Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Does This 19th c. Dress Deserve a Place in a Museum?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Isabella reporting,

The cotton dress, left, is not the kind to inspire oohs and ahhs of admiration.

Dating from the mid-19th c., it's crudely cut and sewn, without the shaping of waist darts or a lining that more fashionable women's dresses of its time would have had. There's no lace or embroidery for ornamentation, no pleats or tucks or fancy cuffs. The coarse cotton is printed in a clumsy attempt to mimic moire silk. The condition of the dress is well-worn, with a sizable hole in the front of the bodice.

Yet as humble as this dress is, it may be unique in American museum collections, an improbable survivor that's far more rare than ball-gowns worn by queens or presidents' wives.

As I've written earlier (here and here), I recently attended a symposium and exhibition featuring historical clothing sponsored by the Chester County Historical Society. This dress was the centerpiece of the talk given by Nancy Rexford, costume historian and consultant to art and history museums, and it shared the stage with her (which is why it's shown here on an impromptu mannequin.)

Nancy believes that this dress was worn by a woman who worked for her living, and likely worked hard. The simple construction and inexpensive fabric indicate the owner didn't have much money to spend on clothing, and the cotton would have been easy to launder.

Most revealing are the sleeves. While the majority of dresses of this era would have had narrow cuffs, this dress has wide, open sleeves that could be rolled up above the elbow and kept clear of wet or dirty tasks. The wearer might have been a laundress, a cook, a factory worker, or a settler on a farmstead. In other words, an "ordinary" 19th c. American woman. A dress like this would have been worn until it literally fell apart, then cut down for children's clothing, and finally used as rags - all reasons that make this dress's survival so unusual.

Yet as rare as this dress is, it wouldn't have a place in the clothing collections of many American museums. As Nancy pointed out, all collections have restrictions of space and budgets. Trustees and curators must establish a focus to each collection: for example, clothes worn in a certain region, or by a certain group of people, or limited to a certain era.

Many of the more prominent costume collections today strive to present only the very best examples of historic clothing, such as the exquisite creations of lace-trimmed silk by Charles Frederick Worth - true works of art. In such collections, there would be no place for this cotton work dress; it would have been de-accessioned, or given its condition, simply discarded. This focus on "masterpieces" may lead to a beautiful collection overall, but concentrating exclusively on clothing worn by the wealthy elite preserves only a fraction of the historical past.

Which leads me back to my original question: if you were a curator of historical fashion, would you include this dress in your collection?

Above: Dress, 19th c. American. Chester County Historical Society. Photography copyright 2014 Susan Holloway Scott.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Return Engagement: A 1954 Prom Dress

Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Loretta reporting,

Continuing my report on the Strawbery Banke Museum exhibition, Thread: Stories of Fashion at Strawbery Banke, 1740-2012:*

Another delight was this pink prom dress from 1954.  The dress is described as a “pink synthetic lace creation with its strapless flounced dress and bolero-style jacket.”

According to the museum guides, the living room was furnished from Sears Roebuck.  In other words, the room and dress represent a style not of lords and ladies or celebrities, but everyday people.  The display included a wedding portrait of Pat Brackett, the woman who wore this dress to her high school prom.  Unfortunately, my camera was feeling ill that day, and my close-up photo of that part of the room was not in focus—a fact I failed to notice until I saw it full size on my computer.  (But there’s still time to see the exhibit for yourself if you’re in the area.)

This style of décor might be familiar to some of our readers.  Can you tell what that thing is between the two photographs behind the dress?  Do you know what piece of furniture the photographs are sitting on?

*Previous posts are here and here.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mr. Lambkin, a Hapless (though Eventually Happy) Young Man of Property, 1844

Sunday, April 20, 2014
Isabella reporting,

The work of British illustrator and caricaturist George Cruikshank (1792-1878) has appeared many times in this blog (such as here and here.) During his long career, his subjects ranged from notoriously pointed caricatures of politicians and the royal family to illustrations for novels by Charles Dickens, and, later in life, to illustrations in support of the temperance movement.

In 1844, he published a small book of twenty-four illustrations that tell the story of a hapless young man-about-town in possession of an inheritance sufficient to lead him into amusing difficulties. The book has an extravagantly long title, The Bachelor's Own Book, Being the Progress of Mr. Lambkin, (Gent.), in the Persuit [sic.] of Pleasure and Amusement, and Also, in Search of Health and Happiness. From that title, it sounds as if Cruikshank will lead his bachelor down the same dissolute path to self-destruction that William Hogarth - an influence on Cruikshank - did with the young heir in A Rake's Progress.

But over-dressed little Mr. Lambkin isn't really a bad guy, and he deserves a better fate.  While he does suffer through his share of bad decisions, false strumpets, and strong drink, in the end he realizes the emptiness of his merry life and boon companions. Better yet, he finally succeeds in winning the regard of the future Mrs. Lambkin. One hopes together they did find the happiness mentioned in the title.


Here are several of the illustrations, with the droll captions that tell the tale below. Even better: the entire book is available to read or download free online via Project Guttenberg here.

Upper left: Plate 2: Mr. Lambkin sallies forth in all the pride of power, with the secret and amiable intention of killing a certain Lady. Some envious rival makes known his deadly purpose, by means of a placard.

Right: Plate 4: Mr. Lambkin suddenly feels rather poorly, something in the "whitebait dinner," having disagreed with him; probably the "water souchy," or that confounded melted butter, (couldn't possibly have been the wine.) His friends endeavor to relieve him with little Drops of Brandy, and large doses of Soda Water.

Lower left: Plate 22: Mr. Lambkin being quite recovered, with the aid of new milk and Sea Breezes, determines to reform his habits, but feels buried alive in the Grand Mausoleum Club; and, contemplating an old bachelor member who sits pouring [sic] over the newspapers all day, he feels horrorstruck at the probability of such a fate becoming his own, and determines to seek a reconciliation with the Lady of his Affections.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Breakfast Links: Week of April 14, 2014

Saturday, April 19, 2014
Happy Easter, Happy Passover, and Happy Spring! Here's our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, blogs, articles, and images, gathered fresh for you from around the Twitterverse.
• Teensy-weensy 19th c. women's shoes and the ideal of helplessness.
Eva Gonzales and other female Impressionists in Paris.
• Designing dogs: a pug life.
• The only surviving letter (on stationary) written on board the Titanic the day she sank.
Image: Preparing matzo for Passover, New York, 1958.
• When physicians give up: Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici's infant convulsion powder.
• From foreign garb to fashion fad: a brief history of pajamas.
Marie Tussaud, the 18th c. woman behind one of Britain's most popular tourist attractions.
Naughty money: clippers and coiners in 16th c. England.
• The story behind an extraordinary 1918 photograph of Charlie Chaplin on Wall Street.
• An otter in the guest book of the 6th Duke of Devonshire? One of the interesting things found when cataloguing the Cavendish papers in the Chatsworth archives.
• A lost treasure rediscovered: Faberge egg found after missing for almost 100 years.
Image: And 18th c. aeriel view of Perry Hall, near Birmingham, by Thomas Shardwell.
Punishments we used to think were acceptable.
Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic is seen by a former shipmate - after his death
• The problems of an 18th c. menagerie.
• For National Bookmobile Day: nine fine examples here.
Image: A gorgeous silk map sampler, embroidered with silk by an unknown maker, England, late 18th c.
• Return to long-forgotten London with these wonderful engravings.
• Born to rule, doomed to die: Sultan Raziya, India's first female monarch.
• Solving the mystery of the 1930s monkey lady.
Ironclad Apple Duff: exploring recipes from the American Civil War.
• A social history of lipstick.
• A Zanzibar brawl in 1861 included drunken sailors, slave traders, and the British bickering about the French.
• "Wedded bliss": an 1801 wedding in Salem, Massachusetts.
• Saucy spring hats for the ladies and the gents.
• Eighteenth century student life: the unambiguous message in this letter from young Jeremy, at Oxford, to his father: SEND TEA!
• The work of Walter Potter, Victorian Britain's pre-eminent taxidermist, is beautifully creepy.
• Quills, maypoles, and intolerant curates.
Image: No chocolate or sugar for English Easter eggs in 1918 - just papier mache or straw.
• Beautiful photo portraits of people doing their jobs on the streets of late 19th c. New York.
Lego power: patched with plastic.
• The case of the closely watched courtesans in 18th c. Paris.
Rejection letters to the later rich-and-famous.
Image: 14th c. Easter Bunnies lighting the altar candles.
• Medicinal drinks and Coca-Cola fiends: the toxic history of soda pop.
• A virtual tour of the Harry Elkins Widener Room, honoring Harvard student lost on the Titanic.
• What was "The Hippopotomus" and how was it used at Mount Vernon?
Image: Sad 18th c. reminder that when you're hot, drink strong or not at all.
• An 18th c. recipe for Orange Chips, made from orange peel.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Casual Friday: Dressing for the Easter Ball 1819

Friday, April 18, 2014
Loretta reports:

Whether you plan to show off your Easter finery in a parade or at a ball, or simply wait patiently for a chance to wear some spring clothes (we're still bundled up here in New England and the daffodils are shivering), I hope this image will amuse.



Dandies and Dandizettes dressing for the Easter Ball
Published by Thomas Tegg, 1819

Thanks to Isabella for bringing it to my attention, and to the Rijksmuseum for making it available through the Rijksstudio.
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