Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Old Sewing Books

In my nearly endless wandering around Hodges Library at UT (the library's big and it hides its books in deep, difficult to navigate corners), I found a wall of books on textiles, design, and sewing. Nearly all of the books, with the exception of some highlighting current celeb designers, feature copyrights dating back to the 1910s.

The audience for these books is women, unequivocally, unquestionably, unalterably - and not just women, but the only kind of women allowed to exist in American society in 1910. Leafing through the yellowed pages of diagrams and sizing charts, I read little snippets of unasked for advice written throughout the books. Here's an excerpt taken from a chapter of Mary Picken's The Secrets of Distinctive Dress called "The First Requisite"(copyright, 1918):

"Once, at a Y.W.C.A. bathing pool, I was shocked to see a vest so unclean that it looked exactly like the color of the cement floor. When the girl who wore it was dressed for the street, she was half presentable; but, though I met her many times afterwards, the vest was the first thing I thought of, and I could never summon the respect I should like to have had for her."

And another:

"Elderly mothers have come to realize that they look ten years younger and are ten times more comfortable on a warm summer's day in a pretty, soft white dress, and it is pleasing to see a group of such mothers dressed in pretty, light wash dresses, as they appear many times as attractive as a group of young women."


"In a dietetics class held in the forenoon in a classroom, a young woman of good family wore a bedraggled afternoon dress, doubtless with the thought of wearing it out and getting as much good out of it as possible. The dress was distracting to the other members of the class, and the criticism she subjected herself to was costly - more costly than a simple businesslike dress befitting the occasion."

And one last one:

"In America, there are no such class distinctions. Here daughters from every country are blended in the making of American women; but even in this great Democracy appropriateness of dress should be understood and observed."

It's subtle, isn't it? If I had to deal with all these soft, guiding rules every day of my life and bear the criticism for detracting from these "guides," I would feel clubbed to death before a week was out. Certainly my modern goggles cannot view this without the rising hackles of feminity; that should be expected. But reading this as any person of any age, one should, I think, be provoked in the same way.

Every line reads to me like this: Be a good girl. Be a good girl. Be a good girl. Be a good girl. Be a good girl. I don't deny the value of lovely clothing and its power to create a mood, an authority, and to give the wearer a higher overall look. But it's the motivations here that are killing me.

There's more to this - an essay in it, I should think. I'll let you know when I write that one. (Note: here I sit in my $4 Target pants, my husband's old sweatshirt, and slippers. Mary Pickens is turning over in her grave.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here I sit at work in my boots from Prague, black pants (go figure), white turtle neck, imitation olive green bomber jacket (fablous find on sale for 7.00 Target thank you very much) with more static in my hair than it takes to light all of downtown Kalamazoo......roll over and over and over.

The words in the books are KILLER. For me so f**king full of judgment I want to vomit and then vomit more and we all know how I hate to get sick. I guess they forgot to write how difficult it was then (and now) to get affordable clothes that are fashionable should your body type not be that of Twiggy.............