1961 Fashion and Vintage Clothing
American women spent half of 1961 aping Mrs. John F. Kennedy (q.v.) , from her short, crisp hairdo through her underfitted suits and dresses to her classic, stalwart-heeled pumps. An elegant young woman’s subtle taste and unique style were distorted and sold to grandmothers and teenagers alike as the “Jackie look.”
Then, slowly, as they wore it, American women realized a disconcerting fact — that stark, simple clothes are the hardest to design (only America’s Norman Norell does it consistently and superbly) and the hardest to wear—only the slim, graceful, intrinsically elegant should attempt it. Gradually, American women turned to the solace of shapelier, more covered clothes. By fall, sleeves, waists, and hips showed up again under the new term “body-conscious.”
At the beginning of the year, the 1920’s dominated fashion. The better the designer, the more closely his clothes approximated those of that era. Norman Norell, for decades the master of under-statement in fashion, found himself on the front page because of his 1960 fall collection. For this showing, the models shingled their hair, chalked their faces, charcoaled their eyelids, and slithered about in the debutante slouch to show off narrow jersey tubes for daytime, low-cut pailletted tubes for evening, and—for the first time in history—city suits with culottes. Norell’s culottes made the most news—slim and straight as a confining narrow skirt, they revealed themselves as culottes only when the wearer was in brisk motion. Practical and becoming, they endeared themselves to many, and for those who could not afford his culotted costumes, Mr. Norell made the unprecedented gesture of offering his culotte pattern free to any designer who wanted it. The culotte idea took hold and sifted down from echelon to echelon of the designing world, to re-appear in later and lesser-priced collections.
With the craze for the 1920’s went a yearning for pure line. Collars were peeled away from suits, coats, and dresses, making necks look young and long. Often, stoles were wrapped around suits or coats to add drama without “fussing up” the silhouette. Where collars existed, they were so small they merely stood up, like tiny ruffs, as in Trigere’s black-and-white pebble-tweed coat costume, or Tiffeau and Busch’s black-and-white tweed coat, a column that began with the stand-away ringlike collar. Women who had always insisted on collars for flattery delightedly discovered the young, long look of an unmuffied throat and reveled in it. When they needed to be warm, there were stoles to wrap up their necks; otherwise, they felt (and looked) uncluttered.
With all this expanse of throat, hats elongated the line further by growing inches taller and little wider. Giant pillboxes, toques, chechias, and turbans were most popular.
Color was in, and black was out, unusual for any season and highly unusual for winter. Purple, formerly relegated to grandmothers and semimourning, blazed away at the top of the list, followed by interesting browns and odd, bronzy greens. Jacques Tiffeau designed several suits in varying shades of purple—one, a grape-colored wool, had no collar, no waist, shortened sleeves, and a gently slim skirt. Trigere, a pacesetter in color as well as line, showed a purply-blue woolen dress with a sweatery bodice and a gathered skirt. Galanos sculpted ultraviolet fleece into a coat with arched sleeves, widened shoulders, and a tied scarf in place of a collar. For evening, purple paled into magenta brocade (Bill Blass for Maurice Rentner) , or pale mauve peau de soie slipped under a mauve lace pullover (Roxanne for Samuel Winston) , or lilac organza (Scaasi) .
Black and white appeared together for winter in bold checks and giant plaids. Two of the more spectacular ensembles of the season were black and white. The first, a collarless cape over its own walking dress, was in black-and-white houndstooth checks, by Scaasi. The second was a collarless, straight suit, black-and-white plaid marked off into squares by bands of magnified cross-hatching—this, by Donald Brooks for Townley. Black-and-white plaid appeared for evening, too—Teal-Traina used beads instead of knitting to work out a pailletted Argyle-plaid evening dress as close-fitting as if it had been knitted.
In Paris, in January, designers loved the 1920’s for spring even more than they had for fall, when Cardin, Crahay, and Marc Bohan (the new genius at Dior) had presaged the return of the flapper. Now everyone in Paris (except Balenciaga and Givenchy) showed slim, unwaisted flapper dresses, some with pleated, slim skirts. Cardin’s sou’wester hat, an adaptation of the flapper’s cloche that swooped to the shoulders in back, was the rage of Paris, and it became the most copied hat in America. It covered the shingled hair that was already the only accept-able hairdo in Paris.
Coats were slim but flowing, as in Crahay’s pale-gray broadtail clutch coat, pure 1920’s even to the flounces at the hem, or Michel Goma’s slim leopard coat hung with slim flying panels. Chanel, the enfant terrible of the 1920’s, harked back to that era with her short evening dresses—one, composed entirely of tiny black paillettes, glided past the waist and flared from there to its short hem. Her daytime costume of bisque wool typified her offhand, elegant style. The slim, bloused dress, a mass of narrow pleats, snuggled under a wrappy coat of the same pale wool bordered with broad bands of sable.
Back in America, John F. Kennedy had been inaugurated as President and Jacqueline Kennedy had been unofficially crowned queen. Perhaps it was a coincidence that a craze for simple “little nothing” dresses reached its height after she came into the public eye, but this seems doubtful, since not only her clothes but every facet of her physical appearance, from eyebrows to stance, was faithfully reproduced by photographers’ models and store-window mannequins, fashion editors and their secretaries, as well as all the American housewives who could physically and financially manage it. The spring is-sues of major American fashion magazines featured clear-colored, clear-cut little dresses and suits, pill-boxes, longer gloves, aristocratic little pumps on lower heels—in other words, the “Jackie look.” The essence of that look—understated, simple, timeless —had been there for years, and women who had wanted it stayed slim enough and rich enough to go to Norell or Mainbocher in America, Balenciaga and Givenchy in Paris. Now it was available at all price levels and in all sizes (although it suffered mightily in translation) , and American women could wear it and resemble their idol.
Color became more important than ever, but now it was clear, childlike color, with pink at the top of the list. Everything came in pink, from straw hats to snakeskin pumps. Next in rank came yellow, with emphasis on its sunnier side; then cerulean blue; clear leaf-green; finally, coral. Black was out (unless combined with white) for any but the most re-pressed or the most self-confident. Everyone else played the color game. Should one dress in several tones of the same shade—say, a peony-pink wool suit with paler-pink hat and darker-pink shoes and gloves? Or should one precisely match one’s coat to one’s shoes and gloves and have the only contrast one other strong color for one’s hat—a yellow tweed coat, for instance, with yellow glace kid gloves, yellow reptile shoes, and a smashing orange straw sou’wester? Or should one take one’s chances and run things through hit or miss—pink wool suit with yellow gloves and green shoes and a yellow hat? Color took time, and it took money and even more than that, color took taste. Otherwise, results could be a mite distressing.
Fashion was rife with color in the daytime, and it was no less so at night. Evening fashions were less trying than daytime ones, and some even had sleeves. The prettiest clothes, of course, were in airy spring fabrics—chiffon, organza, flowered silk-mousseline jerseys so light they made chiffon tip the scales. One of the most ravishing ideas for evening, which owed nothing either to the 1920’s or Mrs. Kennedy, was Scaasi’s day-length apple-green chiffon dress, high-waisted and flounced with a great ruffle at its short, wide hem. With this went a triangular shawl of the same fabric flounced with the same ruffle, and tied in a high, demure knot. Cell Chapman’s bright-pink silk-chiffon evening dress was floor-length but far more covered up—the top, sleeveless and waistless, settled down like a pullover on a bias-cut, rippling skirt.
With all this rush of strong color, flower-printed silks seemed doomed to fade unseen, until the art nouveau prints appeared. Here bloomed exotic flowers in unearthly shades. These dramatic prints perfectly suited the simple, almost unseamed clothes for spring. Warp-printed silks appeared in strict jackets over stark, unfitted dresses and they, too, had braver colors than before.
Hats were pillboxes worn, a la Jackie, on the back of the head. There was the usual spring rash of wide-brimmed beauties and, of course, Cardin’s aforementioned sou’wester, which was surprisingly becoming and comfortable.
Bright clear colors continued through the summer and so did the narrow “little nothing” dress. But as American women squirmed in their narrow, hot shifts and tugged at their short, narrow hems, they began to yearn for clothes that could sit with-out riding up, run after children without splitting the hem.
Fall came and with it, the first Paris collections and the glorious news that the figure was back in fashion. Clothes fit and flattered again. The bosom, high and rounded, was emphasized, as was a long, hollow midriff and round hips. Although very few clothes were skin-tight (and then it was usually for evening) , all of them fitted, from Chanel’s to Dior’s. Suit jackets were longer, often double-breasted and buttoned high to emphasize the bosom and the waist. Where jackets stopped, at the middle of the hips, skirts continued to fit, then flared below the hip. Often skirts were gored or darted to give freedom of motion. Dresses were now works of art, with strong emphasis on diagonal motion. Often, they wrapped to the back or were seamed diagonally, with floating stoles to accentuate the effect of motion even when they stood still.
Coats, too, were equipped with floating stoles and fitted more than they had in years—or they were capes, often with hoods. Marc Bohan especially liked hoods and showed them on everything from daytime coats to dinner suits.
Greens, beiges, and grays were in favor until the sun went down—then black was given new emphasis, as in Balmain’s black velvet dinner suit with a black-glittered overblouse plus collar and cuffs of black fox, or Dior’s black wool dress with its own black jacket, the hood lined in ermine.
Evening clothes followed the same trend as day clothes, with the emphasis on a high-bosomed, hollow-waisted figure. Here, too, there was a rage of subtle sparkle—rather than being beaded, fabrics seemed dusted with glitter, and the newest were thin, gauzy nets dusted with gold, or pleated, fluttering chiffons dusted with jet.
Hats hugged the head and were usually brimless —Dior’s baby cap emphasized the smaller head, as did his carefully controlled, knitted, black hoods, which he showed with daytime as well as evening clothes. Shoes had squared toes now instead of ovaled ones, were narrower than ever, and were supported by lower, tapered heels. Fur was used everywhere, best used in small quantities—a small fur hat, a muff, a fur lining inside a hood.
In America, designers used an old concept with a new name for their fall collections—body-consciousness. Clothes were shapely without being tight. Most designers followed the figure, others merely suggested it. The focus was on the bosom and the waist, both raised slightly. Skirts flared, sometimes were gathered. All had ease. With new emphasis on silhouette, colors were dimmed or neutral; grays, taupes, and blacks predominated. Almost all the top-ranking designers preferred a raised waistline, from Norman Norell (who unabashedly embraced the Empire silhouette) on down. Norell’s Empire silhouette included the influence of the gentlemen of the Empire as well as the ladies—his double-breasted, high-waisted coats were skinny and highly tailored, like a Napoleonic officer’s overcoat.
Ben Zuckerman did a beige fleece coat, collarless and unornamented except for one button at its high neck and another at its high, darted waist. Maurice Rentner’s tunic suit (by Bill Blass) marked another development in the trend toward high waists and flared skirts. Of charcoal-gray tweed, it, too, was collarless and marked at its high waist by slot seaming and a single button. The waist was its narrowest point—from there it widened, like a pretty pyramid, till its hem at the bottom of the thighs. Beneath it, a slim skirt in the same gray tweed. This, perhaps the most prophetic silhouette on the American fashion scene, was repeated by other designers, not-ably Pauline Trigere: she called her pyramids the “rajah look,” and they bid fair to be copied for a good many seasons. For daytime, Trigere did them in woolens or quiet tweeds—for evening, in fabulous matelasses and brocades.
Suits, too, had their share of attention. Many were double-breasted, as Dior’s had been, and had arched seams which were continued in their flared skirts. Many had wide, swinging stoles to muffle newly bared necklines. Fabrics were tightly woven, the better to hold their better shape, and the best tweeds were likely to be hard ones that could hold a line, a refreshing change after years of soft, snaggy, carpety ones. Foggy colors abounded, and although neutrals were the biggest hits, a few off-beat greens and dull, military blues and reds appeared. Shape was the most important thing, and every good new suit had plenty of it.
Dresses, both day and evening, were pure line. Here, as in Paris, there was great interest in dresses on the diagonal, either diagonally seamed or obliquely wrapped. Many coat dresses which were just enough heavier than a dress to be made for America’s long autumns appeared. Collarless, long-sleeved, often high-waisted, they, too, flared or were gathered from slightly higher waistlines. Occasion-ally, the princesse dress appeared, looking wonder-fully fresh and untricky, its shape uncluttered by anything but beautiful seaming. One of the best, by Vera Maxwell, was gray flannel.
Like the French, American designers seemed to be in love with little touches of fur (big touches abounded in the higher price brackets, of course) . The new favorite was a little ringlet of fur at the neck, equally elegant in opossum or sable (Mrs. Kennedy had worn one such sable ringlet with a pale woolen coat at her husband’s inauguration). These little ringlets of fur appeared on collarless suits and dresses but very rarely on coats.
The costume, which now consisted of a three-quarters coat over a sheathy dress, was still a must for any well-dressed woman and at its best when fairly expensive. Bill Blass of Maurice Rentner did a stunner, a big, boxy, three-quarters coat of taupish gray Melton cloth over a simply fitted gray worsted dress. And Monte-Sano and Pruzan’s amber costume made everyone’s mouth water—the topaz tweed coat, three-quarters length and lined in amber fox, sheltered its own fitted, tweed dress.
At night, America, like Paris, turned to black or to glitter. Now that the figure was back, the best designers aimed at it and found their mark, some-times in the priceless-looking brocades they had favored for the past few years, sometimes (and this looked newer) in wonderfully crisp woolens or black velvet. Norell’s series of Empire evening dresses in black wool jersey under red Melton cloth officer’s overcoats were trend-setting, as were Gustave Tassell’s sleek, floor-length princesse dresses, long-sleeved, high-necked, of black or red brocade. Bill Blass took yards of crimson-and-black paisley and covered the figure at the same time that he revealed it, with a clinging, hooded bodice and long slim sleeves above a swinging, floor-length skirt that flared in motion and was slim and supple other-wise. Pauline Trigere loved capes, and her daytime ones were institutions by now. Her slender evening dresses, one in black velvet, others in brocade, had narrow capes which began as nothing in front and swooped out into great ovals in back.
Some of the best late-day or evening clothes were made of crisp, crunchy black matelasse. Monte-Sano and Pruzan’s black matelasse suit, for instance, was high-bosomed and high-waisted with a full, gathered skirt. Sarmi, one of the most creative designers in America (his draped chiffons were bywords in American fashion) did a black matelasse dancing dress, day-length, that was high-necked and sleeve-less in front and strapped and low in back.
Now that sophistication had replaced ingenuity, hats were in, worn well forward on the head. They had either wide brims (often of fur) or none at all, in which case they were inflated domes, often made of glace kid. Shoes had square toes, day and evening. By day, they were reptile of some sort, on low, squared heels; by night, they were soft, matte-finish silk or satin or, if possible, wool, still on low heels.
Jewelry made up in quality for what it lacked in quantity. With daytime clothes, the only sensational idea was drop earrings, in pearl, amber, or chrysoprase (or reasonable facsimiles thereof). With hair still short and waved, earrings were visible and extremely exciting. One huge pin, placed dead center of a perfectly plain knitted dress, could also work wonders—but bibs, ropes, and the other props for the understated look of yesteryear were distinctly out. In the evening, the story was much the same, except that brilliants, often set in darkened metal, prevailed for earrings or pins (never both at once) .
American women had gone from ingenues to sophisticates in less than a year, and although many of them bemoaned their lost youth (or youthful-looking clothes), most of them reveled in being grown-up girls again.