As I try to sort family photos, I am also trying to sort out their stories. At dinner last night, my husband gave me a strange look and said, “It’s hard to realize that you knew people born in 1875.” Well, I only knew them insofar as a child can know an adult, but I have vivid memories of my Aunt Alice in her seventies, still witty and clever. I wish I had known her older sisters, Cora and Laura.
Cora was the eldest, born in 1867.
When you think of the rapid change of Euro-American fashions in the 20th century (and before) it is extraordinary how often women had to adapt to new ideas — in clothing, and in concepts of modesty and propriety.
Cora and Laura came into their teens in the era of outrageous 1880’s bustles. As the daughters of a Methodist Episcopal minister, they didn’t have a big budget, and it must have been important to look “respectable.” Here, they are reclining informally with a friend at a photographer’s studio:
In 1920, she sent this old portrait photo of herself to her niece Dorothy, nicknamed “Sister” or “Sis” because she came along after two brothers. The back says, “To Sister, from Aunt Cora, July 1, 1920,” but the hair style is much earlier.
At the time of her marriage, the local newspaper reported that she had “had charge of the city library” for a number of years. (Did they confuse her with her sister Laura, or did one replace the other as librarian?)
She is wearing a shirtwaist with a collar that could accommodate a mannish, detachable stiff collar. They often appear on turn-of-the-century American women drawn by Charles Dana Gibson.
And she looks very sad.
I can’t say that her marriage was an unhappy one, but, as you will see, widowhood seemed to suit her. In the 1900 census, her two adult sisters were living at the same address as the McGarveys. William McGarvey, accountant, was listed as head of household, Cora as wife, and her sisters Laura and Alice as “servants.” There was one male “servant” or farmworker, and no mention of children. Cora’s husband died in 1918.
In the 1920 census, Cora was a widow, Laura was the city librarian, and Alice was a clerk at the county courthouse. Laura was listed as head of household, and her sisters were listed her as “partners.”
From this point on, Cora wears glasses — and not “old lady” wire-rimmed glasses — “modern-in-the-twenties” horn rims.
Here’s another photo from the same vacation:
A reminder of the drastic changes in fashion they experienced —
Here are Cora and Alice as they looked in their thirties:
And here they are in their fifties:
And they kept right on wearing up-to-date clothing. Here, they have even adopted sleeveless dresses — these women who grew up wearing high collars, long sleeves, and floor length skirts.
They looked like they were having a good time on that vacation with my mother….
I liked Cora’s playful pose so much that I tried to paint her:
I wish I’d known her.
P.S. If the story of fashion for older women interests you, be sure to visit the American Age Fashion blog.