Women’s Bible Training Class, 1910

Schomburg Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division. The New York Public Library, via the Digital Public Library of America

Schomburg Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division. The New York Public Library, via the Digital Public Library of America

If you want to find the origins of a uniquely American style of dress for women, you can start with the shirtwaist blouse and dark skirt so popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although it was worn in other countries, it was most beloved in the United States. Europeans often complained that American women travelers, clad in their Gibson Girl outfits, all looked the same.

This photo, taken from a book by African American leader Thomas O. Fuller, shows that the shirtwaist and skirt combination had interracial and inter-generational appeal. The combination could be very versatile. Several of the older women wear a dark blouse with their dark skirts, making the outfit look more like a dress. I particularly like the striped blouse worn by an older woman on the right in the front. The white collar near her face, combined with the shiny buckle on her skirt, gives the outfit a very dressy appearance.

Given the similarities, you might think there was a dress code for this Bible training class. I doubt that was the case. If the photos I have seen are at all representative, this is how most American women dressed in 1910.

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6 Responses to Women’s Bible Training Class, 1910

  1. Fantastic photo. I just wish they were wearing those hats.

    Judging from the abundance of white waists that have survived from this period, I think one could come to the conclusion that the garment was ubiquitous even without such photographic evidence.

  2. Liza D. says:

    I don’t understand why the vast majority of the waists we find are so small. The women in this photo don’t look unusually slim or petite to me. Is it that they are all small, so we can’t see it? They hardly look to have a 12″ shoulder span. And yet, it’s rare to find one of these white blouses that will properly fit a modern human — even a size 2 modern human like me. Do you have any possible explanation?

  3. Liza D. says:

    And if they do fit across the back, they tend to be impossibly short and would never meet my skirt’s waistband. I don’t think a bare midriff is the desired look ; ).

    • Lynn says:

      Liza, I think this is a better question for Lizzie than for me. But of course all these women wore corsets, so that distorted their real sizes. And I have also read that vintage clothes of larger sizes were more likely to have been reused/resized, while the smaller sizes could not remade so easily.

      • The question can be applied to old clothes in general. Why are so many of the surviving clothes so tiny?

        I read once that it may be that clothes from the teen years and young adulthood (when women were at their smallest in most cases) were more likely to survive, especially in very fashionable clothing. Once a woman got married and started having children, the pre-baby wardrobe was often stored away in the hopes that the owner might one day fit into them again. Of course that did not always happen, especially if more little ones came along. But the result was that the young adulthood wardrobe was preserved.

        Also, older, and thus larger, women tend to wear a style longer than younger ones, thus putting more wear on the garment.

        I think that corsets and girdles also have a hand in distorting our thinking about sizes in the past. Plus, women are taller and heaver on the average than they were 100 years (or even 30 years) ago.

  4. Christina says:

    Some of the blouses from that period were display samples. Depending on whether the blouse was manufactured or home-made sometimes fitting problems occurred with the blouse being too short and/riding up so women would buy “extenders” to or add plackets or buttons to attach to the skirt. Blouses were multi-use and they were worn under a jacket with a broad waistband or self-cummerbund which often kept the blouse in place or worn like a chemisette. I have seen very short waists but noting Lizzie’s comments about body sizes you have to account for small neck to waist measurements.

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