Friday, September 29, 2023

Exhibit: Something Old, Something New: Wedding Fashions and Traditions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I recently visited the MFA Boston to view ‘Something Old, Something New: Wedding Fashions and Traditions’ curated by Theo Tyson (@ms_theotyson). Tyson (she/they) is the Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who invites conversations about the sociocultural implications of race, gender, identity, and sexuality through a lens of fashion, art, and culture. [1]

Designer Bob Mackie's 1980s beaded wedding ensemble 

Wedding dresses (left to right) Bob Mackie, Arnold Scaasi and Geoffrey Beene

This single gallery installation is as joyful and engaging as opening, unpacking and savoring a long-closed trousseau or family trunk, redolent of memories, traditions, hopes & dreams— embraced across cultures and over time. Thoughtful and thought provoking; insightful and in-depth, there is something to appeal to every visitor from the glamorous gowns and sparkling jewelry to the accessories and informal family photos--even the soundtrack will have you humming along and reminiscing about these special occasions as a participant or guest. 

It is through these family snapshots that the viewer is reminded of the inclusivity of the ceremony and the celebration -- the desire to share this bond with family and/or friends.

And in these unscripted moments—some ebullient, some contemplative—captured in the family-style photo frame - that will resonate with many visitors. 

The text is tightly written and is peppered with questions for visitors to consider, which shifts the mindset from passive to active engagement. For example, a case is dedicated to the display delicate orange blossom headpieces. The curator reminds the viewer that the symbolism of this delicate flower reaches far back in time, long before Queen Victoria: 

"Orange blossoms symbolize virtue, love, and fertility, and have been associated with weddings for centuries. They have been used in China, India, and Persia to represent purity, innocence, and chastity...You can even see the dainty blooms on the ceremonial brooms of African-Americans that engaged in the "jumping of the broom" tradition that originated during chattel slavery when enslaved peoples were not permitted proper nuptials."

There is much to experience when you visit -- but hurry the exhibition closes on October 1st.

1. For more information on Theo Tyson

Monday, September 12, 2022

A Pair of Silk Satin Shoes by Francis Jacobs, c. 1840s

According to a paper label adhered to one of his shoes, Francis Jacobs was a mid-19th century ladies shoemaker, with shops at 32 Rue de la Paix, Paris, and 179 Regent Street, London. He counted members of royalty among his clients.

Selected as participant in several European expositions, Jacobs was known for the grace and comfort of his Ladies boots. In 1842, worked with noted physicians inventing a system to help strengthen and straighten the ankles of children. Called the "Contreforte." the boots were made to secure the child's foot without causing discomfort or restricting their movements. 

The silk satin shoes shown here are no doubt examples of Jacobs more common production. They have thin narrow leather soles, and one shoe features a paper label. The shoes were purchased from Finn Wicks Costume, and, in the sale lot, there were two dresses which indicated that the owner/wearer of the shoes was Hanah Elizabeth [Holmes] Woodward (born 1813-died 1849). 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Olivia Emeline Lane Dresses, c.1827-1835: Hand Sewn in Stratham, NH

 Olivia Emeline Lane Dresses, c.1827-1835, Stratham, NH 

I recently spent time trying to untangle some of the storyline and chronology for a box of Lane family textiles housed at the Stratham Historical Society, Stratham, NH.[i] The memories and names mentioned in aging handwritten labels seemed in need of clarification. After pondering the various and somewhat cryptic notes and using a variety of online and published sources, I am fairly comfortable with the identity of the wearer of these two charming child’s dresses and their maker: the dresses were worn by Olivia Emeline Lane (14 November 1825- 4 September 1905) and made by her mother, Hannah French Lane (1802-1841).

The two dresses exhibit design details found in dresses c.1825-1830s throughout New England and would be perfect for a child of three to seven or eight years of age, depending on size. Both dresses are entirely hand sewn, with high waists and bodice and sleeve flourishes. Simple drawstrings and buttons serve as back closures. 

One features diminutive Van Dyck trim and a very skillful mending on the sleeve. 

According to the family notes that accompany the garments, the textiles for the dresses were spun and woven by Olivia’s mother, Hannah. Close inspection of the fabric reveals slight imperfections and slubs indicative of home weaving. The likelihood that the material was homespun is furthered by the fact that Hannah was married to Charles Lane (1796-1884). Charles was a son of Jabez Lane and the couple likely lived in his father’s house. Jabez’s father was none other than the renowned New Hampshire shoemaker, Deacon Samuel Lane. Thanks to the work of scholar Jerald Brown and the efforts of the Lane family to preserve their family papers (housed at the New Hampshire Historical Society), we know that female members of Samuel Lane’s household produced flax and wove high quality linen.
[ii] Their work was in demand at various market days. It is not unlikely that later generations retained the tradition, and perhaps the workspace.

After Hannah's death in 1841, Charles remarried. His second wife was Elizabeth Berry Lane, and it appears that her descendants preserved these very special items, as well as a ‘best bonnet’.  

[i] The Lane dresses are housed at the Stratham Historical Society, in Stratham, NH. For information, see Stratham Historical Society at

The author thanks Andra Copeland, Skip Stearns, Bruce Kerr and Teddie Smith of the Stratham Historical Society for their assistance throughout the summer of 2022.

[ii] For a guide to the Lane Family Papers at the New Hampshire Historical Society, see:

For a comprehensive account of Samuel Lane, see Brown, J. E., & Garvin, D.-B.. The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718-1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World. (Univ. Press of New England, 2000).  For an account of Lane and additional 18th century New England shoemakers and their business, see Alexander, K., Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018)

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Found in Collections-Old York Historical Society

Found in Collections:

A little fashion myth busting - not all women had small feet. Museum and family collections are skewed toward small sizes for a wide variety of reasons but careful research and observation tells a more balanced story. For example, here, a woman’s roughly size 10 to 10.5 (by current American sizing) dancing slipper in the classical ‘sandal’ style, was worn c1820s in Maine. Green kid leather and silk, with silk ribbon ties from the collection of Old York Historical Society. 

Thank you to Peggy Wishart, Collections Manager, Old York. 

Sunday, July 31, 2022

“I have labored very hard to keep up courage....": Logbook Entries From An Unidentified Female Hand


This summer, I have been researching account books, day books, ledgers and logbooks at the Phillips Library and found the following of interest. The first part of the log is from a logbook kept from Boston to Havana on the Bark Altorf with Captain Snelling, 1845-46.


Then, at the back of the logbook is an earlier journey from Boston to New Orleans on the Ship Victoria. This voyage begins in 1839 on Sunday 20 January and the log entries are written by an as yet unidentified female hand, possibly the ship captain's wife or the first mate's wife. [Ship Captain’s Wife’s Logbook/Journal 1839, Log 1145, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum] Typically throughout the day or watch, she records the weather, the wind, the sea swells and any unusual occurrences as one would find in comparable logs. There are many unanswered questions about the author of this portion of the logbook but what caught my interest was the uncommon role an unnamed female played in the trip. Three days into the voyage, on Wednesday 23 January, she expresses her fears as she confides:


“I have labored very hard to keep up courage so that I may not be laughed at. We have had very bad weather.[sic] Since I left my dear sweet home.” 


It has been fascinating to follow her through terrible seasickness [“I cared not if I lived or died”] to feeling hale and hearty [“everything tastes good even the salted beef” she reported on Sunday 10th of February]. In addition to gaining her sea legs, she eventually feels comfortable above deck knitting, mending, drinking tea or reading her Bible.


I’m not sure what I will be doing with entries such as this, but it does help me with understanding a wider range of female authorship and voice, which is the current focus of my next two book projects, one set in the late 18th century and the other, in the early 19th.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Rachel Adams and Fragments of Her Embroidery, c. 1789

Tucked away safely in a dresser drawer in the Stone School Museum of the Newmarket Historical Society (New Hampshire) are several fragments of what were most likely bed hangings (the donor notes for a canopy bed), made of homespun, hand-woven linen and embroidered with delicate floral motifs, predominately in shades of blue.

The four small pieces of well-worn textiles were donated to the Historical Society on February 14th, 1968 by a descendant of the maker who “vouched for” its authenticity. The label which accompanied the gift notes that the textile was “spun, woven and worked by Rachel Adams of West Medway before her marriage. About 1789.” Her father was Revolutionary War officer, Captain Moses Adams.

Although there remain genealogical issues to work out, the details regarding the actual textile align – the use of small scale motifs and limited palette certainly reflect the visual aesthetics of the last quarter of the 18th century. Further, the tradition of ‘going to housekeeping’ meant that many females of the time created useful household items related to bedding to take into their new home after marriage.

All photos by the author; courtesy, Newmarket Historical Society


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Jacques Henri Lartigue & French Fashion, 1910s

Photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue captured the French elite at play - whether at motorcar racing or at fashionable promenades. 

His work capturing fashion may be seen in numerous examples, such as "Carriage Race Day, Auteuil, Paris, 1911"

Hats, gloves and beautifully designed silk dresses were on display. For a comparison, see a striped silk afternoon dress, c. 1912 by Jeanne Hallee - it is a perfect complement to Lartigue's photo from Race Day.

And more stripes – Paris street style in 1912, photo by Lartigue

Lartigue's images here capture a pre-WWI moment -- a world which will soon experience a crippling war and a devastating pandemic.