My great great grandmother was able to bring her family to the United States thanks to fashion; she was a dressmaker. And through her craft, she cobbled together enough money to bring herself and three young daughters to Boston after her husband died and left her a widow.
Even though they were poor and lived in the Roxbury section of Boston, the daughters always looked stunning. What they wore-- dresses their mother made with her own hands-- was an advertisement for her business. Those dresses put food on the table and a roof over their heads.
I never knew why I cared so much about each outfit I put on. Or why my mother always dressed to the nines and pored over glossy fashion magazines to keep up on the latest trends. Sometimes I felt ashamed that I cared about something many consider frivolous and vain.
But when I recently learned that it was because of fashion that my ancestors were able to come to America, a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. My great grandmother’s photograph hung in my childhood bedroom for years. My mother hung it there when I turned 13.
“This is Catherine Mary Gillis,” my mother explained. “She was my grandmother. So she’s your great grandmother. She was a very stylish woman. My mother was named after her. And you are named after my mother. So that makes you Katherine Mary the III.”
I used to lie on my bed and study that photo. My great grandmother looked to be about 18. She had brilliant brown hair pinned-up in Gibson Girl style, which was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century.
Her face was pretty. But what really caught my eye was the gown she was wearing. It was stunning. The photo was black and white, but still I could discern the gown was made of heavy, cream-colored silk satin. And it was trimmed in white fur. I loved the fur. It gave the gown a royal feel.
Sadly, that portrait is long gone. My mother left it on my bedroom wall when she sold our house after my youngest sibling left the nest back in 2000. The only place I can gaze at that photo now is in my memory.
Year later, when I started researching my family’s roots, I came across the name Catherine Mary Gillis. There she was in the 1900 U.S. census, listed as a 12-year-old girl living in Boston. The census revealed she was living with her two sisters, and her mother, Mary Gillis.
The census records list Mary as a widow, and her occupation as “dressmaker.” At that moment, poring over that historical record, something clicked in my head. “Now I get it.”
Through my genealogy research I learned that fashion is in my blood. It's officially part of my DNA. And it's now a source of pride because the female line of my family fed their children by using their hands to turn fabric into art.
A day after I made that discovery, photographer Kevin Richards asked me to pose for his portrait series. The series is shot in black and white film, showing different types of people, from different walks of life.
Immediately, I knew I wanted my photo to capture my heritage. My budget was tight. There was no way I could afford a heavy silk-satin gown trimmed in fur like the one my great grandmother wore more than a hundred years ago when she posed for a portrait. But fashion doesn’t have to cost a fortune to make a statement. My outfit for the photo shoot wasn't expensive: $12 for the dress; $10 for the hat. The shoes were on sale for $25.
When I posed on West 6th Street in downtown Cleveland, I tried to channel my great grandmother’s pose. She did is so much more elegantly. I certainly didn’t capture her elegance, but I believe I captured her moxie and eye-grabbing style.
A few weeks after the photo shoot, the photographer sent me a print. I nervously opened the bubble wrap mailer, afraid to look at the photo inside. And there it was. My great grandmother in black and white. Only it wasn’t my great grandmother. It was me. I put the photo in an antique frame, and hung it up on my bedroom wall.
Now when I lie in my bed, I look up at it and think of my mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and great great grandmother, all women of incredible style who came from nothing, but made their living in the world by using their hands to turn fabric into wearable art.
So, I dedicate this photo to you, great great grandmother. Thank you, Mary McKinnon Gillis, for bringing your daughters to the U.S., and for passing on your passion for style.
I will no longer be embarrassed to say I care about style and what I wear. Because my great great grandmother was able to bring her family to America, thanks to fashion.
Do you know your past? Have any idea who you have to thank for being in America? What sacrifice did your ancestors make to get you here today?
With some time and investigation, you can learn your ancestry. It’s easier now than ever before thanks to the Internet and websites like Ancestry.com.
Each month in the Ohio Irish American News, I’m sharing stories about what I’ve uncovered during my past year of ancestral research. I’ve been blown away with what I’ve learned, and been embarrassed that I had no idea what my ancestors sacrificed to get me here today. My hope is that by sharing my stories, it will encourage you to explore your ancestral history, so that you can connect with your ancestors, and then pass on their stories to future generations.
*Katherine Boyd is an Emmy-award winning journalist. She’s spent the past year poring over old records to learn her heritage. During her research she learned she’s more than 50% Irish. Her goal now is to visit Ireland and truly connect with her Irish roots.
Posted by Katherine Boyd. Posted In : Irish Ancestry