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Styles Come and Go

"Clothes stand for knowledge, language, art and love, time and death, the creative struggling state of humans."

Anne Hollander

We've come a long way from the fig leaf. No one knows exactly when people first began wearing clothing, but it was probably more than 100,000 years ago. In most societies, at least some clothing is worn in public. People have worn clothing through the centuries for much the same reasons that they wear clothing today: to protect themselves (against the climate); to be modest; to improve their appearance; and to communicate to others something about their individuality or position.

Today, sometimes we buy new clothes because our old ones wear out or no longer fit. But most often (be honest) we buy new clothes because fashions change. Some say that there is no tyrant stronger than fashion. "Fashion" is the term commonly used to describe a style of clothing worn by most people in a certain place at a certain time. Fashion is -- or reflects -- a form of behavior accepted by most people in a society. A particular fashion tends to remain popular for a few months or years and then it's replaced with another. Something becomes "old-fashioned" when the majority of people no longer accept it. A fashion that comes and goes very quickly is called a "fad."

People follow fashion for a variety of reasons. As social creatures, we like to feel "with the group." We may want to identify with a select or privileged group. Some people believe that having fashionable clothes raises their status in life. Following fashion is also a way to gain acceptance from others. We want to be perceived of as attractive. Standards of beauty change through the years, and people follow those standards so that they are perceived as attractive by others at any given time.

Fashion often has little to do with the practical and much more to do with the magical. Clothing can turn us into something we are not. Children play dress-up, and so do adults -- whether we are wearing a prom dress or a power suit.

With photos from throughout the world, the National Geographic book Fashion by Cathy Newman is a reference tool and gorgeous coffee table book in one volume. It takes a look at all the dimensions of fashion, including its magic:

Clothes not only make the man; often they are the man. But there is another side to fashion that goes beyond a statement of who we are and how much money we have, and it has to do with the pink tutu factor. It has to do with watching a child put on a ballerina skirt and lightly twirl across the room -- and it is magic of the highest order.

Clothing also has the magic to connect us with the people we love. Newman recalls a conversation with one of her friends:

I remember cleaning out my mother's closet after she died. I cried and cried. Ultimately, I kept a couple of things: a beige cardigan of my dad's and a fire-engine red, soft-wool jacket of my mother's. When I wear either one I have a real sense of closeness to them. It is like being hugged. I wear those pieces on cold, gloomy days when I need something to give me a lift. And they do.

Fashion can even bring a sense of magic to the oldest old. Newman writes about her grandmother, who had always dressed very elegantly, even if she had nowhere to go but down a flight of stairs to visit with a neighbor. Grandma had a regular weekly Friday appointment at the local beauty salon for a shampoo, set, and manicure. She never broke the appointment. A few months after turning 100, she moved into a nursing home. Her Friday appointments were no more. Newman picks up the story:

A month before she died, I went to visit. Before I did, I called to ask if she wanted me to make an appointment for her at the salon. "I could drive you, Grandma. We could take your nurse and wheelchair. Do you think you could handle it?" "Of course," she replied as if I'd asked the silliest question in the world. "What's the big deal? All I have to do is sit there and let them take care of me."

On a Friday afternoon I picked my grandmother up at the nursing home and drove her to the salon she hadn't visited in more than a year. She insisted the nurses dress her smartly. She wore a pair of crisp white slacks, a bright-red flowered silk blouse, white sandals with wedge-shaped cork soles, and carried a red straw bag. We drove to the salon and I wheeled her in. Luis, her favorite hairdresser, swept her out of her wheelchair and onto the salon chair where he washed and combed her fine pewter-gray hair into swirls before settling a fog of spray over her head. When he was finished, Yolanda the manicurist appeared. "Mollie, what color would you like your nails?" "What's new this year? I want something no one else has," she shot back, as if in impossibly fast company at the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged.

Afterward, I drove my grandmother back to the nursing home. She admired her fire-engine-red nails every quarter mile. Glancing in the car mirror, she patted her cloud of curls and radiated happiness. "Mollie," said the nurse behind the desk when I brought her back, "You look absolutely beautiful."

Clothing has interesting ties to age. In many cultures, clothing has been used to differentiate youth from age. In primitive tribes, the initiation from youth into manhood or womanhood was often marked by the gift of new, adult garments or ornaments. In America, up to about fifty years ago, a boy exchanged his short pants for long ones when he formally became a man.

For many years, older people were expected to be less fashionable than their younger counterparts. Wrote T.S. Eliot, "I grow old... I grow old... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." As they grew older, over a period of several years, people ended up wearing clothes that were associated with "old people" -- pants with elasticized waists to accommodate weight gain; shawls and sweaters to keep warm as circulation got poorer; seam-free socks to prevent irritation of delicate older skin. However, in today's fashion-conscious, youth-obsessed culture, many baby boomers are rebelling against wearing "old fogey" clothes. We forgo comfort for fashion -- or, at the very least, elastic waists are now strategically hidden. One woman commented to me that her biggest joy is that her teenage daughter's friends think she dresses "cool."

Over the years, designers and other fashion trendsetters have played with the age associations of clothing. For example, in the 1960s, women's clothes were in many ways like those of children. The short, loose baby doll dress was designed to make women look like toddlers. Make-up bleached the mouth and enlarged the eyes to create an appealing baby-faced look. At the same time, some people dressed as if they were very old. Young men in their teens and early twenties appeared in square or round gold-rimmed glasses, collarless, stiff-fronted shirts, woolly scarves, and unbuttoned vests (think John Lennon). Some young women adopted the "Granny Look" with floor-length, high-waisted, ruffled dresses. They looked like their great-grandparents.

The "A Quick Tour Through the Last Century of Fashion" offers an overview of the recent past in fashion. You can download sheets as a reference and discussion tool. Major changes in fashion occurred infrequently before the 1300s. From 1890 to 1920, improved manufacturing methods brought rapid growth to ready-to-wear clothing. Both men and women began to wear mostly clothing that was mass-produced in factories. As a result of mass production, fashions changed more rapidly. Since then, political, social, and market forces have influenced fashion and pushed even more frequent changes. Changes in fashion also used to spread slowly from one country to another. In today's "global economy," people immediately follow similar fashion trends all over the world. The fashion industry is a giant global force. The main fashion centers of the world are New York, Paris, Milan, and London.

Here are some websites on which you'll find photos and information on fashion through the years: www.ancientfaces.com (photos provide examples of different clothing through the years); www.costumegallery.com/research.htm (click on the 1900s to see 20th century fashions for women, men, and children); www.costumes.org/pages/costhistpage.htm (information links and resources for historical clothing by period, from prehistoric to the 2000s); kclibrary.lonestar.edu/decades.html (photos and historical information on fashion & fads and more on each of the decades of the twentieth century); www.yesterdayland.com/popopedia/shows/categories/fashion (overview of fashions from the 1940s to the 1990s, with alphabetical listings for different topics).

Adult books on clothing and fashion: What People Wore: 1,800 Illustrations from Ancient Times to the Early Twentieth Century by Douglas W. Gorsline; Vanity Rules: A History of American Fashion and Beauty by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler; The Language of Clothes by Alison Lurie; Fashion by Cathy Newman.

Storybooks with themes related to clothing: Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing by Judi Barrett; You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! by Shana Corey; Hannah and the Seven Dresses by Marthe Jocelyn; Ma Dear's Aprons by Patricia C. McKissack; Zat Cat! A Haute Couture Tail by Chesley McLaren; Thomas' Snowsuit by Robert Munsch; The Dress I'll Wear to the Party by Shirley Neitzel.

Fashion Then & Now by Roberta Collier-Morales is part of the Costumes for Coloring Series and is a sophisticated coloring book that traces fashions from empire waists and bustles to hoop skirts, flapper dresses, and thigh-high mini-dresses. Informational books for children include Clothing and Jewelry by Fiona MacDonald and Costume by L. Rowland-Warne.

Activities: Then & Now Fashion Fill-In; Fun Fashion Show; Personal Fashion Flashback; Fashion Faux Pas; Fashion Photo Comparison; Like Mother, Like Daughter; Traditional Clothes; Who Wears the Pants?


Then & Now Fashion Fill-In

Connections: Schools (History, Social Studies, Language Arts); Seniors Groups/Facilities; Families; Community Groups.

What You Need: Copies of "Fashion Then & Now" sheet; pen/pencil.

Doing It:

The idea of this activity is to compare fashion across time. The "Fashion Then & Now" sheet offers a series of prompts to help compare past styles to today's styles. A young person and an older person (e.g. parent, grandparent, or a grandfriend as part of an intergenerational program) can complete the sheet together, or a teacher can have students "interview" parents or grandparents at home to complete the sheet.

Older people can complete the "Then" column (remembering styles from when they were the young person's age) and younger people can complete the "Now" column. Beside each heading, put the approximate decade (e.g. Then 1930s and Now 2000s). If an older person has difficulty writing, the younger person can do an "interview" to fill in all the blanks.

Write a few key descriptive words or a phrase under each column for each item. For example, comment on the popular skirt length of the time. Comment on whether women wore pants, what the pants looked like, and/or whether women wore pants everywhere or just at home. A stylish star "then" might be Ginger Rogers while "now" it might be Britney Spears. For favorite clothing store, even noting that there weren't any clothing stores "then" is interesting. The final item asks young and old to describe their own personal preferred style. How would you define your appearance and taste in clothes?

The important goals of this activity are the memories that are evoked, the stories that are shared, and that young and old get to know each other just a little bit better. Don't forget to fill in "completed by" (write in each person's name) and the date.

Some other general questions to ask an older person:

  • Were you fashion conscious? Why?

  • What type of clothes did you like to wear?

  • Did you wear new clothes most often or hand-me-downs?

  • How often did you buy new clothes? How much did clothes cost? How much would you spend on clothes in a month or a year?

  • What was your favorite fashion?

  • For women: Did you prefer skirts or pants? Why?

  • Have you ever sewn your own clothes? Do you prefer to make or buy your clothes? Why?

  • Do you still enjoy being "stylish?"

Extension: Look through some old magazines or visit some of the websites suggested at the beginning of this section to look at fashions from previous decades.


Fun Fashion Show

Connections: Schools (History, Social Studies, Drama); Seniors Groups/Facilities; Community Groups.

What You Need: Old clothing and creativity!

Doing It:

Stage a fun fashion show demonstrating how styles have changed over the last century. Everyone loves to play dress-up! This activity can be done by a group of young people, or by an intergenerational group of children and older adults. A group of older adults in a seniors program can also have a great time staging their own "historical" fashion show (they could present it to visiting grandchildren, and other family and friends).

The "A Quick Tour Through the Last Century of Fashion" gives you a place to start. You can also use the recommended books and websites at the beginning of this section to get more information on fashions in each decade.

Gather together old clothing (e.g. from people's closets, from a thrift shop). To make the show more fun and make the point about the styles for each decade, get outrageous. For example, to make the point about bell bottom pants, sew bells onto the bottom half of a pair of pants. For a tee dress, tape tea bags all over a dress. To emphasize the glamour of the 1930s, tape photos of Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo, and other stars onto a dress.

Don't forget to prepare a commentary for each fashion decade, and play music appropriate to the decade as models sashay down the runway during the show.


Personal Fashion Flashback

Connections: Families; Schools (History, Social Studies, Art); Seniors Groups/Facilities.

What You Need: Family photos; basic scrapbooking supplies like acid-free paper, straightedge scissors, photo-safe adhesive, acid-free pen, stickers, rubber stamps, die-cut shapes.

Doing It:

Create a scrapbook page that documents a person's style through the years, or compares family members' styles through the years. For example, a nice gift for an older person (or scrapbook activity for an older person) would be to create a scrapbook page of photos from the time they were a teenager to older adulthood in the various styles of clothing they wore. You could do a "dressed up" or a casual theme.

Kim Buckley of Childress, TX made a family scrapbook page (see below) comparing her family's fashions using a color copy of a dress pattern for a background. The sample scrapbook page has been supplied by Memory Makers scrapbooking magazine (www.memorymakersmagazine.com or 1-800-366-6465). Written by avid scrapbookers, each issue is filled with great information and ideas for families, seniors groups/facilities, and schools. Scrapbooking is an activity all generations can do together to create a sense of connectedness and family history. It's a meaningful activity older adults can do quite easily, even those who may have some physical and/or cognitive limitations. At the other end of the age spectrum, children also enjoy scrapbooking on their own. It's fun and educational. See the Grandparents Day Activity Kit for a complete introduction to scrapbooking.

Cut Your Coat According to Your Cloth


Fashion Faux Pas

Connections: Families; Seniors Groups/Facilities; Community Groups.

What You Need: No materials.

Doing It:

A great discussion topic for an intergenerational group or a group of adults is "your worst fashion disaster." Did you ever wear an outfit that you look back on now and shudder about? Are there any photos of yourself that you'd like to burn? Can you remember a haircut that turned out so badly that you wore a hat for two months?

Give everyone a moment to think, and then go around the group sharing stories. After everyone has told their "fashion faux pas" story, take a vote on the worst fashion disaster -- and give the winner a subscription to a fashion magazine!


Fashion Photo Comparison

Connections: Families; Schools (History, Social Studies); Community Groups.

What You Need: Family photos. Optional -- basic scrapbooking supplies like acid-free paper, straightedge scissors, photo-safe adhesive, acid-free pen, stickers, rubber stamps, die-cut shapes.

Doing It:

This is a great activity for Mother's Day or anytime. Compare the styles in recent family photos to styles in older family photos. Photos of three generations (grandmother, mother, daughter) present a lot of opportunities for discussion and reminiscing. You can even create a scrapbook album of "then and now" comparisons (e.g. a family could do an album, or each student in a class could do a page to contribute to a classroom album of fashion & family comparisons).

I've supplied a couple of my own family photos to give you some inspiration. The first photo is of my grandmother Eva and my mother Nadia in the 1930s. The second photo is of my mother and me in the 1960s. How are the clothing styles different? How are they the same? My mother almost always wore pants, while her mother almost always wore a dress (either a fancy one, as in the photo, or a plain "house dress"). My mom and I look amazing similar at our young ages in terms of our dresses and hairstyles. And check out our shoes and socks! How much does current fashion affect what we wear as children versus our parent's tastes and memories from their own childhood?


Like Mother, Like Daughter

Connections: Families.

What You Need: Clothes and time together.

Doing It:

Fashion can be something that brings mothers and daughters closer together, or it can become a real hot button. Make it work for you rather than against you.

Children love to play dress-up in mom's old clothes. Encourage the activity with younger children, taking the natural opportunity to build bonds by sharing some personal stories about the clothing items (e.g. where they came from, when they were worn, etc.).

As daughters get older, make clothes together or go shopping together. The start of a school year can become a pleasant shopping ritual if you follow some basic tips:

  • Start by going through your daughter's closet together. Have fun trying things on. Get rid of anything that's worn or doesn't fit anymore.

  • Talk about what items are needed and what items your daughter really wants. Look through some magazines to see what's "in style."

  • Negotiate and set a priority list before you head to the store. You may not stick to it completely, but it sets some guidelines and may help to prevent disagreements. It also helps you remember the important items.

  • Help your daughter choose items, and offer your opinion, but don't force her to buy something she hates. Give her your acceptance and provide a safe environment for her to experiment with who she wants to be and her own personal sense of style.

Once in a while, take some silly shopping trips together. Let your daughter choose the items she would dress you in. Be adventurous and give them a try (at least model them for her in the store!).

Passing down some special items of clothing can also create a lasting bond between mother and daughter. There are few traditions as sentimental as passing down a wedding dress, christening gown, or prom dress from generation to generation. The sample scrapbook page (see below) supplied by Memory Makers magazine (www.memorymakersmagazine.com or 1-800-366-6465; see the "Personal Fashion Flashback" activity above for more information) was done by Pam Friis of Castle Rock, CO. The left-hand side of the page shows Pam dressed for the prom in 1979. The right-hand side shows her daughter Natashia in the same dress for her prom in 1999. Pam was honored to learn that her daughter wanted to wear the dress. She says it was an emotional night for her. "I could remember the day like it was yesterday," Pam says. She also recalled the pictures of herself in the dress. Pam took pictures of Natashia in the same poses. The resemblance between mother and daughter in the layout is so unmistakable that the 20 years separating the photos seems to disappear.

Like Mother, Like Daughter


Traditional Clothes

Connections: Schools (History, Social Studies, Geography); Families.

What You Need: Internet and/or library.

Doing It:

French author and Nobel Prize winner Anatole France wrote, "Show me the clothes of a country and I can write its history."

Today, most people throughout the world wear very similar clothes. But regions across the world have had, over their history, distinct styles of dress. Traditional costumes of various countries have developed over hundreds of years. Clothing in different countries has varied due to differences in culture, religion, the purposes for wearing clothes, climate, available materials, and ways of making clothes. For example, the Ainu people, who live on an island of Japan, traditionally dressed in bark cloth or skins, decorated with geometric shapes. The men wore heavy beards and the women had dark blue tattoos around their mouths. The few remaining Kogi people who live in the Andes mountains, in Colombia, make their own simple white clothing. They make one set and wear it for about 18 months or until it falls apart. Akha women in northern Thailand wear tight, cone-shaped headdresses of dark blue cloth covered with coins, silver buttons, little mirrors and beads, and topped by red feather tassels and tufts of monkey fur. Native Americans used to wear clothing made from animal fur and skins and decorated with intricate beading and feathers. Many traditional costumes are no longer worn on a regular, daily basis; they are worn only for special cultural celebrations, festivals, and holidays.

Children can do some research on the Internet or in the library on styles of traditional clothing from different regions of the world. Then talk to older people about their cultural heritage and clothing styles associated with that heritage. For example, my family is Ukrainian. I inherited from my mother and grandmother a multi-strand necklace of heavy red beads that are worn with traditional Ukrainian costumes. I also have a beautiful, multi-layered, intricately embroidered skirt that my mother used to wear when she took Ukrainian dancing lessons as a child.

Another variation on traditional clothes are items passed down from generation to generation in a family (see the "Like Mother, Like Daughter" activity above). Wedding dresses are a very popular item to hand down. What's the story on wedding dresses in your family? Has a dress been handed down across generations? The National Museum of American History in Washington, DC reports that the item of clothing it is most often offered is the wedding dress. Wedding dresses are the only garment everyone saves -- carefully packaged away out of sentiment. A museum in St. Paul, MN has a wedding dress that was worn 14 times before a niece decided enough was enough and donated it!


Who Wears the Pants?

Connections: Schools (History, Social Studies); Seniors Groups/Facilities.

What You Need: No materials.

Doing It:

Women's clothing, much more so than men's, has been a tangible example of what's happening in a culture and women's status in it. For example, early-Victorian clothing not only made women look weak and helpless, it made them weak and helpless. The clothing was heavy -- often consisting of layers and layers of petticoats that could weigh more than 15 pounds! -- and movement was restricted. "Ladies' frames" were believed to be extremely delicate and it was felt their muscles could not hold them up without assistance. So, women were forced to wear the corset. The corset deformed internal organs and made it impossible to draw a deep breath. Thankfully, corsets are no more. As women have become more liberated, so too has their clothing.

Discuss the politics of pants. For centuries, "wearing the pants" in our culture has been the symbolic badge of male authority. Start by reading the book You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! by Shana Corey. With a blend of humor, history, and panache, this tale shows how one woman's fashion statement reflected the changing role of women in society. Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894, suffragist and publisher) and other women fought against uncomfortable clothing for women and came up with an inventive alternative -- "bloomers."

The bottom half of women's clothing began being reformed in the 1890s, when the introduction of the bicycle was followed by the introduction of the divided skirt for female bicyclists. Real pants took much longer to become standard wear for women. By the mid-1930s, a woman could go on a picnic, play tennis, or dig in the garden in clothes that did not handicap her (i.e. pants rather than a full skirt). This freedom was limited, though, to the private and informal side of life. The new style was greeted with disapproval and ridicule. Women were told they looked ugly in pants. Women started being allowed to wear pants more publicly in the 1940s, when they entered the workforce during World War II.

Talking about pants makes for a good intergenerational discussion. How many older women wore pants when they were young? What did they wear around the house? What did they wear when they went out someplace fancy? How do you think pants and skirts compare? What do young women today wear most of the time? Why? When do they choose to wear a skirt? Why? Who "wears the pants" in your family?

From Mother's Day Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2003

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