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?
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.