Dixon Then and Now: How Folks Dressed 100 Years Ago

Long skirts and men's hats ruled

This is more of a “then” column. Rather than talking about what happened with certain local buildings, or towns, or businesses, I decided to look into what people were wearing in and around Dixon 100 years ago – during the period 1900-1920. My resources were primarily the Dixon library’s photograph archives (many of those photos accompany this column).

Despite this era seeming to be ancient to most of us (my own parents were born then and World War I was fought from 1914 to ‘18) – fashions were changing and evolving. For example, during the late 1800s women tended to wear dark dresses. When in public or at social events, their corseted tiny waists and tight bodices were often seen. But as the 1900s began, they began to wear more lighter-colored or white dresses.

Men’s fashions didn’t change a lot over the late 1800s and early 1900s, but the full beards common during the end of the 1800s lost favor during the two following decades. Stiff, starched collars were the norm for men in business or formal getup, and sometimes the collars were bent over to form winged collars. Neckties often used oversized knots, as least compared to today’s standards.  

After 1900, newfangled radios, cars, and airplanes were introduced. At the same time women gained the right to vote in California in 1911, and nationally in 1920. Also in 1920 the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic drinks – supported strongly by many women – was also made law. So even the sleepy, agricultural town of Dixon was carried along with these currents, and clothing fashions changed too.

Two fashions continued on into the 1900s: women’s floor-length skirts and men’s always-present hats. When outside, women usually wore their hats too, and they could be elaborate concoctions. Men’s hats often designated status – the more smooth and well-shaped, often the more prosperous the wearer. Bowlers, derbies, and straw Panama hats were often seen. Field workers often wore more practical hats with wider brims to shield their faces from the sun.

Looking at the basic fabrics from which clothing was made back then – there were no man-made fabrics such as nylon, rayon or polyester. There were just variations of fabrics made from natural fibers such as cotton, wool, silk and flax. Satin and muslin were variations on those sources based on how the fibers were weaved and processed.

This was also a period when a transition was being made between home-sewn clothing (often using purchased patterns) and mass-produced manufactured clothing.  

We say that people can be slaves to fashion (or modesty) but in this period of 1900 to 1920, here in Dixon in the middle of its hot summers, women wore their floor-length skirts whether at home, at work or in public. Men also were partial to their vests over long-sleeved shirts, maybe even adding a suit-type coat over the first two. There was also the habit of buttoning shirts all the way up to the collar (I can remember my father asking me: “Why would they put buttons up to the collar if they weren’t meant to be used?”) This must’ve produced a good deal of sweat when the temperatures were in the 90s. Perhaps some body odor was put up with in those days since there were no showers, just baths.

From the Dixon photos I’ve seen, women didn’t use as much makeup in those days as is common today. Both men and women had well-controlled hair styles, with women’s hair on the short side and men’s very short. This was definitely not a hippy era with long hair! Often men and women parted their hair in the middle or just off center.

An influence on women that still held some sway in the early 1900s was the Gibson Girl concept, popularized by artist Charles Dana Gibson. His drawings contributed to the fashion of women’s hair arranged high on one’s head in a bouffant or similar style. There was an emphasis on youthful beauty and a more carefree attitude. Still, some women continued to wear corsets, trying to create an ideal “S-bend” shape, which thrust the bosom out and pushed the derriere back. When World War I began, it was patriotic to forego buying corsets because the metal used for stays in them was needed for war production. 

As the 1900s progressed toward 1920, and the flapper era which followed, women were more inclined to wear two-part outfits, with floor-length skirts (but the skirt lengths did take the daring move of beginning to expose, yes, ankles!) and loose white blouses with frills, long sleeves and sometimes high, close-to-the-neck collars.

With women having to do some men’s work during World War I, and due to more involvement with sports and outdoor activities, they were more interested in comfortable, looser clothing. Also, specialized clothing was developed for riding in open-air motor vehicles.  

In looking at photos of Dixon’s grade- and high-school students of the early 1900s, oftentimes the girls wore large bows at the back of their heads, and they could wear shorter skirts to just below the knees. Some of the younger girls wore dresses with flaps over the shoulders, while some of the boys wore suspenders or coveralls. Shoes of the day were not the low-cut styles of today, but tended to be high with much lacing. Sometimes women wore a variety of ties. For class photos, the boys often wore suit jackets similar to their fathers, but without the vests.

Men working at physical jobs weren’t dressed that differently than workers today, except for the wide-brimmed hats and suspenders. Some however wore coveralls, which aren’t much seen anymore.

I’ve seen group photos of Dixon baseball teams from around 1910, and the sport is so tradition-bound that uniforms haven’t changed much over 100 years, considering that many teams still wear knicker-like trousers only down to the knee and socks beyond that. Women in high school sports tended to wear heavy clothing that covered their whole body, neck down. What’s lacking in Dixon’s photo archives are what men and women wore when swimming 100 years ago!

Dixon’s presiding clothing store of the period was the Oscar Schulze store, and one of its ads in the Tribune is attached. Another one of its ads said tailor-made suits could be had for between $15 and $40. Shoes were available for $3. There were also ads for Boss of the Road overalls and Levi Strauss copper-riveted overalls. Oiled fabrics served as raincoats.

In some excerpts from the 1909 Dixon Tribune, a wedding story said “The bride made a pretty picture in a beautiful gown of white satin, with a veil draped becomingly and orange blossoms in her hair.”

In 1910, the Tribune carried a note about a Miss Cassell from San Francisco opening a millinery parlor (hat store) in a residence, noting that “Miss Cassell ... is well posted as to the very latest in hats.” As for men, the newspaper in 1911 noted that “The display of gents’ furnishing goods at Becklet’s Haberdashery is undoubtedly the best seen in our town for some time, and it is to your interest to call and inspect it.” The business was located in the building where Bud’s Pub and Restaurant now operates.

Now jump to 2011 and the proliferation of fashions worn by men and women, which are usually more comfortable and practical – and often constructed from man-made fabrics which wash and dry easier. Much of the subtlety and mystery offered by clothing of 100 years ago has gone by the wayside as clinging, revealing clothing is often worn by the younger people of both sexes. Also, a good deal more skin is exposed.

However, women can still be slaves to fashion by wearing uncomfortable high-heeled shoes while men endure tight neckties and narrow-tipped shoes and boots. Also, people have moved beyond clothing fashions (body packaging) to skin fashions via tattoos and piercings.

With this column I’ve included a good cross-section of photos and ads from a century ago so you can peer back in time. Enjoy the trip.             

Pete Basofin March 22, 2011 at 06:05 PM
Thanks Bil for another terrific history piece. These photos are fantastic. Love that group of young 1910 sophisticates in front of the train station.
Bil Paul March 23, 2011 at 02:45 AM
You're welcome, Pete. Yeah, I liked that group next to the train station, too.
Ginette Greene December 12, 2011 at 12:44 AM
Sometimes I long for the simpler times. Sure it's all a trade off. Men's life expectancy back in 1911 was just 47. Folks died of illnesses now "cured or prevented," by "modern" drugs and medicines. We had ideas about heroin, that were frankly crazy... Yet, life back then, while perhaps less convenient, seemed to lean more towards family, hard work, and a morality few would even consider, today. I'm not saying life in 1911 was perfect, or even remotely glamorous, but I do find myself wondering if perhaps we, society as a whole, have not allowed the pendulum to swing too far from center, and if perhaps we might not be better off with a little more restraint.
Aaron December 12, 2011 at 11:59 PM
I can't get enough of those old time photos. Keep up the good work Bil.
Maggie December 13, 2011 at 04:06 AM
I really enjoy all the old time photos. Thanks!


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