Currently Reading – American Style and Spirit

American Style and Spirit: Fashion and Lives of the Roddis Family, 1850 – 1995 is the companion book to an exhibition currently showing at The Henry Ford Museum in Deerborn, Michigan.  Don’t be concerned that you’ve never heard of the Roddis family, as that is part of the point.  The clothing is that of an upper middle class family, and as such is not the couture clothing often featured in fashion exhibitions.

Instead, we are given a look at what many “average” Americans were wearing in the years the book and exhibition cover.  I love this very “slice of life” approach to fashion history.  Several exhibitions and books have been mounted on the wardrobes of the rich and famous (Isis Apfel, Heather Firbank, Anne Bonfoey Taylor) but this close look at the clothing of one extended family is a fresh approach to fashion history.

First, let me give you  a bit of Roddis background.  They lived in Marshfield, Wisconsin, where the family was in the wood veneer and plywood business.  The fortunes of the family mirror those of US history in general, with times being tight during the Great Depression, but booming during WWII and afterward. The family shopped a lot in Chicago, but some of the women were also accomplished dressmakers, and many of the clothes in the collection are home sewn.

The clothes were stored in the attic (actually a large closet) of the Roddis family home, and for years were preserved by Augusta Roddis.  When she died in 2011, the clothes passed to her niece, Jane Bradbury (co-author of the book).  In 2014, Bradbury donated most of the clothes to the Henry Ford Museum.

In addition to the clothing were all the family photographs and many family documents including letters.  Because this documentation still exists, Bradbury and co-author Edward Maeder were able to identify the original wearers of most of the items.  Many are shown in the photos, and some are even described in letters.  It’s a remarkable archive.

Silk chiffon dress with cotton lace, c.1910. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Photo by Gillian Bostock Ewing. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury.

This dress was worn by Sara Roddis, Augusta’s grandmother.  There are two portraits showing Sara wearing this dress, one circa 1895, in which the dress has the large puffy sleeves of the day.  The sleeves were later altered to the shape you see in the photo.  Sara wore the altered version for a photo taken in 1910.  It’s the inclusion of these photos that makes the book so interesting.

“Cocktail”, a silk taffeta evening dress designed by the newly prominent designer, Gladys Parker, 1934. Photo by Gillian Bostock Ewing From the collections of The Henry Ford Museum. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury

This 1934 dress belonged to Augusta Roddis.  The authors found an advertisement for the dress in the March 10, 1934 New York Times.  It is possible she bought the dress at Best & co., the store in the ad, or she may have gotten it closer to home in another store.  Augusta mentioned in a letter to a sister that she was planning to wear the dress to a ball in 1936, as it was a first date and the young man had not seen the dress before.  Since it cost $36 – quite an extravagance – she wanted to get as much wear as possible from it.

Formal portrait of Augusta by Kay Carrington, 1937. Roddis Family Photo Archive. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury.

This 1937 portrait of Augusta shows her in another favorite gown.  Made in 1932, it originally belonged to an older sister and was handed down to Augusta when she went to Northwestern University.  The dress was made of a creme silk taffeta with a huge magenta velvet bow on the back.  The Roddis women seemed to have a knack for choosing clothing that would remain in style over a period of years.

Rear view (detail) of printed rayon/cotton day dress by Samuel Kass, designed for “Tuya” perfume. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Photo by Gillian Bostock Ewing. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury

This is another dress belonging to Augusta Roddis.  There is a photograph of her on the Queen Mary in 1949 wearing this dress.

Still Life portraying the Roddis women’s shopping trips. Photo by Doug Mindell. Courtesy of Jane Bradbury.

The book is full of “still life” photographs that feature clothing, accessories, and ephemera from the Roddis collection.  This one shows items from the 1950s.

I am enjoying this book so much, and really wish a trip to Deerborn were in my plans as I’d love to see the exhibition.  I’m hoping it will travel, as this is such a great study of the fashions of one family.  Maybe some other families with similar attics will see this and take steps to keep their collection together for study.  We can hope!

I was sent a pdf copy of the book for review, but I love it so much that I will be purchasing a hard copy.



Filed under Currently Reading, Museums

19 responses to “Currently Reading – American Style and Spirit

  1. Lizzie, thanks so much for this post! The book is right up my alley, and I’ll be purchasing a copy myself!


  2. Katy Wilkins

    I only have one issue with this. The description is that this collection depicts and everyday family over the generations, and what they wore as opposed to the wealthy families.

    There is no “everyday” family of middle means who had selections of ball gowns (they didn’t fool to nor were they invited to balls), who took trips on the Queen Mary, or who even sent their daughters off to university, again supplied with ball gowns. I have never seen a regular family whose kids had formal portraits like that of Augusta in formal wear. It is misleading to imply these were just “regular” people, they were no more representative of the vast majority of middle class families than Iris Apfel is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Katy Wilkins

      Stupid autocorrect. “Didn’t fool” to = couldn’t afford to


      • I hope I made it clear that the family was upper middle class. They were certainly lucky in many ways financially, but were not part of the very rich. Especially during and after WWII the family’s fortunes increased, allowing luxurious trips and such. But their letters show that before that time money was always a concern, and they were quite frugal.


  3. seweverythingblog

    Thanks for the review. On my way to order the book! Like you, I love family stories of the American past, especially when there’s a lot of current fashion.


  4. I just saw the exhibit yesterday and actually thought of you while there. I was so surprised to see this as your post today. You really should visit the exhibit and the museum. Both are just fabulous!


    • How great that you were able to see the exhibition! I’ve seen quite a few photos on Instagram of people visiting it. And thanks for thinking of me!

      I had tentatively planned a visit for late April or early May, as we will be in Ohio and Illinois, but then I realized it ends on April 2. Bummer…


  5. As I have no plans to be in Michigan -wish I were still traveling for business- I would like to see the exhibit. I will get the book-great title! I always found it interesting re: “social stations”. The “upper middle class women” always seemed to continuously strive for the appearance of being “old money”! Taking trips-shuffling to clubs/needing to be seen/belong. Real aristocracy old “establishment” are/were VERY casual in/ with their approach to fashion! For the most part – more interested in sportswear-suits-spending big 4 on that- the occasional “ball gown” was often a real chore! And couture was for a select few that resembled the “upper middle” striving for attention! At least the women I knew n New York and Palm Beach! Keeping up appearances !


    • Excellent points. In the small town I grew up in, there were no truly wealthy, except maybe for the owners of the paper mill who pretty much lived in Ohio. But the families of the upper management and the doctors and so on did manage to look richer than the factory workers’ families!


  6. Hi Lizzie, I am reading this book too and I love it and was going to blog about it soon. The only thing I don’t like is the dress on the cover! One delight I notice about the family was they seemed very close-knit. I don’t know anything about Wisconsin but I’m fascinated with the Roddis’. I adore the still-life’s in the book especially and the text is enganging.


  7. I wonder if the exhibit will travel–it seems like this is an approach to fashion that many people will appreciate. Did you catch the New York Times story comparing this exhibit to the next one planned for the Met? They framed it as “clothes” versus “art.” I know which one I would rather see!


    • I did read the NYT review, and was a bit put out that it was again the same old “Fashion Is Art” blah,blah,blah from Andrew Bolton at the Met. I appreciate that the Met is collecting clothing as art. It is an art museum, after all. But Andrew, we are all convinced that fashion IS art, okay? You can stop now.

      Actually the article did clearly put out the museum’s current collection policy, and to be very boring and cliche, it is what it is. And I like that at least some of the historical garments are included in the latest exhibition, even if they do seem to be relegated to being mere “influences.” It’s rather like showing Japanese prints alongside Van Gogh.


  8. JennR

    I saw the exhibition last week. There are ball gowns, true, but the focus really seems to be more on everyday clothes — travelling suits (women’s and men’s), day dresses, office clothes, and some toddler things as well. The truly everyday clothes — equivalent to today’s jeans or yoga pants — probably weren’t saved, and thus aren’t in the exhibit. There was menswear, too. I don’t know if those are shown in the book or not (I would hope they are). There’s an interesting little exhibit at the end where people talk about what clothes *they* have saved.

    The Roddis were accomplished seamstresses — their ‘homemade’ garments are very well made, and they had obviously spent some time on the fabric and notion choice.


  9. That must be a fascinating exhibition. And it is good to get an idea of what ordinary people were actually wearing. Whenever I go to the Fashion Museum in Bath, I love it, but I also notice how little relation each year’s ‘dress of the year’ bears to what people actually wear. Makes me wonder how much use those garments will be for future study.


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