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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ozark dress in the Great Depression

Chapter 5

Ozark Amusements

Family gathering in the '30 in Bona.  Conrad Frieze is third from the right in front.  Richard is fourth and little brother Rex is in the cap and shorts on the end in front, looking like Buster Brown.

Dave and I recently chatted about the government assistance during the Great Depression and also during our lifetimes.  I understand that the coupon books of “food stamps” that I had as a single struggling mother were probably meant to embarrass recipients—make you want to get off them.  I certainly was uncomfortable tearing out those coupons at the checkout counter in front of a line of people, but I had children to feed and I believed it wouldn’t be forever.  Now of course, SNAP has EBT cards meant to look like a debit card and cause less humiliation.  I am not here to debate the pros and cons of shaming adults, but I am irritated as hell that the American government thought it was appropriate during the Great Depression to give innocent children overalls to wear that had been dyed brown so that the entire community, most particularly their classmates, would know that their family was on Relief.  The United States government shamed itself in humiliating children who had no power over the situation of their lives or the economy.  During Hard Times, as it was called, neither did their parents.

Conrad age 12 in stripped overalls.

A major difference in the days of the 1930s in the Ozark hills and the modern world of today was our clothing.  Bib overalls were the normal attire for most all males for some very good reason.  First of all, bib overalls were the most versatile and comfortable working garment ever invented.  Secon, and very important in those days of Hard Times, they were cheap and very durable.
Today, most outdoors-working men and boys usually wear blue denim jeans or dungarees except on farms where the old bib overalls can still be found.  Jeans and dungarees are great but they do require a belt to keep them up.  Bib overalls had their own galluses, were loose and comfortable, and they have myriad pockets that are very useful.
Typical Ozark men's dress, even into the forties.  Pictured here are Willie and John Blankenship, the author's great-uncles.

Bib overalls were usually made of dark blue denim but they also came in blue and white striped denim.  Most of us wore blue because the striped ones showed dirt more—and we often had plenty of that on us not to speak of cow manure and other things.  In the early days of the Roosevelt administration during the Hard Times of the 1930s, the overalls that were handed out to people on Relief were the striped kind but that had been dyed brown so you could always tell that someone was on Relief.  Fortunately, our father was a proud and independent man who never took charity so we boys never had to wear Relief overalls.  Of course our overalls were usually faded and patched at the knees but Mother always saw to it that we went off to school in clean overalls and shirt and we never minded patches—everyone wore patched overalls.
Those bib overalls were worn the year around.  In summer we often wore them without any underwear.  In the winter we wore drop-seat long johns under them.  Our shirts were usually blue hickory shirts for everyday wear and maybe a white shirt for Sunday when we went to church.  We usually had regular was pants with a belt to wear to church or when we went to Greenfield for something like the Fourth of July picnic but many times I have gone to church in a clean pair of fairly new bib overalls.  I do not believe the Lord minded one bit.
There were some other articles of clothing that were typical in those days in the Ozarks.  When you look at the old photographs it is evident that we were a transition generation from the pioneer days of horse and buggy to a more modern world of automobiles and up-to-date clothing.  Many of the older folks clung to garb that was right out of the Civil War era.
The older ladies still wore dresses that came down to their ankles.  My Grandmother Stanley had progressed to shorter dresses (although I remember her well in ankle-length dress and apron), but I do not ever recall seeing Aunt Lizzie Asbell in anything but ankle-length dress and apron over high buttoned shoes.  “Aunt Lizzie” was actually my great-aunt because she was Grandma Stanley’s sister.

One article that was still in common use can now be found only in a museum.  It was a ladies’ (or girls’) sunbonnet called a “poke bonnet.”  Almost all females wore them in the summer.  They were made from material left over from making dresses or aprons and were stiffened with strips of cardboard.  The poke bonnets (called that because they resembled a paper bag or “poke”) had a pouf of material at the back to accommodate hair usually braided and wound into a bun on the back of the head.  There was also a sort of skirt to protect the nape of the neck.  A poke bonnet was a very effective sunshade, but was a bit disconcerting because from any distance at all you could not tell what woman it was.  Up close it was sort like looking up a section of stove pipe to see who you were talking to.

Not being a fashionista, what my father may not have known, or at least failed to mention, is the reason that women’s dresses shortened during the Great Depression.  It was a very practical reason--the lack of money for purchasing material.  Women knew how to make a penny scream in those days and shorter hemlines meant less material to be purchased.  As American society transitioned from the Depression into WWII hemlines shortened even more to save material for the war effort and more women began wearing pants as they moved into the factory workplace.