She Really Was a Fashion Plate

In 1930, the San Diego yellow pages were as yellow as an egg yolk, the white pages listed the occupation of every customer, and the modern Woodmen of America met every Wednesday at Germania Hall. Girls wore regulation middy skirts to San Diego High and women still lived in the age of the hat. It was the decade of the turban, the toque, the snood, and poverty.

Women who had to work for hat money, glove money, and rent could give permanent waves, learn to use the comptometer at Dickinson Secretarial School, or type for Miss Deardorf at 1839 Altura Place. In March of 1930, the household at 3968 Alabama sought “a lady to care for children, go home nights.” The La Jolla Chocolate Shop needed an experienced waitress, the Bishop’s School sought an unencumbered maid with sewing abilities, and a beauty shop on El Cajon Avenue was hiring first-class marcellers and finger-wavers.

Elsewhere in the San Diego Union, the Wicarius Hat and Dress Shop advertised angora wool berets in all light colors for $3. Evelyn Woodman probably wouldn’t have noticed the ad, being almost 13 and a tomboy, but her mother might have seen the plea to Come Early Monday and the larger, more impressive ad for the Marston Company department store, in which the City of Paris advised mannish sharkskin suits as the first spring choice for women. At Marston’s, the Smart Companion Blouses in silk crepe or satin ($6.50 and $10) had hand-finished jabots and cape collars. Above the hand-finished jabots and $60 sharkskin suits a woman was supposed to wear $15 hats in a Wide Variety of Smart Brim Treatments. The hats were called pokes and cloches. Besides ordinary felt and straw, they were made of mysterious, expensive-sounding materials you hardly knew how to pronounce: linen soíe, baku, and balibuntal. And of course you had to buy strap slippers or high Cuban heels or three-eyelet oxfords with boulevard heels. Then purses and gloves and stockings. It all added up and up.

Evelyn Woodman’s mother had been a widow for a long time by March of 1930. She’d had Evelyn, her only child, in National City on May 30, 1917. Four years later, her husband died, and she was left without a penny. Her sister in St. Louis wrote to say that she couldn’t send any money, but she could take them both in, so Mrs. Woodman and her daughter moved east to St. Louis, where Mrs. Woodman’s melancholy was finally diagnosed as tuberculosis, and she was sent to a farm in the country to rest.

It was another death that brought them back to San Diego — this time the death of a child. Another of Mrs. Woodman’s sisters lost her baby in San Diego and wrote a letter that said, “I have to have you.” Evelyn was nine when they returned, old enough to join the Girl Scouts in 1927. She learned to swim at the YWCA when she was ten.

“My mother worked for a steamship line whose office was on a pier down at the foot of Broadway,” Evelyn says. She can’t recall the exact salary for taking shorthand and writing letters in those days, but she does know that in 1935, when people felt the deepest effects of the Depression, she was married herself and counting pennies. Bread was 5 cents a loaf and ground beef was 15 cents a pound. “In other words,” she says, “I was able to get along on a budget as a housewife on $20 a week and save money at the same time.”

Her mother must also have been good at saving money, because “besides being a single head of household of one child, she was able to afford the hats and gloves. I even remember she had a fox fur neck scarf that still hangs in the closet. And her clothes, they were purchased. They were not handmade.”

Marston’s, Evelyn says, was the major department store downtown, and it had the most elegant things. Marston’s had been selling dry goods in downtown San Diego since 1878. When George W. Marston opened his new store on Fifth Avenue and F Street in 1881, the sewing silks and White sewing machines and bolts of cloth were lit with gas lamps. It wasn’t just the store that took Marston’s name, but the entire block.

If, on a March day in the midst of the Depression, Evelyn’s mother had stretched out a finger in the Marston’s shoe department to touch Cuban heels and strap slippers, she would have touched “suntan,” “tropical tan,” and “nautical blue.” Had she needed underfashions, she might have gone upstairs two flights to see, among the rayon bloomers and the step-ins and the slips, the “unusually pliable” Carter Mouldette. The Mouldette wasn’t underwear but a “foundation garment” that fit like a stocking from armpit to thigh and gave you the clean-cut lines you needed for the Bond Street look. Four dollars for that.

Though her mother did have store-bought clothes, her mother’s two sisters had it easier. One had a husband working on North Island and the other’s was executive secretary to Claus Spreckels. This aunt, Evelyn says, “received some clothes from Mrs. Spreckels, so she really was a fashion plate.”

Evelyn herself didn’t care much about clothes. “I was an athlete,” she says. In 1930, when Evelyn was in junior high, anklets came into fashion, “and, oh my goodness, was there a fuss about that,” she says. “The parents just didn’t approve of that at all. The school counselors didn’t. But finally fashion took power over concern and we got to wear anklets.” Five years later, Marston’s was selling lisle anklets in a Host of Spring Colors for 28 cents a pair.

Until she graduated in 1935, Evelyn wore the prescribed uniform to Hoover High: middy tops and dark skirts in the winter, pastel dresses in the summer. When she went to a special service at Trinity Methodist Episcopal, she may have worn kid leather gloves and a hat, but she isn’t sure. What she remembers instead is playing in the city softball league in the early ’30s, when her teams were sponsored by Kerrigan Jewelers and Conkling’s Bakery. They played home games at Central Playground and the girls wore shorts “down at least to the knee.”

Conkling’s and Kerrigan’s bought the team shirts, but the girls furnished their own mitts.

“That’s the nearest I came to gloves,” Evelyn says.

A woman I’ll call May was born in Hurley, New Mexico, the same year that Evelyn was born in San Diego: 1917. Hurley was a copper-mining town, and May’s father worked in the mill. May’s mother was a good seamstress, and she sewed May’s clothes because there weren’t many stores in Hurley.

“The houses were all owned by the company when I lived there,” she says, “and it was segregated in that the Hispanic workers lived across the tracks from the white people, and they could actually own their own houses — build a little shack or something there on that side — but we had to live in the company-owned houses.”

The upper class of Hurley, including the doctor and the superintendent of the mine, lived on a paved street, “but the rest of us just had dirt streets, and if you were not respectful and so forth to the important people in town,” May says, “your father could lose his job.” May says that when she got married, she told her husband that if he ever wanted to go back to Hurley to live, she would get a divorce.

May and her husband didn’t come to San Diego until after the war, in the decade of the calotte, beret, cartwheel, postilion, and bonnet. When May and her husband arrived, they moved into temporary government housing in Linda Vista. “Some of the houses were permanent,” she says. “They were stucco houses, but the ones I lived in were wooden duplexes, and they were meant to be taken out after the war.”

May and her husband had two children by then, and they went to the Baptist church in Linda Vista. “I can remember going to church,” she says, “but I didn’t wear a hat or gloves.” When the children were older, she started working, but she didn’t have to wear a hat or gloves then either. “I never was one who went out much to parties and things,” she says.

Those who did go to parties — if they were the right parties — had a chance of posing in their hats and gloves for the photographers of San Diego Magazine. In November of 1948, Mrs. George Carter Jessop, “noted for her outstanding blonde good looks,” posed in a cocoa gabardine suit and a pillbox hat trimmed with coq feathers. Mrs. Harold Starkey, “one of San Diego’s most attractive and vivacious matrons,” stared heavenward in a $4000 mink cape. Mrs. Peter Crabtree, the young surgeon’s wife, wore a bronze-feathered hat and a baby-leopard collar. “Leopard, of course, is high fashion this season.”

The hats of Mrs. Peter Crabtree (secretary of the Junior League, vice president of the Camp Fire Girls council) and Mrs. George Carter Jessop (seen frequently at the San Diego Yacht Club) came from El Patio Apparel and Lion’s department store, but May shopped at Marston’s and at Walker’s on Fifth Avenue.

“Walker Scott was a very popular store,” she says, “and I would ride the streetcar downtown. That was when we first came, and the children were small. I’ve ridden the streetcar, which is something that a lot of people who are here now never did.

“I guess it was Marston’s that I particularly remember. It was a little bit — well, I want to say ‘higher class,’ but it carried a little bit better grade of dresses than Walker’s did, and I think that was the one that used to bring in, in the springtime, beautiful bouquets of flowers. They would decorate the store with lilacs from up in the North County…. It always was real beautiful.”

Alene Austin Cole’s family came to San Diego from Oklahoma in 1929 because of the Depression. “We were one of those Okies or whatever you want to call it. We got flooded out, and Mother said that was the end of that.”

Alene went to Sherman Elementary, then Roosevelt Junior High, and then San Diego High, known then as “the gray castle.” “My son was born in ’37,” she says. “I would have graduated in ’38.”

At the gray castle, the girls wore white middies and black skirts with a black tie. “My mother, now, she always had gloves, and she always thought you should wear a hat when you go shopping or to church or something like that.”

Alene, however, didn’t have to wear a hat. “They called us the dancing family. Mother and Dad met on an ice rink, so when we came out here, he said, ‘Well, we know how to dance on ice. Let’s learn how to dance otherwise.’ ” Alene and her parents and her brothers would dance to swing music at Mission Beach. “Mission Beach had a beautiful ballroom then.... They had dance contests and we all wore evening clothes. Like on a Wednesday night they’d have waltz night.”

After Alene became pregnant, she worked for the high school in what was called the youth administration, doing typing and filing. “And then after I had my boy, I went into the restaurant business. That was the most lucrative one you could find.” She wore a white uniform in the beginning, and she continued working as a waitress for 35 years.

Alene didn’t buy mannish sharkskin suits at Marston’s for $67.50. Her mother made the gowns Alene wore to the Mission Beach Ballroom and the black-and-white checkered suit in which Alene graduated from high school and a jacket for her brother (“he was the clotheshorse of the family”) into which her mother sewed a Lion’s department store label. Her mother had access to labels because she worked upstairs in the alterations department of Lion’s. “That’s how she ruined her eyes,” Alene says. “She was blind toward the last.”

Like Alene, Nancy Ketcham moved to San Diego the year the stock market crashed. “My family moved here from Imperial Valley in 1929. It was so hot over there that my mother got sick, so we moved over here. I was four.”

Mother stayed home then, Nancy says, but her mother and the other women on the block did piecework in their free time even if they didn’t like to sew. “They made little scarves and they made little dickeys and things to go around the neck.” The collars and scarves were then sold to manufacturers in L.A.

Nancy started attending Alice Birney Grade School when she was four, which was too early, she says, and she never did catch up. From there she went to the old Horace Mann Junior High School and then to the gray castle. “San Diego High School was a beautiful school then.” Nancy remembers not a uniform but a dress code that required students to wear blue and white and that angora sweaters were very popular. The thicker the angora, the more expensive the sweater, and “we had a lot of girls who were from pretty wealthy families, and they had, of course, the real thick angora sweaters and angora socks.” Nancy says she couldn’t have afforded angora, and she couldn’t, thank goodness, have worn it anyway — “I was allergic to it.”

Summers, Nancy rode her bicycle to Mission Beach, where she surfed and played volleyball. “During the war, my family didn’t have a car. My father went in the service and sold the car, and my mother didn’t drive, so we always did the streetcar bit.”

Like Alene, Nancy danced at the Mission Beach Ballroom, where she remembers listening to Harry James and Duke Ellington. She danced at a ballroom called Pacific Square on Pacific Boulevard, where one corner was called the “Jitterbug Jungle.”

To jitterbug, Nancy wore four-inch heels, a skirt with tights, or, on occasion, a zoot suit. “We’d wear ’em once in a while to some of the crazy dances. We actually had the huge, big legs and a key chain that went down to our knees and huge big shoulders — we looked like I don’t know what. We thought it was neat.”

In 1943, she says, “Most of the girls wore ‘V for Victory’ haircuts. The top of the hair had kind of a little cut in it, in a V.” Nancy didn’t wear hats to school or to USO dances at the Hotel Del, but when she went to Los Angeles, “it was almost required.” If a hat was required, so were gloves. Jitterbugging got you out of both, because you couldn’t dance in a hat. “I never was a hatty person,” Nancy says.

Beatrice Watson came to California in 1944, when Nancy Ketcham was jitterbugging and working as a switchboard operator at the El Cortez Hotel. Beatrice was Catholic, and she wore hats to church every Sunday, which meant that she also wore gloves. Her daughter did the same. “It was the thing to do,” she says. “You matched your shoes, your gloves, and your hat. You wore the same color all the way through.”

Although Beatrice still has, at age 72, all of her gloves, it was the hats she loved. “I tell you,” she says, “if there’s any piece of clothing I liked, it was hats. Some people go buy shoes when they’re depressed. I used to buy hats.”

She owned about ten hats at a time, of all different styles. “It didn’t matter as long as it looked nice on me. I wouldn’t wear something just because it was in style. If it didn’t look good on me, I didn’t buy it. I had so many — the brims down, the big brims, small pillbox hats, tams.”

Tams were practical because they were easy to pack. “You could just lay them flat and then you could wear them to church on Sunday.”

When Beatrice first came to California, she brought three or four hats in hatboxes because she was used to wearing hats and gloves even when she went to the movies, “but then right away in California you saw that people didn’t do that. And so you just stopped. You’d sometimes carry your gloves, but you just didn’t wear them.”

Anne Wayman was born in Fallbrook in the midst of the war. It was 1943, and Fallbrook didn’t have a real hospital yet or any streetlights. When Anne was very young, her parents went to air-raid watches, and they posted silhouettes of fighter planes on the refrigerator because “we were afraid the Japanese were going to attack the mainland.

“I also remember my folks kept a selection of booze to entertain people, and they had some White Horse Scotch.” The bottle came with a tiny plastic horse on a chain around its neck, and Anne was permitted to go downstairs into the pantry, open the door to the crawl space where the liquor was kept, and take the little horse off the White Horse Scotch.

The Waymans were an old Fallbrook family. Anne’s great-grandfather had been the pastor of the Methodist church where Anne’s family still went on Sundays and where she always, as a girl, wore a hat. Her father owned a real estate office, and with his father, he helped settle a part of town called Winterwarm. “They essentially dragged people down from L.A. on the train. Wouldn’t let them go until they bought.”

At the Mission Theater downtown, where it cost 50 cents to see a movie, Anne saw her first film, Bambi. “We wore dresses,” she says. “Girls always wore dresses.

“The earliest fashion memory I’ve got was when I went to visit my grandmother in Chico. My folks drove me down here to the airport, to Lindbergh Field when the terminal was on the other side. And I got on a DC-3 through the back end of it, and I wore a coat, a hat, and gloves. I was probably six or seven,” so the year was 1949 or 1950.

When Anne was growing up, she and her mother drove to downtown Oceanside or San Diego to shop. In Oceanside, “there was a store that had an escalator, and then next door was the Dutch Bakery, where you could get the best — and I mean swear-to-God the best tuna sandwiches. On white bread, of course.”

In fifth grade, Anne’s mother took her all the way to Marston’s, which also had an escalator, to pick out the clothes she would wear at Parnell Preparatory school in Yorba Linda. It was the early ’50s, and her mother bought her a sweater set, a plaid skirt, and a pair of Ultrasuede flats, all the exact same shade of avocado green. “It was finding the shoes that, in my mind, pulled the whole thing together. You know how you watch your shoes when you walk? I did that a lot with those shoes. The other stuff was fine, but it was the shoes that were the pièce de résistance.”

The next year, Marston’s fitted Anne for her first bra, “and the next fashion memory I have was in seventh grade, when we girls were allowed to wear Capris.” Jeans were still out of the question, but once a month, girls could wear Capris (close-fitting pants that stopped at mid-calf) instead of dresses and skirts. “I didn’t really think women should wear Capris at school,” Anne says. “It felt very bold to me. Very, very bold.”

Anne’s older cousin, who was in her first year of studies at UCLA, came for a visit the following year. By then it was about 1955. The cousin had the audacity to wear Bermuda shorts in downtown Fallbrook, and although Anne thought her cousin looked great in them, “I just couldn’t imagine wearing shorts in public that way.”

The next shocking development came when Anne was a sophomore at Fallbrook High, and there was “a huge brouhaha over spaghetti straps.” It all started with the McCann twins — small-breasted, blonde, gorgeous girls who wore spaghetti-strapped sundresses to school. “And they were not promiscuous girls at all,” Anne says, “but the powers that be decided that spaghetti straps were too risqué.” She adds that it was also against the rules to be pregnant on campus. “We protested that, too,” Anne says, “by all wearing pillows under our shirts one afternoon.” The protest annoyed everyone, but it “didn’t make a bit of difference.”

Anne graduated from high school in 1960. It was about then that she went with her father to San Francisco for a real estate convention. “San Francisco was the dress-up city,” she says. “I don’t remember whether we wore a hat and gloves on the plane, but we certainly wore a hat and gloves in San Francisco.”

San Francisco, she thinks, was “the last holdout on the West Coast for hats and gloves.”

The Marston Company, whose millinery department opened in the spring of 1880, doesn’t sell hats downtown anymore. The escalator, the mannequins, the glass counters, the new clothes — all were acquired in 1961 by the largest West Coast department store group of the time, Broadway-Hale, which promptly opened stores in the suburbs. If you want a hat now — and you wouldn’t want one for anything but a wedding, a funeral, a day at the beach, or a very good box seat at the Del Mar racetrack — you could still ride a streetcar and an escalator to the fashion accessories department in Nordstrom, where the hats sell, according to the salesgirls, at the average rate of six per day.

The hats for the spring of 1998 looked like the hats at Marston’s in 1935, when straw brims were said in newspaper ads to “know the witchery of a forward flare.” In a brown polyester cloche with a brown satin flower ($125), or the crumpled black sisal cloche, or a $200 blocked straw hat the color and texture of crème brûlée, you could pretend it was 1924, but the illusion would be brief. Beyond the carpet and glass of the fashion accessory department, nobody’s wearing a hat, and only those wearing bell bottoms could be said to know the witchery of a forward flare. — Laura McNeal

Originally published in the Reader on September 3, 1998

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