A pin stripe is a bold fashion statement

When searching through the images of Booker T. Washington, I must focus on the clothes. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, I’m sculpting them. I must know more about them. The one thing I like about all of my sculpture commissions is that there is a historical aspect to them.

When I sculpted the Newsboy for The Texas Press Association, I had to research the clothes that a Newsboy would wear. I learned so much. Interestingly, this is the same period as this Booker T. Washington sculpture. (As a side note: there was a big newsboy strike of 1899. Children everywhere made a considerable difference in the world because of this. )


Bridgette Mongeon’s Newsboy created for the Texas Press Association. Limited edition bronze.

Clothes can tell us a lot about the person, the period, the stature, social norms, etc. With my Newsboy, I learned that as the boys aged, their length of pants was an indication of maturity. In the production of The Music Man, which was set in 1912, there is a song titled “You Got Trouble”, with a line that says “the minute your son leaves the house does he unbuckled his knickerbockers below the knee?” Boys wanted their knickers long to show that they were grown up, so they would buckle them below the knee. I learned a lot about that time period by studying the clothes. I found an old pattern and sewed a reference outfit from that pattern for my sculpture.

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Sculptor Bridgette Mongeon searched the internet for standing images of Booker T. Washington. She will use these to be able to get the proportions for a small sculpture.

When I watched the show Downton Abbey I learned that you could tell how wealthy a man was by the size of his top hat. Understanding clothing and textiles teach us about history, technology, and social aspects of the time.

Let’s see what we can find out about the clothes that Booker T. Washington wore.

First, let’s put this in context.

  • Booker T Washington lived 1856 – 1915
  • The Emancipation Proclamation 1863 (Booker T. would have been six or seven years old.)
  • The civil war 1861 –1865 ( Booker T. was nine years old when it ended.)
  • The sewing machine was invented in September 1846.  They went into productions in the the 1850’s.  At this point a foot petal moved these machines.
  • The electric-powered sewing machine did arrive until about 1905.
  • The modern zipper came about around 1917 So, Booker T. had a button fly.
  • First Sears catalog was in 1889. Booker T. would have been 33.

Booker T. WashingtonKnowing these things, I can assume that most of his clothes would have been hand made. He may have purchased a few things off the rack, but you must know it is not like it is now. You could not just walk into a large department store. Perhaps he purchased his clothes from an old Sears catalog? Sears had a catalog from which you could purchase anything, including a house.

When wanting to know more about this subject. I had to do what I always do when approached with the history of which I am not sure. I consult those who know more than I. My sources were my friends from college.

Elizabeth has an MFA in fashion and costume and is a costume designer, and a costume historian.

Christine is a textile and a prototype designer at an engineering company.

I learned that clothing changes depending on the period and stature. For example, a man’s tie, before this period would have been more like a fancy scarf called a cravat. Did they become smaller because of the cost of the material? Booker T’s tie is more like a very small bow tie.

The material in the suit was probably wool. I had always thought wool was hot, but my informed friends tell me that it is not necessarily hot; in fact, it breaths. But how was that cleaned? They didn’t have a dry cleaner. One of my sources said that they often had many shirts, but not many suits. Brushing the suit off was one way to clean it.

You have heard the term “dress the part.” Booker T. had to be around a lot of important people. He had to try to win them over, and often, he would be fundraising for his projects. He had to “dress the part”. Booker T. would try to mimic high society, but not be too flamboyant.

The vests we see him wearing are referred to as a waistcoats. The neckline of the waistcoat changed, as you can see in these pictures, so did the size of the lapel. The size of the lapel on the jacket could be indicative of a man’s wealth, but so was the type of material and how well the suit was made. The coat that he wears over this waistcoat is called the morning coat, often longer in the back. We might think it looks more like coattails. As one source said, “Men at this point, were not dressing up to show their wealth, they were dressing up to show their character. If they wanted to show their wealth, one needed to look at how the wife dressed.” I thought this was a fascinating statement, and we could do much more research on the wife of Booker T. Washington and what she was wearing in photographs. Booker T. was also dressing to show his equality with others.

One resource commented on the pinstripe suit. In this pinstripe which is probably grey or brown, it was a fashion-forward decision, because it is a bolder choice. “I would guess Booker T. knows he is a celebrity and is always trying to look good. He is trying to promote his people.”

I have learned a lot about clothes. Now I must sculpt them. But I have some other details to work out first.

Teachers and Students

  • Read more about the Newsies Strike of 1899. What did the kids do to make a difference?
  • Would Booker T. Washington be featured in the newspapers? What was his influence with newspapers?
  • Students can extend their research to the wife of Booker T. Washington and her clothes. What did she wear? What does it mean?
  • What other things can you find out about clothing manufacturing and when it began. What types of machines were invented, and when?
  • We learned about copyright a bit, patent is similar, but has to do with inventions. Do you know what happened with the patent of the sewing machine?
  • What prices surprises you the most when you look up old photographs of the Sears Catalogue?

Author Sculptor Bridgette Mongeon


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