Exhibit tells the history of Winthrop student uniforms

adouglas@heraldonline.comJanuary 1, 2014 

  • Want to go?

    What: “A Stitch in Time: Winthrop Uniforms 1895-1910,” designed by Winthrop graduate student Alison Boulton

    Where: Louise Pettus Archives, 700 Cherry Road, Rock Hill

    When: The exhibit will be on display from Jan. 2 to Jan. 31. The archives building is open Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit will also be available on Saturday, Jan. 11, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

    For more information, call 803-323-2334 or email archives@winthrop.edu.

— Like walking a mile in another person’s shoes, Alison Boulton’s months spent hand-sewing recreations of century-old Winthrop University uniforms has given her a new appreciation for some of the college’s first students and its history.

Boulton, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Winthrop, reproduced more than 20 pieces of clothing that were part of a female student’s uniform between 1895 and 1910.

Her work and some original uniform items from early Winthrop students are on display this month at the university’s Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections building in an exhibit called “A Stitch in Time.”

The reproduced clothing is helping fill out the university’s archive collection, which has a sampling of old uniforms but most are from the 1920s to the 1950s. Winthrop dropped its uniform requirement in late 1954.

Boulton worked for nearly six months last year to create four uniforms and one dressing gown to display as examples of the clothing worn during Winthrop’s first 15 years in Rock Hill. Winthrop was founded in 1886 in Columbia, but moved and later held its first classes in Rock Hill in 1895.

During Winthrop’s first 1.5 years in Rock Hill, Boulton said, school leaders found it difficult to enforce the uniform code. Students quickly found loopholes in the rules, she said, to express their individuality and creativity while in uniform.

It was also challenging early on to create uniformity on campus because the female students were expected to sew their own clothes but many lacked the skills to do so. Winthrop offered a sewing class to help students gain skills. But, the class’ projects were mainly to produce clothing for teachers –– not for other students.

The uniform code was routinely strengthened from year to year in Winthrop’s student handbook or catalog.

Following the changing clothing rules through the old handbooks gave Boulton an idea of how the women of Winthrop found ways to bend the uniform code to allow for some differentiation. The university’s leaders would pick up on the loopholes students had found, she said, and specifically prohibit those things in the next year’s handbook.

It’s not clear why, she said, but the college’s uniform rules grew even more strict around 1910.

Uniforms provided ‘base line of equality’

With some variation year to year, the typical Winthrop uniform in the late 1890s and early 1900s included high-top, lace-up boots worn over black cotton or woolen socks and shirt waist blouses with corsets underneath, paired with full-length wool skirts and dark-colored jackets.

Generally, Boulton said, it would have taken about 30 minutes for a Winthrop woman to get dressed and ready in the mornings. Students were allowed to wear neck ties and often could get away with wearing small pieces of jewelry, she said.

While Winthrop’s uniform code “preached modesty and discretion” in wearing neck ties, Boulton found that the students often deviated from the permissible black or white, non-patterned necktie. Sometimes the women wore neckties with plaid, checks, polka-dots or floral designs.

While some people today may view the uniforms as restrictive or unattractive, she said, Winthrop’s earliest leaders felt the code would give campus a “base line of equality among the girls.”

Winthrop’s founder and first president, D.B. Johnson, wrote in the school’s handbook that the uniform code would ensure “the richest girl cannot be distinguished from the poorest by her dress."

Still, some clothing differences would show a student’s economic status. Expertly-tailored skirts or shirts and new, high-quality shoes, for example, were indicators that a student likely came from a wealthy family.

Winthrop required its students to buy wool for their coats and skirts from one of three Rock Hill wool distributors operating at the time. All the shops carried the same patterns and typically charged the same prices, Boulton said.

Typically, a Winthrop student would need three skirts, two jackets and 10 to 15 shirt waists for the school year.

Some graduates would pass on their uniforms to younger students, she said, if the school largely kept its clothing rules the same in the following year.

‘Lost way of life’

Boulton used early photographs kept in the university archives or featured in The Tatler to research the school’s uniforms. For most years, The Tatler was published as Winthrop’s yearbook from 1898 to 2002.

Produced by students, the yearbooks from Winthrop’s uniform-era often contain cartoons and lighthearted jabs at the university’s clothing rules, she said. “They did want more opportunity for personalization in the what they wore,” Boulton said.

But, the women were grateful to be studying at Winthrop, she said, and they knew they were pursuing a better way of life than most other people had in their family. “Their expectations of life were much different than ours.”

The uniforms on exhibit, Boulton said, are “just another way to study something that is a lost way of life.

“And, it was very dear to my heart because I’m a Winthrop student.”

She wanted to experience the uniforms –– not just research them and reproduce clothes.

Once finished, Boulton tried on the clothes she’d made for the exhibit. Her creations may be used in an upcoming, annual alumni fashion show where Winthrop’s old uniforms are often modeled.

While the uniforms are a general piece of trivia included in Winthrop’s institutional history, Boulton sought to “lend dignity” to the women who wore them. She hopes the uniforms can help people connect with the college and the time in history in which the clothing was worn, instead of viewing the old Winthrop way as a “side-show attraction,” she said.

In working on her uniform exhibit, Boulton experienced for herself the personal joy of discovering and connecting with an old piece of clothing or an old photograph. She chose an archived photo from around 1907 to enlarge and display next to her clothing in the exhibit building. She cropped the image of uniformed Winthrop women sitting outside on steps and chose to focus on a few students among the group.

Later, Boulton found out that the woman in the middle of her cropped photo –– and the only one among the students actually looking at toward the photographer –– is her boyfriend’s great-grandmother, Gertrude Strother.

Strother was the first of three generations of women in her family to attend Winthrop. And, her family thinks she may have been the college’s first student to earn her master’s degree.

Now, Boulton is searching for Strother’s master’s thesis, where she researched and wrote about Winthrop’s Artesian Well. The well, built in 1906, is the only one remaining of five original wells that once supplied water to the campus.

Not much is known about the Artesian Well, Boulton said, and she hopes Strother’s thesis has some historical information about it.

Boulton, who graduates from Winthrop in December 2014, hopes to continue working with antique textiles, specifically from the 18th and 19th centuries. Ideally, she said, another Winthrop student will find an interest in the university’s old uniforms.

The college’s collection could benefit from someone reproducing more of the old uniforms, Boulton said, because “there is a lot more of this story to tell.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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