Friday, October 26, 2007

Being in Style

Genealogy isn’t just a list of names and dates. To really study genealogy and understand how our ancestors lived, we need to study the social and cultural aspects of the time period too, including what clothing fashions were in style.

Clothing fashions, of course, were not necessarily the same in rural areas as they were in metropolitian areas. My great-grandmother was born in 1877 in Crittenden County, Kentucky and married when she was just 18 years old. Between 1896 and 1917, she had twelve children. She led a full life - full of hard work, rearing a family and attending church on Sunday. I’m sure high fashion was not high on the priority list in her life, or in the lives of most of her neighbors.

That wasn’t the case, though, for young ladies who lived in the larger city of Henderson, Kentucky. In 1908, "Merry Widow" hats arrived and were all the rage.

The Henderson Daily Gleaner reported on 5 April 1908 that "Scores of pretty young girls and blushing widows were seen on the streets yesterday bedecked with ‘Merry Widow’ hats in screaming colors. The new hats are really things of beauty, especially when worn by the young maidens, and within a few days it will be difficult for two women to pass each other on a sidewalk of reasonable width, for the ‘Merry Widow’ hats are the broadest that ever shaded a pretty face."

Three days later it was reported in Paducah, Kentucky that the deacons of the First Baptist Church proposed to bar the "Merry Widow" hats and passed a resolution compelling women to remove them in church.

The Gleaner wasn’t finished with news of those hats as it was reported later that month that "Merry Widow" hats massed in a solid bank in the foremost rows of St. John’s Catholic Church in St. Louis, Missouri prevented a panic among the worshipers at Easter service by hiding from the congregation a dangerous blaze on the altar, which was extinguished by the priest and altar boys. Paper flowers were ignited by candles on the altar and while the fire burned fiercely, those in the church remained with bowed heads in prayer, the flames blocked by the wide-spreading Easter creations resting atop the heads of the ladies who were sitting under the sanctuary rail, where they could not see the fire.

"Merry Widow" hats weren’t in fashion very long, but they did provide a topic of conversation while they lasted.

Published 26 October 2007, Western Kentucky Genealogy Blog,

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