Retro-dressing my characters

By Sally Carpenter

One of the challenges of writers of historical mysteries is clothing their characters. As fashions change continually, authors must carefully research their time period for accuracy.

My new cozy is set in 1967, a period that should be easy to clothe, right? When I was growing up in the ‘60s I wasn’t interested in fashion. My mother sewed all my clothes and I didn’t buy my own clothing until college. My memory of what people wore at the time is vague and limited.

So I consulted books and learned about Mary Quant and the groovy, hip styles. However, my book is set in the rural Midwest—similar to where I grew up—and the hot fashions of the New York runway never made it west. Growing up, I didn’t see anyone on the streets wearing love beads or Nehru jackets or batik prints or even miniskirts. The ordinary Jane Doe didn’t dress like Emma Peel.

What to do? I found a terrific book titled “Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs mid 1960s.” That’s right, the book contains full-color illustrations of the merchandise sold in the mail-order catalogs. It’s a wealth of information of what the common person wore as they shopped at Sears, not high-end boutiques.

Women’s clothes of the ‘60s were less restrictive than the ‘50s. Gone were the girdles and mounds of petticoats holding up poodle skirts. Pantyhose replaced nylon stockings for a practical reason. Individual stockings required garter belts to hold them up, but the stocking clips could be seen under miniskirts. Pantyhose provided a seamless visual line as well as some modesty if the skirt flipped up.

But some ‘50s holdovers remained into the ‘60s. The catalogue book has several pages of women’s hats, and when ladies put on a hat, they wore gloves as well. Jackie Kennedy made the pillbox hat a must-have at the time. So I will occasionally put my 26-year-old heroine in a hat because it looks far out and while she’s tough, she isn’t a total tomboy.

The Sears book has no miniskirts! The dresses and skirts hit the knee or just below. A black “dance” dress is shorter, with the hem only about two inches above the knee “to allow movement.” Miniskirts were not practical for everyday women working in offices, stores or schoolrooms.

The book also has far more dresses than pants for women. Women in white- and pink-collar jobs generally wore dresses and seldom  pantsuits on a night out. I had to rethink my character’s wardrobe. I’m putting her in more dresses than I anticipated, but that’s OK. She looks groovy in skirts. And she’s in pants for the “action” scenes that require running and climbing.

I found no women’s jeans in the catalog book, although I did spot a denim jacket and skirt outfit. Women’s dungarees (jeans) had been around in the ‘50s, but only for casual wear or factory/farm work. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s jeans were associated with biker gangs, hoods and rowdy rock bands. Only by mid ‘60s did jeans gain popularity. In fact, faded and patched jeans were stylish.

The few shoes in the book are mostly flats, a surprise as I thought most women in dresses wore heels. Flat heels permit more movement and are less painful for the feet. However, the pencil skirts of the time prevented women from taking long strides and forced them to move their hips more when walking.

Watching TV shows and movies of the era is a another great way to do research. One can see not only what women wore but also how they moved in the slim skirts and short hems. One of my heroine’s dresses is based on an outfit Barbara Feldon wore in “Get Smart.”

In the ‘60s, not everyone jumped on the fashion bandwagon. The older generation, i.e., my parents, continued to wear older styles. Few women in my hometown wore pants in public. My mother only put on pants once in her adult life and I thought they looked weird on her.

I’m writing from my experience. No doubt many older women of the ‘60s embraced pants and other hip styles—just not in my neighborhood.

Of course my cozy has hippies. They dressed differently from the “square” townsfolk to express their individually and distain for the “establishment.” The Sears book didn’t have hippie clothes–no surprise there–but I found examples in other books. Surprisingly, hippies shopped at war surplus stores. This seems odd considering their opposition to the war, but perhaps the reason was that the merchandise sold cheap.

Men’s fashions haven’t changed much over the years. The suit-and-tie has remained standard wear forever, although the ‘70s put a spin on that with the huge lapels, wild pastel colors and paisley shirts. The men in my book mostly wear regular shirts and pants except for the occasional denim overalls (this is farm country after all) and suspenders. And maybe a couple of bellbottoms.

In looking through the Sears book, I was struck at the beauty of the clothes. The models look feminine but not girlish, pretty yet confident, stylish but not too dated. Modern women’s clothing has a drab “unisex” look that I dislike. I’d love to wear some of the fashions in the Sears book. Let’s go retro!




6 thoughts on “Retro-dressing my characters

  1. We lived in a remote area. My mom purchased all of our clothes from the Sears catalog in the 60’s. I remember when I was a freshman in high school (72) girls were wearing jeans to school, but this was a framing ranching community. However, my mom wouldn’t let me wear jeans to school. I had to wear slacks or dresses. I wore a lot of dresses because the slacks back then didn’t fit me well. Boys jeans, my brother’s hand-me-downs fit my torso better.

    What fun it sounds like you are having with your new series. Good luck with it!


    1. Hi Paty. My freshman year in high school (1971) was the first year that girls were allowed to wear pants! I wore dresses for six months and finally turned to pants some of the time. Since mom made all my clothes, I never had jeans until I went to college and bought my own. But with store bought pants, the legs were never long enough. I didn’t discover tall sizes until decades later. Yeah, I’m having fun with the book, but I wish I could take a month off my job and finish it! It’s been dragging on forever.


    1. Hi Anne, old TV ads are good too in finding what products were available at the time. My hometown had Sears, JC Penny and Monkey Ward stores, all of which are long gone. I remember the Penny store quite well. It had a mezzanine and third floor. Can’t recall if it had stairs or elevators.


  2. Great research with the Sears catalog. I’d forgotten bell bottoms. They were huge, literally. The bells were really wide, and I knew kids who thought it was cool to wear them so long they walked on them, their heels wearing away the back of the hems. 1967 sticks in my mind as a year when the fashion in women’s bodies changed. (Isn’t that crazy? That there even ARE fashions in something so unique and personal as the shape of your body?) I went from being teased for being so skinny to being envied for it when Twiggy came on the scene. Hippie hair hadn’t quite taken over–that came in ’68. In ’67 girls with curly hair like my sister used to iron it to make it straighten out. In ’68, the Janis Joplin look was popular, and people like me with straight hair used to braid it wet to get those bumpy waves. This went with the “granny dress” fad, long loose cotton dresses, that came so fast on the heels of miniskirts. My mother loved fashion, and I think she lived it vicariously through letting her daughters indulge in outfits that a middle-aged English professor couldn’t consider. I had some very short skirts, some paisley, some tie-dye, and some ludicrous hip-hugger bell-bottoms that snapped open or shut up the side of the bell. (Now I ignore fashion completely, which is okay, since Truth or Consequences NM is old-hippie-land anyway.) Your observations about how certain skirts made women walk reminds me how wonderful those granny dresses were. It was like being able to go out in your nightgown.


    1. Hi Amber, thanks for your input. I better stay away from the Janis Joplin look, as my book’s a year too early. But I have a hippie and she’s going to wear her hair any way she wants. In my youth, mom sewed my dresses. One time she was hemming it (I had it on) and I insisted she make the hem shorter! I don’t think she did. Back then I had long skinny legs and looked good in short skirts. Now I want my dresses as long as possible!


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