Dressing for the Great Migration

Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1922. Via the Digital Public Library of America

As a historian, I find comfort in considering how earlier generations have dealt with times of great upheaval. The most obvious parallel to today is the flu epidemic of 1918, but the First World War and its aftermath caused massive changes all over the world. In Europe, old multi national empires crumbled and new nations took their place, along with new colonies for European nations. Within the United States, a massive population shift was underway, called “the Great Migration,” as many African Americans moved from the South to areas of the country where they hoped there would find better opportunities.

I found this beautiful photo in a packet of teaching materials prepared by the Digital Public Library of America. (Once a history teacher, always a history teacher.) I was impressed by how well dressed this large family was, wearing what looks to be their best clothes for the photograph. Everyone, even the little boy, wears a hat. Do those two battered suitcases represent the rest of their belongings? Note how some both wear a coat a carry a coat, a time honored method for people on the move. Still they do not look ready for a Chicago winter.

The older and younger women reverse fashion advice for the time. The younger ones have light collars close to their faces, lighting up the photograph. However, the oldest woman is dressed entirely in dark colors, amplifying her somber expression. What must she have been thinking taking on a new life in old age?

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1 Response to Dressing for the Great Migration

  1. Katrina B says:

    As you say, wearing as much/many clothes as possible during a move is a time honored way to carry them, so that accounts for some of the layers. But this was also a time when no one would consider leaving the house without a hat, plus a tie and jacket for men and jewelry for women. This family was not about to let a complete life upheaval stop them from maintaining their best appearance.

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