Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Vintage advice on dressing to find a husband

“You have to take an enormous amount of trouble to catch a man permanently”
Poppy Richard, in The Intelligent Women's Guide to Good Taste, 1958

Wedding dress, photographed by John French, 1960s. Via

The dreaded day is approaching – that’s Valentine’s Day, of course – when, if you’re single like me, it can feel like a forced examination as to where you’ve managed to get your life so wrong. Normally in times like this, I turn to my vintage style guides for a spot of soothing consolation.

In February 1952, Ladies Home Journal offered a “quick inventory for bachelor girls” (as quoted in the wonderful Bachelor Girl book):

“What about your … hair, complexion, clothes? Are you are good talker, dancer, listener? Do you have a sense of humour? Outside interests? … If anything is lacking you must go to the hairdresser, psychiatrist, whatever is needed. Only then are you ready to face the world.”

Cripes. It’s clearly time for me to take action.


Edith Head devotes a whole chapter in How To Dress for Success (1967) to ‘How to Dress to Get a Man … and Keep Him’. One of her first pieces of advice (completed by the thrill of italics)

‘Count the available men you see every day – at the office, at church, at the railroad station, at the skating rink, the country club or the beach. One of them may just be for you.’

(My count, seeing as I work from home most days = 0)

The delights of the Little Black Dress, as demonstrated in Charm is Not Enough by Mary Young (1965) 


Once identified, according to Head the next step is to “ask yourself if you measure up to the challenge of attracting him with what you wear every day.”

Other designers offer some vague pieces of wisdom on this. Dior, for example, who councils “I would not advise anyone to wear big jewels and expensive furs before marriage,” in the Little Dictionary of Fashion (1954).

The Intelligent’s Women’s Guide to Good Taste
, meanwhile, is more particular in its advice – but trickier to pull off:

“Dressing to please men is an art not quickly mastered. Men like women to look smart but are alarmed by anything too avant garde. Furthermore, their natural appreciation of clinging lines and diaphanous fabrics is tempered by their anxiety for your reputation in the eyes of their friends. One must learn to walk the tight-rope between these two sets of conflicting ideals. On the whole, it is better to be under- rather than over-dressed by day. At night, all men expect you to take trouble – that is, put on your lowest frock – but soft-pedal on the Marilyn Monroe stuff even if you have got the curves. It is a waste of time consulting men about clothes. Only one in ten thousand knows the first thing about them. Decide for yourself. It prevents argument.”

Head, however, gets specific. She decides that “men fall readily into five categories or types” – that’s the ‘Outdoor Type or Sportsman’, the ‘sophisticated Man-about-town’, the ‘Shy Conservative Man’, the ‘Far-Out Intellectual’ and, ‘everybody’s dreamboat’, ‘The Successful Executive’. Once you've found out all about your target, “you can easily decide which group your man fits into and dress accordingly. Instead of shopping madly for a lot of new clothes selected without plan, buy with him in mind.”


Successful dreamboat Executive in mind, it’s time to think about the finishing touches. For this, I’ve turned to Mary Young’s Charm is Not Enough from 1965. At first her advice is comforting: “the young man in our life is much more likely to prefer to see us looking (and behaving) naturally … Men don’t seem to mind what you do to the colour of your hair, so long as it looks quite natural, simply styled, well cared for, and shining”. But, before you dare to leave the house barefaced, she continues with the dire warning: “This doesn’t mean that we can lower our standards in any way with regard to grooming, dress and make-up.” Okay, right...

Advert for Chlorodent toothpaste, via


Sorry, no let up here either. According to Head, the formula for success is simple: “If you can make yourself interesting to look at and interesting to be with your attraction for the opposite sex will be more than satisfactory.” Easier said than done, especially when you consider that her advice for women on search for a husband while travelling is “your costume must be impeccable, your luggage interesting and your reading matter carefully chosen to invite conversation.”

And there’s an inevitable amount of surrender too. A 1945 US Government “readjustment” guide (again quoted in Bachelor Girl) advises “Let him know you are tired of living alone … You want him to take charge. You want now to have your nails done.” Lilly Daché’s chapter ‘How to get – and keep – a husband’ in her Glamour book (1956) offers more of the same, subscribing to Burt Bacharach’s “Don’t send him off/With your hair still in curlers’ Wives and Lovers type of philosophy. “This is the thing that every successful wife must learn”, she concludes. “Happiness is to be tended and cultivated just as carefully as a plant which you value in your garden.”

Dishes Men Like cookbook, 1952. Via


As I was beginning to despair of both myself and the chore that seems to be husband hunting, I was delighted to discover Elizabeth Hawes' Anything but Love, a satire on exactly this kind of advice that's freely offered in books, magazines and advertising, and the seeming mission, post the Second World War that “Every American girl must get a husband, a home and children. Any other program for life is worse than death.”

Her words nicely spear the advice of Head et al, noting that, apparently, “the husband is acquired by titillation; falsification of appearance; and permitting him to believe anything he wants whether it be true or false, except in the matter of religion.”

Life Can Be Wonderful, magazine illustration, via

It also is a reminder – then as now – that the beauty and fashion industry have a big a role to play in making us feel just as bad as they make us feel good:

“Five out of five men are said to look twice at any girl in a black dress. Whether or not the same number would look at any girl in any colour dress is not important. For They would like to get every woman into black and keep her there. This is because black washes a woman out as not colour does and therefore necessitates more and more make-up as you get older.”

A depressing thought, however, is that Anything But Love was published in 1948 to counteract the deluge of propaganda encouraging women to leave the workplace and get back to being wives and mothers postwar. All the other texts quoted date from after the 1940s, showing this attitude simply didn’t go away. And, some of the advice quoted is probably still familiar if you pick up a teen or women’s magazine today. So, I’m choosing to try and keep a straight head, channel Elizabeth Hawes, and dismiss it all. At least, except for this final, vaguely sensible-sounding piece of advice from Edith Head:

“Don’t masquerade in clothes that you hate just to attract a man. Be sure you are really, deep-down his type of girl. If you aren’t – find another man.”

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  1. I feel exhausted just reading that... and wondering if it is worth all that effort

    1. It does sound exhausting, doesn't it? I don't think I've got it into me to be 'interesting' and 'impeccable' at all times!


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