Friday, March 5, 2010

A Closer Look

This detail of a larger 1913 photo gives us a rare look at Ollie, the Livingston's nursemaid. Good pictures of servants can be hard to come by so I have always loved this image.

But some pictures are worth a closer look. Reflected in Ollie's glasses is another unusual glimpse of the Livingston family: Alice in her casual clothes.

If you look carefully, you can just see the dark outline of Alice's sailor collar as she stood in front of Ollie and her children to snap the picture. Sailor-style collars were an important feature on the "middy blouse," an early 20th century staple of casual wear for women.

Sailor collars had become popular on women's clothing at the end of the 19th century, and by the second decade of the 20th, the middy blouse had developed into it's own specific form. At left you can see one from a sewing manual, entitled Garments for Girls from 1910.

The middy blouse was made of rough-and-tumble cotton duck, sewn with a broad sailor collar that fell in a large rectangle across the shoulders, and usually finished off with a scraf that hung down the front. They were patterned after naval uniforms as you can see from the cracker box label at right (several of my images, including this, have been borrowed from, where a nice grouping of middy blouse images has been assembled).

From early on the middy blouse was linked with sports wear, youth, and eventually college girls. One 1926 sewing manual for girls' clothing described it thus, "The middy blouse holds a place of its own in the school and play life of the young girl. It is a garment particularly comfortable and attractive at the same time—a garment no less smart and pretty than it is practical." (emphasis mine). They appear also frequently as sportswear, as in the 1920 camp activity photo at right. College girls co-opted the style early in its history as well, and it became a staple of campuses throughout the US as seen in this 1909 Vassar College postcard.

It's all of these very casual, youthful associations that make it a special find when we see evidence of Alice wearing a middy blouse. While we have many day-to-day images of Janet, Honoria, and even of John Henry, as the photographer, Alice kept her herself behind the camera. When we do see her in front of it, she has dressed up (it reminds me of the fact that I cannot get a driver's liscence photo taken without putting on makeup first). We miss out on her usual appearance.
But for just this once, we get a glimpse into her day-to-day wardrobe, the clothes she chose to wear while playing with her children, working in her garden, or any of the many other less-glamorous tasks of daily life.

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