Tuesday, August 14, 2018

An 18thc Man's Waistcoat Becomes a 1950s Woman's Vest

Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Susan reporting,

In our time of fast-fashion and clothing that's made to be disposable, the exquisite clothing of the upper classes in 18thc Europe and America seems stunningly beautiful. Embroidery, embellishment with sequins and faux pearls, silk damasks so artfully woven that they defy modern reproductions: the Georgian era is one big delicious candy-box of precious textiles.

I'm not the only one to think this way, either. These textiles and clothes were so valued that they often had many lives, first being updated and remodeled repeatedly to fit the original owner, and then again by future generations as well. The amount of fabric and the construction (which could easily be unpicked) of most 18thc gowns made them ripe for refashioning. I've written about several of these recycled gowns before, including here, here, and here.

The clothing of 18thc gentlemen, while just as lavish as that worn by the ladies, seldom received the same treatment. This is not only because the men's coats, waistcoats, and breeches were fitted and tailored, providing little fabric for a new project, but also because after 1800 or so, men's clothing took a decidedly more somber turn. There was little interest among men in the 19thc or 20thc to refurbish a spangled pink velvet court suit (except, perhaps, by Liberace.)

But there's an exception to every rule, and the vest shown, left,  is the glorious proof.  It's currently on display in Fashion Unraveled, a wonderful exhibition at the Museum at FIT through November 17, 2018.

The vest began its clothing-life looking much like the men's waistcoat, right. Made in second half of the 18thc, both waistcoats feature professionally worked embroidery, placed to accentuate the wearer's taste and form. Sometime around 1950, however, a clever seamstress took one of these 18thc men's waistcoats, adapted it to a woman's figure, and created the vest.  Preserving the impact of the original embroidery, but shortening the length and adding the darts to create the close-fitting silhouette characteristic of the late 1940s-1950s, the vest would likely have been worn with a full skirt.

Don't know about you, but I'd wear either one (or both!) of these waistcoats now....

Left: Woman's Vest, remodeled c1950 in America, from an 18thc man's waistcoat. Museum at FIT. Photograph ©2018 Susan Holloway Scott.
Right: Man's Waistcoat, c1760-70. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Waltz in Its Early Years

Monday, August 13, 2018

Waltzing 1821
Loretta reports:

Some comments on the kinds of physical activities ladies of the 18th and 19th century engaged in led to me to thinking about dancing, and waltzing in particular.

Early in my writing career, I became aware that the waltz had changed over the years, and the early form of the dance wasn’t quite like what we’re familiar with. Images like the ones I’ve posted here don’t look like the style of waltz we’re used to.

According to Elizabeth Aldrich’s From the Ballroom to Hell, “During the first forty years of the nineteenth century, waltzing couples turned clockwise as partners while traveling counterclockwise around the room. This constant spinning, never reversing, could and did produce a feeling of euphoria—or worse, vertigo—that could result in a loss of control.”
9 Positions of the Waltz 1816

The dance was controversial. Lord Byron disapproved. Yes, really. Others said it was unsuitable for unmarried, highly sensitive, and/or delicate women. I can tell you from my own experience, learning to waltz in a ballroom dancing class, that it is very sexy, and I understood why people disapproved. Also, though I was much younger then, I wasn’t used to ballroom dancing, and one waltz left me a little winded. Even with lots of practice, an entire evening of dancing, in the Regency and Victorian eras, must have provided vigorous exercise.

If you're curious about the precise steps for this era (though they do vary), Carlo Blassis's (trans by R. Barton), The Code of Terpischore, offers a detailed description of the waltz. I have a hard time reading these sorts of instructions, but others of you may be able to picture or re-enact it better.

I wanted to focus on this excerpt, however, which gives a sense of one difference between earlier and later forms of the waltz: “The gentleman should hold the lady by the right hand, and above the waist, or by both hands, if waltzing be difficult for her; or otherwise, it would be better for the gentleman to support the right hand of the lady by his left. The arms should be kept in a rounded position, which is the most graceful, preserving them without motion; and in this position one person should keep as far from the other as the arms will permit, so that neither may be incommoded.” This does correspond with the early 19th century images.

Here is a note from Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society; with a glance at Bad Habits (1836): “If a lady waltz with you, beware not to press her waist; you must only lightly touch it with the open palm of your hand, lest you leave a disagreeable impression not only on her ceinture, but on her mind.”
Cruikshank, Specimens of Waltzing 1817

For a more detailed account of the waltz—with lots of lovely images—you might want to read Paul Cooper’s post at Regency Dances.org.

Images: Waltzing 1821, courtesy Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection; Detail from frontispiece to Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the Waltz, via Wikipedia; Specimens of Waltzing, George Cruikshank, 1817-06-04, courtesy New York Public Library.

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed. FYI: If you order a book through one of my posts, I might get a small share of the sale.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Breakfast Links: Week of August 6, 2018

Saturday, August 11, 2018
Breakfast Links are served! Our weekly round-up of favorite links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• Recreating the lace in a 17thc portrait of Lady Anne Clifford.
• The legendary French drummer boy Joseph Bara of the French Revolution.
• Lifting the lid on plants, poisons, and the power of color (plus how hard it is to kill the beetles needed to make cochineal.)
Image: Wealthy visitors c1900 to seaside resort at Scarborough, Yorkshire, peer down at women gutting fish for their very hard livelihood.
• The persistence of sixteen-year-old Felicite Kina and her ability to negotiate Napoleonic law to maintain kinship ties.
• A 6thc Lombard warrior buried in northern Italy appears to have worn a knife as a prosthetic weapon in place of his amputated forearm.
Ann Catley, the feisty diva.
Image: Gorham Silver ice cream hatchet, c1880.
• The early 20thc pigeons that photographed the earth from above.
• The gravestone of poet John Keats: romancing the stone.
• Itching and scratching: 18thc flea traps.
• The creation of the new London docks in the early 19thc.
Image: Tiny handmade book created in 1807 by 11-year-old Hannah Coffin.
• How an 18thc clergyman cured a sty on his eye by rubbing it with his tom cat's tail.
• What became of the wild ravens of London?
• William Corder and the Red Barn Murder, 1827.
• How incest became part of the Bronte family story.
Video: A Roman signet ring is an amazing metal detector find.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Roller Skating in a Corset and Bustle

Friday, August 10, 2018
Loretta reports:

Many readers express dismay at the clothing of the post-Regency 19th century, and how restrictive it seems. There's an assumption that women couldn't do much while wearing corsets and layer upon layer of undergarments. Dress historians and re-enactors, however, have shown us otherwise. For example, some years ago I attended a talk by Astrida Schaeffer, during which she showed photos of Victorian women (whose clothing made it clear they were wearing corsets—not to mention all the other layers) performing various outdoor activities.

My post the other day about bustles drew more of the dismayed comments on social media, e.g., women couldn't do any work in these clothes. And so, naturally, I hunted for evidence that women did not spend all their time lying on sofas in a swoon. I think this video, of a lady skating while wearing a corset and a bustle and the elaborate dress of what seems to be the 1880s, offers a good demonstration. Gina White's even wearing Victorian-era roller skates, which apparently aren't easy to maneuver.


Image above left is a still from the video.
 Readers who receive our blog via email might see a rectangle, square, or nothing where the video ought to be. To watch the video, please click on the title to this post (which will take you to our blog) or the video title (which will take you to YouTube).

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Lasting Legacy of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

Wednesday, August 8, 2018
Susan reporting,

Legacies are notoriously fickle things.

They're difficult to create, and even harder to maintain.

Yet one New York woman's legacy still flourishes after more than two centuries. Built on kindness and a genuine concern for the welfare of others, the legacy of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757-1854) continues today because the same challenges that faced many children in 1806 unfortunately remain a part of our society in 2017.

During her lifetime, Eliza Hamilton thought of the present, not posterity.  Born to privilege and married to Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, she still believed in helping others directly. She brought food, clothes, and comfort to refugees of the French Revolution, and to new widows after yellow fever epidemics. She took in a young motherless girl who'd no place to go, and the child became part of her own family for years. In 1797, she was one of the founders (with her friend Isabelle Graham and her daughter Joanna Graham Bethune) of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.

When Alexander Hamilton died after his infamous duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, Eliza was grief-stricken, but refused to fade into genteel widowhood. Financial difficulties - Hamilton had left her saddled with many debts - forced her to seek assistance from family and friends to support herself and her children, yet still she continued to help others. Her late husband had begun life as a poor and fatherless child, and orphans were always to hold a special place in her heart - and her energies.

In 1806, Eliza, Isabella Graham, and Joanna Bethune founded the Orphan Asylum Society in the City of New York (OAS). Eliza was named second directress. The OAS began with sixteen orphans, children rescued from a harrowing future in the city's streets or almshouses.

But Eliza and her friends realized that these first orphans must be only the beginning of their mission. In the first years of the nineteenth century, New York had grown into the largest city in America with a population of over 60,000, crowded largely into the winding streets of lower Manhattan. the harbor had made the city a major port, and goods and passengers arrived from around the world.

While some New Yorkers prospered, many more fell deeper into poverty and disease, and it was often the children who suffered most. In greatest peril were children who arrived in the city as new orphans, their immigrant parents having died during the long voyage. Completely alone, these children were often swept into dangerous or abusive situations with little hope of escape.

Eliza and her friends would not abandon them. With each year, the OAS grew larger, and was able to help more children, yet the goals of the OAS never changed. Children were provided not only with food, clothing and shelter, but also education and the skills of a trade so that they cold become independent and successful adults.

In 1821, Eliza was named first directress (president), with duties that ranged from the everyday business of arranging donation for the children in her charge to overseeing the finances, leasing properties, visiting almshouses, and fundraising to keep the OAS growing. With her own sons and daughters now grown, these children became an extended family. She took pride in each of of them, and delighted in their successes, including one young man who graduated from West Point.

She continued as directress until 1848 when she finally, reluctantly, stepped down at the age of 91, yet she never lost interest in the children she had grown to love. When she died in 1854 at the remarkable age of 97 - over fifty years after her beloved Alexander - The New York Times wrote of her: "To a mind most richly cultivated, she added tenderest religious devotion and a warm sympathy for the distressed."

The OAS that Eliza Hamilton helped found continues today. Now known as Graham Windham, it has evolved into an organization that supports hundreds of at-risk children and their families in the New York area. Times have changed - the 19th century's orphans are today's youth in foster care - but the mission remains true to Eliza Hamilton's original goals: to provide each child in their care with a strong foundation for life in a safe, loving, permanent family, and the opportunity and preparation to thrive in school, in their communities, and in the world.

"We serve the children who need us most," says Jess Dannhauser, president and CEO of Graham Windham. "It's a deep personal commitment for us. We don't turn anyone away. These are hard-working, courageous kids who want to make something of themselves and are looking for ways to contribute, and we're constantly adapting to discover the best ways to serve them."

Today - August 9 - marks the 261th anniversary of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton's birthday. Although I completed writing I, Eliza Hamilton over a year ago, I've been thinking a lot about Eliza again lately, especially in a world that seems to have become increasingly selfish and uncaring, with little regard for those - especially children - in need.

In May, 2017, I visited the churchyard of Trinity Church in Wall Street, where Eliza and Alexander Hamilton are buried side by side. It's become something of a pilgrimage site for fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda's phenomenal musical, and Alexander's ornate tomb in particular is often decked with flowers and other tributes.

On this morning, Eliza's much more humble stone - where she is described only as her father's daughter and her husband's wife, as was common for 1854 - was notably bare, and I resolved to find a nearby florist. Before I did, however, I stopped inside the church itself. Near the door is a box for contributions to Trinity's neighborhood missions, and I realized then that Eliza didn't need another memorial bouquet. Her legacy instead continues in the example of her own selflessness, compassion, and generosity to others. With a whisper to the woman who'd lived long before me, I tucked the money I'd intended for flowers into the contribution box.

Thank you, Eliza, and may your legacy always endure.

Upper left: Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, by Ralph Earl, 1787, Museum of the City of New York.
Right: Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, by Daniel P. Huntingdon, c1845, American History Museum, Smithsonian. Gift of Graham Windham.
Lower left: Grave of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. Photograph ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott. 

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, available everywhere.
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