Friday, February 26, 2010

Dressing Dolley Madison

Friday, February 26, 2010
Susan reports:

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!


Katy said...

How lovely! I'm looking forward to watching this one!

Emma J said...

How awesome that you got to see these sketches! I love sneak-peaks like this!

Katy Cooper said...

I'm looking forward to it too--American Experience is one of my favorite shows.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Oh, my gosh! This is so cool. Thanks for the heads-up on this, Loretta. It looks great.

I did my bachelor's degree in theater arts. I well remember my stint in the costume shop, making boned, seven piece corsets. We obviously used completely modern materials (and whatever worked!), but from the audience vantage point the costumes looked totally authentic. Even more fun was making setpieces of food that looked totally realistic, but were mostly made from various plastic and foam materials.

Nancy said...

I don't know much about Dolly Madison, but this made me want to learn more. I'll definitely watch the show. I don't ever think of Americans wearing Regency clothes, but of course they did. Love that red jacket she's wearing in the carriage.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for the heads up about the American Experience program. I was just reading about how Rose O'Neal Greenhow patterned herself after Dolley Madison when she was a Washington Hostess before the whole spying, getting thrown into jail, and then drowning.

Daniel Thomas said...

Looking forward to this new show on Dolley. James Madison has always been a neglected 'founding father', lost in the shadow of flashier fellows like Jefferson. High time he had his due, and Dolley, too.

This is an excellent blog, informative and stylish. Kudos, ladies.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I'm so glad I stopped by! This is a fabulous blog and the entry on Dolly Madison definitely intrigued me. You've just gotta love her clothes and your presentation today. I'll be watching the show, for sure. Congratulations, ladies!


Mme.Tresbeau said...

Must confess I don't know much about Dolly Madison either, but this makes me want to watch the show. Who knew that James Madison was famous for telling dirty jokes?

News From the Holmestead said...

What a great post, and what a coup for the Two Nerdy History Girls! I have to confess how embarrassed I am that until today, I'd been spelling Dolley's name incorrectly as Dolly! Fie upon me!

Thanks for sharing such great information. Loved the pictures and the links.

~Sherrie Holmes

Diane Gaston said...

I LOVED the video about the costume design. I loved that Donnelly used the portraits and fashion prints of the era.

Can't wait for the show now. Thanks so much for the heads up.

(when I was a girl playing with dolls and weaving the first of my romantic stories, my doll was named Dolly Madison)

Rebecca Rothman said...

Don't know if this is coincidence or not, but there's also a piece about Dolly Madison in the current issue of Smithsonian magazine:

A popular lady!

nightsmusic said...

The little I do know about Dolley Madison made quite an impression on me and I'm really looking forward to this show.

You're right of course about the illusion of authenticity rather than the true, stitch by stitch recreation. I worked in theater for several years and what looked perfectly correct from even the front row was generally made from the modern eye with a nod to Houdini for the illusion of correctness.

And thanks for the previews!

I love this blog...

Elizabeth Saunders said...

This was great - makes me want to watch the show!
Did Dolley really wear the black/gray clothes in early years? I saw some of her costumes at the Greensboro Museum and thought they just dressed a little more simply than others, like Quakers do today. But I'm not sure; they might not have had early clothes to display.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Glad that everyone has enjoyed Dolley and her clothes!

Beth, I believe these early scenes were taking place in Philadelphia, which in the late 18th c. had a large and prosperous Quaker population. From what I've read, these Quakers did have a distinctively plain dress, without ornament or bright colors, but often of quietly elegant (but expensive) fabrics.

I'm guessing that this costume is correct for Dolley. It's also possible that in more outlying Quaker communities, the dress would be much more similar to what everyone else was wearing, except plainer.

Corset said...

It is interesting inforamtion like this that continues to inspire my authentic corset fasination.

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