Dusters and Dirt

As someone born in Dearborn, Michigan, home of the Ford Motor Company, I grew up keenly aware of businessman Henry Ford’s culturally transformative impact.  As a child I learned that in 1908, Ford introduced the relatively affordable Model T car to consumers.  Automobile ownership became achievable significantly altering American culture beyond expectations about how to get from point A to point B.  Among Ford’s influence was his streamlining of the mass production process.  Assembly line workers became specialized in specific tasks expediting production.  In the first half of the 20th century such jobs were good to secure because they offered entry to the middle-class.  Workers with little other training or education had the opportunity to secure a stable income, buy a house, live the American dream.  My own father spent the better part of his working life at General Motors.  He was part of a Southern and Appalachian migration to the Detroit-area where his lack of a high school diploma was no barrier to employment so long as he was willing to work.

I am grateful for my father’s union job at General Motors, which allowed us to live a comfortable working-class life.  My father’s loathing of his every work day inspired me to aim for something more fulfilling in my own career.  Moreover, a union strong household instilled me with a commitment to fair worker treatment and pay.  By the by, though it is beyond the purview of this post, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Henry Ford was a known racist, anti-Semite, and opponent of labor unions.  Ford preferred a paternalistic approach to worker treatment, imagining that he knew best what employees needed.

Among the Model T’s cultural effects was its impact on fashion.  Driving or “touring” in an open air “horseless carriage” exposed people to dirt and debris as they traversed dusty, unpaved roads.  To combat soiling their clothes, men and women began wearing long tan-colored coats called dusters.  These were frequently accessorized with soft leather helmets, driving gloves, and goggles.  Some women wore fashionable scarves yet this could be a fatal fashion choice.  In 1927, the year Henry Ford watched the 15 millionth Model T roll off the assembly line, dancer Isadora Duncan broke her neck and died when her long flowing scarf got caught in the rear axle of the car she was in.

As car sales rose in the 1920s, enclosed cars became more widely available and desirable.  Fashion changed accordingly.  Among fashion changes possibly related to motoring was the more fitted nature of women’s hats.  A cloche [bell] hat fit so snugly to the head that it was unlikely to be swept away by a gust of wind.  Some have suggested shorter skirts made it easier to climb in and out of automobiles.  Yet this does not explain why bulky dresses and petticoats were previously worn when riding in carriages.  The duster, on the other hand, seems to have a clearer correlation to the new transportation.  Dusters transformed as automobiles were increasingly enclosed.

Duster (1908-1919), Kline’s St. Louis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, 1989.00.108, Stephens College
Duster (1908-1919) from the permanent collection at Stephens College.  Photograph: Aurola Wedman Alfaro, Fashion Communication 2020

In the fall 2019 exhibition at Stephens College—Suffrage: What’s fashion got to do with it?—there are two examples of dusters on display.  One is from about 1908 to 1919 and the other is from the 1920s.  The earlier duster is made of linen and extends to the wearer’s ankles ensuring full coverage from road dust.  The 1920s version, while a traditional light tan color, is made of silk and considerably shorter reflecting changing fashions and perhaps the greater likelihood of motoring in an enclosed automobile.  Moreover, the 1920s coat and matching dress reflect the decade’s Egyptomania trend.  After King Tutankhamun’s tomb was unearthed in 1922 the art and design world went gaga for Egyptian motifs in fashion, film, architecture, and decorative arts.  The Egyptian-themed ensemble on exhibit at Stephens College was worn by Elise Proctor Elzea who was born in 1904 in Independence, Missouri.  The wearer acquired the dress and duster while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, France in the 1920s.

Duster and dress (1920s), Gift of Margaret “Peggy” Destin Elzea, 2008.16.12A-B, Stephens College
Duster and dress (1920s) from the permanent collection at Stephens College.  Photograph: Aurola Wedman Alfaro, Fashion Communication 2020

Detailed embroidery and appliqué, such as seen on the Egyptian-inspired ensemble, were considered “natural” leisure pursuits for women in the 19th century.  By the 20th century, social clubs and suffragists used such artistic techniques as means for revolutionary expression.  Gathering together to engage in so-called womanly arts gave suffragists an opportunity to exchange political ideas while collaborating to win the right to vote.  In such settings women made banners and handkerchiefs with motifs and messages conveying support for suffrage.




Suffrage: What’s fashion got to do with it? is on exhibit through December 13th at the Stephens College Historic Costume Gallery in Columbia, Missouri.  For location and gallery hours, click here.

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