• Ashley Webb

Hair Rats, Gibson Girls, and Rocky Mount Photography



February's photograph is quite a fun one. It's got the similar masculine vibe to another photograph in my collection, but the amazing thing about this one is that it's a photographer local to the Southwest Virginia area.


I absolutely love this photo for several reasons:

1. it's from Rocky Mount, Virginia,

2. the haughty expression

3. compounded with the masculine style

4. and finally, the hair style.



While I don't necessarily collect local photographs, it's neat to be able to find something relating to fashion history that also has a local historic connection, too. There aren't any examples of the photography studio, Whorley, floating around the internet, but I did find more information about the photographer through some serious rabbit-hole research. In one of the available Franklin County censuses, Bascomb Whorley was listed as a photographer in Rocky Mount in 1900. Born in Bedford County in the early 1870s, Bascomb was a farm laborer on his parent's farm, until an unknown date.


There are several birth dates relating to Bascomb - his grave says 1872, his WWI draft card says 1873, the 1900 census says 1871, the 1910 census says 1874...so I'm inclined to say the headstone is correct; however, he signed off on the draft card, so who knows. Regardless, he was still young when he set up his business in Rocky Mount as a photographer. Backing up the census, I found an ad in the June 1900 (Vol. V, No. 6) issue of 'Professional and Amatuer Photographer'further identifying this as the right Whorley:


Will buy second-hand 8 x 10 or 11 x 14 portrait lens; also stand or camera. Particulars and price in first letter. Address B. Whorley, Rocky Mount, Virginia.





Interestingly enough, Bascomb and his wife, Pearl (whom he married February 22, 1897 in Bedford, Virginia), migrated to Santa Fe New Mexico by March of 1908, and in 1910 were renting a home in the Albequerqe ward of Bernalillo, New Mexico. He had given up his photography business, as he was listed in the 1910 census as a railway mail clerk. He enlisted in WWI, but it's unclear if he went to France and the front. By1920, the family had moved to Silver City, Grant, New Mexico, and owned a home on 13th street. Again, he's listed as a mail clerk. Both he and his wife died in the 1940s in New Mexico.



The second thing I love about this photograph is the haughty expression on the woman's face. While it could just be that she had to sit still for a few minutes for the likeness to be captured, I like to think that she is projecting her view of how she felt about her status in society. As I'll mention a little later, women's rights and education were gaining ground, and perhaps she was excited to be on this precipice of a worldwide movement.


The glasses symbolize her pursuit of education, and I'm thinking she might have been a college student at Hollins College (now University), an all women's school started in 1842 on the grounds of the Botetourt Springs Resort. There weren't any women's colleges in Rocky Mount in 1900. Ferrum College, located just outside Rocky Mount, began in 1913, and Hollins would have been the closest women's college at the time. Other Virginia women's colleges near Rocky Mount open in 1900 included

  • Virginia College in Roanoke (1893 -1929)

  • State Female Normal School in Farmville (1839 - today as Longwood University)

  • Mary Baldwin in Staunton (1842 - today)

  • Martha Washington College in Abingdon (1856 - today as Emory & Henry)

  • Bowling Green Female Seminary in Buena Vista (1860 -today as Southern Virginia University)

  • Randolph Macon Women's College in Lynchburg (1891 - today as Randolph College)

  • Union Female College in Danville (1859 - today as Averett University)

Some of these merged with other institutions, or went co-ed to stay afloat, while others closed completely. There are of course others in Virginia, but were further afield. Madison College (now James Madison University) in Harrisonburg, Sweet Briar in Lynchburg, Elizabeth College in Salem, and the State Normal and Industrial School (now Radford University) in Radford were all started after 1905.


Hollins College, now University, located at the edge of Roanoke County.

She also wears a pennant stickpin, which makes me believe that she's either in college or just recently graduated. As far as I can tell, there's no writing on the pin, or if there is, the lighting is just right to make it unreadable. Unfortunately, I couldn't find her in the Hollins 1899,1900, or 1901 Spinster yearbooks. But, that doesn't mean much, as yearbooks back then only had the photographs of the graduating class (and sometimes not even then), as well as group photos of the school's clubs, so it's possible she may have been a part of the college, but not photographed.


The third thing I love about this photograph is the fashion forward and masculine style of this young woman. She's got pronounced and exaggerated gigot sleeves, although it is slightly hard to see them. Her standing in society is solidified by the fur stole draped around her shoulders. The fur stole and the glasses together give the impression that her family was wealthy and capable of sending her to school, which was reserved for few women at this time. As I mentioned previously, higher education for women was becoming more mainstream; however, it wouldn't be until 1905-1918 that women's colleges were being established, and women were pursuing colleges. College also gave the impression that a woman would work for her living, as a teacher or governess, which society also eschewed; women were supposed to get married, have children, and stay at home. With the rise of women's rights and feminism, the role of the education also grew with a woman's life.





Back to our studious young woman's outfit: she wears a detachable stock collar, usually reserved for men, along with an oversized lavalliere or pussycat bow, in a different color than her shirtwaist. This style collar became popular for women during the Gibson Girl "New Woman" movement at the turn of the century. The New Woman was a more modern woman, who biked, hiked, exercised, and took pleasure in activities that were, up until that point, reserved for men. As a result, women's fashion was influenced by masculine styles to fit the stereotype.


The stock collar would have been detachable, and were in style to at least 1905, when the San Francisco Call reported: ‘Stocks have gone out of fashion entirely. The “summer girl” of to-day is no longer a mannish girl, with sleeves rolled up, heavy walking shoes and a man’s stock. This year she is quite a dainty, pink and white and Frenchy girl – all tucks and ruffles, with lace and lace ruches.’


Based on the fashion, I'm thinking this photograph is dated between 1899 and 1901.


Lastly, I love her hair. Up until very recently, I was stupefied at how women were able to get their hair to stand so upright and poofed without the hair spray and other products we have today. This style is thanks to something called a hair rat or pompadour.


The term 'hair rat' sounds disgusting, and quite frankly, the creation of one is also a little unnerving, too. Before your mind strays too far to the macabre, a hair rat is basically all the discarded bits of hair left in a brush accumulated over a period of time rolled into a sausage and stuffed into an old stocking. It is then placed on the crown of the head and the hair parted and pinned in a particular way to create the iconic Gibson Girl bun.


Creating one yourself was, of course, the most economical way to create this iconic style, but some catalogs offered makeshift pompadours of wire or switches from human hair or other types of animals. I can't imagine purchasing a wire pompadour, as my curly hair would just eat it and I'd never be able to get it out! I will say though, that if you have thick curly hair, you don't need a hair rat to make a substantial poof, as evidenced below!


My attempt at a quick Gibson Girl bun

Hope you all are having a lovely, happy February! Until next time my fashion friends!

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