Haute History with Kathy McDermott: Decades of Fashion in One Evening

Ildiko Szabo, organizer of the Illuminate Your Spirit evening series at Youville Assisted Living, holds up the mirror for fashion expert (and impromptu photographer) Kathleen McDermott, shown in the reflection with Youville residents Jeanne Wise, Clare Chapman and Mary-Lou Pardue, during an evening “hat party” on Tuesday, August 4th at Youville House.

Kathy McDermott, fashion historian and hat designer, joined residents for dinner at Youville House on Tuesday, August 4th. Not your typical dinner guest, she arrived with 30 whimsical hats of her own making, placing a hat at each table setting to encourage residents to wear them. As these photos attest, residents were more than willing to comply!

Kathy reminded us how the millinery shops of the 40s and 50s would pay close attention to their clients' facial features when fitting them for hats. Hats could be chosen to accentuate or hide certain features, to create the most flattering results possible. Kathy was adept at matching residents with hats that brought out their most endearing qualities. During the course of pinning the headpieces and finding the right angle, conversation flowed and giggles echoed through the Atrium.

Even Youville staff members came to investigate the source of this frolic, and soon became swept up in it! Kathy began to fit staff members with hats, many of whom wore them throughout the evening.

This memorable dinner preceded Kathy’s anticipated evening program at Youville: “History of Fashion: 1920s to the 1970s.” Residents – even men! – crowded into the All Day Cafe to hear more from the magnetic “hat lady” who had created such a stir at dinner. Kathy’s presentation, accompanied by slide show illustrations, took us through decades of fashion history.

Until the 1920s women wore similar clothes revealing very little of their anatomy. The first liberation movement began with the right to vote in 1919 – was it a coincidence that this was also the time women began to reveal their ankles? Hemlines rose, hairstyles evolved, and hats were a part of it all. The cloche hat became a symbol of “flapper” fashion. Coco Channel introduced knits and the iconic little black dress that liberated women. Hollywood ushered in the 1930s with whimsical, tipped hats matching shiny, slinky dresses. Surrealism and art influenced fashion, reaching the height of expression with the shoe hat!

The war years restricted feminine expression. Female fashion reverted to the “strong woman” image, with women dressed in similar, even masculine styles. Hats became one of the few ways to add a personal touch to one’s appearance, and millinery shops sprang up in many towns.

The fashion industry dictated what we wore in the 50s and 60s, with women wearing highly coordinated outfits and matching accessories. Gloves, handbags and hats became fashion statements. Then, women rebelled in the 1970s, ending the dominance of the fashion industry. Women joined movements and marched for equal rights. Photographs started to show them wearing what they pleased, with no two women looking alike.

These remarkable shifts in fashion were reflected in the living memories of the audience at Youville House. As Kathy facilitated discussion, residents recalled their own personal moments from the bygone eras of fashion. One resident, an MIT professor, recalled when women’s trousers did not have pockets, and she would lose her keys. Others recalled having to hide their feminism to compete in a man’s world.

The evening flew by and while we all enjoyed the camaraderie and the laughter an underlying thought went through our minds: we’ve come a long way, baby!

-Ildiko Szabo, Community Life Coordinator