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.
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.”
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.