I'm afraid I'm as guilty as anyone of imagining the late Romantics and early Victorians as dressing in nothing but the most fragile and languid of non-colors. It doesn't matter how much proof I've seen to the contrary in the fashion plates that Loretta has posted. My imagination says otherwise, and insists on picturing subdued colors for this era, with nothing more vivid than, oh, a maiden's blush.
This weekend my imagination received a firm slap of reality with these two dresses, left, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This pair were so bright that they nearly glowed in luscious, vibrant shades of pink.
The American dress with the short sleeves is the earlier of the two, dating from about 1830. It's made of silk satin patterned with weft floats, and dyed with either madder or cochineal (the king of red-dyes and Starbuck's strawberry frappuccinos – more about it here). The lady who entered a room in this gown would have had every eye on her, and with good reason, too. Simple in style, it's the color that makes it such a beautiful stand-out.
The dress with the longer sleeves dates from 1868-70, and was also sewn in America, but of fabric made of pineapple leaf fiber from the Philippines and combined with a silk underdress trimmed with silk net. According to the museum's label, the dress has an interesting history: "This bright pink dress was originally worn by Mary Francis Cook of Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and was made of piña cloth brought home by her sea-captain father. By the second half of the 19th century, the port of Manila had a vibrant trade in pineapple fiber cloth, which was lauded for being strong, light-weight, and breathable. This fabric was dyed with fuchsine, an aniline dye color introduced in 1858 that became ultra-fashionable in the 1860s."
In other words, the color of the earlier dress came from naturally derived plant or animal dyes that had been in use for hundreds of years, while the later dress represents the latest in 19th c. color innovations, straight from the chemist's lab. Yet side by side, the two complement one another beautifully, like a pair of prize azaleas.
Both dresses are part of Think Pink, a charming interdisciplinary exhibition now showing (through May 26, 2014) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It's small - only a single gallery - and tucked away in a distant corner, but it's a delightful, thoughtful look at the color pink in fashion from the 18th c. to the present day. Pink girls (you know who you are) will love it, and if you're visiting the MFA for the blockbuster exhibition of John Singer Sargent watercolors, it's well worth the trip upstairs, away from the crowds.
Day dress, United States, c. 1830, silk satin patterned with weft floats, dyed with madder or cochineal. Day dress of piña cloth, United States (fabric from Philippines), 1868-70, pineapple leaf fiber (piña) plain weave dyed with fuchsine; silk pain weave underdress trimmed with silk net. Both from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photographs by Susan Holloway Scott.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.