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Harmon’s Histories: School fashion cut from a different cloth in 1890s Montana

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Five hundred boys’ school suits have just arrived at the clothing department of E. H. Ahrens in Neihart, Montana. “We can show you a nice two-piece reefer suit, all wool, sizes 4 to 12, at $1.75, $2 and $2.75.”

Reefer suit? That sent me to the dictionary.

I’ll be darned. It appears even I had, back in the 1960s, worn a “reefer” coat, but I just didn’t know it by that name – they just called it a pea coat in the Navy. Apparently, a reefer coat is “any short coat or jacket of thick cloth.” 

Back to our story.

It’s fall, the late 1890s – time for kids to get the latest in fall school fashion, and the reefer suit apparently was all the rage for school boys.

Boys’ fashion, circa 1890s

It pushed aside the classic “Little Lord Fauntleroy” suit of the 1880s, with its “velvet tunic and knickerbockers, flounced shirt, and a wide lace collar.” The Oscar Wilde look was gone and even the marketing of boys’ clothes changed.

Gans & Klein, Helena clothiers, marketed their back-to-school boys’ clothing not as “fashion” items but as aids to improved self-esteem.

“Send your boy to school well dressed. Good clothes command respect in the world of children as in the world of men. Give the boy every chance to foster his self-respect, and he will be a better man for it.

“No need for extravagance, though – the clothes we sell are made for wear – the kind of wear school boys give – they’re made of the best material – but they are not expensive.”

As examples, they offered boys’ suits with two pairs of pants for $3 and “good quality stitched cloth” hats for 35-cents.”

Then there was “Jaeger Sanitary Wool Underwear.” Apparently they were referring to air flow, but I don’t really want to know, thank you.

School girl in dress, Big Timber Pioneer, July 14, 1898

For school girls, there were (as you might expect) many more options. Fashion pages of the Townsend Star newspaper declared, “Gingham is reveling in a return to popular favor.” “A child’s dress of striped blue gingham may be made quite dressy with the aid of embroidery.”

A competing style was the percale dress, “covered with a pinafore.” The dress, according to the Washington D.C. Star newspaper, had “a cute little waist” and was “almost too pretty for everyday wear.”

Among the newer offerings of the period were the military-style dress and the bonnet-and-cape dress.

The military style dress, “now so popular,” came in “victor blue cloth trimmed with a gilt braid. This stylish little garment,” wrote the Washington star, “may be worn by girls from five to sixteen years.”

Pinafore dress. Almost too pretty for everyday wear. Washington D.C. Star, 1898.

The dress closed “diagonally at the left side by gilt buttons placed in groups of three.”

The other new dress featured “a comfortable little cape is cut perfectly square with the corners falling gracefully over the shoulders and down the back and front. Around the edge of the cape is gathered a ruffle of gray silk, above the ruffle two rows of the velvet ribbon are stitched. The same trimming is attractively carried out in the box-pleated skirt. The cape is closed by three cut-steel clasps.”

A Quaker bonnet is worn with it of fancy gray straw with white silk shirred facing and ties. The crown is composed of a large puff of gray silk, the same quality as the ruffle of the cape.

Today’s teens, of course, are not cut from the same cloth as the 1890s.

Girls are (I am told) sporting over-sized pantsuits, Bermudas, minis, prints, funky boots and tie-dyed everything.

Military style dress for school girls

The daring are apparently leaning toward leopard print pants and dresses, buckle boots and leather!

Boys seem tame by comparison – polo shirts, jeans, joggers, Chinos, Khakis, tees and oversized sweatshirts

The question now becomes: Are you daring enough to share this fashion report with your kids or grandkids?

The reactions might be worth it.

Now, hit the books!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.