Of Another Fashion

An alternative archive of the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color

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This is my grandma in the mid to late 1950s in Chicago. She’s wearing store-bought clothes, probably purchased from either I Magnin or Bullocks department stores, where she worked. My grandma passed away in January 2011.

Submitted by N. D. (Los Angeles, CA).

In May 1955, twenty-five women who were injured by the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 were flown to New York to undergo reconstructive surgery. The women became known in the press as the “Hiroshima Maidens.” Many of these women, including Tadako Emori, Yoshie Enokawa, Hideko Hirata, and Toyoko Morita were gifted dressmakers who spent their time in the U.S. refining their sewing and business skills, selling their designs, and creating a transnational name for themselves among American consumers.

Morita enrolled in the Parsons School of Design and worked two days each week at the posh department store, Bergdorf Goodman. After earning her degree from Parsons, she returned to Japan to open up her own design company, Toyo Haute Couture. The company was highly successful. Later in her career, Morita also taught dressmaking classes. In the above photo, Morita is standing in front of her shop, third from the left. The other women pictured are her employees, many of whom were disabled (a hiring policy she implemented as a result of her own experience.)

To find out more about the Hiroshima Maidens, see this link and also David Serlin’s chapter on the Hiroshima Maidens in his book, Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press, 2004) in which he discusses the relations of injury and beauty. Rodney Barker also wrote a biography about them called, The Hiroshima Maidens: A Story of Courage, Compassion, and Survival (Viking Press 1985).

Thanks go to Thy Phu (Ontario, Canada) for cluing me to this intriguing history of fashion, war, reconstruction, and New York City’s own Parsons School of Design.

Unfortunately, there’s no identifying information regarding this photo but I couldn’t resist including her amazing hat in this archive. The woman is likely from Monrovia, California and the photo was taken in 1940.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

I recently posted this photo on my own blog and thought it was a nice fit for Of Another Fashion as well. I found the photo on the Internet but unfortunately my inquiries about the woman pictured or the date haven’t been successful. Judging by her bike and clothing I’d guess this was taken in the 1940s.

Submitted by Zoë Leverant (San Francisco, CA).

Curator’s note: I stand corrected. What I thought was a stand for a stationary bike is, in fact, a kickstand - as readers as well as the donor of the photo have pointed out to me. But my point remains, riding a bike in a mid-length pencil skirt? A great example of the mutual non-exclusivity of fashion and fitness.

More from the donor: Also that’s just a kickstand on the back wheel -  many of them were double-sided and very sturdy back in the day. Judging by the brake cabling, fenders, rear rack and front lamp, she was definitely on her way to ride.

Of Another Fashion will be on a summer break for most of this week, beginning August 2. I will be checking email intermittently so please take this short break as an opportunity to send in those photos you’ve been meaning to submit! (My queue is running low!)

The basics on submission: send me hi-res scans of your photos with a brief description of the who/what/where of the photo - whatever you know is fine! Make it as personal as possible. Finally, for the donor information: send me your full name and city/state. For more detailed instructions, including where to email, see this link.

During New York City’s heat wave earlier this week, I saw many variations of this outfit: the bare midriff and the mini skirt put together in such a way that was more sweet than saucy. Call Esther Rivera a fashion forerunner then - here she is modeling her new summer outfit in 1946.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

You might not expect to find the fashion history of women of color in a book about the early days of the NASA space program in the 1950s and 1960s written by an architecture professor. But if Of Another Fashion has taught us anything it’s that the fashion history of women of color pervades nearly every part of U.S. history and that - unfortunately - it has often been made invisible even when it has been absolutely central to the most spectacular (by that I mean, full of spectacles or hypervisible) historical moments.

Consider this image in Nicholas de Monchaux’s new book, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (MIT Press 2011). A young Black woman named Hazel Fellows is seen here sewing a part of a spacesuit like the one Neil Armstrong would wear to walk on the moon for the first time in 1969. The previously unseen but highly skilled labors of women of color - learned in part as a result of a complex set of both economic and social necessity as well as desire - are brought to critical and historical light in this amazing photograph. Such seamstresses (employed by Playtex, the company we now associate mostly with bras) are, as one person put it, "the unsung heroes of the early space program."

Many thanks to Shane Landrum for cluing me to the above link!

This is my grandma in a 1964 Hollywood club. She’s wearing one of the many dresses she made. She passed away January 2011.

Submitted by N. D. (Los Angeles, CA).

You’ve heard of zoot suits - but did you know there were also zoot skirt suits? A woman only identified by her first name, Josie, is wearing one such suit while standing on the corner of E. 41st St. and Long Beach Avenue in Los Angeles, California in 1945. In the background is the restaurant, El Tonga.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

Alba Barrios, Frances Silva, and Lorena Eucinas (L-R) are pictured here in their prison-issue cardigan sweater, dress, and perfectly coiffed hairdos. They were arrested in connection with a slaying at Sleepy Lagoon in Southeast Los Angeles. The photo was taken in 1942.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

Photographs of 1940s White servicemen dancing with and kissing White women are a familiar part of our cultural imagination but non-White American men also served during both World Wars. This photograph is a stunning reminder of this aspect of U.S. history. Here, two Mexican American men (at least one of whom is a serviceman) pose with their sweethearts in 1940. (The railing is an in-studio prop.)

Notice the floral design peeking out between the life preserver on the woman’s skirt. Its placement seems almost purposeful, as if she wanted to make certain that the prop didn’t obstruct a view of her lovely skirt. Style matters - even, or perhaps especially, when posing with one’s sweetheart.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

This is a photo of my mother, Bonnie Sterritt, in the summer of 1981.  Born in Burma, and then raised in England, she moved to America with my father a year or two before this photo was taken at an outdoor wedding reception in Aiken, South Carolina.  I love my fashionable brown mother, unable to hide her feelings about the Budweiser in her hand.

Submitted by Merrill Sterritt (Brooklyn, NY).

These women, all wearing sporty trousers, are on a YWCA outing in 1944.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

These students of Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C. are dressed to the nines at what looks like a graduation banquet. Unfortunately, the date of the photograph, taken by the Scurlock Studio, is unknown.

The D.C. Tourism website offers this description of the College:

Miner Teachers College was the principal school to train black teachers in the city for more than 70 years. The school was named for Myrtilla Miner, a white woman, who founded a school that was known as both Miner’s School and the School for Colored Girls in 1851. The original Miner’s School was located in the block bounded by 19th, 20th, N, and O streets, NW. It closed in 1860.

In 1863 Congress granted a charter to re-open the school as the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, and it held its first classes after the Civil War ended in 1865. From 1871 to 1876 it was associated with Howard University. In 1879, as Miner Normal School, it became part of the District of Columbia public school system. Miner expanded into a four-year curriculum, graduating its first four-year class in 1933. In 1955 Miner Teachers College merged with the Wilson Teachers College, for white teachers. The new institution was named DC Teachers College, which in turn was absorbed into the University of the District of Columbia in 1977.

Of Another Fashion is featured on the gorgeous blog, Maliamu! Many thanks go to the beautiful Kasalina Nabakooza for inviting me to introduce this project to her readers!

3 years ago 8 notes

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