Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sailor Girl: Nautical Fashion in the 20s and 30s

This is going to be one of my escapist posts. In other words, it's going to be a post that is "just" about style history. I need it. You probably do too. So, for your daily dose of escapism, I will present to you a post about sailor style in the 1920s and 1930s.

First a little update on why it's taken me so long to write a new post. Life is rough right now, for everyone, and I have had a few extra blows on top of the blows raining down on the world right now. Christmas was very triggering for me, as you know if you read my blog regularly. Then, right after that, I got a really bad cold, complete with a cough that repeatedly caused my back to spasm and my ribs to ache, raising my overall pain level, and making the most basic tasks, like bathing, impossible without Beau's help. I'm still coughing. My pain levels are still elevated.

Then Trump was inaugurated and immediately began what he'd promised to do: turn himself into a despot and his country into a xenophobic hell. I made it to the Women's March and felt less alone, but did suffer with more pain for the "sin" of having gone. However much the march raised my spirits, they came crashing down as I watched Trump place refugees in an agonizing limbo between death and safety. Then a racist a**hole murdered six Muslim men in a mosque in Qu├ębec, and I watched as white people claimed this somehow proved that Trump had made the right decision. In these dire days, there are times when I think I really will lose my mind with grief, fear, and helplessness.

Boots: Ecco; Gloves: I can't remember; Skirt: Guzella; Sweater: Mak; T-shirt: Reitmans; Cape, purse, brooches, hat, and earrings; vintage.
Throughout all this, I was working on a blog post about my persistent spiritual faith in the face of evident evil, but it was heavy and deep, and what I needed was something light and fun. I still will write that post on faith, but, today, I hope you enjoy this post about nautical fashion in the 1920s and 1930s.

If you follow fashion like I do, you've noticed a recent trend for bold colour contrasts in patterns that echo those of the late 1960s and the 1970s. I say this often but think The Mary Tyler Moore Show (RIP to our dear MTM). While last year I was passionate about 1930s ditsy prints, I now find myself besotted with... wait for it: red, white, and blue! How ironic is that? But I don't think of them as American, and I don't think I look like a patriotic American when I wear them.

I think of them as nautical. The influence of sailors' garb on women's fashion has made frequent appearances in the history of style, and one can speculate as to why, but it may be as simple as that it's just fun.

So how about we start by looking at some real life sailors from the 1920s and 30s?

Men in the Norwegian Navy
The basic look consists of wide legged trousers, pull over jumpers, berets, and that collar flap thing. Please tell me what that collar flap thing is called! I have no idea and it's embarrassing. 

Virtually all of sailor uniforms were white and blue, navy blue to be exact, and many included red as well.

Wide leg trousers were extremely popular with women in the 1930s. I think it must have felt very liberating for women to wear trousers in public. Their association with sailors was an obvious association. Who knows which came first?

Still, for the more modest woman, or the woman dressed a bit more formally, skirts were also often worn with sailor styles.

Note that, in this ad from the 30s, the young girl wears a shorter skirt, while the grown woman is expected to wear a longer, more modest skirt. Short skirts (ie knee length, no shorter) did have their first vogue in the mid 1920s, and they would make a comeback with cloth rationing in the late 1930s, but not quite yet.

USN sailors in the 1930s
Another standard part of the sailor's uniform was the wool pea coat. When tailored for the female frame, it is a particularly flattering coat on women.

I finally managed to find a similar coat this season but it had not yet arrived when we took these photos. They are surprisingly difficult to find these days, since puffer coats are all the rage right now. But my double breasted, navy, wool cape has a bit of a pea coat look to it so I thought it worked.

One need not slavishly copy sailors to have a sailor inspired look. Loose allusions are fine and sometimes more fun.

But, then again, direct plagiarism is fun too!

Sometimes the outfits were primarily navy, sometimes primarily white. And there were almost always stripes too. 

So, if you want to do a nautical look, start with navy, white, and red, and add a few stripes. Really, that's all you have to do for the allusion to become apparent.

There seems to always be a kind of erotic charge associated with sailors, including navy men. Maybe it's because they're often in really good physical shape. I dated a guy who joined the navy and he was indeed in pretty great shape after his basic training. I won't lie: I liked that.

Maybe the erotic charge comes from their reputation for having "a girl in every port." Maybe it comes from the assumption that a well-travelled man will be less bound to conventions of good behaviour than others. I'm really not sure.

But there certainly has often been a sense that it was daring to date a sailor. Mom and dad might not approve!

Jean Harlow
If it was daring to date a sailor, was it even more daring to be one, or at least to dress like one? 

In case there was any doubt that Jean Harlow's outfit here is nautical, we see an anchor on her t-shirt ...

... like the anchors on my vintage earrings.

Whatever the reason, women have often been eager to pilfer navy style. Of course, once it was clear that we were headed toward war, and once the World War II began in 1939, the propaganda machines of each nation made enlistment in the navy patriotic, and wearing military fashion was a way for women to show their own patriotism.

Plus, you know, it's just fun and cute ...

... which could explain why teens were wearing it in 1922 ...

... and women were wearing it in 1924 ...

... and women and girls were making it sophisticated in about 1930 ...

... through the mid 1930s ...

... into the late 30s and beyond.

I was mostly going for a subtle, mid 30s allusive look ...

... like these smart, "stout" (ie plus size) ladies in a vintage Lane Bryant catalogue.


The longer hem is one of the most obvious markers of mid 1930s style.

See the little white stripe near the bottom of the skirt?

Does it remind you of, say, one of the most famous women to love a sailor in the 1930s? Of course it does.

An interesting note for we curvy ladies: Olive Oil's stick figure was a joke, literally. The artist was making fun of flappers and the men who loved them. The older generation thought flappers were mad to think skinny women were more attractive than the curvier women whose figures were in style in the previous generation. Olive Oil was drawn as a mockery of that trend.

But back to the skirt. It's got great box-pleats, which always remind me of Jessica Fletcher. Sadly, with this particular skirt, they look best from the back.

Even after washing, this fabric is very stiff and the front keeps arranging itself at odd angles. If it were to lie flat, it would look better and more period-specific too.

Higher, more natural waists were already making a comeback by the late 1920s, thank God, and didn't drop again, not often anyway, until the 1960s, when fashions hearkened back to the youth culture of the 1920s. Obviously, higher waists are more flattering on all women, but especially on fuller figured women like me.

These high waists were often paired with thin belts which can be a little trickier on a "thick" figure. I bought this one from a street junkie selling stuff he'd found in the trash. He thought it was a dog leash. I think he asked me for about 75 cents for it. 

Yes, I often buy stuff from street vendors who are clearly struggling with drug and mental health problems. With my rough background, I've often thought it half a miracle that I didn't end up like them myself so I see no reason not be gracious and neighbourly with them. In my neighbourhood, most of them know me so well, they'll give me credit if I don't have enough cash on me. On days when I have trouble believing I'm a good person (and that's most days), I remember that fact and it helps a lot.

Back to the outfit. I paired the high waist with a short-waisted sweater to make sure not to make myself look bulkier than I am. A little, short-waisted sweater is flattering on almost all full-figured women. Mod Cloth sells this one in a multitude of colours. I think I own four, and have worn the black one so much, it's about time to get another. 

I added a navy t-shirt under the sweater to cohere with the navy skirt and cape. I got this one at Reitmans. I find them good for cheap, basic staples like jeans and t-shirts. Their range of sizes is refreshing, from petite x-small, to tall 3x, and everything in between. And I don't feel old when I shop there, and their music isn't too loud. Those are bonuses too.

I did say that a nautical outfit should include white but the only white in my outfit was the stripe in the skirt.

That's unless you include my white skin, which, to be honest, probably adds enough white!

Still, I threw in this brooch, which I'm pretty sure is from the 1930s. It's made of an early plastic and is probably meant to look like carved ivory. 

The earrings also brought a bit more white up near my face.

I also wore my prized, Miriam Haskell, glass beaded brooch, mostly just because I like it, but it does also include white, navy, and red so I thought I could get away with it, despite the addition green and yellow.

Of course, there was also the white of the snow. The bloody awful hated sent from hell I hate it snow! We seldom get it in my city and no-one here, not even the City Hall itself, seemed to have a clue how to deal with it. On a pragmatic level this meant that, as a person who uses a mobility scooter to regain her independence, I was completely and totally trapped at home. God it was awful. As I write this, we've had another big dump of snow and I think I might just lose it!

But capes are nice, right? Sigh.

They work for the 1920s too, and, I think, the 30s as well. I like the way this one hangs open. Mine is missing a button and I thought it made it look jaunty like this one ...

... but it doesn't. I have the button. It just hurts my back to lean over to sew. Honestly, though, I never was a sewing or crafty kind of a gal. When I was a kid, girls were supposed to just naturally enjoy crafts like rug-hooking and embroidery. Me, not so much. So I just buy nice things. I don't make them!

Take this great, cloche hat, for instance. I got it at a charity store for $10.

I love this huge flower detail. 

In fact, though, it is this cloche hat that most marks my outfit as not one exclusively inspired by the 1930s. 

Cloche hats were really only a thing of the 1920s. 

When I'm reading (or re-reading because, honestly, I've read all her books several times) one of Agatha Christie's early novels, she's very amusing in her descriptions of cloche hats. She says they render women's faces invisible. 

Invisible face or not, my red had went well with my outfit. I'm not one who feels my outfits must perfectly mimic one specific time period so I was fine with it. I enjoy mixing and matching decades and styles. My boots, for instance, are clearly modern. 

Cloche hats were really all about the bobbed hair. A bob and a cloche were a perfect pairing. If there is one image that comes to mind when we say "1920s bob," it's Louise Brooks and her sleek black cut, a fabulous look indeed.

But there were many curly variations on the 20s bob too. This instructional image cracks me up because it condemns bobs while, at the same time, explaining how to get one. It reminds me of a resigned cat owner saying, "If you must barf up a hairball, at least do it on the linoleum."

Even I've got a bob now! As I get older, my hair needs to stay shorter to keep its curl and I always knew a bob might be in my future. It's still long enough to style in various ways and, honestly, still feels long to me so it's okay.

When I'd decided on my outfit, I made the mistake of trying to make it too sleek, like Louise Brooks. I achieved flattened curls, not sleekness.

I should have gone all out puffy like Clara Bow here, who is one of my hair icons - because her hair was pretty much exactly like mine. 

This is actually my favourite photo of my hair from this shoot ...

... because it reminds me of Greta Garbo ...

... and Marlene Deitrich ... two super hot bisexual women from the days of yore.

Just like me, right!

By the 30s, hats were a little less extreme. If I didn't have such a giant head, I would have far more retro and vintage hats, but finding ones that fit me is quite the task.

Do you think Greta Garbo had that problem too?

Let's talk for a minute about lighting.

Vivien Leigh
You and I will never look like movie stars of the 1930s. 

We can pose in flattering light ...

Anna May Wong
... just as movie stars did and do.

But it never seems to work, and there are good reasons for that, reasons that have nothing to do with genetic beauty.

Then, as now, movie stars had teams working to maintain the illusion of their image: makeup artists, hair stylists, clothing stylists, lighting directors, photographers... and, after all that, photo retouchers, or, as they were often called then, air brushers. I read that it took six hours to transform this above image of Joan Crawford.

We could never dream of looking like that. Neither could she. Neither can anyone.

So, don't worry if you don't look like a movie star. No-one does. This is part of why I like HDTV; even the stars can't hide their imperfections in HD and I love them more for it.

The real you is fine. The real me is fine.

Just enjoy the light, metaphorical and literal. We're all feeling down these days and really need it. For me, the metaphorical light is in many things, including dressing up ...

... learning about fashion history ...

... and emulating it in my own, real way. 

I'm not sure I'll go so far as to as to say that doing so gives me hope, but it does fortify me for the battles ahead, and that's a start.

(I'm sharing this with Not Dead Yet, Not Dressed as Lamb, Style Nudge, Fashion Should Be FunHonest Mum, Elegantly Dressed and Stylish, Adri Lately, Style NudgeRachel the HatTina's Pink FridayHigh Latitude Style, In the Writer's Closet, and Style Crone.)