Maggie B’s World: What did Maggie wear to her graduation?

Ohio University class of 1873

Guest post by Reference and Instruction Librarian Sherri Saines.

Maggie is 28 in 1873, her graduation year. She was a young woman in the hoop skirt era–in which large, round, wire cages under ladies’ skirts held both the skirt–and other people–out away from the body like this image.

The newer styles, just a few years old, have gone flat in the front, and much of the cloth is now gathered over the bum, often over a half cage in the back called a bustle. There is often apron-like drapery across the front, as if outlining one’s tummy. Necklines have gone from low and sloping down the shoulders to high and tight. Here’s a representative sample.

Under these beautiful dresses women wore a cotton top and pantaloons, then a corset, then the shaping under-garment (bustle, stiffened slip, wired roll, etc.), like in this image from University of Michigan. Over this, the skirt, then the jacket, often with an attached overskirt. It is a complex of layers. Yes, it was hot and troublesome, but you got used to it. In this era, men wore three-piece suits just to walk down the street, too.

Here’s a good blog post that has examples of these styles as they change across the years of Maggie’s life. I like this set of images because the dresses are mostly plain and black, so you can see very clearly the changes in the shapes as the skirts balloon and then skinny down again, first the front, then the back.

I doubt Maggie was in the highest fashions for graduation because she was 1.) making her own clothes, 2.) on a budget, 3.) living in a small town, and, 4.) not from high society. So I expect her choices were based on affordability, durability, and ease of care and construction.

Anyway, I don’t think Maggie was a fashion lover. She fussed about sewing her dresses–a white one in the spring, and then what seems to be a whole wardrobe later in the summer–for her new job. When she has a little money, later, she notes buying shoes (Oct 30, but says “I do not like them very well.”), and cloth, and getting her hat trimmed–cost $4.50 (Nov 15). She tells us she owns a black grenadine dress (grenadine is type of fabric) (Oct 10) and a buff-colored calico (ie, cotton) skirt (July 30). She does show her new dresses to her friends (June 10: “Jarvis…admires my taste and wants a piece of each.”), (June 11: “Jane T comes up. I show my dresses. I do not think she likes them.”).

In her “graduation” photo, Maggie stands tightly packed with the men, so she isn’t wearing large round hoops, but she might have a bustle we can’t see. She has on a dark jacket or dress with a high white ruffly collar. Like today, the graduation picture was probably taken long before the actual day. But this shows us the kind of thing she wore.

I’d say this is a “day dress,” like in this Renoir, for example, with less froth (Oh, those French!). Or like this one from the Met. I’m guessing her graduation dress was similar, probably in a lighter, better cloth for the special occasion. Maybe a thin wool. She writes in May about sewing a white skirt; was it for graduation?

Many many years after the event, a neighbor recollects that Maggie’s dress was “…of white cotton lawn with only the faint coloring of tiny blue figures.” (Catanzaro)

Here’s my guess: On June 26, 1873, Maggie wore an off-white Victorian day dress in a good light-weight wool with a high collar, some contrasting braid and buttons down the front, a small bustle in the back, and small straw hat with a big ribbon under her chin. I wish she could tell me if I am right.

To read Maggie’s Diary and to learn more about her thoughts on graduating and attire, please follow Maggie’s Twitter account @MaggieBoyd1873 chronicling her day-to-day entries from her pocket diary. See more images at our Pinterest @MaggieBoyd1873’s World. Also, keep following the Library Blog, the @AldenLibrary Twitter account or the Alden Library Facebook page to read more about the university’s history during Maggie’s time and other aspects of Victorian life.

Resources on fashion

Alden has a large collection of classic costume history books. They are housed in several places:

6th floor and 3rd floor and 3rd floor reserve:  GT

7th floor and 3rd floor and 3rd floor reserve: TT

Don’t forget to check the oversize shelving areas, as many especially wonderful fashion books are printed in large formats and don’t fit regular shelving.

 Here are some books I used for this post:

  • Patterns of fashion by Janet Arnold. TT504 .A7 2002x, v.2
  • Fashion: the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute: a history from the 18th to the 20th century, vol1. GT580 .F375 2002x
  • Harper’s bazaar online 1867-1912: various
  • Victorian costume and costume accessories by Anne Buck. GT737 .B78 1984
  • Nineteenth century fashion by Penelope Byrde. GT737 .B97 1992x
  • What people wore by Douglas Gorsline. GT513 .G6
  • Grace and favour: Victorian and Edwardian fashion in America by Otto Thieme, et. al. GT610 .W57 1993


Works Cited

Boyd, Margaret. “Pocket Diary for 1873.” Digital Initiatives. Ohio University. 1873. Web. 29 Dec 2011.

Catanzaro, Margaret. “A Biography of Margaret Boyd, The First Female Graduate of Ohio University.” Unpublished undergraduate honors paper. Ohio University, 1955. Print.

“Ohio University class of 1873” Digital Initiatives. Ohio University. 1873. Web. 26 Jun 2012.