Earlier this week, Loretta posted a blog (Department of Quotation: Those American Goliaths) that included a portrait of early First Lady Dolley Madison (1768-1849). At once we received an email from Jen Holmes of WGBH/Boston, who informed us of an Amazing Coincidence: on Monday, 1 March, PBS will debut a new documentary about Dolley as part of their American Experience series.
Noting our past blogs about historic dress and costume, Ms. Holmes generously sent us several of the costume sketches for the program, plus stills that display the finished gowns as worn by actress Eve Best, who plays Dolley. We're sharing them exclusively to you: Dolley as a young widow in Quaker grey, and later in her life, as James Madison's stylish wife.
Ms. Holmes also provided the link to this video that offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes
look at how these clothes were created by costume designer Candice Donnelly. Dolley was a woman who understood the power of dress, and took great care with the "image" she presented to the world. A dozen different gowns were made for this show to cover her life from 1787 to 1830, and ten wonderfully fanciful hats.
Now when it comes to historic clothes, we here at the TNHG have been all about actual examples in museum collections, or stitch-by-stitch replicas such as the those made in Colonial Williamsburg. That level of accuracy is what we aspire to when, as novelists, we strive to recreate the past through words.
But costumes for historically set films are a much different kettle of fish. Absolute accuracy may not always work under bright lights, and what's most important is the illusion that's created on film. I've seen exhibitions of movie costumes that looked fabulous on the screen, but in reality were revealed to be printed lace and plastic gems. When watching this video clip, I saw the metal grommets on Dolley's corset and reacted much like Joan Crawford with the wire coat-hangers. ("No metal grommets in 1790! Must be hand-stitched eyelets!!!") But after a few moments of historical hysteria, I realized that the grommets didn't matter because they would never be seen. The final silhouette of the corset beneath the gown is beautifully correct, and Ms. Best makes an excellent 18th c. American lady as she brings Dolley's story to life.
What more could even the nerdiest history nerd want?
Here are several more video clips featuring the show:
Top portrait: Mrs. James Madison (Dolley Payne), from a painting by Gilbert Stuart, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Many thanks to Jen Holmes and WGBH!