All About a Ball

Preparing the US National Museum for Garfield's Inaugural Ball (Courtesy the Smithsonian Institution via the Commons on Flickr)

As the day for James A. Garfield‘s inauguration rolled around, the decision was made to hold his inaugural ball in the newly constructed 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 National Museum decorated for the 1881 inaugural ball (Courtesy of the Smithsonian via the Commons on Flickr)

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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1880 corset

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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"The Inauguration of President Garfield - The Opening of the Grand Inaugural Ball" (from Leslie's Illustrated of March 19, 1881)

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 Lucretia Garfield 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.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Inaugural Day in Washington, The Old Print Gallery.com.

Presidential Selection

Washington Death Mask

Halloween is just around the corner, when, by tradition, all souls departed return to their earthly haunts for a night.

Were the spirits of our Founding Fathers to be among them, I wager that no change in our political system would astonish them more than the monstrous process we rely on to fill the presidency.

Certainly, the bitter and protracted process we have today bears little resemblance to the simple one that twice elevated our first executive, George Washington, to the post.  Washington, whose spotless reputation helped reassure Americans that the novel office of a civilian executive could be filled responsibly, was the near-unanimous choice of the small group of electors, appointed by the state legislatures, who gathered to settle the issue in 1789 and again in 1792.  He did not campaign for the office, and no promises were made.

Washington, as famous for his ardent federalism as for his total abhorrence of political parties, would be horrified at the prevailing partisan strife and competition.  He would find appalling the careerism that prompts unfit and unlikely candidates to vie for eminence.  He would be chagrined to learn that our national energies, which should be devoted to the arduous work of governing, are instead being diverted into a vitiating quest for party supremacy, which dominates a greater part of the calendar with each election cycle.

Above all, Washington would revile the self-aggrandizing impulse that, as it continues unchecked, erodes the vitality of a great government whose genius rests on interdependency.

Image: Life mask of George Washington, from this source.

What If They Can’t Take The Capital?

H. H. Green, "Bird's Eye View of Washington, DC," 1916 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

We may not have reached the turning point in the 2012 campaign, but Mitt Romney‘s impolitic behavior has got me thinking about what it might mean for the Republican Party if it fails to take the presidency this time around.

The party wars raging these days are much like real wars in which a few goals are recognized as being of overwhelming importance.  In military conflict, taking or holding a capital is often paramount to victory. The force that fights to take a capital but never succeeds condemns itself to a war without end.  It never gains sway.

The outlook for the GOP

Despite the Republicans’ emphasis on unity, theirs is a badly divided party, composed of two parts, ideologically riven, and in real danger of breaking apart.  Throughout the campaign, moderates within the party have been hoping that its two wings can be welded together sufficiently to secure a presidential victory.  Should the Republican party fail of this goal, it will have difficulty convincing us that it remains a dominant political force.

The Republican Party still has vast resources and an impressive organization; it has some intelligent personnel and many, many backers and devotees.  Despite all this, it could go into decline, if the presidential contest suggests that it is no longer organized around ideas and policies that have national appeal, that can command the assent of a voting majority.

A party shy of the presidency

Is winning the presidency all that important to the life of a party?  It is when the party has been struggling for several presidential election cycles to demonstrate that its candidates truly represent the will of the people.  Historically, when a party cannot win the White House, that party fades.  It happened with the Federalist party to which the Founders belonged.  It happened to the Whig Party in the 1850s.  It happens when a perfectly good party lack leaders capable of reshaping the party’s ideology for changing times.

A party that cannot win the presidency risks the loss of its adherents and its leadership, too.  Without the presidency, a party cannot initiate and bring legislation to fruition without cooperation from the other side.  The Republican Party has set itself in opposition to the Democratic Party.  Instead of building the goodwill that has historically proved the salvation of a minority party, it has shown open and increasing enmity toward the other side.

Emphasis on controlling the electoral process

Anxiety pervades the Republican Party, which since the year 2000 has concentrated more and more, not on recasting itself ideologically, but on controlling the electoral process in hope of achieving a favorable return.  Ever since George W. Bush’s contested win that year, which came down to interpreting a bunch of chads clinging to physical ballots in Florida, the Republicans have become obsessed with state-level control of the election rolls.

G. W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 occurred amid controversies over voter suppression in states like Ohio, where Republicans had succeeded in removing voters from the rolls through aggressive challenges.  In the current election cycle, we have seen concerted efforts in several Republican-controlled states to tighten up voting requirements and to make it more difficult for certain classes of voters to gain representation or vote early.

Only respect for the electorate can save the GOP

It’s a shame, because intelligent leadership and constructive ideas are what the GOP needs.  In the end, only better ideas and a genuine respect of the electorate can save the Republican Party from the minority status that threatens it now.

Image: H. H. Green, “Bird’s eye view of Washington, DC” (1916), from this source.
Other wonderful old maps and views of the nation’s capital are here.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Voter Harassment, Circa 2012, New York Times.
Is the Republican Party Dying?, Our Polity.
A Great White Nation of Self-Made Men, Our Polity.
Democrats: Shake It Up, Our Polity.
2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II), Our Polity.