Women’s Fashion (According To A 1976 Encyclopedia)

Remember how, before the internet, we had to read real, physical books to find things out? In my family, that meant turning to the cobalt-blue 1976 Encyclopedia Americana. One volume in the set was a yearbook that detailed the world events and current trends of the age. I was so obsessed with the fashion section — both out of genuine interest and childish snark — that the book still opens right to that page.

In the mid-90s, I turned to the Encyclopedia for help with Social Studies reports. In the mid-70s, people were turning to the Encyclopedia for help with looking as fly as possible. Such was the pre-internet age.

Let’s take a walk through 1976 fashion, as described in the vibrant pose of the Encyclopedia Americana editors.

  • “Chinese fashion”

    Shhh! Nobody can tell I’m Caucasian!

* Women’s fashion was “influenced by denim and China.” I hope that means you could buy a mandarin-collared denim dress or one of those flat rice-picking hat in Levi’s blue.

* The photo of the woman displaying “The Chinese look” looks like she’s wearing a kind of racist Halloween costume. I guess at least they didn’t say “Oriental?”

* Sometimes when I read this entry, I feel like a time-traveler from the future and wish that I could just save everyone without accidentally killing my own grandfather. The editors write that “politically, the effects of detente with China may not be known for years.” Not to spoil it, but the effects are a little known now and HOLY SHIT WE ALL NEED TO LEARN MANDARIN. What are you DOING, 1976? Stop importing their beautiful silk daywear because they are going to RUN us.

* Bitches wore mad “frog closings” and “coolie” jackets, I guess.

* OK, the encyclopedia DID end up saying Oriental, and they only capitalize it like half of the time. Casual racism is one thing, but casual racism AND sloppy copy-editing? I can’t.

  • Denim

* Real sentence: “The jean craze continued to mushroom at an unbelievable pace.”

* Another real sentence: “The better the figure was, the tighter the jean.” Hey 1976, could you please give that advice to literally everyone I saw at the bus stop the other day? Because the 2013 rule of thumb is apparently: “no matter what the hell your figure looks like, just say “screw it” and buys your pants 2 sizes too small.”

* In the “most horrible thing I’ve ever heard of in my life other than disease, hunger, and genocide” category: the “two-zipper” was in fashion. Jeans closed with two side front zippers instead of the usual fly front. I don’t even understand how this would work. Maybe one of you has an engineering degree and can help? I’m picturing a weird flap that would hang down, like an overall bib except in your crotch neighborhood, with a zipper on either side. If there’s one thing I definitely don’t need, it’s a 100% increase in the likelihood that I’ll forget to zipper my pants. I imagine that if you have any kind of stomach or side fat, it will accidentally get zippered into the “side front zippers” at least once.

* Unsurprising: “work” clothes like khaki fatigues, railroad overalls, and mechanic suits took off.

* Surprising: This “was an expression of the belief in the virtues of honest labor, even if the person wearing them was not engaged in it.” Encylcopedia Americana? You’re reaching. Although, sometimes I do wear a full McDonald’s uniform or nurses’ scrubs just to demonstrate that I believe in work. Who am I to talk?

  • Ladylike Dressing

* According to this section, sometimes women wore skirts and dresses, but other times they wore pants. That’s really the gist.

* Sometimes women wore suits, with “dramatic capes and soft coats” over “multilayers of separates.” The encyclopedia isn’t scratch-n-sniff, but I’m pretty confident they also smelled like sweat and patchouli.

  • The Sporting Life

* The jumper was back. A million home-schooling moms rejoiced, probably.

* Sweaters were “an education in ethnic artistic expression.” I’d complain about the cultural appropriation issues, but I am wearing “tribal” flats right now. I like to pretend that there is just a tribe of Target People who live in the basement of one of their warehouses in Indiana or somewhere, designing these things. I bet they even have native folk songs. Maybe that’s what Taylor Swift is.

  • Accessories

* Scarfs were worn big, in the “simple peasant style” or “elaborately as Arabian or African headdresses.” On behalf of white people, I apologize. This is really bad. I get annoyed at racist Halloween costumes, but apparently in 1976, every day was Racist Halloween.

You could even wear your scarf with an elaborate Art Deco costume while shopping in a general store from the 1800s.

* “Handbags ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

* “oriental jewelry” was popular (read: jade). They used the lower-case “o” for oriental, so this may just be jewelry worn to the east of other jewelry, not Asian-inspired as such.

  • The Feminine Foot

* Engineers, HELP. The earth shoe was “designed to lower the heel and raise the sole of the foot for comfort.” Does anyone know how that’s comfortable? They sound like those terrible McQueen cloven-hoof shoes.

Based on the above, here is a rough sketch of The Woman of 1976.

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American Girl Outfits I’d Wear Today: Samantha & Molly

My generation gets a lot of flack for being overly nostalgic before we’ve really earned the right to be. But first of all, as a kid in the 90s, I remember all of the gen-Xers were into 1970s childhood nostalgia. This is hardly new. Additionally, we were pretty much doomed to be nostalgic. I blame the American Girls Collection. It made all of us long for the past before we had even been in the present for more than 7 years. We never had a chance.

Here is our final installment of the American Girl Outfits I’d Wear Today series – Samantha and Molly. If you missed it, check out our coverage of  Felicity and Josefina and Kirsten and Addy.

Samantha Parkington

Samantha was really the it girl of the American Girl world. If you had at least one American Girl doll, it was probably Samantha. I mean, I didn’t , but that was because my teacher’s daughter had Samantha, and their dog ate it, so she passed the outfits on to me. My Molly doll was the same thing as Samantha, but with grey eyes, so once I had the outfits I was seriously all set.

I’ve read several articles and fashion blogs discussing the influence of Downton Abbey on today’s fashion, and the general consensus is “who would have thought that Edwardian style would ever be the thing?” Um, how about all of us who grew up in the 1990s and idolized Samantha Parkington’s well-tailored outfits, sleek furniture, and bangin’ Victorian mansion? Sidebar, since I was about five years old, with the exception of  high school and a few stabs at bobbed hair, I’ve had Samantha’s hair ‘do. Forget Zooey Deschanel. Samantha Parkington’s are the bangs that defined a generation.

Samantha’s Middy Outfit
This outfit just kills me. Usually when I wear nautical-themed outfits it’s more on the lines of navy stripes and a jaunty scarf, maybe with some kelly green pants or Nantucket reds. But this dress is a great reminder to try out the sailor look – keep the collar smallish so you don’t look costumey. I had a red sailor coat when I was little, and I practically cried when I outgrew it, because it reminded me of Sam’s summer dress. I mean, I probably did cry.

Samantha’s Plaid Cape and Gaiters
Thus began my lifelong love affair with Black Watch plaid. So classic and gorgeous! I think Susan has a coat like this in the ’90s Miracle on 34th Street. I was so annoyed with my school uniform, which was almost black watch, but with stupid red and yellow lines in it (which clashed with our baby-blue Peter Pan collar blouses). The real beauty of this is in the adorable gaiters she has. Anyone know where I can get a pair? Also, did anyone else carry a muff as a kid because of this, or was that just me? I never realized what a vintage-obsessed child I was, but I toted around my aunt’s 1950s fur hand-warmer like it was going out of style (which it probably was).

Molly McIntire

Molly McIntire always had a place in my heart, primarily because we are both named Molly and are both sort of awkward, yet also driven and optimistic. She was like a nine-year-old, wartime Leslie Knope that way. She made me really want wire-framed glasses, although my eyesight wouldn’t deteriorate enough for that until my mid-20s. Molly had a tomboyish yet preppy style, and if you were born in the ‘80s, your mom probably liked her because the outfits reminded her of her childhood in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Molly’s Camp Gowanagan Outfit
High waisted red shorts, sassy scarf, and crisp white button-up? Yes, please. Molls looks like such a 2010s hipster here. Like, I can practically tell which Brooklyn neighborhood she lives in. As I mentioned before, thanks to Molly, I dragged my mom to about five stores in third grade, searching for saddle shoes (I found them, and they were everything I’d ever dreamed of. And I’m pretty proud that I was thinking for myself, fashion-wise, at such a young age, because I’m pretty sure they weren’t in style. And I’m pretty sure that I want another pair right NOW.)

Molly’s Slicker And Rain Hat
Yes. Yep. This is it. This is how you dress in the rain. I’ve actually not gone with a serious vinyl raincoat since I was probably in the single-digits, age-wise, but I would definitely wear this. Also, how amazingly practical is it to have a rain hat? When did we, as a people, stop doing that? You’d still carry an umbrella, probably, but think of the hair damage you could avoid! This is also a nice reminder that while novelty wellies are adorable, the classic reds and yellows will never fail you. An aside: I taught one of my nephews to call his boots like these his “galoshes” because it is adorable.

Molly’s Pajamas

A lot of the time, my pajamas are fleece pajama pants or pajama shorts, and then some sort of t-shirt that I got for free. But when I wear legit pajama sets, I always feel way more put together and cute. It’s somehow less embarrassing to answer my door in p.j.s when my pajamas are also an outfit. Miss MacIntire understood this. While any kind of pajama set will do, these red stripes are so cheerful yet dignified, I think they’re really the ultimate in classy yet comfy, child (or adult) appropriate nightwear.

Molly’s After-School Outfit
Plaid shirt, high waisted cords? So, this is pretty much how we’re all already dressing, right?

Molly’s Regular Outfit
The argyle sweater is pretty cute, and the preppy knee-length wool skirt is great. The rickrack trim around her Peter Pan collar is killing me, in a good way.

What do you think – did we miss any great outfits? Did you try to dress like these characters as a kid (or adult)? Did your parents buy you the kid-sized outfits? We’d love to know!

American Girl Outfits I’d Wear Today: Kirsten and Addy

Last time around, we brought you (potentially) wearable outfits from American Girl characters Felicity and Josefina. Now that you’re – hopefully – done seething about unfair taxes on tea, we’re bringing you two more. Use this as a shopping guide if, like Angela from The Office, “sometimes the clothes at the GapKids are just too flashy. So, I am forced to go to American Girl store and order clothes for large colonial dolls.”

Kirsten Larson


On Christmas day in first grade, I opened a small box from Santa. There was a note to look under my bed – and there, in a maroon Pleasant Company box, was Kirsten Larson. If you got a Kirsten doll, it may have been because you were blonde, or of Swedish descent, or from the Midwest. For me, it was because Kirsten and I were both fairly outdoorsy. Granted, for Larson it was more of a default situation, since she lived in the Minnesota wilderness. As such, Kirsten’s outfits are casual and practical, but there was a budding fashionista under her pragmatic Scandinavian exterior.

My fourthhand claim to fame is that this character was named for my friend’s aunt (?) or something. If you’ve ever wondered about the historical accuracy of American Girl main character names — well, first of all, we should be besties forever, and second of all, they’re almost all statistically quite unlikely for the place and time the books were set. I’m terribly sorry to tell you that the name Kirsten is Danish/Norwegian, and wasn’t really used in Sweden in the 1840s when our girl K. would have been born.

Kirsten’s Summer Outfit
These faded blue pinstripes are soft, crisp summer perfection. And those red booties! What is Kirsten, some sort of Swedish-Minnesotan fashion genius? The red is echoed in the fresh berries on her hat, because Kirsten Larson is brilliant and I’m still really sorry that she lost her friend Marta to cholera (…spoiler?).

In third grade or so, I was sorting through a trash bag of hand-me-downs from my cousin (did everyone get those or was I just poor? They were the BEST). I pulled out a pale blue striped number, and could not believe it. It was Kirsten’s summer dress! On closer examination, it was no dress at all – it was culottes. This was probably the first of many times that I was disappointed to find that what looked like a skirt or dress was actually culottes or a skort. It’s like taking a sip from what you think is Sprite and finding out that it’s water. And it’s a life lesson that I think all of us have learned. [This was also my first time thinking that I could alter a clothing item, and failing miserably.]

Kirsten’s Winter Outfit and Scandinavian Woolens

If this were a catalog for adult humans, she’d wear that outfit on a dock with an adorable Yellow Lab. Her gentleman friend would have a coordinating sweater set. And I’d hate them.

Damn, Larson. Look at you. Cozy and adorable. When I wonder if it’s too cold to wear a skirt, I just remind myself that Kirsten did it, and Minnesota is probably colder than upstate New York. For real, a full wool skirt is a great addition to your winter wardrobe, and the ribbon detail is just bonus.

Addy Walker

Addy was a truly groundbreaking American Girl character. No, I don’t mean because she was the first African-American girl featured – although that was a big deal. I mean, she had pierced ears. This was HUGE. I think if I’d had one more American Girl doll, it would have been Addy. In an age when everyone had Samantha, Addy owners were real originals.

Addy’s School Dress
Look at what a professional Addy is! Little kids in suits kill me, probably because – according to photographic evidence – I wore a little pink skirt suit for Easter when I was 7. I wouldn’t wear this whole thing head to toe, but the cropped blue jacket with skinny jeans? Absolutely.

Addy’s summer dress
Cute floral, adorable peter pan collar, waist detailing – what more could you want in a summer dress? Maybe leave off the visible pantaloons if you are an adult in the 21st century.

Hope you enjoyed our stroll down sartorial memory lane! Check back for our final installment – Samantha and Molly.