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