I have gone through photos recently to decide which ones should be included in my new book, Liberating Lomie. Photos can tell stories if one knows what to look for.
I have one photo of my mother, Mem, before she was married. She would have been around the age of thirty at the time, circa 1950. She is standing next to an “English” friend. It appears it was taken in the slanted light of late afternoon in spring or summer with a cat walking by. But the details that catch my eye would only be noticeable to someone who has lived an Amish life.
Mem is wearing a starched organdy cape and apron, and she is wearing a black kopp, or hair covering. This is the way unmarried Amish women dress to attend a church service, which suggests it was taken on a Sunday afternoon after church. However, if that is the case, I find it fascinating that she is with an English friend and that she is posing to have her picture taken. When I was growing up, both of these things would have been frowned upon, if not outright verboten. I notice that Mem’s organdy apron has no wrinkles in it, like maybe she didn’t sit through a three-hour service that day. The organdy was a stiff fabric, so every wrinkle showed up. I can offer two different explanations for this.
The first is that Mem ironed her apron after church to look good for the photo. The second is that it wasn’t a Sunday afternoon, but she dressed in her “Sunday best” for the photo. I won’t ever know for sure which of these two happened, but I’m guessing she was dressing up for the photo on a weekday.
The detail I am focusing on is the “style” of the apron. Most who don’t grow up Amish have no idea that those who dress plain do have their own styles. In fact, every Amish community has their own style of kopp, colors and styles of dresses, shoes, shirts, etc. For instance in my home community, purple was not allowed, yet that is one of the popular colors worn by Amish women in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The style of pleats in a dress or apron usually vary from one community to the next as well. In addition to all this, the styles change over time in a given community.
When I look at Mem’s apron, I realize that the styles had changed between her generation and mine. Her apron has no pleats in the front, and it wraps halfway around her. In my youth, church aprons did have pleats starting at the top and tapering halfway down the front. They only covered the front, so they didn’t extend so far around the waist.
But the detail that I looked at and wondered about is the folds in Mem’s apron. Mem once told me that this was the style when she was growing up. As I look at this photo, I wonder why in the world that style would have come into vogue. Then I thought of a plausible explanation. Here is my theory.
Back in my mother’s day, closet rods were rare, possibly even non-existent among the Geauga County Amish. It was much more common to have hooks on the walls of the closets. They would have been used for draping a dress or shirt over the hook that you might wear the next day, or to have a hook to hang one’s nightclothes. This meant that most, if not all, of the freshly washed clothes would have been stored in drawers. The old style dresser sets usually included a bureau as well as a dresser, which provided the extra drawer space needed for storing clothing.
Back in Mem’s day when they were ironing their Sunday clothes and folding them to be stored in drawers, the folds were going to show up. So folding the apron into thirds vertically, and into fourths horizontally made them easy to store in drawers. Since the folds were going to show up anyway, why not press the apron that way and make it look intentional?
When I was young, my sisters and I each ironed our own cape and apron. We’d hang the apron on a skirt hanger with the two clamps to hold it, drape the cape over the hanger, and hang them in the closet ready for Sunday morning when we dressed for church. Keeping the apron completely wrinkle free was our “style.” By then we were making them out of permanent press organdy, which meant they didn’t need to be starched. Around the time I was leaving, this organdy fabric was harder to find. I don’t know what fabric the Amish women of Geauga County, Ohio are using nowadays. And I also don’t know what styles are in vogue for dresses and aprons. I know their koppa have changed to be more like the “box koppa” style in Holmes County, Ohio.
So this is a little about Amish styles, all triggered by observations of what Mem was wearing when this picture was taken seventy-some years ago.
If you have any questions about Amish dress, please leave them in the comments section, and I’ll be happy to answer them if I can.
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I wish you all a wonderful week, and I hope to be back next Sunday.