I couldn’t think of any terms that were specifically denoting gender, other than seamstress, but this word is now generally considered archaic, like murderess, authoress, and actress. Most words for needleworkers are already gender-neutral: sewer, stitcher, designer, pattern-maker, stylist, milliner, seamster… You might think dressmaker is gendered, but that’s the product not the maker, and tailor may be assumed to be male due to historical precedence and profiling, but a tailor is not always a man anymore than a nurse is always a woman.
One poster felt seamster was gendered because it was a masculine form of seamstress. Although her point was reasonable, feminized versions of words don’t necessarily suggest the non-feminized version applies only to men (ie: murderer, author, actor), but that didn’t seem to agree in the poster’s eyes. She was apparently offended as her comments then became more pointed and personal, ending the discussion.
Apparently I misunderstood the NYT navel gazing statement when it was pointed out that the NYT was only talking about the NYT printing the word for the first time. One poster found an article in the Los Angeles Times from 1986 that uses the word ‘sewist’, which makes me wonder why the NYT even bothered to point out that they used a 35 year old word for the first time…
In the end, Threads magazine (the ‘sewists’ bible) had the best explanation. In an article from 2012, Threads found the earliest usage of the word ‘sewist’ dates back to 1964. The word gained a popular following in the 2000s with online sewing bloggers who felt it elevated home sewing because it was created from a combination of the words ‘sewer’ and ‘artist’.
‘Sewist’ gained popularity because the most commonly used word ‘sewer’, which according to an etymological search has been around since the 14th century, can also be a conduit used for waste disposal – a 17th century use for the same heteronym (word that is spelled the same but pronounced differently).
So although the word ‘sewist’ is not gender-specific, that is not the reason it was created. However, no dictionary defines the word sewist, so you can’t use it in a game of scrabble.
In 1943 Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote a song about a munitions worker who “keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage / sitting up there on the fuselage”. The song Rosie the Riveter was inspired by real life riveter Rosalind P. Walter, who worked as a night-shift welder at an aircraft plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Walter died in early March 2020 at the age of 95.
On the heels of that song, Norman Rockwell created a Saturday Evening Post cover for the May 29, 1943 issue with the central figure identified as Rosie the Riveter (Rosie can be seen written on her lunchbox). The model (for the face) of that image was Mary Doyle Keefe, who worked as a telephone operator, not a riveter, during the war, and was a neighbour of Norman Rockwell in Vermont. Keefe died in 2015 at the age of 92.
Probably the most famous image of Rosie the Riveter isn’t actually Rosie the Riveter at all. Geraldine Doyle thought she might be the inspiration for the ‘We Can Do It!’ poster who is often erroneously identified as Rosie the Riveter. The famous graphic of a woman in blue overalls and red and white polka-dot bandana was created by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in February 1943. The image was made to deter female employee absenteeism and was used only for internal display in the factories. It was not published or really known outside of the Westinghouse plant during the war.
The image had a second life when it was reprinted in the early 1980s and quickly became a feminist icon. It was the reprinted poster that caught the eye of Geraldine Doyle in 1982 who thought she looked like the woman in the poster. Doyle remembered that when she had been working as a metal presser at a factory in Inkster, Michigan a photographer came to the plant to shoot images of women in wartime jobs. Without a word to the contrary from anyone who knew, Geraldine Doyle became known as the model for the We Can Do It! image. When Doyle died in 2010 at the age of 86, the New York Times carried Doyle’s obituary, crediting her as the model poster’s image.
However, in 1942 Naomi Parker was working in a Navy machine shop in Alameda California when she too was photographed working at her lathe for a local newspaper article. While attending a war workers reunion in Richmond California 69 years later, she saw a reprint of that photograph, attributing the war worker as Geraldine Doyle. Knowing the woman in the photograph was herself, she wrote the Rosie the Riveter Home Front National Historical Park, correcting the attribution. While the photograph has been now properly identified, the question is if Miller, the graphic artist of the poster, used the photograph for inspiration. Although Miller never said during his lifetime where the inspiration came from, the photograph of Naomi Parker in her polka-dot bandana was widely reprinted in 1942 and appeared in a local Pittsburgh paper where Miller was living at the time he created the poster for Westinghouse. Parker died in 2018 at the age of 96.
Diaphanous cotton batiste shirtwaists, often trimmed with lace and decorated with whitework embroidery were slangily referred to as ‘pneumonia blouses’ as early as 1905. The pneumonia term is often erroneously thought to date back to the Spanish Influenza of 1918/19, but in fact, the term was falling from use around that time possibly because the term was no longer amusing in light of the severity of the Spanish Influenza.
The term shows up in the 1906 novel ‘A Waif’s Progress’, by Rhoda Broughton, the heroine gets a bad cold “The result of a pneumonia blouse, I suppose! As long as girls strip themselves naked in January they cannot be surprised at their chests and lungs resenting it.”
That same year an article appeared in the New Zealand newspaper The Evening Post referring to a backlash that had started the year before in the U.S. against the style that Americans were calling the ‘peekaboo waist’:
Critical tweets and hashtags quickly filled social media this past Friday when Melania Trump wore a pith helmet for a Safari tour in Kenya. The New York Times quoted Kim Yi Donne, a political-science professor who specializes in African politics at the University of California, “When people think of Africa, they have these standard narratives. Her attire is a signal of her understanding of what Africa is in 2018. It’s tired and its old and it’s inaccurate.”
Many feel the pith helmet is a symbol of European colonialism, but it wasn’t created as a means of expressing authority or repression, only as a way for Europeans to survive equatorial heat and tropical humidity. If the pith helmet is a symbol of hot climate imperialism, then a similar argument could be made for parkas and pack boots in former cold climate colonies.
The pith used in the helmet’s construction was acquired from the spongey core of the stem of the shola plant that grows abundantly in marshy areas of East India (West Bengal). The light-weight pith, which absorbs moisture and can be easily carved, was traditionally used for creating Bengali wedding headgear.
Sometime during the 1820s to 1840s, sun helmets (known as shola topee in Hindi) began to be made by Indians for Europeans who found their straw hats became sticky and limp in the high humidity and heat of the tropical Indian climate. Pith sun hats retained their shape while the hygroscopic qualities of the pith wicked sweat away from the head.
In the 1850s the British army were still wearing shakos – a tall Napoleonic era hat style that survives today as part of the marching band uniform. To replace the shako, the pith helmet was adapted for military use. The helmet, which was covered in cotton, had a high crown to prevent sweat buildup, and added ventilation holes on the side and top for air circulation. The helmets could be soaked in water so that on a hot day, the head was cooled as the water evaporated. A wide, sloping brim to keep sun and rain off the wearer’s face and neck also provided a place to fasten a leather or metal chin strap when not in use.
Soldiers in the Middle East quickly learned they were targets in their bright white helmets, so they dyed the cotton coverings with tea and dirtied them with ‘khak’ the Persian word for dirt from which we get the word khaki.
By the late 1860s, the military were making their helmets from cork or metal instead of pith. The Northwest Mounted Police in Canada even adopted the style in the 1870s (pictured right). A British style was standardized and became known as the Wolseley helmet in 1899, named after, but not designed by, Sir Garnet Wolseley. This modified version, had an apex at the front and back and is still worn by many regiments including the Queen’s Life Guards.
By the late 19thcentury, the genderless civilian style of pith helmet had a rounder shape and flatter top and was known as a ‘Bombay bowler’. Made in India for export, the hats were mostly worn by colonials, expats, missionaries and travellers around the equatorial world: Caribbean islands, The Amazon, Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and Australia.
The pith helmet style became a prototype for soldier’s ‘tin hats’ during World War I, workmen’s hard hats, and polo helmets, which in turn influenced the design of today’s bicycle helmets. The U.S. post office even adopted pith helmet styles for mail carriers that are part of the current uniform.
Pith helmets fell from general use for two reasons. Firstly, as colonies gained independence after World War II, indigenous denizens wore their own traditional styles of headwear that predated the use of pith helmets: turbans, thobes, fezzes, kufis… Although, many of the newly independent countries retained pith helmets for their military and police uniforms. Secondly, travel changed in the postwar world. Extended holidays that began with long ocean voyages to exotic tropical locales were displaced by jetting off for short trips to air conditioned resorts.
The pith helmet is still being made and worn. One current manufacturer in Pakistan has been making them since 1928. This is a style that was not appropriated from any indigenous culture. It was gender non-specific, and was the result of scientific design to aid air movement, moisture wicking, and sun protection. It was not produced by slave labour, and it was never restricted to or from anyone who wanted to wear one. The style’s association with colonialism is superficial – based on it being originally made for and worn by primarily white people who did not have suitable headwear from their own wardrobes to wear in hot and humid climates.
DANGEROUS COATS by Sharon Owens
Someone clever once said
Women were not allowed pockets
In case they carried leaflets
To spread sedition
Which means unrest
To you & me
A grandiose word
So ladies, start sewing
Made of pockets & sedition
Pockets, like corsets, are getting mythical tales attached to them, but there was never a deliberate fashion plot to deny women of pockets, in fact they were invented for women’s fashion.
By the 17th century, women were wearing one or two pockets tied to a waistband and worn under the skirt (like the one Little Lucy lost) to hide money, handkerchiefs, jewellery, ribbons, pencils, sewing work, pins, love letters, pocket books, and even snacks, from highwaymen and pickpockets.
When clothes began to be cut closer to the body in the early 19th century (think Jane Austen’s heroines in little white dresses), drawstring bags called reticules began to displace the use of pockets. Both pockets and reticules held the same type of contents. Catherine Wilmot explained in a letter dated 13 December 1801 that “Reticules, are a species of little Workbag worn by the Ladies, containing snuff-boxes, Billet-doux, Purses, Handkerchiefs, Fans, Prayer-Books, Bon-Bons, Visiting tickets.” Definitely not the sort of things that could be concealed under a narrow, thin skirt.
When fashions returned to fuller styles, many clients requested their dressmakers to include a pocket in a waist, side or back skirt seam. This practice continued well into the 20th century as the museum has several examples of skirts with varying sizes of pockets tucked away, almost hidden, in seams. There was also a fashion for visible patch pockets, sometimes decorative – sometimes useful, on jackets and skirts in the 1870s.
High fashion couture and even most dressy ready-made clothes in the 20th century often didn’t include pockets, especially not large ones, because the bulging contents would ruin the svelte silhouette. However, some tailored clothes and a lot of sportswear, offered an alternative for lovers of pockets. Even in the 1970s and 1980s when skin tight designer jeans had little or no pockets, most jackets and coats compensated with deep pockets — however, a bag slung from the shoulder took more than any pocket could ever handle, and it left the hands free.
In recent years, a lack of pockets is due mostly to off-shore fast fashion manufacturers trying to save money – because its another element to sew into garments. As luxury purse brands are currently status symbol accessory statements, there hasn’t been a big demand for pockets in daywear (although pockets are showing up more frequently in evening wear instead of little bags that have no room for cell phones and car keys.) The problem of buying ‘off the rack’ is that if there is no demand by consumers, then there is no change. Men have used pockets for centuries to jangle coinage and secretly adjust their scrotums. If a manufacturer removed pockets from men’s pants, they would go out of business!
The Victoria & Albert Museum has some great research on pocket contents and thefts in the 18th century.
Even though it’s a bit of a joke, every year some fashion magazine or blog brings up the ‘no white after Labour day’ rule. But there never really was a ‘rule’.
Until the 19th century white was an impractical and unaffordable colour to maintain. However, a series of developments in the 19th century changed all that:
Firstly, cotton became much cheaper to buy, thanks to the invention of the cotton gin. While most cotton in the 18th century was printed for outerwear, partly as a way to obscure staining, by the early 1800s, plain white cotton dresses became a high fashion statement. Cleaning methods were also improving during the 19th century, making white an easier colour to keep clean. Peroxide and chlorine bleaches became the ultimate cleaning methods for keeping white clothing snowy white.
Secondly, fashion, which was still entirely European in origin during the 19th century, was adapted for colonial climates. India, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America were hot and humid, and dark wool suits and dresses were displaced by white wool, linen, and lightweight cotton as more suitable materials for the climate. After Whit Sunday (the 7th Sunday after Easter) on the Christian calendar, it was customary for girls to parade in white dresses – heralding in the unofficial launch of the summer season. White became associated with the summer season.
Thirdly, the middle class was becoming wealthier and more influential during the 19th century, and they had more leisure time. Coal-fueled townhouses and sooty industries made white an impractical colour for most of the year, but for summer holidays in the mountains or seaside, white clothing and ice cream helped to keep everyone cool.
Fourthly, sportswear was a new concept in the late 19th century, but as men and women took up the fashionable sports of tennis, badminton, croquet, and lawn bowling, crisp white clothing was the perfect way to look good, keep cool, and hide sweat. Wimbledon still retains a white-clothing rule for its players.
Labour Day was first observed in 1872 in Canada, and in 1894 in the United States, and the early September date soon became the unofficial end of the summer season. Before global warming, September was also the beginning of cooler weather, harvest, the resumption of school and university classes, and general business as usual.
By the 1950s air conditioning was still a luxury for most households, but it was becoming standard in office buildings. More workers were also buying automobiles and living in leafy suburbs – the seasons began to blur. Winter holidays were becoming more popular as summers became more bearable. It was in this postwar era, when white was no longer primarily a practical choice for beating the heat that the unspoken tradition for wearing white in summer began to break down. Women’s magazines began to suggest white as an inappropriate colour to wear after Labour Day, unless you were a bride. This ‘rule’ was only made up as the tradition dwindled in importance each year until only white shoes were considered inappropriate for wear after Labour Day. Now, that too is no longer a consideration in our age of year-round sandals, sneakers, and flip-flops worn in the office.
Although Howard Hughes finished producing The Outlaw in February 1941, it would not be widely released until 1946 because of censorship problems over Jane Russell’s breasts. How much of the censorship was real and how much was hoopla manufactured by Hughes is hard to tell.
Russell’s breasts weren’t particularly large, but Hughes had lighted the sets and staged scenes to make gratuitous use of her assets. Wanting to accentuate her cleavage, Hughes reportedly designed an underwire bra to push everything up. However, Russell repeatedly said in interviews that she wore her own bra, with padding. There are no existing designs or patents for this underwire creation that I can find. A couple of articles say the original design is in a ‘Hollywood Museum’, but never cite which one (presumably the Frederick’s of Hollywood Lingerie Museum.) Russell said his bra was uncomfortable, suggesting she had tried it on and it did exist, but this is the only evidence beyond hearsay reports.
Although the industry censors, guided by the Hays Office known as the Production Code Authority (PCA), approved the film for release in 1941 (after a half minute cut), many state censors apparently wanted further revisions to reduce gratuitous cleavage scenes. Hughes shelved the film for two years but released it in early 1943 in San Francisco amidst an orchestrated flurry of opposition he incited to help sell tickets to his mediocre film. After a week, the film was pulled and shelved again. United Artists distributed the film when it was released again in the spring of 1946.
Victorians had banned cleavage as a feature of fashion and it remained mostly hidden until the early 1960s. Instead, the ‘sweater’ girl look of the late 1940s and early 1950s with the identifiable torpedo-shaped breasts was the bust-line silhouette of the day – a silhouette often attributed to Howard Hughes influence. However, the real bullet bras were usually circle stitched to create a cone effect without the use of wires or padding. Underwire brassieres were not common until cleavage came back in style in 1963/64 (the film Tom Jones lead the way) and the Wonderbra was first marketed. Even the fashion doll Barbie looked out of step with styles when fashion moved away from the bullet shape bustlines.
The bullet silhouette: late 1940s – early 1960s:
This should forever end the debate over who ‘invented’ the first miniskirt. It turns out it wasn’t Mary Quant, or Andres Courreges, or John Bates, or Rudi Gernreich, or Marimekko… Although not yet called ‘miniskirts’, the earliest above-the knee dresses date from the spring of 1960. The photograph at left dated June 3, 1960 pictures Annalisa Posen (then known as Alice Honzal) wearing the girlishly short hemmed skirt with fellow model Cynthia Doucette. Annalisa recalled in an email conversation that it was her first modelling job in Canada, and that later that day they appeared on a Toronto television show, modelling the above-the-knee styles.
A quote about the history of miniskirts on wikipedia references a May 28, 1960 article from the Montreal Gazette that cites the origin of the short style coming from the manager of an unnamed shop in London’s Oxford Street who was experimenting with short skirt hemlines on window mannequins, and noted how positively his customers responded. Despite this, the style didn’t catch on, but two years later another attempt to bring in shorter skirts occurred, but this time they were called ‘Ya-ya’ skirts. The two images below dating from 1962, both from Women’s Wear Daily, refer to Ya Ya skirts:
Thanks to James Fowler for unearthing this following snippet from the Canadian fashion industry news magazine Style, that reported on July 9, 1962:
“The Ya-Ya skirt, recently launched in England, was introduced recently to the west coast by Marjorie Hamilton with traffic-stopping impact…The controversial… skirts… on a girl of average height, a Ya-Ya reaches about eight inches above the knee if worn with a crinoline. There is a six-inch hem for any length alteration required… Commenting on the Ya-Ya the other day, the curator-historian of the costume department in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum said: “This is more than a concession to the sun. This fashion emphasizes that women are seeking a matriarchal state, that they desire to grip and hold men’s attention and gain their subjection. Not since the days of bare bosoms have women been so studiedly carefree in their clothing”.”
Speculating on the possible origin of the name ‘Ya-Ya’, there were two popular songs at the time. Lee Dorsey’s 1961 hit Ya Ya “Sittin here la la, waitin’ for my ya ya – a-hum, a-hum….”, and the Ya-Ya Twist first recorded by Richard Anthony in 1961 and then Petula Clark in 1962. Although English, Clark often sang in French and was considered one of what the French called the ‘Yé-yé girls’ for their choruses that had a lot of ya/yeah refrains.
Great video by Priorattire that shows how long it took to get dressed in the 19th century – about 10 minutes…