Category Archives: 1870s

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This “saque period” dress shows the worst of this poor outdated book.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


I’m baaack!

I finally got WordPress working again, after it was glitchy for over a week. This past week, my 4-year old MacBook decided it was time to start acting geriatric and have a little meltdown, but it looks like it’s gotten over itself for the time being. Yay, I now have computing abilities again!!

So, STUFF has been happening. My awesome mom picked up a few things for my collection: a 1890s shirtwaist, a turn-of-the-century baby dress, a 1950s purse, a 1890s girl’s dress, and three 1960s dresses. How cool is that? I’m working on the first two items, which I’ve been able to look at. I’m getting around to writing detailed blog post on those, but until then here’s the shirtwaist, paired with my 1850s-1870s Quaker bonnet.

10455822_10203984176273056_703664233068884189_nThe kitchen turned out to be the best-lit room in the house … yeah whatever. And yeah, the two pieces are decades apart; I’m just so excited to have vaguely similar pieces to almost make into kind-of outfits that they’re close enough for my brain right now!