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Dollar Dresses: 1909

Dollar Dresses: 1909

New York circa 1909. "High school graduates wearing dollar dresses." Note plunging neckline, scandalously exposed ankles and elbows. View full size.


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Learning the Finer Points

Slate, the online newsmagazine, features a series on young women like these who studied at the the Manhattan Trade School for Girls. Their early life stories are revealed through a cache of highly detailed report cards and further research by the author.

They Worked Hard for the Money

Looking at all the beautiful lace and pin tucks, it's easy to see they put a lot of work into these dresses. They have good reason to be proud of them.

Ah, the early 1900's

When high school lasted until menopause.

The Olden Days

When I was in high school (with Fred Flintstone) every female was required to take a minimum of one year of Home Economics and every male had to take at least one year of Shop, no ifs, ands or buts about it, regardless of what course one chose. If desired, one could take advanced classes in the same subjects every year of high school. There was "woman's work" and "men's work" and nobody could cross over but at graduation all the girls could cook and sew and all the guys could repair and build stuff. Not a bad idea.


It is striking to me to see an African American girl in this group, clearly standing there as a peer to the other girls. It's a tribute to the progressive spirit of the New York City school system of a hundred years ago. The whole country was the beneficiary of the great schools New York had in those years.

Similar to today's expensive graduations and proms

According to a 1910 New York Times article, "dollar dresses" were a project of Washington Irving High School. Too many girls were spending a fortune (i.e., between $10 and $75) on commencement dresses. The school disapproved and the dressmaking department issued a challenge -- girls should make their own commencement dresses for $1 or less. The N.Y. Times heartily approved, and insisted that "More than 1,000 persons saw the girls graduate, but not one person was found who was able to pick out one of the twenty-seven girls whose dress had been made complete for less than $1."

Still cheap

According to the handy dandy inflation calculator, a dollar in 1909 is now equal to around $24 in today's money. That's still pretty reasonable for these dresses I would think.

And after graduation

Those dollar dresses can become lovely dollar curtains.

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