Family lore has it that the photograph of my grandmother (Marie Anna Friedericke Pesch [1885—1968]) was taken in 1902 or 1903 when she was 17; though it can't be determined with certainty, it seems possible she would have had her first child, my mother (Marie Bertha Emily Westfahl [1906—1995]) also pose at 17, in 1923 or '24. My grandmother looks placid and unemotional, but my mother appears carefree and happy, which might reflect a difference in generational bearing and expectations.
To learn more about the clothing they wore for the photographs, I contacted Assistant Curator Marlise Schoeny at the Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, Columbus. She said she would discuss the images with Curator Gayle Strege. Ms. Strege has a Bachelors of Arts in Fashion Design from Mt. Mary College, Milwaukee, and a Master of Arts in Museum Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Ms. Schoeny has a Bachelors of Arts in History from Miami University and a Masters of Science in Textiles and Clothing from Ohio State University. She is also a lecturer in the Ohio State Fashion Retail Studies program.
Ms. Schoeny sent the following: "Gayle Strege and I have been examining the photos and having a wonderful time analyzing the garments.
"Let’s start with your grandmother. Given that she was living in a small rural community in Wisconsin and was one of five children in a farming family, we can postulate several things about her ensemble. At first glance one might believe that the black lace bertha may be in reference to a mourning occasion, but we do not think this applies here. White dresses were often worn for graduation parades, but we don’t know if she attended school after grade school. Given her age, around 17, we think this is a sort of debutante or coming of age photograph.
"The town may or may not have had a resident photographer. At the time, photographers commonly traveled from town to town.
"Either way, it appears from the construction and drape of the garment that this is a lightweight wool or heavier cotton day dress. It has some fullness in the bodice that would create a pigeon-like front, mono-bosom silhouette which was in fashion at the time. It is not pronounced, but she was only 17 and a prominent mono-bosom would not be particularly appropriate for a young woman on a farm.
"Popular colors for wool day dresses were black, gray, and navy. Typically they were very dark colors. That being said we believe this dress to be a beige or cream. Winter white wools and creams were popular in this period. It is also possible the bodice was a heavier white or light color cotton. There are many instances of black/white combinations at this time.
"The black lace and silk ribbon piece is known as a bertha. It complements the black silk ribbons in her hair. While it was attached on some garments, we believe this was a separate piece. Lace berthas were often detachable in order to be worn with several dresses. This would have been a more expensive piece and probably one of the nicer items she owned, which is likely why it was worn for this picture. The inclusion of jewelry (the star choker and the watch and chain) also indicate she was wearing her best. The late Joan Severa (Wisconsin State Historical Society) in her book, Dressed for the Photographer, addresses the common practice of wearing your best for a picture and borrowing pieces from the photographer for the sitting.
"Your mother’s photograph posed more of a challenge. I’m not sure if your mom always looked young, but she looks so young in this picture! While her hair would be typical of a later 1920s, early 1930s style (marcel waves) it is not unheard of to have had this style earlier. Her hair looks wet—like she has bobby-pinned it into the waves she wants and which will stay in those waves when the pins are removed when dry. She is wearing what looks like a lightweight knit middy (sailor) top or sweater—a style that was popular for gym uniforms or other more active wear. Knits were increasingly popular in the 1920s as casual sportswear.
"The top may be wool or cotton because the fabric is not very shiny, but rayon and silk were also popular and common in this period. The style of the sweater is similar to the middy-style tops of the late teens and twenties—reflecting an increasing move to casual attire.
"While the sweater could be any number of colors, the likely choices are navy and red. These seem to be the most popular colors of middy-style tops in this period.
"Given the shape and structure of the sweater, coupled with your mother’s appearance, we date this photo 1920 to 1925.
"It would be unusual to have a picture taken outside of a particular event, such as 8th grade graduation—and this looks so much like a school picture, and that would have been in 1919 (according to her birth date and typical age of 13 for 8th grade). Without seeing the hem of her skirt it is hard to nail down exactly what year it may be."