Today is Throwback Thursday, a prompt provided by my sister, whose Facebook friends post a picture from their pasts and describe it every Thursday. I will do the same, trying to extract every piece of information I can about the sitters for this portrait, which is from our family collection. In a long ago life, I was a costumer, so my analysis will emphasize what they are wearing, and what it reveals about them.
The picture was taken in Zhitomir, in a studio with a painted backdrop showing a forest scene. My grandma, Tanya Peckler, is seated on the left, with her sister Raya standing next to her.
At that time, people having their pictures taken had to stay still for a very long exposure. That’s why most people are not smiling – they are concentrating on not moving. If you look closely, however, there is a shadow of a smile on Raya’s face. Both girls have their hair parted in the center and drawn back from their faces. Since earlier pictures show that both young women have wavy hair, I suspect they each applied a lot of pomade to straighten it.
They are both wearing identical outfits, with high waists, and hems several inches above the ankles. Although they look like dresses, they may be separate skirts and blouses (or shirtwaists, as they were known then). At first I thought they were school uniforms – but my grandma and her sisters were taught at home. The bodice of the dresses is a middy style (ie, it has a separate shoulder yoke) and has eyelet inserts at the shoulders and the sleeves. This ornamentation also argues against the dresses being uniforms. Both dresses are made with what appears to be a high quality fabric with a metallic stripe woven through it. The bodices have the stripes running horizontally, while the skirts have the stripes running vertically. The skirts are top-stitched at the hem and about 3 inches above the hem. Top stitching is a sign of a high quality item, and the top stitching was very event, indicating that it was done by machine. The Peckler family was solidly middle class, so I suspect the dresses were made for them (there was very little off-the-rack clothing available at this time). But it is also possible that my great-grandmother, Eugenia, made them herself – after all, her husband sold Singer sewing machines.
Tanya’s skirt appears slightly narrower at the hem than at the hip, a so-called “hobbled” skirt. But Raya’s skirt bells out slightly from the hips, so the “hobble” may be an artifact of Tanya’s pose. This high-waisted, “hobbled” style of skirt was popular in the early nineteen-teens. Given the girls’ unlined faces, the fact that Tanya already has a womanly figure, and the dress style and hem length, I estimate that this picture was taken about 1913, when Tanya was 17, and Raya 15.
Grandma has her right hand held behind her, the other hand draped against the curved bench on which she sits. Her left foot is hooked behind her right. Perhaps she was posed that way to show off her shoe, a heeled version with a strap across the instep. Raya is holding a book in both hands. Was she the intellectual one of these two sisters? Most likely, it was simply a prop provided by the photographer to make a pleasing composition. The spine and cover of the book appear to be embossed but it is impossible to read the title.
I look for a resemblance between my grandmother and me, but I don’t see one. She looks a little bit more like my sister Laurie did in her youth. But I definitely inherited her fashion sense — except that I never wear horizontal stripes!