Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Rosa Parks, 1960s Fashion and Civil Rights

Vintage Ivory Dress
1950s Rockabilly 
Pencil Women's Dress

Fashion style of the 1950s and 1960s, a memorable part of the Civil Rights Movement, is known as vintage dress today.

MY MOTHER PAID ATTENTION to all kinds of news, including the way the stars dressed in the movies, the style of professional women on the job and the style of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy before and after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy and she became known as Jackie O. First Lady Michelle Obama's style of dress is being scrutinized today as well as she performs her official job.

My mother liked classic style in her fashion. We did not dress like runway fashion models or stars in the movies. When I went to school and my mother went to her job, we wore the classically cut dress, simple white and other light colored blouses, and dark skirts, some with matching jackets. Professional women and school girls during the 1950s and 1960s walked a tightrope in their dress, not to appear too sexy on the job or in their roles as social activists. This was necessary to be taken seriously and also to avoid offending the populace. 

Rosa Parks Arrest & Booking Photo
PHOTO mugshot bus civil rights
Rosa Parks was a great example of simple and elegant style, making the proper presentation when she went about the job of sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the most powerful civil rights events in the history of the nation. One of the reasons Rosa Parks was chosen to define this important moment in history that recognized her as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement was because of her understated style and dignity. Rosa Parks' image--dress and hair--became the standard for future 1960s female civil rights activists and other young women maturing during the era of Jim Crow laws.

Civil rights activist Rosa Parks, whose job was altering clothing at a department store, had a knowledge of fashion style and used style in her own conservative dress.

"I'd rather have one good dress, good pair of shoes with heels not too high, piece of quality jewelry or bottle of expensive perfume than a hundred cheap ones," my mother would say, associating outlandish prints, bright colors, busy patterns, distracting fragrances, loud laughter and uncontrolled behavior with people who lacked decorum and good taste. "A person should not have to buy a completely new wardrobe every year," my mother said. "Buy timeless clothing--simple style, classic lines, conservative colors, modest jewelry, an attractive and reliable wristwatch, and a great handbag." My mother's philosophy was, "Less is always better than more."

My mother introduced me to the little black dress. It could be worn for almost any occasion, depending on your accessories. Two years before my mother was born, Coco Chanel introduced the little black dress in 1926 and the dress has survived ever since. My mother's favorite style for the little black dress,  was a linen or linen-like fabric with a simple neckline and a hem length at least mid-knee. This formula also worked for dresses of other muted colors like gray, ivory or white, depending on seasonal color requirements.

When I was a teenager, fashion was moving away from the conservative style of Rosa Parks. Women were experimenting with fit and hemlines. I was not allowed to wear really high-heel shoes and sandals or short form-fitting dresses like the ivory dress above, a style my mother wore often. Foundations played an important role in the way clothes fit. But, of course, she had a wonderful figure and could pull this off without a care. I had a decent figure, too, but I wasn't allowed to show it off on my mother's watch. I was also denied the mini skirt because it showed too much skin.

SPANX Slimmer 
& Shine Strapless 
Slip (1059)
To get that near-perfect silhouette, most women in the 1960s and before had to rely on something called a girdle if control-top pantyhose would not do the job. Today, women who need more figure control have the option of undergarments like Spanx for waist, thigh and hip firming garments. I would have given anything for Spanx to slip under that little sheathe dress. All I had was a good bra.

Rosa Parks, Arrested
Montgomery Bus Boycott
My mother's simple elegant style also applied to our cosmetics and hairstyles. "Everything should be clean and easy," she said. "If your hair and your makeup look like you're working too hard, then you're working too hard to make it look right. Make sure your hair looks like it belongs to you and not to a wig shop." 

My mother said, makeup should not scream MAKEUPYour every day face should not look like a Halloween mask. "No clown cheeks, bright red lips or raccoon eyes, please." My mother made me wash my face before going out of the house if she thought I was wearing too much eyeliner, mascara, blush or lipstick. That was her job, she said, like going to school was mine.

My mother respected Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement to destroy Jim Crow laws, and tried to get me ready for a different world from the one in which she grew up.

Littie Nash
Littie Nash
Two department stores downtown where my mother shopped carried her classic dress in muted tones. Those two stores allowed black people to try on a dress before a purchase, unlike cheap clothing stores. I often wondered why the expensive stores and the cheap stores had different policies toward African Americans. 

My mother said it could be one of several reasons. One: the expensive stores may have been owned and operated by higher-classed merchants who were more progressive; Two: the more expensive stores may have thought no black customers could afford their clothing so they would not have to face the possibility of allowing a black customer to try them on. Well, they did not know my mother--a good customer for good clothing with good money to spend.

Not every dress I owned was expensive like hers. My mother said that was because my clothing had to be replaced more often than hers. I was still growing. There were inexpensive shops in town where she would purchase items for me, without my being present. Remember, the cheap stores would not allow us to try on their clothing before we bought it. And we could not return the clothing if we found it did not fit after we bought it.

Singer Sewing Machine
Singer Sewing Machine 
Like Aunt Lucille's
Treadle Sewing Machine
 "Buttons & Bows"

If my mother spotted a school dress for me in a store window or a mail order catalog that held a hidden promise she could refine into a pleasing style, her keen eye caught it and sized up what needed to be done before she bought the dress. Could an unsightly bow be removed? Could the buttons be changed? Could the collar be removed? Could a hemline be altered? At home, my mother laid the dress on the bed and studied it, making a detailed plan how to modify the dress. At that point, she measured me.

Because my mother didn't sew on a machine or own one, she did all of her clothing alterations and decorative home crafts by hand. She made awesome creations with needle, thread. and thimble. Fancy tatting and embroidery were her specialties. But before modifications on clothing, my mother took dresses to Aunt Lucille to take in the seams and make them stronger. Aunt Lucille had a foot-powered Singer treadle sewing machine in front of the window in her living room. "The best light to sew by," Aunt Lucille said, "Is daylight."

Rosa Parks on Montgomery Bus
PSA/DNA #U51232
My mother respected Aunt Lucille's seamstress skills and civil rights work, which included secret NAACP voting rights meetings. I especially loved hearing about political and civil rights actions. Although I was never invited to participate in their conversations, I overheard my mother and Aunt Lucille talking about politics, sex and other things as Aunt Lucille reinforced the seams of my store-bought school dress or fitted me for dance costumes that she made from scratch, usually without patterns, based on my mother's description or a magazine picture. I was always glad when it took a while for the fittings. The two women seemed to forget I was there. 

Rosa Parks at Sewing Machine
Rosa Parks at Sewing Machine

In retrospect, I can't help but see similarities between Aunt Lucille and Rosa Parks, who was also a seamstress. Like Aunt Lucille, Rosa Parks altered clothing for people, but Parks also had a workstation in the Fair Department Store, located in downtown Montgomery, Alabama.

Rosa Parks rode the bus to and from work every day. One evening, when she got on the bus, she refused to obey the bus driver's demand that she give up her seat for a white passenger. This action by Rosa Parks initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I can't help but think that Aunt Lucille would have done the same thing. Neither Rosa Parks nor Aunt Lucille stopped their political work when the 1960s ended. In fact, I worked on voter registration committees, voter precinct redistricting protests and political campaigns with Aunt Lucille in the 1970s and '80s.

When Aunt Lucille finished her work on my school dress, Littie went about making the garment fashionably acceptable, removing all useless buttons, bows, ruffles, pockets, ribbons, lace, ric-rac, ropes, ties, braids, rosettes, fringe, fake fur, tassels or other shiny, unnecessary and unattractive decorations. She organized all of this "ugly stuff," as she called it, in jars, cans and spools, saving it for constructing throw pillows, curtain tiebacks and other home decor projects.

1960s dress
My Dress
Before Littie 

1960s dress
My Dress
After Littie

My mother changed buttons, resizing holes to accommodate her choices. If decorative buttons didn't serve as closures, she removed them. The dress to the left did not stand a chance. She changed shiny buttons for buttons closer to the fabric color and removed pockets, buttons and all. "No one needs to trace your wardrobe by its pedestrian pedigree," Littie said. "Simple is classic. Classic is timeless. Besides, we don't have money to keep re-buying school dresses every time uninformed tastes change."

When I was young, my mother and the other women in our neighborhood did not dress up in their best clothing for work. They saved the Sunday dress for special occasions. Most were domestic workers in the service of white private homes where they wore clean, ironed, plain cotton dresses. My mother, who had been a domestic worker, studied practical nursing to care for patients in their homes, where she wore white uniforms on a daily basis. Wearing work dresses and uniforms kept the need for special apparel low. In addition, uniforms garnered respect from my mother's patients and their doctors, who still made house calls at the time.

Fix-It and Enjoy-It 
Healthy Cookbook: 
400 Great Stove-Top 
and Oven Recipes
During my mother's nursing service, one of her patients, whom I met when I went to work with my mother on Saturdays, started to get better after eating my mother's cooking for a number of months. Her doctor asked my mother about the diet and learned that my mother had developed special recipes with nutrition for this person's diabetic condition. The doctor asked my mother if she could develop nutrition plans for other medical conditions. She said she would try and she did. After delivering these foods to the homes of sick rich white people, my mother became interested in combining her nursing with nutrition. She began to assemble a small library of her nutrition manuals, Diabetics & Heart Healthy Cookbooks and recipes in a corner of my bedroom, where she had made me a reading corner with a table and bookshelves, a place to study for school.

"You have to read," she said. "How else will you know anything useful? You have to write, too. How else can you ask for and get what you want? How do you think I fool all those white cooking judges into awarding me prize money for my recipes? I write my proposals and recipes in a way they understand."

Sharpening Writing Skills
"You write white?" I asked, sarcastically. "No." she said. "I write my recipe competitions proper English. I present excellent food products, time after time, in correctly written English. I use my writing skills. I don't always win, but I am always a finalist. There is no racial color in the process, as long as the judges don't know I'm black, and I only enter competitions that do not require an appearance," she said, smiling. "That way, the judges do not know my color and cannot use it to dismiss me when they get their team of chefs busy making my dishes."

Littie knew the limitations Jim Crow laws placed on her ambitions. She also knew, when I was growing up, Jim Crow laws were on their way out, even in my school life. Flickering black-and-white television images confirmed her belief that, one day, my color would not be an issue like hers had been.  "You have to be ready when the time comes," she said. "It won't matter what you will be allowed to do, if you are not prepared to do it and do not dress the part." I am not sure how my mother,the ultimate stage mother managed. There was always money for books, magazines, a piano, sheet music, piano and dance lessons, costumes, classical music and jazz recordings, a machine on which to play the records and travel all over the country by train and bus, and by air when I was older. 

My heart still wanders back to times my mother and I had together, times I shall never forget. She was my best friend for the rest of her life and I believe beyond. She was always there for me, telling me I could do something that seemed to me at the time to be impossible and then I did it. She was right, as usual. Through her, I became capable of so much more than I would have, had it not been for my mother. I had a career in music and later in journalism and now I am an author because my mother believed in me and said I could be somebody. And I am. It took a great deal of courage to live with dignity and raise me to have aspirations. About my upbringing, Littie got it right, although I took detours of my own along the way.

In the 1990s, when I began writing a column for the local newspaper, my mother encouraged me to focus articles around the experiences her mother, my part-Comanche grandmother, Bigmama. My mother then advised me to use the local column to build my reputation as a writer. She was right again. The local column led to a regional column, then a syndicated column and eventually gave birth to my first book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press). My mother was delighted when this book came out. The idea that I had written about her mother and other ancestors pleased her.

Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn't Shop
At Woolworth's
by Sunny Nash
My book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, is about life with my grandmother during the Jim Crow era. Of course the book also features my mother, my father, relatives, friends, and places I visited. In the book, I try to cover my life outside of the politics of the nation. Although some elements of society are unavoidable, I want people to also see family and community as I experienced them as a child. 

Below is a look inside Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's
Chapter Three, Summer Days
Essay, "Dinner At Aunt Shorty's" Page 69

A tidy landscaped brick walk led to a shallow expanse of steps that framed a wraparound porch with floral-cushioned wooden furniture. A tall oval-glassed front door opened between columns supporting a balcony, behind whose small-paned French doors, was an upstairs sitting room where Aunt Shorty had kept an office when she was--as she called herself--a frontier businesswoman, operating her own profitable restaurant for more than thirty years. Low chandelier light reflected off matching china, crystal, and flatware. More elegant than pictures in any magazine I'd ever seen, the linen tablecloth, embroidered napkins, glowing candlesticks, and fresh flowers were arranged precisely. My grandmother wasn't nearly as impressed as I. Earlier in Bigmama's life, before she lost her fortune and was forced to sell her three hundred acres of prime Grimes County farmland for a fraction of its value, she'd had money and the good life, too.

© 2011  Sunny Nash
All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn't
Shop At
Sunny Nash has also co-authored, edited or compiled several books, written three newspaper columns, created a major photographic study and exhibition, produced and written for television, and conducted public speaking tours. “Fortunately, writing comes easy to me and I am able to produce all kinds of copy and media—movie treatments, television scripts, book manuscripts, proposals, commercial jingles, whatever a client needs,” Nash said. “I also produce video for broadcast and Internet marketing and distribution. My client list includes corporations, cities, chambers of commerce, nonprofit organizations, real estate companies and all kinds of groups and individuals, The balance for any artist is making sure their own work does not suffer, while giving the client the best work possible.”

About Sunny Nash

Be sure to go to the end of the article and click LIKE to let your friends know you enjoyed this article. And please leave me comment. I'd love to hear from you.

~ Thank You ~

Bookmark and Share Sunny Nash


Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.