Category Archives: 1830s

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This “saque period” dress shows the worst of this poor outdated book.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!


Dress Formlets!

Dress formlets! Yeah, tiny dress forms. Like, 6 month – 6 year olds. Huzzah for slightly more professional photography!

Next addition: a tripod.

Next addition: a tripod. That should have been obvious, but whatever.

I finally had an unplanned day off from works, and I decided to spend a little time on the collection. I went out and picked up three little dress forms (Craigslist FTW) which made me happy. I have a handful of infant and child’s clothing that really should be photographed on forms, and now that is very possible. Was, very possible. It was the first thing I did when I got home.

Seeing clothing on a human form is always enlightening. My favorite moment was when I was having trouble dating a tie. It was either a short 1970s tie, or a long 1940s tie, according to the dimensions. I was leaning toward the 1970s because I’m always hesitant to date something earlier – it usually isn’t. I was sitting at the table with the tie on a few pieces of archival paper when my dad, who was watching, said “well, let’s see.” He took the tie, put it around his neck, and he didn’t even get to knot it when I said “it’s from the 1940s!” There was no doubt. I just needed to see the thing in situ.

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The very 1940s tie.

I’ve been having the same trouble with this one child’s blouse shirt thing. The bloused effect dates from between the 1800s to the 1840s. There’s no machine stitching to date it, without a doubt, after the 1850s. I spent a week scouring the Interwebs for any picture of a kid wearing something like this, but I only found a few portraits from the 1830s-40s.

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The garment in question.

I’m fairly confident that it’s from that era. The bloused effect, the short puffed sleeves, and the squared neck seemed to fit in there. The somewhat high waistline would suit the 1830s, when waistlines were slowly dropping from the super-high position of the 1820s. I was still a little skeptical, so I figured I’d be able to tell better when I got the thing on a form.

Well, I put it on a dress form for a 2-3 year old and it was way too big. I took it off and put it on a dress form for a 4-6 year old. Still too big, but now the waist wouldn’t close. The shoulders were way too wide for the form. I didn’t even take a picture; it kept falling off. It was almost as big as my 1888-92 bodice, which I had thought was for a 10-13 year old, and … I guess … isn’t …

I’m still fairly confident with the 1830-1840 date span. The biggest shock is that both that 1888-1892 bodice and that light blousy top were made for kids between 5-7 years old. Looking at them on a flat surface or stored in paper, I couldn’t have ascertained that. Heck yeah, dress forms.