Always in Vogue: Edna Woolman Chase

Always in Vogue: Edna Woolman Chase

When we think of Vogue magazine today we often think of its current editor-in-chief, the formidable, Anna Wintour. While Wintour will certainly go down in history as one of Vogue‘s long-standing (since 1988) and notable editors-in-chief, there is another important Vogue editor who’s run at the magazine lasted from 1914-1952 — Edna Woolman Chase.

In this month’s post I’ll highlight excerpts by Edna Woolman Chase (1877-1957) on fashion she wore and observed during her early years from the autobiography she wrote with her daughter, Ilka Chase, Always in Vogue. 

Chase witnessed the changes in silhouette that this blog chronicles, from 1880-1930, and I love that we’re able to have a primary source that comments on these distinct changes — not to mention, someone involved in the fashion industry who happens to be very opinionated!

Edna-Woolman-Chase-1931
Portrait of Edna Woolman Chase // Photograph of Edna Woolman Chase, editor-in-chief of Vogue, Feb. 1931, On the Air Company [Public domain]

Earliest Memories

From when she was a young girl in the late 19th century:

I think back upon their appearance, Aunt Abigail in her soft, puce-colored silk, with the snowy kerchief of fine muslin drawn in neat folds over her bosom, and Uncle Gilbert in his high stock, they seem, to my now sophisticated eyes, to have possessed a true elegance that no amount of ornamentation can achieve. But in those days I was much more impressed by the fashionable, bustled silhouette of my young mother […] p 26 -27

 

320px-Bustle
An example from the 1880s bustle period. This is the silhouette Chase refers to that her mother wore. // Unknown 1880s artist, manipulation by H. Churchyard [Public domain]
Her aunt and uncle were Quakers and perhaps plain in appearance in contrast to the elaborate bustled silhouettes of the 1880s. Chase would leave her home in New Jersey for New York City and there would develop her own strong sense of style. In contrast to her Quaker relatives, her mother may have worn a bustled skirt more like the fashion plate above.

 

The Shirtwaist & The Gibson Girl

After moving from New Jersey to New York, as a young, single woman Chase lived in a boardinghouse. This was a common situation for young women on their own in the city. Boardinghouses were typically inhabited by other young, single people and a few elderly couples. Chase described this way of life as homey and protective and believed it to be preferable to “the makeshift kitchenette-Hamburg Heaven kind of existence that is the lot of so many working women today [today being ca. 1950]” (p28). She mentioned dating some of the other young men who lived in her boardinghouse and going to fashionable restaurants and the theater with them. When out on the town with a young gentleman, Chase said:

“[…] When I went out on a festive evening I tried to look my best. I had a skirt of beautiful black heavy satin and frilly shirtwaists with enormous balloon sleeves.”    p 28

NY_shirtwaist_workers_strikers_having_lunch
These women are wearing shirtwaists and also happen to be on strike from working in a shirtwaist factory. // ca. 1890-1900, Bain Collection [Public domain]
This style coincides with the popular 1890s – early 1900s looks. A frilly shirtwaist with large, leg-of-mutton sleeves and a long, swooping skirt would have been staples for a young woman. This look is typically referred to as the Gibson Girl look, and Chase recounted its creator:

“Mr. Gibson and Vogue burst upon the world in the same era, but he was never in our pages. I feel sure that Arthur Turnure [founder of Vogue], who knew him well, would have welcomed him, but his famous girl had already been launched in Life before Vogue came upon the scene.” p. 40

800px-College_girls_by_Abbe_Carter_Goodloe,_illustrated_by_Charles_Dana_Gibson._LCCN2014650127
An example of the Gibson Girl by Charles Dana Gibson. // 1895, Artist Posters [Public domain]
While never feature in Vogue‘s pages, Gibson and Vogue were certainly aware of each other, and emulating this image (like the one above from 1895) became almost ubiquitous for many American women. To do so, women wore a shirtwaist and long, full, A-line skirt, typically with a belted waist. Chase commented on this phenomenon saying:

Many smart women whose clothes had always been made by private dressmakers or at home began discovering the ready-to-wear, which, as it gained a more fastidious clientele, improved its output, grading the merchandise as cheap, medium, better, and high.” p 53

The shirtwaist was able to be produced in factories as a ready-to-wear item in varying degrees of luxury (or lack thereof). There were variations for women of every class and manner of discretionary income.

 

Chase’s Least Favorite Fashions & A Handy Device

While Chase may think fondly on the image of the Gibson Girl and the practical shirtwaist, there were plenty of other styles and aspects of dress to which she was happy to say good riddance! It’s interesting reminisce upon past styles you yourself used to wear (stirrup pants from the 1990s anyone?) and I love finding historical excerpts that do this too. We, in the present, will perceive garments differently than people living in that time, but it’s fascinating to see how others before our time perceived those style too. We’re able to glimpse 1890s styles through Chase’s 1950s perspective when she said:

“[…] As I recall the fashions of my youth, I am struck by their extreme impracticality. The high-boned collars, the long swathing skirts were unbearably hot in summer, and in summer and winter our dresses, dragging in the streets, were dirty. We women did what we could. We wore removable dust ruffles, and I shall never forget the work to keep them clean.” p 53

Dust ruffle
Ad for a Cambric Skirt trimmed with a dust ruffle for $1.25 // Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1898, p. 29

It is so valuable to have this kind of honest, authentic account from that time, and especially by someone who is interested in clothing. Ever wondered how the average woman would keep her garments clean? Chase recounted:

“I could not dream of affording a maid, so I spent hours, when I got home from the office, washing and starching and ironing my petticoats, only to put them on in the morning to have them soiled again by the time I had walked three blocks.” p 53 – 54

No time for binging on radio broadcasts after work for a working woman without a maid. There was, however, a device to help:

IOW-5769C4_Modern_Skirt_Lifter_(FindID_512627)
Similar to the Floradora Fob described below, this device is a skirt lifter. // A Modern cast and pressed copper-alloy skirt lifter (c. AD 1800-c. 1900). Photo by Frank Basford, The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

“A lady’s aid to cleanliness was an ingenious device–the Floradora Fob, a fob attached to the waist with a clasp to hold at least a fold of one’s skirt up off the street. It left our hands free to carry parcels and was considered a great boon.” p 64

If_we_lift_our_skirts_they_level_their_eye-glasses_at_our_ankles
An example of an early skirt fob in action. This cartoon expresses the dilemma of the skirt lifter. // Unknown author, 1854 [Public domain]
Luckily this device was around to help keep skirts off the ground and out of the laundry!

Chase also commented on the change in silhouette from the hourglass, 1890s Gibson Girl shape achieved by a cinched waist and voluminous sleeves, to the S-curve of the 1900s:

“But if the one-piece dress was a venturesome step, daring as it was, pictorially women’s clothes of the early 1900s took a slump. The female shape, frequently considered by males to be made literally out of Biblical clay adjustable to any form, was molded into a posture that made the upper half of the body appear to be set about six inches in front of the lower. This mystifying calisthenic was achieved by a specially contrived and cinched-in corset; also by a pendulous draping of the bodice, giving even flat-chested women a slanting, slablike silhouette that might have been maternal had it not presented such a united front.” p 55

Shirtwaist_suits_(fashion_vignette)
Examples from 1904 of the unnatural curve that became fashionable (made possible by new corsets beneath the shirtwaists and skirts) in the early 1900s // Cynthia Grey, “The Home,” The Tacoma Times, [Public domain]
Chase certainly had a preference for the Gibson hourglass and disliked the unnatural curve of the later silhouette. Unfortunately, she also disliked the flapper look that was too follow. She described the future look of the 1920s as resembling a “crop-headed boy” (p55).

lossy-page1-800px-A_flapper_girl_LCCN2012645724.tif
“A FLapper Girl” likely resembling Chase’s idea of a flapper as a “crop-headed boy.” Some say that the word flapper comes from the flapping of unbuckled boots, like this woman wears here. // Turner, C. W. photographer, 1922, Library of Congress [Public domain]

Final Thoughts

As mentioned before, these are only a few excerpts from the book, Always in Vogue. It is definitely worth a read in its entirety, especially if you’re interested in the early inner workings of Vogue. I think it is so valuable to have the perspective on past fashions from someone entrenched in the fashion industry and whose eye is attuned to differences in the details. This post focuses on the years pertaining to the blog’s years of coverage (1880-1930) but the book continues to cover Chase’s tenure at Vogue. In looking book through her perspective, I think it’s lucky to have such a glimpse into past fashions — and lucky to think we no longer need to spend hours each night keeping our clothing clean!

 

Chase, Edna Woolman and Ilka Chase. Always in Vogue. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1954.

 

-Danielle Morrin

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like Vogue and Harper’s Baza(a)r December Holiday Covers and Seven Things You Didn’t Know About Sarah Josepha Hale.

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