Tag Archives: fashion

“Death Becomes Her” and Other October Musings

Anyone who knows me in any capacity should recognise the amount of envious glee I feel at the announcement of the Met’s latest special exhibit: “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire“.

I adore 19th century mourning.  The material history associated with it, the impact on social mores and customs, the preoccupation with death it engendered, and the sheer visual impact of it sets my little gothy heart all a-flutter.  I doubt I’ll have the funds to make it up to New York in time — the exhibit opens the day before my wedding and closes right as spring semester kicks up — but it is a thing of glory.

I mean, look at these clothes:

Mourning ensemble, 1870-72; The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mourning dress, cira 1903; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mourning dress, 1867; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

American mourning dress, circa 1845; the Metropolitan Museum of Art

American mourning dress, circa 1848; the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just look at the quality of that silk and the delicate mesh mitts!

Mourning parasol, 1895-1900; the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In a related vein of all things somewhat macabre, I was alerted to a fascinating article about Cross Bones Graveyard in London.  Originally an unconsecrated burying yard for the prostitutes that characterised London’s South Bank in 16th century, it has taken on a social dimension as a place amidst its gleaming upscale surroundings to remember the forgotten, outcast dead.

In death, the liminal sex workers of London have come to occupy a larger space than they ever did in life.  It’s absolutely worth a read as we move into the Halloween season.

Halloween, and its associated liturgical holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls, have historically been about affirming the place of the dead in community — both as members of the heavenly church and as remembered former members of the church militant here on earth.  New Orleans has a vibrant tradition surrounding All Saints Day — La Toussaint as it was brought over from France — and much of it reflects the collision between cultures that happened in the Crescent City.  White-washing family tombs, cleaning away debris and dirt, lighting candles, decorating the tombs, and sharing a meal amongst them all characterise the day.

The dead loom large in New Orleans, but never so much as in October.  It’s impossible to ignore the cemeteries of New Orleans, which is the thing I’ve liked most about them.  Unlike the manicured memorial parks that are increasingly popular around the country, the cemeteries of New Orleans remain visible and retain their dignity, etched into the landscape and staking the claims of the dead among the still living.

David Grunfeld; The Times-Picayune archive

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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.

Guilty confession time

I haven’t started sewing yet.

I haven’t ordered a pattern yet.

I haven’t even really settled on a pattern yet.

This is the part in every project where inertia and procrastination settle in.  Over my many years as an academic, I have noticed my work patterns go in a similar route every time something large and difficult is looming:

1. Initial enthusiasm.  Do all the things, make lots of lists, get all my resources lined up.

2. Trouble ahead.  Get distracted, read at a slower pace than expected, put things off.

3. Panic and worry.  Despite having time until the deadline, begin to feel as if nothing will ever be accomplished and I’m a terrible person for trying to do things, and hide from the project.

4. Buckle down and flagellate.  Work like a mad fiend, all the while mentally yelling at myself for not being more efficient in those early weeks.  Usually, at this stage, I manage to pull out something useful, if not brilliant.

5. Finish.  Get everything done by the deadline, turn it in on time, and have some kind of emotional breakdown thereafter usually requiring copious amounts of children’s shows to recover (this is where my obsession with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comes from).

This is not a healthy pattern.  I know it’s not.  I suffer from a lot of anxiety and depression, and it makes it hard to work continuously and efficiently, using my time and resources to their maximum benefit.  The more anxious I get about a project, the more depressed I become, and as I avoid it, I tend not to use the resources out there in the word world because I can’t motivate myself to put on pants that don’t belong in a yoga studio.  When you start avoiding libraries because you feel judged, this is perhaps a problem.

I’ve been trying to overcome this pattern.  The system my program at Goddard College uses is a distance model, with packets of work, usually around 30 pages or so, going in every 3 weeks.  Ideally, I should be writing ten pages a week to keep on track.  It never works that way, and somewhere around the middle/end of week 2, I start to panic and feel as if nothing I do will ever be good enough and I am a terrible joke of a person for even trying.

(I said I had a lot of issues.  I meant it.)

Ideally, I should have a pattern in hand by now.  I don’t.  I have an eyeball at a pattern I want to make, and am doing estimates for fabric and boning.  The Laughing Moon Silverado corset pattern looks to be about where I want to be, and corsetmaking.com has a corset kit which has boning, busk, boning casing, and grommets for the project, with the option to buy the pattern and fabric from them as well.  This is probably the way I’m going to go.  I just have to get over my feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing, that this is a waste of time and money, and shouldn’t I just stick to books, which is the really important academic work, anyway?

That’s what a lot of this boils down to.  It’s hard to believe in one’s own work.  It’s hard to really own the odd stuff one does in the academy, because clearly, the serious scholars are out there, translating obscure languages and making dazzling insights into the human condition, probably at Harvard or Oxford or somewhere else important.  And I, a silly little baby scholar, at a small school, who is also a woman and took a non-traditional track to get here, my work won’t count because I am doing something weird about women and playing with fabric.  And I know all of that isn’t true.  I know it’s the academic’s version of the jerkbrain, the part of our brains that tells us all the nasty, hateful things that we believe, despite the fact that if our worst enemy said them to us, we’d punch them in the face.  We are capable of being so much nastier to ourselves than we’d ever tolerate someone being to us.  And combine that with the sort of inferiority complex that grad school breeds like bunnies, and it’s a one-way ticket to neurotic overdrive with a guilt complex to make a Jewish mother proud.

It’s hard to believe in the work.  It’s hard to believe that the clothes middle-class women wore in urban centers in the South matters.  It’s hard to believe that antiquated ideas about gender and mourning and the social world of the Gulf South has any impact outside my own interest.  It’s harder still to believe that any self-respecting PhD program will take me on to do this stuff.  But I have to.  Because this is what I’m doing, and if I don’t believe in it, no-one will (except my partner and my mother, because they have to).

So I’m forgiving myself for not ordering the pattern yet.  I’m even giving myself a break, and telling myself it’s okay to work on the papers for the packet, and to fuss over the Louisiana Studies conference I’m headed to in two weeks.  Because I still believe this all matters.  And if it matters, then not only do I have to buckle down and do it, I have to also take care of my mental health in the process.  If the work matters, then so does the person doing it.  And that means being gentle with myself, and being careful with my expectations.  No-one expects me to be a corset-sewing, paper-writing superstar all the time.  And that’s okay.  I just have to stop expecting superstardom from myself, too.

But I’m still going to order the pattern and kit next week.

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.

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!