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:

Back to School Fashions

Doris Farrand fashion 1907 06It’s that time of year when students get ready to head back to school. Just as families today shop for back-to-school clothes, so did families in Isabella Alden’s books.

The opening scene of Doris Farrand’s Vocation describes Doris’s meager college wardrobe and her sister’s efforts to make Doris appear as fashionable as possible—even if it meant buying clothes on credit.

Doris’s sister thought going into a little bit of debt was preferable to allowing Doris to attend classes looking shabby. Credit was plentiful in 1905 when the book was published. Individual merchants often extended credit to customers and allowed people to buy “on account.”

Doris Farrand fashion 1907 03 rtMerchants enticed shoppers into their stores with window displays of back-to-school wardrobes. Newspaper columns and women’s magazines gave advice on how to stretch a family’s wardrobe budget and listed the essential wardrobe pieces every student must have.

At a minimum, Doris’s college wardrobe would have included three required pieces:

– a tailored suit

– an evening dress

– an everyday dress.

The style of Doris’s clothes would have been rather restrictive. Her skirts were made from yards of fabric and the hemlines hit just at her ankles. Her shirtwaists and dress bodices usually covered most of her arms and fitted high at the neckline.

Of course, no outfit was finished until it was properly accessorized with gloves, shoes and stockings.

Doris Farrand fashion 1907 05The most important accessory was an appropriately-styled hat. Doris’s sister “was the milliner of the family.” She considered it her job to make Doris’s only hat over the best she could with bits of ribbons, since a new hat for Doris was simply not something the Farrand family could afford.

Even young students wore hats to school, as this 1915 ad for children’s hats illustrates:

Schoolchildren hats 1915The illustration shows how much hats had evolved; gone were the wide brims and large plumes that adorned hats when Doris was in school. By 1915 hats—as well as fashions in general—had changed considerably.

Children 1915 set bMany women’s magazines furnished patterns (indicated by the unique numbers shown beside each garment) that homemakers could order by mail at a cost of about ten cents. Sewing the outfits at home was often a less expensive option than buying outfits ready-made.

The illustration on the left shows a “serviceable play suit with plenty of pockets” for a little boy’s treasures. The outfit is completed with long hose and a hat.

Fashions for girls had evolved, too. Young girls’ skirts were shorter, although they retained the traditional high waists of previous years; and they wore simple shoes and socks instead of long hose and ankle boots.

Children 1915 set a

Older girls and pre-teens abandoned their corsets for dropped waists and jumpers. Their skirts were significantly shorter, too, with hemlines hitting just below the knee.

Children 1915 set c

When a girl reached her later teens, she transitioned to more mature “costumes.” As in Doris Farrand’s day, a tailored suit was essential for every young woman’s wardrobe as was an evening dress. This excerpt from a 1915 fashion article showed just how much a young woman could expect to pay for her wardrobe essentials.


Young women of college age had to keep up with the 1915 fashions, too. Dresses and suits were slimmer than those Doris Farrand wore; skirts were less voluminous and necklines were less confining.

Young Womens Fashion 1915 v3

And, of course, a fashionable hat was still an essential element of any college student’s ensemble:

A 1920 magazine spread showing stylish hats for college women.
A 1920 magazine spread showing stylish hats for college women.

This newspaper article showed how a college student in 1915 could build a complete wardrobe for less than $100.

College Girls Wardrobe 1915 v2

Unfortunately for Doris, the family budget couldn’t be stretched to give Doris even the few pieces mentioned in the article above. She didn’t even own evening dress.

Cover of Doris Farrands VocationWhen Doris’s sister asked what she planned to wear to an important reception at the college, Doris replied, “My dress, of course!” She owned only one!


“I’m as chirk as can be.”


Isabella’s books contain some words and terms that are no longer in use. One word she regularly used in her books is chirk. For example:

“I’m as chirk as can be,” says Garrett Randall in Doris Farrand’s Vocation.

In Lost on the Trail, Dr. Evarts visits a sick student to “chirk Templeton up a little.”

And in Overruled, Mrs. Bramlett has a long talk with Marjorie and declares, “I feel quite chirked up; it does beat all how you manage to comfort a body!”

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, chirk was an informal word for cheer and was mostly commonly followed by the word, up.