That’s Hedy Lamarr (Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) just hopping over the fence to visit. Lamarr started in Hollywood films in 1937 and also started inventing all kinds of stuff. A born tinkerer, inventor, and mathematics whiz, during WWII Hedy and her husband developed a frequency-hopping system that “hopped” frequencies across radio waves in order to stabilize receptor signals.
Hedy is in her “why, me? I’m just a regular gal! Look, they jump fences just like us!” mode. The thing is, Hedy’s beauty and grooming (look at that stunning jeweled pinky ring and perfectly done nails and lipstick) wasn’t like regular gals, but darn it, her blouse was.
The blouse — the covering for the top part of the body, usually made of lighter fabrics, usually loose in shape even if tailored for the body, and often – but not always – closed in the front with an overlapping run of buttons and corresponding buttonholes — was ubiquitous women’s wear through the entire twentieth century. As we saw in part 1 and part 2, blouses were rooted in work wear and men’s wear and gained in popularity just as women were more visibly entering the capitalistic economy as laborers. Okay, so work + masculine overtones… got it.
This 1930s blouse and suit pattern (size 16 junior miss, which allowed for all of 34″ in the bust) from etsy seller backroomfinds for just under $70) is pretty much where 1930s blouses were. We’re relying on patterns since that light fabric issue, and the fact most blouses were intended to be worn under tight-fitting jackets, means not all that many actual blouses remain. Anyhoo…
In the 1930s blouses were emphatically feminized versions of male shirts. Sometimes they had a button placket, as this design does; other times they were pullover-style with a neck button to allow the blouse to get over the head. Either way, blouses were a part of an ensemble of skirt, jacket, blouse.
This “I mean business” blouse from 1944, from etsy seller vintagepickle (best name in the biz) has a different attitude than Ms. 1930s. And her pocket is military-style, an almost exact match to the pockets on the U.S. Army shirt issued to men, with that angled point and flat top with a very narrow edge.
Both of these images (the left, the hand-drawn artist’s vision of the blouse; on the right, Kay Francis in The Lost Madonna from 1931) are idealized images of women. In both the women share a similar pose, one very much identified with 1930s “glam.” Hand on hip (note the very careful placement of Kay’s hand — her fingers and thumb lined up with the outside vertical seam of her dress and her hands, lowered a bit from her natural waist — all the better to accentuate that smooth vertical line of flat belly, flattened hips (the product of slimness, youth and long-line corsetry). Pussy bow at the ready and slung a bit low on the chest. We’re in the pre-supportive brassiere time (supportive bras are just coming into fashion if you consider boning, straps, and a band round the chest that holds the breast just above the band a source of effective physical support for breasts), so she’s wearing, most likely, a scrap of triangles of silk attached to one another by silk ribbons and the corsetry probably extends at least halfway up her breasts to create that nice long flat surface. The posture – hand on hip, the sloping shoulders and tucked-in stomach — strike the viewer as a gesture of self-control, self-discipline, a kind of display of one’s body for onlookers, with the shoulders rolled inward just a bit, the stomach retracted. Submissive and certainly not bold, even when breaking the old rules.
Jump ahead a decade. A lot has changed. Here, Norma Shearer poses next to her favorite cardboard porch banister. Shearer’s career took off in the 1930s and like all proper Hollywood goddesses she sloped about, shoulders curved inward, hips held tight. But it’s the 40s now, a whole new day. Her shoulders are held back and in a straight line (in jackets the thick rectangular shoulder pads will help create that line; here some light padding helps), hand on a perked-up hip, and one hand dangling nonchalantly. Confident, strong: a much different tone to it all.
And here’s Rosalind Russell, ready to do battle ‘gainst Cary Grant, hands on hips. This is such a common motif in film during the ’40s you can google it and see. And of course the posture shows up on dozens of blouse sewing patterns.
By the 1950s and 1960s, blouses came in innumerable variations. Keep in mind, the origins of the Blouse stem from men’s work wear and shirtwaists made interchangeable clothing far easier for women early in the twentieth century. As the century progresses, so to do women’s public roles, and the blouse becomes emblematic of a kind of practical, can-do attitude. And we’ve still got hands-on-hips, signalling competency and a kind of derring-do of housewifery.
Three sewing patterns from the 1950s demonstrate the versatility and possibilities of the Blouse. Guidebooks informed women to use the collar to play up, or play down, features in their face and necks; the blouses, no matter the collar or fit, were infinitely variable. The hands-on-hip motif continues through the decade, partly to show off the front styling of the blouse and partly, I think, to highlight the blouse as “active wear.” The blouse wasn’t to pose in; it was to do things in.
These Simplicity patterns from the 1960s convey the attraction of the interchangeable outfit . The models have picked up a more “active” look, even leaning in to the challenges of modern life. Their postures have shifted to a more relaxed stance with feet positioned just as an instructor in a modeling course would tell you to assume. Mixed messages here about who is the onlooker and what these women want: attention from men? equal opportunity? Leisure time?
Things get even more muddled in the 1970s and 1980s. As you can see from the patterns above, blouses start to look more like men’s wear then the demure, feminized blouses of the 1960s. We’re back to long sleeves with cuffs while the gathering of material reassures us these are blouses, not shirt. Collars resume their rightful place at the neck after being made into baby collars and jewel necks in the 1960s. Women even get to have pockets again. Above, far left, this pattern dates from the late 1950s while the middle from the 1980s and on the right, the glorious early 1990s. Lacy-ed up, or shoulder-padded in a parodic image of the 1940s, blouses in the last quarter of the 20th century didn’t seem to know what to make of women.
Real women, though — they knew where they were going. And they understood the power of the blouse. This gal from a 1952 photograph sold by etsy shop Clancy’sClassic epitomizes that hands-on-hip post, but this time, it’s a real go-getter. Sensible skirt, buttoned blouse with bold collar, and her little cardigan, sleeves pushed up. Retailers like Wards and Sears offered dozens of jersey-knit blouses in the early to mid-1950s in their catalogs. She sure look like her blouse is placketed, and a bold collar and is in a knit jersey — She’s ready to go and fight, gals, demure and sensible as she is.