Monthly Archives: August 2012

The 1850s

In order to talk about my dress project and the choices I’m making, I have to talk about the period in which I’m settling my project and the kind of clothes it contained.  While for most of my life, I’ve had a strong interest in the American Civil War, growing up as I did in the epicentre of the conflict — a 90 minute drive to Gettysburg, 2 hours to Sharpsburg/Antietam, 10 minutes from the childhood home of John Wilkes Booth, an hour to downtown Baltimore, site of the Baltimore Massacre, etc — I’ve found my interested pulled earlier.  A great deal of this I owe (or perhaps blame) on Elizabeth Varon and her work Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859.  Setting the stage for the cataclysmic conflict, looking at a country which, ten years earlier, thought of itself in the plural: the United States, a conglomerate held together by joint, mutual destiny and beliefs, these have been essential in my thinking in the past year or so.  In order to better understand the everyday people who held these beliefs, who underwent the dual-pronged process of becoming American and making America, requires a willingness to immerse into the experience and let that with the greatest objectivity, the material culture they made and consumed, speak.

This means not only getting into the heads of men and women in 1850s America, in the world of 1850s Louisiana, perched on the edge of American identity, European aspirations, and Caribbean roots, but getting into their clothes, their physical stuff, and in as many cases as I can, their buildings, streets, and spaces.  I’ve narrowed my focus in this project down to white, middle-class women living in Louisiana in the antebellum period.  And if I’m going to get into their clothes, that means looking at where they pulled the ideas and fashions for their clothes: Godey’s Lady’s Book.

The 1850s was the culmination of the romantic early Victorian period, with its sloping, feminine lines and ever-increasing circumference of hems.  As the idea of the ideal 19th century woman solidified more and more under the doctrine of separate spheres, femininity became paramount.  (It goes without saying that this idea of the feminine only applied to white women who possessed some means, usually identified by their ability to keep domestic help in the North, or house slaves in the South.  Retaining servants of some stripe or another was the benchmark of being a lady of quality, or at least a gentlewoman, on either side of the Atlantic.)  This femininity was marked by graceful lines, low-set sleeves that restricted the range of motion of a woman’s arms, and the increasingly decreasing circumference of the waist.  Sleeves were frequently pagoda-shaped, coming from a narrow shoulder to a wide opening at the elbow, and filled in with undersleeves, which were linen and could be more frequently laundered, that went to the wrist.  In an age when laundry was labour-intensive and frequently damaged fine fabrics, laundering undersleeves, chemisettes (pieces that filled in the neck of dresses for modesty and effect), shifts, chemises, petticoats, and drawers, provided freshness when gowns themselves, which rarely touched the skin, were infrequently laundered.

Daytime coverage was essential, as no lady showed her bosom before evening, but for night, décolleté was de rigueur, and the fashionable woman’s neckline lowered by six inches at least when the sun went down.  Nighttime fabrics were also more formal, including stiff satin and airy taffetas, and velvets for older women.  Dressing according to one’s station in life was considered essential, and to dress too garishly or too young, especially for a matron, was absolutely déclassé.  Fabrics were stiffer than they are now, and satins could frequently stand up on their own.  Taffetas supported the flounces with a light, rustling quality that was considered desirable, and the expensive of those fabrics spoke to the wealth of a family who could afford to dress their women in them.

Corsets gave women the desirable hourglass shape, with a small waist emphasised by pleats, tucking, or basque points on the bodice, and the increasing width of skirts, in a bell or dome shape, drew the contrast further.  These skirts were supported by horsehair and rope crinolines and multiple layers of heavy petticoats to give the desired fullness, accentuated by multiple flounces in the early years of the decade.  In 1856, the patent of the steel hooped crinoline as we know it lightened the female load (of petticoats, at least), and skirts expanded while becoming lighter.  The invention of the hooped crinoline earned a great deal of mockery — the British magazine Punch advised husbands to have their new wives registered at the fire insurance office.

Colour also exploded in the 1850s, with the natural dyes known to man previously being supplemented with the discovery and exposition of mauvine, the first chemical dye, at the Grand Exhibition in London in 1851.  Mauvine, a vivid magenta-purple, was soon joined by other vivid hues, and the 1850s ended in a riot of colour.  Even Queen Victoria had a mauvine-dyed gown, before the death of Prince Albert and Her Majesty’s perpetual mourning thereafter.  However, lighter colours for evening were still in vogue, especially for younger women, as they reflected the candlelight of evening events, as well as showing the skill of their seamstress.  (Everyone who has ever sewn knows that white hides no flaws, and the 19th century seamstress would have had to take great care not to stain or smudge the fine fabric with which she was working, speaking to her quality as well as to her client’s.)  White was a sentimental, lovely choice for a young woman, and was increasingly associated with bridal freshness, thanks to Queen Victoria’s choice of the fabric for her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840.  Married women wore brighter, more vivid colours in the evening, and many a bride turned her wedding gown into a formal dress to serve her through her first few years as a wife.

In addition to colour and wide skirts, the 1850s saw a great deal of trim and decoration. Day dresses were frequently patterned, with the trim being in a different, complimentary pattern.  Lace, flowers, embroidery, and flounces remained popular throughout the decade.  As the 1850s wound to a close, trim became more restrained, confined largely to the bodice and the very bottom hem of the skirts.  The 19th century visual ideal of delightful, overwhelming clutter (as evidenced by their parlours and other interior design choices) was well in effect here.  Women adorned their undersleeves and chemisettes, showing off how frilly and snowy white their lawn and linen pieces were.

That’s all a lovely description.  But what do the dresses look like, you ask?  Godey’s Lady’s Book has you covered.  Just as today when people pour over VogueElle, and Harper’s to see what the latest styles are from Paris, New York, and London, the women of the 1850s were little different.  Godey’s was a fashion bible, and always included a pattern to make one of the gowns shown in the colour prints included in the magazine.

Fashion print for August 1855. Notice the flounces, the colours, and the narrower profile of the skirts, as well as the abundance of trim and the sloping shoulders. The woman on the left is wearing clothes for going out calling, and the woman on the right is dressed for home.  She’s wearing the indoors cap which had become largely decorative frills of lace at this point.

Look at the subtle change in March 1857. The skirts are wider, but still flounced, and the colours are still vivid and bright. The dresses are in general arier — because they’re a good ten pounds lighter! These are all intended for the fashionable woman for daytime, probably for visiting, given the amount of bonnets and outerwear shown.

Here’s a collection of eveningwear from January 1859, and a child’s dress (shown in the mirror). Notice the colours, the hint of the fabric (the raspberry has a sheen that would indicate satin), and the necklines. The hairstyles are all smooth and festooned with lace and roses, a fashionable choice for evening.

This is another collection day and evening dresses, this time from 1859. Notice again the light colours, the flounces, and the sheer amount of trim. The woman on the far left is holding a parasol, which was essential for a lady out-of-doors. Keeping pale, delicate skin was of utmost importance for a white lady, and she would have never appeared in public without a bonnet or hat of some kind, gloves, and a parasol, the latter on sunny days especially.

Hopefully, these give some idea of the trends I’ve been talking about, as well as a way of understanding how women in the 1850s imagined themselves.  The fashion plates in Godey’s were an ideal, just like models today, and speak to the kind of femininity and beauty expected or at least idealised for the woman of the period.  As the blog progresses, I plan on talking a bit more about Godey’s Lady’s Book, as well as the idea of the 1850s lady.  And of course, mourning.  But one thing at a time, as always!

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On regionalism

As part of my MA, I do a great deal of reading.  This should come as no surprise to anyone; academia is made up of reading, writing, thinking, more reading, and occasionally, coffee.  (Or tea, depending on your preference.  I’ve been known to utilise both.)  I plough through a great many books in the span of a month.  Some are wonderful, some are mediocre, and some are downright aggravating.  But the most frustrating are always, without fail, books that are lauded as being important, excellent scholarly works in which I, a lowly grad student, can find problems and errors right away.

My current frustration — so frustrating that it’s sitting, largely abandoned, under my desk next to my cat’s bed — is Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.  Howe is an eminent scholar, a former president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, and a Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford.  He is no slouch, as my mother likes to say.  Which is why I’m finding Howe’s work such a trial.  Because while Howe might have a great deal to say about American history, he seems to forget that he’s not only talking about New England.  Forty pages in, Howe asserts that nowhere in America in 1815 did people celebrate Christmas because it was “too Popeish” — a surprise, I am certain, to the Christmas-loving Virginians and other Southerners who were Anglican in outlook until the revival movements toned down their approach and stopped criticising the gentry for their immoral ways, as well as to New Orleanians and other Louisianans, who were Catholic!  He also insists that Americans had no concept of gentleman or gentry — another surprise, I am sure, to families like the Lees of Virginia, and the fine white Creole families of Louisiana, who could trace their lineage to noble houses in France and Spain a generation prior — because all white American farmers could own a horse and shake hands with other men, regardless of wealth.  Howe suffers from a lack of regionalism, and I think would have benefited immensely from a distinction between the rhetoric people spouted off about a classless, yeoman-centric world, and the realities of class and wealth on the ground, especially in the South.  (He also would have benefited from a look at Stephanie McCurry’s 1997 work, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, which directly shoots his “classless society” argument in the foot with a shotgun.)

Which all brings me to the point: regionalism.  Regional studies are booming right now in American history, and well they ought.  While Americans enjoy the myth of a national culture and a national destiny, and have since the Founding Fathers created the idea of a country from thirteen disparate colonies, until the twentieth century and the introduction of mass media culture as we know it, there simply wasn’t such a thing.  Certainly, Americans held ideas in common, ideas about the nation itself, its national character, what liberty means, what an American ought to be.  But the idea that there was a homogenous culture from Maine down to the Gulf and out west to the Mississippi in the first half of the nineteenth century borders on ridiculous.  And treating all regions as if they had the kind of low-church, Puritan work ethic, John Adams legacy of politics common to New England ignores the practical cultural realities of how social structures worked in different parts of the country.  As I sit here in Virginia, I cannot imagine the Puritan social structures of New England being applied correctly to the plantation gentry of the nineteenth century, never mind to how Virginians conceive of themselves today.  (Being within spitting distance of both Monticello and Montpelier, I think Jefferson and Madison have more to say to the character of Virginia than Adams, and that’s said with all due fondness for Mr Adams!)

Which does, in a roundabout way, lead me back to costume.  While we know there was an emergent mass culture of fashion in the nineteenth century — Godey’s Lady’s Book and other lady’s magazines speak to this — region is more important than ever in terms of fashion history.  What a woman in New England would have felt was appropriate for a summer outing, her counterpart in South Carolina wouldn’t have worn.  Certain things would have been in common — the shape of the gown, the kinds of colours considered desirable, use of trim, even shapes of bonnets and styles of gloves — but the fabric used, and the construction methods could have, and indeed must have varied widely.  To talk about costume in Louisiana, one must be aware not only of fashions in New York and London, the major influence on the Anglo-American world, but as well of fashion in Paris, the epicentre of Creole identity.  Indeed, in this way, regionalism must mesh with a sense of the Atlantic World of consumption in the nineteenth century.  With cotton flowing to the Continent and England from Southern plantations, Southern women in particular were receiving consumer goods in return, and that included fabric woven in English and French textile mills, and dresses made to order by French and English seamstresses (a phenomenon which would become more visible with the astronomical success of Worth later in the century).  What did this Atlantic exchange of fabric and fashion look like in the South?  What did it mean for the women who wanted dresses just like those worn by their French counterparts, to be as au currant as their French counterparts, not their New York ones?

As with all things, more questions than answers.  But I do know that Howe, for all his prestigious positions and eminence as a scholar of the Early Republic and Jacksonian years, will probably stay under my desk for a while longer.  While I may be a lowly graduate student, I do understand that the wide swath of American History is often a re-telling of the history of white, upper-class men, usually from New England or New York, sometimes from Washington.  And when that’s the case, one must set aside the conventional histories, and dig into the spaces on the margins to find where the women and their concerns were.

Helpful links

Occasionally, as I troll the web, I find useful things to help me in my quest for a period document.  Today I found Historical Sewing.  This site is a treasure trove of information, divided into periods but largely focused on the 19th century.  It’s making me think very hard about my choice of an 1850s gown and where in the 1850s to situate it. And there’s a corset book they sell which might prove to be a godsend. The community seems welcoming as well, which is always a boon for a seamstress bogged down in details other people can’t quite understand as being vital.  (Trim is important, people!)  I think I’ve found a new bookmark for this project.

Fondest greetings

Over the next few months, this blog will become home to my ongoing project: the documentation of the creation of an 1850s mourning ensemble as it would have been worn by a middle-class woman in New Orleans.  As a historian-in-training, one of the things I try very hard to do is look for ways to make history more vivid and real, to bring out the experiential in the factual.  In many ways, I find myself trying to emulate British historian Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces.  Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: an Intimate History of the Home sparked my interest in things.  When we understand the things used in the past — how they were used, where and when they were used, what people did with them, what they were willing to pay for them, etc — then we start to have a clearer picture of how people lived then, which connects them to how we live now.  Worsley does this with aplomb and a sense of humour that brings the whole endeavour to life (and if you don’t believe me, read the book or watch the BBC series!).

To me, history is a narrative, an unfolding series of stories that intertwine and conflict, but when studied, illuminate a complex, nuanced whole.  In my work, I’m claiming my corner of that narrative: middle-class women in Louisiana in the decades before the American Civil War.  In some ways, this is an easy choice for me.  New Orleans stole my heart in the dark days after Katrina, and as I’ve watched her grow and recover from that disaster, I’ve spent a great deal of time reading about how she has endured and recovered from others in her past.  Gender as a construct and a question is something that impacts me on a daily basis, and I’ve always had an interest in how it plays out in the past, what contributed then to where we are now.  And the 19th century has been my mental and emotional home for much of my life.  (I blame the early and frequent watchings of both Gone With the Wind and Ken Burns’ The Civil War as a child for this.)

The choice of a mourning ensemble is perhaps more complicated.  I, like so many children of the 90s, went through my goth phase, and developed a love of the macabre.  Much like our Victorian forebears, I found death and the culture surrounding it to be fascinating.  As my academic interest in it grew, I began to wonder about how people did mourning.  It wasn’t just a question of what to wear and when, or what women were allowed to do and not allowed, but what it meant, what it felt like, and why it mattered.  Mourning was a costly business, especially before the days of cheap, mass-produced clothing off the rack.  (No running down to Macy’s to buy a black dress for a last minute funeral in 1850!)  So why do it?  What social, cultural, and emotional benefit was there to the elaborate mourning rituals of the mid-19th century?  Why ape English trends of formality in a country that touted itself as democratic, eschewing class divisions and customs of Europe?  What was the point of it all?  And why did women, especially in the emergent middle-class, cling to these customs and rituals with such ferocity?  What did it give them?

In order the explore the answers to these questions, as there are always more than one, I am combining traditional research methods with a more experiential kind of history.  Hence the creation of a mourning ensemble alongside research into the lives, values, experiences, social roles, and world of antebellum women in Louisiana.  The work is in the planning stages yet.  There will be patterns to choose, fabric to buy, sewing techniques to learn.  But hopefully, by the time I have finished my master’s thesis, I’ll also have a period-appropriate ensemble to show for it, and be able to speak to what clothing in the antebellum years might have meant.

So come along for the journey, and feel free to ask questions or comment on anything you see or read here.  Part of my aim is to make my work accessible to a wider audience, and part of accessibility is responding to feedback constructively as well as taking suggestions into consideration.  I am by far no expert seamstress.  My background is in some reenacting in college and some theatrical work.  I still have problems setting sleeves.  But the goal here is to grow and learn, and I’m relatively certain that will happen.  I think Dr Worsley would approve.