Misconceptions about Female Catholic Customs in the Old Days: Girls’ Edition

People who are trying to be traditional should try to have a reasonable idea of what Catholic traditions are. There are an amazing number of urban legends about traditional practices, both from traditional and liberal Catholics (each of which has a vested interest) and from those in the middle or who don’t care (who you’d think would have less bias in the way).

“Catholic girls always wore dresses down to the ankle or the calf, because knee-length dresses are immodest. And sleeves were always down past the elbow.”

Oh, heck no. In general during this century, tiny babies and toddlers had bare or skirted legs (both sexes), little kids wore clothes thigh-length to above the knee (including boys wearing “short pants”), slightly older girls wore knee-length skirts, and girls hitting puberty wore skirts of various lengths below the knee, depending on fashion and practicality. (They “let down their skirts and put up their hair,” in many cases.) Sleeve length depended on weather and fashion also.

1929 First Holy Communion, Williamstown, Australia. Heh, I think somebody put on a growth spurt after the dress was made. First Holy Communion, 1930. Huge Thirties veil, knee-length dress. The Pulasky family, 1930. A longer Thirties dress for an older girl, as the fashion in hems moves down.

Here’s a bunch of early 1940’s photos. In general, the Thirties and Forties were trying to save cloth, though not for fashion reasons as in the Twenties. So it’s a more austere look, but certainly not immodest. Marie Kenia, First Holy Communion in Duryea, PA, 1940. Sacred Heart Parish’s 1940 First Communion class. Sacred Heart Parish, 1942 First Communion class. 1942 St. Joseph’s Parish, Duryea PA, May Crowning. Note the saddle shoes and the hairbands. 1943 St. Joseph’s May Court, Duryea PA. Note the continued short sleeves, reasonable decolletage, etc. on these high school girls, who were more or less dressing like adult women. They are clearly wearing lipstick, so obviously their parents and pastor didn’t think makeup was evil. Short sleeves are perfectly appropriate for a humid Pennsylvania May, even on a formal dress. 1943 St. Joseph’s May Crowning: more flowers, less cloth, and V for Victory.

Little kids’ classes on church steps, Sacred Heart Parish, Duryea PA, somewhere in the early Forties. Note the huge number of knees, and the fact that none of these kids are wearing pantaloons, slips, or such. Little girls didn’t need that stuff then, and they don’t need it now. (Yeah, I’ve run into some weird, weird modesty ideas on the Internet.) Here’s a little girl from Duryea dressed to the nines for First Communion. Note the crinolines bringing her dress out so that it falls right at the knee.

First Communion (1940) and Confirmation (1962) pictures from Holy Spirit Parish, Little Falls, New York. This is from a parish of the schismatic Polish National Catholic Church, but it seems well in line with normal Polish Catholics of the time.

“Catholic girls always wore “mantillas” (lace chapel veils), particularly at First Communion.”

Sacred Heart Parish, Duryea PA’s 1940 First Communion class. Note that while many girls do wear a First Communion “bridal veil” (possibly their mothers’ actual bridal veils, since they’re huge), the ones gathered around the priest use only a white hairbow as proper headcovering. Holy Rosary Parish, Duryea PA’s 1940 First Holy Communion or May Crowning Mass. Note the huge number of girls using a hairbow as their headcovering. Several girls are wearing a flower wreath, and another is wearing some kind of fascinator draped to one side of her head. There’s a tall girl sitting on a chair in the middle, wearing some kind of tiara without veiling — that’s why I think she’s the May Queen from this picture. Probably these were also the girls’ First Communion outfits, as it was traditional to wear said outfits several times at important Church processions and events during one’s First Communion year.

1948 First Holy Communion, St. Vincent de Paul Orphanage, LA. No veils at all, though all the girls have been provided tiara wreaths. A couple of First Communion girls in Karlsdorf, Yugoslavia, one wearing a tiara crown.

St. Mary’s Catholic School, Millerville MN, 1951. Girls wearing First Communion beanies.

1942 Catholic Mass, Chicago IL. Girls wearing kerchiefs. Looks cold.

Girl wearing flowers in her hair for First Holy Communion, New York sometime in the late Teens or early Twenties. First Holy Communion at Wierzebaum, Germany in the late Twenties. Greenery/laurel wreaths and necklaces.

There’s a great picture I’ve seen of First Holy Communion in a small Arizona parish in 1947, in which none of the kids are wearing special Communion clothes or veils, presumably because the money just wasn’t there. But the site seems to have gone away.

Bonus misconception: “In the old days, brides always wore white.”

Here’s a nice 1943 wedding picture of a Duryea PA girl (Catholic or not) who got married in her best dress, which happened to be green. Her wedding thing is the huge corsage (huge, but still more frugal than a wedding bouquet).

Bonus pics not proving anything: First Holy Communion, Fushun, China, 1940. The girl is a Japanese Catholic from an occupation family. A very nice picture from the Maryknoll folks. First Holy Communion at the Minidoka internment camp, 1943 US. First Holy Communion, 1892, St. Augustine’s Church, Pittsburgh PA. The modern Grahams of Ireland go whole hog for First Communion! (Scroll down for pictures of two boys and two girls.)

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Misconceptions about Female Catholic Customs in the Old Days: Girls’ Edition

  1. Alice

    If Father Z had been around back when I made my First Communion (1992), I’m sure somebody would have complained on there about my “immodest” dress and how it proved that we needed the TLM. See, it was short (above the knee) and you could see straight through to the slip, but hey, it was high fashion for First Communion dresses back in late 1950’s when my grandma bought it for my mom! Oh, well.

  2. Every time women’s dress comes up on Fr. Z, someone in the comments sections mentions a supposed decree by Pope Pius XI that dresses had to fall below the knee, with sleeves below the elbow and high necklines. Surprised that a pope would get into such fine detail, I did some research and tracked down the memo. It wasn’t Pius XI who wrote it, but his vicar for the Roman diocese (the bishop who actually supervises the diocese, leaving the pope free to attend to matters relating to the universal church). The decree was published in the diocesan newspaper but nowhere else. Pius XI did issue a decree concerning female modesty among students at Catholic schools a short time later, but the decree did not go into specifics and did not mention the vicar’s statement. That statement, however, was widely circulated during the Christian Modesty movement of the 1950s church and thus gained a kind of canonical status among those modesty promoters and the traditionalist women of today. Meanwhile, it was pretty much ignored, even during the 1950s. My own First Communion dress, made by my mother, fell to above my knees and had little puffed sleeves. Our parochial-school uniforms featured short-sleeved collared blouses whose top button opened at mid-chest. We all wore short-sleeved and sometimes sleeveless dresses to Sunday Mass (this was California), and our skirt lengths varied with the fashion.

  3. Lucille M.

    I made my first holy communion at age 8 in 1969 and back then,the communion dresses were short,to the top of the knees or on some girls almost mid thigh length.we wore the veil with the lace anklets and the white mary jane shoes.Since our dresses were considered extensions of our baptism outfits,we had to wear a cloth diaper and the Playtex toddler extra large size rubberpants under our dresses,My parish provided the playtex rubberpants,and it was up to the parents to make the cloth diaper.our under shirts had to be tucked into the waist of the rubberpants. Our confirmation was at age 14 in the 8th grade and we wore the white floor length dresses and veils with an under shirt,and just our first communion rubberpants[no diaper] and white tights with the white mary jane shoes.I believe it was in the 80s when the communion dresses started getting longer and the white tights became more popular.the girls at my parish now still have to wear the cloth diaper and rubberpants under their tights for their first communions and confirmation.Iknow of other parishes where the diaper and rubber pants is worn by the girls also,so it just wasn’t my parish.

    • Um. Wow. Somebody in your diocese was into overly literal symbolism, for sure.

      (Yet another reason to thank our Fr. Jansen for being such a competent pastor….)

      Sometimes I wonder what the heck was in the water at liturgy workshops and liturgist training.

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