Monday, May 18, 2009

Alice Livingston's "Fancy Dresses Described"

I'm always pleased when my research gives me an excuse to dive into Clermont's archives. The Livingston family were avid readers and left a library of about 2,500 volumes, ranging in publication date from 1963 (The Facts of Flight: Practical Information About Operation of Private Aircraft) as far back as the seventeenth century. Given the breadth of time and the number of readers this collection represents, you never know what you are going find if you, like me, are easily distracted from your inititial goal...

My lucky find this week pertained to Alice Livingston, last generation of matriarchs at Clermont. Discovering Alice's complex charactor has been one my many pleasures here since she left us so many rich clues to her personality. In addition to donating Clermont to New York State to serve as a museum, Alice wrote personal memoirs, trained herself to sculpt, and learned to sew to keep up fashionable appearances while her family's finances were declining. From these sources, we know her primarily as a loving mother and ardent gardener.
In the late 1920s Alice sculpted this frieze of her daughters,
their nanny, and their two favorite dogs, Peggy and Gobi.

But what of Alice's younger days? Married in 1906 at age 34, she had quite a bit of life before she ever arrived at Clermont. What was it like for Alice to be a wealthy young woman in the Gay 90s?

Thus, I was tickled pink to find the book "Fancy Dresses Described" lurking in our archives. Published in the 1890s, when Alice was as prime party age, this little tome is filled with deatiled suggestions for costumed balls.

Published in the 1890s, this book offers suggestions for a host of costumes from a
cactus to Marie Antoinette, "March," and a Spider.

Costumed balls were popular in the late Victorian era, when Alice was growing up. However, unlike today, they were rarely associated with Halloween. Instead, they were more commonly related to New Years Eve or other un-related parties taking place during the social season (usually winter when the wealthy returned to the cities). The glamorous costumes portrayed within offer a different picture of the Alice, who later in life referred disparigingly to her "daily suit of homespun," paging through the book for a little inspiration.

Perhaps "Springtime in Japan" (shown at left) caught her eye, given her interest in Japanese flower arrangements. But it is even more probable that she paid attention to the "Colonial" costumes that the book featured, such as costume of the "George II" period.
Alice enjoyed replicating the 18th century whenever she had the chance--even her eldest daughter wore a Colonial-era inspired gown to her own wedding, with bridesmaids to match. In fact, several gowns in the museum's collection show evidence of having been altered after their initial construction to give a more "Colonial" impression.

While it is hardly a world-changing find, this little book has plenty of value. Building an understanding of the people who lived at Clermont happens in many ways over an extended period of time. Whether it is a recently-discovered memoir, photograph, or just a simple chachke in her collection, the things that Alice left us must be pieced together gradually to build a complete picture of the complex woman who left Clermont to the people of New York.

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