On My Bookshelf: The Dresses of the First Ladies of the White House

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Or, the Fancy Dresses of Somebody …

Not really sure who wore these clothes, but they’re pretty, right?

This small book was written by Margaret W. Brown, associate curator of the Department of History at the Smithsonian Institute, and published in 1952. Portraits of many first ladies, some first daughters, and some assorted female hangers-on are expanded with a mannequin dressed in something owned/worn by them/another woman from the same century they lived in.

See where I’m going with this?

Let’s take a look.

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A dress purportedly worn by Abigail Adams, who died in 1818. I’m assuming she wore this dress on All Hallows Eve at least two decades later. Whoooooo spooky.

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This “saque period” dress shows the worst of this poor outdated book. The book claims the dress was worn by Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, who died in 1830. What we’re looking at here is an interesting example of a re-made gown. I think the original gown dates to the 1760s, but look at the added gathered bit at the front chest. That’s probably a late Victorian addition for Centennial wear – along with the contrasting robings and whatever’s going on with the petticoat. Anyway, since Mrs. Monroe was born in 1768 she probably never wore this gown in either incarnation.

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This gown is said to be Maria Gouverneur’s, who is said have worn it before 1850 … unless she too wore it for her yearly haunting … yeah, more likely. It’s got a “Watteau” back, and a narrow skirt. It’s probably a fancy dress/costume piece for the Centennial in 1876. In addition to the “Watteau”-ness, note the long V-style front – a take-off from 18th century stomachers. Many 18th century aesthetics (and gowns, as above!) were repurposed for the Centennial, and I’m assuming this dress is a result.

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This is said to be the wedding dress of Sarah Yorke Jackson, who married in 1831. I’m not too sold on the 1831 date … I’d feel more comfortable with 1841 … but wow, what a pretty dress. Put a real corded petticoat underneath, and it’ll be all fluffy and frothy and gorgeous … I want one …

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Now here’s where the book really shines. This gorgeous dress, worn by Mary Harrison McKee, was worn for a photograph and her presidential father’s inaugural ball in 1889. It’s olive, ivory, orange and silver … the last four colors I’d think go well together, perhaps. And it’s so beautiful! I want this one too.

So … yeah, lots of cons to this book. It’s of its time, I suppose, and seems to rely only on family/owner say-so for dress provenance, instead of research. Some of the pieces in this book don’t seem to be anywhere online, so it’s interesting for that. That being said, none of the gowns are displayed particularly well, and many are really, reeeaaalllyyy off.

Buy it? Yeah, if you find it for a few dollars. It’s an interesting if kind of cringe-worthy read. It’s got a few gems in it, though, so for that, it’s worth it.

Happy reading!

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About Amanda Goebel

I'm an Anthropology / Fashion History and Material Culture graduate from The University of Delaware, currently working on a Master's in Museum Studies. I'm a living historian interested in costume and culture from years before. I love researching the mundane and the everyday that has changed or disappeared since. I re-enact the 18th century, and I recreate clothing from that time. This blog is where I'll write about my research and projects. View all posts by Amanda Goebel

3 responses to “On My Bookshelf: The Dresses of the First Ladies of the White House

  • Hetty

    I’d be really interested to know how these dresses are catalogued in the Smithsonian today – whether they’re still associated with the First Ladies?

    • Amanda Goebel

      Now that you mention it, yeah! I’ll see if I can find anything.

    • Amanda Goebel

      Here we go! Here’s the link to a website that lists some of the items seen in the book. It appears that, at least for this webpage, the curators have trimmed down to items that can be directly related to first lades, as opposed to this book, which mentions an item from a woman associated with every president.
      I spotted Abigail Adam’s yellow shoes, featured in the first photograph from the book, on the webpage. The book says her shoes were accessioned with the blue dress. I suppose further research has shed a few questions on the gown.
      The book features Sarah Polk’s blue dress, which is also on the webpage, but the webpage notes that it’s been remade. Yay!

      http://americanhistory.si.edu/first-ladies/first-ladies-collection

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