Mary Alice in fancy dress

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What it is:

Two photos, each measuring 2 x 5.3 inches, each mounted into a cardboard folder.

What I know about it:

The photographer is Marks of Clinton, Missouri.  The girl is Mary Alice Hall.  She is one of the Sullivan/Hall clan, some other photos of which I’ve already posted and can be seen here.


I’ve been curious about this dress.  I called the post “fancy dress” because I figured it could refer to either meaning, a dress that is fancy, or a costume.  This outfit is nothing like any of the other pictures I have of her, or even any of the other girls of comparable age and era.  She looks like she’s decked out to sing in an operetta, and that translucent protective paper on the left (what would that be called, maybe vellum?) has an unusual spiderweb pattern that is suggestive of Halloween, at least to my modern eyes.  I find these photos charming but baffling.  Well, imagine my pleasant surprise when another vintage photo blog I follow, The Cabinet Card Gallery, posted a photo here of a girl in a similar dress!  It’s a gorgeous photo, and although the dresses are not identical, there is a similarity that is remarkable, especially given that mine are from Missouri and his is from Munich, Germany!  Since we both seem to be equally puzzled, can any of my readers who are costume experts shed some light on this?  Was this actually a style worn by girls at the time?  Or was this a popular costume style, and if so, what does it represent?

10 comments on “Mary Alice in fancy dress”

  1. This is a little girl wearing a costume that looks to be imitating late 18th c./Revolutionary War Style. She may have been in a school play or presentation set in that era. It’s clearly a costume, being made in one piece, rather than the chemise-bodice-skirt of that time period. The Little girl in Munich, with her shortened dress, may have been wearing some version of her national costume for a local event. Lisa A. Keep up the wonderful photos, I learn from each one.

    • Thank you, Lisa! I was leaning towards the costume idea, probably for a pageant or “tableau” or something. She looks adorable in it, and if a family member had to make it, that would be extra incentive to record it for posterity. As for national dress in the Munich region, I think of it more in terms of Bavarian dirndls and things, which is why her dress struck me as unusual, but I could easily be wrong. I wondered if some particular period fashion had swept world culture at that time, inspiring little girls to dress up that way in theatrical presentations and costume parties, like kids today might do Harry Potter or something. I remember in 1976 when the U.S. was swept up in Bicentennial fever and there were actually little girls in my class who got their school pictures taken wearing “colonial” bonnets and dresses and things. I wondered if something similar was going on here, some worldwide cultural vogue (a historical anniversary, a popular fictional character, etc.) that was being tapped into with these outfits. Of course, it could just be a coincidence. Thanks also for the compliment! I’m very gratified to hear that you still find my blog interesting and useful.

  2. Also remember about the time of the Bicentennial “Little House on the Prairie”/Laura Ingalls Wilder was sweeping the nation and all the little girls were wearing long prairie dresses and bonnets. I remember sewing several of those outfits for your sister, who wore them daily to school.

    • Yes, exactly! I remember that, too. It makes me wonder if some cultural phenomenon was sweeping the world when these photos were taken that would have resulted in these girls wearing those dresses (or if it’s just a wacky coincidence).

  3. […] this article: Mary Alice in fancy dress « Pics of Then This entry was posted in Fancy Dress and tagged been-curious, called-the-post, dress, […]

  4. […] more: Mary Alice in fancy dress « Pics of Then This entry was posted in Dress Up fancydress and tagged been-curious, called-the-post, […]

  5. That is one heck of a look without the ginormous bustle that usually accompanied such dresses. 😉

    • That big bow on her head was popular at the time, and yet it’s oddly integrated into the overall period look of the costume. Or maybe it’s because it all looks old-fashioned to me.

  6. That bow totally stuck out to me as being the modern part of her costume, along with her bobbed hair, although they did (apparently) integrate the colors. I agree with Lisa A. & Gingkochris (I have vivid memories of my Laura Ingalls Wilder obsession), but I have a different take on the Munich outfit: I think it was also supposed to evoke an 18th-century dress, but that the skirt was shortened either because they thought it was more appropriate for a little girl, or to allow for some kind of dance presentation. Maybe a Mozart festival? (Probably a more obvious choice if the photo had been from Salzburg.)

    As N pointed out, t’s funny that neither of the girls’ costumes included the voluminous petticoats/paniers 18th-century girls would really have worn–I always think this style of dress look saggy without them. But I love these photos, and the spiderweb card.

    I suspect the Munich photo may be at least a decade older than the Missouri one. But the girls are holding their fans almost the same way, which is another intriguing similarity.

    • Yes, the bow stuck out to me, too, as did the shoes in the Munich photo. And I agree that the Munich photo is probably somewhat older, which is part of why the similarities are so intriguing. If they are following a trend, then it was one with some staying power.

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