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Lost Elegance

Day dreaming about a return to the elegance of the 30’s and 40’s or perhaps a fashion renaissance

As to clothing fashions, I will forever remain stuck in the 1930’s and 40’s.  My parents are responsible, not only because of the way they dressed, but because my mother was addicted to movies which my sister and I watched with her while my railroad switchman father worked nights or swing shifts at the railroad yard in Idaho Falls.  Because we did not own an automobile until 1948, we had to walk about a mile to town. 

Seeing the bright neon lights on nearly every building and entering the grand theaters only heightened our movie experience. The Rio had a huge awning extending out over the sidewalks, glowing with hundreds of lights, a ticket booth made from beautiful green stone  trimmed with brass, and a marble tiled lobby.  A red velvet curtain graced the stage.  During the 1940’s we were greeted at the Paramount Theater by a doorman taking tickets, dressed in a field marshals’ uniform with gold braid and buttons.  Young women, dressed in gold and maroon, or blue and silver satin costumes, guided us to our seats with their long red lensed flashlights.  All the lights, the Rio and the costumes have all long since vanished.

Among my earliest childhood memories was watching beautiful and handsome movie stars wearing glittering and elegant clothing in the black and white detective movies or musicals we watched at the Rio, Paramount, Gaety or Rex theaters.   My imagination was thrilled beyond measure during those early formative years when basic attitudes about life became set in stone.  Everyone seemed so glamourous.  Both the good guys and the bad guys wore fedora felt hats, pin striped suits, handkerchief in the breast pocket, with neck ties, and highly polished wing tipped leather oxford shoes.  Men were nearly always clean shaven except for the occasional thin Clark Gable style moustache.  Hair was suave and short, glistening with Vitalis, every hair in place.  Think Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd, Nat King Cole or Fred Astaire.  In those days men often wore hats and neckties even at ball games. 

Women also wore elegant hats during that era, along with gloves, matching handbags and shoes.  Their hair was softly waved or curled with every strand in place.  Think Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner or Lucille Ball.

Women usually wore dresses or skirts and jackets with shoulder pads.  The everyday dress featured fun prints, floral patterns or dots.  Their slinky floor length sequin trimmed evening gowns reflected sophisticated elegance.  Ginger Rogers was my favorite movie star from the black and white film era, especially in her films dancing with Fred Astaire.  Soft light glowed from her hair and countenance, and from her white or black satin gowns trimmed with sequins or fur.  My favorite Roger-Astaire film was “Roberta”, a work of art stunning beyond measure.

Clothing worn by average Americans was strongly influenced by the movies.  Dad kept two sharply creased Hart Schaffner Marx suits hanging in the closet along with a supply of carefully folded heavily starched white dress shirts ready to be worn at Elks Lodge gatherings or big band dances.  The large dance halls and big bands have also vanished from our town and the fraternal organizations are struggling to keep members.

My father wore only collared shirts, always tucked in, and never Levi jeans, preferring suntan pants and a fedora hat, even for yard work.  I cannot imagine my father wearing cargo shorts and sandals or a tee shirt with some profound message printed on the front.  People were not bill boards.

I have a dream-like precious childhood memory of my tall slender mother dressed in her long sleek gold trimmed black satin gown purchased in 1939 and accented with a black hat and elbow length black gloves.  We still own the gown which has frequently been modeled in vintage fashion shows.

Mother was a teacher who wore only dresses or skirts in class, as did all my female teachers.  Male teachers almost always wore jackets and ties.  For the first time in history, Katherine Hepburn and Marlena Dietrich made trousers popular for women, including my mother, but they were mostly worn for relaxation or outdoor activities.  Today some young women have never owned or worn a dress but they will sometimes wear shorts to display decorative tattoos on their legs.

The style of the 1940’s continued into the 1950’s.  Check any 1950’s Idaho high school yearbook and you will see every girl wearing a mid-calf dress in class or skirts with collared blouses or sweaters.  Red lipstick was very popular.  On game days about 100 girls in the Pep Club at Idaho Falls High School wore black skirts and sweaters with orange and black school emblems, white collars and black and white saddle oxfords.  The drill team wore cream colored skirts and orange sweaters, while lettermen wore black letter sweaters with orange stipes on the left sleeve.  Pep band members wore their orange sweaters.  Those truly grand and exciting school traditions have vanished.

Boys wore cotton or wool slacks or 501 Levi jeans, which had to look new to be in style, collared shirts, Vee necked sweaters, polished leather shoes and carefully combed hair often garnished with Wild Rose hair oil.

Today the typical dress for both boys and girls is denim jeans, often with holes torn in the front, shorts, tee shirts or sweat shirts.  One thing is certain, however, todays clothing is more comfortable than ever before in American history.

I often day dream about a return to the elegance of the 30’s and 40’s or that our society would experience a sort of fashion renaissance, but it will likely never happen.  We are too fondly attached to carefree, casual comfort.

EDITORS NOTE: Linden B. Bateman has resided his entire life in Idaho.  He served 16 years in the Idaho House of Representatives, including 4 years in legislative leadership as majority caucus chairman.  An author of many articles on history and politics, Linden currently lives in Idaho Falls with his wife, Deann.

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