The Question of Dress

As a historian/biographer working to understand Margaret McKenny’s life-and-times, one of my most basic tasks it to accurately create a chronology of what she did and when she did it. This involves searching all kinds of archival collections and sources to document her activities and understand the context that informed her work and points of view. (Just cast your mind over the ephemera in your desk drawers at this moment and think about what some future historian might conclude about your life and its meaning if it was all sorted into an archival box!)

I do this task with respect and great caution; much has been saved but also so much lost that most conclusions are tentative and, using the historian’s much-used phrase “needs more research.” One of the delights—and problems—reading Margaret’s papers and publications is that she sounds ageless. She is sprightly, coy, full of fun and jokes, and sometimes stern and formidable….but all at once. She does not begin “young” and grow older in her remarks so that they progress in seriousness or purpose. She retains her spirit of adventure and sense of wonder and fun all the way through her life.

One exercise I sometimes use to remind myself of whatever decade I’m delving into is to ask myself what she might have been wearing so that I can picture her more clearly. Another reason for asking this is to remember that she was born in 1885. Queen Victoria had sixteen years of her reign still to come. Grover Cleveland was president of the United States. Washington was still a territory; statehood came four years later. And around this time the Gibson Girl look was all the rage in the fashionable world. As a girl and young woman, whether she indulged in keeping up with the popular magazine pen-and-ink image created by artist Charles Dana Gibson that stamped a generation of women, it was ubiquitous copied or resisted. Tall, small-waisted, hair piled high up on the head to accentuate a long graceful neck: it’s fair to say Margaret did not fit the bill. But another side of the look was decidedly athletic and adventuresome: bicycling, playing tennis, swimming and even mountain climbing (while wearing a corset), were much more appealing and aspirational images, perhaps minus the tight lacing.

For an alternative look and exciting example for girls and women in Washington, twenty year-old teacher and journalist Fay Fuller donned “flannel underwear, a thick flannel bloomer suit, woolen hose, heavy calfskin boy’s shoes with caulks, and to top it all off, a small straw hat” to summit Mount Rainier August 9, 1890. Not shown, she also wore goggles to protect her eyes from snow glare and, as was the practice, darkened her face with charcoal to prevent sunburn. She was the only woman in a party of climbers who reached their goal, and is credited with being the first woman to make it to the top. She repeated her triumph on Rainier seven years later and climbed many area peaks with local climbing groups of which she was a founder.

It is likely Margaret did wear the long skirts and fitted blouses of the pre-Great War era, even when she was out botanizing, tramping in the woods, and camping on Mount Rainier or the Olympic Mountains, all favorite activities when she was a young woman, as well as later. That’s probably how we should imagine her.

There are not a lot of photos of her that have survived but in every one of them, right up to the end of her life, she is wearing either a dress or a skirt. And usually a hat. It’s true that in later years the dress hems no longer swept the sidewalks but….a dress (and stockings) is still a dress.  So, in that way, she was of her time, when women did not wear pants.

It never held her back.

Margaret with a group of children, probably posing with one of her nature study classes, circa 1965.
Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society
I would dearly like to know the names of these children and hear from any of them what it was like to have Margaret as a teacher! Did it change their lives?

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