Photo Detective: Dressed to Impress

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

You never know what you’ll find in a family photo collection. Imagine Carole Gefvert’s surprise when she found these unidentified images in a box after her mother’s death. All Gefvert knows for certain about her mother is that she died in 1971. Could these photographs have belonged to her mother? And what do they depict?

Some of the men in these pictures are in uniform, so Gefvert decided the best way to identify them is to focus on her father, who attended the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. At least one of the photographs in the box has the year 1923 written along the bottom edge, so she knows when the images were taken.

Her father entered the Virginia Military Institute in 1929 and graduated in 1933, so the pictures couldn’t have been taken during his time there. However, her uncle attended the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI) in Blacksburg, Va., in 1922 and was there until 1924, when he left to clerk in his father’s store. Starting with the VPI Web site, Gefvert searched for parades in the general search box at the bottom of the screen and found what she was looking for—a picture taken the same day as one of hers (Figure 1)! According to a caption, the image depicts a “rat parade.” It took a few phone calls to discover what exactly a rat parade was.

Col. Harry Temple, Class of 1934, is very knowledgeable about VPI history. He told me that a rat parade was a procession of freshmen held on the afternoon of the first fall football game. Sophomore-class members decided what each freshman would wear for his walk around the quad, down Main Street and back.

In 1923, Gefvert’s uncle was a sophomore at VPI; perhaps he photographed men dressed in costumes he designed. It’s also possible that Gefvert’s father visited his brother during that weekend and photographed the day’s events. Now that Gefvert knows the occasion of the pictures and when they were taken, is there anything else to add?

In fact, the young man dressed in a strapless hoop skirt (Figure 2) symbolizes a popular actress of the 1920s. “Mae Murray” and “Jazzzz” are written on the front of the photograph. Mae Murray was a Ziegfeld showgirl who went on to become a Hollywood star known for her exotic looks, in particular her “bee-stung” lips and alabaster skin. This young man imitated her attire, complete with makeup. The word Jazzzz refers to Murray’s movie Jazzmania (Tiffany Productions, for Metro Pictures), which premiered in 1923. For more information about Murray, consult The Silents Majority.

Col. Temple says outrageous costumes were the norm for rat parades, so if you encounter any unusual photographs in your family collection, they might come from a similar event. Remember to research every clue that you can think of when dating photographs. In this case, Gefvert identified the images using her knowledge of family history and clues in the pictures. She may never be able to name the young men in the photographs, but now she knows where the images fit in her family photo collection.

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at