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Everyday Fashions of the Sixties
As Pictured in Sears Catalogs
By JoAnne Olian
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
LAND OF THE MAIL-ORDER CATALOG
Since colonial times Americans have had a penchant for almanacs, newspapers, magazines, and how-to manuals. The practical, the relevant, and the topical would appear to be a more authentic expression of American life and interests than the romantic or the poetic. The mail-order catalog, which has been called the "first characteristically American kind of book," is the consumer manifestation of this predilection, and was one of the principal reasons for the relatively homogeneous appearance of Americans nationwide.
In its very first issue, published in 1867, Harper's Bazar complained that uniformity of dress was "a characteristic of the people of the United States. The man of leisure and the laborer, the mistress and the maid, wear clothes of the same material and cut. The uniformity that results is not favorable to the picturesque." On the other hand, a writer in Appleton's New York took pride in the lack of distinction: "It is safe to assert that the United States may challenge the world to show, in any country, as many elegantly dressed women. Not only in the large cities but in country places and small villages, the same distinguishing characteristics are observed, an air of fashion modified by a general fitness." The ability to appear well-dressed was aided in no small measure by the mail-order houses, which provided an affordable link with fashion to farmers living on remote prairies (Lynes, The Tastemakers, 1980).
Largely responsible for the Americanization of the immigrant living on the remotest farm, the influence of the mail-order catalog was apparent even to foreign observers. "Widely as the Scandinavians are separated from the Italians, and the native Americans from the Poles, in sentiment, in modes of life, and even in occupations they are yet purchasers of nearly the same goods," observed an English economist in 1919. As the purchasing agents for their families, farm wives created their material world from the offerings of Sears catalogs. They furnished their homes in Sears' style and dressed according to the latest fashions shown in Sears, which also catered to their fashion-conscious daughters who, if they kept up with the most recent semi-annual catalog, could be all but indistinguishable from their urban contemporaries.
WHATEVER BECAME OF THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER?
Between 1945 and 1960, advances in technology reduced the work hours necessary to grow crops by more than half, while increasing agricultural productivity to a level that outstripped demand, resulting in lower crop prices. Therefore, many farmers were driven to sell their land to large agro-business firms (with the financial capability to take full advantage of improvements in farm machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides), and seek employment in the towns. According to the Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture, in this period the farm population fell from 30 million to 15 million, and by 1970, fewer than 10 million Americans were still living on farms. The farmer's daughter had moved from farmhouse to ranch house, from cornfield to crabgrass, from the prairie to the patio.
The enormous economic and social changes which occurred between 1940 and 1960 are particularly telling when comparing the 1940 census with late 1950s statistics. Just before World War II "only one out of five Americans owned a car, one in seven had a telephone, and a mere 15% of the college-age population attended college. One quarter of America's homes still had neither a refrigerator nor an icebox, 60% lacked central heat, and three out of four farmhouses were lit with kerosene lamps. In 1945, fewer than 35 million families owned radios, and under 30 million telephones were in use." ("Life in Rural America," National Geographic Society, 1974).
In a 1941 profile of a typical catalog customer, Sears recounted the "red-letter day" when power lines reached this family's Minnesota farmhouse: first on their list of "musts," of course, was a centrifugal pump for running water. Then came the electric range. And as the months went by, other conveniences were added: vacuum cleaner, toaster, iron, radio, and clock. In addition, by using a Sears electric cream separator and a Sears motor to power the fanning mill and tool grinder—all from the "Nation's Wish Book"—they were able to save precious time and labor.
In contrast, by the end of the fifties—due largely to heavy government spending and a steady increase in demand for consumer goods and services—postwar America was enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity and the highest standard of living in the history of the world. According to Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith writing in The Affluent Society, in 1958 about 60% of American families owned their own homes, 87% had at least one television set, and 75% owned cars. By 1960, almost 60 million cars were registered in a car-crazy country of 50 million families. Forty-one thousand miles of interstate roads were authorized by the Federal Highway Act of 1956, state and local roads were built leading to them, and suburbia arose from once inaccessible areas. In addition, telephones, refrigerators, television sets, and sufficient power to run them were by then completely taken for granted. Sears featured frostless refrigerator-freezers, built-in wall ovens and cooktops in color, electric toasters, coffeemakers, can openers, blenders, mixers, rotisseries, and toaster-broilers. And yet, buried deep in its back pages, a few coal and wood heaters and ranges were still to be found.
As the rural population decreased, the suburbs were also being approached from the other direction by young urban families, many of whom had served in World War II, seeking a new way of life, and space in which to raise their children. Low interest FHA and VA mortgage loans stimulated construction of vast suburban developments, of which Levittown was the prototype. Uniform housing utilizing mass-production methods and prefabricated elements and materials enabled builders to provide labor-saving appliances, picture windows, and sliding glass doors opening onto backyard patios—the principal amenities deemed essential to the attainment of the postwar ideal of family life.
"HOME, SWEET HOME"
The Sears' catalogs of the 1960s might well be subtitled "Home, Sweet Home." All of the accoutrements necessary to equip the suburban tract house for the American middle-class were available from Sears, which awarded home furnishings and accessories pride of place in the valuable front pages of many issues. Birdhouses, outdoor lighting, walkie-talkies, folding director's chairs with decorator fashion covers, fountains, waterfalls, pedigreed dogs, and doghouses with picture windows added up to a picture of domesticity costumed by Sears with matching outfits for the whole family. No longer primarily "the farmer's friend," the Sears catalog had become an illustrated chronicle of postwar suburbia.
In 1961, the great urbanist Lewis Mumford lamented the massive exodus from the cities to the suburbs and what it had wrought: "The archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same prefabricated foods from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold." (Archer, The Age of Great Dreams, 1986).
The baby-boomers were the progeny of the large numbers of young people who married during or immediately after World War II, and for whose sake their parents moved to suburbia. By 1960, more than 30 million of them were attending primary school, while the universities were growing at such a rapid rate that for the first time in history this country boasted more college students than farmers. In 1965, half the population was under 25 and American teenagers spent an unprecedented $3.5 billion dollars on apparel. Advertising and television programming were addressed as much to them as to their parents. Television shows such as The Patty Duke Show, Ozzie and Harriet, and The Flintstones, glorified domesticity via their presentations of the "typical" suburban family complete with teenagers, inspiring McCall's magazine to coin the word "togetherness" to describe the phenomenon.
Sears catalog items were chosen with precision according to the current demographics. Popular sixties leisure articles included outdoor barbecues, physical fitness equipment, croquet sets, and sports car accessories. Sporting goods, including fishing tackle, tennis racquets, guns, baseball equipment, and ski parkas, carried the endorsement of Boston Red Sox baseball star Ted Williams. Gym sets with slides and swings, cameras, Go-Karts with a wide seat for "Dad or Mom to sit beside Junior and teach him how to drive," and "suburban" tractors and power mowers with attached seats were the quintessential paraphernalia of suburbia. Craftsman home power tools included bench saws for hobby projects. Early American maple, Danish modern, and French provincial furniture provided the background for families dressed in mother-daughter and big- and little-sister versions of the same dress. Denim, once the stuff of rugged work clothes, was promoted as a fashion fabric for every member of the family, along with humble seersucker.
"STYLES FASHIONABLE ALL OVER AMERICA"
While homogeneity of lifestyle was largely a postwar phenomenon, American uniformity of dress had been recognized a century before, as noted earlier in these pages. The ubiquitous tiny-waisted, full-skirted shirtwaist which was copied in many fabrics at every price level, remaining popular into the early sixties, was the brainchild of Anne Fogarty, a successful Coty Award-winning designer. Professing to think of herself "first and foremost as a wife," Ms. Fogarty's feminine silhouette of fitted bodice and flared skirt was an Americanized adaptation of Dior's New Look and reflected its designer's philosophy: In her 1959 book Wife Dressing, she observes that a "woman's primary role was that of wife ... a wife's regard for her husband's preferences and judgment on how she looks add up to a happy marriage."
The mothers who oozed contentment, domesticity, and an aura of freshly baked bread on TV sitcoms were invariably dressed à la Fogarty, while early sixties Sears catalogs featured many versions of the style. However, as the decade progressed, fewer pages were allotted to dresses and an increasing amount of space was devoted to sportswear and pants.
While it is always interesting to compare the clothing of the beginning of a decade with the garb at its end, the sixties are particularly significant, reflecting so dramatically the vast social changes that occurred in the intervening ten years. The transformation was attributable not only to postwar prosperity and the shift to suburbia with its informal lifestyle, but also to the youth movement which rebelled against established dress codes. Increasingly, entertaining took place at backyard cookouts, and eating out meant fast-food drive-ins, so there were fewer dress-up events. Comfort—in the guise of pants—became virtually universal. Hence, fewer dresses were necessary to complete a wardrobe, while those that did appear in Sears catalogs, as well as in clothing shops, were distinctly more formal and differed markedly from their casual counterparts.
Pants, the dominant article of sixties apparel, came in a wide variety of styles and covered most occasions, as well as most derrières, from the littlest child to the most senior of citizens. Every conceivable length was available, from tapered slacks and jeans to short shorts, with bermudas and capris in between. Sears pants were available in proportioned sizes, ranging from 8 through 16 to fit "tiny" misses 5'2" and under; "typical" misses 10 through 18, 5'2- ½" through 5'6- ½"; tall misses 10 through 20, 5'7" through 6'; to women's sizes 38 through 44, height 5'4" through 5'6- ½".
While the "gracious lady" could still find a suitably dignified ensemble in the Sears catalog, her choices had narrowed to one or two pages. She, too, embraced the ease of pants, covered by a tunic top to camouflage a less than slender, and probably newly uncorseted, waistline. Hats and gloves, except for warmth and utility, went the way of dresses, and the millinery pages featured early in the decade shrank to an occasional inset on a page that featured coats or dresses. The new synthetic stretch knits and woven wash-and-wear fabrics were an instant success with housewives who experienced no regrets at abandoning their irons and ironing boards.
Men's clothing met much the same fate as women's. While blazers and slacks were featured, worn with shirt and tie or turtleneck sweater, dress suits, hats, and full-length overcoats photographed on models with crew-cut hair had virtually disappeared from the pages of Sears by 1969. Men's slacks without pleats were sized "Trim 'N Tight" for the "slim young man" with a 29"- through 36"- waistline; "Trim Regular," for the 30"- through 40"- waist; and "Full-cut" from 36" through 44". Some plain-front styles featured the "neat look for the heavier man" with up to a 50" waist. Fitted shirts, seamed to give the illusion of a young, trim body, were made of the same stretch synthetics as slacks.
Both sexes wore short coats for informality as well as practicality behind the wheel of the ubiquitous station wagon. The full-length dress coat was an article of apparel reserved for the commuter or the city dweller, who remained the chief consumer of high-fashion outfits as well, neither of which commanded many pages in Sears.
Pants became high fashion for women. St. Laurent showed tunic dresses over pants in 1968, and the entire fashion world—Sears included—followed suit. While formality was passé, a certain status was conveyed by wearing Gucci moccasins and Chanel suits, black-tipped beige sling pumps, and quilted handbags, copies of which were featured in the pages of the Sears catalog (see page 48).
THE YOUTH MOVEMENT
The spotlight on children, the result of the baby boom, is plainly visible in Sears. Not only are numerous pages dedicated to their garb, it is as fashionable as that of their grown-up siblings and parents. Stretch pants, fishnet tights, ensembles by the foremost children's dress designers of the era, and hats by Coty Award-winning women's millinery designer Sally Victor were featured in Sears. Not unlike Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, which even published separate back-to-school issues entirely devoted to children's fashions, many of the sixties catalogs allotted their prized opening pages to children's wear. Every trend seen in adult sizes was available for the younger set, sometimes under the Winnie-the-Pooh label, the one Sears bestowed on its most expensive and sophisticated apparel. Children were precocious consumers, thanks in large measure to television, which bombarded them with advertising for such products as Barbie, the grown-up doll with an extensive wardrobe, introduced by the Mattel Toy Company in 1959. The characters in Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip were responsible for $50,000,000 in sales in 1969 alone, where they adorned such items in the Sears catalog as boys' pajamas (see page 46).
Color defined the decade as much as the youth movement, pants, and the miniskirt. Brightening the apparel of both sexes, as the sixties advanced, ice cream pastels intensified to Day-Glo and "acid" colors. Prints ranged from batiks and madras to leopard and splashy tropical flora in citrus colors, hot pink, and turquoise. In the latter years of the decade, textile design was dominated by the swirling patterns of Emilio Pucci and the psychedelic artist Peter Max, and by the black-and-white oscillating geometries of the Op Art movement, accessorized with the ubiquitous shiny white patent-leather boots or vividly colored patent-leather flats.
Excerpted from Everyday Fashions of the Sixties by JoAnne Olian. Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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