The newest exhibit at the Montgomery Museum, “Spirit of Progress: Montgomery County in the 1920s,” looks at both the advances and the inequalities that were part of life during this time. Women, newly able to vote, also experienced expanded opportunity for economic freedom. Women now worked at industrial jobs at the Blue Ridge Overall factory and found new acceptance in business and professional positions.
The clothing on display in the exhibit tells the story of the changing role of women during this time. A pink drop-waistline silk dress is typical of the boyish look fashionable during the 1920s. The loose fitting dress hung straight, not revealing the wearer’s curves. The ability to abandon the constraining corsets required by the form-fitting, heavy dresses of the nineteenth century was empowering. Freedom of movement, both physically and socially, was the hallmark of the 1920s for women.
The female sewing operators working at the Blue Ridge Overall factory embraced this new freedom as they donned men’s denim overalls and festive caps to march in the 1926 Lee Highway Opening parade. These women felt free to celebrate their place in the economic picture of the county and to abandon dresses for men’s pants in public. However, they earned only earned about half as much money as men working similar unskilled factory jobs at the time.
Juanita Robertson was a working woman whose wardrobe continues our story. Miss Robertson graduated from Christiansburg High School in 1916 and by 1920 she was employed as a telephone clerk. While we do not know if she ever considered marriage, Miss Robertson was clearly interested in forwarding her career. In 1930, she was employed as a stenographer at “the college,” probably Virginia Tech. She continued working as a stenographer at least through 1940. In 1944, she took the role of librarian for the newly opened public library in Christiansburg. In 1945, she began working for the Town of Christiansburg. She soon gained the position of assistant town treasurer; a role she would hold for the next nineteen years. Upon her retirement in 1966, she was honored with a banquet and those who knew her remembered her years of “efficient and faithful service.”
Certainly among the county’s earliest “career women,” Juanita Robertson was also concerned that her wardrobe be fashionable. Two dresses and a beaded purse owned by Miss Robertson are currently on exhibit. By the 1930s, women’s clothing became softer and more graceful. The natural waistline and curves were again celebrated as seen in both of Miss Robertson’s dresses, which date to the late 1920s or early 1930s.
The clothing now on exhibit is beautiful. When we understand how these garments tell the story of women across Montgomery County who were joining the workforce and finding new opportunities, the beauty of the garments has an even deeper meaning.