The temperature was in the mid-90’s as I drove by a local high school as the students were leaving on the first day of school – Albuquerque 2015. A great many students were wearing Bermuda shorts and scooped neck t-shirts. It didn’t appear as if there was any impetus to have a new ‘back-to-school’ outfit. Aw, how things have changed.
Having a new outfit to start school was important in 1956 when I started high school (10th grade then). By the first of August, my mother and I had visited the fabric store and picked out a pattern and fabric for me to make my back-to-school dress. I insisted that it be a dark fall fabric. I remember it had ¾ length sleeves – hardly the kind of dress I should be wearing in mid-September in San Bernardino, CA where the temperature often was over 100 during the first week of school. I couldn’t find a picture of my 10th grade back-to-school dress. This the 11th grade one.
It was the era of felt ‘poodle’ skirts, two-toned saddle oxfords or ‘bucks’ that needed constant attention with pads of white powder. The skirt lengths were calf-length, whether loose and swirling or pencil thin. Sadly, I never owned a poodle skirt. Since my mother made nearly all of my clothes, she deemed the cost of the felt too expensive. When the weather cooled and we switched from blouses – that needed to be ironed – to sweater sets, we always had a little scarf tied at the neck or a string of pearls.
I and my friends poured over Seventeen Magazine, our go-to source for high school style. In one issue there was an article titled, “What is Your Perfume Personality?” As the foothills explorer in my free time, not unsurprisingly, mine was “woodsy-mossy.”
When I started college at the University of Redlands in 1959, conservative straight skirts were worn for classes. Instead of saddle oxfords, young women usually wore flats. I asked some of my college friends what they remembered about college attire.
“I remember we had to wear nylons (with seams) and heels to the Commons (dining hall) on Sunday,” my friend Carole reminisced. “This was before panty hose, so we must have worn garters” – or girdles.
Penny wrote “I think that I usually wore panty hose with my skirts. I can specifically remember that on some of those hot, HOT September days, that the perspiration on my nylon-stockinged legs rubbing together caused chaffing of my thighs while walking up to the “Hill” for classes.”
She also remembers “we couldn’t hang our laundry on the lines behind the dorm on Sundays.” And, of course, this was before dryers were common place since they were still very costly.
It was expected that we would wear hat and gloves when we attended the get-acquainted teas. I remember wearing a royal blue pin box hat with matching royal blue gloves. I felt so chic and kept both items packed away in my cedar chest for many years afterwards.
Pants, but never jeans, were worn for casual activities. I don’t know whether the private college had a dress code, or whether we were just following the norms of the times. My college friends don’t remember any written dress code – “We just somehow seemed to know what was customary” Penny relayed.
I ran across the welcome letter I received July 6, 1959 which reads in part: “Nearly every girl wonders about what clothes she should take to college….Most of the clothes you already have in your wardrobe will be new here and quite appropriate….Girls also wear suits and casual sort dresses for daily campus events…heels and dress shoes are worn on Sundays and to special social events. For teas, dress dinners, receptions, and church, suits with matching accessories, or dressy dresses are in order…You may want to bring some sport clothes such as slacks or pedal pushers for picnics…”
I have photos of me wearing a suit with a cropped jacket for important occasions, such as the Science Dinner, writing banquet or debate tournament.
My sister Chris entered School of Architecture at the University of California at Berkley as the only female student in 1962. I asked her whether it gave her more liberty to dress casually. “A lot was left as “understood”. Dresses for school and slacks for evening. Wednesday night dinner was “dress-up” – going to church outfits. Going to San Francisco included hose, heels and dresses,” she explained. “After several years it became apparent that I had to upgrade my clothes to be taken “seriously” and “professionally”. Daily dress included nylons and nice shoes – even though the distance between classes included many hills.
My first job out of college was a social worker in the welfare department. I can’t imagine what the families that I visited thought when this young woman appeared at their doors wearing business attire, heels and hose! I’m sure it didn’t create an atmosphere of rapport.
At some point in the 1960’s – after Jackie Kennedy became First Lady – the skirt lengths went from mid-calf to knee-length.
When I got married in 1965, it was expected that I would have a ‘going away’ outfit. I have no recollection what it was, except that it seemed silly, since we were going camping on our honeymoon. I asked Chris what her recollection was when she married in 1967. “Oh, yes, I also had a going-away suit,” she stated. “Mom said it was the proper thing to do.”
For casual wear, jeans became popular and by the 1970’s pant legs went from straight to flared at the ankle. But even casual wear seems very formal by today’s standards.
However, as I perused photo albums, it appears that on most casual occasions I wore slacks,
and only wore jeans for hiking and camping.
Chris got her first pantsuit sooner than I did. After receiving her degree and moving to Albuquerque with her architect husband, Bill, she interned with a civil engineer. “I got my first pant suit in 1970 when I needed to go in a private plane to a site in southern New Mexico,” she stated.
In 1971 singer James Brown released his hit, “Hot Pants” and instantly it became a fashion trend. I remember feeling racy after purchasing a one-piece outfit – a knit top with hot pants that zipped up. I wore with boots, but only a few times. It was very impractical as I had to practically undress to use the restroom.
When I moved to Seattle in 1973 and became director of The Arc-King County, it was expected that I wear business attire. At some point during the 1970’s I acquired my first pantsuit; however, it was business suits on most days.
I remarried in 1979. It was not going to be a fancy dress for me – and purchased a suit I could wear to work.
By the late 80’s when I developed a growth between my two outer toes (the product of wearing narrow, pointed-toe shoes too many years), the doctor suggested I could avoid surgery if I wore Birkenstocks like he did. I was indignant and told him that as the Executive Director of The Arc – King County, I could not effectively represent the agency at civic events in Birkenstocks.
A short time later, women’s footwear became more casual, heels lower and widths wider. Spiked heels and narrow toes have returned to women’s fashions and I know the price they will pay as their feet age.
When I attended my 30th college reunion, everyone still dressed up.
When I moved to Albuquerque in 1994, I was delighted to learn that business attire was much more casual than in Seattle. While I had a few suits that I really loved,
they sat in the back of my closet for several years before I was ready to retire them.
I purchased my first denim dress.
What a difference 20 years makes. When I attended my 50th reunion at the University of Redlands, we were all in casual attire.
The best wardrobe of all is that of retirement – casual pants or crops on most days. I haven’t worn a skirt in years. I have always liked the poem “When I am old I will wear purple with a red hat…” While purple and red hats are not my style, the meaning is clear: I can now wear what I love and what is comfortable.
And, from observing the high school students that sent me on this fashion retrospective, perhaps young women today will not be bound by all of the fashion rules that women of my generation were bound by.