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Helen Hopper (1890-1958)

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The Hopper family had an active social life. Helen can be seen standing on the far right, behind her sisters Mary and Anne.

However, Helen didn't spend all her time on the farm, and felt the impact of larger societal trends around her. She grew up during the Progressive Era (1896-1917), when women were pushing for increased access to higher education and job opportunities, and norms around marriage and sexuality were being questioned. Helen and her sisters received more formal elementary schooling at the Upper Preakness School on Hamburg Turnpike. She also remained unmarried throughout her life.

Helen Hopper was born on January 15th, 1890- the youngest daughter of Mary Ann Van Riper and Andrew Hopper. Though her family had gained social and political prominence, they were still considered farmers first. As truck farmers, they may have grown produce directly for urban markets, like Paterson or Jersey City, or operated a roadside stand. As a child growing up on a farm, Helen would have had a lot of chores to do. Mornings started early, lighting the stove for the day ahead. Following breakfast, chores might have included feeding the livestock, mending and washing clothes, and, depending on the season, tending to the garden.

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An example of a bow-knot pin, ca. 1930. From Ripley Auctions.

Click on any image below to learn more!

Despite coming from a rural farming family, Helen had her fair share of fancier social occasions to dress for, whether school dances or family parties. We know from her will that she left a bow knot pin with a diamond in the center to her nephews. She may have paired other jewelry pieces with a dress like this.

While the world was ringing in the promises of a new century, women’s fashion was undergoing its most drastic makeover in nearly twenty years. The most important change was to the shape of the corset. Previously, corsets shaped the body into a high bust and tightly tucked waist, pushing the belly downward and out. By contrast, the new “straight front corset” (which, while introduced in 1896, did not catch on until 1900) considerably lowered the bust and removed the inward curve at the waist front. Instead, the corset flared at the back, giving rise to what observers called “sudden hips”. Within a few years, this markedly different silhouette inspired the fashion we often associate with the early years of the twentieth century: the “pouter pigeon” or “S-curve” look.

As these names suggest, the fashionable woman of the early twentieth century is often visualized with protruding bust and hips, dressed in a floppy blouse, wide sleeves, and “clinging” skirt to accentuate her figure. However, by the end of the decade, these exaggerated features softened into a more “natural” shape. The linen dress pictured above is a good example of this transition. Its bodice is fitted closer to the bust, and does not droop at the waist. Its skirt is straight, almost columnar in shape. Made of linen and embellished with floral embroidery along its bust and hem, it was most likely intended for wear during the summer. At a time when tailor-made clothing was coming into vogue for women, Helen may have bought a dress like this to wear—a different reality from the handsewn garments her mother, grandmother, and aunts grew up wearing.

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Examples of embroidered linen dresses from the period survive as prints and intact. Left: A fashion plate from McCall's Magazine, May 1906. Right: A dress, ca. 1905, from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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