Do Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)?
People used to dress differently. A lot differently. Part of the difference was tradition from an even earlier age, but it was also because they cared about what others thought of how they were dressed. It was somewhat showing off. It was a sign of affluence to have many changes of clothes. In the 1800s, a woman might have only two dresses. One, an everyday dress, and the second, a Sunday ‘go-to-meeting dress.’ To be clean, she would change her apron or maybe her cuffs and collar. This changed with the advent of store-bought, ready-made clothes. By mid 20th century, people were accustomed to having many changes of clothes. However, those clothes had different uses. You did not wear Church clothes to work in the garden or take care of farm animals. On the other hand, work clothes were for work, not to travel in. And travel clothes were serious business. In the 40s and 50s, my mother bought us special clothes to travel on ships or trains. These included new shoes, hats, and gloves for us children.
In 1947, my Buchanan grandparents came to visit us when we were spending several weeks in Delray Beach, Florida. I have a photo here of them sitting with my baby brother on Grandmother’s lap. They are both wearing hats, not beach hats, but formal hats. They dressed up to sit on an open terrace in Florida. Perhaps it was a cool day. Otherwise, they must have been mighty uncomfortable.
I don’t believe I ever saw my grandfather Hale, on my mother’s side, in anything but a three-piece suit. Did he own “jogging clothes”? No. I don’t believe he did. In his younger days, he loved to hunt and fish. He wore appropriate clothes for doing these things. When finished, he got cleaned up and changed his clothes. He always wore a hat, felt in winter, and straw in summer. These were fedora hats, not wide-brimmed. And no one would ever consider wearing a baseball cap anywhere except while at a sporting event.
My mother often changed her clothes several times a day, depending on what she was doing. She sometimes went about morning tasks, like dashing off a couple of personal notes to people wearing a filmy, ruffled peignoir. But then, she would put on a dress, stockings, and heels. When I was little, she always wore a hat and gloves to go out. Her hair would be styled, and her bright pink lipstick applied. Later in the day, she might go to an afternoon tea, for which she would change again. If they were going out to a formal dinner, Mother and Daddy would change once more, this time into an evening dress for her and, for him, black-tie.
Even children were dressed well and expected to keep “good clothes” clean. Many had school clothes that they changed out of as soon as they came home. Then they could wear “play clothes,” which were more sturdy and more easily washed and ironed. People wore ironed clothes. Wrinkled clothes were a sign of slothfulness. Starched collars, ruffled dresses, and even underwear were ironed because it was a sign of being civilized. As a little girl, I refused to wear pants and insisted on wearing a dress at all times except to ride my pony. It was really important to me to look like a girl and not have to wear overalls or sports shirts and slacks. The only other exception was a snowsuit to play outside in the snow. I could not wait to be allowed to wear stockings instead of the dreaded white socks! We did not have the option of wearing tights which I would have preferred if they had been available.
If you were a dancer or a gymnast, you wore suitable clothes while practicing or performing. You changed immediately in order to go out among people. The very idea of boarding an airplane dressed in a leisure suit or shorts and a tee shirt, or tights and flip-flops would have been out of the question. But times have changed. Combat boots are “in.” And they have been in for decades.
One of my daughters has always believed in wearing comfortable shoes. She absolutely refused to wear pretty little shoes unless they were soft and pliable. She used to wear shoes that upset my sense of style. But guess what? SHE WAS RIGHT. Now, my toes are crooked, and I have bunions on both feet due to the constant wearing of high-high-heels with pointed toes. My daughter (Still wearing only comfortable shoes) has wonderful healthy feet and no bunions.
Recently I had a trunk show at my house arranged by a friend Leslie Jewett. Her wonderful Accessories are colorful and innovative, and almost all of them were things you could add to a simple costume to make it better. They were capes and ponchos and scarves and silk jackets. There were fun handbags and packable hats, and there were gorgeous scarves. She had long ones and square ones and extra large ones in colors and designs “to die for.” I love scarves, and it was really hard to pick one (or two). Then there was the jewelry! Leslie designs some of it herself, and she has arrangements with others who make unusual things to purchase. There were so many brilliant colors; it was amazing. Lucky for me, I have a whole lot of family with birthdays in May and June. I bought presents for birthdays and graduations and just for fun.
Several of us remarked that by adding these types of accessories to simple black pants and top or white pants and top, one could have a whole season of outfits, each one different from the other, but essentially all using the same column of color underneath. Of course, you could vary the pieces you wear underneath as well. But for myself, I usually only wear black pants and a black turtle neck. By adding a scarf and jewelry and carrying a colorful bag, I can look different every day without changing the way I begin each outfit. This makes life so simple. I guess it is almost as if we have gone back to owning one outfit (in my case, a black turtle neck and yoga pants.)
I remember, in the late 1950s, dressing in an under-wired bra and a girdle with garters for attaching the necessary stockings. Even though I was slender and young, I wore these. I cringe at the memory. A slip had to be worn over these undergarments before putting on a dress. That dress might easily have a back or, even worse, a side zipper that had to be zipped up. High heels completed the outfit, and of course, lipstick and styled hair were all expected.
Today…not so much. And I find I have evolved along with the times. My routine is simple; packing is a breeze. But I feel I have a very complete wardrobe and look good in the bright colors I wear atop my column of black top to bottom. Taking a page from my daughter Lilla’s book, I NEVER wear shoes that hurt. I dress to please myself. It is such a relief.
Copyright©. 2023 Bonnie B. Matheson
4 thoughts on “Do Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)?”
Oh so true Bonnie! As young children we wore little English shoes with button ankle straps, smocked dresses, white cotton gloves – so sweet.
Bonnie, I’m so sorry to have missed your trunk show. Looking forward to being with you soon, my beautiful friend! You always look splendid.
Great insight, Bonnie! I, too, wear a lot of black??!
Well you remember how Big Malc dressed. Always dapper and in a coat and tie when he went anywhere!