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Women reminisce about tradition to show off Easter dresses

Washington County, WI – Easter Sunday is a day to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

That day also represents the advent of spring fashion with sweaters instead of heavy coats, anklets instead of knee socks, and lighter colors with jubilant patterns.


Since the 1870s women and girls have followed tradition using that Sunday to show off their Easter dresses and neighbors in West Bend have done the same.

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Joan Hoff, 79, of Cedar Ridge grew up in Milwaukee and later the Campbellsport area. Years ago, she too kept an eye on the forecast as Easter approached.

“I especially remember two weeks before Easter, I hoped it would be warm enough, so we didn’t have to wear a coat over our new dress,” said Hoff. “It was a big deal if it was going to be raining.”

Hoff remembered her dress was “something fluffy with a full skirt.”

“And we always wore hats to church; kind of a bonnet and as an adult, it was a pillbox.
Hoff attended St. Aloysius in West Allis and when she had daughters of her own, she got them “spiffed up, especially for Easter Mass.”

“I sewed tons,” said Hoff noting her daughters were far enough apart in age that she never dressed them alike.

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“I used whites or pastels; you would never have a red plaid or navy blue.”

Hoff remembered sleeves on the dresses often with a button on the back and a little zipper on the side to pull it over their head.

And her girls always “had white shoes, even though it wasn’t Memorial Day.”

1943 Ann, Casey and Susie Easter dress

“My younger daughter had a purse passed down from her cousin and it was shaped like a little parasol with a curved handle. That was her purse going to church and she loved it,” said Hoff.

Mary ‘Sis’ Eberhart, 64, grew up in Milwaukee and we got her Easter dress at Schuster’s Department Store on 12th and Vliet.

“It’s where we always went shopping,” said Eberhart. “I was 12 at the time and had an Easter hat with little flowers and my dad always bought me good shoes.”

Mary Radovich, 86, from Cedar Ridge remembered the financial woes of the Great Depression and how “when you got something new for Easter you always managed to get a dress.”

“You bought it a Goldman’s where the price was the cheapest,” said Radovich recalling the $1.98 spent on the dress.

Easter dress
Photo credit: 1954 photo of Easter finery titled ‘Ready for church,’ is courtesy Jeanne Goeden of Kewaskum.

At the time Radovich attended church at St. John’s on Ninth and Mineral. “The dress was pink with satiny material; I can just see myself,” she sighed.

“You normally bought the dress two sizes bigger than what you really needed because it had to last that long for Sunday church.

“I didn’t have a hat or purse – I was just lucky to get a dress,” she said.

While growing up, Radovich and her family struggled financially and were resigned to living on the county dole.

“At that time, we had only one choice of style shoe and it was made in Waupun – always at the prison,” said Radovich of the black Oxford county-issued shoes.

“Once a friend of mine gave me a pair of sandals; she had worn them out and there was a hole in the sole, but she gave them to me and I put cardboard in and then nobody knew I had county shoes,” she laughed recalling how sly she felt in her cobbled shoes.

Barb Justman from BJ & Company recalled wearing a pastel yellow dress with lots of ruffles.

“I also had a flowery hat, white gloves, and of course those dandy white leotards,” said Justman whose mom would lay everything out the night before Easter so they would be ready to go for 6 a.m. church service.

“My dress would hang from the living room chandelier so as not to wrinkle,” said Justman. “And I even got to wear the dress ALL day!”

Easter Dress
This history photo, courtesy Jeanne Goeden of Kewaskum, features a 1954 picture of Goeden’s grandma Esther Eggert. “Grandma made our pinafores,” said Goeden pictured above with her sister Sandra Berres Ohmann. The photo was taken in Kewaskum in 1946.

Lori Lynn Radloff remembered the Easter hats with elastic under the chin. “My brother would pull and snap it. I think everyone goes thru that,” said Lynn Radloff.

Cathy Majkowski of West Bend grew up with four sisters and each had a homemade Easter dress.

“I always worried about getting chocolate from the big candy bunny on my dress,” she said.
One year the Easter Bunny brought the Majkowski family a pair of white albino bunnies which they promptly determined were girls and named them Melanie and Tina.
Another year Majkowski insisted on a new pair of shoes to go with her dress.

“I did not want hand-me-downs for Easter; my mom said ‘no’ and I threw a hissy fit in the store, only to find the shoes in my Easter basket in the morning,” she said.
Jill Clare, 80, from Cedar Ridge grew up in West Bend and had five girls.

“We were members of Holy Angels and I made all their dresses,” said Clare confirming five handmade dresses each year.

“I only used pastels and one year I made them all in a purple gingham check, lavender and white and by the time that passed down I didn’t want to see lavender anymore – nor did the girls,” said Clare.

The style of Clare’s handmade dresses featured little puffed sleeves, Peter Pan collars, with a button by the opening in the back, a full skirt, and always a small bow.

For accessories, Clare relied on the five and dime Ben Franklin discount stores.

“They all had little caps with a bow under their chin, white gloves, and patent leather shoes with anklets and tiny drawstring purses,” she said.

“I always made my husband wear a suit because Easter Sunday was a dress-up day,” said Clare.

This article was originally published in 2012.

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  1. We always got a new dress little hat and gloves then a pair of shoes at the Robert Hall store by Timmerman airport in Milwaukee

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