Two men in high silk hats breathe the style of the times. The year is 1889. They are old enough to remember the century’s watershed event, the Civil War, which is long in the past, it being more than two decades since Appomattox. These gentlemen, and millions of others, have moved on. They are Gilded Age creatures, inhabitants of a rapidly modernizing society enjoying ever-increasing wealth. Their era was empty of historical grandeur: in that respect, the 1880s, with their intense but under-examined social problems (including widening economic inequality), were somewhat similar to today.
Formally attired, but looking like they are often so, the two men smile into the camera of Uriah Hunt Painter. Painter and the man on the left may be engaged in a mutual photo-shoot, for each has a Kodak camera, a new invention that became the era’s most fashionable ‘toy.’ This picture captures how people had begun to use it—not too differently from how people use their cell phones now.
The sun is shining on this Easter Monday, as all Washington gathers for the first-ever Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn. The watch-chain of one man snakes along the surface of his taut belly, a symbol of the symbiosis between efficiency and attaining plenty. He and his friend both sport the flamboyant facial hair that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age—the vast mustaches and expansive mutton-chops that would prevail even it Teddy Roosevelt’s time, the mutton chops first popularized by General Burnside, and eventually leading to the coinage of the enduring term, ‘sideburns.’
As the day for James A. Garfield‘s inauguration rolled around, the decision was made to hold his inaugural ball in the newlyconstructed United States National Museum, which had not yet opened to the public.
The massive building, with its grand halls and balconies, seemed tailor-made to soothe a vexation the planning committee faced every four years: finding a venue large enough to accommodate five to ten thousand people. The nation’s past was strewn with disastrous stories of inaugural parties gone awry: rampaging crowds, looted furnishings, overcrowded chambers, guests forced to dance in their overcoats in unheated temporary buildings.
The planning committee went wild preparing the still-vacant museum for the president’s gala. They ordered up three-thousand gas lights, a temporary wooden floor, illuminated garlands, patriotic bunting, placards sporting the monograms of the new president and vice president, and a vast “Lady America” statue to transform the building. (Wooden chairs in the photographs give an idea of the interior’s scale.) Vast quantities of refreshments, including 15,000 “assorted cakes,” awaited the inevitable hour when dancers got hungry.
Yet, in the end, these lifeless photographs scarcely satisfy our curiosity. For what about the ball itself? Specifically, what about the ladies? What were they wearing? Here we run smack up against the bouncers of photography’s limitations, Gilded Age customs, and social mores.
Sadly, Americans couldn’t snap candids of themselves as they stepped out for the ball on that historic night. The Brownie camera that would make amateur photography possible was twenty years in the offing. Only by going to a studio photographer arrayed in her ball dress could a woman who went to the ball retain a souvenir of what she looked like that night. Few such photographs are likely to exist (but let me know if they do!).
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Thank heaven for the internet, which helps dress up a scene so otherwise naked! The foundation of every Gilded Age look was the corset, which molded women’s bodies into an idealized form. It created the hour-glass shape, the essential female silhouette in those days. Ladies attending Garfield’s ball wore either a corset or an evening dress reinforced inside with whalebone stays.
Dresses donned over the corset were complicated. This evening dress was characteristic, with its curvacious form-fitting bodice, cinched-in waist, and eye-catching skirt culminating in a bustle and train. While rigidly sculpted and richly decorated, dresses were relentlessly columnar, emphasizing the figure’s verticality. The torso of the dress was elongated, thanks to a cut of bodice called the Cuirass, which (echoing the corset) extended smoothly beyond the waist and over the hips. Keyhole and “V” necklines were popular then.
Even day-time skirts dripped with pleats, folds, and elaborate drapery, accentuating the hips and creating a coveted multi-layer look. “Tie-back skirts,” though considered scandalous, were all the rage, the skirt being pulled back across the front of the body, supposedly accentuating a woman’s legs.
Evening dresses were made of silk, sometimes heavily textured, and covered with beadwork and ribbon to make them shine. Textile makers produced vibrant colors with the help of synthetic dyes. The surface of the dress was further built up with lace, ruffles, and ruching. Some dresses had heavy tassels of the kind now seen only on fancy furniture and curtains. The backs of dresses, too, were elaborate and bulky. To see how these elements could combine, check out this gorgeous cream silk gown, designed by Frederick Worth, the leading couturier of the time.
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Such are the fashions depicted in the most lifelike extant depiction of Garfield’s ball, created when Frank Leslie’s Illustrated magazine dispatched several “special artists” to capture the scene on the night of March 4, 1881.
The resulting composite illustration includes recognizable portraits of many public figures, with the bearded president, at center, flanked by his son and daughter, and Lucretia Garfield, the new First Lady, hanging on an ambassador’s arm. (Elsewhere, politicians and military men like Carl Schurz, William T. Sherman, John Logan, James G Blaine, and Roscoe Conkling pepper the crowd.)
Five or six ladies appear at the forefront, the artists painstakingly rendering their dresses, hair-styles, fans, jewelry, and bouquets. We see LucretiaGarfield in her high-necked pale lavender gown, for instance, while the younger women wear dresses that are more revealing, with low-cut necklines and negligible sleeves. Yet what joy could they have had in dancing, in such long heavy dresses, and such tight strict corsets?
Looking at this drawing, I am most struck with its subjects’ unknowing. Little could they know that in just a few months, Garfield’s life would be taken, or that in a few decades, the constraints on women’s fashions and movements would be melting away. That soon a woman could vote for the president, or against him, as may be, or pick up a Brownie camera and take a picture of her day.
Images: Photographs of US National Museum courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution via the Commons on Flickr; corset from this source; engraving courtesy of the Library of Congress.