Friday, April 19, 2013

A Summer Surtout, c.1760s

Paris,  Friday 11 July 1760, heading for that special enlightenment salon this evening, but it’s too warm for a complete habit à la française. Why not try the demi-habit this summer and stay cool as the champagne fizzes and the bon mots sizzle?

This 1760s man’s coat sold at the Hotel Drouot in Paris in 2010. The fabric is a lightweight striped silk taffeta in shades of green and pastel pink; it has wide lapels and an attached vest. (Some of the buttons for this garment are missing.) The two front sections of the vest are sewn directly to the armholes of the coat, so there is no back to the vest, just the coat itself. 

According to the auction catalog, this is a rare example of a coat for the summer or the French Colonies.  This utilitarian combination allows for a degree of formality while alleviating a least one layer of clothing. Oddly, this appears to be more akin to a formal banyan, if such a creature ever existed, than a day coat. Makes one wonder at the number of novel solutions for comfort and conformity lost to time.

Below, find an example of a banyan created from a blue dragon robe with a matching long sleeved waistcoat, which also straddles the formality line. 

Finally, another example of a banyan, but more in keeping with the "accepted" idea of the style. This brown woollen damask garment, c. 1739-41, is from the Museum of London.

I would like to thank Alain Truong for the use of the photograph of the striped silk coat, as it was the only copy that worked for me.  His blog archive is:

Jeff Hopper writes on men's fashions, past and present for SilkDamask. Previous blog posts may be found on the site.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Homespun & Handsewn: A Boy's Sailor Suit, c.1850

This charming two-piece sailor suit is from the textile collection at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA. The records are currently silent on the provenance of the ensemble, so nothing is currently known about the family or maker or wearer of the simple, but well-crafted shirt and trousers. Nonetheless, it has the ability to conjure up images of New England’s long relationship with the sea and the maritime trade. Made of homespun and entirely hand stitched, incredible care went into its planning from the hand stitched blue, denim-like collar to the two milk glass buttons of the drop front trousers. Even the shirt ties are placed with care. It is dated circa 1840-1850 based on men’s clothing of the time. When placed on the mannequin, the little sailor assumes a jaunty, playful air.
The three piece English sailor suit below is from slightly later in the 19th century (Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art @LACMA)
Boy's sailor suits will continue to be popular through the Edwardian period but they are generally of finer fabrics, such as blue velvet, often with trimmings and fancy buttons and do not bear the same sense of "activity" conveyed by the Strawbery Banke example. (An example of an Edwardian, c. 1912 sailor suit may be found at

Mannequin, Astrida Schaeffer, Schaeffer Arts
Image, courtesy Strawbery Banke Museum
Photograph, Tara Vose Raiselis
Exhibited:“Through the Eye of the Needle: Family Stories, Sewing Stories” Portsmouth Athenaeum, Winter 2009; "Thread" Strawbery Banke Museum 2012.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mary Eliot Dwight's 1849 Wedding Slippers: Vaughan Homestead, Maine

Jane Radcliffe and Ron Kley of Museum Research Associates (MRA), recently discovered this elegant pair of wedding slippers while conducting ongoing research at the Vaughan Homestead in Hallowell, ME. According to MRA, they are part of the May 7th, 1849 wedding outfit of a mid-19th century proper Bostonian -- Mary Eliot Dwight (She married Dr. Samuel Parkman and became the mother of Ellen Twisleton Parkman, who married William Warren Vaughan).

These simple, elegant Parisian white satin slippers were extremely popular among brides at mid 19th century, perhaps in part due to Queen Victoria's slipper selection for her 1840 wedding. (Of course her slippers were English made by Cundry & Co. See earlier post: Similar foot apparel has survived in dozens of historic garment collections. This is not surprising as they are important emblems of significant events. Shoes and other accessories, such as stockings, hats, and gloves were fairly easy to store - much more so than an elaborate wedding dress. Mary Dwight's wedding slippers are of particular interest, however, as key elements of a well documented wedding ensemble. As MRA astutely observe, the charming and diminutive proportions of the (apparently original) pasteboard box in which the shoes were found (and on which their history is inscribed) is as interesting as the shoes themselves. The handwriting on the box notes "Shoes & stockings worn with my wedding dress..."

The slippers feature a square toe, interior kid lining, and dainty silk ribbon set within a channel. I have not seen the sole, but I believe them to be straight last (no right or left). It was not uncommon, even at this late date, to use straight lasts for special occasion shoes. By the mid-19th century, the last Paris shoes could be purchased in any sizable Northeast city.
The shoe label is particularly attractive - research is currently underway on the designer.

Other lesser known examples are in numerous collections such as these found in the Irma Bowen Collection at the University of New Hampshire. It has no known provenance.
The ballet flat or slipper style remains popular to this day as may be seen in the work of designers such as Emma Hope, who got her start designing ballet flats for Laura Ashley.

With wedding season upon us, sharing this graceful footwear from the past seems appropriate.
The author thanks Museum Research Associates, the Vaughan Homestead Foundation and Astrida Schaeffer, of the Irma Bowen Collection, for generously sharing this images and information on New England footwear.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lytton Strachey and Freddie Mercury Opine on the Victorian Age

The excerpt below is taken from the Introduction, by Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D., for Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail  (Astrida Schaeffer, Great Life Press, forthcoming June 2013)

The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it. --Lytton Strachey

Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), a founding member of the Bloomsbury group of writers and intellectuals, and author of Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921), was certainly in a position to make this claim.  Strachey’s enigmatic conclusion was not off the mark, and the Victorian influence that came to define the late nineteenth century remains an epoch that confounds historians and scholars. For the modern audience, the term “Victorian” is one which implies much and reveals little simultaneously.  It conjures up an image of “being surrounded by exquisite clutter,” as Freddie Mercury of Queen memorably described in 1977.  

The nineteenth century certainly was a period of cultural clutter, as the three sisters of modern life--industrialization, immigration, and urbanization--excited and disturbed the rhythms of society and family.  But, it was fashion that most powerfully organized the clutter, both triggering and mirroring the “tyranny of change,” as one historian has described this maelstrom of unsettling forces.  Singer’s sewing machines enabled women to experiment with trends inside the home.   The Delineator and other design journals excited their hopes and guided their hands by introducing Chicago and Omaha to current patterns from Paris and London.  Godey’s Ladies Book and other magazines that catered expressly to woman and inspired them to develop themselves as domestic paragons.
Catalogues like those of Sears, Roebuck allowed them to make purchases from virtually anywhere in the United States.

It is no small irony, then, that the figure whose name represents this period of exquisite clutter presented herself as an adamantine force of tradition and decorum.  Queen Victoria would be Britain’s longest ruling monarch, ascending the throne in 1837 and holding court until 1901.  But, it was marriage in 1840 to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha that marked a dramatic shift in the idea of fashion.  Not unlike the royal weddings of today, her dress was watched carefully--on both sides of the Atlantic.  Designed by William Dyce and stitched by Mary Bettans, the gown was a simple dress, of Honiton lace and silk satin, and, notably, white, inspiring a tradition in wedding fashion that persists to this day.  Godey’s editor Sarah Hale saw an opportunity here, and filled the magazine with Lydia H. Sigourney’s accounts of court life in London that inspired American women to imitate a royalty that their politics denied them.

    The historic garments captured here, many published for the first time, date from the late Victorian period, roughly 1875 until 1909.  As such, they reveal complications of nationalism and homage to European trends in fashion, like warp and weft, that Americans found displayed in the great exhibitions of their day.  The fashion of the Gilded Age, on the eve of the 1876 American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, are not as distant from the direct influence of Queen Victoria’s court and Parisian haute couture as one might expect........&.

Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D.
University of New Hampshire
Durham, USA

Cover design: Great Life Press
Images: Brian Smestad, Astrida Schaeffer
Courtesy, University of New Hampshire, Irma Bowen Collection