WAYNE REILLY

Colored wigs raised uproar in Bangor a century ago

Posted March 16, 2014, at 2:26 p.m.
The Fashion in 1899
Courtesy of Dick Shaw
The Fashion in 1899
Wayne Reilly
Wayne Reilly

Fashion fads swept through the Queen City every spring just like the annual freshets in the Penobscot River after buyers from local department stores visited New York shows, bringing back the latest styles “direct from Paris.”

One store that was good at attracting attention was, in fact, named The Fashion. This famed emporium of stylish women’s clothing, operated by the Wood & Ewer Company, was located in the heart of the downtown at 9 Main St..

A former Bangor Daily News columnist, nonagenarian Doris Lyford, recalled (as recently as 1984) that The Fashion indeed “dealt in very fashionable ladies’ wear and was patronized by women looking for clothes in the latest style.” The Fashion was also known for some of its more startling efforts to gain the attention of Bangor’s fashionable set.

In 1914, after one of the area’s worst winters, but before the ice was gone from the river, the store’s spring fashion gimmick consisted of its display of colored — pink, green, lavender, blue — wigs, as usual “direct from Paris.”

Readers of the newspapers had been noticing stories about these outrageous novelties moving from Paris across the English Channel to London and then steaming across the Atlantic to New York. Would Bangor be the next stop?

How much more could the Queen City take? On the scandalous heels of “September Morn,” the infamous nude print that city fathers had ordered out of art store windows, in the aftermath of immoral dances like the turkey trot recently banned from City Hall soirees, in a metropolis awash in suggestive movies and vaudeville acts, how much more of the world’s increasingly vulgar pop culture could the Queen City absorb? At the behest of the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the mayor was even considering establishing a movie censorship board, the Bangor Daily News reported on May 18.

The Fashion was getting ready for its spring show. Mrs. Miriam Wardwell, buyer for the Wood & Ewer Company, and Mrs. Lucille V. Wade, also of that company, had just returned from New York, where they had purchased some of the notorious colored wigs and other “late spring novelties,” said the Bangor Daily Commercial on March 17.

Mrs. Wardwell told the Commercial’s reporter that the wigs “are of all colors to match perfectly the color of one’s gown — greens, yellows, blues, whites, etc.” Mrs. Wardwell said that she and Mrs. Wade had visited many of the spring openings, “including that of the famous Paquin at the Ritz-Carlton.”

On the agenda of fashion clothes that spring were “new short coat suits with the short skirts, according to the prevailing spring mode which tends toward shorter skirts. Suits with the new Eton effect, Mandarin sleeves and DeMedici collars.”

Should the reader be lost in all this fashion terminology, it’s safe to say that long skirts and big hats still dominated the prevailing styles. The word “short” had a different meaning in 1914, relatively speaking, than it does today. A gown that showed one’s ankle was considered short.

The Fashion picked up its fashionable pace a few days later. “They have come! Direct from Paris to Bangor!!” announced a lead on a short front page story in the Bangor Daily News (that turned out to be an advertisement if one looked carefully at the end of the text). “These beautiful, wonderful, indescribable colored wigs, the very last lisp in style poetry,” it gushed. “They come in dainty shades of lavender, green, pink, purple, yellow — all in perfect harmony to the costume.”

The following night, between 7:30 and 10 p.m., The Fashion was holding its big spring opening, and the colored wigs would be worn by “living models.” The event was just for exhibition purposes; nothing would be sold.

The Friday morning after the show, the Bangor Daily News offered up this description: “Handsome young women wearing gowns of the latest Paris design, New York’s newest coats and the most charming of spring waists paraded the aisles and show rooms of The Fashion Thursday night, while throngs and swarms of women gazed studiously and admiringly, and other throngs, finding it impossible to get into the store, crowded the sidewalks in front or lined up on the opposite curb, gazing wistfully up at the brilliantly lighted style parlors and wishing they had come earlier.”

The news that models would be wearing the rainbow wigs had pushed things over the edge. The rush to get into the store “assumed the proportions of an assault on the ticket windows at a World Series,” the paper reported. The doors had been locked early to “prevent a dangerous crush” and the police were keeping the sidewalks passable.

Then, in a beguiling tone, the writer wondered if anyone would buy the wigs and then actually wear them? Yes, they were scandalous, but “everything new is scandalous till people get used to it.”

Whether these fashion mavens who attended the event were from Hancock Street or West Broadway is impossible to tell. Whether the event provoked a minor riot as described will never be known for sure. Likewise, the possibility that the stories were written by the store’s publicity agent or perhaps a reporter to whom had been slipped a $5 bill cannot be ruled out either.

Did Bangor women actually buy and wear these wigs? It is doubtful if we will ever know the answer to that important question either. A few weeks later, however, a crotchety editorial writer at Bangor Daily News was still puzzling over what would provoke high society folks from London to Bangor to indulge in such bizarre behavior.

“Well, well what a drear, tiresome world … of ‘society’ wherein the proper, the natural and the accustomed become too great a burden to bear. … Will the new fad be taken up by our own weary idlers?” the editorial writer asked on April 6. “Why stop at hair when they all have faces? Frescoing, tattooing and other arts might make the over familiar countenances of their friends and associates more tolerable to their tired eyes.”

Meanwhile, even if Bangor’s high society women were not sporting the new colored wigs, some gent was surely dusting off his jaunty straw hat for the first stroll of the season down Main Street — the surest sign of spring in Bangor, which had a style all its own.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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