Back to School with Doris Farrand

August is back-to-school month for students across America, much as it was in Isabella’s lifetime. As teenagers prepared to fill their days with classes and studies, they also prepared their wardrobes.

Young woman reads a thick book open on top of two other thick books. In her hand is a pencil.

Isabella knew what it was like for girls and their parents to shop for new wardrobes and school supplies. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, the right hat and a pair of new gloves were essential for a high school or college student. Luckily there were plenty of articles in newspapers and magazines to help students and their parents solve their back-to-school fashion dilemmas.

Article headline from a 1907 fashion magazine: The Department of Clothes. Beneath it is a subheading: Mr. Ralston's Chat about School Clothes. Beneath it are 3 illustrations; 2 featuring young girls wearing school clothes; 1 features drawings of teenage girls wearing different styles of school clothes.
From the Ladies Home Journal, August 1907.

Isabella began her novel Doris Farrand’s Vocation with one of those fashion dilemmas:

What should college student Doris Farrand wear to a school reception where she and her classmates were being honored?

Doris was indifferent to the problem, but her sister Athalie took on the task of updating her wardrobe, because …

“unless somebody else planned her clothes for her, [Doris] would go in rags.”

Thanks to Athalie’s efforts, Doris had a new hat to wear to the ceremony.

Drawings of "The Girl's Every-Day Hat from about 1908, featuring illustrations of eight different hat styles.

Like Doris, Miss Esther Randall (in Ester Ried’s Namesake) also struggled to stretch her college wardrobe, sometimes beyond its limits. She had a picnic to attend, and, perhaps, an evening at the theater, and she hadn’t a thing to wear. Isabella summed up Esther’s lament:

“Wherewithal shall she be clothed?”

Poor Esther’s wardrobe was so limited, she once wrote home to her parents:

I don’t think I shall accept any more social invitations. I haven’t time for them—nor gowns, for that matter. Sometimes I feel like a queer little nun in my one good dress that has to do duty on all occasions.

A teenager’s school dress, illustrated in The Ladies Home Journal, August 1907.

Unfortunately for Esther, it was the fashion for young women to wear white to their college graduation. As much as Esther dreamed of having a white dress like the ones her wealthy college friends would wear, she knew such a gown was out of reach; her missionary parents could never afford to buy her one.

Illustration of two young women wearing white gowns. The caption reads, "Pretty graduation gowns for school or college girls "to be made of sheer swiss or mull, trimmed with lace."

Like many of Isabella’s characters, Doris and Esther wore “made over” wardrobes. Doris’ sister Athalie could take an old shirtwaist, for example, and updated it with a new collar and cuffs she made herself.

Magazine illustrations of two young women; one wears a white shirtwaist; the other wears red. Displayed between them are different styles of collars and cuffs to go with either shirtwaist.

Women’s magazines of the time often gave instructions on how to accomplish it. Here’s one such article from a 1907 issue of The Ladies Home Journal:

Headline of a 1907 article in  The Ladies Home Journal titled "Last Year's Clothes in This Year's Styles."

And Esther’s mother—being a skilled needlewoman—could refresh an old skirt by adding a new band of fabric to the hem, in much the same way as The Ladies Home Journal recommended in a 1908 issue:

"A Fisherwoman's Hem." How can I lengthen a seven-gored dark blue serge skirt? Are hip yokes fashionable? [signed] Amateur.
It is not practicable to lengthen a skirt by adding a yoke. I should suggest that you add a "fisherwoman's hem" of dark blue chiffon broadcloth, if you cannot match your serge. 
The advice is accompanied by an illustration of a young woman dressed in shirtwaist and floor-length skirt standing before a full-length mirror.

But no amount of sewing or alterations could help Esther as graduation day neared. As much as she dreamed of graduating in a beautiful white gown, she knew she had only that one “good” dress to wear, which had already done faithful duty during two seasons.

Illustration of girl wearing graduation cap and gown over a long dress that reaches the floor. Her hair is styled about 1910. She holds an open book.

She knew how utterly impossible it would be to buy a new white dress—so impossible she never even considered praying about the matter. But someone else prayed on her behalf!

If you’ve read Esther Randall’s story, then you already know whether or not she ever received her heart’s desire and got to wear that coveted white dress. If you have not yet read Ester Ried’s Namesake or Doris Farrand’s Vocation, you can click on the book covers below to learn more:

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