Thursday, February 13, 2014

Best Dressed Women (Ebony Magazine, May 1964)

Good afternoon!

Guys! It's almost FRIDAY! We're gonna make it! I've been bogged down with work and the construction special, top secret present for valentine's day tomorrow, but I didn't forget about you...let's switch it up a little bit today with a 1964 article on women I'd like to know and clothing/houses I'd like to covet.

This article in May 1964's Ebony magazine caught my attention for the knock-your-actual-socks-off effect of these top, mid-century African-American women, caught on camera in their most beautiful ensembles in their gracious, gorgeous living rooms. The title of the article, "Best Dressed Women", leaves out the fact that these best dressed women are being photographed in their homes, which are every bit as aesthetically pleasing as the mistresses themselves, and represent the better halves of some of the most powerful men of color of the early 1960's. Let's take a look, starting with the cover:

One thing you learn from the description of the cover, under the table of contents in this issue, is that expensiveness of wardrobe is NOT a deciding factor in narrowing down the Best Dressed Women of the Year:

"Year-round excellence in good grooming" is something I strive towards, and gosh, do these women have that and some to spare. Mrs. Williams, who you can read more about in this Chicago obituary from her funeral in 2011, was born in New Orleans during the Depression and obtained a bachelor's degree from Xavier University before marrying and joining her husband's funeral parlor business. In the year she graduated, 1947, just five percent of people over 25 held a college degree. From the notice: "At age 80, she received a doctorate in theology from the [Chicago Theological S]eminary." Gracious! And to boot, look at her standing in her living room like poise itself. No wonder they chose her for the cover. You'll see her again at the end of the article (the girl so nice they included her photograph twice). How about that enormous lamp, the pinch pleat drapes, and Mrs. Williams yellow silk evening jacket over her dress?

Here, Mrs. Harold J. Whalum stands outside of her home in her Sunday best:

There's everything to love about this. See how her slim figure is the one those pencil skirts and boxy Jackie Kennedy jackets I'm always complaining about were made for! Also note the length of the gloves...I can't tell you how many times I've tried on a coat at an estate sale or the flea market and my dad (you know how there's never a mirror when you need one in these situations?) will gravely chime in, "Yeeeah, it looks like the sleeves are a little short". How else am I supposed to show off my immaculate white gloves and tasteful bracelet, sir? The part of this outfit that really sets it on its own in style, though, are the black accessories. The hat is described as a "Milan straw hat accented by white silk organza cabbage rose", but see how elegant it looks with a plain, chic suit, kitten-ish sharp heeled sling backs, necklace and matching bag. I would have voted for this woman, too.

This is interesting-- you'd think what Mrs. Hobart Taylor, Jr. was wearing was a dress, but this "elementary school principal and wife of Washington VIP" is actually "relax[ing] in evening culottes fashioned in French white silk fabric with floral patterns." Aaah! It just got five times cooler! How about that Greek-motif couch and it's amazing, trapezoid backboard? I am 100% upset with whoever was the photographer for this spread, because America needs to know what the rest of that room looks like and how, exactly, this formal culottes work. That said, look at the gorgeous color composition-- the floral on the dress, that all cream living room with pops of red and that little yellow cushion to the right.

Leroy R. Johnson was a senator from Georgia, serving in that position from his election in 1962 until 1975, and was the first black senator in fifty years from that state (more about him here). His wife, the former Cleopatra Whittington (I am not making that up...what a fabulous name, right up there with Zelda Sayre!), is the woman you see above, whom he married in 1948. The caption tells us that Mrs. Johnson is a librarian and "has a collection of frocks in bright colors, plus several basic blacks." I am way more the other way around, with a collection of black frocks, and several basic wild-pattern dresses, but I want to be more like her. Look at ANOTHER enormous lamp (I'm starting to think the ones I got at that estate sale that I told you blew up like Alice after eating the cake marked EAT ME as I got them out of the house and into my car, might be from this period), MORE pinch pleat drapes, and Mrs. Johnson's lovely evening gown and massive fur stole. Iiiiiii love this.

Best of the whole group, hands down, for clothing and background, has got to be Mrs. Tyree J. Barefield-Pendleton. Note that her husband's name is spelled wrong in the caption, which a Google search set me wise to-- there can't be a Mrs. Tyree J. Barefield-Pendleton AND a Mrs. Tyres J. Barefield-Pendleton in the world, can there? The former, also a college graduate, wrote a book called Minutes about her experiences in the Birmingham civil rights movement of this time period, including in the publication "handwritten minutes from meetings held by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference" (hence the title). She is putting all of us to shame in this dress which looks like to be a cocktail sheath with a dramatic, over the shoulder cape element (!!), black heels, black clutch, and elbow length black gloves. Brutally glamorous, this woman is. Just stopping the presses. And the living room! Platform sofa, lantern lamp swag, brick wall leading up to a fireplace, no doubt, and that oversized piece of art over it all? Chic, chic, CHIC! I just love that besides her exterior, aesthetic excellence, there's a woman who was deeply involved in the changing politics of the time for the better, at a critical moment for civil rights. Style and substance.

More glamorous glitz with Mrs. W Rankin Lewis Jr's wife, who likes "simple basic outfits that are feminine but not cluttered" (amen) and is a fellow advocate of painting-one-room-of-your-house-pink (my bedroom is Mamie pink like her living room). This gold brocade dress is something else...isn't it weird to think of how this might be something you would wear out to a nice restaurant in its day, or out for cocktails with the boss and his wife and your husband-- if I wore something like this nowadays, someone would be asking me "Where do you think you're going so dressed up" or if I was presenting at the Oscar's. I was telling Eartha the other weekend (who told me about her dentist being like "Where're you going all dressed up?" as she was wearing a dress to get her teeth cleaned and not, I don't know, overhauls? An actual sweat suit? It's a dress, not a tuxedo!), that if everyone dressed nicer, people dressed nicely wouldn't be such a remarkable/thing-to-be-remarked-upon sight. But I digress. Mrs. Lewis really looks lovely.

How about this next woman?

Doesn't she look the cover of a turn of the century romantic novel? Her Gibson girl hair, regal posture, taffeta gown, gloves, and choker all have the ring of bygone Victorian could go directly to the White House or royal court in this ensemble and not look a whit out of place. I wonder if it looked particularly "retro" in 1964 or was just timeless as far as evening wear ensembles go?  I initially thought "Ceil Chapman" was another victim of a typo in this caption, but instead, bust my buttons, was a very chic dress designer of the mid century. According to Wikipedia, Chapman was among Marilyn Monroe's favorite dressmakers and "provided the trousseau for Elizabeth Taylor's 1950 wedding to Conrad "Nicky" Hilton". Jeez louise! You can see some of her vintage designs for sale 1stdibs here. Note to self, when I someday ascend into heaven and/or reach Gwyneth Paltrow like levels of "money being no object", let me go shop at that site. If these dresses cost upwards of four figures now, think of how expensive and hi-tone they must have been in 1964! 

William Brooks was elected as Columbus's first African American municipal director of public utilities in 1961...three years later, here's his wife, stylish as the Dickens in this minkcoat and turban (let me die, I am actually dying of how much I love this) and sheath dress ensemble. The dress is white and gold matelasse, referring to the rasied, quilted texture of the material ...hold tight though, are you ready for this? According to the caption, the dress, which Mrs. Brooks designed herself, has "a floor-length, attachable skirt for formal wear". This dress is more than meets the eye, readers! I am not at all being facetious when I say why aren't there more day-to-night extensions on dresses like that (especially for us tall gals, who could use an extra inch or two of a dropped hemline from time to time)? I think the room she's in is a restaurant's dining floor, but it's still perfectly mid century with its pink and orange striped carpet, potted fir tree, and interesting window treatment. I would move the tables and move in if they'd let me (I'm kidding, I'm holding out for Mrs. Tyree J. Barefield-Pendleton's living room).

Last but not least of the inserts that were done in full color instead of black and white (there are more women of fashion in the rest of the magazine if you want to check it out yourself!), we get to see Mrs. Ruth Williams again in a still formal but less evening-y ensemble, and even more of that lamp I want to have, and Mrs. Parker Ward looking like a stand-in for kittenish Eartha Kitt in that gold sequin gown. Frank Starr is another amazing mid century design label, with Ruth Goude as the dress designer behind the firm. Can you even imagine how beautiful this dress would be as you made your grand entrance into the dining room, shimmering from every angle like a mermaid or a religious vision? Can't get over it.

Anyway, sorry this is so late! I have to get back to the grind, but tell me-- which of these best dressed women do you think is the BEST of the best dressed? Which living room are you coveting the hardest? Why do we live in a world were almost no one dresses like this any more? I'm here to ask the hard questions! Just kidding, but I'd love to compare notes on the beautiful, dressed-to-the-nines women profiled here.

Gotta scoot! Have a great Thursday (evening), and I'll talk to you tomorrow for Photo Friday! Til then.


  1. imagine a party with all this ladies and you and me being invited....
    i would not need champagne to get high!
    happy valentine <3

    1. Can you imagine how anxious we would be about our CLOTHES at that party? I would spend a whole week choosing a dress!

      Happy (belated) valentine's!! :D

  2. I love this one!!! They all look pretty darn fab.

    1. Mrs. Tyres J. Barefield-Pendleton ensemble and living room HAUNT. MY DREAMS.

  3. This is a great article featuring my grandmother, Cleopatra Johnson and one of my best friends grandmother, the Late Mrs. W. Rankin Lewis Sr.



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