Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Ditsy Dress and the Dirty 30s: Honouring the Women of the Great Depression

After a year of searching, I finally found it: my very own, original, 1930s, ditsy print, house dress! It may even be a feed sack dress. I hope so. Finding a dress like this had become a search for a kind of holy grail for me. Such a thing is hard to find for anyone, let alone for someone of healthy proportions: remember, these dresses were worn during the great Depression, when women were hardly known for carrying enough meat on their bones, let alone a little extra. So, when I saw this dress posted on Instagram, I bought it within five minutes. This was not something I was going to pass up.

I've already written a post about feed sack dresses themselves, so this post is going to be something different: an homage to both the women of the Depression who preserved their dignity in extreme, degrading poverty, and to the photographers who preserved images of that dignity in some of the most iconic photos of American life anywhere. I was thinking primarily of rural itinerant workers, share croppers, and farmers, and the photographers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to capture the extremity of these people's suffering. Most of all, I was thinking of the photographs of Dorothea Lange, many of whose photographs are in this post.

I spent a long time looking at these photos before Beau and I set out to take our own photographs.

Dress and shoes: vintage
I wanted to make my own photos look similar to these, but not because I wanted to turn these women's lives into mere fashion inspirations. 

Instead, I wanted to honour these women, and remind my readers to do the same.

Above all, this post is about the beauty and tenacity of the human spirit in extreme adversity. It's not about the beauty of the body.

Let's face it: an exhausted, undernourished body, stressed from constant pregnancy, nursing, field work, and worry, loses some of its beauty. I do think I'm in a position to know a bit about the body's struggles in adversity. But sometimes the spirits' beauty increases in adversity.

And it's the spirit that matters, after all.

A note: Most of the photos I show here of white women and their families. This was not a choice on my part. As usual, I found it harder to find photos of African-Americans from the 1930s (as I do of African-Americans from any period), though I know that they made up a significant portion of the share croppers of the day, and, under Jim Crow laws, had suffered severe poverty and degradation since long before the Depression. If any of you, readers, have suggestions of where to find more historical photos of African-Americans (and Canadians), please pass them on to me!

I also know that Mexicans then, as now, made up a large proportion of the itinerant farm workers of the day. I found even fewer photos of them.

The only North American group that I think may know Depression levels of poverty to this day is Native people -- and I did not find a single photo of them in any of my searches for farm workers during the Depression. I'm sure some such photos exist, but I did not come across them.

Such are the vicissitudes of racism, that everlasting scourge of American culture.

But back to the dress itself. It is in such great shape, that I wonder if it really is 80 odd years old. Let's assume it is. After all, everything about it says, "1930s," including the fact that it is obviously hand sewn. This is evident in the absence of a brand name label. It is also evident in the loose basting, and the careful but naturally uneven, hand stitching. This dress is neither commercially made, nor made with that most expensive of luxuries: a sewing machine.

I don't know if this is feed sack fabric or "store boughten" fabric but I'm suspecting the latter since this woman evidently had enough money for bias binding ...

... pockets ...

... and rick rack for decoration.

That said, this is not a dress with an opulence of extra fabric. A full-circle skirt it is not.

It's a very typical 1930s dress ...

... for all ages ...

... though I've never seen anything like this little wave pattern at the bust. 

It's new to me and quite sweet.

It does make it a tad tight at the bosom though. A bra was necessary or I would have been busting out of that darling little wave pattern.

In the 1930s, bras were a fairly recent invention and most women didn't wear them, at least not for their every day outfits, which are all most poor women owned.

Besides, rural women suffering the deprivations of the Depression were generally so skinny, they were not likely to be busty ...

Photo by Dorothea Lange
... even when they were breast feeding or pregnant, which they often were.

Starvation was never too far away.

We're talking about a time when having a full set of dishes ...

... let alone nice ones ...

... was a sign that you were doing pretty well, relatively speaking.

A nip down to the local corner store for a treat like ice cream? 

A unreachable dream ... 

... one which I'm sure occupied children's minds a lot.

Ample curves requiring a bra were pretty rare.

Even running water was a luxury, let alone indoor running water.

My curves would have been darned hard to achieve.

Poor women -- and their husbands and children -- were lean and sinewy ...

... not plushy and well-fed.

And, always: that worried, exhausted look in their eyes.

I tried to duplicate that look in several of the photos Beau and I took. 

I didn't find it very difficult. I drew on my own suffering as a child sex trafficking victim, disabled by the abuse. Physical and emotional distress aren't things I have to fake.

Still, now, I'm doing better than those women were then.

I was surprised to find that Beau thinks this dress is sexy on me. He likes the way it hangs onto my curves as I move. When I think about what a luxury it was to carry some curves on your frame in the 1930s, I do find myself with a new kind of appreciation for my figure. In fact, this photo is one of my new favourite photos of myself. I'm neither hungry nor too sick to keep weight on my body. I'm grateful for that.

Even with my disability, I can see, in myself, the absence of poverty. That's a beautiful, fortunate thing.

Despite my relative good health, as much as I could, I tried for some authenticity. I tried to look like I was a woman living in the Depression. I kept my feet bare for many of the photos and I didn't shave my legs for quite some time before we took them.

Many women and even more children simply did not own shoes at the time.

Note that this woman is wearing a feed sack dress made before feed sack manufacturers started putting pretty prints on the sacks.

If poor women did own shoes, they were generally quite beaten up. The sweet irony here is that these shoes were given to me by a homeless woman who took pity on me because I'm disabled, and said I simply had to have them.

But I don't own any shoes as beaten up as many of the ones I saw in photographs from the Depression. People in other parts of the world still make do with "shoes" like these, even today. But here? They'd be garbage.

Even the cleanliness of my dress, hair, and skin are signs of my relative wealth.

Think about it.

Where would rural women in the Depression get water, let alone hot water?

Certainly not out of a tap in their houses. (Do note the cloth she's put over the food to prevent the many flies from getting into the it.)

And many did not even have permanent housing. They were migrant workers, following the work across America. How far would that little dish of water at her feet go? Not far. How much work was required to refill it?

People lived out of their cars ...

Photo by Dorothea Lange
... in tents ...

... and in shanties that really weren't fit for human life.

Running water? Electricity? Refrigeration? Indoor toilets? They existed, of course, but were completely out of reach.

These were living conditions almost unimaginable to most Westerners today.

Because I was raised by hippies, I actually did live like this at times in my childhood, using outhouses, living in homes made of driftwood and tar paper, and insulated with old egg cartons. But people like me are rare.

Beau too has lived like this, or witnessed those who do, because he lived in the "third world" for many years. Still, this kind of life is beyond the imagination of most Westerners today.

Not so for your grandparents, or great grandparents.

When I posed outside this shed, fearfully trying to avoid the plethora of spiders, I thought, "Nobody lived like this back then. It's impossible. It's too awful."

It felt like a bit of a joke.

It wasn't.

Not by a long shot.

The hippies I grew up with had a choice to opt back into mainstream society, get a job, and leave their poverty behind. Not so the people living in poverty in the Depression.

Since I left my abusive home at 17, I've been poor.

But never this poor. Not even close.

In a world like this, cleanliness was difficult, and attempts at beauty, like that scalloped newspaper at the window, seem more sad than beautiful.

 Note the old washboard and basin beside the stove.

Even keeping your clothes clean required hard, physical labour.

Nothing came easy.

In an environment like this, there wasn't much room for vanity.

This photo is kind of a marvel because both husband and wife are as beautiful as movie stars! But they are rare. 

Beauty was accidental and fleeting ...

...perhaps desired but very difficult to achieve.

Photo by Walker Evans
I find this photo sad. The teen daughter is trying to fix her hair for the photo, even as poverty leaves her dressed in dirty rags, and leaves her body and face more gaunt than any young face should be.

My guess is that, when women had the time or energy to even consider their appearance, they assumed they looked awful. I imagine they certainly felt terrible, depleted, far from pretty. I don't believe that every woman wants to feel pretty, but many do. It must have been hard for them.

One of the only nods to fashion within the women's reach was bobbed hair. In virtually ever photo I saw, the women and girls had bobbed their hair.

This was, of course, the fashion of the day, but I'm guessing that part of why it caught on was because it was much easier to wash and manage shorter hair.

They also all chose to part their hair on the side, so I did too. It drove me nuts, falling into eyes, so, just as many of them did, I pinned the heavier lock back a bit. I was surprised by how well these little crossed bobby pins held perfectly for hours. I'm a recent convert to old-fashioned bobby-pins.

A confession: as much as I wanted to try for authenticity, I did cheat a bit, and not only with my bra. I wore a little makeup too. It was just a little white highlighter under my brows on the inner corners of my eyes, a little foundation to smooth my complexion, a touch of mascara, and some faintly tinted lip balm. I think this is the only photo in which you can detect any of it. It's actually more makeup than I usually wear but I just wanted... to look pretty.

But I did try for some authenticity. I knew, for example, that I wanted to pose on my vintage, iron bed ...

... just as this family did in what may be the most iconic colour photo of the effects of the Great Depression on rural Americans. They look so awkward, entirely unused to being photographed. Who could afford a camera, let alone colour film?

I too tried to look awkward. I tried to look like the real thing.

But there I have not yet talked about the biggest difference between me and the women I am honouring in this post.

Photo by Walker Evans
Children. I have chosen not to have children. Had I lived in the 1930s, at 46, I would be a grandmother several times over.

What struck me over and over again as I looked at these photos was how many children these women had -- and how little ability they had to care for them.

Photo by Dorothea Lange
I think this haunting photo by Dorothea Lange is the most famous photo of the Depression, and for good reason. The look on this mother's face says it all. I cannot imagine how frightening it would be to try to care for one's children in this level of poverty.

The worry ...

Photo by Carl Mydans
... and the exhaustion must have been all-consuming.

How to feed, cloth, house children?

And they just kept coming! There were some forms of birth control by this time but they were expensive and not widely available, especially to those who could not afford to go to a doctor. Over and over again, I saw photos of women surrounded by children barely a year apart in age. I marvel that these women's bodies, under such duress, were even capable of carrying babies to term, nursing them, and becoming pregnant all over again. But they were, and they did.

Honestly, I love my Beau -- a lot -- but Depression sized worries about pregnancy would kill my libido right quick. I guess it's kind a testament to the human spirit that these couples did still make love, in the midst of and despite it all.

Photo by Dorothea Lange
Of course, it wasn't just the mothers who were overwhelmed by worry. You see it in the father's eyes too. Their families' financial well-being, such as it was, rested almost solely in the brute strength of these men's bodies. God help them if their exhausted, ageing bodies failed them.

And the worry is written all over the children's faces too.

How could it not be?

Young and old alike have a stricken look on their faces that has been haunting me for weeks.

You see it especially on the faces of the older children ...

... who inevitably helped care for their younger siblings.

Photo by Jack Delano
Don't forget that, in addition to having babies, most of the mothers had to work too, at least some of the time ...

Photo by B.E. Weldy
.... so it would fall to the older children to help with childcare.

There was little or no time ...

... to get an education ...

... or simply be a child.

I cannot imagine the toll all this took on people's bodies! I assume many became old way before their time. Does this woman have any teeth anymore? 

Think about it: What would you do if you had a cavity or a tooth ache? You'd pull it, of course. You surely couldn't afford a dentist!

Photo by Dorothea Lange
Who could afford any medical attention at all? This woman is rubbing her neck exactly as I do when I'm getting a migraine. I'm quite sure she got no help with that, and with any other ailments she might have had. I'm 46 and I look younger than she does, though I'm quite sure she's younger than me.

I wonder, how did they even deal with their periods? Rags? They were wearing rags as dresses. Did they have any left over for pads?

When I first saw this photo as a child, I didn't think of such things, of course. But the little girl in this photo haunted me. 

Somehow, she reminded me of myself, battered, my body broken before it was even grown.

I can't help but wonder what happened to the disabled during the Depression. What happened to the people unable to work manual labour to support themselves? I had to repeatedly toss aside my cane for this photo shoot. I might have had a wooden stick in this past, but not my aluminum, pretty cane.

I sure has hell wouldn't have had the electric scooter that gives me such freedom.

It was hard to go without my cane, even for short spells. I had to lean on things, hobble, mince.

Photo by B.E. Weldy
I was not a good time to be disabled -- or simply old.

I have known a great deal of suffering in my life, body and soul, but I am fortunate to have been born here, and now. I have had opportunities to pull myself out of hell that people in the past did not have, and people in other parts of the world still do not have.

Without erasing the hell I have known, I am also grateful for the chances I have.

And I am grateful for those strong women who came before me, hanging on ...

... surviving to pass the torch of womanhood on to the generations to come.

(I'm sharing this with Rachel the Hat, Elegantly Dressed and StylishAdri LatelyTina's Pink Friday, Not Dead Yet, Sydney Fashion HunterNot Dressed as Lamb, High Latitude Style, and Fashion Should Be Fun.)