Not So Good-Old-Days and Edith Head

I collect fashion and style books, both vintage and modern. I enjoy looking at the styles of my youth, and love all the Store Directories in the back of the books. What, no website for Barney’s in 1979?

My latest read gave me a case of the sads for adult women of the 1960’s. The book is How To Dress For Success, copyright 1967, by famed costume designer Edith Head. She did the wardrobes on hundreds of films, including some well-loved ones: Sabrina, The Sting, Rear Window, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (?) et al. She won eight Academy Awards for her work in design, so she knows fashion.

But the book talks to a woman I’ve never been: one who dressed for the “success” of marrying the boss, for example. Here are some vintage pearls (no pun intended) from Ms. Head’s book. Should we laugh or cry?

  • From the chapter How To Dress To Get A Man, And Keep Him:Let’s consider the first date . . . . Here’s where what you wear comes into play even more importantly. Suppose he merely invites you to have dinner with him Saturday night. You can’t ask him “Where?”

    Uh, really? He’s so in charge, I can’t ask where we’re going to eat?

  • And on that oh-so-special occasion when you host him at home for dinner:What should you wear? Something he has never seen, of course.

    What if he’s seen it before? Ack! The road to the altar is rocky.

  • And one of the key secrets to success with men is:Choose your wardrobe to please him (emphasis in the original), and to suit his way of life.

Ms. Head was a woman of her generation, and no doubt meant well. (Although remember The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963). She does include advice for the woman executive on her way to the top, and I love this one: “What you wear when you sit in the president’s chair is entirely up to you.”

Edith Head on the job, designing for Grace Kelly.

We have come a long way, in a relatively short time. There are still lady mags advising on how to get a man, rock his world with our magical sexy parts, and snare him with our best souffle. (I broke up with lady mags, here). And we have a long way to go: women make up fewer than 20% of the U.S. Congress, what?

Oh yes, executive class air travel in the 1960’s. With lots of perks for the guys. Source.

I’ve put Edith Head’s book up on the shelf, with gratitude that I lived just a little bit later, didn’t go to college to get my MRS degree, and I enjoy an egalitarian marriage. I’m grateful to all the brave women who came before me, and alongside me, to fight for equality. It’s better this way.

Have a sunny day and stay fabulous,

And no reason to put our (faux) pearls aside, they still look timeless:

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. It always amazes me how times have changed (for the better) and yet some things are still the same (like you mentioned not too many female executives).


  2. Oh dear! How arcane! So glad I grew up much later.
    On men's approval on clothes – well I do sometimes ask my other half's opinion on what I'm wearing because he actually has a pretty good eye for colour and line. And I do think its nice if he likes what I'm wearing. But he doesn't get veto rights if I'm really hell bent on wearing or buying something! (He doesn't really like me in high heels – I love them!)

  3. It's a crazy world Patti and a constant struggle to preserve one's rights. We are better off now thanks to the many women who fought for women's rights. Actually watching Madmen gave me the creeps and turned me into mad woman many times.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I've always enjoyed Edith Head's work, but haven't read this book. Unfortunately, when I went to college in the 80's I met many women who were still there to get their MRS degree. I wonder if that will ever change. Have a great weekend!

  5. I grew up with parents who were in a very equal relationship, for which I am grateful. It certainly made it easier to expect equality in my own marriage.

    Thank you SO MUCH for the term "magical sexy parts"; now at the supermarket checkout instead of fuming over the ridiculous magazine headings I will think of your hilarious description and keep my blood pressure in a healthier range 🙂

  6. Ick, ick! I'm sure women didn't generally behave like that. I have an excellent little book called 'Don't for Wives' written in about 1910 – it has much more sensible suggestions like making sure wives have some interests outside the home, arrange good food for dinner (by ordering it from the servants) and don't nag their husbands all the time.

  7. Yes, it's much better to be living now, isn't it? I love reading old fashion magazines and books, but I don't want to live by those strictures… Mind you, I think there are still some views, advice and double standards around now that I take issue with! xxx

  8. Yeah, I remember being told by my parents that I *would* go to college, because that's how I'd find a "good" husband. o_O (Did go to college, did not even date much while there.) Even as late as the early 1980's, I had a boss tell me that it irked him that he had to pay the male assistant the same as "the girls" because "he'll have a family to support someday." >;-|

  9. Oh my.

    My husband and I always joke about the 1950's and 60's and although I adore the fashion of the time I have a feeling had I lived back then I would have been what my husband refers to as a "raging feminist lesbian" because there is no way I could abide by any of that nonsense. Not even for a second.

    Do you watch Veep? It is scathingly brilliant. Very wicked but very good. Julia Louis Dreyfus becomes president and says, "I'm the president of the United States, I can fu** whoever I want." And her assistant says, "That's what all the other ones did."


  10. It is amazing how quickly times have changed. Whether this was written sincerely or with an eye to what would sell as Michelle suggests, this was what someone thought would sell. As you say Patti, this woman understood fashion, whether she subscribed to it or not.

  11. …and yet another reason why I'm glad to be a vintage clothes loving but strictly modern girl! xxx

  12. Thanks for sharing, Patti. I let out a gasp of horror as I was reading. I sometimes forget that I am extremely fortunate to have grown up and am currently existing in an era that is "friendly" to "minorities" since I comprise a double threat – Filipina and female. I use those quotation marks with a bit of irony, btw, so I hope I'm not stomping on anyone's toes with my cheeky comment.

  13. And how may men would actually notice or care that you wore the same dress twice? I suspect not many. I recently purchased Ellements of Style, by the editors of Elle, from a bargain bin. At first I was annoyed that they included some young and just breaking into Hollywood celebrities but I have to admit they did chose people who are determined to have their own personal style and not just be dressed by someone. There were a variety of ages races and styles represented in the book so overall I enjoyed the peek into different women's closets, dressing rooms and thoughts on style.

  14. Feminism! It's so good! Glad we've made so much progress, but we have farther to go!

  15. 1967 does seem like late in the game to be doling out such "sage" advice but maybe not. Joe Hyams was a notorious ghost writer, so methinks Edith attached her name to this as yet another way to "market her brand". She was quite savvy in that respect and a little duplicitous and devious. Hope you can find a copy of "What Shall I Wear?" by fashion maverick, the marvelous Claire McCardell (was reprinted a few years ago). SHE was probably ahead of her time, which makes her just right for our time (advice about gloves notwithstanding).

  16. I think it's a good thing that times have changed, but I can appreciate Head's advice.
    If a gal was on a mission to find a husband/marry the boss she should do and wear the things to make her efforts successful.

    Head hung on in an industry that was tough for a woman. I don't think her advice should be considered demeaning to women, she wanted to help them win.

  17. Actually Edith Head did not heed her own advice since she dressed like the school marm that she once was….or maybe her guy was into that. I remember watching her on Art Linklater's House Party. Even back then I appreciated geek style. I think it is so great that you collect vintage fashion books. I'd love to look through them!

  18. I do like the quote on what to wear if you are an executive.

  19. Woahhh, really my idea of hell! TV series Mad Men nails style advices like these in the first and second season, it was very common for women to please the man in any way.

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