Masculine Style with a Feminine Touch
I absolutely love this portrait. There's so many fantastic things about it: her piercing blue eyes, her perfect ringlets pulled back in a chignon, jaunty head tilt, and the straight and upright posture are a good start. Her fashion sense really steals the show: not only is this young woman sporting the most stylish gigot sleeves of 1895, but she's also flaunting the Gibson Girl 'New Woman' style of shirtwaist, stock collar, and tie.
In the 1890s, Charles Dana Gibson's artistic renderings of the Gibson Girl - an independent, athletic, fashionable, and well-educated woman - paved the way for women to take a greater part in society. The shirtwaist, first worn in the 1860s as a less formal bodice, made a come back in the 1890s. They were usually made of white cotton, and resembled men's shirts. As the decade continued, shirtwaists became more elaborate with tucks, frills, lace, etc. This woman's shirtwaist is slightly patterned (which actually doesn't really make it a shirtwaist), and looks to be made of a lightweight cotton.
Her gigot sleeves, the height of style from around 1892 - 1897, reflect the growing proportions seen around the middle of the 1890s, before deflating again in 1898. While the tight cartridge pleats add to the fullness of the shoulder, they also add a delicateness to the overall appearance.
But that's where the femininity stops. The white stock collar looks very much like a man's collar of the period, especially since there seems to be a collar of the same material of the blouse attached to the yoke of the bodice. Men's collars at this point in time were being manufactured and sold separately than the shirts, as were cuffs, so it would be easier for middle and lower classes to afford to have a nice collar when the occasion arose, as well as laundering them only when necessary.
I also love that she's wearing a thin black tie with scalloped edges. The tie is definitely not something of her brother's, and was most likely made specifically for a woman. I haven't seen too many women wearing full-length ties around this time period, only small bow ties, or lavallière or pussycat bows. There's also a little pin to keep it tidily in place. It's the smallest accessories that count for the most sometimes.
Unfortunately, there's also a sadness to this portrait. On the reverse, someone wrote in pencil
'Grace Cecilia Fowler / Died April 10 1901 / age 25 years'
After a quick consult to Ancestry and Find A Grave, I found that Grace Cecilia Fowler lived in Hampton, Kings, New Brunswick, Canada - born in 1876 and present in both the 1881 and 1891 Canadian census.' Her father, George A. Fowler (born in 1841), was occupied as a farmer in the 1891 census, and Grace is listed alongside her father, her mother (Emma, age 40), her older brother (Lewis, age 18), and her younger brother (Ralph, age 12). Her mother is listed as a congregationalist, while the rest of the family were listed as part of the Church of England. Interestingly enough, the Canadian census documented whether their constituents were literate - of which everyone in the Fowler household was.
Her death record, accounted for in the St. John's, Acadia Church records, lists her death as a result of consumption at the age of 25.
Consumption is a fancy word for tuberculosis - a contagious lung disease that was basically a prolonged death sentence. Those who contracted it - mostly from poor hygiene and close quarters - developed a chronic, lingering, and bloody cough, and wasted away over the course of several years. Fresh air was seen as the best form of treatment, and many flocked to mountainous areas outside of cities hoping the fresh, mountain air would cure them. It wasn't until after WWI that a vaccine was made readily available and widespread.
While the sitter had an unfortunately sad ending at so young an age, the portrait itself is still a fantastic primary source concerning fashion history. At the time the portrait was taken, Grace must have been around 19 or 20 - based solely on the sleeves. Her fashion-forward choices made a stylish and beautiful photograph that can still be admired 125+ years later.