Monday mystery: why is Isabella dressed like this?

Isabella Dove - the big T's grandmother - dressed in military-style uniform.

Isabella Lietze – the big T’s grandmother. Studio portrait taken at the Mora Studio, Gore, NZ. Date unknown

I’d just got used to finding photos of the little boys in the family dressed in military uniforms when I found this picture of the Big T’s grandmother – Isabella Lietze.

Wedding portrait; Isabella Lietze and Arthur Dove, August 1920.

Wedding portrait; Isabella Lietze and Arthur Dove, August 1920.

I know absolutely nothing about this photo – except that it is of Isabella, and that it was taken at The Mora Studio in Gore, New Zealand.  I’m not great at picking the age of people in photos, but comparing the uniform shot with Isabella’s wedding photo, I’d say she was of a similar age in both – but probably younger in the first shot. Isabella was born in 1899 and married in 1920, so it’s likely the photo was taken sometime during World War I.

 I would have been totally mystified by this if I hadn’t seen a news item recently about similar photos of young women dressed in military uniforms. It seems that staff at Te Papa (The Museum of New Zealand, in Wellington) found several such photos amongst around 3000 glass plate negatives that had been stored at the former premises of a Wellington photographer, William Berry.

Around 170 of the plates were of WWI soldiers, and in the process of trying to identify who these young men were, the staff realised that two of the “Berry Boys” were in fact women.

According to the article:

… it was possible the women were engaged in some form of fundraising, or theatrical production. It was also not unknown for women to dress in soldiers’ uniforms for fun, especially early in the conflict, before the horrors of war were apparent. “Later on it wasn’t as popular.”

One of the photos of women dressed in WWI military uniforms found amongst a photographer’s plates by staff at Te Papa.

However, it’s clear that Isabella’s “uniform” is different from that worn by the woman shown below. For a start, Isabella is wearing shorts and I’m not sure they were ever part of the New Zealand’ Expeditionary Force’s uniform – even at Gallipoli. Also, she seems to be wearing a shirt tucked into trousers rather than a belted tunic. The shirt is “military-looking”, but lacks epaulettes. Similarly, although she seems to be wearing puttees, her heeled boots don’t look as though they’d be very practical for long marches through mud. The cap badge might be a clue, but the photo was scanned at relatively low resolution and when I zoom in the image is too fuzzy to make out any detail on the badge.

I did wonder if perhaps it was an actual uniform but I can’t find any photographs of women serving in WWI whose uniform included trousers.

So it’s a mystery. Why was a (probably) teenage Isabella dressed in uniform? Since it doesn’t accurately replicate a real NZ Expeditionary Force uniform, was it a costume supplied by the photographic studio? If so, why did Isabella want a photo of herself dressed like this?

I’ll probably never know.

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25 thoughts on “Monday mystery: why is Isabella dressed like this?

  1. A theatrical performance sounds possible to me. If it was a local, amateur one she may have made up her costume herself from what she could get hold of. Whatever the occasion was I think it’s a great photo – how lucky that you found it.

    • Thank you; I hadn’t thought of that. It is a lovely photo and I’m grateful to my partner’s aunt who has scanned and catalogued a large number of his family photos. Such a contrast with my family – we have only a very precious few.

  2. I think the costume is just maybe to show her patriotism and her identification with the boys going off to war. It’s like “We girls can’t go, but we can at least dress like we can.”

    • Hi Gayle; that seems quite likely. It was sort of suggested by one of the articles I read about the other photos found in Wellington. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. 🙂

  3. What an intriguing discovery. It’s odd, too, that these should be special studio shots, much as army chaps might have gone in for to give to their mothers and girls. Is it possible that girls were dressing up like this to send photos to sweethearts serving overseas? If so, it’s an interesting phenomenon and we need to know more. Is Isabella perhaps wearing an official uniform rather than a military one i.e. some usually male job taken up during the war – e.g. Postwoman or similar. Is there a message here: that they’re doing their bit on the home front while the lads are away…? Happy New Year, BTW, Su.

    • Happy New Year to you too Tish. Hope 2014 is a wonderful year for you and your whanau. The romantic bit of me did wonder if perhaps Isabella had intended the photo for a serving boyfriend. I checked Archives NZ war service records to see if the man she married in 1920 had served, and it looks like he didn’t. Her brothers were much younger (one served in WWII), so perhaps a cousin – or indeed a boyfriend who either didn’t come back from Europe or whom she just didn’t marry.
      I also searched for images of women contributing to the war effort doing “men’s work” and couldn’t come up with any where they were in that sort of uniform. I’m thinking of getting in touch with the curator at Te Papa who has been working on the Berry collection of photos and see if he has any thoughts.
      Thanks Tish; you’ve given me lots to think about.

  4. Hmmm… now you’ve got me scratching my head, and wearing my eyeballs out, Su 😯 For what it’s worth, I actually think Isabella looks older in the first photo and it doesn’t look like an Army uniform to me. Maybe a tram, or rail conductor?…. or maybe it was for a theatrical production of some sort… or…. ?
    Cheers, and good luck with solving the mystery, Su 🙂

    • Thanks Catherine; I agree it doesn’t quite look like “army issue.” The Big T’s aunt thinks that Isabella was about 16 or 17 when the photo was taken (it must be true what they say about brides looking radiant!). That would put the picture at 1915-1916. I’ll look into the tram/rail conductor angle. I know the family were farming in Southland, but she may have moved to Dunedin. Cheers 🙂

  5. I came across your blog today. I love this photo. I have an interesting set of photos that are similar. My great-great grandmother and her oldest daughter. The time period is about the same and they are also in uniforms. The lived in Canada at the time.

    • Hi, thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. I’m fascinated that you also have similar photos as I don’t know the history of mine, and would love to.

    • Exciting; I hadn’t thought about what might be written on the backs! I only have scans of the actual photos. I think an aunt still has the originals, so I’ll ask her to look and see if there is anything written on them.

  6. The School Cadet programme began in Dunedin..I am wondering if she had a brother in the Cadets and has borrowed some of his uniform in an attempt to emulate the fashion of the time, of women dressing up as soldiers to fund raise.

    • Thank you!!!!! She did have younger brothers and I’ve also found a photo of her future husband in what looks like a cadet brigade. A whole new avenue to investigate. That’s so great – thanks!

      • Oh really!! That is exciting then. It really is interesting though that the women wanted to dress up like soldiers…wearing trousers or shorts in real life would have been frowned upon and yet in dress up mode one could get away with it and even have a studio portrait taken.

  7. Gosh, that’s a lovely puzzle for you to solve, Su. My suspicion is that the “uniform” was provided by the photography studio, as they definitely used to supply props and clothes. I have a wedding photo of my grandparents from just after WW1 in which my grandfather is wearing a straw boater hat and holding a posh walking stick, and I know from my grandparents that they were props lent to him by the photographer. Perhaps there was a craze for such dressing up by young women and the photographer did some shrewd marketing!

    • Hi Judy. Thanks for that. It’s so good to have everyone’s comments and knowledge. I’d struggle to gain these insights without my blogging community. From what I’ve read, it does seem that photographic studios were offering “women in uniform” shots. The Berry Collection (from a photographic studio in Wellington) contains a couple of them. I’ve done a little bit of research into the studio where Isabella had her portrait taken, but think I need to get in touch with the curator of the local museum. I do love a story that “has legs”! Happy New Year to you.

  8. Very Cool indeed, I like the costume possibility but any chance she served with the medical corp? Or a Transportation outfit? My Great,Great Grandfather served with Gen, Pershing in WW1 as part of the Marine Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium.

    • Thanks Ed. This photo has been a great talking point – and I’ve managed to get some of Isabella’s descendents on the case. The consensus seems to be that she was probably dressed up especially for the photo, but I’m still trying to find out more. Will tackle the local museum photo collection and try to find out more about the studio where the picture was taken. My great grandfather also served in WWI and was wounded, but I’ve been unable to find out anything about his military service. So frustrating! Do you have much information about your gg grandfather’s service? Cheers, Su

  9. Any chance she could have been part of the land army? A lot of women joined the land army in all countries (including queen elizabeth) so maybe it was the uniform of that.. Whatever it is.. It’s a great photo to have.. 🙂

    • Thanks, I’ll check that one out with the local museum. Initial thought though is that it’s a WWI photo and I’m not sure NZ had a land army in that war. We definitely did in WWII as two of Isabella’s daughters were in it! Also, she was a farm girl with younger siblings and no mother at home; not sure she’d have been allowed to join up.

  10. Pingback: Photograph Showcase: In Uniform | thegenealogygirl

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