Tag Archives: clothing

Travel!

I’ve just come back from a week in Louisiana, and it has been a fantastic trip.  I’m always completely in love with Louisiana, and with New Orleans in particular (though the heat, not so much — I think I’ve been infected with Midwestern preferences for climate), but this trip was really special.  Not only did I present at the Louisiana Studies Conference this past weekend at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA (pronounced NACK-uh-tish, honestly), I got the phenomenal opportunity to spend a morning in the Louisiana State Museum‘s textile archives in New Orleans.  The curator, Wayne Phillips, showed me their extensive collection of hair and mourning jewellery, as well as an early 1850s gown that may have been mourning.

Hair jewellery is not really my speciality, and honestly, I had forgotten about it until Wayne brought it out to show me.  The museum’s collection is extensive, largely because unlike other jewellery, hair pieces went out of fashion abruptly and were retired into people’s attics and cupboards rather than being thrown away.  (I suspect people felt rather bad about the idea of throwing out a literal piece of Great Aunt Marie!)  The museum started collecting the hair jewellery pieces from its early days in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and they vary from simple brooches without much provenance to elaborate pieces tied to important people in Louisiana history.  Some are very plain or small, and some, like a French piece worked with gold, hair, and garnets, are incredibly elaborate.  But all have the same purpose: to at once remember (if not mourn) one’s loved ones, and to carry a piece of them on your person.  While some pieces were not mourning, many were, including sometimes dates of death, or images of mourning worked in hair, most commonly urns, weeping willows, acorns, or forget-me-nots.  They were all stunning, if some of them struck me as a little creepy, most particularly a ring made of woven hair that would have been worn directly next to the skin.  That’s a level of commitment I can’t really imagine, personally.

However, the dress was a highlight.  The gown lacked a good provenance, but it was useful for me in looking at construction details and the complexity of the dress.  It’s a silk taffeta piece, very light-weight (as I suspected would be common in Louisiana), but in poor, poor condition.  It does show some period repairs, suggesting that this gown was worn and re-worn rather than being thrown away, and it hints to me that perhaps this was a more bourgeois garment than one belonging to the Louisiana social aristocracy.  The skirt is slim, suggesting early 1850s, and rather than pleating at the waist, the skirt is made of shaped panels.  The hem shows wear and re-lining, and the cuffs are hand-stitched.  But let’s face it, you want pictures, don’t you?

Here’s the dress in its entirety. Notice the subtle floral pattern woven into the taffeta. Really stunning in the light. And yes, it is as small as it looks.

The hem shows wear and repair, as can be seen here, and was obviously hand-basted. The lining is cotton, and was once dyed black, but has faded to this coffee colour, as all natural dyes on cotton are prone to do.

This shows a repair to the skirt of the dress. The colour has been lightened to show detail. The cotton thread has faded to that familiar brown colour as well.

The bodice closes up to the neck with tiny hook-and-eye closures, and shows beautiful decorative pleating. The fan shape is lovely, but very simple, and the sloping, dropped shoulders are bang-on for the early 1850s.

 

Here is the hand-turned cuff, showing more faded thread. I found it interesting that the sleeves were so fitted and so simple, another suggestion of mourning.

 

A self-fabric belt meant to go over the waist of the dress, really simple, and it shows just how small the waist was!

I can’t express how exciting it was to work with this garment and to really have the chance to examine it.  The dress isn’t in the Museum’s permanent collection — quite frankly, with its sketchy provenance and in such a terrible condition, it’s unlikely to become an acquisition.  The cost of restoring the gown would be astronomical.  However, it is one of the only antebellum gowns they have, aside from some early 1800s pieces, and it might very well be mourning, another point in its favour.  I suspect it was indeed mourning, given its simplicity and the evidence of re-wear, but it’s a theory, not a concrete fact.  Still, isn’t it a lovely old thing?

I’ll probably be talking a lot more about my trip and some of the things I saw while there — especially the 1850 House Museum and the woman who built the structure in which it resides, the Baroness de Pontalba — but I had to share the most exciting bits first.

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On Extant Garments

I spend a lot of time looking at extant garments.  I look at them on museum websites (the Met’s Costume Institute is a great one, as is the Museum at FIT and the Kyoto Costume Institute’s Digital Archives).  I look at them on auction websites (Augusta Auction, anyone?). I look at them on Pinterest (like on my board for this project).  Extant 19th century garments tell us a lot of useful, functional details that fashion plates and paintings cannot.  They tell us about construction, material, and how a garment hangs.  They tell us about social class, about availability of items and fashion trends, about communication between places.  They tell us what people actually wore.

But what extant garments don’t tell us, 95 times out of 100, is what average, middle-class people were wearing (never mind working class).

You’ve all been through this weird permutation of people’s bodies in the past.  You’ve gone to a museum, and looked at dresses with waists small enough to give Scarlett O’Hara’s 17 inches a run for their money.  The docent usually says that “people were smaller back then.”  This is an accepted “fact.”  Why else would all the garments we have be so tiny?

Because they weren’t passed down.  They weren’t remade into something later, once they were out of fashion.  They were put away because no-one else could wear them.  A size 0 skirt is much less likely to become a hand-me-down than a size closer to average, even today.

In his book, In Small Things Remembered, historical archeologist James Deetz cautions us from drawing too much direct meaning from museum groupings, or extant, well-preserved historical items.  He says on page 8 that “for a variety of reasons, surviving artefacts cannot be taken as necessarily representative objects of their period.  If we were to rely on museum collections, we might get an impression of a much richer level of material wealth than truly was the case.  This is because must museums save the unusual and the valuable object, and individuals now and in the past consign commonplace objects to the dump.”

So not only are we looking at smaller items that could be preserved (Deetz throws the “people were smaller then” out the window on the same page), extant garments are of a higher value than others that were not preserved.  Just as today, people of middling or lower classes wore and rewore their garments until they could no longer repair them, or they were so far out of fashion as to be ridiculous (for the middle classes).  Upper class people had the means to make a dress and preserve it.  Some gowns, usually of significance, were save — wedding dresses in particular had a sentimental value that would ensure they were tucked away, if the family could afford it.  But many a middle-class bride wore and re-wore her wedding dress for best long after the wedding.  (It is for this reason, Carol Wallace argues in her book, All Dressed In White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding, that middle-class brides often chose a colour other than white in which to marry — wearing white would immediately scream “new bride” to dinner guests post -1840 and Queen Victoria’s popularisation of the colour for weddings.)

This leaves us with the problem of extant garments.  They remain valuable for construction details, and as a visual for what the wealthier classes were wearing.  In this way, they’re as illustrative as photographs of celebrities in People — we know women were wearing these dresses, wealthy women who were frequently visible as consumers of fashion.  The gowns are likely to be on-trend for when they were made, especially in large, cosmopolitan cities like New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and others.  And they do allow us to see what a woman actually wore rather than the idealised image of a fashion plate.  But as an end-all be-all reference, especially when it comes to middle-class lifestyles, they end there.

For my purposes, as I consider a mourning gown worn by a middle-class person, the gowns preserved at the Met and at FIT are an ideal, a piece of aspirational hope.  How a middle-class lady would have wanted a fine silk ballgown made in Paris.  But her dresses would have been simpler, with less elaborate trim, with less expensive materials.  A mourning gown, even moreso — what recent widow wants to seem overly vain?  This at once proves a frustration and a relief.  On the one hand, I must rely on cartes de visite and other images of middle-class women instead of the beautiful period garments I’ve always admired in museums (and who doesn’t want to imagine themselves as a gorgeous, wealthy girl with hundreds of fine dresses to choose from?).  On the other, it lowers the expectations of what I must do with the garment to be appropriate (which probably means no beading, a relief for my eyes and my needle).  And I think it points to the frustration of all people of middling means.  The aspiration for more is always there. The desire for more and more beautiful dresses, finer jewellery, grander things is always there.  But, in a very real sense, the 19th century was very concerned with being appropriate for one’s station, and not overreaching for things.  Being frugal and simple was upheld as a virtue, even if it wasn’t always acheived.  And that’s something important for me to remember as I start to price out materials and supplies.  Frugal housewives were the expectation, idealised in their own way, even if the beautiful belles in their gowns were the much sighed-after image.