The real stuff of history

Woman's shoes circa 1845 from the blog "In the Swan's Shadow"

Woman’s shoes, circa 1845, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.

As a result of the internet revolution, the historian (whether armchair or professional) has better materials to work with than ever before.  Museums, libraries, antique dealers, auction houses, even private collectors are increasingly sharing images of their holdings online, giving the material culture of the past a prominence and visibility that it lacked formerly.  Hidden away for centuries in cellars and attics, History’s shoes and dresses, waistcoats and wallpapers, jewelry, love letters, paintings, and furnishings are suddenly everywhere, courtesy of digital photography.

The impact of these items can be surprisingly revolutionary, correcting and revitalizing the past that has come down to us through historical writing.  Architecture, photography, and other vestiges of material culture together impart a more accurate and sophisticated view of earlier cultures.  Rather than growing dimmer, views of nineteenth-century America, for instance, are growing more vivid each day.

Dipping into that past is the business of “In The Swan’s Shadow,” a blog that’s been around for about 5 years.  The unidentified blogger who puts it out is amazingly dedicated and prolific, posting 1,560 items in 2013.

The site is a trove of images of items surviving from the era of the American Civil War, documenting the lives of women (and children) in particular.  There are laces and shawls, bonnets and gloves, cameos, fancy dresses, portraits big and small, genre paintings, fashion illustrations, Victorian earrings and bracelets made of jet and turquoise, old photographs of women, hair-do designs, crinolines—you name it.  I love the items the “ebon swan” features.

Popular interest in the Civil War period, about what women wore and how they looked, has been stoked by historical re-enactment and its sister art, historical costuming, both of which are the focus of innumerable blogs.  A desire to re-create and re-inhabit the past, however briefly, has proved a powerful motive for taking history apart at the seams.

Fashion plate from the 1850s

1859 fashion plate featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow

Thanks to an unsung army of hobbyists, curators, shopkeepers, and bloggers, two great gains for history are being achieved.  First, the scrim of drab sentimentalism that formerly enveloped the antebellum and war period is being torn away. The era’s clothes, jewelry, and pictures bring back a culture that was sumptuous, passionate, colorful, and edgy.  The heavy clothes that, in fashion plates, look only imprisoning can now also be appreciated as opulent expressions of female power and dignity.

Antebellum dress with black buttons.

Dress with black buttons in the Kentucky Historical Society‘s collection. Featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”

Second, nineteenth-century America’s participation in a trans-Atlantic culture has never been more plain.  Many Americans lived in primitive conditions in the early national and pre-Civil War periods, but others had access to goods that were dazzling.  Lacking a fully developed sensibility, upper-class Americans continued to rely on Europe for luxury goods and ideas—for the glamour distilled in a fine silk damask, or in the light flutter of a lady’s fan.

Ladies fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Click to go to the source.

Feathered fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”  Click here to go to the MFA site.

Yes, the real stuff of history is piling up at a crucial intersection of proof and inspiration, offering its mute truths as a feast to our vision.

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.

The Best of Everything

Hope Lange in The Best of Everything (Courtesy of SweetSundayMornings via Flickr)

My reservoir of civic concern has yet to fill up again, so let me fill the time by writing a few lines about a worthwhile old movie, The Best of Everything (1959).

Mid-century modernism and the sexual and social mores that went with it inform this surprisingly somber melodrama, which stars Hope Lange, Joan Crawford, Donna Baker, and Suzy Parker as working women whose lives intersect at a New York publishing firm.  Shot on location in Manhattan in glorious Technicolor, the film is a visual and sociological trove of period detail.

A steadfastly chick-centric perspective and an emphasis on female solidarity lend distinction to the film’s portrayal of sexual opportunism and the hazards of women’s sexual freedom just prior to the dawn of modern feminism (a.k.a. “women’s lib”).  For more on the premise, plot, and fun modernist setting of the movie, click here, here, and here.

Image:  Hope Lange in The Best of Everything, from this source.