What We Wore on the Mother Road

25, August 2016
Photo of the 1928 Bunion DerbyContestants in the Bunion Derby. Image courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest.

Although Route 66—the historic highway that connected Los Angeles to Chicago—was officially decommissioned in 1985, it’s very much alive in the hearts of motorcyclists to this day. It’s now common to see jeans, T-shirts, leather vests, and jackets whizzing by on the old 2,400-mile-long road as travelers check off the ultimate box on their bucket lists. But what did past generations sport on the Mother Road? Just as Route 66 has changed and undergone many transformations over the years, so have the fashions of its voyagers.

Running shorts and white sleeveless shirts were prominent along Route 66 from March 5, 1928, to May 7, 1928, thanks to the Transcontinental Foot Race, an attempt to raise the country’s awareness of the fairly new highway. Also known as the Bunion Derby, the race had nearly 200 contestants running from Los Angeles to New York in hopes of taking home the $25,000 top prize.

Photo of young mother and baby on side of the road, 1930sMany Route 66 travelers in the 1930s were escaping westward. Photo by Dorothea Lange. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The rate of enthusiastic and carefree travelers on Route 66 declined as the Great Depression took its toll on the country. The Dust Bowl caused farming families to pack up their cars and migrate west in search of better job prospects farther down the Mother Road. These families had much greater concerns than fashion at the time, wearing tattered overalls and dresses made from repurposed flour sacks. However, not every drifter along the highway was meagerly dressed in the 1930s. The infamous Bonnie and Clyde traveled in style while robbing towns located off of Route 66, including Baxter Springs, Kansas. Bonnie likely wore a long, fitted, knit dress with art deco chevron stripes; Clyde likely sported a two-piece, single-breasted suit with peaked lapels and English pleats.

Photo of Bonnie and ClydeClyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, May 1934. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection.

By the 1940s, with World War II prompting the use of the Mother Road as a military-transportation route, fashion across the highway was more uniform. Olive drab and khaki-colored work suits and field garments dominated the now-paved road as troops, equipment, and supplies were strategically moved across the country for the war effort. Many of these military men continued to travel along Route 66 even into the post-war years, facilitating their journey back home or even their relocation to the west they had come to love.

With wartime restrictions lifted, the 1950s saw a spike in tourism. Cars were again on the rise, and families had the means to vacation westward. With Mom in a comfy-but-casual cotton shirtwaist dress and Dad with a plaid button-down shirt tucked into his high-waisted pleated pants, families loaded into their cars in pursuit of the Grand Canyon and all the tourist attractions and restaurants along the way.

Publicity photo for Route 66 TV showMartin Millner and George Maharis in a publicity photo for the Route 66 TV show. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Mother Road of the 1960s likely saw its fair share of women wearing pedal pushers with cotton blouses and men in trousers with knit cardigans, as seen in the 1960s television show Route 66. However, after the signing of the Interstate Highway Act, traffic on Route 66 declined as new highways were created, rendering the old road obsolete. The highway continued to cater to westward traveling youths, though, decked out in psychedelic floral prints and hand-embroidered bell-bottoms.

Use of Route 66 continued to diminish over the 1970s, with fewer travelers but more polyester and fly collars. By 1985, at the height of padded shoulders and bold prints, the Mother Road was officially decommissioned, but not before it had borne witness to the fashion changes of the previous six decades.

—Ashley Preuss, Communications Intern

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