What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s?
As a teenager I think movies had a great influence on us. As a young woman in the ‘40s, we all looked alike. We all had long hair turned under, like Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth. We brushed it 100 times a night, and we still had the little pompadour in the front. I think physical beauty was something we were always looking for. The figure had to be just so. You had to emphasize your waist, and of course, your boobs were very important. What we thought being pretty was all about was having a nice figure. Our hair was very important to us. Like I said, we all looked alike. We dressed alike.
There were a lot of things on the market after us too. I always remember the LifeBoy soap ad with “B-O.” Of course, we struggled not to have body odor so you always used a deodorant. It was Mum, which was a cream and which ruined your clothes.
I think (beauty) was mainly physical. We didn’t worry too much about the mental part. The intelligence part didn’t enter into it too much. And you had to be a good dancer. In the ‘40s, you had to be a good dancer because that was the era of the Big Band music, and it was very danceable. That was very important to us. I think we were pretty self-centered. We probably didn’t see beyond our own little world too much.
When we were in high school, we wore brown and white saddle shoes, and we wore skirts, blouses and sweaters. We went to a public school. The Catholic school didn’t provide transportation. I remember we had to iron our blouses on the weekends to have them ready for the week. In the winter, we wore ski pants (which were very heavy) and ski boots because it was very snowy. If you had to walk, it was very icy.
In the spring and autumn, we usually wore a skirt and sweater. In those days, sweater sets were inexpensive and came together. You wore a blouse and a sweater, and that was really your school uniform. Most everybody dressed the same. Except in the winter, we bundled up and wore ski suits. Since we lived 12 miles from the nearest village, we were picked up and transported to school.
We lived in the Adirondack Mountains growing up. When I was 17 or 18, my father sent us (my younger sister and me) to business school. He sent us to New York (City) at that age. We lived with an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn and commuted to Manhattan to school which was quite an experience for two kids who were inexperienced with the world. We found it quite a change to our lives because we had never ridden in a subway to school.
So we were going every morning in a subway…crowded subways, I might add, where anything could happen, and usually did. We were such innocents that we were very friendly and outgoing. Finally on one of our walks to the school from the subway station – where we said good morning to everybody we passed, including the policeman on the corner – finally after a couple of weeks, he told us that we had to not be so friendly because New York wasn’t the friendliest of cities. We had to really be careful.
That was kind of an eye-opener for us too, because in a small town, everybody knew you. They knew your business, and they knew when you misbehaved. Your father knew it when you got home because somebody had called him on the telephone and said you had done something. So you were disciplined when you got home.
Of course, we were young women during the war years and made sure we kept the troops happy. We went to dances. We went to the hotels. I lived in New York at that time, so we’d go to the hotels to hear the Big Bands. When we were in business school, we even sneaked out of school to hear Frankie at the Paramount and screamed like every other young girl. After business school, it was of course “Get a job,” which we did. We stayed in New York after that. We didn’t return back home to live.
I had a sister who was married to a serviceman who was living there, so we ended up moving in with her. Then when my parents divorced, my mother came and we all sort of lived in the same building together. When we went to business school, I wanted to be a dress designer. I wanted to go to the Pratt Institute. My younger sister (by 19 months) was very bright. She should have gone to college. But my father’s answer to that was “First you’re gonna learn to earn a living. Then you can do whatever you want.” And of course, the purpose of that was that he was going to leave my mother and wanted to make sure we were all earning a living and could take care of her, which we did.
So we all lived together…my sister and her two children living upstairs. We lived downstairs in a studio apartment, four of us in a studio apartment. We helped my sister with her children while her husband was overseas.
What does beauty mean to you now and why have your ideas about beauty changed over the years?
I still think I’m hung up on figures. I let myself go, which has been a big disappointment to me. I’ve gained a lot of weight. I keep excusing it and saying it’s part of aging. But it’s just because I like to eat. I haven’t met a food I don’t like.
I know some folks around here who I think are really beautiful…not physically beautiful, but they’re beautiful in their spirit. They’re very loving and affectionate. They don’t hesitate to respond to a show of affection on your part or they will inaugurate it. I think it’s the inner beauty which comes out as you age, not so much the outer beauty. You come to grips with yourself too. All the things you thought you’d do and want to do and haven’t done. You have to accept the fact that you’re fallible. And you have many regrets.
Frances, 88 (San Francisco)