let us now praise famous feedsacks

While my interests in literature, rural culture, and fashion history seldom intersect, when they do it leaves a strong impression! From one of my most cherished books, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, here is James Agee describing one 1930s rural woman's wardrobe in beautiful detail :

Saturday, Mrs. Gudger:
Face, hands, feet and legs are washed.
The hair is done up even more tightly than usual.
Black or white cotton stockings.
Black lowheeled slippers with strapped insteps and single buttons.
A freshly laundered cotton print dresses held together high at the throat with a ten-cent brooch.
A short necklace of black glass beads.
A hat.
She has two pairs of stockings. She sometimes goes bare-legged to Cookstown, on saturdays, but always wears stockings on sundays.

The dress is one of two she would not be ashamed to wear away from home: they are not yet worn-down or ineradicably spotted. In other respects it is like all her other dresses: made at home, of carefully selected printed cotton cloth, along narrow variants of her own designing, which differs from some we saw and is probably a modified inheritance from her mother: short sleeves, a rather narrow skirt several inches longer than is ordinary. No kind of flaring collar, but in some of them, an effort to trim with tape. They are all cut deep at the breast for nursing, as all her dresses must have been for ten years now. The lines are all long, straight, and simple.
I think at most she has five [dresses], of which two are never worn further away from home than the Woods'. Three are one-piece dresses; two are in two pieces. By cut they are almost identical; by pattern of the print they differ, but are similar in having been carefully chosen, all small and sober, quiet patterns, to be in good taste and relieve one another's monotony. ...They have about them some shadow of nineteenth century influence, tall skirt, short waist, and a little, too, of imitation of Butterick patterns for housewives' housework-dresses; this chiefly in the efforts at bright or 'cheery', post-honeymoon-atmosphere trimming: narrow red or blue tape sewn at the cuffs or throat. But by other reasons again they have her own character and function: the lines are tall and narrow, as she is, and little relieved, and seem to run straight from the shoulders to the hem low on the shins, and there is no collar, but a long and low V at the throat, shut narrowly together, so that the whole dress like her body has the long vertical of a Chartres statue.

To learn more about James Agee and Walker Evans' landmark book documenting Depression-era sharecropping families, here is a good review.


  1. That is a wonderful account of Mrs. Gudger. I often yearn to know what women wore on a day-to-day basis. We get lots of photos of women in the city but very few in the country.

  2. This account has always stood out in my mind, too - especially the mention of the price of the brooch fastened at her neck. In an era when money was so tremendously scare for many, it seems especially poignant that such a point was included in Mrs. Gudger's description.

    ♥ Jessica

  3. I love that book so much, he's so meticulous about his descriptions. Sometimes it's the smallest details that reveal the most information about a person & their life. Oh man, now I want to reread it. Thanks for the reminder!
    xo Sara

  4. Amazing images, reminding me of Dorothea Lange's depression era photography.

  5. What a beautiful excerpt, I'm going to have to put that on my to-read list ASAP. And the pictures!

  6. Wow, I'm going to have to read this! What amazing descriptions. What contrast to the fashion plates and movie stars we often get inspiration from.

  7. thanks , dakota!
    with all our enthusiasm about vintage we often forget how hard life was for many at that time. I think we can take an example of the sufficiency of rural people at that time. that a dress had to hold for 10 years! and that was not just with dresses. all things were durable, have been maintained, often passed down to the next generations.
    But precisely at this time the turbo capitalism began to inundate the world with goods which will break as soon as possible. and everyone jumped on it. and that carousel turns faster and faster.
    sorry for the grumbling.

  8. This was great, thank you. The details are so interesting to me, and humbling.


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