On Feminism and Fashion

Readers, I come to you today dressed in what ladies used to call a ‘duster”, or a ‘house dress”.  Please don’t tell my Mother. She wouldn’t understand.  I know she’s deceased, but Mothers have their ways of finding things out. Here’s a little background:

When I was growing up,  housewives  frequently wore these  unattractive sleeveless cotton garments, which seemed to be a cross between a bathrobe and a dress. They often had garish patterns of watermelons or gingham.  While these were never to be worn outside the home, they were deemed  to be suitable  inside daytime attire by some ladies for  times when one should be dressed but due to the heat, one could not allow said clothes to touch one’s body.


On our street in the 1960s, virtually every mother was at home during the day. I was used to being greeted at the doors of my friend’s homes by ladies in house dresses, sporting helmet  hairdos, smelling of cigarette  smoke, Final Net hairspray and starch,  Yes, I think some of the house dresses were starched and ironed.

My Mother on the other hand, never sunk so low as to don a house dress. She didn’t ever say they were tacky; I just knew.  As I recall she wore what were called ‘shorts sets”, consisting of say, solid  color shorts with a striped or printed blouse, with a Peter Pan collar and loafers.  Unlike some of the other neighborhood ladies, she had what was deemed a “cute figure”, with slim, not jangly upper arms and evenly proportioned hips and bust. She watched her weight, sometimes announcing she was “reducing”, then eating  garden style cottage cheese at lunch for a week.

She reinforced her helmet hairdo by wrapping it in toilet paper at  bedtime, just like the other ladies alright, but  her daytime appearance was tidy and tailored. She never seemed to get dirty, but every afternoon without fail, I suppose after she had cooked dinner, she disappeared into her bathroom to “freshen up” for my Father. By the time he came home  she had on another crisply  ironed blouse, and had applied new lipstick, Revlon face powder and  black Maybelline  cake mascara.

My Mother and I were of the same mind regarding fashion right up until I was about six years old and began to have my own preferences. After that all bets were off.  I did not want to wear all those slips and things that were called “petti pants.” I wanted to wear my white shorts with a white shirt, which my Mother would not allow because she said it didn’t match.  How could they not match if they were both the same color? I did not want to wear a dress identical to that of my four year old sister. And I certainly did not want to wear a dress patterned after one that Julie Andrews wore in the Sound of Music. Anyone could see it had a very scratchy built in petticoat.

Cut to high school. Whenever we shopped together my Mother was sure to whisk a preppy little  top from a hanging rack and exclaim, “Isn’t this darling?” Uh, no.  I was going to wear men’s overalls from Sears and high topped tennis shoes,  and I did.  My Mother was mortified.

Eventually the pitched battles ended, but we remained at opposite ends of the fashion spectrum right up to the last years  of her life, when I was often the one to choose her clothes. I always knew what she would like: little white sandals, straw purses, pants sets that matched and had to be ironed, dainty feminine nightgowns.

If my Mother were to see me today in a duster, ( And actually it’s a little loose sleeveless dress  with a muted neutral print from the thrift store. But I USE it as a duster) she would only be baffled and disappointed at my choice. But we have led different lives. My Mother stayed in the house to protect her hairdo. I go outside in a pony tail, climb a six foot ladder and pick figs for an hour. My Mother did all the housework in our home, except on the days  the maid came, but seemed to stay clean. I can’t walk from the bedroom to the kitchen without spilling something down my shirt. If my Mother did perspire a little during the day there would be no trace of it by the time her man came home. I make no attempt to disguise whatever condition I may be in when my husband comes home, and he has never objected.

Despite our differences, as I look back I have respect for what my Mother was trying to do. In the rigid world inhabited by housewives in the 1960s, with the paucity of choices available, my Mother was trying to find her own way to have a sense of self. She would rise above the tyranny of the housedress and instead clothe herself in an array of snappy, sassy outfits which emphasized her youthful figure. She might iron and cook all day but she would always find the time for the feeling of luxury that came with the application of her makeup. She might be only a housewife, but she would remind herself daily with her careful attention to her person that she was capable of so much more.

I think she wanted those same things for me, and tried to achieve her goals for me through the lens of choices she could see as acceptable for girls and women at the time. But I saw so many more options, having grown up in a time when women were becoming  empowered, that I saw her ideas as constricting, unimaginative and hopelessly old fashioned.

Well Mother, you succeeded. I have managed to find my own sense of self, and follow it, though I may be the only one I know who sees what I see or wants to do what I want to do. I have raised a family but do not see my own dreams as subordinate to theirs. When I return home from a day in the professional world, my home is a haven where I can nurture my own interests and relationships, and suit only myself. And if it suits me to wear my improvised duster, because it is 102 degrees outside, then I wear it proudly.

5 thoughts on “On Feminism and Fashion

  1. What a beautiful post! I loved reading about grandmother, and I loved seeing once again how you have made your own unique and wonderful place in the world. You are the best!

  2. I. Love. This. What a wonderful snapshot of your mother and you both managed to reconcile yourselves despite your different takes on fashion! You’ve done her proud.

    My maternal grandmother wore those duster things too, and they always looked really scratchy to me.

  3. I too recall the “duster” as it was a regular part of my mom’s wardrobe. But being a male, I never thought of it in the way you have so richly recalled it. Thankfully I have you as my life companion to help me see things in ways I never would that adds special context to ordinary things in life. How you have enriched my life! And how more I am discovering it with each of of your wonderful posts.

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