America is an unprecedented melting pot of different cultures, and its diversity has truly helped to solidify its place as the most powerful country in the world. 100 years ago, immigrants from all over the world with all imaginable cultural backgrounds came to plant the seed of an American dream in Ellis Island, New York, beginning a story of new life that is still unfolding today.
Thanks to the chief registry clerk at Ellis Island and amateur photographer Augustus Francis Sherman, we now have an intimate first look at the 12 million people who arrived in the USA between 1892 and 1954. These specific photos were taken between 1906 and 1914. Many of the subjects were captured during detainment and questioning, and their faces show the same fear that all those seeking refuge in a new country continue to feel.
#1 Guadeloupean Woman, 1911
The elaborate tartan headpiece worn by Guadeloupean woman can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when the eastern Indian city of Madras was famed for its cotton-making. First plain, then striped, and then with increasingly elaborate patterns, the Madras fabric that was exported and used as headwraps was eventually influenced by the Scottish in colonial India, leading to a Madras-inspired tartan known as ‘Madrasi checks’, which in the colonial empires made its way to the French-occupied Caribbean. Like many of the traditional costumes from all over the world, the headpiece decoration in many cases was indicative of the married status of the wearer.
#2 Romanian Piper, 1910
This particular crojoc – an embroidered sleeved sheepskin coat – is much plainer than the shepherd’s version, making it a more practical, work-oriented coat, suggesting that the subject is of the working class, given the lack of decoration and the straw hat. The waistcoat, known as a pieptar, is worn by both men and women, and smaller waistcoats were made from lambskin.
#3 Ruthenian Woman, 1906
Historically inhabiting the kingdom of the Rus, ranging from parts of modern-day Slavic-speaking countries, this example of Ruthenian traditional dress consisted of a shirt and underskirt made from linen that was embroidered with traditional floral based patterns. The sleeveless jacket is constructed from panels of sheepskin.
#4 Romanian Shepherd, 1906
Dominating the photograph is a traditional shepherd’s cloak known as sarică, made from three or four sheepskins sewn together with the fleece facing outwards and generally extended to below the knee, which could be used as a pillow when sleeping outdoors. Sheepskin was also used to make the shepherd’s cojoc, an embroidered sleeved coat that had tassels, leather strips, and other small decorative elements added. This particular example wasn’t likely used for practical purposes given the amount of decoration adorning it.
#5 Laplander, 1910
Gákti is the traditional costume of the Sámi people inhabiting the Arctic regions spanning from northern Norway to the Kola peninsula in Russia. Traditionally made from reindeer leather and wool, velvet and silks are also used, with the (typically blue) pullover being supplemented by contrasting coloured banding of plaits, brooches and jewellery. The decorations are region-specific and the gákti is used in ceremonial contexts such as weddings, or signified whether or not one was single or married, but also served a working dress when herding reindeer.
#6 Alsace-Lorraine Girl, 1906
Hailing from the Germanic-speaking region of Alsace (now in modern-day France), the large bow, known as a schlupfkàpp, was worn by single women. The bows signified the bearer’s religion: black for Protestants, while Catholics favoured bright colours.
#7 Dutch Woman, 1910
The large bonnet, which arguably is one of the most recognisable aspects of Dutch traditional dress, was usually made of white cotton or lace and sometimes had flaps or wings, and often came with a cap. The rest of the costume came in distinctly regional variations, made from cotton, linen, or wool and decorated with embroidered floral patterns. A sleeved bodice covered the top half of the body and came in a dark colour, contrasted by a colourful tunic as seen in this photograph.
#8 Hindoo Boy, 1911
The topi (a word to denote ‘cap’) is worn all over the Indian subcontinent with many regional variations and cultural significance, and is especially popular in Muslim communities, where it is known as a taqiyah. Both the cotton khadi and the prayer shawl are most likely handspun on a charkha, and were used all year round.
#9 Italian Woman, 1910
This traditional dress was most likely homespun and consisted of a long, wide dress to cover the ankles. Above, a bodice and sleeves were tied in such a way to expose portions of the linen blouse and colours and materials were usually regional. Shawls and veils were also a common feature, and an apron decorated with floral brocades were used for special occasions such as weddings.
#10 Danish Man, 1909
Evolving since the 1750s, the Danish dressed simply, with more decorated attire for special occasions such as weddings or Sunday church. As with many nations before mass industrialisation, much of the clothing was homespun by Danish women or a professional weaver and were usually made from wool and flax, which were warm and relatively easy to acquire. Cuts and patterns were largely regional with a limited palette derived from vegetable dye. Men often wore several shirts underneath their jackets, and the addition of silver buttons on the jacket and other decorative details indicated an individual’s wealth and origin.
#11 Cossack Man, 1906–1914
The Cossacks were famed soldiers that by the time this photograph was taken had evolved into a military class that numerously served as border guards or police. A Cossack soldier was required to provide their own arms, horses and uniform at their own expense. The gentleman here is most likely from the Ussuri Cossack Host, characterised by his papakha lamb-wool hat and the green cherkesska coat accented in yellow. The coat features a number of pouches to house gazyri, traditionally metal powder tubes for early firearms.
#12 Albanian Soldier, 1910
The truncated brimless felt cap is known as a qeleshe, whose shape was largely determined by region and moulded to one’s head. The vest, known as a jelek or xhamadan, was decorated with embroidered braids of silk or cotton; its colour and decoration denoted the region where the wearer was from and their social rank. Most likely this soldier is from the northeastern regions of Albania, judging by the cut and colour of his outfit.
#13 Norwegian Woman, 1906–1914
Bunad’ is an umbrella term encompassing Norwegian traditional dress that is distinctly Norwegian, though the costumes themselves like so many others are influenced by region, tradition, and available material. In rural Norway, clothes were often made at home and typically made from wool, though silk or other imported material was available. Decoration was elaborate or sparse depending on the region, or whether or not the dress was considered Sunday best. In much of rural Norway, women often covered their hair as a sign they were married.
#14 Joseph Vasilon, Greek-Orthodox Priest, 1910
The vestments of the Greek Orthodox church have remained largely unchanged. In this photograph, the priest wears an anteri, an ankle-length cassock (from the Turkish quzzak, from which the term Cossack also derives) worn by clergymen over which an amaniko, a type of cassock vest, is sometimes worn, over which the black outer cassock known as a exorason is worn. The stiff cylindrical hat is called a kalimavkion and is worn during services.
#15 Bavarian Man, 1910
The traditional dress of Germany is known as the trachten, and like so many others has regional variations. In the alpine regions of Germany, like Bavaria, leather breeches known as lederhosen were worn regularly by rural folk, though in modern-day Germany, most people associate the garment with the annual Oktoberfest. The grey jacket, known as a trachtenjanker, is made from fulled wool and decorated with horn buttons, and often used by hunters in the region.
#16 Algerian Man, 1910
Algerian identity is shaped by its indigenous Berber, Arab, African, and Mediterranean cultures. The kufiya is a square of fabric folded into a triangle and set upon the head by an ‘iqual, a circlet of camel hair. The kaftan tunic has been worn by many cultures and was often made of wool, silk, or cotton – though the cloak, known as a burnous, was made from woollen fabric and came with a hood and ranged from white to dark brown depending on the region.