Friday, November 6, 2015

40s Folk Fashion: Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

I wore this 1940s folk inspired outfit before our wedding so I didn't have time to write a post about it until now. Now, writing this post, a lighter post about fashion and fashion history, is just what I need.

You see, when I returned from our little, in-town honeymoon, I discovered that, while we'd been away, Sublime Mercies had taken off. I hasn't gone exactly viral but it's being read a lot, more and more each week. Of course, this is great, and it helps me network with others who are working to raise awareness of feminist and child trafficking issues just as I am.

But it's overwhelming too. It's important to call attention to the darker sides of life but even I'm getting a bit burned out. Worse, I'm becoming privy to some of the in-fighting amongst those working on these issues; and I just can't engage in those debates and struggles. I haven't the energy. I mean, let's not forget that I have both a chronic pain disability and PTSD, both caused by the very child trafficking about which others are having raging, semantic battles on Twitter. Yes, I feel compelled to advocate for those abused like I was, but I also need to take care of myself.

Part of taking care of myself is remembering the things that help me feel better and, as you all know, style is one of those things. And so, a fashion history post. But, sad to say, even fashion has never existed separately from the cultural forces of its time; even something as seemingly benign as a vogue for folk fashion has its darker sides.

Let's get the darkest side - a creepy connection to Nazi Germany - over and done with quickly, move on the less dark side - a disturbing connection to American neo-colonialism - and then we'll come out into the bright light of the sheer fun of this style.

The dark and disgusting truth is that the folk fashion, or, as they called it, peasant fashion, was encouraged by the Nazi regime. An exultation of German peasantry was seen as a return to Germany's pure, ethnic roots. Note that all but one of the women in the above image are blond, in stark contrast to the hideous caricatures of Jews so rampant in Nazi propaganda at the time. Essentially, the German vogue for folk music, folk stories, and folk fashion was yet another form of Nazi propaganda.

I don't know how much this German vogue influenced those outside of Germany, but I imagine it had at least some influence on other countries. At least before the onset of the war, people still travelled to and from Germany and adopted or were affected by aspects of each other's cultures.

Skirt and belt: ModCloth; Blouse: Reitman's; Sandals: Wonders; Sunglasses: Aldo; Right-hand ring: Birks; Earrings and purse: vintage

It's true that my outfit, meant to evoke the 1940s and early 50s, American, folk fashion trend, does bear some resemblance to German peasant fashion. I only really noticed this later, when I was searching for vintage images that illustrate the look I was after; I kept coming up with images from Germany in the 30s and 40s! Obviously, as both a Jew and a decent human being, this not a heritage I want to emulate and it was not my intent to do so.

I just like how pretty the look is.

And how fun it is.

But it does have some other, less dark, but not stellar history to it. Note where I chose to pose for some of my photos.

I was thinking of this sort of thing, a travel poster from 1952. Probably the most direct cause of American neo-folk fashion was white, American tourism in impoverished, Latin American countries like Mexico ...

... and Cuba before its revolution. Tourists tended to see these countries as their personal playgrounds, and their inhabitants as servants and even playthings.

They were not often seen as real people, with real lives, dreams, and struggles, many of which were exacerbated by American neo-colonialism and the extreme economic disparities it caused.

The people of Latin American countries were seen as different from Americans, not "like us." All sorts of stereotypes were applied to them.

Their hair was darker and curlier.

They had darker skin and darker eyes.

Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino 
They were "exotic" ...

... sexier ...

... more colourful, more emotional, more passionate ...

... more natural ...

... flowers among flowers ...

... more sensual.

In the eyes of white Americans, they exemplified sensual indulgence, because they represented a vacation from the more "civilized," austere, American life.

They were thought of as great fun but not quite as "advanced" as "us."

They were seen as less civilized, and less intellectual than Americans...

... with their strange Catholic customs and superstitions.

It was racism, pure and simple.

Carmen Miranda
With such racist attitudes, caricature was to be expected. Genuine human emotion, intellect, and aspiration was not. Carmen Miranda made a career out of this caricature and I don't think we should blame her for it. Instead, we might want to wonder how far her career could have gone if Latin Americans were taken more seriously in Hollywood and in American culture in general.

But they weren't. Their lands were nice places to visit for a little, licentious adventure, but they were not places to build a life and a home. All that heat and sensuality might make an American become dissipated and shifty. In many movies of the time, Americans who did make a home there are portrayed as womanisers, gamblers, alcoholics, prostitutes, and the like. It was seen as a land that would ultimately corrupt and rob one of good, old-fashioned, American values.

Understand, I don't hold these racist views but others did, and still do, for that matter. I think, maybe, when white American women wore folk fashion, they were emulating this "free, nature girl" stereotype of Latin Americans.

Or maybe not.

Maybe they just thought the look was pretty.

There's nothing wrong with enjoying that.

I certainly do.

Anne Rutherford
When compared to the very tailored and cinched looks of the day, this style did offer a little more physical freedom and whimsy and I'm sure some women appreciated that.

It's also quite flattering to the feminine figure.

From what I can see, this folk fashion seems to have started in the late 1930s with vaguely peasant style tops like you see here ...

... and here ...

... and loose, patterned skirts, like those in this photo from the 1940s.

But the look couldn't really take off until WWII cloth rations were lifted and skirts could be made with enough fabric to give them a really great opulence and movement ...

... that hadn't been seen for quite a while ...

Even so, it took a while to really take off in its full richness of fabric.

It started like this ...

... and eventually became this.

With its tightly corseted waists and very full skirts, the influence of Dior's New Look is unmistakable.

And it's fun.

It's colourful.

And, yes, at the risk of sounding like those American tourists I deride in this post, it is a festive look.

And it does have a bit more of an organic, natural look, than much of 50s fashion. 

There is no shame in getting fashion ideas from around the world, but we need to be careful not to pick up stereotypes with them. We need to show some respect and awareness of the people who wore it first and give credit where credit is due. 

After that, we need only wear it and enjoy.



  1. As always, I learned a lot from your fashion history. The dark side of racism and sexism has to be examined, as well as all the beauty. And you show lots of the latter today, and that is one magnificent cat. xox


    1. That magnificent cat is 20 years old! Isn't that amazing? I take very good care of my kitties.

  2. I always learn here, too! And I agree about the cat - one of ours looks just like him, so I may also be biased - and you've given me hope that ours may be long-lived as well. Twenty! Amazing.

    1. I love that people say they learn here. I was a college teacher for a long time before I had to go on disability. I love to share information that I find exciting, interesting, or important. I guess I'm still doing that.

      My last cat also lived to be 20. My advice is to take them to the vet once a year, more if you notice anything wrong. Once they're over about 12, give them yearly blood tests as well; they tell you things the cat won't tell you till it's too late. Pay close attention to your cat and bring her to the vet if you notice physical or behavioural changes (like weight loss of a cessation of grooming) and, then too, get blood tests. Both my cats were gravely ill more than once and, through care, quickly bounced back to a good quality of life.

    2. All sound advice - thank you for taking the time to remind me of it. We usually only take them if there is something off with their behavior, but yearly is a far better idea.

    3. Oh, I'm so glad you saw this and like the idea. Cats are famously stoic so, by the time we notice something's wrong, they're really very sick. Keeping on top of it can catch things before it's too late. This is a post I wrote about my Morgan, who lived to 20, and who needed a lot of medical care in the last few years:

    4. What a beautiful love story. I'm so glad you had such a wonderful cat to help you start to heal. I love the idea of a pendant to remember him by; it's lovely.

    5. I never know if people read my replies here but now I know you do. Yay! Beau wore Morgan's pendant under his shirt at our wedding. It seemed right.

    6. Oh, nice! And yes,I always come back in case there is a reply - and enjoy replies when they are given. But please don't feel pressured by that - real life and its joys and problems always take precedence.

    7. I won't feel pressured. Don't worry. You may have noticed that, before the wedding, I went for months without responding to people's comments. I'm working now on finding balance in my life. It's a tricky thing since I'm on disability and must keep things slow, can never predict if/when I'll have a bad day, and have the intellectual ambition/energy of a rocket ship. It's like trying to keep a powerful engine idling. Ugh.

  3. I *almost* bought that same skirt. It looks lovely on you.

    Cannot believe your cat is 20. Incredible.


    1. You should get it. It's sumptuous, fully lined in lovely, silky fabric, and it looks good on everyone.

  4. I'm so glad to hear that your blog is taking off, and I know EXACTLY what you mean about the petty infighting that happens at these organisations where The Greater Good suddenly somehow gets usurped by ego. Why these people cannot take themselves out of the equation for a minute and realise that this is so much bigger than themselves is beyond me, and sadly Twitter seems to be the perfect venue for petty semantic infighting (low character count). REGARDLESS, that skirt is everything. LOVE the yellow, and as you say, while it is important to be mindful of the racism inherent in sartorial appropriation, sometimes a pretty piece of clothing is just that. That skirt is joy in cloth format.

    1. "Joy in cloth format": you get it. Some of my pals just don't understand that about style. I'm glad you do. But I'm also glad you know what I'm talking about when I address appropriation.

      As for the semantic debates, they can be important. The big debate that I was privy to was between the terms "sex worker" and "prostituted person." One suggests complete autonomy of choice and power, and the second suggests none. The two terms represent vastly different paradigms, both of which I feel are flawed. But I just can't get involved. Me, I was a slave, pure and simple.

  5. Is this your "not Christmas" skirt?
    It is so joyful.
    I'm glad you are being recognised.
    Xo Jazzy Jack

    1. Yes, this is my "bah humbug" skirt. It's also my, "Yay, isn't it pretty?" skirt. And my "I want to feel sunny skirt" etc. It's just such a joyful skirt. I've got my eye on some great earrings to wear with it too: yellow "wedding cake" beads. Google it; they're so pretty.

  6. What a great look, the skirt with the peasant top is so pretty. Always look enjoy reading your post and learning something. Thank you for being a part of TBT Fashion link up and hope to see you Thursday.


  7. Contrary to popular belief, fashion does not exist in a vacuum, separate from culture and politics. So I write about that, though it can be difficult indeed.