Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: Our Crowd, by Stephen Birmingham

A little while ago, I came across NetGalley - a site where ARCs and recently published books are made available (generally upon request). There's a good sampling of history books: not fashion history, which I didn't expect to find, but I find social history in general almost as interesting. Clothes are one facet of understanding a time and place, but there are so many other factors. And I find the clothing more meaningful when I have more context to place them in.

The first book I went for was Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York, by Stephen Birmingham, originally published 1967 and republished by Open Road in 2015. One reason I picked it is that I'm always fascinated by my own heritage (typical American); another is that there's something about New York. It's not just the city itself, but where it stands in popular culture - especially early twentieth century pop culture, which I consume frequently and which contains a lot of references that I just don't get without study. But it's also the city! How it grew, who lived where, etc. We just sort of take it for granted as a booming, river-spanning metropolis. Apart from knowing that it was originally just a small community at the tip of Manhattan and at some point spread out in all directions, my knowledge of the city's history is sketchy.

Portrait of Frieda Schiff (one of the people featured in Our Crowd), by Anders Zorn, 1894; MMA 1988.72 (OASC)
Our Crowd is quite well-written and informative. Before I realized that this is an old book and changed my expectations, I was a bit uncomfortable with the lack of citations and the apparent heavy use of memoirs as a source (as they're usually written so long after the fact, their level of accuracy is very dubious) - but you can't expect a book like this from the 1960s to adhere to modern scholastic standards. Once I dialed back accordingly, I really started to enjoy the many anecdotes. After all, using anecdotal history is the only way you end up getting to print sick burns:
After meeting Adolph Lewisohn, a New York businessman once commented, "I guess his brother Leonard must be the smart one." A few weeks later, he met Leonard Lewisohn. Following this meeting he said, "No, I guess Adolph is the smart one."
The book isn't structured exactly the way I'd like. It follows a few of the biggest names - Auguste Belmont, the Seligmans, the Schiffs, the Loebs - individually through a couple of generations, which sometimes meant skipping backwards a few decades when going from one family to the next. There's also a lot of attention to fact and detail put into the descriptions of what the Seligmans and Schiffs et al. did in business, which is admirable on the one hand, but not really what I was reading for on the other. That did help, however, in understanding exactly how this or that panic that I'd heard of before happened.

All in all, it's an enjoyable read, better if you start to skim a little through the businessy parts. While it focuses on specific figures, it also shows how the society as a whole was held together, what their relationships were with other Jewish groups (specifically the older Sephardic families and the newer Russian immigrants) and with their religion. I would have liked more attention paid to the customs of the society in general, rather than the habits of individual and sometimes eccentric people, but as I said at the beginning - you have to expect different things from history books of this vintage than of new ones. I strongly recommend Our Crowd to anyone with an interest in "Edith Wharton's New York" and a desire to look beyond Mrs. Astor's Four Hundred.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Regency Corsets (or Stays if you will)

My very first post to this blog was a kind of a summary of corset construction and style in the period 1790-1810. It's awkwardly written, because I was excerpting from a paper and summarizing and wasn't used to blogging like this! It seems like a good time to revisit the topic, now that I've spent even more time analyzing the period.

The stays of the early 1790s were essentially those of the 1780s, cut with a higher waist - conical, and heavily or half boned. Very quickly, though, the silhouette changed. Artistic portraits had shown women dressed in flowing draperies, belted high, without stays, and at the same time that those high-waisted flowing draperies entered mainstream fashion, so did softly rounded breasts. While some women achieved this look by not wearing any stays at all, for most, the idea that a boned and laced undergarment was essential to respectability held strong. Non-satirical sources refer to corsets' and stays' existence through this time - for example, a young South Carolinan woman named Constance is described in a travelogue of America (1798-1802) as just developing breasts, but still wearing a "petit corset".
"Corset elastique" from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1802-1803
A brief period followed in which everyone worked out how to achieve this look with the current stay technology - generally, this was a foundation shaped like ordinary stays made shorter, perhaps a lighter fabric, partially boned or unboned, with some provision for the breasts. This could be a few gussets, or gathered cups. As fashion celebrated an "unbound" body, these didn't extend down to the fleshier posts of the body and exerted minimal control (if any) over the figure.

We can't pinpoint when exactly the stereotypical long Regency corset came into popular use. The earliest reference I have found to it specifically is in 1807, in La Belle Assemblée:
Do not be displeased that I fulfil not your commission for the long stay. Believe, Julia, your slender form, gently and simply rounded by nature, needs not this unnatural compression; they can only be requisite for such females as exceed the embonpoint, to others they give a most ungraceful stiffness; and, I should think, must be as uneasy as they are inelegant and unnatural. Besides, dear Julia, if we consult the painter and the sculpturist, we shall find that the natural beauty of a form consists in a moderate roundness, not in contracted flatness. I positively will not allow of your destroying the symmetry of nature, by the distortions of art. We are justified, my fair friend, in obviating her defects, but not in abusing her gifts. Continue, therefore, your simple corset; and do not, with your plump cheek, and round arms, exhibit the body of a caged skeleton. Thus much, dear Julia, on the subject; but not a letter too much, if it prevents your thinking more of an article never designed for you.
(A note: I have seen this passage interpreted as evidence that the old style of stays were still being worn. In my opinion, this is a mistake based on assuming that the people of the early nineteenth century consistently reserved the word "stays" for the eighteenth century foundation garment - they didn't, and you can find what we would call "corsets" referred to as "stays" for decades.)

(The earliest reference to a long corset that smoothed the stomach and hips in French is in the Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1808; it was there called a corset à la Medicis.)

This long corset had a wooden busk in front, bust shaping achieved through gussets on either side of the busk, and hips shaped with curved pieces or more gussets. It's tempting to put them in a sequence based on how much of an hourglass figure they have, but one thing I've learned from my sewing is that it's more comfortable for a corset that's tight enough to hold the busk in place to dip in at the waist and flare over the hips, if you have a curvier shape. Even when fashion disregarded a narrow waistline, many individual wearers would have needed their stays to fit one. Additionally, as the stiffening in a corset simply makes the fabric less likely to buckle, rather than making it more restrictive, the presence of cording does not necessarily mean more pressure: my last trial corset was not sufficiently stiffened, and had a tendency to ride up on my hips. It all depends on the needs of the body.
"Corset à la Ninon", Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1810

Something else that tempts is taking contemporary polemics against tight-lacing at face value. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, apart from the short blip in which a more rounded torso was fashionable, moralists and doctors were fixated on condemning women for the vanity of tight-lacing; going by those sources, people often say that women were "freed" during the Regency period and then "re-imprisoned" after it. This or that new invention - metal and bone eyelets, the split busk, etc. - helped women lace tighter. This has developed into a commonly accepted narrative (which must be constantly questioned and refuted by fashion historians) that women faced a greater and greater physical restriction as the nineteenth century drew on, until it at last became too much for women and they rose up en masse to throw their corsets off.

Corset, post-1828; MMA C.I.38.23.291
What's important here is the way that this is applied to the first few decades of the 19th century. Simple corsets with no or few bones are assumed to be very early, with more complex cording and more flared gussets appearing over time in order to manipulate the body more forcefully. This is an assumption, though, not fully borne out by the evidence. This corset, for example, is boned only at the center back and in the busk, but as it has metal eyelets, it must date after 1828. It doesn't have cording focused on the waist, or a pronounced hourglass figure. And unfortunately, we can't go backwards - a corset can have sewn eyelets no matter when it's made, like this example also likely from the 1830s or 1840s. (Even worse, the common set-in bone eyelets are poorly documented and not much help in dating. They continued to be in use for several decades, and nobody apparently knows when they were invented. Hopefully about ten years before the metal eyelet, or most of the extant corsets of this era need to be redated.)

When it comes to dresses, we can use fashion plates and wedding ensembles to get securely dated examples to base our sequences on, but detailed images and "wedding corsets" don't exist in great numbers in the early 19th century. The only wedding corset I'm aware of is this one, held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is illuminating! For one thing, it shows how misleading a dress form can be when it doesn't fit the corset - the bustline would be much higher if this corset were worn by a person. It does bear out the idea that many parallel lines of cording are a hallmark of later dates, but also doesn't seem to be built for any kind of extreme lacing, though it does have cording focused on the waist. And when it comes to illustrations, corsets all the way through the 1830s show no extra cording or boning and have short gussets that lift the bust high.

Detail of La Marchande des Corsets, 1829-1833; Rijksmuseum RP-P-2009-4133
So unfortunately, I cannot do what I set out to do - provide a sequence of construction details that allow you to date extant corsets more precisely - beyond showing that long corsets existed by at least 1807. However, if you give me a few weeks, I will be able to share some more thoughts on corset construction!

Monday, March 21, 2016

HSM 2016 Challenge #3: Protection

For the "Protection" challenge, I made a chemise to wear for the Civil War Weekend. Chemises, of course, protect your skin from the corset, and your corset (and other clothes) from your skin, and so are a perfect thing to make as an example of a protective garment.

This is the pattern I used, which I took while working at the Chapman Historical Museum. It would be a very good one for a first attempt at scaling up a pattern - I strongly recommend it if you have any interest in practicing that skill. That said, the actual making is tricky. There's a lot of gathering, and since the original had the bands attached by machine I didn't do stroked gathers, which are in a way simpler and hang better. I really should have used a smaller cording (the original has five rows) and should have started it much closer to the fold, so as to have more room for the seam allowances. I had to trim them quite close. Setting in the neckline gussets was also a tricky annoyance.

The Challenge: #3, Protection

Fabric/Materials: White Pimatex cotton from Dharma Trading Co. at $6.79/yd.

Pattern: Posted here on my blog some time ago.

Year: Probably 1860s or 1870s? I never quite decided with the original, as it has such unique conclusion. Probably later 1860s.

Notions: I used some Sugar'n'Cream yarn for the cording.

How historically accurate is it? Extremely! I hand-sewed where the original was hand-sewn and machine-sewed where the original was machine-sewn. I didn't include the eyelet insertion because the eyelet on the original was made by handmachine, and I can't get my hands on any of that but am also unwilling to make it by hand (way too much effort for a couple of inches of embroidery on each sleeve) or use modern eyelet (modern!). That said, I did make one side on the fold instead of seamed, because why not, really.

Hours to complete: I really meant to pay attention this time, but completely forgot about it.

(To be) first worn: July 30-31, Civil War Weekend.

Total cost: About two yards of cotton, so $13.58.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Magasin des Modes, 2e Cahier, Plate I

November 30, 1786
Again a redingote in a new form. It is buttoned with two rows of buttons to the waist, and with only one from the waist to the bottom. This redingote is of lemon yellow wool, with apple green stripes. The collar and cuffs, slit à la Marinière, are of dark green satin. The buttons are of mother-of-pearl, with a little gold dot in the middle. These buttons, on the bust, pass through little flaps of green satin, fixed on the left side, and from the bust to the bottom, through simple green silk ribbon buttonholes.

The Woman who wears this redingote has her neck covered with a full gauze kerchief with two rows of ruffles, the two ends of which are tied in front as a cravat, near the bodice of the redingote, and descend like a jabot over it.

On her head is a chapeau-bonnette, lined with green satin in the brim, covered with a pink satin on the same brim, and whose crown is of white gauze, very puffed, and belted with a very wide green ribbon with white selvages.

She wears on her feet shoes of pink satin, flounced with a black silk ribbon.

In her hand is a light cane.

In her ears are gold earrings à la Plaquette.

Her wrists are trimmed with pinked gauze ruffles.

Her hair is frizzed en tapet to the middle, and, from the middle to the ends, in large curls, two of which fall on her chest. Behind, her hair is pulled up in a flat chignon.

You can see, without our having to say it, that neither pelisses nor mantelets are worn with redingotes. Our eternal silence in all the descriptions we have given  of women dressed in redingotes is one proof that they are never worn. Pelisses and mantelets seem unknown to Englishwomen, from whom our Ladies have taken the fashion of redingotes.

Some Ladies have already begun to attach piping or narrow ribbons to their redingotes. Will they last longer than those on men's coats? Time will tell.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Magasin des Modes, 1er Cahier, Planche III

November 20, 1786

Will we censure the English Fashions, in order to raise ours over theirs? Will we establish a comparison between them, in order to always give the preference to ours? Will we reproach English attitudes, in order to give ourselves a dogmatic air? Will we approve or fault everything which has a foreign air? One or the other of these two options would properly announce our French character. Will we describe the English Fashions simply, in order to make them known, leaving each person the liberty of approving them? Accustomed to boldly faulting what appears bad or defective to us, and to frankly approving what appears good and worthy of praise, we will give ourselves on the English Fashions the same rights that we have over French Fashions: sometimes as censures, sometimes as praisers, sometimes as simple describers, sometimes as appreciators; we will be free to choose. We will permit ourselves the comparison on occasion, and we will allot the justest prize that we can. The constraint cannot be imposed on us; it would harm our Work and our Subscribers would suffer.

First, we will describe the dress of the Woman who is ready to ride, which is plain and elegant; and after having described the dress of the man who is ready to ride, which is as elegant, we will fault his stiff and uncomfortable attitude.

The Woman is dressed in a petticoat of bottle green wool, and a long jacket of matching wool, with a wide collar, and with sleeves à la Marinière. The jacket buttons are of gilded copper. Under this jacket, a lemon yellow gilet, with pink revers.

She wears on her head a felt hat, lemon colored, with a very deep crown, wrapped with a wide green ribbon, tied in a bow in the front, fastened with a wide steel buckle, worked in points.

In her hands, gloves of a matching color, and a switch or little whip.

On her body, a man's shirt, whose jabot escapes in the middle of the gilet's revers.

Around the neck, a full cravat, loosely tied, in the manner of a man's.

An on the feet, yellow shoes, flounced with a black ribbon.

Her hair, on the front, is all frizzed, and lets loose one curl which descends to float over the chest; and behind, a very long cadogan is tied in the middle of the back, and a curl falls on top.

The Man is dressed in a wool coat, the color of the soot from the London chimneys, with basques beginning at the hips, and trimmed with gilded copper buttons, all plain. Under this coat, he wears a vest and breeches of yellow wool. The breeches are slit on the sides, to the middle of the thigh, and button with seven white buttons.

His legs are covered with soft boots, black to the middle and yellow from the middle to the top. Above the boots, on the knee, are manchettes of white linen, buttoned on the sides, At the bottom of these manchettes, the garters of the breeches are fastened with puffs of white ribbon.

At the heels of the boots are added steel spurs.

This Man's hands are covered with yellow leather gloves, and he holds a switch or a little whip in his right hand.

He wears on his head a Jockey hat, belted with a black and gold striped braid.

London chimney-soot colored coats are the latest fashion in Paris, and compete with black and dark puce.

In Paris they also wear a great quantity of silk plush coats, raz, laced, of many colors; and another great quantity of Bourbon wool coats, equally laced, of many colors.

All these coats will be found at M. JUBIN's, Merchant of Wools and Silks, at the three Mandarins, under the arcades of the Palais Royal, near the Variétés. One can see, for the complete stock at M. Jubin's, what we said of it in the twenty-third Book of the first Year.

Anecdote drawn from English Papers.

From London on November 7. "A Wigmaker of this City, in order to practice in all ranks, has announced recently in the public Papers that he had the art of giving a solemn and serious air to the wigs of Ecclesiastics; an air of wisdom and penetration to braided wigs of Men of Law; to those of Members of the Faculty of Medicine, a character of gravity and reserve, which announced the most profound science: that he added to those of Soldiers the animated curl, whose effect was to give to the wearer the proud regard of a warrior; that he had invented for Townspeople and Merchants, an economical wig, whose queue could be raised at will, and which served two purposes, for work and for dress; finally, that he had invented especially for young Barristers, who have neither much money nor much cause, wigs whose curls could be withdrawn into their cadogan during vacations, and taken out when they come back to the Courts of Justice."

The first Year of this Journal appeared under the title of Cabinet de Modes. Collections of it are found at the following address, in twenty-four Books, at the price of 21 livres, postage paid.

This second Year, under the title of Magasin des Modes nouvelles, Françoises & Angloises, will form thirty-six Books per Year. It will appear every ten days. The price is 30 liv. to Subscribe for a Year, postage also paid.

One subscribes in Paris, at BUISSON'S, Bookseller, Hôtel de Mesgrigny, rue des Poitevins, no. 13.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Magasin des Modes, 1er Cahier, Planche II

November 20, 1786
We announced in the previous Book, on the occasion of caps à la Turque, that we would publish the type and the origin of caps à la Randan, sometimes called à la Bayard.

These caps were born from the exquisite taste of the celebrated Actress (1) who played the role of Madame de Randan in The Loves of Bayard, a new Comedy by M. MONVEL. The sweet and tender air that they extended over her face, which she had been careful to render still calmer by the total lack of powder in her hair, and by a tint of melancholy, giving her this interesting air that allowed Madame de Randan to make the conquest of the sensitive King François I, of the brave Knight Bayard, of the generous de la Palice, of the presumptuous and galant Bonnivet, and even of the impudent and ferocious Sotomayor. The greater part of our Ladies who have adopted these coiffures were persuaded that they would make conquests as brilliant, or at least that they would have the seductive air of Mademoiselle Contat. Several, in effect, have succeeded. But, take guard: with these coiffures, one must have the most modest, the most decent, the most innocent, the most bounded, the most circumspect air: the least affectation would give a girlish air. Believe us, this candor, this amiable frankness, this truthful honesty of the good old days of Chivalry is required. It is because many Courtesans in the Capitol who have worn them lack these precious qualities or at least their appearances, that they have been booed at the Spectacles.

(1) Mademoiselle CONTAT, who had already created the caps à la Susanne, à la Figaro, etc.

Will they flatter themselves, these women, to produce the necessary illusion with their effrontery, and to recall the respectable Ladies of the Court of François I?

These caps à la Randan were only, originally as the Actress wore them, a type of turban, belted with a muslin or white batiste bandeau, embroidered with gold, and with a crown, also of muslin or white batiste, raised like a sugarloaf to almost a foot in height, wrapped with wide bands of batiste or muslin, decorated with gold fringe and trimmed with veils, which started at the top of the crown in the back and descended very low. Today these caps no longer form a sugarloaf: they puff out at the top. They have kept the bandeaux, which have varied, and in the middle of them is placed an escutcheon. They have kept the wide bands, trimmed with gold lace, but they have added plumes, artificial flowers, and gold tassels, falling on the left side.

The one worn by the Woman dressed in a gown of green satin is belted with an apple green taffeta bandeau, pleated in wide pleats. In the middle of the bandeau is embroidered a gold escutcheon. Above the bandeau are raised, by degrees, three large bands of white gauze, which wrap the base and which are decorated with gold lace; and above these bands, rising very high and to a certain width, is the base or puffed crown of the cap, of white gauze. To this base is attached a very long veil, which descends behind to below the hips. On the left, over the bandeau, is attached a gold cord, at the bottom of which hangs a gold tassel. On the same side, near the cord, three large white plumes are raised very high, and a bouquet of artificial roses, which are mixed with the plumes.

The Woman is frizzed only on the tapet, which is covered by the cap to two inches from the head. From the bottom of the tapet descend two large curls, which hang on the chest. Behind, her hair hangs à la Conseillère. All her hair is naturally colored, and has no powder at all.

She wears gold earrings à la Plaquette, and on her neck is an ample gauze kerchief, en chemise, with three collars.

The Woman dressed in a pink satin gown wears on her head a pouf à la Chinoise, of a form little different from the cap à la Turque shown in the previous Book. The bandeau is narrower. The base, composed of the same gauze, is wider, and much less raised. It is equally trimmed with plumes and artificial flowers. There is also, on the left side, a large bow of a ribbon of varied colors.

This Woman is frizzed on the tapet to the middle, and from the middle to the ends it is in very large curls, three of which hang floatingly on the chest. Her hair is pulled up in the back in a flat chignon.

She wears gold earrings à la Plaquette, and on her neck a full kerchief trimmed in two rows, and fastened in front with a gold pin whose head forms a large square, engraved with hieroglyphic characters.

A very elegantly-dressed Woman has appeared lately at the Spectacle, having her neck covered with a very large kerchief of muslin, with flowers of different colors, and with silk fringe on the edges. It was fastened in front with a long gold pin, whose head showed a very large monogram in diamond letters.