Tuesday, March 13, 2018

High Style in Rural New Hampshire, c1835

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Susan reporting,

This week I'm visiting Colonial Williamsburg to attend the Costume Society of America's annual meeting. If any of you are attending as well, I hope you'll say hi.

I saw this portrait yesterday in CW's DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, and felt she definitely deserved a post. Loretta has written many posts (and books!) that feature the exaggerated fashions of the 1830s - an era of big hair, bigger skirts, and the biggest sleeves. You can see examples here, here, and here, all from trend-setting English magazines of the time.

But American women have always possessed a stylish flair and a gift for making European fashions their own. Fashion magazines and trends traveled across the Atlantic as swiftly as clipper ships could bring them. The young woman in this portrait isn't from Paris or London, but from Milton Mills, New Hampshire, a village on the Salmon River bordering Maine.

Martha Spinney Simes (1808-c1883) was in her early twenties when this portrait was painted. She's shown sitting on an elegant (if a bit strangely proportioned) red sofa - the matching portrait of her husband has him sitting on a similar sofa or chair, facing her - that serves to enhance the emerald green of her dress. Her hair is pinned into the most fashionable of glossy knots and twists, with a short braid over one side of her forehead ending in a corkscrew curl.

And her jewelry! Martha has clearly embraced the idea of "more is more." In addition to two cuff bracelets and multiple rings, she wears an elaborate double-strand of glossy black beads, perhaps jet, and what is likely a cameo brooch. Her drop earrings are the real stars, however, over-sized gold drops with pale blue stones (opals, chalcedony, or agate?) that frame her face and help to balance her hair.

What I like best about this portrait is how all this finery doesn't overshadow Martha. Unlike the fashion plates and many European portraits of the time, she doesn't simper or glance sideways. Instead her expression seems forthright, direct, and intelligent, with just a hint of a smile. She's fabulous, and she knows it. And who's going to argue?

Portrait of Martha Spinney Simes (Mrs. Bray Underwood Simes), artist unknown, c1835, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


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