Monday, December 31, 2018

Luster. Shine. Sheen: The Visual Lexicon of the 18th Century Elite

Mid 18th century paste stone and silver shoe buckles, French or English. Private Collection.
Behind me in the pit sat a young fop who continually put his foot on my bench in order to show off the flashy stone buckles on his shoes; if I didn’t make way for his precious buckles he put his foot on my coat-tails.
       Carl Moritz, at a London theater, from Journeys of a German in London in 1782 [i]
Silver thread embroidery with spangles. Private Collection
Mid-18th century gold lace. Upham Family Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society 
Luster, shine, sheen. Creating highly polished surfaces, adorning oneself with glittering metallic lace, silver or gold threads, or sparkling jewels were part of the visual lexicon of the eighteenth-century. Baroque then Rococo styles dominated European art, architecture, and fashion, introducing a taste for dramatic, theatrical movement and the interplay of light and shadow. As global trade expanded, new materials and ideas from foreign ports became more accessible. Designers and artisans experimented with bold palettes, active patterns, undulating lines, and S-curves. The naturalistic motifs found in rich brocades and silks were not limited to interior furnishings and textiles, but permeated all aspects of elite dress. Elite consumers could draw upon Chinese, English, and French silks, metallic threads, and trim (then known as lace), elaborate passementerie (decorative trims including tassels, floss fringe, and so on) and the softest of Spanish and Moroccan leathers.
In keeping with the aesthetics of the era, Americans, too, sought to create dramatic effect through a lady or gentleman’s hair, dress, and accessories, particularly for special occasions. The goal was to create a sense of movement and a play of light by employing shimmering silk damask and brocade for ladies dresses, petticoats, and bodices; and gentlemen’s coats, waistcoats. And the accessories were no exception – shoes embroidered with metallic lace and embellished with spangles, clocked stockings worked with metallic threads, and glittering silver and paste stone buckles--some even featuring real gems, such as diamonds and sapphires.[ii] Shoes and stockings were transformed from the everyday by metallic lace, and spangles, which, in combination with glittering buckles, epitomized popular Georgian style aesthetics.[iii]

[i]Carl Moritz, at a London theater, from Journeys of a German in London in 1782, in Richard B. Schwartz, Daily Life in Johnson’s London(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 171.
[ii]Extravagant examples, such as sapphire- and diamond-laden shoe buckles dating from the mid-eighteenth century, were recently exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the exhibition “Pleasure and Pain” (2015). 
For additional information on buckles as a fashion and economic statement, see Riello, A Foot in the Past, 75-82.
[iii]For more on metallic thread, see Garside, Paul (2012). 'Gold and silver metal thread', in: Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward (eds.). Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450-1450, Brill: Leiden, pp. 237-239; Marsh, Gail (2006). 18th Century Embroidery Techniques, Lewes: Guild of Master Craftsman Publications. Paperback edition 2012, pp. 38-69.

For an example of the use of gold metallic lace on a woman's dress, see Robe à la française (or sack back) with petticoat(English or French, 1760-65)from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: - see images above.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Breathtaking Bespoke Boots, c. 1890s

I have written about these bodacious boots before (, but had the opportunity to view them in person as part of the “Fashion Victims” exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto (now closed). (

While they are visually arresting in published photos (as seen in the image above, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum; all other photos by author), seeing them up close was a very different experience. The level of artisanry, the luxury of the materials and the whimsy found in the overall design, is exceptional.

As noted by the Museum curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack, the gold kid leather appliqué and velvet are 'erotically charged' and they resemble a stockinged leg. Even a glimpse beneath a skirt would have been tantalizing. They are most likely of Swedish or German make, from c.1890s. 

These bespoke boots may have been commissioned by a specific client or perhaps more likely, as a ‘show off’ piece meant for display at an Exposition.  In any event, they are truly stunning. Enjoy the photos I captured during my visit.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Baptismal Apron Embroidered by Mary Woodbury, c. 1735

I thought you might enjoy the story connected with this baptismal apron, c. 1735. Currently on view in Fashioning the New England Family at the Massachusetts Historical Society (10/2018-4/2019;, it was embroidered by Mary Woodbury (1717-1748) of Beverly, Massachusetts.[1] 
All images are courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society; photographer, Laura Wulf.
Using familiar 18thcentury iconography inspired by Asian motifs -- vases/urns of exotic flowers, flying phoenix/hoho birds--it is replete with silk and metallic threads, as well as small spangles. The primary stitches are flat and satin stitches. The colors are still bright against an extremely fragile silk ground. Born on March 3, 1717, the maker may have attended a female academy in Boston. 

She married Dr. Benjamin Jones on March 3, 1736/7.  She died the day before her 31stor 32nd  birthday. The baptismal apron was most likely made for her own child, embroidered when Mary was around age 18-19. After her death on March 2, 1748, her belongings were carefully saved for her daughter, Lydia, by Dr. Jones' second and third wives.  Lydia later married the Rev. Thomas Lancaster, who was minister of Scarborough, ME. from 1775 to 1831.

A baptismal apron such as this one, was worn by the infant. The term "apron" appears to be used in the 17th century and into the early 18th. Changes in baptismal practices - the move away from full immersion -- allowed for the better known Christening dress or gown to supplant the earlier ensemble, which often included the apron, a bib, mitts, and cap. The use of bearing cloths in the 17th and 18th century was also common. The example embroidered by Mary Woodbury has proportions closer to the apron than the square bearing cloth. Further, her family had settled in Massachusetts in the 17th century, likely continuing the practices from home. A full ensemble from the Victoria & Albert Museum may be seen herereact-text: 204 Victoria and Albert Museum /react-text :react-text: 207

1. Accession # 0168
Given by the grandchildren of Dorothy Lancaster Libby, through Charles Thornton Libby of Portland, ME, on August 5, 1931.
References   MHS Proceedings64; 346

2. A second, and very unusual, example of her work, also survives at the Massachusetts Historical Society – a painting of Pocahontas. This may well be the first representation of Pocahontas by a woman. For more, see

Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Striking Persimmon Sack Back, c1760s

Now closed, I was fortunate to tour the Casanova exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston this summer. It was a lavish and bold exhibition; a feast for the senses—as one might imagine for one with the appetites (many quite unsavory) of Casanova and the 18thcentury world he traversed.

One of the entrancing tableaux was of an elite woman’s morning ritual – her toilette. Seated at her dressing table, there are shenanigans occurring behind her, presumably between her husband and ladies maid, passing a letter between them.

Each mannequin in this tripartite ensemble is of interest. For this post, I focus on the striking persimmon orange robe a la francaise (or sack back) open robe with compere (a variation of a stomacher often with buttons like a waistcoat) front, double-flounced pagoda sleeve ruffles and pocket slits at each hip.  It is two parts (robe, petticoat), c1760s

For information on the sack back, see:

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Fashionable Neoclassical Dress, 1800-1805

This formal dress, c. 1800-1805, of white cotton gauze, features small floral sprays across the textile. It is detailed with a border design “composed of vine and a modified Greek fret worked in a chain stitch with fine red and white wool.”  This is a classic example of what is known as the Regency, Empire or Neoclassical style which began in the last decade of the 18thcentury (post-American and French Revolutions) and continued to inspire women’s fashions into the 1820s, and in some places, beyond.

A dress like this would not have been out of place in the first quarter of 19thcentury in Boston. By the time of Henry Sargent’s painting of The Tea Party(c.1824) showing the elegant attire of the age – although clad in long columnar dress, with shawls and hats of every variety, we begin to see additions of pouf sleeves, decorated hems, fancy trimmings altering the silhouette and profile. The setting for this elegant gathering was none other than Boston’s Beacon Hill, and is a companion piece to his masculine habitués detailed in The Dinner Party.[1]

 (Via the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Accession #22.665

1. For additional information on Sargent’s painting, see Jane C. Nylander, “Henry Sargent’s Dinner Party and Tea Party,” Magazine Antiques, May 1982.

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Quilted Silk Petticoat Bridges Past and Present

Looks can be deceiving.  Here, what at first glance seems to be a lovely eighteenth-century petticoat, is actually a brand-new reproduction, commissioned for an exciting new exhibit—“Fashioning the New England Family”—now open at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. ( As the guest curator, it has been a delight to have had this opportunity to work with so many talented individuals over the last three years of research, planning, and design. The MHS has become a second home. 

         This pale blue, silk taffeta, quilted petticoat was reproduced by the team of Janea Whitacre and Christina Johnson, aided by Rebecca Starkins and Sarah Woodyard. They make up the Historic Trades and Skills Milliners and Mantua-makers of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation ( 2018).  Working from a pattern in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, given by Alice (Scott) Brown Knight Smith in 1953, they created an exemplary garment that bridges the past and present.
         The new quilted petticoat has its roots in a story that stretches back to the late seventeenth century. In 1953 the Society received a traced (or pricked) pattern of the quilting design of a petticoat, said by the donor to have been bought in Holland by Sir John Leverett for his first wife, Hannah Hudson. The original petticoat came to the donor’s husband, Hannah’s descendant through her only surviving child. The pattern was first pricked onto paper from the petticoat by the donor in 1896.  After the original petticoat burned in the aftermath of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake she transferred the pattern to a piece of muslin to give to the Society. We were able to use her tracing to commission the mantua makers of Colonial Williamsburg to recreate this quilt pattern for display. 

         The opportunity to take the flat pattern and have it ‘come to life,’ to once again have a form or body, which occupied a space, was of intense interest to Anne Bentley, MHS Curator of Art and Artifacts, and to me. But this vision was only realized through the efforts of the Milliners and Mantua Makers, Historic Trades & Skills of Colonial Williamsburg at Colonial Williamsburg. Their reproduction is splendid. Two years in planning —the outcome exceeded expectations in every way, thanks to their dedication, talent, skill and in-depth knowledge, in combination with the talents of Schaeffer  Arts Costume Exhibition & Care.( The petticoat is shown with mid-18th century brocaded stays, possibly Italian.

         Like many stories connected to family relics, Mrs. Smith’s account of the original petticoat became problematic as we began to examine it in detail. The purported original owner, Hannah Hudson Leverett, died in 1643. How then can we explain the fact that, at present, the earliest documented extant petticoats with this type of quilted design dates from c1720s…more than seventy years after Hannah’s death? This is one of those mysteries that beg to be unraveled with further research, which is ongoing as of October 2018.

Exhibition Design: Spokeshave Design, Will Twombly, Watertown, MA.
Graphic Design: Orr Studio, Mary Orr,
Photography: Laura Wulf, MHS photographer; Kimberly Alexander
Mannequins: Astrida Schaeffer,

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Celluloid Heels of the 1920s

Celluloid Heels tells the captivating story of the first man-made plastic - celluloid and its use in footwear. In the 1920s, wooden celluloid covered heels, decorated with rhinestones were in all the rage.  Like the artistically designed celluloid heels discussed by Nazim Mustafaev, so too the book is a work of art in its own right.

The author has thoroughly researched the topic and has such a clear concept and in-depth understanding of his subject, that the book is in perfect balance. To remove even one element—the images of the shoe labels or the advertisements for example— would mar it in its entirety. From the informative and engaging text, to the high production values of the photography, to the carefully selected period photographs and ads— the word that strikes me is harmonious. It is harmonious from the front cover to the end pages.
Of tremendous interest is Mustafaev’s recounting of the evolution of man-made plastics, and the attempts to imbue celluloid with characteristics found in nature— for instance, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl and ivory. Attempts to achieve the texture and interplay of light found in nature, emulated in these man-made heels was exceedingly hard to reproduce. When I asked the author why he selected celluloid heels for study, Mustafaev responded: “I love the celluloid heels and I thought this topic was inadequately covered in shoe literature. It took me some time to research the process and I had to go deep into early plastics history.” 

This is not only an ode to the celluloid heel but to the shoe, its technically advanced concept and to the stylish women who wore them. This is a must read and a must have.

To purchase Celluloid Heels, e-mail:

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

An 1879 Wedding Dress Designed by Madame Shepherd of Boston

All images are courtesy of the NSCDA-MA
This striking silk satin wedding dress was designed by a Boston dressmaker, Madame Shepherd. Her studio was located in the Hotel Pelham, a fashionable French flat residence.  Madame Shepherd appears in the Boston City Directories over a number of years, listed under “Dressmakers.” 

Although the wedding dress appears as a two piece ensemble of bodice and skirt, it is in fact constructed in one piece. Worn on November 5th, 1879, the balance between pleated upper bodice, the high neck trimmed with lace, and the floral patterned silk skirt, embellished with beads and faux pearls, is dynamic. The silk, the details, and the quality of the dressmaking are excellent. 

The wedding dress and the accessories shown here are from the NSCDA-MA Costume Collection, Accession Number MA-CC-1953-13A. For more, contact

The author thanks Rebecca Putnam and the members of the costume committee for their assistance.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Wedding Finery and High-Heeled Shoes -- Upcoming Talks

Join me on Friday 27 July for look at three brides in early America-- Martha Custis Washington, Elizabeth Bull Price, and Dorothy Hancock Scott -- and what their choice of finery revealed about their self-fashioning. Held at the Wentworth Lear Historic Houses in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the lecture begins at 6 o’clock. 

For more:

And on Sunday, July 30 from 2:00-4:00, join me for a lighthearted look at the history of the high-heeled shoe at the Newmarket Town Hall. The Newmarket Historical Society annual tea will feature sweet and savory delights, a chance to wear your favorite kicks on our red carpet, and the opportunity to donate new and gently used shoes to Prominence, a program for area teens so they can attend their Proms. Tickets are 10.00 for members and 15.00 for non-members.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Behind the Victorian Mask, a Federal Dandy

Secretary Desk as found
Not every Victorian is as dowdy as they might seem. Last year, at the Warner House in Portsmouth NH, we began to plan the exhibit for the next 2-year cycle and a larger curatorial re-assessment of the interior. The main exhibit will be Celebrations: Public and Private, but the other project was to recreate a c 1760 bedchamber, based on paint analysis and recorded wall hangings in Portsmouth—a city with a penchant for damask wallpaper in the 18thcentury. There has been no physical work done to this room since roughly 1932 when the house became a museum. 

Researching one aspect of a collection invariably leads to other parts of the collection. A case in point, no pun intended, was a large secretary/bookcase sitting in a Victorian bedchamber. It was a family piece that through descent was given to the museum. No matter where it was placed, it exuded a dark and foreboding presence. The glass doors reflected and absorbed light in large quantities and the base simply absorbed light. With its turned wooden handles it looked like a transitional piece from the 1830s or 40s.  One of the handles was removed to see if there were any clues to surface discoloration or handle replacement. Sure enough, the exposed surface was lighter and there was a ring burn where a brass rosette once sat. All the handles were removed and the results were the same. 
With new and old brasses
Additionally an owner’s name was found in the correct script that placed it closer to the 1810-1820 period; this placed it in the house during the appropriate period for family that once owned it. Furniture fashions change and the piece was improved at some point to reflect the sensibilities of the Victorian era. Through research new brasses were found, ordered and installed. The case was lightly cleaned to remove old wax and dirt, which then revealed some of the lightly figured wood. Oddly a finial from the 1810-1820 period, that fit no other piece of furniture and had no known history, was found in the attic and the shaft fit the hole in the central pier of the upper case. (Serendipity? Perhaps.) The interior of the doors showed that they had been lined with fabric at one time. So new green taffeta silk lining curtains where made to complete the piece. The new and old brasses return reflected light to the base and the pinnacle and act as a counterpoint to the glass doors, just as the green silk provides a complimentary color counterpoint to the reddish mahogany.

With silk lining and brasses in natural light
The secretary/bookcase will now sit in the downstairs parlor with several other pieces of early 19thcentury and be part of the post Lafayette dinner celebration for the 2-year exhibit. 

Jeffrey Hopper is the director of the Warner House (

Friday, April 6, 2018

Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
Image, Strawbery Banke; Photograph, Ellen McDermott
Shoes reveal the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of the early Americans who wore them.

In Treasures Afoot, Kimberly S. Alexander introduces readers to the history of the Georgian shoe. Presenting a series of stories that reveal how shoes were made, sold, and worn during the long eighteenth century, Alexander traces the fortunes and misfortunes of wearers as their footwear was altered to accommodate poor health, flagging finances, and changing styles. She explores the lives and letters of clever apprentices, skilled cordwainers, wealthy merchants, and elegant brides, taking readers on a journey from bustling London streets into ship cargo holds, New England shops, and, ultimately, to the homes of eager consumers.

We trek to the rugged Maine frontier in the 1740s, where an aspiring lady promenades in her London-made silk brocade pumps; sail to London in 1765 to listen in as Benjamin Franklin and John Hose caution Parliament on the catastrophic effects of British taxes on the shoe trade; move to Philadelphia in 1775 as John Hancock presides over the Second Continental Congress while still finding time to order shoes and stockings for his fiancée’s trousseau; and travel to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1789 to peer in on Sally Brewster Gerrish as she accompanies President George Washington to a dance wearing her brocaded silk shoes.

Interweaving biography and material culture with full-color photographs, Treasures Afoot raises a number of fresh questions about everyday life in early America: What did eighteenth-century British Americans value? How did they present themselves? And how did these fashionable shoes reveal their hopes and dreams? Examining shoes that have been preserved in local, regional, and national collections, this book demonstrates how footwear captures an important moment in American history while revealing a burgeoning American identity.

Historian Kimberly S. Alexander, a former curator at the MIT Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Strawbery Banke, teaches material culture and museum studies at the University of New Hampshire.